A COMMONWEALTH OF THE GENTRY SELF-GOVERNMENT
The article is a fragment of a book by Antoni Maczak on the elites of modern Europe, completed but never published during the author's lifetime. It presents the prime features of the system (and its changes) prevailing in Poland (from 1569 the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) from the mid–fifteenth century to the eighteenth century, indicating that the gentry privileges issued by successive kings (1454, 1496 and 1505) led to a monopoly of power, including state finances, enjoyed by the knights-gentry. Hence the author described the political system as 'the self-government of the gentry', unaccompanied by a local administration dependent directly on the monarch. Consequently, for the majority of the gentry the only path towards a a career and the protection of interests in the vast Polish-Lithuanian state was the establishment of close ties with magnates residing in the nearest vicinity (a phenomenon described by the author as the 'gentry clientary system'). This tendency was intensified to a large degree by the gradual concentration of land in magnate's possession, achieved to a considerable extent at the cost of the gentry; in view of the lack of an administrative structure and the legal prohibition of pursuing occupations typical for the burghers, one of the few accessible life strategies for members of the gentry was to serve at a magnate court. In time, this solution replaced thinking in categories of the state with preference for 'one's own' magnate circle. A formalised framework of cooperation that would concentrate the whole magnate group, was also absent. In the Commonwealth, informal bonds - both 'horizontal' (between the magnates) and 'vertical' (between the magnates and the gentry) - were thus much stronger than in other modern European states, frequently supplanted the weak state structure, and subsequently (seventeenth-eighteenth century) paralysed it. At the same time, the relatively rapid (second half of the fifteenth century) process of granting the Polish gentry common privileges and considerable authority in the state, followed by an equally swift introduction of those privileges in the Lithuanian-Ruthenian lands, became the reasons for the emergence of a nation comprehended as a community aware of its shared rights and wielding sovereign power; the course of this process was much quicker than in other European states. The author stressed the originality of the Polish (Polish-Lithuanian) systemic solutions in comparison with other countries of modern-era Europe.
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