In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ethnic and Religious Groups in Medieval Poland

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Germans
  • Ruthenians
  • Armenians
  • Tartars
  • Karaites
  • Heresy of Andrzej Gałka of Dobczyn

Medieval Studies Ethnic and Religious Groups in Medieval Poland
Pawel Kras
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 December 2010
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 December 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0043


Starting from its historical emergence in the 10th century, Poland formed the eastern margin of Western Christianity. In the Middle Ages Poland became a meetingplace between the East and the West, and the blend of Eastern and Western European traditions left its imprint on Polish culture. One of the most striking features of Poland was the ethnic and religious pluralism of its society and culture. In the mid-14th century, the expansion of Poland eastward brought thousands of Orthodox Ruthenians under the rule of Polish kings. The migration of European Jews to Poland, which started in the 12th century and later intensified, made Poland host to the largest concentration of Jews in Europe and a hub for Jewish culture. In the Middle Ages, most Polish towns and villages were inhabited by numerous minorities of Germans, who contributed to their economic growth. They introduced new legal codes and institutions that lay the foundation for city autonomy. Polish towns situated along international trade routes became places of settlement for Scots, Italians, and Armenians. Members of all ethnic minorities developed crafts and trade on both international and local scales. Polish rulers appreciated their role in the growing prosperity of the country and granted them special privileges which secured their ethnic and religious diversity. Leading up to the modern era in Poland, or rather the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania, it was a diverse country where various ethnic and religious groups lived together in peace. A long tradition of peaceful coexistence between various Christian and non-Christian religions gave rise to mutual acceptance and cooperation, which functioned well even in the period of the Reformation.

General Overviews

The best general overview of the composition of the Polish society and its transformations in the Middle Ages is offered by Ihnatowicz, et al. 1988. The studies of Kłoczowski 1998 and Kłoczowski 2000 present the history of Polish Christianity and analyze the relations between the Catholic and the Orthodox churches, as well as their attitude toward non-Christian groups. A comprehensive analysis of various ethnic and religious minorities in medieval Poland is presented in Drabina 1989, supplemented by selected sources in Polish translation from Drabina 1994. Two recent studies, Samsonowicz 1993 and Janeczek 2003, offer general reflections on the functioning of ethnic minorities in late medieval Poland. In addition, they discuss concepts and terminology used in research on medieval ethnic, religious, and legal groups.

  • Drabina, Jan, ed. Religie na ziemiach Polski i Litwy w średniowieczu. Kraków: Uniwersytet Jagielloński, 1989.

    Textbook on religions in medieval Poland and Lithuania. Includes an encyclopedic overview of the history of churches and religious groups. Basic information and commentary, with bibliographical references.

  • Drabina, Jan. Wierzenia, religie i wspólnoty wyznaniowe w średniowiecznej Polsce i na Litwie. Kraków: Uniwersytet Jagielloński, 1994.

    Selected edition of sources (in Polish translation) related to pagan beliefs, churches, and religious communities in medieval Poland and Lithuania, with a historical introduction and bibliographical guidelines.

  • Ihnatowicz, Ireneusz, Antoni Mączak, Benedykt Zientara, and Janusz Żarnowski. Społeczeństwo polskie od X do XX wieku. Warsaw: Książka i Wiedza, 1988.

    A detailed study of the historical evolution of the Polish society from the 10th to the 20th centuries. The chapters written by Benedykt Zientara and Antoni Mączak include sections devoted to the place of minority groups in medieval and early modern Polish society. Reprinted in 2005.

  • Janeczek, Andrzej. “Ethnische Gruppenbildungen im spätmittelalterlichen Polen.” In Das Reich und Polen: Parallellen, Interaktionen und Formen der Akkulturation hohem and späten Mittelalter. Edited by Thomas Wünsch and Alexander Patschovsky. 401–446. Ostfildern, Germany: Jan Thorbecke Verlag, 2003.

    An intriguing comparative study on ethnic groups in late medieval Poland, their social and legal position, as well as the way their collective identity was formed. Offers new methodological perspectives for the study of minority-majority problems.

  • Kłoczowski, Jerzy. History of Polish Christianity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    Classic English textbook on the history of Christianity in Poland from the 10th century to the present day. Includes chapters on the medieval history of the Catholic and Orthodox churches. A good starting point for further research.

  • Kłoczowski, Jerzy. Młodsza Europa: Europa Środkowo-Wschodnia w kręgu cywilizacji chrześcijańskiej średniowiecza. Warsaw: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1998.

    Comprehensive and comparative study of the history of east central Europe in the Middle Ages. Separate chapters offer overviews on the rise and growth of pluralist society in Poland and Lithuania against the background of major social and religious developments.

  • Samsonowicz, Henryk. “Grupy etniczne w Polsce XV w.” In Ojczyzna bliższa i dalsza: Studia historyczne ofiarowane Feliksowi Kirykowi w sześćdziesiątą rocznicę urodzin. Edited by Jacek Chrobaczyński, Andrzej Jureczka and Michał Śliwa, 461–469. Kraków: Wydawnictwo “Secesja”, 1993.

    A short and comprehensive article on ethnic groups in 15th-century Poland and their position within Polish society.

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