In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

  • Introduction
  • General Histories
  • Comparative Studies
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Contemporary Accounts
  • Primary Sources
  • Diplomatic History
  • Legal and Constitutional History
  • Political Developments
  • The Jagiellon Period (1386–1572)
  • The Elective Monarchy Period (1573–1791)
  • The Age of Reform and the Fall of the Commonwealth (1768–1795)
  • Lithuania and Royal Prussia
  • The Steppe Frontier
  • Military

Renaissance and Reformation The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth
Wladyslaw Roczniak
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0119


The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth—also called the Commonwealth of Both Nations, Poland-Lithuania, the Commonwealth, or, pars pro toto, simply Poland—was at first a dynastic (till 1569) and then a federal multiethnic and multireligious union of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, lasting from 1386 to 1795. At its height, in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, it became one of the largest (territorially), most populous, and politically most powerful of early modern European states, exhibiting , democratic, and religiously tolerant tendencies. Militarily, it stopped the encroachment of the Teutonic Knights at Grunwald (Tannenberg) in 1410, turned back the Baltic ambitions of Russia’s Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible) in the Livonian Wars (1558–1582), and took a leading role capping the march of the Ottoman Empire with the famous victory at Vienna in 1683. Culturally, the Commonwealth became a border region and a bridge between the Latin civilization of central and western Europe (Poland-Lithuania boasted the second oldest central European university, in Kraków, and was the birthplace of Nicolas Copernicus, the father of modern astronomy) and the Orthodox and even Islamist leanings of the eastern and southern European periphery, creating fascinating mixes of Byzantine and baroque influences in artistic and folk expressions (the conglomerate Sarmatian “culture” of the Polish nobility, or szlachta, fits into this category). Religiously, the Commonwealth displayed a degree of toleration and freedom unusual for its times, guaranteed by the 1573 Confederation of Warsaw, and it became a haven for Christian dissidents and sectarians, as well as most of the world’s population of Jews (By some estimates, 80 percent of the world’s Jewry lived in 17th-century Poland). Politically, the idiosyncratic system of Commonwealth polity refuses immediate classification, but it included an elective and limited monarchy, a bicameral Diet (Sejm) with a Senate (Senat) and a Chamber of Deputies (Izba Poselska), a noble democracy, and high levels of political decentralization. Though united in the person of the monarch and their chief representative institution, Poland and Lithuania both maintained their own armies, treasuries, and state functionaries. Wracked eventually by the Counter-Reformation, a foreign-dependent and declining agricultural economy based on the persistence of serfdom, the rising currents of absolutism and authoritarianism among its neighbors, spreading political anarchy among its ruling magnate classes, and military disasters at home (the Cossack Uprising of 1648, the Swedish Deluge of 1655–1660, among others), the Commonwealth declined, disappearing entirely to the Three Partitions of Poland (1772–1795) engineered by Austria, Prussia, and Russia. Today, the Third Polish Republic sees itself as a successor state to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and its traditions.

General Histories

Studying and classifying the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth is itself an exercise in historiography. Perhaps as with no other country can the date of a scholarly book’s publication tell so much about its content as in the case of Poland-Lithuania. General histories of Poland-Lithuania, and the earlier Kingdom of Poland, appeared already in the universalist and theocratic-minded histories of the 15th and 16th century, giving way to more mature, more secular, and topical accounts of the Polish Renaissance that held the mixed-constitution polity the best in the world. After the Partitions new chronicles on the Commonwealth written by both the victors (the historians of the partitioning powers) and the vanquished (a new generation of Polish historians) appeared. Romantic, soul-searching, and document-oriented Polish-penned histories attempted to both illuminate the times of greatness and explain the reasons for the Commonwealth’s demise. In the works of the foreign 19th-century historians, both Hegelian and Marxist, the mixed constitution of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth became a fatal anachronism: the political liberties it offered to, after all, a sizable stratum of its citizens simple uncapped anarchy, and its religious and social toleration—a lack of a developing national “character.” It is easy to forgive the 19th-century positivist historians their interpretations; it is also easy to understand many of the pre-1989 tracts of Anglophone scholarship, which saw in the post–World War II Peoples Republic of Poland an existence so marginalized and attached to its Communist overlords as to be nearly worthless of serious scholarly inquiry. The weak deserve no history; the subaltern cannot speak. Poland-Lithuania was therefore mostly ignored in American undergraduate and graduate texts. Beginning in the 1980s, however, and definitely after 1989, when Polish events helped to topple European Communism, when a shock-therapy of capitalism turned a moribund political corpse into one of the most healthy and productive European economies of the early 21st century, and when Polish culture rejoined its Western roots and economic and military structures, the reasons for this about-face, both short- and long-term, had to be explained. Incipient democracy cruelly ambushed by foreign authoritarianism, and not hapless anarchy replaced by centralizing authority, became the new postmortem of the Commonwealth. After 1989, Poland found its history, and Europe found Poland. The following works represent only the last sixty or so years of historiography; they are, in effect, the last vestiges of the previous, Communist school of Polish research, as well as its Western-published antithesis, and the major representatives of the current, pro-Commonwealth vision. From this perspective, Topolski 1976 can be seen as the height of Marxist interpretations of Polish history, while Wyrozumski, et al. 1979 became one of the last major productions of Communist Poland, a four-volume work still replete with socialist ideology and Marxist structure. Reddaway, et al. 1950 was an early post–World War II Anglophone attempt to preserve a version of polish history unadulterated by the Stalinist-era political changes taking shape in eastern Europe. The two works by Davies (Davies 2001, Davies 2005) served as a reintroduction of Polish history to English-language readers at a time when the currents of democratic change in Poland did not yet achieve their historic inevitability. Jasienica 1997 is a popular Polish account from the author who popularized the expression “Commonwealth of Both Nations.” It is the leading work in the Polish school of thought that treats the Union of Lublin of 1569 in a negative light. Finally Zamoyski 1995 is a fine English-language introductory history of Poland, not averse to nationalistic turns of phrase. Stone 2001 is a more developed study that looks at the Commonwealth from the perspective of its ethnic, religious, and cultural building blocks.

  • Davies, Norman. Heart of Europe: The Past in Poland’s Present. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    Originally written in 1983, during the height of General Jaruzelski’s martial law in Poland, this book portrays Polish national sensibilities in view of historic developments. Though most of the work concerns itself with post-1795 events, and only a single chapter deals with the Polish-Lithuanian state, the analysis of Commonwealth’s cultural and political legacy is suggestive as the groundwork for more recent developments.

  • Davies, Norman. God’s Playground: A History of Poland. Vol. 1, The Origins to 1795. Rev. ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    In many ways a landmark book, first published in 1984, this multifaceted exposition is the first part of a two-volume introduction to both the history of Poland and its place in the history of Europe. Like Jasienica, Davies takes the position that beginning in the late 16th century the Lithuanian portion of the Commonwealth began to be perceived as a drain on the Republic’s strength.

  • Jasienica, Pawel. Rzeczpospolita Obojga Narodów. Vol. 1, Srebrny wiek. Warsaw, Poland: Świat Książki, 1997.

    The first of three volumes. The work provides a well-received, essay-style account of the history of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from 1572 to 1795, written during the 1960s by a well-known journalist of the anti-Communist opposition who popularized the expression “Commonwealth of Both Nations.” The account is, in many ways, negative in scope, emphasizing the political mistakes of the Commonwealth’s leaders, not the least of which was the union between Poland and Lithuania in the first place.

  • Reddaway, W. F., et al., eds. The Cambridge History of Poland: From Origins to Sobieski (1696). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1950.

    An English-language collection of essays by prominent Polish (and non-Polish) historians, begun in 1936, that finally saw print following the devastations of World War II. This work is not only a monument to its authors, some of whom did not survive the war, but also to an attempt to formulate a Polish history available to the English academic reader at the time such history was being rewritten by the new social realities of the People’s Republic of Poland.

  • Stone, Daniel. The Polish-Lithuanian State, 1386–1795. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001.

    This book takes a regional approach and concentrates on the ethnic and religious members of the Polish-Lithuanian composite state (Lithuanians, Germans, Jews, Ukrainians, Balts) to explain—from ground up, as it were—the necessary components that made the Commonwealth a wealthy, militarily powerful, and socially and religiously stable (though diverse) polity until the middle of the 17th century.

  • Topolski, Jerzy, ed. Dzieje Polski. Warsaw, Poland: Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1976.

    Presents a synthesis of Polish history written entirely from the perspective of the “Marxist method of research,” which sees class conflict as the balance of Polish national experience, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as the product of class exploitation, and communism as the only progressive theory offering the culmination of Polish national and social aspirations.

  • Wyrozumski, Jerzy, Józef Andrzej Gierowski, and Józef Buszko. Historia Polski. 4 vols. Warsaw, Poland: Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1979.

    One of the last major compilations of Polish history made during the Communist era, this four-volume set (till 1505, 1505–1764, 1764–1864, and 1864–1948) follows the Marxist interpretation of history all the way to the establishment of the Polish People’s Republic. The second volume looks in detail at the culture, society, and economy of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, while the third brings its story to its final act (1795).

  • Zamoyski, Adam. The Polish Way: A Thousand Year History of the Poles and their Culture. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1995.

    A fine attempt by Zamoyski (himself a scion of a preeminent old Polish clan) to meander between often condescending foreign works and Polish apologia (though even he is sometimes partially guilty of the latter), this beginners-level popular portrayal of the more than a thousand-year history of the state and the nation is rich in facts and seamlessly weaves culture and politics, history and tradition.

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