The szlachta ([ˈʂlaxta] ( listen), exonym: Nobility) was a legally privileged noble class in the Kingdom of Poland, Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Ruthenia, Samogitia (both after Union of Lublin became a single state, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth) and the Zaporozhian Host. It originated and gained considerable institutional privileges between 1333 and 1370 in Kingdom of Poland during the reign of King Casimir III the Great.:211 In 1413, following a series of tentative personal unions between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Crown Kingdom of Poland, the existing Lithuanian-Ruthenian nobility formally joined this class.:211 As the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569–1795) evolved and expanded in territory, its membership grew to include the leaders of Ducal Prussia and Livonia.
The origins of the szlachta are shrouded in obscurity and mystery and have been the subject of a variety of theories.:207 Traditionally, its members were owners of landed property, often in the form of "manor farms" or so-called folwarks. The nobility negotiated substantial and increasing political and legal privileges for itself throughout its entire history until the decline of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in the late 18th century.
During the Partitions of Poland from 1772 to 1795, its members began to lose these legal privileges and social status. From that point until 1918, the legal status of the nobility was essentially dependent upon the policies of the three partitioning powers: the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia, and the Habsburg Monarchy. The legal privileges of the szlachta were legally abolished in the Second Polish Republic by the March Constitution of 1921.
The notion that all Polish nobles were social equals, regardless of their financial status or offices held, is enshrined in a traditional Polish saying:
Szlachcic na zagrodzie
—which may roughly be rendered:
or "the tenant farmer noble stands equal to the noble army commander".
The term szlachta is derived from the Old High German word slahta (modern German Geschlecht; ultimately from the Proto-Germanic *slagiz, "blow", "strike"), which means "(noble) family", much as many other Polish words pertaining to the nobility derive from German words—e.g., the Polish "rycerz" ("knight", cognate of the German "Ritter"), Polish "herb" ("coat of arms", from the German "Erbe", "heritage"), and Polish "ród" and "naród" ("birth", indicating origin, blood line, stock or breed and "nation", cognates of Low German and Low Prussian "rot/rod", "root").
Poles of the 17th century assumed that "szlachta" came from the German "schlachten" ("to slaughter" or "to butcher"); also suggestive is the German "Schlacht" ("battle"). Early Polish historians thought the term might have derived from the name of the legendary proto-Polish chief, Lech, mentioned in Polish and Czech writings.
Some powerful szlachta members were referred to as "magnates" (Polish singular: "magnat", plural: "magnaci") and "możny" ("magnate", "oligarch"; plural: "możni"); see Magnates of Poland and Lithuania.
The Polish term "szlachta" designated the formalized, hereditary noble class of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which constituted the nation itself, and ruled without competition. In official Latin documents of the old Commonwealth, hereditary szlachta are referred to as "nobilitas" and are indeed the equivalent in legal status of the English nobility.
Today the word szlachta in the Polish language simply translates to "nobility". In its broadest meaning, it can also denote some non-hereditary honorary knighthoods granted today by some European monarchs. Occasionally, 19th-century non-noble landowners were referred to as szlachta by courtesy or error, when they owned manorial estates though they were not noble by birth. In the narrow sense, szlachta denotes the old-Commonwealth nobility.
In the past, a certain misconception sometimes led to the mistranslation of "szlachta" as "gentry" rather than "nobility". This mistaken practice began due to the economic status of some szlachta members being inferior to that of the nobility in other European countries (see also Estates of the Realm regarding wealth and nobility). The szlachta included those almost rich and powerful enough to be magnates down to rascals with a noble lineage, no land, no castle, no money, no village, and no peasants. At least 60,000 families belonged to the nobility, however, only about 100 were wealthy, all the rest were poor.
As some szlachta were poorer than some non-noble gentry, some particularly impoverished szlachta were forced to become tenants of the wealthier gentry. In doing so, however, these szlachta retained all their constitutional prerogatives, as it was not wealth or lifestyle (obtainable by the gentry), but hereditary juridical status, that determined nobility.
An individual nobleman was called a "szlachcic", and a noblewoman a "szlachcianka".
The origins of the szlachta, while ancient, have always been considered obscure.:207 As a result, its members often referred to it as odwieczna (perennial).:207 Two popular historic theories of origin forwarded by its members and earlier historians and chroniclers involved descent from the ancient Iranian tribes known as Sarmatians or from Japheth, one of Noah's sons (by contrast, the peasantry were said to be the offspring of another son of Noah, Ham—and hence subject to bondage under the Curse of Ham—and the Jews as the offspring of Shem). Other fanciful theories included its foundation by Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great:207 or regional leaders who had not mixed their bloodlines with those of 'slaves, prisoners, and aliens'.:208
Another theory describes its derivation from a non-Slavic warrior class,:42, 64–66 forming a distinct element known as the Lechici/Lekhi (Lechitów) :482 within the ancient Polonic tribal groupings (Indo-European caste systems). This hypothesis states this upper class was not of Slavonic extraction:482 and was of a different origin than the Slavonic peasants (kmiecie; Latin: cmethones)  over which they ruled.:482 The Szlachta were differentiated from the rural population. The nobleman's sense of distinction led to practices that in later periods would be characterized as racism.:233 The Szlachta were noble in the Aryan sense -- "noble" in contrast to the people over whom they ruled after coming into contact with them.:482 The szlachta traced their descent from Lech/Lekh, who allegedly founded the Polish kingdom in about the fifth century.:482 Lechia was the name of Poland in antiquity, and the szlachta's own name for themselves was Lechici/Lekhi.:482 An exact counterpart of Szlachta society was the Meerassee system of tenure of southern India—an aristocracy of equality—settled as conquerors among a separate race.:484 The Polish state paralleled the Roman Empire in that full rights of citizenship were limited to the szlachta. The szlachta ideal also paralleled that of a Greek polis—a body of citizens, a small merchant class, and a multitude of laborers. The szlachta were a caste, a military caste, as in Hindu society.
In the year 1244, Bolesław, Duke of Masovia, identified members of the knights' clan as members of a genealogia:
"I received my good servitors [Raciborz and Albert] from the land of [Great] Poland, and from the clan [genealogia] called Jelito, with my well-disposed knowledge [i.e., consent and encouragement] and the cry [vocitatio], [that is], the godło, [by the name of] Nagody, and I established them in the said land of mine, Masovia, [on the military tenure described elsewhere in the charter]."
The documentation regarding Raciborz and Albert's tenure is the earliest surviving of the use of the clan name and cry defining the honorable status of Polish knights. The names of knightly genealogiae only came to be associated with heraldic devices later in the Middle Ages and in the early modern period. The Polish clan name and cry ritualized the ius militare, i.e., the power to command an army; and they had been used some time before 1244 to define knightly status. (Górecki 1992, pp. 183–185).
Around the 14th century, there was little difference between knights and the szlachta in Poland. Members of the szlachta had the personal obligation to defend the country (pospolite ruszenie), thereby becoming the kingdom's most privileged social class. Inclusion in the class was almost exclusively based on inheritance.
Concerning the early Polish tribes, geography contributed to long-standing traditions. The Polish tribes were internalized and organized around a unifying religious cult, governed by the wiec, an assembly of free tribesmen. Later, when safety required power to be consolidated, an elected prince was chosen to govern. The election privilege was usually limited to elites.
The tribes were ruled by clans (ród) consisting of people related by blood or marriage and theoretically descending from a common ancestor, giving the ród/clan a highly developed sense of solidarity. (See gens.) The starosta (or starszyna) had judicial and military power over the ród/clan, although this power was often exercised with an assembly of elders. Strongholds called grόd were built where the religious cult was powerful, where trials were conducted, and where clans gathered in the face of danger. The opole was the territory occupied by a single tribe. (Manteuffel 1982, p. 44) The family unit of a tribe is called the rodzina, while a collection of tribes is a plemię.
Mieszko I of Poland (c. 935 – 25 May 992) established an elite knightly retinue from within his army, which he depended upon for success in uniting the Lekhitic tribes and preserving the unity of his state. Documented proof exists of Mieszko I's successors utilizing such a retinue, as well.
Another class of knights were granted land by the prince, allowing them the economic ability to serve the prince militarily. A Polish nobleman living at the time prior to the 15th century was referred to as a "rycerz", very roughly equivalent to the English "knight," the critical difference being the status of "rycerz" was almost strictly hereditary; the class of all such individuals was known as the "rycerstwo". Representing the wealthier families of Poland and itinerant knights from abroad seeking their fortunes, this other class of rycerstwo, which became the szlachta/nobility ("szlachta" becomes the proper term for Polish nobility beginning about the 15th century), gradually formed apart from Mieszko I's and his successors' elite retinues. This rycerstwo/nobility obtained more privileges granting them favored status. They were absolved from particular burdens and obligations under ducal law, resulting in the belief only rycerstwo (those combining military prowess with high/noble birth) could serve as officials in state administration.
Select rycerstwo were distinguished above the other rycerstwo, because they descended from past tribal dynasties, or because early Piasts' endowments made them select beneficiaries. These rycerstwo of great wealth were called możni (Magnates). Socially they were not a distinct class from the rycerstwo from which they all originated and to which they would return were their wealth lost. (Manteuffel 1982, pp. 148–149)
The Period of Division from, A.D., 1138 – A.D., 1314, which included nearly 200 years of feudal fragmentation and which stemmed from Bolesław III's division of Poland among his sons, was the genesis of the social structure which saw the economic elevation of the great landowning feudal nobles (możni/Magnates, both ecclesiastical and lay) from the rycerstwo they originated from. The prior social structure was one of Polish tribes united into the historic Polish nation under a state ruled by the Piast dynasty, this dynasty appearing circa 850 A.D.
Some możni (Magnates) descending from past tribal dynasties regarded themselves as co-proprietors of Piast realms, even though the Piasts attempted to deprive them of their independence. These możni (Magnates) constantly sought to undermine princely authority.:75, 76 In Gall Anonym's chronicle, there is noted the nobility's alarm when the Palatine Sieciech "elevated those of a lower class over those who were noble born" entrusting them with state offices. (Manteuffel 1982, p. 149)
In Lithuania Propria and in Samogitia prior to the creation of the Kingdom of Lithuania by Mindaugas, nobles were named die beste leuten in sources that were written in German language. In the Lithuanian language nobles were named ponai. The higher nobility were named 'kunigai' or 'kunigaikščiai' (dukes)—i.e., loanword from Scandinavic konung. They were the established local leaders and warlords. During the development of the state they gradually became subordinated to higher dukes, and later to the King of Lithuania. Because of expansion of Lithuanian duchy into lands of Ruthenia in the middle of the 14th century a new term appeared to denominate nobility bajorai—from Ruthenian (modern Ukrainian and Belarusian languages) бояре. This word to this day is used in Lithuanian language to name nobility, not only for own, but also for nobility of other countries.
After the Union of Horodło the Lithuanian nobility acquired equal status with the Polish szlachta, and over time began to become more and more polonized, although they did preserve their national consciousness, and in most cases recognition of their Lithuanian family roots. In the 16th century some of the Lithuanian nobility claimed that they were of Roman extraction, and the Lithuanian language was just a morphed Latin language. This led to paradox: Polish nobility claimed own ancestry from Sarmatian tribes, but Sarmatians were considered enemies to Romans. Thus new Roman-Sarmatian theory was created. Strong cultural ties with Polish nobility led that in the 16th century the new term to name Lithuanian nobility appeared šlėkta—a direct loanword from Polish szlachta. From the view of historical truth Lithuanians also should use this term, šlėkta (szlachta), to name own nobility, but Lithuanian linguists forbade the usage of this Polish loanword. This refusal to use word szlachta (in Lithuanian text šlėkta) complicates all naming.
The process of polonization took place over a lengthy period of time. At first only the highest members of the nobility were involved, although gradually a wider group of the population was affected. The major effects on the lesser Lithuanian nobility took place after various sanctions were imposed by the Russian Empire such as removing Lithuania from the names of the Gubernyas few years after the November Uprising. After the January Uprising the sanctions went further, and Russian officials announced that "Lithuanians are Russians seduced by Poles and Catholicism" and began to intensify russification, and to ban the printing of books in the Lithuanian language.
In Ruthenia the nobility gradually gravitated its loyalty towards the multicultural and multilingual Grand Duchy of Lithuania after the principalities of Halych and Volhynia became a part of it. Many noble Ruthenian families intermarried with Lithuanian ones.
The Orthodox nobles' rights were nominally equal to those enjoyed by Polish and Lithuanian nobility, but there was a cultural pressure to convert to Catholicism, that was greatly eased in 1596 by the Union of Brest. See for example careers of Senator Adam Kisiel and Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki.
In Polish "dąb" means "oak.":157 "Dąbrowa" means "oak forest," and "Dąbrówka" means "little oak forest" (or grove). In antiquity, the nobility used topographic surnames to identify themselves. The expression "z" (meaning "from" sometimes "at") plus the name of one's patrimony or estate carried the same prestige as "de" in French names such as "de Châtellerault", and "von" or "zu" in German names such as "von Weizsäcker" or "zu Rhein". In Polish "z Dąbrówki" and "Dąbrowski" mean the same thing: "of, from Dąbrówka.":60 More precisely, "z Dąbrówki" means owning the patrimony or estate Dąbrówka, not necessarily originating from. Almost all the surnames of genuine Polish szlachta can be traced back to a patrimony or locality, despite time scattering most families far from their original home. John of Zamość called himself John Zamoyski, Stephen of Potok called himself Potocki.
At least since the 17th century the surnames/cognomens of noble families became fixed and were inherited by following generations, remaining in that form until today. Prior to that time, a member of the family would simply use his Christian name (e.g., Jakub, Jan, Mikołaj, etc.), and the name of the coat of arms common to all members of his clan. A member of the family would be identified as, for example, "Jakub z Dąbrówki", herbu Radwan, (Jacob to/at Dąbrówki of the knights' clan Radwan coat of arms), or "Jakub z Dąbrówki, Żądło (cognomen) (later a przydomkiem/nickname/agnomen), herbu Radwan" (Jacob to/at [owning] Dąbrówki with the distinguishing name Żądło of the knights' clan Radwan coat of arms), or "Jakub Żądło, herbu Radwan".
The Polish state paralleled the Roman Empire in that full rights of citizenship were limited to the nobility/szlachta. The nobility/szlachta in Poland, where Latin was written and spoken far and wide, used the Roman naming convention of the tria nomina (praenomen, nomen, and cognomen) to distinguish Polish citizens/nobles/szlachta from the peasantry and foreigners, hence why multiple surnames are associated with many Polish coat of arms.
Example - Jakub: Radwan Żądło-Dąbrowski (sometimes Jakub: Radwan Dąbrowski-Żądło)
Bartosz Paprocki gives an example of the Rościszewski family taking different surnames from the names of various patrimonies or estates they owned. The branch of the Rościszewski family that settled in Chrapunia became the Chrapunski family, the branch of the Rościszewski family that settled in Strykwina became the Strykwinski family, and the branch of the Rościszewski family that settled in Borkow became known as the Borkowski family. Each family shared a common ancestor and belonged to the same knights' clan, so they bore the same coat of arms as the Rościszewski family.
Each knights' clan/gens/ród had its coat of arms, and there were only a limited number. Almost without exception, there were no family coat of arms. Each coat of arms bore a name, the clan's call word. In most instances, the coat of arms belonged to many families within the clan. The Polish state paralleled the Roman Empire, and the Polish nobility had a different origin and structure in law than Western Europe's feudal nobility. The clan/gens/ród system survived the whole of Polish history.
The number of legally granted ennoblements after the 15th century was minimal.
In the Kingdom of Poland and later in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, ennoblement (nobilitacja) may be equated with an individual given legal status as a szlachta (member of the Polish nobility). Initially, this privilege could be granted by the monarch, but from 1641 onward, this right was reserved for the sejm. Most often the individual being ennobled would join an existing noble szlachta clan and assume the undifferentiated coat of arms of that clan.
According to heraldic sources, the total number of legal ennoblements issued between the 14th century and the mid-18th century is estimated at approximately 800. This is an average of only about two ennoblements per year, or only 0.000,000,14 – 0.000,001 of the historical population. Compare: historical demography of Poland. Charles-Joseph, 7th Prince of Ligne, when trying to obtain Polish noble status, supposedly said in 1784, "It is easier to become a duke in Germany, than to be counted among Polish nobles."
The close of the late 18th century (see below) was a period in which a definite increase in the number of ennoblements can be noted. This can most readily be explained in terms of the ongoing decline and eventual collapse of Commonwealth and the resulting need for soldiers and other military leaders (see: Partitions of Poland, King Stanisław August Poniatowski).
According to heraldic sources 1,600 is the total estimated number of all legal ennoblements throughout the history of Kingdom of Poland and Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from the 14th century onward (half of which were performed in the final years of the late 18th century).
Types of ennoblement:
In the late 14th century, in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Vytautas the Great reformed the Grand Duchy's army: instead of calling all men to arms, he created forces comprising professional warriors—bajorai ("nobles"; see the cognate "boyar"). As there were not enough nobles, Vytautas trained suitable men, relieving them of labor on the land and of other duties; for their military service to the Grand Duke, they were granted land that was worked by hired men (veldams). The newly formed noble families generally took up, as their family names, the Lithuanian pagan given names of their ennobled ancestors; this was the case with the Goštautai, Radvilos, Astikai, Kęsgailos and others. These families were granted their coats of arms under the Union of Horodlo (1413).
Specific rights of the szlachta included:
Significant legislative changes in the status of the szlachta, as defined by Robert Bideleux and Ian Jeffries, consist of its 1374 exemption from the land tax, a 1425 guarantee against the 'arbitrary arrests and/or seizure of property' of its members, a 1454 requirement that military forces and new taxes be approved by provincial Sejms, and statutes issued between 1496 and 1611 that prescribed the rights of commoners.
Nobles were born into a noble family, adopted by a noble family (this was abolished in 1633) or ennobled by a king or Sejm for various reasons (bravery in combat, service to the state, etc.—yet this was the rarest means of gaining noble status). Many nobles were, in actuality, really usurpers, being commoners, who moved into another part of the country and falsely pretended to noble status. Hundreds of such false nobles were denounced by Hieronim Nekanda Trepka in his Liber generationis plebeanorium (or Liber chamorum) in the first half of the 16th century. The law forbade non-nobles from owning nobility-estates and promised the estate to the denouncer. Trepka was an impoverished nobleman who lived a townsman life and collected hundreds of such stories hoping to take over any of such estates. It does not seem he ever succeeded in proving one at the court. Many sejms issued decrees over the centuries in an attempt to resolve this issue, but with little success. It is unknown what percentage of the Polish nobility came from the 'lower' orders of society, but most historians agree that nobles of such base origins formed a 'significant' element of the szlachta.
The Polish nobility enjoyed many rights that were not available to the noble classes of other countries and, typically, each new monarch conceded them further privileges. Those privileges became the basis of the Golden Liberty in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. Despite having a king, Poland was called the nobility's Commonwealth because the king was elected by all interested members of hereditary nobility and Poland was considered to be the property of this class, not of the king or the ruling dynasty. This state of affairs grew up in part because of the extinction of the male-line descendants of the old royal dynasty (first the Piasts, then the Jagiellons), and the selection by the nobility of the Polish king from among the dynasty's female-line descendants.
Poland's successive kings granted privileges to the nobility at the time of their election to the throne (the privileges being specified in the king-elect's Pacta conventa) and at other times in exchange for ad hoc permission to raise an extraordinary tax or a pospolite ruszenie.
Poland's nobility thus accumulated a growing array of privileges and immunities:
In 1355 in Buda King Casimir III the Great issued the first country-wide privilege for the nobility, in exchange for their agreement that in the lack of Casimir's male heirs, the throne would pass to his nephew, Louis I of Hungary. He decreed that the nobility would no longer be subject to 'extraordinary' taxes, or use their own funds for military expeditions abroad. He also promised that during travels of the royal court, the king and the court would pay for all expenses, instead of using facilities of local nobility.
In 1374 King Louis of Hungary approved the Privilege of Koszyce (Polish: "przywilej koszycki" or "ugoda koszycka") in Košice in order to guarantee the Polish throne for his daughter Jadwiga. He broadened the definition of who was a member of the nobility and exempted the entire class from all but one tax (łanowy, which was limited to 2 grosze from łan (an old measure of land size)). In addition, the King's right to raise taxes was abolished; no new taxes could be raised without the agreement of the nobility. Henceforth, also, district offices (Polish: "urzędy ziemskie") were reserved exclusively for local nobility, as the Privilege of Koszyce forbade the king to grant official posts and major Polish castles to foreign knights. Finally, this privilege obliged the King to pay indemnities to nobles injured or taken captive during a war outside Polish borders.
In 1422 King Władysław II Jagiełło by the Privilege of Czerwińsk (Polish: "przywilej czerwiński") established the inviolability of nobles' property (their estates could not be confiscated except upon a court verdict) and ceded some jurisdiction over fiscal policy to the Royal Council (later, the Senat of Poland), including the right to mint coinage.
In 1430 with the Privileges of Jedlnia, confirmed at Kraków in 1433 (Polish: "przywileje jedlneńsko-krakowskie"), based partially on his earlier Brześć Kujawski privilege (April 25, 1425), King Władysław II Jagiełło granted the nobility a guarantee against arbitrary arrest, similar to the English Magna Carta's Habeas corpus, known from its own Latin name as "neminem captivabimus (nisi jure victum)." Henceforth no member of the nobility could be imprisoned without a warrant from a court of justice: the king could neither punish nor imprison any noble at his whim. King Władysław's quid pro quo for this boon was the nobles' guarantee that his throne would be inherited by one of his sons (who would be bound to honour the privileges theretofore granted to the nobility). On May 2, 1447 the same king issued the Wilno Privilege which gave the Lithuanian boyars the same rights as those possessed by the Polish szlachta.
In 1454 King Casimir IV granted the Nieszawa Statutes (Polish: "statuty cerkwicko-nieszawskie"), clarifying the legal basis of voivodship sejmiks (local parliaments). The king could promulgate new laws, raise taxes, or call for a levée en masse (pospolite ruszenie) only with the consent of the sejmiks, and the nobility were protected from judicial abuses. The Nieszawa Statutes also curbed the power of the magnates, as the Sejm (national parliament) received the right to elect many officials, including judges, voivods and castellans. These privileges were demanded by the szlachta as a compensation for their participation in the Thirteen Years' War.
The first "free election" (Polish: "wolna elekcja") of a king took place in 1492. (To be sure, some earlier Polish kings had been elected with help from bodies such as that which put Casimir II on the throne, thereby setting a precedent for free elections.) Only senators voted in the 1492 free election, which was won by John I Albert. For the duration of the Jagiellonian Dynasty, only members of that royal family were considered for election; later, there would be no restrictions on the choice of candidates.
In 1493 the national parliament, the Sejm, began meeting every two years at Piotrków. It comprised two chambers:
The numbers of senators and envoys later increased.
On April 26, 1496 King John I Albert granted the Privilege of Piotrków (Polish: "Przywilej piotrkowski", "konstytucja piotrkowska" or "statuty piotrkowskie"), increasing the nobility's feudal power over serfs. It bound the peasant to the land, as only one son (not the eldest) was permitted to leave the village; townsfolk (Polish: "mieszczaństwo") were prohibited from owning land; and positions in the Church hierarchy could be given only to nobles.
On 23 October 1501, at Mielnik Polish–Lithuanian union was reformed at the Union of Mielnik (Polish: unia mielnicka, unia piotrkowsko-mielnicka). It was there that the tradition of the coronation Sejm (Polish: "Sejm koronacyjny") was founded. Once again the middle nobility (middle in wealth, not in rank) attempted to reduce the power of the magnates with a law that made them impeachable before the Senate for malfeasance. However the Act of Mielno (Polish: Przywilej mielnicki) of 25 October did more to strengthen the magnate dominated Senate of Poland than the lesser nobility. The nobles were given the right to disobey the King or his representatives—in the Latin, "non praestanda oboedientia"—and to form confederations, an armed rebellion against the king or state officers if the nobles thought that the law or their legitimate privileges were being infringed.
On 3 May 1505 King Alexander I Jagiellon granted the Act of "Nihil novi nisi commune consensu" (Latin: "I accept nothing new except by common consent"). This forbade the king to pass any new law without the consent of the representatives of the nobility, in Sejm and Senat assembled, and thus greatly strengthened the nobility's political position. Basically, this act transferred legislative power from the king to the Sejm. This date commonly marks the beginning of the First Rzeczpospolita, the period of a szlachta-run "Commonwealth".
In 1520 the Act of Bydgoszcz granted the Sejm the right to convene every four years, with or without the king's permission.
About that time the "executionist movement" (Polish: "egzekucja praw"--"execution of the laws") began to take form. Its members would seek to curb the power of the magnates at the Sejm and to strengthen the power of king and country. In 1562 at the Sejm in Piotrków they would force the magnates to return many leased crown lands to the king, and the king to create a standing army (wojsko kwarciane). One of the most famous members of this movement was Jan Zamoyski. After his death in 1605, the movement lost its political force.
Until the death of Sigismund II Augustus, the last king of the Jagiellonian dynasty, monarchs could be elected from within only the royal family. However, starting from 1573, practically any Polish noble or foreigner of royal blood could become a Polish–Lithuanian monarch. Every newly elected king was supposed to sign two documents—the Pacta conventa ("agreed pacts")—a confirmation of the king's pre-election promises, and Henrican articles (artykuły henrykowskie, named after the first freely elected king, Henry of Valois). The latter document served as a virtual Polish constitution and contained the basic laws of the Commonwealth:
In 1578 king Stefan Batory created the Crown Tribunal in order to reduce the enormous pressure on the Royal Court. This placed much of the monarch's juridical power in the hands of the elected szlachta deputies, further strengthening the nobility class. In 1581 the Crown Tribunal was joined by a counterpart in Lithuania, the Lithuanian Tribunal.
For many centuries, wealthy and powerful members of the szlachta sought to gain legal privileges over their peers. Few szlachta were wealthy enough to be known as magnates (karmazyni—the "Crimsons", from the crimson colour of their boots). A proper magnate should be able to trace noble ancestors back for many generations and own at least 20 villages or estates. He should also hold a major office in the Commonwealth.
Some historians estimate the number of magnates as 1% of the number of szlachta. Out of approx. one million szlachta, tens of thousands of families, only 200–300 persons could be classed as great magnates with country-wide possessions and influence, and 30–40 of them could be viewed as those with significant impact on Poland's politics.
Magnates often received gifts from monarchs, which significantly increased their wealth. Often, those gifts were only temporary leases, which the magnates never returned (in the 16th century, the anti-magnate opposition among szlachta was known as the ruch egzekucji praw—movement for execution of the laws—which demanded that all such possessions are returned to their proper owner, the king).
One of the most important victories of the magnates was the late 16th century right to create ordynacja's (similar to majorats), which ensured that a family which gained wealth and power could more easily preserve this. Ordynacje's of families of Radziwiłł, Zamoyski, Potocki or Lubomirski often rivalled the estates of the king and were important power bases for the magnates.
The sovereignty of szlachta was ended in 1795 by Partitions of Poland, and until 1918 their legal status was dependent on policies of the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia or the Habsburg Monarchy.
In the 1840s Nicholas I reduced 64,000 szlachta to commoner status. Despite this, 62.8% of Russia's nobles were szlachta in 1858 and still 46.1% in 1897. Serfdom was abolished in Russian Poland on February 19, 1864. It was deliberately enacted in a way that would ruin the szlachta. It was the only area where peasants paid the market price in redemption for the land (the average for the empire was 34% above the market price). All land taken from Polish peasants since 1846 was to be returned without redemption payments. The ex-serfs could only sell land to other peasants, not szlachta. 90% of the ex-serfs in the empire who actually gained land after 1861 were in the 8 western provinces. Along with Romania, Polish landless or domestic serfs were the only ones to be given land after serfdom was abolished. All this was to punish the szlachta's role in the uprisings of 1830 and 1863. By 1864 80% of szlachta were déclassé (downward social mobility), ¼ petty nobles were worse off than the average serf, 48.9% of land in Russian Poland was in peasant hands, nobles still held 46%. In Second Polish Republic the privileges of the nobility were lawfully abolished by the March Constitution in 1921 and as such not granted by any future Polish law.
Szlachta differed in many respects from the nobility of other countries. The most important difference was that, while in most European countries the nobility lost power as the ruler strove for absolute monarchy, in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth the reverse process occurred: the nobility actually gained power at the expense of the king, and the political system evolved into an oligarchy.
Szlachta were also more numerous than those of all other European countries, constituting 6–12% of the entire population.[a] By contrast, the nobilities of other European countries, except for Spain, amounted to a mere 1–3%. Most of the szlachta were small or landed gentry. In Lithuania minor nobility made up to 3/4 of total szlachta population.[page needed] By the mid-16th century szlachta class consisted of at least 500,000 persons (some 25,000 families) and was perhaps a million strong in 1795. The share of nobles in the population varied across regions. In the 16th century, the highest proportion of nobles lived in Płock Voivodeship (24,6%) and Podlachia (26,7%), while Galicia had largest szlachta population in total number. In some areas, like Wizna Land and Łomża Land, szlachta constituted nearly half of the population. Regions with the lowest percentage of nobles were: Kraków Voivodeship (1,7%), Royal Prussia (3%) and Sieradz Voivodeship with 4,6%. Before the Union of Lublin, wealth and power inequality among nobles was far greater in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania than in the Polish Kingdom. The further south and east, the more the landscape was dominated by magnate families and lords. In Lithuania and Ruthenian palatinates, poor nobles were more likely to rent smallholdings from magnates than to own land themselves.
The ruling elites formed the only socio-political group who possessed national consciousness. All the szlachta members, regardless of their ethnic background, were seen as belonging to the same common "political nation" of the Commonwealth. Common culture, Catholic religion and Polish language were considered to constitute main unifying factors in the dual state. Prior to Partitions there was no Polish national identity, only szlachta of all ethnic backgrounds was considered and referred to as Poles.
Despite polonization in Lithuania and Ruthenia in XVII-XVIII centuries, large part of middle szlachta and most of minor kept their ethnical identity in various ways.[page needed] Due to poverty most of szlachta there never acquired proper education and with it Polish language and Polish self-identication. It was common even for wealthy and polonized szlachta still to refer to themselves as Litwin or Rusyn:
Although born as Litwin and as Litwin I will die, but Polish idiom we must use in our homeland.
According to Polish estimates from the 1930s, 300,000 members of szlachta zagrodowa inhabited the subcarpathian region of the Second Polish Republic (out of 800,000 in the whole country). 90% of them were Ukrainian-speaking and 80% were Ukrainian Greek Catholics. In other places of Ukraine in Russian Empire with significant szlachta populations like Bar region or Ovruch region situation despite russification and polonization was similar.
However the era of sovereign rule of szlachta ended earlier than in other countries (excluding France) in 1795 (see: Partitions of Poland). Since then their legitimacy and future fate depended on legislature and the procedures of the Russian Empire, Kingdom of Prussia or Habsburg Monarchy. Gradually their privileges became further limited, to be completely dissolved by the March Constitution of Poland in 1921.
There were a number of avenues to upward social mobility and the achievement of nobility, and the szlachta was not a rigidly exclusive, closed class; but, according to heraldic sources, the total number of legal ennoblements issued between the 14th century and the mid-18th century is estimated at approximately 800. This is an average of only about two ennoblements per year, or only 0.000,000,14 – 0.000,001 of the historical population. Quoting English journalists Richard Holt Hutton and Walter Bagehot in 1864, "The condition of the country at the present day shows that the population consisted of two different peoples, between whom there was an impassable barrier. There is the Sliachta, or caste of nobles (the descendants of Lekh), on the one hand, and the serfs or peasantry, who constitute the bulk of the population, on the other.":483-484 Quoting Hutton and Bagehot again, "... the Statute of 1633 completed the slavery of the other classes, by proclaiming the principle that 'the air enslaves the man,' in virtue of which every peasant who had lived for a year upon the estate of a noble was held to be his property. Nowhere in history - nowhere in the world - do we ever see a homogeneous nation organise itself in a form like that which has prevailed from the earliest times in Poland. But where there has been an intrusion of a dominant people, or settlers, who have not fused into the original population, there we find an exact counterpart of Polish society: the dominant settlers establishing themselves as an upper caste, all politically equal among themselves, and holding the lands (or, more frequently, simply drawing the rents) of the country.":483 Quoting sociologist and historian Jerzy Ryszard Szacki, "... the Polish nobility was a closed group (apart from a few exceptions, many of which were contrary to the law), in which membership was inherited." Others assert the szlachta were not a social class, but a caste, among them, historian Adam Zamoyski, "A more apt analogy might perhaps be made with the Rajputs of northern India. ... unlike any other gentry in Europe, the szlachta was not limited by nor did it depend for its status on either wealth, or land, or royal writ. It was defined by its function, that of a warrior caste." And, again quoting sociologist and historian Jerzy Szacki, "...Świętochowski, on the other hand, wrote as follows: ‘If from the deeds of the Polish nobility we took away excesses and the exclusiveness of caste, ...’". Low-born individuals, including townsfolk, peasants but not Jews, could and did rise to official ennoblement in Commonwealth society, although Charles-Joseph, 7th Prince of Ligne, when trying to obtain Polish noble status, supposedly said in 1784, "It is easier to become a duke in Germany, than to be counted among Polish nobles.". According to heraldic sources 1,600 is the total estimated number of all legal ennoblements throughout the history of Kingdom of Poland and Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from the 14th century onward (half of which were performed in the final years of the late 18th century). Hutton and Bagehot, "... for the barrier of exclusion was partly thrown down in the last days of the monarchy ...".:482 Each szlachcic had enormous influence over the country's politics, in some ways even greater than that enjoyed by the citizens of modern democratic countries. Between 1652 and 1791, any nobleman could nullify all the proceedings of a given sejm (Commonwealth parliament) or sejmik (Commonwealth local parliament) by exercising his individual right of liberum veto (Latin for "I do not allow"), except in the case of a confederated sejm or confederated sejmik.
In old Poland, a nobleman married a noblewoman, as intermarriage between castes was fraught with difficulties; but, children of a legitimate marriage followed the condition of the father, never the mother, therefore, only the father transmitted his nobility to his children. Later, as marriages by a nobleman or noblewoman to a commoner became more frequent, children inherited nobility from their noble parent.[dubious ] And a noble girl married to a commoner could transmit nobility to her husband and to all their children.[dubious ] Any individual could attain ennoblement (nobilitacja) for special services to the state. A foreign noble might be naturalized as a Polish noble (Polish: "indygenat") by the Polish king (later, from 1641, only by a general sejm). By the eighteenth century all these trends were responsible for the great increase in the proportion of szlachta in the total population.
In theory all szlachta were social equal. Also in theory, they were legal peers. Those who held 'real power' dignities were more privileged but these dignities were not hereditary. Those who held honorary dignities were higher in 'ritual' hierarchy but these dignities were also granted for a lifetime. Some tenancies became hereditary and went with both privilege and titles. Nobles who were not direct barons of the Crown but held land from other lords were only peers "de iure". The poorest enjoyed the same rights as the wealthiest magnate. The exceptions were a few symbolically privileged families such as the Radziwiłł, Lubomirski and Czartoryski, who sported honorary aristocratic titles recognized in Poland or received from foreign courts, such as "Prince" or "Count". (see also The Princely Houses of Poland). All other szlachta simply addressed each other by their given name or as "Sir Brother" (Panie bracie) or the feminine equivalent. The other forms of address would be "Illustrious and Magnificent Lord", "Magnificent Lord", "Generous Lord" or "Noble Lord" (in decreasing order) or simply "His/Her Grace Lord/Lady".
According to their financial standing, the nobility were in common speech divided into:
Note that the Polish landed gentry (ziemianie or ziemiaństwo) was composed of any nobility that owned lands: thus of course the magnates, the middle nobility and that lesser nobility that had at least part of the village. As manorial lordships were also opened to burgesses of certain privileged royal cities, not all landed gentry had a hereditary title of nobility.
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Coats of arms were very important to szlachta. Its heraldic system evolved together with its neighbours in Central Europe, while differing in many ways from the heraldry of other European countries. Knighthood families had its counterparts, links or roots in Moravia (i.e. Poraj) and Germany (i.e. Junosza).
Most families sharing origin would also share a coat of arms. They would also share arms with families adopted into the clan (these would often have their arms officially altered upon ennoblement). Sometimes unrelated families would be falsely attributed to the clan on the basis of similarity of arms. Also often noble families claimed inaccurate clan membership. Logically, the number of coats of arms in this system was rather low and did not exceed 200 in late Middle Ages (40,000 in the late 18th century).
The tradition of differentiating between the coat of arms proper and a lozenge granted to women did not develop in Poland. By the 17th century, usually men and women inherited a coat of arms from their father or mother[dubious ] or even both[dubious ] (or a member of a clan who had adopted them). But also men[dubious ] or women could permanently adopt the arms of their wives[dubious ] or husbands and transmit them to their children even after remarriages. The brisure was rarely used. All children would inherit the coat(s) of arms of their parent(s) and transmit them to all their children. This partly accounts for the relatively large proportion of Polish families who had adopted a coat of arms by the 18th century. Another factor was the trend of the nobility titled marrying "commoners" and passing on their title to their spouse and children[dubious ], forbidden in the Middle Ages. An illegitimate child could adopt her/his mother's surname and title by the consent of the mother's father, but was often adopted and raised by the natural father's family, thereby acquiring the father's surname and title.
The szlachta's prevalent mentality and ideology were manifested in "Sarmatism", a name derived from a myth of the szlachta's origin in the powerful ancient nation of Sarmatians. This belief system became an important part of szlachta culture and affected all aspects of their lives. It was popularized by poets who exalted traditional village life, peace and pacifism. It was also manifested in oriental-style apparel (the żupan, kontusz, sukmana, pas kontuszowy, delia); and made the scimitar-like szabla, too, a near-obligatory item of everyday szlachta apparel. Sarmatism served to integrate the multi-ethnic nobility as it created an almost nationalistic sense of unity and pride in the szlachta's "Golden Liberty" (złota wolność). Knowledge of Latin was widespread, and most szlachta freely mixed Polish and Latin vocabulary (the latter, "macaronisms"—from "macaroni") in everyday conversation.
Prior to the Reformation, the Polish nobility were mostly either Roman Catholic or Orthodox with a small group of Muslims. Many families, however, soon adopted the Reformed faiths. After the Counter-Reformation, when the Roman Catholic Church regained power in Poland, the nobility became almost exclusively Catholic. Approximately 40% of all citizens population were Roman Catholic, 36% were Greek Catholic, 4% Orthodox with the remaining 20% being Jews or members of Protestant denominations. In the 18th century, many followers of Jacob Frank joined the ranks of Jewish-descended okoliczna szlachta. Although Jewish religion wasn't usually a pretext to block or deprive of noble status, some laws favoured religious conversion from Judaism to Christianity (see: Neophyte) by rewarding it with ennoblement.
a.^ Estimates of the proportion of szlachta vary widely: 10–12% of the total population of historic Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, around 8% of the total population in 1791 (up from 6.6% in the 16th century) or 6-8%.
... the Polish nobility was a closed group (apart from a few exceptions, many of which were contrary to the law), in which membership was inherited.
In the past the nobility in Poland constituted the nation itself. It ruled the country without competition on the part of any other class, the middle class being small in numbers and wealth, and the peasants being serfs.
The boundaries between nobility and peasants (and other social groups) persisted well into the 19th and 20th centuries. A shocking proof of how terribly effective this Sarmatian ideology was, can be found in a personal letter of Zygmunt Krasiński, one of the three greatest Polish Romantic poets in the 19th century (and a descendant of an aristocratic family). In the mid-19th century Krasiński wrote to his English friend Henry Reeve: ‘Believe me and rest assured that apart from aristocracy there’s nothing in Poland: no talent, no bright minds, nor sense of sacrifice. Our third state [bourgeoisie] is nonsense; our peasants are machines. Only we [nobles] are Poland.’
Minor nobility: Verbally, this category causes trouble. Polish writers use the word gentry, which doesn't quite sound right in English. European writers use petty nobility, but the adjective has unfortunate connotations.
One cannot substitute the terms 'nobility' or 'gentry' for szlachta because it had little in common with those classes in other European countries either in origin, composition or outlook.
For the sake of precision therefore, it is essential that szlachta should be translated as 'Nobility', szlachcic as 'nobleman', and stan szlachecki as 'the noble estate'.
A more apt analogy might perhaps be made with the Rajputs of northern India. ... unlike any other gentry in Europe, the szlachta was not limited by nor did it depend for its status on either wealth, or land, or royal writ. It was defined by its function, that of a warrior caste.
While land provided the majority with a livelihood, it was not the only or even the predominant source of wealth for the magnates, whose estates were not large by the standards of the barons of England or the great lords of France. ... The magnates only started accumulating property on a large scale at the beginning of the fifteenth century.
Minor nobility: ... The category includes men almost rich and powerful enough to be magnates, and all intervening levels down to the roving rascal with no castle, no money, no village, no peasants, one horse and pride unbounded.
At least 60,000 families belong to this class [nobility], of which, however, only about 100 are wealthy ; all the rest are poor.
Miano Szlachty, pochodzi od Lechitów (The name of the nobility, derived from the Lechites).
Kmiecie czyli lud pospolity wolny (Kmiecie is the common free people), ...
The most important and the most numerous section of the peasantry in late medieval and early modern Poland was the kmiecie (Latin: cmethones), full peasant holders of hereditary farms with an average size in the region under study of half a mansus, which was equivalent to eight hectares. Farms belonging to kmiecie were largely self-sufficient, although some of them were, to varying extents, engaged in production for the market. Other, less numerous, sections of the peasantry were the zagrodnicy (Latin: ortulani), or smallholders, and the ogrodnicy, or cottagers, who farmed small plots of land. These two categories of peasants were not able to support themselves and their families from their land, so they earned extra money as hired labourers on their landlords’ land, or that of the kmiecie. Apart from the holders of large or small farms, Polish villages were also inhabited by so-called komornicy, landless lodgers who earned wages locally. This group included village craftsmen, while the wealthiest kmiecie included millers and innkeepers.
The population consists of free husbandmen and slaves. Above them there is a class of warriors, very strong numerically, from which the ruler chooses his officials.
Throughout most of Europe the medieval system of estates evolved into absolutism, but in the Commonwealth it led to a szlachta democracy inspired by the ideals of ancient Rome, to which parallels were constantly drawn.
The article highlights the role of Latin as the language of communication of the nobility living in Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. At the beginning discusses the concept 'latinitas', which meant not only the correct Latin, but also pointed to the ideological content of antiquity passed through the language of the ancient Romans. ... We studied Latin armorial 'Orbis Polonus' by Simon Okolski (Cracow 1641-1645). ... It concludes that Okolski consciously wrote his work in the language of the ancient Romans.
... through all modern Polish history it was Roman republicanism that formed the ideal of the republican gentry. The Roman precedent was even quoted to justify serfdom, which was a modified form of Roman slavery.
the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of Two Nations (from 1385 until the Third Partition of 1795) paralleled the Roman Empire in that -- whether we like it or not -- full rights of citizenship were limited to the governing elite, called szlachta in Polish ... It is not truly correct to consider the szlachta a class; they actually were more like a caste, the military caste, as in Hindu society.
The Polish peasant in the past was a very humble member of the Polish community – in fact he scarcely belonged to it at all. He had for 350 years no civic rights whatever. He was the serf of his master. It was only the easy-going and patriarchal relations between squire and peasant that made life tolerable for the latter.
Their ideal was that of a Greek city State—a body of citizens, a small trading class, and a mass of labourers.
The peasants of Poland, as in all feudal countries, were serfs, or slaves; and the value of an estate was not estimated from its extent, but from the number of peasants, who were transferred, like cattle, from one master to another.
...Świętochowski, on the other hand, wrote as follows: ‘If from the deeds of the Polish nobility we took away excesses and the exclusiveness of caste, ...’
LINEA FAMILIAE RADWAN
Membership in the Polish szlachta was hereditary. ... (and the family knighthood, rycerstwo, in itself) ... The paramount principle regarding Polish nobility is that it was hereditary. ... one Rudolf Lambert had successfully proven his right to hereditary knighthood (szlachectwo) ... He [Nikodem Tadeusz] was also Marshal of the Knighthood (using the word rycerz and not szlachcic ...)
But between the gentry and the magnates there was only a difference of wealth and culture. Both belonged directly to the same class of the community, both were members of the same clans, and the gentry by its social character was destined rather to co-operate with the magnates than to struggle against them. And, as both those elements occupied the same legal position, the power wrested from the king by the magnates became legally an acquisition of the whole of the nobility, ...
The Polish nobility, which sprang from this military class and which derived its family names from its landed properties (in the fifteenth century), ...
Later on each family began to take the name of some village or town, with the addition of -ski, which is the Polish equivalent for the French de or German von.
Thus John of Zamość called himself John Zamoyski, Stephen of Potok called himself Potocki. Although time has scattered most families far from their original home, nearly all the names of the genuinely Polish szlachta can be traced back to some locality.
Originally a member of the Polish szlachta used simply his Christian name, and the title of the coat of arms which was common to all the members of his clan.
DĄBROWSCY h. RADWAN z Dąbrówki pod Piasecznem, w ziemi warszawskiej, w różnych stronach osiedli, przeważnie w ziemi rożańskiej. Przydomek ich „Żądło“. Żyjący w połowie XV-go wieku Jakub z Dąbrówki, ...
Dąbrowfcij, cognominati Zedlowie ...
The use of the Latin language was universal in Poland well into the eighteenth century, and many words from Latin have been assimilated by the Polish language and have added to its vocabulary and its expressiveness.
The Dąbrowski family [Żądło-Dąbrowski, herbu Radwan, landowners of Michałowice - See Boniecki's HERBARZ, Volume 4., page 149] willingly engaged in rural life. In the picture: a festive harvest in nearby Masłomiąca in 1939, ...
Photographs from the family archive of Jan Majewski; Tadeusz Żądło Dąbrowski [herbu Radwan]...
This peculiarity may be best illustrated by the example given by Paprocki  who mentions the Rosciszewski family which took a surname different from the names of the land properties it had owned. Those of the Rosciszewski family who settled in Chrapunia became known as Chrapunskis; those who settled in Strykwina were known as Strykwinskis; and those who settled in Borkow became known as Borkowskis. Since they shared a common ancestor and belonged to the same clan - they were entitled to bear the same arms as Rosciszewskis.
Fig. 4 A selection of Polish coats-of-arms. These were never personal to the bearers; each was borne by all members of the family, and often by dozens of families of different names which may or may not have shared their origins.
Polish coats of arms are utterly unlike those of European chivalry, and were held in common by whole clans which fought as regiments.
Polish society had evolved from clannish structures, and the introduction of Christianity and all that went with it did not alter these significantly. The feudal system which regulated society all over Europe was never introduced into Poland, and this fact cannot be stressed too heavily.
This military class was subdivided into clans, the members of each clan being bound together by strong ties of solidarity. Each clan had its name and crest. The Polish nobility, which sprang from this military class and which derived its family names from its landed properties (in the fifteenth century), had no family crests, of which there was only a limited number. Each of these bore a name which had been the old word of call of the clan. In many instances, one crest belonged to more than a hundred families. The clan system survived in this way throughout the whole of Polish history. It is evident that the warrior class in Poland had quite a different origin and a different legal and social position from that of the feudal nobility of Western Europe.
In 1784, Prince Charles de Ligne from Belgium, who was trying to obtain Polish noble status, supposedly said, ‘It is easier to become a duke in Germany, than to be counted among Polish nobles,’ quoted in Kulikowski, Heraldyka szlachecka, 27.
It should not be difficult to understand then, why prince Charles de Ligne from Belgium, who in 1784 was trying to receive the Polish nobility status, supposedly commented that: It is easier to become duke in Germany, then to be counted among Polish nobles . Indeed, from the moment of the prohibition of private adoptions, Polish nobility became a closed cast [caste] ...
Social mobility between the estates was fraught with obstacles.
It made the Polish gentleman more remote from the peasant, to whom he was not only a master, but a foreign, somewhat exotic, neighbour. The civilization of the manor, even allowing for social and cultural differences, had very little in common with the life of the cottage.
Now slavery is a condition of the body, since a slave is to the master a kind of instrument in working; wherefore children follow the mother in freedom and bondage; whereas in matters pertaining to dignity as proceeding from a thing's form, they follow the father, for instance in honors, franchise, inheritance and so forth. The canons are in agreement with this (cap. Liberi, 32, qu. iv, in gloss.: cap. Inducens, De natis ex libero ventre) as also the law of Moses (Exodus 21). ... It is because the son derives honor from his father rather than from his mother that in the genealogies of Scripture, and according to common custom, children are named after their father rather than from their mother. But in matters relating to slavery they follow the mother by preference.
In ancient times, the nobility was the ruling class of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth with the exclusive right to enjoy full citizenship. Nobility was hereditary in the male line, and the knight's shield was an outward sign of this.