Concepts of Authority and State in the Polish Political Thought of the 15th Century
Added: 2017-10-30
Added: 2017-10-30



In the history of Poland, in-depth reflection on the state and the law first emerged in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. The most eminent authors writing on these subjects at the time included Stanisław of Skarbimierz (1360–1431) and Matthew of Kraków (Matthaeus de Cracovia) (1345–1410). The 15th century brought important writings by Paweł Włodkowic (1370–1435), Jan Długosz (1415–1480), Jan Ostroróg (c. 1436–1501) and Filippo Buonaccorsi (called “Callimachus”) (1437–1496).

This period could be discussed from a primarily chronological perspective, but for the political scientist it appears more appropriate to present it as a time when two opposite currents of reflection clashed: the first drew on the classical (Stoic) tradition and was firmly rooted in the Christian tradition, describing authority in terms of duties, while the second looked at the institutions of state and state authority from the point of view of their effectiveness. The first current was represented by political writings by, among others, Stanisław of Skarbimierz, Paweł Włodkowic and Jan Długosz. Examples of the second one included Memoriał [“Memorial”] by Jan Ostroróg and Rady [“Advice”] by Filippo Buonaccorsi. It appears that the outcome of the debate that took place in the 15th century had a decisive influence on the shape of the political system of the First Polish Republic in the subsequent century.




Referring to Saint Augustine (and indirectly to the Stoics), Stanisław of Skarbimierz construed the republic, i.e. the state, as a human group defined by a community of laws and benefits. When writing about the community of laws, he meant a community that was united by laws based on reason. He stated: “if a law is contrary to reason or if it is unjust, dishonest, harmful, or even worse, leads to perdition, it does not deserve to be called a law since it is worthy of contempt”[1]. He argued that such a law that did not deserve its name should be “withdrawn” so that it did not lead people to sin. For the Vice-Chancellor of the restored Kraków University, the defining goal of the republic, i.e. the “common good”, could only be achieved if the entire community followed the law. Communities that underestimated the significance of legal order and deviated from the principles of the original (divine and natural) law lost their ability to achieve the goal that defined them, i.e. the common good.

The importance of law, and above all the issue of the relationship between positive law and divine law, was already pondered by the great chronicler Wincenty Kadłubek (1160–1223). In the chronicler’s opinion, the ruler’s dignity depended largely on his attitude to the law. First of all, in order to gain such dignity, the monarch should state publicly that his rule will be guided by the letter of the law and that he will be bound by it in all his actions. Another important factor in this respect was the monarch’s recognition of the relationship between positive law and eternal law. Kadłubek stated: “divine law has an advantage over human law, since the law of the Lord is an impeccable and intact law which converts souls”.[2] For this reason, he urged the monarch: “thus, son, you must follow the reflection of divine justice in everything you do”.[3] In this respect, most Polish writers agreed with Kadłubek. It would be difficult to recognise a group (community) that is guided by norms appropriate for a band of robbers as a state.

The greatest 15th-century Polish authority on law was Paweł Włodkowic. According to him, natural law is common to man and all other creatures. He further stated that part of this law is the ius gentium understood as those norms which, while developed by different peoples, have the same source, since they are derived from natural reason.[4] He added that natural law and justice “is what is appropriate by its very nature or commensurate with the other”.[5] Włodkowic’s understanding of natural law was based on the thinking of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Similarly to Aquinas, he recognises the twofold nature of norms of this law – the first group of norms includes those that are absolute, while the second includes those that are not. Among the first group, Włodkowic lists the father’s power over his son and the father’s duty to feed his offspring; the second group includes norms that stipulate and assign certain rights (e.g. the manner of cultivating and using land), which arise from the broadly understood right of ownership of “fields”.

According to the scholar from Kraków, the royal authority manifested itself in three ways. First, it could be exercised by the will of God, and this will, as Włodkowic stated, was revealed to people in some manner. The second way to exercise authority was with the consent of the subjects; finally, the third way to seize power was by force and violence. Understandably, the first and second ways were fully approved by Włodkowic. The first model was exemplified by the authority of Old Testament patriarchs, and subsequently by the teachings of Jesus Christ and finally of Peter and his successors. The second model was implemented already in ancient times (Włodkowic probably meant the republican Rome here) and subsequently, in the period we refer to as the Middle Ages, by emperors. Finally, the third way of seizing power and exercising authority was worthy only of condemnation.

When Włodkowic wrote about authority, he emphasised its natural origins. He recognised that all authority began with the father’s authority although he obviously added and strongly emphasised that “God himself exercised his authority from the outset”.[6] His appeal to Aristotle, and to Christian reflection on the same time, provided Włodkowic with the opportunity to defend the position according to which authority exercised by those who are not Christians is still authority justified by natural law, and therefore by God himself. On the other hand, the direct reference he made to Innocent IV gave him arguments for placing the emperor’s authority below that of the pope. Włodkowic presented an exhaustive argument for the primacy and superiority of spiritual authority over the secular one.

Other writers also discussed the relationship between these two types of authority. Jan Długosz did it in a particularly clear manner. In order to show the mutual relationships that should exist between the secular and church authorities, he described the history of the conflict between Pope Gregory VII and Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, and also of that between the Polish king Bolesław the Generous and Stanisław, the Bishop of Kraków. Describing the situation in the Polish territories in the 1070s, Długosz wrote: “Piotr, the Archbishop of Gniezno, on whom the primary duty to admonish and rebuke rested, was too indulgent towards the King when he should have censured him...”.[7] Given the Archbishop’s attitude, Bishop Stanisław “came to the noble conviction that this honourable and useful duty, this important task belongs to him and that by God’s grace it was reserved exclusively for him”.[8] Therefore, from Długosz’s point of view, the conflict between the bishop and the king should be treated as a result, one the one hand, of the former’s aggressive, almost despotic policy towards his free subjects, and on the other hand of the efforts by the Bishop of Kraków to restore the moral order, which consisted of admonishing (censuring, assessing) the authority that wielded the sword of punishment. The bishop, while admonishing the king, at the same time warned him about the punishment that could be meted to both him and to his successors, with the providential theme very clearly present: “Affronted by his crime, God’s mercy must feel resentment… it will by no means endure his filthy deeds, since God once utterly destroyed five kingdoms for a similar crime, and this not only can be believed, and not only can be read about – if someone does not believe it, he can see it with his own eyes – …he will destroy both him and his offspring, and take the royal reputation and glory away from his family”.[9]

When describing the conflict between Pope Gregory VII and Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, Długosz unequivocally stated that the emperor had usurped the right to invest bishops, thereby recognising that it was the pope rather than the emperor who lawfully held this right. After Henry had been stripped of imperial power and Rudolf had been elected to the throne, Gregory sent a crown with the following inscription to Rudolf: “The Church gave the crown to Peter, and Peter gave it to Rudolf”.[10] In this quote, Długosz clearly demonstrated the primacy of the spiritual authority, in particular stressing the thesis that the Bishop of Rome was the depositary of the imperial crown.

Describing the history of the conflict between the secular and spiritual authorities, Długosz highlighted the consequences for those who did not accept instructions from bishops – both Bolesław and Henryk were stripped of their royal power, and as a result of their subjects having been released from obedience to their rulers by the spiritual authority, they were deposed and abandoned. In this manner, both rulers lost their power not only formally, but also in fact.[11]

Długosz also depicts the mutual relationship between the secular and spiritual authorities in his account of the conflict that took place in the 12th century between Bishop of Kraków Gedeon and Duke Mieszko the Old. According to Długosz, the latter was disinclined to listen to salutary admonishments.[12] This case is significant because it shows the ruler’s responsibility for the actions of his officials. The bishop, addressing Mieszko, said: “your flock of sheep is the Polish people whom you entrusted to enemies and mercenaries to oversee rather than to caring and gentle shepherds…. Your officials, district governors and tax collectors are rabid dogs and you allow them to break your orders without maintaining any appearances and without any restraint and to cruelly inflict all kinds of burdensome punishments”.[13] Długosz did not stop at highlighting the reprimand that Mieszko received. He also described the further course of events, going far beyond the chronicler’s usual narrative. Namely, the canon from Kraków described the course of the debate, which involved Kraków nobles and whose purpose was to decide the future fate of their tyrannical ruler. According to Długosz, the participant who played the role of the authority and leader there was Bishop of Kraków Gedeon. The bishop reportedly said: “…now it is not so much and not only the matter of saving the homeland – we should make a great effort and exercise great care for the private good so that the public good does not perish alongside the private one. In the face of such a grave danger that threatens both our homeland and ourselves, I think that the tyrant should be removed and a better ruler should be elected in his place. However, in my opinion, the best course of action is to pre-empt events by acting quickly so that our efforts are not wasted if the tyrant manages to sentence and punish us beforehand”.[14] Długosz also described the moment when the nobles asked Mieszko’s younger brother Kazimierz to take over the duke’s throne. He characteristically stressed that one’s conduct towards both a condemned person and a tyrant should be strict. In this manner, Długosz subscribes to the principle that (unlawful) tyranny should not only be condemned but, above all, the tyrant should be deprived of his power.[15] Here, the typology of authority according to Włodkowic should be recalled, in which tyranny was the “antithesis” of monarchy.

One should, however, also refer to another passage from Włodkowic on royal authority, which contains views characteristic not only of Włodkowic himself, but also of most authors who belonged to the classical current. As concerns a secular ruler, be it an emperor or king, it should be mentioned that according to Paweł Włodkowic, the ruler who exercises royal or imperial authority is not the “master of goods and laws” of the kingdom or empire, but is only the person appointed to administer these goods in accordance with established laws. Włodkowic stated very clearly: “the goods that belong personally to the king are different from those that belong to the kingdom”.[16] This statement can be read literally as a rule according to which the monarch who ascends to the throne undertakes, first of all, to preserve the territorial integrity of the state. However, this formula can also be interpreted more broadly. A monarch could take action that resulted in reducing the state’s territory only when he received the approval to do so from his subjects. It appears that treating the ruler as a person who only administers what is not his own property is compatible with the assumption that authority should be supported by acceptance from subjects (i.e. the ruler should govern in accordance with their will). It should be recalled that one can only become a ruler with the pope’s consent, thus directly fulfilling the requirements set forth by law (custom). Włodkowic added one more item to the list of requirements (restrictions) imposed on the monarch. If any actions taken by the king are incompatible with the raison d’état, this makes these actions unlawful. Any act against the kingdom’s interests is an act that flows from the will of an individual rather than that of the king. The king cannot wish to take, and does not take any actions that harm the kingdom. In other words, actions which are taken by the person who is the king and which harm the kingdom are unlawful, and therefore have no legal consequences. “The king could renounce his royal authority, but being the king, he could not renounce a benefit that accrues to the kingdom. Hence, when he does something that greatly harms the kingdom, such acts are invalid since they are contrary to his own dignity and office, and consequently to the common law, which prohibits such things from being done [to the detriment of the kingdom – W. B.]”.[17]

Matthew from Kraków, who advocated conciliarism, looked at this matter from a slightly different perspective. He pointed out that situations may arise in which the ruler, whether secular or spiritual, fails to fulfil his duties and, moreover, breaches the legal and moral framework. Matthew stated: “and if there is no superior who could pronounce a lawful sentence or if the person called upon does not want to perform the duties of his office, then the general public or those who represent it may judge the superior when it becomes clear that he has committed crimes, persists in his error and does not intend to improve”.[18] Therefore Matthew belonged to the group of thinkers who thought that those who exercise authority can be judged – let us stress here that the pope’s authority was to be judged in the same manner as that of the king. Of course, not everyone was entitled to pass such judgments – in the case of the Church, Matthew probably meant bishops and cardinals (he gave the example of monks who have the right to judge their abbot), and in the case of a secular ruler such as the king – his vassals.

Mateusz went even further in his argument, stating that judging those who wield power is actually necessary, for two reasons. First, it is a moral duty binding on those who see evil, immorality and injustice around them, since their failure to take action would mean being accessory to a “crime”.[19] Second, judgment was an act necessary for making the next step, which involved stripping the person who exercised authority in an immoral manner of his power, and even exacting the right punishment. In Matthew’s words: “one must first judge someone, and only then can one forsake one’s allegiance to him, act against his authority and actively prevent him from wrongdoing. Therefore if they have the right to examine and judge his deeds and to determine the degree to which they are evil, it follows that they also have the right to set the punishment and mete it out”.[20]

To complete this short description of the classical trend, it should be noted that in the writings of Wincenty Kadłubek, we find the outline of a thought which is expressed indirectly by Włodkowic and directly by Jan Długosz – the concept of royal authority based on the consent of the ruled, and even on an election made by a community of free people.

When describing the birth of Polish statehood, Wincenty Kadłubek also shows the mechanism by which states emerge in general. In his version of events, the founder of the Polish state was Gracchus, who, having arrived from Carinthia, held a rally. Having great powers of persuasion, he convinced those present of the need to establish a state, but in order for this enterprise to be successful, it was necessary to establish royal authority. Kadłubek included a speech by Gracchus that was meant to persuade the audience to elect him king: “…a body without a soul, a lamp without light and a world without the sun is the same as a state without a king. For the soul fuels courage, the light allows us to see things clearly, and finally the sun teaches us to spread benevolent rays to everyone”.[21] At the same time, he stated that if he were to be elected, he would in fact become a “partner in the kingdom”, as he would rule it as if he had been created for the world and for others rather than for himself.

Jan Długosz went even further. He repeatedly mentioned elections to the Polish throne in subsequent volumes of his Annals. Monarchs who wore the royal crown with the general consent of all prelates and Polish nobles included not only legendary rulers, but also Mieszko I and his son Bolesław the Brave as well as others, such as Przemysł II, Władysław the Short or Casimir the Great.[22]

As concerns elected kings or the exercise of royal authority with the consent of the ruled, one more passage from Długosz is also worth recalling: the moment, very meticulously captured by the chronicler, when a significant number of prelates and nobles decide the future fate of the kingdom during a general congress by electing one of Louis I of Hungary’s daughters to the Polish throne; the nobles considered the choice of her husband, i.e. the future king, to be their prerogative.[23] It was also these nobles and prelates who forced Louis I to grant the Privilege of Koszyce to the Polish nobility. When writing about these events, Długosz did not hide his sympathies for the nobles and prelates who strongly influenced royal rule. He put an equally strong emphasis on the moment when the prelates, princes and nobles of the Kingdom of Poland undertook to accept the new-born son of Władysław Jagiełło as the future Polish king. Their consent, however, was not unconditional – they demanded a “special royal document bearing a royal seal, which would contain the [confirmation] of their liberties and privileges”.[24] Długosz assigns even more importance and weight to the privilege granted in Jedlnia, in which the rights of Władysław’s sons to the throne were recognised,[25] and at the same time certain economic privileges were confirmed (as in the Koszyce Privilege); above all, however, the privilege guaranteed that “we shall not imprison or order to imprison anyone who lives in our country and has property for no misdemeanour or offence”[26], also stating: “we shall not take away goods or property from anyone unless it is put in our hands by a court order…”.[27] When Długosz described the events of that time, he considered it perfectly natural (normal) to treat this relationship between nobles and prelates on the one hand and the king on the other as one based on a mutually respected contract. The king’s breach of the contract, e.g. by ignoring the liberties and privileges granted, released the other party (nobles and prelates) from their obligations to the ruler. Długosz presented this relationship of dependence by describing the events that took place at the congress in Łęczyca when Władysław, under the influence of the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund of Luxembourg, decided that his sons’ rights to the crown were in no way dependent on the nobles’ and prelates’ will. No sooner had he stated that than Bishop Oleśnicki handed the document confirming the rights of Władysław’s sons to the crown to those assembled: “The nobles grabbed it at once and drew swords from their scabbards; with a terrible clang and clatter of their shining weapons, they cut it into small pieces in front of the king”.[28]



Both Jan Ostroróg and Filippo Buonaccorsi (“Callimachus”) adopted different attitudes towards political matters. The first writer, opposing the then dominant classical current of thinking, recognised the supremacy of secular power over the spiritual one. He cited several arguments in favour of this position.

Ostroróg started by pointing out that the king, congratulating the newly elected pope, may also make a declaration concerning his own and his people’s attachment to the Catholic faith. On the other hand, he considered it extremely unwise to make an undertaking to obey the pope. The king has no superior other than God and hence it would be absurd to him to take an oath of loyalty and it would also be contrary to the actual state of affairs. As Ostroróg stated, the pope should be recognised as the Vicar of Christ, i.e. his earthly representative, and Christ himself claimed that his Kingdom was not of this world.

On the other hand, Ostroróg claimed that relations between the monarch and the clergy should be based on the principle of separation of powers. He stated that the king should take care of secular matters, while the clergy should look after “spiritual things”. Immediately afterwards, Ostroróg pointed out that while this should ideally be the case, in the circumstances in which the Church found itself in his times: “in order to avoid the greater evil, it appears better that the bishops should be chosen by the king; the point is to choose one who is not only a scholar but also a decent person so that his immorality and the aversion towards him do not result in continuous feuds between the two estates”.[29]

The king, whose power is independent (sovereign) from the papacy, should not “fall on his knees” when writing letters to the pope: “it does not become a king to write so meekly and humbly to the pope as though the king were chained and imprisoned in a cell”.[30] In order to preserve a posture proper for a monarch, the king should ensure that the letters that bear his seal are treated with respect and honour that is owed to the ruler. A letter, which is an expression of his will, should be treated with the respect due to the king himself. It was therefore necessary to punish all those who ignored such letters and did not obey the instructions contained in them. Ostroróg considered forging royal letters an especially reprehensible crime.

Ostroróg’s view of the king’s position was reflected in his statement that a ruler needs to appoint his own notaries. He stated: “royal dignity also suffered considerably owing to the fact that no notaries were present in the kingdom who would be appointed by the king and would guard the faith of the king and of the kingdom”.[31] It should be added that at the time, such notaries were appointed by the emperor and the pope. Acknowledging the independence (sovereignty) of the Polish monarch, Ostroróg attributed this power to him as well.

Ostroróg wanted stronger recognition of the independence of the Polish monarch from the papacy and recommended that the tradition of sending various tributes to Rome by the Polish clergy be abandoned. The writer from Kraków considered it inappropriate for newly elected bishops to make gifts, and he even mentioned fees amounting to several thousand red złotys (Polish florins). He categorically stated that Poland should be exempt from all charges, since it bears extraordinary burdens, which sometimes cannot even be quantified, owing to its struggles against Turks, Tatars and Vlachs, and finally against Muscovite schismatics. Poland, which defended Christian Europe, should not pay anything.

Ostroróg, who opposed payments related to annates and Peter’s Pence, at the same time protested against sending any precious items to Rome. Of note is his demand that removing any “Church treasures” from the Republic be prohibited. Ostroróg treated these treasures as the property of the community of believers, but by that he meant Polish believers: “gold and Church treasures shall be preserved for public needs…”.[32] When war threatened, those could be melted and used to finance the defence against the invaders.

Ostroróg was particularly critical of the procedure followed before the Church courts, for which the appellate instance was, as he wrote, the “papal court”. It appears that this criticism resulted not only from material reasons, i.e. from the fact that very high fees had to be paid to Roman lawyers.[33] Of much greater importance for him was the legal fact that an institution existed outside the Kingdom of Poland which judged subjects of the Polish king. Addressing his readers, he stated: “Poles, do not let yourself be deceived any more by the cunning Italians. We have bishops in our kingdom, and we have the Archbishop and the Primate at the same time; let the former hear such cases and let the latter pronounce the final sentence if required”.[34] It should be noted that Ostroróg does not oppose Church courts as such; he only considers Polish courts to be competent for adjudicating matters that involve subjects of the Kingdom of Poland.

An interesting element of Ostroróg’s ideas is his vision of highly hierarchical state structures. It has already been noted that the highest office was held by the king, while those who directly implemented his orders included province and district governors. These offices were supposed not to be hereditary (as was often the case at the time),[35] but their holders were to be selected because of their skills and predispositions. In order to strengthen the dignity and authority, and hence the position of holders of state functions, Ostroróg proposed replacing traditional titles with ones that would raise the rank of the persons and offices in question. A province governor was to be called a prince, while his sons were to become barons and counts; castellans were to become counts as well, and finally district governors were to be called presidents. According to Ostroróg, the district governor’s or castellan’s titles were simply “ugly and absurd”. The new titles were be reflected in the material dimension as well. Each dignitary was to use a wax seal of a different colour and shape: province governor (prince) – red wax and a square seal with his coat of arms inscribed in the provincial coat of arms; castellans (counts) – red wax, the count’s own private coat of arms; the remaining nobility – green wax. Ostroróg believed that the hierarchy should also translate into order at the court, expressing certain disapproval about the court at which he served himself: “everyone walking, standing and sitting without rhyme or reason”. He thought that changes were necessary in this respect. A hierarchy is more than offices, seals and order at the court – it also includes external symbols that indicate the office held or social (estate) affiliation: having certain rights earns one respect, so certain differences must be maintained in a person’s attire as well. Condemning the lack of differences in dress, Ostroróg pointed to the need for external signs that would make it possible to distinguish a burgher who held office or a clergyman from the general public. It was similar with other groups: “it is fitting that the Jews wear a red disc on their clothes, that harlots be distinguished by ribbons and headdresses, and that an executioner always carry a sword, and an usher – a rod”.[36]

The Republic of Poland was supposed to be a well-run state which guaranteed that its subjects felt secure, a state in which holding an office would be the result of skills and predispositions rather than family connections. Offices were to be bestowed by the king, and not purchased. On this point, Ostroróg was equally firm with respect to clerical and secular offices. The Republic was also supposed to guarantee a sense of external security, but this could only be ensured if the levy en masse were reformed. Ostroróg believed that military service should be the duty of all adult males in the Republic of Poland – up to the age of sixty. Everyone was to be obliged to have a weapon and hone his skills in using it. The type of weapon was to be made dependent on economic status. However, the important point was that this duty was to be universal.

The author who directly drew on Jan Ostroróg’s ideas was Filippo Buonaccorsi (Callimachus). Like his Polish predecessor, he recognised the king’s authority to be fully independent of papal authority. Like Ostroróg, he also rejected any appeals to Rome as the highest court instance – the king was supposed to be the highest instance in the territory of Poland. And just like Ostroróg, he saw the higher instance in Rome as a threat not only to the ruler’s authority, but also to the state’s finances. For this reason, he wrote: “forbid appeals to Rome, as they will impoverish your kingdom”.[37] Similarly as his predecessor, he recognised the right to appoint bishops and to decide who should hold other offices to be a royal prerogative. According to Callimachus, the king should entrust church offices to representatives of less important noble families, since they will certainly be more grateful, and therefore more loyal as well. He also suggested that the monarch should abolish the prohibition on entrusting higher Church offices to common people. As to the criteria that were to determine appointments to offices, Callimachus demanded from candidates scholarship, i.e. education and knowledge, as a prerequisite for the proper performance of duties; on the other hand, this scholarship would be required from people who did not belong to ancient aristocratic families that were powerful in the world of politics. As Callimachus wrote, educated people from the “best houses” wanted to rule. Writing about Church dignitaries, he stated: “it is not their vocation to meddle in secular affairs. Let them look after what they are supposed to do”[38]. In this way, he designated a space for clergymen that did not overlap with the political space, was far removed from the secular authority, and corresponded with the entirely abstract sphere of salvation. Aiming to limit the Church’s influence, he considered it necessary to decrease its income, e.g. from tithes. He fully supported Jan Ostroróg’s demands concerning direct benefits flowing to Rome. In his opinion, the king would be able to make much better use of the funds that were so far in the Church’s hands.

The Church’s position was to be diminished as a result of the king gaining proper political importance. Most of the advice offered by Callimachus refers directly to the secular sphere – in his view, the Church was merely one of the many factors that undermined the king’s position.

Callimachus advised the king to take measures to change the legal order. In his third recommendation, he explicitly stated: “prohibit new statutes and repeal those that suppress royal power”[39]. In his twenty-ninth recommendation, he suggested that the Koszyce Privilege granted to the Polish nobility in 1374 by Louis I of Hungary be repudiated; this privilege had provided the foundation for all the other privileges gained by knighthood in the 15th century. After two recommendations that referred so explicitly to the existing legal order, it is not surprising that Callimachus advised the ruler to consistently aim to make his power absolute irrespective of everything else (including the legal order in place).

Among the writers who were active in Poland at that time, Callimachus was an exceptional case. Unlike other authors, he looked at the state’s political system as well as at its institutions not from the point of view of duties that were by definition associated with them (according to the principle that life implies duties), but from the point of view of one who seeks to gain power, consolidate it and maintain it, one for whom power is a value in itself. In Poland, Callimachus was the first to so openly favour a definition of politics construed as the art of achieving the goals set and as an instrument in the ruler’s hand rather than as a tool of ethics, as it was understood before.

He advocated strong state power exercised by the monarch. For him, the ideal ruler was a sage, or in any case a monarch who was comprehensively educated. A model of sorts for him was Matthias Corvinus whom he described in one of his works. In his opinion, the king should select two or three secret advisors in whom he could have full confidence. He could share his greatest secrets only with them. The advisors should not avoid contacts with other state officials but should not take part in parties that involve drinking alcohol, since Callimachus believed that this involved too high a risk of them being unmasked. For the same reasons, he advised that the advisors be unmarried if possible, as married men might be too tempted to share their knowledge with their wives. Apart from choosing his advisors and confidants, the king should also take care to select appropriate officials. The staffing of offices was to be completely dependent on the monarch’s will; Callimachus also opposed appointments for life. Only the monarch’s will was to determine for how long and on what financial terms the official performed his duties. Doubting the officials’ lifelong gratitude and loyalty to the ruler, Callimachus recommended that the monarch supervise them constantly. This issue must have been very important to him, since he devoted the entire seventeenth recommendation to it, which was among the longest. The Tuscan writer advised the king to send inquisitors to his officials frequently. The latter “should beware not to accept any gifts”.[40]

Among the offices that are important from the point of view of the state’s functioning, Callimachus lists the crown and court treasurers as well as district governors and officers of justice. While holders of all these offices were directly dependent on the monarch’s will, there were also two other institutions of a different kind, which took the form of the Senate and of the Chamber of Deputies in the 1490s, i.e. at the end of Callimachus’s life. He noticed that the two institutions existed, but in his opinion it was not at all difficult to undermine their position. There were several methods which made it possible. The king should place his supporters in both chambers so that they could contribute to prolonging the debate (let us add, a pointless one) both openly and behind the scenes. Both in the Senate and in the Chamber of Deputies, Callimachus recommended the application of the divide et impera (divide and rule) principle. There was nothing to be afraid of if the deputies were divided and quarrelled with one another. He wrote: “do not care when the Council threatens you and deputies speak angrily to you. That’s what Poles are like: they say a lot but will do nothing”.[41] However, members of parliament were not to be ignored; it was necessary to create an appearance of listening to their opinions.[42]

In advising the ruler, the Tuscan made some more important remarks, which, according to him, demonstrated the “proper” mechanisms of exercising authority. Above all, anyone who wants to succeed in politics should be leery of all other actors. The king should carefully conceal his real goals, and also intentions. Callimachus was convinced that relationships between actors in the world of politics have the characteristics of a zero-sum game. According to him, if someone gains, someone must also lose at the same time, and thus the ruler had to be constantly aware that what strengthens the others must necessarily weaken his position.

For Callimachus, the best state of affairs was one in which competitors would be embroiled in constant rivalry and struggle. As it has already been said, he suggested inspiring such a conflict in the Chamber of Deputies, and also pointed to the need to provoke a conflict between secular senators and those who were bishops.

According to him, it was desirable to maintain a sense of danger among subjects because, as he noted, this had the clear effect of significantly strengthening the monarch’s position. Addressing John Albert, he instructed him: “every year, threaten the levy en masse and order your faithful supporters to spread fear of the enemy (maintain a sense of danger saying that the enemy is ready)”.[43] External threats caused subjects to perceive their ruler as their protector and guardian, and the ruler found it easier to access his subjects’ purses, justifying new taxes by the need to wage a war. For the entire project to be successful, according to Callimachus close cooperation with the hetman was required. Apart from pacifying any social tensions, the atmosphere of danger created in this manner also allowed the monarch to gain tidy sums, since, as the writer stated, having received the taxes collected, the monarch should only use half of it to pay for the army, and hide the other half “in his coffer”.[44]

Callimachus, who recommended that the king use fear as an instrument, did not at all consider his proposals to be methods proper for despots only. At the same time, he considered it proper to use “final” solutions in order to get rid of opponents. The Tuscan recommended that all the enemies be gathered in one place and then eliminated altogether by killing them. The best way to implement this plan was to call a levy en masse and then use it in a pre-arranged battle in Wallachia. Privy to the conspiracy, the Governor of Wallachia was to attack and slay all royal enemies. In the event that the enemies managed to avoid participation in the levy en masse, Callimachus recommended: “poison them. Great monarchs do so”.[45]


In presenting the views of the first writers who shaped the Polish political thought, I wanted to show something more than the foundations on which the political system of the Republic and then of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth rested during its Golden Age. My intention was also to present the many hues of the Polish political debate in the 15th century and its attachment to the tradition of classical political philosophy, but also its innovative characteristics and fresh look at the functioning of the republican system. This text is also meant to make the reader aware that Ostroróg’s “Memorial”, which was so critical of the institutions of the Church at the time, appeared several decades before Martin Luther’s Theses and over a hundred years before Bodin had formulated his theory of sovereignty. Similarly, Callimachus’s “Advice” preceded the publication of Machiavelli’s The Prince. Finally, as concerns the importance of the disputes conducted among Polish political thinkers in the 15th century, we should recall Michał Bobrzyński’s argument, according to which Jan Ostroróg’s 16th-century concept of building an absolute monarchy based on Protestantism could have prevented the collapse of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 18th century.

[1]     Stanisław ze Skarbimierza, Mowa o tych, którzy mają na względzie sprawiedliwość, [in:] Mowy wybrane o mądrości, Kraków 2000, p. 51.

[2]     W. Kadłubek, Kronika polska, Wrocław 2003, p. 51.

[3]     Ibidem.

[4]     “What natural reason has established among all people, is respected by all nations and is referred to as the law of nations (ius gentium)”, P. Włodkowic, Pisma wybrane, vol. 1, Warszawa 1968, p. 92.

[5]     Ibidem, p. 91.

[6]     Ibidem, p. 13.

[7]     J. Długosz, Roczniki czyli kroniki sławnego Królestwa Polskiego, dzieło czcigodnego Jana Długosza kanonika krakowskiego, gorliwego badacza dziejów narodu zestawione z największą starannością i dbałością o prawdę historyczną, Books 3 and 4, Warszawa 2009, p. 149.

[8]     Ibidem, p. 149. In another passage in his Roczniki [“Annals”], Długosz described a similar situation, this time from the 13th century [Book 7 and 8, p. 56].

[9]     Ibidem, p. 150.

[10]    Ibidem, p. 152.

[11]    According to Długosz, not just Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, but also King Bolesław was stripped of his authority; in his Annals, he claimed: “...the Polish king Bolesław, by the authority and decree of Pope Gregory VII, was deprived of the dignity of the King of Poland and of all the honours that went with it… that very sentence of the Holy See released his subjects from their duty of submission and obedience to him…”. Ibidem, p. 168.

[12]    Mieszko reacted sharply, instructing the bishop “to stop irritating him in the future and attend to the affairs of the diocese which are his proper occupation, leaving the concern for public affairs to him [the duke]”. J. Długosz, Roczniki…, op. cit., Books 5 and 6, Warszawa 2009, p. 129.

[13]    Ibidem, pp. 134–135.

[14]    Ibidem, p. 139.

[15]    See ibidem, p. 143.

[16]    Ad videndum. Pismo mistrza Pawła dla zwalczania przywilejów Krzyżaków, see: P. Włodkowic, Pisma…, op. cit., vol. 3, p. 141.

[17]    Oculi. Działanie na szkodę królestwa, see ibidem, p. 44.

[18]    Mateusz z Krakowa, O praktykach Kurii Rzymskiej, translated by W. Seńko, Kęty 2007, p. 207.

[19]    Matthew wrote: “An error which no one opposes is approved, says the law, and a gloss to the Epistle to the Romans adds: ‘Agreeing to something means being silent and not objecting when you can do it’, because at least a shadow of suspicion concerning hidden complicity falls on one who does not oppose an overt crime”. Ibidem, p. 211.

[20]   Ibidem, p. 215.

[21]    W. Kadłubek, Kronika polska, Wrocław 2003, p. 11.

[22]    On Przemysł, Długosz wrote: “…upon the joint wish of all prelates and Polish nobles, and after a debate it was unanimously decided to give the crown to one who exceeded all others in his piety, impeccable manners, honesty and justice…”, idem, Roczniki…, Books 7 and 8, p. 363. On Władysław the Short, he wrote: “The prelates and nobles, magnates and gentry from the entire Kingdom of Poland… decided amid universal acclamation, support and consent to crown Prince Władysław the Short king of Poland…”, ibidem, Book 9, p. 133. Finally, on Casimir the Great, he wrote: “Prelates, nobles and the Polish gentry wanted to elect a new king to replace the recently deceased king Władysław… When all the votes were cast and counted, both the magnates and the gentry, as requested by the father, not so much by votes but by shouting unanimously elected prince Kazimierz, and not anybody else, as natural successor to the king”, ibidem, pp. 224–225.

[23]    Ibidem, Book 10, p. 139.

[24]   Ibidem, Book 11, p. 222.

[25]    Długosz quoted the document: “After his death, these are to be inherited pursuant to the true hereditary right of succession by us, by our sons and by the Crown. They also promised that when our son reaches the age prescribed by law, they would crown him king and would hand to him the king’s sceptre, recognising him as our true and rightful successor”. Ibidem, p. 290.

[26]   Ibidem, pp. 293–294.

[27]    Ibidem, p. 294.

[28]   Ibidem, p. 228.

[29]   J. Ostroróg, Memoriał o urządzeniu Rzeczypospolitej, [in:] Filozofia i myśl społeczna XII–XV wieku, J. Domański (ed.), Warszawa 1978, p. 242.

[30]   Ibidem, p. 240.

[31]    Ibidem.

[32]    Ibidem, p. 244.

[33]    “…the Roman court does not take, as it is often said, a sheep without wool: one must be out of one’s mind not to see the huge sums taken abroad by parties to such proceedings and not to see the harm to the kingdom”, ibidem, p. 245.

[34]   Ibidem, p. 245.

[35]    “A son may inherit from his father neither a province nor another office unless he is worthy of holding this office”. Ibidem, p. 255.

[36]   Ibidem, p. 259.

[37]    Quoted after R. Wšetečka, Kallimachowe rady dane, [in:] Pamiętnik słuchaczy Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego wydany staraniem i nakładem młodzieży akademickiej na uroczystość otwarcia Collegi Novi, Kraków 1887, p. 129.

[38]   Ibidem, p. 128.

[39]   Ibidem, p. 122.

[40]   Ibidem, p. 126.

[41]    Ibidem, p. 123.

[42]   Callimachus wrote: “…you should meanwhile look after your own things and do not show (when they expostulate sharply with you, although it is unpleasant) that you are angry; reply in a few words and give responsa dubia (unclear answers); always have a dozen or so promissis onustos (promised supporters) at hand who will always defend your side and not agree with anyone else on any matters”. Ibidem.

[43]   Ibidem, p. 122.

[44]   Ibidem.

[45]   Ibidem, pp. 131–132.

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