The Elegant Downfall of the Polish Sarmatians
default, The costumes of magnates from 1576-1586. From the left: Jan Zamojski (1542-1605), Sebastian Lubomirski (1546-1613), Katarzyna Lubomirska (?-1611), Sam, center, sarmatia_fact_fiction_polish_magnates_1576-1586.jpg
The decadent and outlandish nobility known as the Polish Sarmatians are often said to have brought down the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth through their mistakes and hubris. The novelist Wojciech Zembaty explores what we know about this notorious period in Polish history, and whether it’s time to be a little more forgiving.
Most Poles know that Polish Sarmatism was a cultural trend popular among the nobility of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Reaching its peak in late 17th century, after the wars with the Ottoman Empire, its characteristic feature was fashion inspired by Oriental trends.
A Polish nobleman from this era wouldn’t look out of place on the streets of Istanbul, or even Tehran, as some of his favourite designs, such as broad belts made of silk, originated as far as Persia. He would carry a curved sabre, or szabla, and wear long robes such as żupan, kontusz and delia. With his long moustache or enormous ‘senator-style’ beard and shaved mohawk-style haircut, this Old Polish look was shocking for western Europeans, who sometimes compared Poles to Native Americans or Tatars. According to modern standards, they were just the first proto-hipsters.
But Sarmatism did not amount to merely Oriental clothing and a bizarre haircut. Soon it became an identity pattern for Polish nobility, a way of life. One of its primary concerns was defending the ‘golden freedom’ of nobles against the king’s tyrannical inclinations. Thus, conservative Polish thinkers perceive Sarmatism as an original, pure form of Polish republicanism, similar to the tradition of the Founding Fathers of the United States.
This was the a key component that propelled Sarmatism on: the duty of protecting the country’s borders from Islamic enemies, such as the expanding Turks and Crimean Tartars. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was perceived by nobles as an ‘antemurale christianitatis’, a besieged frontier of Christian civilisation.
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But eventually, as the commonwealth declined, Sarmatism became for its opponents a synonym for obscurantism and backward thinking, responsible for Polish anarchy and political weakness. Sarmatians were pious Catholics, often prone to superstitions and distrustful about foreign ideas. The good life came first. They loved family life, court trials and hunting. Feasting and visiting would often take days. As the popular Old Polish saying, still up to date, used to go ‘Zastaw się, a postaw się’, which means you should show your richness and status, even if you have to take out a loan. But most contentious of all was the fact they insisted that their way of life was merely the continuation of ancient traditions. I will explore all this below and sort what we should take away from this fascinating period.
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Sarmatism was a noblemen’s thing. According to historian Witold Kula, this so-called szlachta made up 8-10% of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s population. It’s much more than the 2% that made up western Europe. The nobles kept both economic and political power, being the only social group allowed to own agriculture lands and hold public offices. Since the late 16th century, noblemen would elect their king and parliament. They were also supposed to defend borders as voluntary soldiers. This duty of the szlachta was becoming more and more problematic with the development of gun powder weapons. Nevertheless, the greatest Polish military victories of the 16th and 18th centuries were won by cavalry consisting mainly of nobles.
Until the 16th century, the borders between social castes were relatively fluid. For example, a brave peasant soldier could be promoted to a nobleman in recognition of his war deeds. But in the 17th century, divisions and gaps were becoming more and more solid. Noblemen believed that they were descendants of the biblical Noah’s most virtuous son, Japheth. On the contrary, peasants (chłopi) were children of Ham, the son who intoxicated Noah and stripped him naked and worse. Even today, the Polish word ‘cham’ means a rude low-status person and has a strong class feel to it. Of course, the majority of modern Poles claim to descend from the oppressing minority, not the oppressed serfs.
This Sarmatian myth went on to claim that noblemen are people of a different ethnicity to other social groups, and were the only true Poles. Thus, it attempted to legitimise their claims for superiority and political power. It’s one of the reasons many scholars, like Jan Sowa, judge Sarmatism harshly. Today it exudes an obvious Apartheid aspect, as it helped noblemen to stifle peasants and city people, and like many examples of segregation it weakened the whole region long-term.
The great shift towards the East
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Before Poland there was Sarmatia... Eastern Europe according to Claudius Ptolemaeus (ca 100-ca 168), Cosmographia Claudii Ptolomaei, photo: Polona.pl
The concept that the warlike and feared Sarmatians from the 1st century were the ancient ancestors of the szlachta dates back to the 15th century. Before that, the scholar Wincenty Kadłubek had written that the Poles were related to the Romans and wrote about their wars against Alexander the Great. It didn’t sell well, but the concept of Sarmatian heritage was far more convincing. Coined by Jan Długosz, Alessandro Guagnini and Maciej Miechowita, the idea was already broadly being accepted by the 16th century.
It must be seen in the right context. During the Renaissance, ancient studies were a must. Rulers and thinkers across Europe were referring to ancient political ideas. The military tactics of pikemen were inspired by the phalanxes of ancient Greece and Macedon. Many nations tried to bask in the glory of antic ancestors; the French were rediscovering the Gauls, the Englishmen talked about Brutus of Troy. In all ancient sources and maps, eastern Europe was called Sarmatia, so it was quite natural for the Poles to take a closer look at those warlike and feared Sarmatians. Another thing is that the origins of Slavic people were unclear, even today. As noted by scholar Tadeusz Mańkowski, the concept of Polish Sarmatism can be seen not as a blatant forgery, but as an act of seeking one’s own roots. I will examine the veracity of these claims later, but first let’s continue to look at the context surrounding them.
From the 14th century, Poland had an increasing interest in the east. The country lost some of its old western regions, such as Silesia, but was expanding towards Ukraine. Union with Lithuania meant more and more territories – some say colonies – in the east… which meant more exotic enemies. Even before the age of discoveries, Poles had to face challenges and possibilities coming from distant Asia. For example, in the Battle of the Vorskla River, in 1399 Poles joined Lithuanians and Tartars against Temur Qutlugh, a general of Timur, the fearsome conqueror who had just finished ravaging Persia and India. When the Ottoman Empire invaded Poland in 1621, they brought camels and elephants with them. Unfortunately for the Turks, it was a cold and snowy Polish winter, and their ranks and animals were wholly unprepared.
In the early 17th century, wars with Muscovy opened new horizons for Polish marauders. Rogue riders, the ill-reputed lisowczycy, took a long ride and reached Astrakhan and the Caspian Sea. Some Poles crossed Siberia and served as mercenaries in China. After the victorious Battle of Vienna, Poles plundered the Sultan’s private treasures.
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According to urban legend, the first European coffee house was founded then, because they had to do something with all that coffee that came as the deserved spoils of victory. In this era, even our national food became Asian – strong spices, such as saffron and nutmeg, became Poles’ favourite flavours.
Through the centuries, Sarmatism evolved and declined, just like Poland. Until the middle of the 17th century, Polish noblemen were proud and sure of themselves. With an area of 990,000 square kilometres in the year 1634, their country was the biggest in Europe. Poles – at least the nobles – enjoyed more freedom than people elsewhere, as absolutism was growing. The popular Polish saying ‘Musi to na Rusi’, which means ‘Coercion is a Russian thing’ expresses this particular sense of satisfaction and superiority.
The enemies of the era – Russia and Turkey – were countries of absolute monarchical power, where Russian tsars and Turkish sultans would kill political opponents in the blink of an eye. In Poland, this was impossible. Szlachta often formed confederations, or rokosz; these were rebellions against the king’s politics, such as if he were pushing toward war, raising taxes or changing the political system. Western Europe was ravaged by religious wars, but the Thirty Years’ War didn’t reach Poland. Here there were no religious massacres, like the St Bartholomew’s Day one in France, and no witch hunting. The country was multi-ethnic and multi-religious, with a majority Christian population. It was an attractive destination for emigrants, including 20,000 Englishmen and Scots, who settled in the commonwealth.
The Deluge: the great Polish trauma
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The Polish golden era ended in the middle of the 17th century. The Cossack rebellion in Ukraine, together with a disastrous invasion from Sweden known as ‘The Deluge’, had ruined everything. The Swedish deluge was arguably more disastrous for Poland than World War II. Treasures were robbed, castes and cities burned, 40% of the population slaughtered. Russia took eastern Ukraine. It was then when Poles started to lose their confidence. As most invaders were non-Catholic, non-Catholic started to mean ‘enemy’. The Catholic Church, especially its Jesuit order, started to have a growing impact on education and culture. Somehow, the crippled nation became isolated – there was a symbolic ‘Polexit’. Noblemen stopped travelling and studying abroad, becoming contained to their mansions and local affairs.
In the 18th century, when western Europeans were travelling more and more, conquering new lands and forging new ideas, Poland literally stopped moving. It became like an old man with PTSD, crippled and scarred. And drunk – the decadent feasts of the 18th century are still legendary. The dreamy, neurotic and fanatical aspects of Sarmatism were born then, as a result of the national trauma. As the shrieking reality gave less and less reasons to be proud, national pride, inevitably, rose high in self-defence.
The rise & fall of the hussars
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Let’s take the Polish hussars, whose legendary wings can still be seen today even in logos in football stadiums as a symbol of our national pride and ability to win. These troops originated from Serbia and Hungary, formed by warriors fleeing from the expanding Turks. In the late 16th century, hussaria reached its ultimate form. They were heavily armoured riders, equipped with long lances and hand weapons. Their wings are a subject of heated discussion among historians and experts. Some claim that the wings, attached to a rider’s back or saddle, made a thundering noise that would scare enemy horses. Or that the wings protected the rider from the arkan, a lasso-style weapon wielded by Tatars. Others say that the wings were only a decoration, a parade display, which later became a myth.
Nevertheless, the winged hussars were a decisive factor in many victorious battles. They were living proof that stubbornness pays. As the role of gunpowder grew, western nations decided that knights with their lances were passé. In the 16th and 17th centuries, western military tactics relied on the combined forces of musketeer and pikemen to protect them. Cavalry were supposed to shoot their enemies with pistols, while lances were abandoned by most countries up until the Napoleonic Wars. The whole idea of an armoured knight charging enemies with a lance was anachronistic, obsolete and funny, something that only Don Quixote would do. Such was the progress and evolution of things, but Poles really loved their noble cavalry. And perhaps they hadn’t heard of Cervantes.
The solution was simple. If the enemies have pikes, let’s make our lances even longer! When 11,000 Swedes, mainly infantry, faced 3,600 Poles, mainly winged hussars, at the Battle of Kircholm in 1605, they were quite confident at first. No cavalry could possibly charge our wall of pikes and muskets from the front, right? That would be suicidal. But Poles did, provoking the Swedes to abandon their defended position on the hill using the classic nomad-style manoeuvre of a faked retreat. When both armies clashed, polish lances, with their length of up to 5.5 metres, were longer than the Swedish pikes.
Those lancers were especially efficient against Russians, like at the Battles of Klushino in 1610, fought between 4,000 Poles and 40,000 Russians, backed by mercenaries from England and Scotland. The Poles won thanks to repeated charges. In those battles, enemy casualties counted into many thousands, but the Poles only lost 100 to 300 soldiers, with damage soaked up by horses. As modern gamers would say, those winged hussars were ‘OP’.
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Another factor was their unique horses, a breed mixing heavy western knightly horses and eastern oriental steeds. Strong enough to carry a heavy armoured rider, but swift to catch up with Tartars. In battle, winged hussars were backed by lighter riders, wearing chain mail and armed with sabres and bows. Polish armies of the 17th century, with their lancers and horse archers, didn’t look like other European forces. In fact, they looked like… ancient Sarmatians.
But it all ended in the early 18th century. The great race against gunpowder was finally lost. The introduction of field trenches and barricades was a decisive factor, together with better rifles and the general diminishing of Polish morale. In the 18th century, winged hussars would appear not on battlefields, but during funerals, as part of the elaborate decorations. They didn’t fight anymore, as Poland avoided wars, finding itself more and more under the influence of Russia. They started to be called ‘funeral cavalry’, and indeed, it was the funeral of the nation.
The actual skill and valour was being lost, but at the same time, the myth of the winged knight was growing. After Poland lost its independence at the end of the 18th century, divided by neighbouring countries, hussars would always be painted with wings.
Some historians claim that that was when the idea of wings present on the battlefield was born, as earlier pictures are scarce and show only parades, not combat. The hussars became heavenly angels, symbols of the nation’s proud past, its unbearable present, and its dreams of resurrection.
So I took my bow & went to the theatre…
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Similar patterns of activity, stagnation and mythologisation can be tracked with other aspects of Polish Sarmatian culture. First comes the actual heroic era… and later the great fairy tale. In literature, the example of the early, heroic Sarmatism, free of any complexes, was written about by Jan Chryzostom Pasek, a 17th-century soldier, nobleman and diarist. Pasek was a chronicler of the Sarmatian ethos in its prime. His writings, Memoirs, are one of the greatest treasures of Polish literature, influential on Adam Mickiewicz and other Romantics.
Imagine a bad-ass version of Samuel Pepys, who fights in epic cavalry battles, desecrates the corpses of fallen enemies, and shares practical advice about ransoming prisoners. Pasek's style is rough, full of swearing and Latin interpolations, particular for this era of Polish prose. And it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
My favourite part is the one about Sarmatians on a trip to the theatre. During the reign of King Jan Sobieski, his wife brought many of her French countrymen to the Warsaw royal court. They were treated better than visiting Polish noblemen, who started to hold a grudge against these foreign dandies. The trendy foreigners decided to stage an amateur theatre play, a way of celebrating a recent victory by the French king, who had captured an Austrian emperor in battle. It’s likely that the very idea of theatre was unclear to Sarmatian nobles. They just heard that the theme of the play was war. Perhaps that’s why they brought their weapons with them.
Still, the Poles were polite and sophisticated enough to refrain themselves from making noise with pistols and such. They carried in their nice reflex bows, which, together with the sabre, were considered noblemen attributes, like the modern smartphone or watch. In the scene in which the emperor was taken hostage, one Pole, armed with a reflex bow, shouted: ‘Kill him! He will seek revenge!’ and shot an arrow from the first row. He didn’t miss. Some say that he just didn’t like the acting, while others say that the acting was too convincing and he got carried away. His companions followed in his footsteps though, pouring down missiles, and soon most of the French actors had either fled or lay dead on the stage. That’s what I call realism!
Another writer who contributed to Polish Sarmatism, Henryk Rzewuski, was a different cat. His Memoirs of Soplica, published in 1839, aimed at bringing memories of a lost homeland to Polish emigrants. Rzewuski’s writings are still considered to by a great portrait of Sarmatian culture in the late 18th century, their mentality and daily life.
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The striking aspect of these short stories is that they talk about… well, nothing. The noblemen drink and hunt, as well as brag in Baron Munchausen-style. They even duel and quarrel about their hounds and rifles, but, compared to the ‘organic’ world of Pasek, it is a chronicle of nothing. The 18th century’s Poland was weakened and its enemies grew stronger and stronger. There were no optimistic prospects in the near future. And Sarmatians must have felt that the end of their world was coming.
In fact, the whole concept of szlachta was becoming a zombie, a living fossil. They lost their primary purpose of being a warrior caste and defending the nation, and were failing to create any important knowledge and culture. This last part did not change until hundreds of years later, when impoverished landless nobles became teachers, engineers and artists. But even recognising this fall, the Sarmatian nobles stubbornly refused to change.
Proud of its tradition, rituals and ignorance, the noblemen ignored the arising troubles of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The economic changes brought by the 18th century’s ‘globalisation’ gradually made the world of Polish landowners obsolete. Europe was divided. The west was industrialising and the eastern part was providing raw resources, wood, grains, pitch for ship building, and furs. But even the traditional role of Poland, one of a storage pit, feeding western Europe with crops from big manors, was more and more problematic. Potatoes were cheap, and colonies were providing wood, furs and other resources. And the introduction of the new forms of warfare, armies laden with cannons, rifles and bayonets, finally ended the efficiency of knights. In the last recorded battle of winged hussars, during the Great Northern War, Poles fought against… Poles, as many were reduced to mercenaries skirmishing by the side of modern mass armies.
The Sarmatian dance of the spirit
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It was then, in the late 18th century, when Sarmatians, who fiercely opposed modernisation and reforms, became a symbol of fanatic, often backward, ignorance. Unwilling to catch up, Sarmatians defended their pride by denial. They denied the necessity of reforms, denied the inhuman conditions in which peasants worked for them, denied the Enlightenment, science and knowledge. In his forgotten historical novel November, Henryk Rzewuski shows how divided the nation was. He depicts a traditional countryside nobleman, one of the true Sarmatians, who visits Warsaw and is shocked by the cosmopolitan French-style culture he finds there. It’s the great confrontation of past and future, tradition and modernity, like a scene from the film The Last Samurai. All those western wigs, perfumes and powdered cheeks are repulsive and silly to the old-school Polish Sarmatian, and vice versa.
In 1768, from their headquarters in the town Bar (now in Ukraine), the Sarmatians rebelled against the king, Russian military presence and a new law granting political rights to non-Catholics. This rebellion, known as Konfederacja Barska or the Bar Confederation, is still a controversial topic. Some call it the first Polish uprising. Prophetic poets like Słowacki, Mickiewicz and Krasiński, praised it as a triumph of national spirit and will. For its critics, more sober-minded later writers like Stanisław ‘Cat’ Mackiewcz and Paweł Jasienica, it was a disaster that led to the partitions – the absorption of the commonwealth by its neighbours Russia, Prussia and Austria. Later, one of the rebellion’s leaders, Kazimierz Pułaski, emigrated to America and helped to create the cavalry of the United States.
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The Bar rebels were no match for the massive armies of Catherine the Great’s Russia. It’s very symbolic that at this time Russian cannons also destroyed two traditional enemies of Old Poland: the Ukrainian Cossacks of Zaporizhia, and the Crimean Tartars. In the end, Russia separated Poland from the east, ending its long history on the Great Steppe and its nomadic invaders. The heroic era was gone, just like the era when cavalry won wars.
The striking aspect of this Sarmatian rebellion was the growing importance of religion. The rebels couldn’t match the Russian armies in open battle, just like they couldn’t catch up with the modern world. Humiliated, they made themselves feel better using moral superiority. These were the beginnings of our Romanticism: that passionate burning lava that weaves its irrational thread through Polish culture up until today. For Romantics, everything could have a cosmic aspect, be soaked in magical thinking, impregnated against all those unpleasant facts. The Sarmatian rebels believed that they were supported by God. Prayers and popular gorgets, amulets with the Virgin Mary, protected them from Russian bullets and bayonets. Angels fought on their side, just as dragons helped their enemies. The popular Song of Bar Confederates by Romantic poet Juliusz Słowacki contains much of this imagery:
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We’ll never ally with the kings
Never bend our neck to power
We are the aides of Christ,
Servants of Maria!
So, should the world fissure and sun tremble,
Clouds anger and oceans stir,
Should flying armies on dragons arrive,
We won’t fear.
God of our fathers is with us today
Of course he won’t let as fail;
As it was with his support,
our fathers did prevail!
Translation by the editor
This idealism in the face of utter defeat against all odds and facts has became a lasting component of the Polish national psyche. Personally, the final desperate mysticism of the Sarmatians reminds me of the Native Americans and the tragic last stand of the defeated Sioux tribe, who performed an ecstatic ritual called the Dance of Spirit. It was quite similar. High-pitch religiosity, fact denying and hopelessness, all inspired by holy men and smashed by an industrial empire. The tormented tribes believed that the great Spirit will bring back their old way of life, push the white colonists back to the sea, and resurrect their buffalo herds. And, of course, protect the believers from bullets.
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This may have seemed like a long read so far, but Polish Sarmatism is a complicated topic. And we now come to the rub: how true were the claims of ancient Sarmatian ancestry?
Perhaps, Sarmatism should by researched and examined as a cultural phenomenon, as a part of the imagination. Such was its purpose from the very beginning. Unfortunately, every discussion about the Polish Sarmatians inevitably drifts toward politics. Judgment of their culture and ways of governing always brings up the issue of peasant exploitation (called slavery by some) and the colonisation of Ukraine, like in the works of Jan Sowa. It’s a bit like the Confederacy, slavery, and the legacy of General Lee – if you’re an American, it’s hard to have a ‘neutral’ opinion on these matters.
Those who believe that the old Poland was a backward, dark and unjust country under the evil spell of a misguided Catholic Church, judge Polish Sarmatians harshly, usually as anarchy-driven selfish people who brought the country into decline. Such opinions, popular among 18th-century reformers and thinkers following Enlightenment ideas, were backed by the communist regime, which rejected class injustice and religion from a Marxist viewpoint. But for conservatives, Sarmatism is our precious heritage, the authentic and original (read: not western) melody composed by our nation’s soul. The Sarmatians dared to follow their own way and that can be seen as impressive, especially for those of us who are not entirely happy about globalisation. It’s a rally against the modernistic reformers who wished Poland to become ‘soulless’, just the same as every other nation.
When I was at high school, I was taught that the idea of Sarmatism is just a hoax, a forgery and proof of my ancestors’ blatant ignorance. But today, defenders of the idea of Sarmatian ancestry bring various facts to support their cause.
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There are genetic studies that show modern Poles are more related to Iranians than other modern Europeans. Ancient Sarmatians were probably Indo-Iranians, so perhaps they lived here and even left something. From a linguistics perspective, Slavic languages are the late eastern arrival in Europe, sharing many similarities with the languages of ancient India: Sanskrit and Pali. More similarities than modern English, German or French. Of course, if you get too excited about your ‘Aryan ancestry’, you might be labelled a Nazi. In fact, some genetic studies were misinterpreted and contributed to ridiculous extreme-right theories about Polish history, known as ‘Great Lechia’.
These merry theories claim that proud Poles have been roaming the world ever since the Himalayas appeared. It was us who conquered India, wrote the Vedas, invented the wheel and so on. And there are no historical sources, no evidence for these claims, because, you know, bad anti-Polish people, supposedly Masons and Jews, have burned and hidden them all. Lacking any historical perspective, these theories are wonderfully naïve and unaware that nations and tribes were ever evolving, changing, disappearing and merging together. History is a stew, a curry pot, not a chain of separated steak courses!
But somehow, such theories are a cry of longing. Perhaps the desire to know one’s roots is strong in every nation and the rejection of this longing by academics – like it was with the Sarmatian topic – simply results in a flood of ignorant theories. If scholars deny such needs, they end up in swamps of post-truths and offensive memes.
A thought exercise
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There are other arguments supporting the Sarmatian claims that are worth taking under consideration though. The studies about coats of arms, worn by Polish noblemen clans, show that many of them – like the Awdaniec noble family – have strikingly Iranian patterns. That fits into the puzzle, because ancient Sarmatians were supposed to be ancestors of nobles, not the common folk. Most serious historians agree that the elite of defeated nomadic empires in Europe, such as Scythians, Sarmatians and Avars, would melt into local populations. But what does it mean exactly?
Of course, it cannot be proven, but I could imagine an ancient Sarmatian clan taking refuge in some remote settlement in the turmoil of Dark Ages, with all those Huns and Goths messing around and ravaging. Within generations, they would abandon their old language and religion. They would become Slavs like their neighbours, in most aspects. But they would retain their ancient clan sign, their coat of arms. And they would keep their old patterns of mounted warfare. The earliest sources of Polish history, reports by Jewish slave traders arriving from Muslim Spain, mention heavily-armoured riders fighting for the Polish prince Mieszko around 996, Poland’s year zero. But if you look at our close neighbours, the western Polabian Slavs, their level of technological advancement and military tactics were totally different back then, almost Neolithic – they were wolf fur-wearing skirmishers armed with darts and clubs. Perhaps Poles owe the difference to those few surviving Sarmatians?
A land that brings forth the repetition of history
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The Capture of the Wends (1866) by Wojciech Gerson, a painting with a scene from the so-called Wendish Crusade from the 12th century, Wends were Polabian Slavs who refused to adopt Christianity, photo: Wikimedia Commons
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But even if you don’t believe that scenario, there is another, more abstract layer in the Sarmatian story, another possible perspective.
In his great novel Other Songs, the Polish writer Jacek Dukaj wrote about a world organised by Aristotle’s physics. A world in which particular regions, ruled and influenced by supernatural beings, would retain particular forms, such as patterns in social life. Perhaps, the combined form of Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine is such that whoever owned them would eventually end up becoming Sarmatians, elite mounted warriors protecting vast lands lacking natural borders from pillaging nomads.
Let’s also take one last look at the Polish hussars, the winged knights. Their armour and tactics, their unstoppable charges. They didn’t use the European armours of the era, but a unique scale mail called karacena. It’s the same scale mail the ancient Sarmatians are wearing in the murals on Trajan’s Column in Rome.
You can even find some synchronicity with their secondary weapon, the nadziak, a special axe-hammer designed to smash the heavy armour of Turkish riders and western cavalrymen. The same equipment was used by ancient Alani and Iazygi warriors.
Both the ancient and later Sarmatians operated in the same environment – the vast, open plains of modern Poland, Ukraine and Russia, the fringes of Europe. They made a living by exploiting and protecting their peasants from rival, unsettled predators. This model of society – a horse riding elite plus a mass of sheltered farmers and settlers – was common in eastern Europe bordering the Great Steppe for thousands of years. This similarity of form is a coincidence, but not a mere one. Perhaps the Polish Sarmatians managed to recreate the forms of their regional predecessors.
Put simply, perhaps history could not help but repeat itself.
Written by Wojciech Zembaty, Dec 2018
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