Following the success of last week’s What Happened in Polish History: Part I I’ve dedicated myself over the past seven days to doing absolutely no further research into the subject. Several people have very kindly suggested fascinating themes that might be covered in part two and I wish to make it clear that I carefully considered all of them before promptly falling asleep face down in my barszcz czerwony.
For the first six hundred years or so of Poland’s existence various Polish and Lithuanian kings generally had a fine old time invading people and knocking seven bells out of their neighbors. Things started to go a bit wrong in the 16th century, got worse in the 17th century, and went massively pear-shaped in the 18th.
The trouble began with the Tartars and it happened something like this. Hundreds of years ago somebody decided it would be a good idea to send a fireman up the tallest tower in Krakow and get him to blow a cheery tune on his trumpet every hour so that nobody could get more than 59 minutes sleep at a time. I’m not sure why somebody thought this was a good idea but I’m guessing it was an elaborate practical joke that got out of hand. One night a desperate sleep-deprived resident named Bartłomiej Bonk* lost it completely and shot the fireman through the neck with an arrow just as he was launching into his 3 am rendition of “Ta da da and all’s well in Krak…eeeuchh!!” The marksman was justifiably proud of his shot but realized he might get in trouble, so he blamed it on the Tartars. To add weight to his story he spent the next few days dressed up in a pointy hat and a massive false beard pretending to ride a wooden horse around town. Krakowians, who had been enjoying their first uninterrupted nights’ sleep in ages, caught on pretty quickly and could be heard shouting in slightly stagey voices:
“Aha. Yes. It was the Tartars. Forsooth. There’s one of the beggars now. Errr… let’s get him.”
before half-heartedly chasing Pan Bonk round the square a few times and out of the city gates all the time winking heavily and whispering “Nice shot Bonk!” These events are reenacted on a regular basis right up to the present and these days the buglers in the tower don’t dare get beyond the first few bars of their cheery hourly tune fully aware that we live in an age of high velocity rifles and night sights.
The Bonks still celebrate the proud achievement of their illustrious ancestor. Mother to small boy: “And that’s what will happen to you if you don’t get a Masters degree.”
Jan ‘the lad’ Sobieski
The practical upshot of all this messing around dressed up as Tartars was a long and protracted war with the Tartars themselves that seems to have gone on for about nine thousand years. The most famous part of this war came in 1683 when Jan Sobieski relieved Vienna by charging down a hill with feathers on his back (or something). I’m not sure why the Viennese were relieved by this, perhaps they were expected something more lavatorial.
Jan III Sobieski is also famous for marrying a French chick and writing her a lot of letters. All Polish women bring this up at one time or another because it’s ‘sweet’ and ‘romantic.’ Jan addressed his French bride privately as Marysieńką, which is a diminutive familiar form of Marie that could be translated into English as “Marywary snookums.” Here are some genuinely completely made up samples of their famous letters:
My Dearest Snookums,
Charged down a hill with feathers on my back today. Scared the bejeezus out of the Turks! You should have seen the buggers run! Back on Tuesday, get some of those good potatoes in and a kebab if you can find one…
My Dearest Jany wany koo koo,
Oh my brave darling! Not the feathers again! I warned you about that after you put your back out that time down by the duck pond. Had to execute 14 Ukrainian servants today, they simply cannot get the hang of French fries…
You know things are going badly when you get invaded by Sweden. The Swedes are not a famously marshal people, preferring instead to concentrate on being depressed, drinking heavily, and making alcohol as expensive and difficult to get hold of as possible (these fact are not unconnected). Nevertheless there was a brief period of Swedish excitement under a king with the ultra cool name of Charles X Gustav, which is where Malcolm X got the idea. The Swedes poured into Poland like, well, a flood and took the place over. Poles refer to this event as “Potop Szwedzki” which means “The Swedish Deluge”. Exactly what the difference between a ‘deluge’ and a ‘flood’ is has never been adequately explained to me. I assume the latter just sounds more dramatic, not to mention biblical.
All in all it was a pretty heavy scene that ended with the Swedes back in Stockholm queuing for hours outside of beer shops and about a third of the Polish population dead or otherwise permanently put off herring. Apparently this was something called a ‘Pyrrhic Victory,’ which has something to do with Greeks probably and may explain why there are so many kebab shops in Krakow.
*I chose this randomly made up name because it sounds very funny to the English ear, but only if you transliterate it: Bartumi Bonk. Okay… I thought it was very funny when I heard him announced as an Olympic weight lifter.
World Wars I and II… if I’m feeling suicidal
The Miracle on the Vistula… Poland halts communism, sort of.