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Heraldry in Poland

Posted by Jeff Ezzell on

Polish heraldry is a branch of heraldry focused on studying the development of coats of arms in the lands of historical Poland (and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth), as well as specifically-Polish traits of heraldry. The term is also used to refer to the Polish heraldic system, as opposed to systems used elsewhere, notably in Western Europe. As such, it is an integral part of the history of the szlachta, the nobility of Poland.

Due to the distinct manner in which feudal society evolved in Poland, the heraldic traditions of Poland differ significantly from those in German lands, France or the British Isles.

Unlike the case of Western Europe, in Poland, the szlachta did not emerge exclusively from the feudal class of knights under Chivalry, but stemmed in great part from an earlier Slavic local rulers, free warrior class and mercenaries. Rulers often hired these free warriors and mercenaries to form guard units (Polish Drużyna) And eventually, in the 11th century during the time of Casimir I the Restorer and the development of feudalism, armies that was paid by the Prince where replaced by the knights that was paid in land. Much written evidence from the Middle Ages demonstrates how some elements of the Polish nobility did emerge from former Slavic rulers that were included in the ranks of the knightly class under the terms of chivalric law (ius militare) and iure polonico'.

As Polish clans (Polish: Rody) show different origins, only part of the szlachta can be traced all the way back to the traditional old clan system based on kinship. The clans that could show such kinship belonged to a House (Polish: Dom), like House of Odrowąż. Later, when different lines of the House created different surnames after their properties, the House turned into a Clan Odrowąż, if relation between clan members was still based on genealogical kinship, having common ancestors. Other szlachta were not related and their unions were mostly voluntary and based on followership and brotherhood rather than kinship, still being full members of the Clan creating Clan politics like in Clan Ostoja or Clan Abdank but forming Heraldic clan. In the end, due to adoptions and other circumstances, all Clans in Poland turned into Heraldic Clans.

A leaf from the "Łaski's Statute" depicting the Polish Senate

In the year 1244, Bolesław, Duke of Masovia, identified members of the knights' clan as members of a genealogia:

"I received my good servitors [Raciborz and Albert] from the land of [Great] Poland, and from the clan [genealogia] called Jelito, with my well-disposed knowledge [i.e., consent and encouragement] and the cry [vocitatio], [that is], the godło, [by the name of] Nagody, and I established them in the said land of mine, Masovia, [on the military tenure described elsewhere in the charter]."

The documentation regarding Raciborz and Albert's tenure is the earliest surviving of the use of the clan name and cry defining the honorable status of Polish knights. The names of knightly genealogiae only came to be associated with heraldic devices later in the Middle Ages and in the early modern period. The Polish clan name and cry ritualized the ius militare, i.e., the power to command an army; and they had been used some time before 1244 to define knightly status.

According to Polish historian Tadeusz Manteuffel, a Polish clan (ród) consisted of people related by blood and descending from a common ancestor, giving the ród/clan a highly developed sense of solidarity (see gens). The starosta (or starszyna) had judicial and military power over the ród/clan, although this power was often exercised with an assembly of elders. Strongholds called gród were built where a unifying religious cult was powerful, where trials were conducted, and where clans gathered in the face of danger. The opole was the territory occupied by a single tribe. Such clans often used signs (proto-Coat of Arms) that later, during 13th century become Coat of Arms of the House or the Clan. The origin of those proto-CoA is controversial. Some, like Sulimirski, clame Sarmatian origin and some like Piekosiński claim that those signs are Runes of dynastic tribal rulers.

Heraldic symbols began to be used in Poland in the 13th century. The generic Polish term for a coat of arms, herb, was used for the first time in year 1415 at the Royal Office with text et quatuor herbis,  originating as a translation of the Czech erb, which in turn came from the German Erbe - heritage. 

During the Union of Horodło (1413), 47 Prince and Boyar families of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were adopted into 47 Polish noble clans and began to use Polish coats of arms.

Medieval Polish Coat of Arms

Since there was no Heraldic authority in Poland or in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, many old Polish coats of arms were in time changed by different publications, losing their original appearances. Heraldic Commission was registered on 20 January 2010.  Although many medieval Polish coats of arms were presented in several Western European Roll of arms, there were no publications that presented original coats of arms in Poland until the 20th century, until pl:Adam Heymowski began to work on recovering old Polish coats of arms. His work was continued by Professor pl:Józef Szymański (historyk) that finally published Armorial of original Polish CoA.

Ancient Pałuki family and their CoA was visiually close to Topór CoA and it was in time incoorporated to Clan Topór, using similar CoA. Next, evolution of Ostoja CoA where the Dragon was replaced by feathers and the cross by the sword followed by other differences between ancient and modern versions. Also, in many Polish coat of arms there are so called variations of the CoA which is very special for Polish heraldry. In many cases, variations are simple errors, sometimes family wished to make difference inside the Clan and in other cases CoA have been called variation instead of CoA of certain family CoA just because they look similar which all together create unique Heraldic clan organisation in Poland.

None of variations above have anything incommon with Ostoja, just that they look similar. From the left: CoA of Fincke von Finkenthal family that received nobility in 1805, Ostarzewski family that received nobility in 1785, Krall family that received nobility in 1768. Next is CoA of Szyszko family followed by CoA of Turkuł and then Wysocki family belonging to the Clan of Kolumna with specific variation called "Kolumna with wings", still noted as variation of Ostoja. After Wysocki, CoA of Zawadzki family, Mokrzewski, Wasilewski and finally CoA of Orda family.[29][30]

Starting with proto-CoA and families like Odrowąż being House of Odrowąż, Polish family names were appended in many cases with –cki or –ski in reference to the name of their properties; for example, if a person named Chelmski acquired the town of Poniec, he would change his surname to Poniecki. Furthermore, Jerzykowski (de Jerzykowo) that owned property of Baranowo changed his surname to Baranowski (de Baranowo) and Baranowski that owned property of Chrzastowo change the surname to Chrzastowski (de Chrzastowo). A family become a Clan or "Heraldic family" using same CoA. Later, when Clans adopted several families, they formed Heraldic clan, families using same CoA, in many cases defending Clan politics but not necessary blood related to each other.


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