The Routledge World Companion to Polish Literature
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The Routledge World Companion to Polish Literature

Tomasz Bilczewski, Stanley Bill, Magdalena Popiel, Tomasz Bilczewski, Stanley Bill, Magdalena Popiel

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eBook - ePub

The Routledge World Companion to Polish Literature

Tomasz Bilczewski, Stanley Bill, Magdalena Popiel, Tomasz Bilczewski, Stanley Bill, Magdalena Popiel

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About This Book

The Routledge World Companion to Polish Literature offers an introduction to Polish literature through thirty-three case studies, covering works from the Middle Ages up to the present day. Each chapter draws on a text or body of work, examining its historical context, as well as its international reception and position within world literature.

The book presents a dual perspective on Polish literature, combining original readings of key texts with discussions of their two-way connections with other literatures across the globe. With a detailed introduction offering a narrative overview, the book is divided into six sections offering a chronological pathway through the material. Contributors from around the world examine the various cultural exchanges at play, with each chapter including:

  • Definitions of key terms and brief overviews of historical and political events, literary eras, trends, movements, groups, and institutions for those new to the area
  • Analysis and notes on translations, including their hidden dimensions and potential
  • Textual focus on poetics, such as strategies of composition, style, and genre
  • A range of historical, sociological, political, and economic contexts

From medieval song through to the contemporary novel, this book offers an interpretive history of Polish literature, while also positioning its significance within world literature. The detailed introductions make it accessible to beginners in the area, while the original analysis and focused case studies will also be of interest to researchers.

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Part I

Old Polish literature

Middle Ages, Renaissance, Baroque

DOI: 10.4324/9781003140689-3
Figure 0.1Manuscript of Bogurodzica (c. 1408) [The Jagiellonian Library, Kraków].


In search of origins


Emiliano Ranocchi
University of Udine

Relative beginnings

Mother of God
Mother of God, Virgin, by God glorified Mary
From your son, our Lord, chosen mother, Mary!
Win over for us, send to us.
Kyrie eleison.
Son of God, for the sake of your Baptist,
Hear our voices, fulfill man’s intentions.
Hearken to the prayer that we offer,
And deign to give us what we ask for:
On earth, a pious sojourn,
After life, heavenly residence.
Kyrie eleison.
(Mikoś 1992, 65)
Bogurodzica dziewica, Bogiem sławiena Maryja,
U twego syna Gospodzina matko zwolena, Maryja!
Zyszczy nam, spu<ś>ci nam.
Twego dziela Krzciciela, bożycze,
Usłysz głosy, napełń myśli człowiecze.
Słysz modlitwę, jąż nosimy,
A dać raczy, jegoż prosimy:
A na świecie zbożny pobyt,
Po żywocie ra<j>ski przebyt.
(Woronczak, Ostrowska, and Feicht 1962, 97)
In literary historiography, beginnings tend to be relative. The starting point of any historical narrative is often decided not by whether a given artifact was in fact “first” in its cultural or linguistic realm, but rather by various external circumstances. In other words, scholars pay attention not only to chronology, verifying that no older text exists, but also to a series of factors related to a work’s place in the nation’s later consciousness. In this sense, the medieval religious anthem Bogurodzica (Mother of God), traditionally viewed as the first work of Polish literature, has much in common with the position of Saint Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Sun (Laudes creaturarum). The latter has become the traditional starting point for the history of Italian poetry, especially as told in textbooks and taught in schools. In the case of Saint Francis’s masterpiece, we are certainly not dealing with the first poetic work written in Italian, but rather with the first poem of clear authorship that can be dated with relative accuracy. We know of earlier poems by authors whose names have been lost to time; but the prestige and indisputable poetic value of Saint Francis’s poem have given it the role of the inaugural work in the history of Italian literature.
The Middle Ages – as with the other countries of Central Europe, Poland’s entry into the orbit of the Western Church was tied to the origins of the written word and the culture that accompanied it. It also meant the demise of the oral traditions of the Slavic tribes from which Polish ethnicity is said to derive. The first Polish words (names of places and people) were recorded in the twelfth century, and the following century saw the inscription of the first Polish sentence: “Come, let me do the grinding, and you rest” (“Daj, ać ja pobruszę, a ty poczywaj”). As part of the Western sphere of culture, the epoch’s literature is written in two languages. This is particularly evident in the era’s decline, when Polish began making bolder inroads into spheres occupied by Latin. While the beginning of Polish medieval literature is beyond dispute, for all the sheer symbolism of Poland’s Baptism, in 966, the end of the epoch is much more difficult to establish. Work hailing from the Kingdom of Poland (and, after the late fourteenth century, from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania as well) shares the fate of other literatures north of the Alps. While the Renaissance was flourishing in Italy, the Middle Ages held out in the north although by the end of the fifteenth century, Poland showed clear signs of a mature humanist culture. The authors in the Kingdom of Poland were initially mainly from abroad (the first chronicler was Gallus Anonymous), only later to be joined by local writers (Wincenty Kadłubek, Janko of Czarnkowa, Jan Długosz). Apart from historical writing, the greatest literary achievements of the epoch include journalistic and political writing (especially by Paweł Włodkowic and Jan Ostroróg), satires, sermons, apocrypha, the lives of saints, and religious and occasional songs. At the turn of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Biblical texts were translated into Polish (Saint Florian Psalter [Psałterz floriański]).
The attempt to unequivocally determine whether Bogurodzica was the first Polish poem (it appears that it was most likely not, given its nearly universally acknowledged artistic level)1 appears to be a much more complicated undertaking than in the Italian case. Animated debates about how to date this Polish song have been under way for at least two centuries, and there is nothing to suggest that they are about to cease. However, regardless of the dilemmas concerning the genesis of this poem, the custom of using it as the starting point of Polish poetry has a long tradition. In his Paris lectures at the Collège de France (1840–1844), Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz mentioned Bogurodzica twice, emphasizing in one of the fragments that “this song, originally printed in the sixteenth century, opens [the Poles’] poetic literature” (Mickiewicz 1912). Both beginnings – of Polish and Italian poetry – share exceptional artistry, perceptible in the still young vernacular language, in the poems’ prayerful character, and in the prominent, or even symbolic, place that they have come to occupy in the collective imagination of their respective communities. This is where the analogies end. Above all, Saint Francis’s text bears the mark of his great individuality, while Bogurodzica, though typically ascribed to Saint Adalbert, has the anonymous character of cathedrals, icons, and the Gregorian chant. Regardless of who its author, or authors, may have been, it resounds with the voice of the community, accentuated at the level of grammar by the use of the first-person plural.
From early on, this community began to recognize itself in this poem and to identify with it. With all the admiration due to the saint from Assisi, Canticle of the Sun did not share the later fate of Bogurodzica. Saint Francis’s poem did not become a national symbol, it did not take on additional meanings over the centuries, and it was never updated. It remained where it had been from the beginning, in the history of literature, and in the spiritual realm. The Polish song, on the other hand, has more in common with another old hymn from a similar genre, Lord, have mercy on us (Hospodine pomiluj ny), which Czechs use to mark the beginning of the history of their literature. Here, too, we find an anonymous expression of the collective; its authorship is also ascribed to Saint Adalbert; and it, too, accompanied official ceremonies and resounded on battlefields, gaining the status of a carmen patrium. Although its genesis has been intensely debated, as in the case of Bogurodzica, this has not affected its exceptional position: that of a work that stands at the very origin of the history of Czech literature. The two texts have been frequently compared to show their interdependence, and to identify ways in which they might have influenced each other. These efforts have met with various evaluations, but the possible connection between the two poems remains an open question – and, as we shall see, one that is not fruitless to explore.
Polish religious song – it is quite likely that the first Polish songs responded to the needs of those with no knowledge of Latin. Not counting Bogurodzica, the oldest of these songs date back to the latter half of the fourteenth century. These include the Easter Christ Is Risen (Chrystus zmartwychwstał jest), the oldest rendering of which appeared in a Płock Gradual (1365). Another fourteenth-century Płock Gradual provides two more Resurrection songs: By Your Sacred Resurrection (Przez twe święte Zmartwychwstanie) and For Us the Son of God Rose from the Dead (Nas dla wstał z martwych Syn Boży). The latter was appended to Bogurodzica. It was only in the fifteenth century that songs of the Easter cycle began to proliferate, among them the masterful Planctus Mariae, which has also gone down in history as the Lament świętokrzyski (the name comes from the Holy Cross monastery, where the work was first inscribed on parchment). The development of the Polish religious song was greatly served by the mendicant friars, including the Bernardines (who had been in the kingdom since the latter half of the fifteenth century), and among them in particular, Władysław of Gielniów, an outstanding Bernardine preacher, and a writer of songs in Latin and in Polish. His best-known work is the Mourning Song for Jesus (Żołtarz Jezusów). Religious songs also include the versified lives of the saints. The best known of these, The Legend of Saint Alexius (Legenda o św. Aleksym), had its equivalent in other Slavic countries. A separate group of works deals with death and eschatology. The fifteenth-century Lament of a Dying Man (Żale umierającego) is an anonymous poem in the form of an abecedarius (each line begins with a consecutive letter of the alphabet), probably inspired by a Czech original. With it was inscribed a song, A Soul Flew from a Body (Dusza z ciała wyleciała), most likely of folk derivation.

A puzzling palimpsest

The first mentions of Bogurodzica come, at the latest, in the period right after the Battle of Grunwald (1410), a monumental historical event, in which the Polish and Lithuanian armies – the combined forces of the Polish–Lithuanian Union – won a decisive victory over knights fighting on the side of the German Order (Ordo militum hospitalis S. Mariae Teutonicorum Hierosolymitani), commonly known as the Knights of the Cross (Krzyżacy). According to a claim made in Cronica conflictus, and later repeated by Jan Długosz – the court historian of the Jagiellonian kings – as well as by many other sources, the Polish army sang Bogurodzica before this battle. Długosz was the first to designate it as carmen patrium, suggesting that as early as the fifteenth century, Bogurodzica had begun to serve the function of a battle hymn, and thus something comparable to subsequent national anthems. It is difficult to determine how it was interpreted by the citizens of the Kingdom of Poland, since, on the one hand, at that time one could not yet speak of a nation in the modern sense of the word; and, on the other, the idea of a dynastic hymn of the Jagiellonians,2 which has a long tradition in the historiography, does not fully fit with all the known contexts in which Bogurodzica was performed (Wydra 2003). As suggested by the sources, the tradition of singing it before important battles lasted at least up until the fifteenth century, when Bogurodzica entered popular culture to function, for a time, as a folk song.
The Piasts and the Jagiellonians – the origins of the first Polish ruling dynasty are shrouded in legend. Its progenitor, according to the chronicler Gallus, and after him, Wincenty Kadłubek, was Piast ...

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