When the first Polish head of state Mieszko I was baptised in 966 it meant more than just one grown man becoming a Christian. It essentially meant that all of the subjects of his pagan society and his entire realm became Christian as well.
The event brought Poland a permanent place in the Western cultural milieu and because of its significance is considered the symbolic founding date of the Polish state. 2016 marks the 1050th anniversary of the baptism, which is being celebrated with a series of special events such as concerts and exhibitions.
A dangerous foe
The birthplace of Poland, which might come as a surprise to those less acquainted with the country’s history, doesn’t lie near the ancient city of Kraków, where the Royal Wawel Castle stands, nor near the capital, Warsaw. It lies in the central west of the land, in an area centred around the town of Gniezno. This area is where in the first half of the 10th century local Slavs of pagan faith formed a political organism, which quickly grew to the size of about a quarter of today’s Poland and eventually came to be ruled by Duke Mieszko I, who is considered the first Polish head of state.
There is no certainty as to the names and stories of his ancestors, nor the exact time when he gained power. His pre-duke life is generally a mystery. We know without a doubt, however, that after Mieszko’s reign started in around 960 it met some serious troubles early on. After a brief period of further expansion his country found itself under military pressure from a very dangerous foe – a group of northern Slavic tribes collaborating as the Veleti political union, and their commander, the rogue Saxon warlord Wichman. Having suffered some bitter defeats at the hands of these adversaries, Mieszko’s state came to the verge of collapsing. That’s when the duke decided to form an alliance with the Czechs.
The Czech Prince Boleslav I agreed to Mieszko’s proposition of an alliance, looking most probably to stabilize the uneasy international position of his own country. His land wasn’t surrounded by the most friendly-disposed states, so having a comradely neighbour to his north in the form of Mieszko’s realm would make things a little easier for him. Also, the alliance between Mieszko I and Boleslav, which had a definitely anti-Veleti character, was in line with the interests of Otto I, the Holy Roman Emperor, who was himself in conflict with the northern Slavic tribes and their Saxon commander. Mieszko I, a talented diplomat as proven by history, wanted to use the fight against their shared enemy to establish friendly relations with the Holy Roman Empire. The alliance between the Polish and Czech rulers was to be confirmed by Mieszko’s marriage to Boleslav’s daughter Dobrava. There was however one obstacle that blocked the wedding – Mieszko was a pagan and as such couldn’t become the lawful husband of Dobrava, who had been born into a Christian family. The problem was solved when the Polish duke decided to get baptised and become a Christian himself. So, one might say, that Mieszko I found Jesus because of a woman.
According to the highly credible Medieval source The Annals of the Krakow Chapter Dobrawa came to Mieszko’s country in 965 and a year later the Polish duke was baptised. Nothing is known for certain about the ceremony itself. We can’t say for sure who baptised the ruler nor when exactly and where it occurred. The date 14th April seems highly probable as in 966 Holy Saturday fell on that day. In that era this holiday was considered an appropriate moment for baptising adult pagans. The place was most likely somewhere in Mieszko’s home region, in the vicinity of Gniezno. Historians point to the stronghold towns of Ostrów Lednicki and Ostrów Tumski (which was the origin of Poznań) as plausible suspects. The priest that conducted the ceremony might have been a chaplain that was part of Dobrawa’s retinue. It is sure that Mieszko and Dobrawa became husband and wife and the alliance confirmed by this matrimony worked out perfectly for the Polish Prince. A year after the baptism Mieszko’s forces, aided by his father-in-law’s soldiers, delivered a crushing defeat in battle to the Veleti political union, killing Wichman at the same time. Thanks to this the Polish duke secured the position of his realm and gained the gratitude of Otto I.
The great international game
Even though getting rid of the Veleti threat was an objective Mieszko clearly had in mind when he asked for Dobrava’s hand it would be unwise to think that this was the only reason he decided to marry her and become a Christian. As a savvy politician Mieszko I knew that in order to legitimize his reign and country in the eyes of other European rulers he had to be baptised. By doing so, not only he but also his land automatically turned Christian and as such both became entities according to the international law of the time – pagan rulers and states couldn’t really enjoy such a status. A good example of the consequences of Mieszko I becoming a Christian is provided by the Medieval Saxon chronicle The Deeds of the Saxons, where the Polish duke is called ‘a friend of the Holy Roman Emperor’. As a pagan he would never have been called this, but since the baptism both of the leaders were playing the ‘great game’ under the same rules, so such an expression became acceptable.
Mieszko’s becoming a Christian also had meaningful consequences of a local character. The political system of his country was a patrimonial monarchy, meaning that he was the ‘father’ of all his subjects. Therefore, when Mieszko was baptised it effectively meant that everybody in his land joined the Christian religion with him. A mass baptising of the entire society had to be conducted to formalize it, but this wasn’t a problem as the Christian church was well-prepared for such an operation (not an uncommon thing back then). There is a theory according to which the inhabitants of Mieszko’s realm accepted the new religion without much opposition. This is grounded in a conviction that their original pagan faith was a monotheistic one including the concept of paradise. If that was the case, then the transition to Christianity could have indeed gone smoothly. But it ought to be said that very little is known for sure about the religious systems of early Slavic people, due to the lack of sources. So theories that these systems were actually polytheistic aren't necessarily implausible.
The cultural bloodstream
Along with the political and social consequences of Mieszko’s baptism one should also mention the equally important cultural ones. By becoming a Christian Mieszko brought his land, permanently as we can say from today’s perspective, into the Western cultural milieu. In the middle ages most of the intellectual and artistic ferment of Europe had to do, in one form or another, with Christianity. Back then if you wanted to participate in European culture on a serious level you simply had to be Christian. That’s why Mieszko’s baptism marks the moment in which his realm actually became connected with the cultural bloodstream of the continent. Since then this connection has never been severed. All in all the state-building effects of Mieszko I joining the Christian religion were so significant that it only seems natural that this event, which nowadays is simply called the Baptism of Poland, has been chosen as the symbolic founding date of the country. When Mieszko I died he left behind a much larger state than the one he controlled at the start of his reign. Toward the end of his life his realm covered an area of about 250 thousand square kilometres and had approximately 1 million inhabitants. This country still lives on and this year it is celebrating the 1050th anniversary of its baptism.
To commemorate this year’s anniversary of the Baptism of Poland a series of special events has been planned. Taking place in various locations throughout the whole year they include concerts, exhibitions and conferences. In the near future, on 5th March, a concert dedicated to the anniversary will be held at the Royal Festival Hall in London. It will be given by the London Philharmonic Choir & Orchestra and will feature performances of Stabat Mater (one of the most noted works of the famous Polish composer Karol Szymanowski), Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s 3rd Symphony in D major (‘Polish’), and Alexander Zemlinsky’s Six Songs op. 13. Another performance of the aforementioned Szymanowski composition by the LPO is set to occur on 11th March at the Klarafestival in Brussels.
In Warsaw the Royal Castle is hosting a whole series of concerts of classical music on occasion of the anniversary. Entitled 1050 Years in Music, the series is to present works created throughout the existence of the Polish state. The upcoming concerts from this series will take place on 6th March, 22nd May, and 12th June, and will include such pieces as Renaissance psalms by Mikołaj Gomółka, Baroque motets by Andreas Hakenberger, and contemporary compositions by the likes of Krzysztof Penderecki and Augustyn Bloch. On 15th April, when the peak of the celebrations will take place, a unique concert will be held in the Poznań archcathedral, during which the symphonic-choral hymn Tyś jest mój syn (editor’s translation: Thou Art My Son) will be performed. This piece with words by the lyricist Iwona Waksmundzka was composed especially for the 1050th anniversary of the baptism by Robert Janson, who is probably best known as the leader of the pop band Varius Manx.
Conferences and Exhibitions
Among the scientific events organized on occasion of the anniversary will be the international conferences Chrzest Polski z perspektywy XXI wieku (editor’s translation: The Baptism of Poland from a 21st-Century Perspective) and XIX Funeralia Lednickie (editor’s translation: The 19th Lednica Funeraries). The former will take place between 1st March and 30th April and will be devoted to the cultural consequences of Europe’s Christianisation. The latter will be held on 11th and 12th May and will revolve around burial ceremonies in different time periods and geographical regions such as Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. Both of these conferences will be organized at the Museum of the First Piasts at Lednica which stands on the Ostrów Lednicki lake isle, next to the village of Dziekanowice. Chrzest – Św. Wojciech – Polska: Dziedzictwo średniowiecznego Gniezna is the title of one of the exhibitions commemorating the anniversary of the baptism (editor’s translation: Baptism – St. Adalbert – Poland: Medieval Gniezno’s Heritage). It will be held from 11th March to 25th October at the Museum of the Origins of the Polish State in Gniezno and will present, amongst others, the history of the town of Gniezno through artefacts and reconstructions of sacral buildings.
Another exhibition organized on the occasion of the celebrations will be Najstarsi mieszkańcy Poznania oczami współczesnej medycyny (editor’s translation: The Earliest Inhabitants of Poznań as Seen by Modern Medicine). It will run from 1st October until 31st December at the Poznań University of Medical Sciences and will show the results of medical and genetic research on the 10th-century townsfolk of the aforementioned Ostrów Tumski. Overall, there are dozens of events linked to the commemorations ahead, so in the upcoming part of the year there will be no shortage of occasions to celebrate the anniversary.
Sources: ‘Chrzest Polski’ by Prof. Tomasz Jasiński; ‘Mieszko Pierwszy Tajemniczy' by Prof. Przemysław Urbańczyk; http://chrzest966.pl/.