- Sep 13, 2008
Poland in 1432
The Known World
Religion in Poland
Ethnicity in Poland
The Known World
Religion in Poland
Ethnicity in Poland
In 1432 the King of Poland, Ruthenia and Israel ruled over territories stretching from the heart of Europe to the Eurasian Steppe, from the Baltic to the Holy Land. This vast realm was the largest in Europe by some distance and contained within it a multitude of diversities.
While often regarded as a part of Old Poland due to its history, the Baltic territories were distinct in their own right. With their close connection to Europe’s rich trading routes, the Baltic territories of Pomerania, Prussia and Gdansk were the wealthiest in the entire Polish Empire in the early 15th century. They also had the lowest population of Orthodox Jewish Russians. Most of the region was solidly Catholic, with the exceptions of groups of pagans around the Curonian Spit and Samaritan Jews in Pomerania. Ethnically, the area was very a melting pot. The Samaritan Jews of Pomerania were Russians, although with a distinct dialect and regional identity. The great trading city of Gdansk, Poland’s window to the west, had a polygot population including Russians, Krakowian Poles, Prussians, Lithuanians, Ashkenazi and Germans (who had migrated into the city for economic reasons for centuries). The main language of inter-communal communication was a localised dialect of German known as Danziger, which featured a number of Slavic and Baltic influences. In Prussia, the region was divided between areas of Russian settlement in the south and west, and territories in which the indigenous Prussians remained the majority in the north and east.
The rest of Old Poland, consisting of the inland parts of the Vistula basin, had a clearer ethnic divide. In the south, around Krakow, and in the west, around Poznan, the population was largely Catholic and spoke Krakowian Polish – a West Slavic language directly descended from the Polish tongue spoken across the region prior to the Polish Crusade. In the centre, around Warsaw, the population was mostly Orthodox Jewish and Russian speaking. Throughout the area there were substantial Ashkenazi populations, while a small territory north of Krakow and south of Warsaw were home to large numbers of Lollards – a heretical Latin Christian group. The area was among the richest and most venerable in the Polish Kingdom with its great rival cities of Krakow and Warsaw centres of Medieval manufacturing and commerce.
Galicia, Slovakia and Moldavia
While Galicia, Slovakia and Moldavia all had unique histories and traditions of their own, these territories across the south-west of Poland had much in common. Orthodox Jewish Slavs were the majority across the area, all regions had large Ashkenazi populations, all had notable Greek-rite Christian minorities (the Russian descendants of those converted by Byzantine missionaries in the Early Middle Ages in Galicia, and Greek-speaking Pannonians in Slovakia), all very relatively poor and all were dominated by the Dregovich family (who had ruled Poland in the 12th century) who dominated the region from their seat of power in Lvov.
Ruthenia, the heartland of the Polish realm, can be divided into three sections – Northern Ruthenia, centred on Minsk and sometimes known as White Ruthenia or Belarus; Southern Ruthenia, based around Kiev and often called the Ukraine; and the Polesie or Pripet Marshes in the rough terrain in between the region’s two great cities. The power and influence of Minsk and Kiev dominated the region, which had rich soil but was underdeveloped outside of its main cities in comparison to the western provinces. Outside of the Polesie, the population was overwhelmingly Russian and Orthodox Jewish, with large Ashkenazi minorities.
The marshlands of the Polesie on the other hand, was an untamed Dark Age wilderness. Here, the Polish state and Orthodox church had tried and failed to exert their control for centuries. In 1175 King Boris, the last King of the First Polish Kingdom, had lost the crown jewels in these lands while in 1406 the Kohen Gadol himself had been killed in response to his proselytising efforts. While the people of the swamps were ethnically Russian, religious minorities of all kinds had been drawn to the region over the years – Muslims, Yazidis, Christians and Samaritans, while the area contained Europe’s largest concentration of pagans.
The only other part of Poland with a similarly unruly reputation as the Polesie were the Wild Fields of the Steppe. These lands had for centuries been the home of militaristic nomadic nations with very few settled people. The arrival of the Poles from the 13th century began to change this balance. For many, the Steppe was the great endless frontier of the Slavic people. It was an incredibly varied and rapidly changing land. It was home to five main peoples – Slavs, Ashkenazi, Khazars, Georgians and Tatars. The Khazars, Georgians and Tatars were the pre-Polish population of the region. The Khazars were solidly Orthodox Jews, with populations centred on the Kuban, Crimea and along the Don River. Large numbers of Georgian Christians had fled from their homeland in the face of Arab invasion in the High Middle Ages – and taken up a nomadic lifestyle in and around the Crimean peninsula, forming a large part of the population in the region. Tatar is a broad term used to refer to a wide variety of Turkic nomadic peoples who dominated all the lands east of Poland for centuries. On the Polish Steppe, the more recently acquired lands in the east were dominated by Muslim Tatar tribes. During the 13th century there was a notable wave of Ashkenazi migration into the Steppe, famously in the case of Jacob Shamir. These Israelites mostly avoided the open grasslands of the Steppe, preferring to make their home in the handful of fortified cities in the region – Odessa, Sevastopol, Kerch and Azov.
The greatest force of change on the Steppe were the Slavs. Russian peasants had started to move into these lands as soon as Poland began to conquer territories south of Kiev. From this migration, two main groups arose – sedentary farmers and the Cossacks. In the lands west of the Dnieper, Russian-speaking settled peasant populations had started to dominate the region by the 15th century, but east of the great river they found the Steppe still too untamed. Here, the Cossacks, expansionist and nomadic Slavic bands that had adopted the ways of the Steppe. As more and more Slavs moved to the Steppe the once lightly populated land was changing. Agriculturalists were reducing the land available to pastoralism, while the Cossacks grew ever larger in number and constantly sought out new lands to call their own – causing endless warfare among the nomadic groups within Polish territory and beyond her frontiers. Alongside these larger groups, there were communities of Greeks and Arabs found throughout the cities of the Black Sea coast – and in especially large numbers in Sevastopol, Kerch and Azov.
The lands stretching from Smolensk, beyond the boundaries of Ruthenia, were largely Russian speaking, albeit religiously diverse with Christian, Muslim and Samaritan populations. There were very few Ashkenazi, however there were large Tatar populations scattered across an area that had spent centuries under their domination. Notably, the Russian population of the North was culturally distinct from that in the core of the Polish realm – these Little Russians, or Muscovites, had their own dialect and customs and had more in common with the Russian populations living beyond the Polish frontier under Mongol and Tatar rule than those in the rest of Poland.
Israel and Ascalon
All Polish territories in the Middle East had traditionally been subject to the crown of Israel. However, after the conquest of the Egyptian Delta from the Templars in 1374 the Duchy of Ascalon had started to be treated as an independent entity in its own right – distinct from Israel, although ultimately subject to Kiev’s authority. These Middle Eastern lands had seen largescale immigration from Jews of all kinds, coming from every part of the known world to make Aliyah to the Holy Land, for the past century – with Russian developing as a common language among them. By 1432 Jews narrowly outnumbered Arabs in Israel and made up a large minority in Ascalon. The Jews were most concentrated around Jerusalem, the Egyptian Delta, near Mount Sinai and on the Palestinian coast between Ascalon and Acre.
Judaism in 1432
Four centuries after the conversion of Poland to Judaism, the Jewish faith had more adherents than ever before in its history but was also divided across a number of key ethnic and denominational fissures.
Orthodox Judaism or Jacobean Judaism
Ever since the Great Aliyah and the Jacobean reformation, the Orthodox Jewish church had been the dominant form of Judaism across the world – with pluralities in Poland, Israel and Ascalon following the faith and a majority of the worldwide Jewish population. Orthodox Judaism treats Jacob Shamir as God’s last prophet, included the Book of Jacob as an indivisible part of the Torah, hails the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel and construction of the Third Temple as the greatest moment in Jewish history for millennia and holds true to the church structure created at the beginning of the 14th century – with the Kohen Gadol at the head of unified Orthodox Jewish church.
Beyond these core tenets, there is diversity in Orthodox belief. In the early 15th century the most important divide was between those who advocated a centralised church in which power flowed downward from the Kohen Gadol and powerful Rabbis, and those that wished to see a more decentralised church in which power flowed from local Rabbis and their flocks. The latter perspective was championed by the Qahalist movement, that had already rocked Poland with a major revolt between 1417 and 1421.
Other key divides in the movement included the role of religious violence and tolerance of non-Jewish faiths, and even heretical Jewish groups – with many lamenting the demise of the aggressive spirit of the 14th century Zealots who sought to crush Judaism’s enemies by force of arms.
Conservativism was the label attached to a broad array of Jewish tendencies that had rejected the Jacobean reformation and refused to accept Jacob Shamir as God’s prophet. Some Conservatives had a positive view of Shamir and even saw the Book of Jacob as a sacred text, although refusing to raise it to the status of the Torah, while others condemned him as a false prophet. What Conservative Jews have in common is their confidence in the ancient traditions of the Jewish people, and the absence of a formal church structure – giving greater authority to individual Rabbis.
For two centuries from 1117 until 1310 Samaritanism was Poland’s state religion, and for a time was the religion of the independent Russian Princes as well. Born in the early 11th century at the time of the Polish conversion to Judaism, the Samaritans blended Jewish Orthodoxy with Slavic pagan spirituality, language and customs. At their peak in the late 12th century they formed the largest branch of Judaism across the world. However, they would never recover from the cataclysmic Polish Crusade and accompanying invasions of the Russian Principalities by the Tatars in the final decades of the century. In the second half of the 13th century the rise of the Jacobeans would see many Samaritans move away from their denomination in droves, and Poland’s conversion to Jacobean Judaism in 1310 they would do so in torrents. Despite more than a century of decline, by the early 15th century Samaritanism was still widespread among Poland’s Slavs – perhaps as many as a fifth of Slavic Jews following this branch of the faith, forming majorities in parts of the Kingdom, most strongly in Pomerania.
The Israelites were those Jews that trace their descent back directly to the exiled peoples of ancient Israel. They were themselves divided into three primary groups – the Ashkenazi, Sephardim and Mizrahi.
The Ashkenazi were the Jews of northern Europe, with their Yiddish language originating from a dialect of German. Starting in the 10th century and accelerating rapidly after Poland’s conversion to Judaism in 1026, they began to migrate into the eastern European lands under Polish rule – where the vast majority of their population resided by the end of the Middle Ages. Making up around 5-10% of the population across most of the Polish realm, most of their population lived in self-contained shetls, exclusively Ashkenazi villages isolated from the Slavic majority while smaller numbers lived in the towns and cities among the Slavs. They were historically solidly Orthodox, and the remained largely followers of Orthodoxy after the Jacobean revolution, although a notable Conservative minority rejected the prophet’s revelation.
A majority of the world’s Jews living beyond the borders of the Polish realms belonged to the Sephardim. Originating among the large Jewish community of Iberia, that has flourished under Muslim rule for centuries, the Sephardim spread their customs and Ladino language across the Mediterranean, with especially substantial Sephardic communities also living in North Africa, Egypt, Italy, Greece and Anatolia. Only a minority of Sephardim followed the teachings of the Orthodox church, with most adhering to Conservative Jewish teachings with views of Jacob Shamir ranging from scepticism to active denunciations of him as a false prophet.
The Mizrahi were the Jews of Middle Eastern origin, with their largest communities in Iraq, Persia, Syria and the Yemen. In contrast to the Sephardim, the Orthodox church had significant sway among their communities, with its authority emanating out of Israel. The brief history of Jewish rule in Iraq in the 14th century was a particularly electrifying memory for large parts of the community. They were therefore divided between Orthodox and Conservative elements – with many Mizrahi Conservative Jews being less hostile to Jacobeanism than their Sephardic equivalents.
The Khazars were the least numerous of the Jewish ethnic groups. Descendants of the old Khazar Khanate that once dominated much of the Steppe – the Khazars still held to the nomadic lifestyle of their ancestors. They played an important part in the development of modern Orthodox Judaism – with Jacob Shamir developing much of his philosophy while living in exile on the Steppe among the Khazars. At the outset of the 15th century most of their population lived in the Poland around the Black Sea and Don Rivers, although a smaller population resided within the Kingdom of Vidin along the banks of the Danube.
The great majority of the world’s Jews were Slavs – mostly speaking a variety of Russian dialects, including the Little Russians or Muscovites beyond the Polish frontier in the north, to the Cossacks on the Steppe, the Greater Russians of Poland’s Ruthenian heartland, Galicians, Slovaks, Old Polish Russians, Pomeranians and Prusso-Russians. They are the core ethnic group of the Polish Kingdom, forming a large majority of its population – yet the Slavic Jews were only a plurality, with many Slavs following Christian, Muslim, Yazidi and even pagan faiths. Amongst the Slavic Jews, most followed the established Orthodox Jewish faith. Despite its long decline, Samaritanism was still widespread among Kingdom’s Slavs, with very few adherents in other ethnic group. There were also smaller Conservative Jewish elements among the Slavs scattered across the Polish realm.
The numerical preponderance of the Slavs among world Jewry, meant that since the conquest of the Holy Land in the early 14th century, Russian grew to become the lingua franca across the Kingdom of Israel and Duchy of Ascalon – the principle language of communication among the ethnically diverse Jewish majority.