What Happened in Polish History: Part II

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.

Tartar sauce
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…

Jan III Sobieski who, despite appearances, wasn’t in the slightest bit gay.

The Flood
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.


Next time:

Partitions… finally

World Wars I and II… if I’m feeling suicidal

The Miracle on the Vistula… Poland halts communism, sort of.

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18 thoughts on “What Happened in Polish History: Part II

  1. guest says:

    something about the Swedes…


    …and after the Swedes came the Germans and the the Russians…and took the rest with them.

  2. Sylwia says:

    Have you ever eaten tatar? I wonder if it’s Bonk’s (Bąk?) invention too? Or perhaps he had only paluszki?

    The Vienesse might have been so relieved because for a time there were several countries allied with the Ottomans against them, England included. :P

    Sobieski’s letters are full of French love. Much hotter than French fries!

    The 1/3 losses were due to all of the wars back then. Starting from Chmielnicki’s Uprising and wars with Russia. The Deluge wasn’t due to the Swedes only, but also Transylvanians, Cossacks and Germans. (Just wanted to give credit where it’s due.)

    My favourite line:

    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.

  3. Robert says:

    Har x100 – good and fun rendition of history.

    In the next installment please indicate the Polish (Tartar) invention and formulation of Tartar Sauce. I am shocked and dismayed this important event had been left out of your tome. (perhaps it occurred during the next period which would be part III and if so, please accept my apologies)

  4. scatts says:

    I think you’ve hit on something.

    The phrase, “Après moi le déluge”, (most recently used correctly by Tiny Blur) is popularly attributed to King Louis XV of France (1710-1774). Is it not now perfectly obvious that it was coined by Jan “the lad” Sobieski when trying to impress his French lover with his mastery of her language;

    “Those Swedes are mad bastards! They’re getting tired of paying so much for alcohol and I’m sure they’ll come and steal all our cheap vodka just as soon as I pop my clogs. Après moi le déluge, my little cauliflower! You mark my words!”

    There’s a mere 15 years between the death of Jan and the birth of Louis so it is entirely probable that the popularity the phrase had gained during the intervening years forced Louis to start what was to become the French obsession of protecting their silly little language by claiming authorship of “Après moi le déluge” for himself, a Frenchman. This was all in the spare time he had available after his primary duty of designing outrageously gay furniture for the American collectors.

    Makes perfect sense, ne’st pas?

  5. reidar says:

    great entry as usual. If my history teacher was more like you I would really enjoy those lessons and know something about the history of my own country :]


  6. scatts says:

    Separated at birth – Jan “the lad” and Frankie Howerd ???

  7. s. freud says:

    I always thought beef tatar was uncooked, chopped-up Tatar flesh.

  8. […] take their songs as any retribution for what XVII cent.’s Sweden stole from Poles (who had stolen the stuff some time […]

  9. Jolanta says:

    Hi, everyone (who remembers me),

    I am just popping in to say that I am not dead (yet) and you are bound to see my “educated comments” in the future – sorry!

    In spite of general business I have been trying to keep truck of Polandian – Island, I do love your history lessons.
    In July I spent a few days in a village near Nowy Targ; incidentally, I talked with some villagers about the recent history of the place, to be precise, about Ogień and whether he had been a hero or a mere bandit. Later, I went to Ropki, a tiny hamlet in the Beskid Niski, whose entire population was resettled (evicted is a better word) due to the Akcja Wisła; only two families eventually came back to their chyżas (Łemko wooden houses) – lots of things to think through.
    The next two weeks I am going to stay in a former German house in a village which, before WWII, was a few kilometres from the Polish-German border in Wielkopolska. The parish German cemetery, however overgrown and neglected, is still there.
    The history of this / our / my country is absolutely fascinating, isn’t it?

    Long live Positivists!


  10. scatts says:

    I remember you, Jola. Welcome back!

  11. island1 says:

    Jolanta… hmmm… J-o-l-a-n-t-a… nope, not ringing any bells I’m afraid…

  12. island1 says:

    Only pulling your leg. Welcome back! As you can see, academic standards have slipped dramatically from their already perilously weak position in your absence.

  13. island1 says:

    Thanks for all the witty comments guys and gals, been a busy week so I haven’t given them the attention they deserve.

  14. Sylwia says:

    Scatts: Is it not now perfectly obvious that it was coined by Jan “the lad” Sobieski when trying to impress his French lover with his mastery of her language;

    While Jan was mastering his tongue in the French manner, he was using Polish language to describe his endeavours. (Marysieńka grew up in Poland.) I’m sure he caused quite a deluge though.

    His letters were translated to French after his death and widely read, so your theory is still plausible.

  15. Romain says:

    Oh, they were ?

    I looked for an (French) edition of his correspondence without success – it is true I haven’t searched among old books though. And I wasn’t luckier with English. However there seems to be a Polish one, published over forty years ago, but the bibliography didn’t precise whether the letters were translated or not. I’ll have to check this in Biblioteka Jagiellonska, they certainly own an issue.

  16. Sylwia says:

    I read that there was a French one, but no one would translate them to English back then, and it makes little sense now. I saw maybe only 3 of them in English. One – that one written after the Siege of Vienna that was published yet at Sobieski’s request, and fragments of two others that Norman Davies included in one of his books. They lost all of their romantic subtext though. It’s tough to translate Polish to English without losing half of the meaning.

    Polish version is available on line.

  17. Romain says:

    Yes, a translation can never be perfect anyway, even if that doesn’t mean it will always be disappointing in the end, it just won’t be very faithful to the original.

    I keep the link for when I’ll be able to read Polish more fluently.

    By the way, if one likes this sort of correspondence, the letters between Alexander II and Katia Dolgoruki are worth the attention (hope it’s no blaspheme to mention Russia-related stuff on Polandian ;) ).

  18. […] Saved by kfuston on Sat 29-11-2008 Czerwony_banan Saved by dvdmerwe on Sat 22-11-2008 What Happened in Polish History: Part II Saved by slith on Fri 21-11-2008 Czerwony Krzyż chce pomóc Saved by idiotjim on Fri 21-11-2008 […]

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