Mikołaj Rej, also known under his pen name, Ambroży Kurczbok Rożek, is a writer, poet, playwright and translator. Known as the father of Polish literature.
Born 4 February 1505 in Żurawno, near Halicz, Rej died somewhere in autumn of 1569 in Rejowiec. He was a son of quite rich but illiterate nobleman of Oksza coat of arms. He studied in Skalbmierz and Lviv and got into Jagiellonian University in 1518, however, he studied there for only a year.
When he turned 20, he found himself in the court of Andrzej Tęczyński, Sandomierz Voivode. After his father’s death, he settled in Chełm Land to take care of his lands. He was quite an efficient landowner, which made him a rich man. He married Zofia Kosnówna and had a happy family life. He was also involved in social matters, regularly attending the general Sejm, and was also often chosen to be a deputy. He was quite popular among his neighbours, being quite a social butterfly. He also established two towns – Rejowiec and Oksza. King Sigismund the Old granted him Temerówka manor for his translation of the Book of Psalms. Sigismund II Augustus, in recognition of his civic activity, granted him Dziewięciele village for life.
Rej was a very versatile and prolific writer; however, even though his writings were published and reissued numerous times, not all of them survived to this day. He wrote only in Polish, consciously realising the Renaissance dogma of concentrating on national language, even though he knew Latin very well.
Mikołaj Rej was mostly a self-taught man, but his knowledge was vast nevertheless. Even though his stay at the university was short, he managed to meet many intellectuals of the highest level. His knowledge of literature and arts was vast but kind of chaotic, and his expertise of European Renaissance writings was extraordinary, which shows in whom he was inspired by. He was also a leading figure in reforming the Commonwealth, interpreting the humanistic traditions for Polish reality, translating courtly culture of the West into Polish noble habits, sketching tales of its rich customs, diverse views and eloquent speech.
An important part in the renaissance were religious movements, broadly understood as Reformation. They postulated rescuing people’s minds from religious dogmas, religious reflections were to be free and unrestricted. The most important movements were Lutherans and Calvinists.
Rej became familiar with Calvinism during his frequent stays at the court of Mikołaj Sieniawski. He converted at some point in his life and became one of the early advocates of the church, spreading its values in his life and work. He frequented Calvin synods and established churches on his lands. He was responsible for developing Polish theological language, as the field was previously reserved for Latin. In 1546 he published Psałterz Dawidów, a translation of the Book of Psalms from Latin. Lord’s Postilla, a tome of sermons which appeared in 1557 became hugely popular and was reissued numerous times, much alike Apokalypsis, to Jest Dziwna Sprawa Skrytych Tajemnic Pańskich (Apokalypsis, or Strange Case of Lord’s Mysteries) published in 1565, which contained religious considerations and Bible annotations.
Calvinism is also mentioned and explained in his drama Kupiec, to Jest Kształt a Podobieństwo Sądu Bożego Ostatecznego (Merchant, or Structure and Resemblance of the Final Judgement), which appeared in 1549. The play is based on Naogeorgus’s (a German humanist) book Mercator seu Indicium. Rej’s work is quite lengthy and static, it is really just a theological-moralistic treaty which sets to prove that faith is more important than good deeds. It is also a parody of noble’s courts of law, which Rej was very critical of.
The other important drama within the same genre is The life of Joseph of Jewish Origin, Son of Jacob, Divided Between Persons, Who Embody Many Virtues and Habits. The work was dedicated to Isabelle, a Hungarian queen and daughter of Sigismund the Old. Rej employed a medieval tradition of apocrypha, a story waved around saints’ lives. The topic was borrowed from Cornelius Crocus, an author of Comedia sacra cui titulus Joseph. Rej’s drama in verse counts around 6000 lines and consists of 12 acts (cases). It’s quite lengthy and full of moralistic speeches. It tells a story of biblical Joseph, who was born to a poor Jewish family and ended up as second only to Pharaoh in power.
This dragging moralistic treaty proved to be very adaptable for theatre. Its high point came in the 1950s and 1960s when Kazimierz Dejmek tried his luck with it. He shortened the bulky text, incorporated into it parts of the Merchant and thought of quite a bold performance style, which referenced medieval mystery plays. He staged it several times: In Teatr Nowy in Łódź (1958), in National Theatre (1965) and Teatr Polski (1985) in Warsaw. Many theatres followed in his footsteps: in Zielona Góra, Bielsko-Biała, Rzeszów and even Prague.
Dramatic dialogue was, all in all, Rej’s favourite written form. In his numerous texts of different lengths, everything speaks: people, mammals, birds... Each of his texts contains at least a short anecdote ad leads to some kind of moral lesson. The most well-known dialogue has to be Krótka Rozprawa Między Trzema Osobami, Panem, Wójtem a Plebanem, Którzy i Swe, i Innych Ludzi Przygody Wyczytują, a Takież i Zbytki i Pożytki Dzisiejszego Świata (A Short Discussion Between the Lord, the Voivode and the Parish Priest, Who Recall Their Own and Others’ Adventures, Which are the Joys and Hardships of Everyday Life) published in 1543. It continues the tradition of literary works that serve as a critique of the state of the country and call for reforms. The three characters accuse one another, criticise the greed and egoism of the clergy, unjustified privileges of the Church, the almost-unlimited power of magnaci (Polish richest nobility), the broken system of quasi-constitutional monarchy, corrupted courts and officials, and finally – reprehensible customs. The interlocutors, constantly interrupting and correcting one another, are the embodiment of Polish nobility.
In 1558 he published a treaty in verse entitled Wizerunek Własny Żywota Człowieka Poczciwego, w Którem Każdy Swe Sprawy Oglądać Może: Zebrany z Filozofów, i z Różnych Obyczajów Świata Tego (A Self-Description of a Life of a Decent Fellow Which Everyone Can Relate To: Collected from Different Philosophers and Customs) which proved to be quite successful, being reissued multiple times. The treaty was, as was often the case with Rej’s work, a reworking of Zodiacus vitae, a text by an Italian humanist, Marcello Palingenius. Rej appropriated the Latin original to Polish culture which based on nobility. His hare, a young landowner, receives his education from several distinguished philosophers and thinkers: Aristotle, Socrates, Diogenes, Epicurus, Anaxagoras, Solon and so on... Each of them teaches him virtues according to their philosophical thought: good manners, mindfulness, temperance, faith, zeal, as well as reproaches for shortcomings and wrong choices.
Źwierzyniec, w Którym Rozmaitych Ludzi, Źwirząt i Ptaków Kstałty, Przypadki i Obyczaje są Właśnie Wpisane (Bestiary Where Different Peoples, Mammals and Birds’ Shapes and Practices are Described). The tome is extremely interesting formally. Rej tried to moderate his free-flowing, conversational style by using then-popular forms like apophtegmatas, emblems and the like. The core of the tome is around 700 epigrams built from 8-verse Polish alexandrine. The work feels very eclectic and consists of 5 parts with quite varying topics: ethical teachings, gallery of Polish political and cultural figures of the time, praise for Jan Kochanowski, a list of Church and State officials, manners guide (involving tips on personal hygiene) and emblems (popular in 16th century form, which consists of short moral statement, an illustration showing an illustration of the moral teaching and subscription, that is an epigram which translates the term to practical usage).
The emblems were accompanied by a set of Aesopian tales where animals represent typical human traits and behaviours. In the second edition Figliki also appeared, that is around 200 comical epigrams. They revolve around Polish nobility’s affinity for dining, always hearty, sometimes even vulgar. Even though they are not of highest literary value, they document epoch’s habits and language.
In 1568, in Kraków, Maciej Wirzbięta published various Rej’s works, which went unpublished until the author was nearing his death. The tome was published under a title Źwierciadło Albo Kształt, w Którym Każdy Stan Snadnie się Może Swym Prawam Jako We Źwierciadle Przypatrzyć (Mirror, or A Shape Where Every Class Can Easily See His Laws as if in a Mirror)
The Mirror, a very Renaissance text, referring back to traditions of ancient Greeks and Romans, pictured ideal figures and real-life people who lived ideal lives of their epochs. The work was highly didactic, meant to teach us how to reach happiness in life, especially the first and the last text from the tome. He summed up everything that he had ever written about ideal human condition there.
The ideal life is the life of a land-owning nobleman, harmonious and in agreement with nature, devoted to caring about your family and your material well-being, as well as your spiritual life. That kind of life, temperate and zealous ensures calmness and will to live even at the end of your days. The manual is quite a detailed one, as Rej advises what kind of food children should eat, what your marriage should look like, how important reading is and so on.
Rej was, in his times, a very popular and widely known writer, often quoted and imitated. The proof of his influence has to be the fierceness of the Catholic opposition to reformation, especially from Jesuit priest Jakub Wujek and bishop Jakub Wereszczyński. The popularity waned in the following years, but his influence on Polish language was still definite. His triumphant return to literary canon was marked by Mickiewicz’s Paris Lectures. In 19th century many studies were devoted to him and his output.
In 1905, 400th birthday of Rej was widely celebrated. A literary meeting was called, a commemorative book From Mikołaj Rej’s Age was published, Aleksander Bruckner published his monograph Mikołaj Rej: Critical study. In 1969, many scientific sessions commemorated the 400th anniversary of his death. Also, starting from 1953, Biblioteka Pisarzy Polskich began to publish his Collected Works.
Rej, a hearty individual proved to be an ideal literary character, as readily utilised by, for example, Adolf Nowaczyński (in his comedy Esteemed Mister Rej in Babin from 1906) and Ludwik Hieronim Morstin (in the play The Poles Are Not Geese from 1953). In Nagłowice Mikołaj Rej’s statue is situated.
The year 2005 was named by Polish Sejm the year of Rej to commemorate the 500th anniversary of his birth.
Author: Halina Floryńska-Lalewicz, April 2005, translated by AS, April 2017