Sarmatism embodied the dominant lifestyle, culture and ideology of the szlachta (nobility) in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from the 16th century to the 19th century. Together with Golden Liberty, it formed the unique aspects of the Commonwealth's culture.

The name and the culture were reflected in contemporary Polish literature, like Jan Chryzostom Pasek's memoirs or the poems of Wacław Potocki. Szlachta wore long coats trimmed with fur (żupany) and thigh-high boots, and bore sabres (szable); mustaches were popular. The "Sarmatian" image which they strove to attain was an ideal of a nobility on horseback, equals among themselves (the "Golden Freedom") and invincible to foreigners. [Simon Schama, "Landscape and Memory" 1995:38.] Sarmatism praised past victories of the Polish army, and required the Polish noblemen to cultivate this tradition. An inseparable element of the festive costume was a sabre, usually in the specific form of a szabla, the karabela.

Sarmatia (Polish: "Sarmacja") was the semi-legendary and poetic name of the Commonwealth, which was fashionable through the eighteenth century, designating qualities associated with the literate citizenry of the vast Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The culture, lifestyle and the ideology of the Polish nobility were greatly affected by Sarmatism. It was a unique phenomenon for its cultural mixture of Eastern, Western and native traditions. The trend considerably influenced the noble cultures of other countries, such as Hungary, Moldova and the Slavic regions. Later Polish culture continued to be profoundly influenced by the Sarmatian tradition. Criticised heavily in the period of the Polish Enlightenment, Sarmatism was rehabilitated during the generations embracing Polish Romanticism. Having survived the common-sense Positivist literary realism, it enjoyed a triumphant comeback with "The Trilogy" by Henryk Sienkiewicz, Poland's first Nobel Prize winner (1905).


The fifteenth-century Polish chronicler Jan Długosz was the first to connect the prehistory of Poland with Sarmatians, and the connection was confirmed by other historians and chroniclers, such as Marcin Bielski, Marcin Kromer and Maciej Miechowita. Other Europeans depended for their view of Polish Sarmatism on Miechowita's "Tractatus de Duabus Sarmatiis", a work which provided Western European readers with a substantial source of information about the territories and peoples of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in a language of international currency. The name came from alleged ancestors of the szlachta, the Sarmatians, in reality a confederacy of mostly Iranian tribes north of the Black Sea, described by Herodotus in the fifth century BC as descendants of Scythians and Amazons, and displaced by the Goths in the second century AD.Andrzej Wasko, [ Sarmatism or the Enlightenment] : The Dilemma of Polish Culture, "Sarmatian Review" XVII.2.] After many permutations, this produced the legend that Poles were the descendants of the ancient Sauromates, a warlike tribe originating in Asia who later resettled in northeastern Europe.

In his 1970 publication "The Sarmatians" (in the series Ancient peoples and places) Tadeusz Sulimirski (1898–1983), a Polish-British historian, archaeologist, and researcher on the ancient Sarmatian tribes, listed a number of ethnological traits that szlachta shared with Sarmatians, including traditions, weaponry and military practices, tamgas, and relict burial costumes, giving more information on how the legend may have originated.


This belief became an important part of szlachta culture, penetrated all aspects of life and served to differentiate Polish szlachta from Western nobility (which szlachta called "pludracy", a reference to trousers, not worn by the szlachta but popular among the Westerners) and their customs. Sarmatian concept enshrined equality among all szlachta, traditions, horseback riding, provincial village life, peace and relative pacifism [In the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, in which the Sejm resisted and vetoed most royal proposals for war; for some examples and discussion, see cite book|title=The northern wars: war, state and society in northeastern Europe, 1558-1721 |first=Robert I.|last= Frost|publisher=Longman's|location= Harlow, England; New York 2000. Especially Pp. 9-11, 114, 181, 323. See also democratic peace theory.] , popularised eastern (almost oriental) clothing and looks (żupan, kontusz, sukmana, pas kontuszowy, delia, szabla), served to integrate the multiethnic nobility by creating an almost nationalist sense of unity and pride of the szlachta's political Golden Freedoms.

Sarmatians strongly valued social and family ties. Women were treated with honour and gallantry. Conversations were one of the favourite preoccupations. Guests were always welcomed – relatives, friends, even strangers, especially from abroad. Latin was widely spoken. Sumptuous feasts with large amount of alcohol were organised. Male quarrels and fighting during such events were quite common. At the parties the polonaise, mazurka, and oberek were the most popular dances. Honour was of prime relevance. Men lived longer than women, they also got married later. Marriage was described as ‘deep friendship’. Men often travelled a lot (to the Sejms, Sejmiki, indulgences, law courts, or common movements). Women stayed at home and took care of the property, livestock and children. Although large numbers of children were born, many of them died before reaching maturity. Girls and boys were brought up separately, either in the company of women or men. Suing, even for really irrelevant things was common, but in most cases a compromise was reached.

Sarmatian costume stood out from that worn by the noblemen of other European countries, and had its roots in the Orient. It was long, dignified, rich and colourful. One of its most characteristic elements was the kontusz, which was worn with the decorative kontusz belt. Underneath was worn the żupan, and over the żupan would be the delia. Clothes for the mightiest families were made of crimson and scarlet. The szarawary were a typical lower-body clothing, and the calpac, decorated with heron’s feathers, was worn on the head.

Funeral ceremonies in Sarmatian Poland were highly unusual, and unknown in other parts of Europe. They were carefully planned shows, full of ceremony and splendour. Elaborate preparations were made in the period between a nobleman’s death and his funeral, which employed a large number of craftsmen, architects, decorators, servants and cooks. Sometimes many months passed before all the preparations were completed. Before the burial, the coffin with the corpse was laid in a church amid the elaborate architecture of the "castrum doloris" ("castle of mourning"). Heraldic shields, which were placed on the sides of the coffin, and a tin sheet with an epitaph served a supplementary role and provided information about the deceased person. Religious celebrations were usually preceded by a procession which ended in the church. It was headed by a horseman who acted the role of the deceased nobleman and was covered in his armour. A horseman would enter the church and fall off his horse with a tremendous bang and clank, showing in this way the triumph of death over the earthly might and knightly valour. Some funeral ceremonies lasted for as long as four days, ending with a wake which had little to do with the seriousness of the situation, and could easily turn into sheer revelry. Occasionally an army of clergy took part in the burial (in the 18th century 10 bishops, 60 canons and 1705 priests took part in the funeral of a Polish nobleman).

Political thought

Sarmatians acknowledged the vital importance of Poland since it was supposed to be an oasis of the Polish nobles’ Golden Liberty, surrounded by absolutist countries, and at the same time the bulwark of Christendom, fiercely attacked on all sides, by Protestants, Muslims and members of the Orthodox Church.

What contemporary Polish historians consider one of the most essential features of this tradition is not Sarmatian ideology but the manner in which the "Rzeczpospolita" was governed. The democratic concepts of law and order, self-government and elective offices constituted an inseparable part of Sarmatism. The king, though elected, still held the central position in the state, but his power was limited by various legal acts and requirements. Moreover, only the nobles were given political rights, namely the vote in the Sejmik and the Sejm. Every "poslel" (or member of sejm, had the right to exercise the so-called "liberum veto", which could block the passage of a proposed new resolution or law. Finally, in the event that the king failed to abide by the laws of the state, or tried to limit or question nobles’ privileges, they had the right to refuse the king’s commands, and to oppose him by force of arms.

The political system of the "Rzeczpospolita" was regarded by the nobility as the best in the world, and the Polish Sejm as (factually ["Cronicae et gesta ducum sive principum Polonorum"] ) the oldest. The system was frequently compared to that in Republican Rome and to the Greek polis, both of which eventually surrendered to tyrants. The Henrician Articles were considered the foundation of the system. Every attempt to infringe on these laws was treated as a great crime.

Philosophy and religion

In the sphere of religion, Catholicism was the dominant faith. Providence and the grace of God were often emphasised. All earthly matters were perceived as a means to a final goal – Heaven. Penance was stressed as a means of saving from the eternal punishment. It was believed that God watches over everything and everything has its own sense. People willingly took part in the religious life: masses, indulgences and pilgrimages. A special devotion to Saint Mary, the saints and the Passion was practiced. Religious tolerance weakened, infidels were gradually deprived of their privileges, yet religious confrontations never seriously escalated.

Sarmatian art and writings

Art was treated by Sarmatians as propagandistic in function: its role was to immortalise a good name of the family, extol the virtues of ancestors and their great deeds. Consequently the personal or family portrait was in great demand. Its characteristic features were realism, variety of colour and rich symbolism (epitaphs, coats of arms, military accessories). People were usually depicted on a subdued, dark background, in a three-quarter view.

Sarmatian culture was portrayed especially by:
* Wacław Potocki
* Jan Chryzostom Pasek
* Wespazjan Kochowski
* Andrzej Zbylitowski
* Hieronim Morsztyn
* Jan Andrzej Morsztyn
* Daniel Naborowski

Latin was very popular and often mixed with the Polish language in macaronic writings and in speech. Knowing at least some Latin was an obligation of any "szlachcic".

In the nineteenth century the Sarmatist culture of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was portrayed and popularised by Henryk Sienkiewicz in his trilogy ("Ogniem i Mieczem, Potop, Pan Wolodyjowski"). In the twentieth century, Sienkiewicz's trilogy was filmed, and Sarmatian culture became the subject of many modern books (by Jacek Komuda and others), songs (like that of Jacek Kaczmarski) and even role-playing games like Dzikie Pola.

One of the most distinctive art forms of the Sarmatians were the coffin portraits, a form of portraiture characteristic of Polish Baroque painting, not to be found anywhere else in Europe. The octagonal or hexagonal portraits were fixed to the head piece of the coffin so that the deceased person who, being a Christian with an immortal soul was always represented as alive, could hold a dialogue with the mourners during lavish funeral celebrations. Such portraits were props which evoked the illusion of the dead person's presence, and also a ritual medium that provided a link between the living and those departing for eternity. The few surviving portraits, often painted in a person’s lifetime, are a dependable source of knowledge about the seventeenth-century Polish nobility. The dead were depicted either in their official clothes or in a travelling garb, since death was believed to be a journey into the unknown. The oldest known coffin portrait in Poland is that depicting Stefan Batory, dating from the end of the 17th century.

Many of the szlachta residences were wooden mansions [See houses in Poland.] Numerous palace] and churches were built in Sarmatian Poland. There was a trend towards native architectural solutions which were characterised by Gothic forms and unique stucco ornamentation of vaults. Gravestones were erected in churches for those who rendered considerable services for the motherland. There were built tens of thousands of manor houses, the majority of which was made of wood (pine, fir and larch). At the entrance there was a porch. The central place where visitors were received was a large entrance hall. In the manor house there was an intimate part for women, and a more public one for men. Manor houses had often corner annexes. Walls were adorned with portraits of ancestors, mementoes and the spoils. Few of the manor houses from the Old Polish period have survived, but their tradition was continued in the nineteenth and twentieth century.

Modern usage

In contemporary Poland, the word "Sarmatian" (Polish: "sarmacki") is a form of ironic self-identification, and is sometimes used as a synonym for the Polish character.


In its early, ideal form sarmatism looked like a good cultural movement: it supported religious belief, honesty, national pride, courage, equality and freedom. However as any doctrine that put some social class above others it became perverted in time. Late sarmatism transformed belief into intolerance and fanaticism, honesty into political naivety, pride into arrogance, courage into stubbornness, quality and freedom of szlachta into nihilism.

Sarmatism, which evolved during Polish Renaissance and entrenched itself during Polish baroque, found itself opposed to the ideology of the Polish Enlightenment. When in the second half of the 18th century the word 'Sarmatism' made its reappearance, its meaning was decidedly negative. 'Sarmatism' functioned as a synonym for a backward and unenlightened mind, and as a contemptuous label for the political opponents of Stanisław August Poniatowski, the refomer-king: the provincial and traditionalist petty szlachta. Such meanings were ascribed to it first in journalism and then in literary works. The Enlightenment writers treated the political and cultural implications of Sarmatism as a convenient target for criticism and mockery. Monitor, a militantly reformist periodical sponsored by King Poniatowski, used the term in a derogatory fashion, and so did Franciszek Zabłocki in his comedies, like his play Sarmatism (Sarmatyzm, 1785).

A rehabilitation of the Sarmatism and old Polish szlachta began during Polish Romanticism, a time of military uprisings and memories associated with them, which helped in the rehabilitation of Sarmatism, with its cult of courage and military prowess. This became quite prominent especially during and after the November Uprising. The genre of gawęda szlachecka (a nobleman's tale) created by Henryk Rzewuski is closely associated with reverence for the Sarmatian spirit. Visible in Polish messianism and in works of great Polish poets like Adam Mickiewicz ("Pan Tadeusz"), Juliusz Słowacki and Zygmunt Krasiński, as well as writers (Henryk Sienkiewicz and his "Trylogia"), by and large, Polish Romanticism is indebted to Polish history in ways not observable in other European countries, where the contrast between past glory and present misery was not that pronounced, or did not exist at all.

See also

* Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth#Culture
* Szlachta#Szlachta culture


*Tadeusz Sulimirski, "The Sarmatians (Ancient peoples and places)", Thames and Hudson, 1970, ISBN 0-500-02071-X


External links

* [ The Sarmatian Review]
* [ Sarmatism or the Enlightenment - The Dilemma of Polish Culture by Andrzej Wasko, Sarmatian Review, April 1997]
* [ Martin Pollack. Sarmatische Landschaften: Nachrichten aus Litauen, Belarus, der Ukraine, Polen und Deutschland] (a book of short stories with modern views on Sarmatia, published in 2006 in German language)

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth — Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania[a] ← …   Wikipedia

  • Baroque in Poland — Polish baroque lasted from the late 16th century to the middle of the 18th century. As with the baroque style elsewhere in Europe, the Polish baroque stressed the richness of the contemporary art forms. In contrast to the previous Renaissance… …   Wikipedia

  • Szlachta — (IPAudio|Szlachta.ogg| [ ʃlaxta] ) refers to the noble class in the Kingdom of Poland, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (since 1569 semi federal, semi confederal part of Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth) and territories under their control (such as… …   Wikipedia

  • Poland — /poh leuhnd/, n. a republic in E central Europe, on the Baltic Sea. 38,700,291; ab. 121,000 sq. mi. (313,400 sq. km). Cap.: Warsaw. Polish, Polska. * * * Poland Introduction Poland Background: Poland is an ancient nation that was conceived around …   Universalium

  • Sarmatians — Infobox Ethnic group group=Tnavbar header|Sarmatians|Scythians poptime=Unknown popplace=Eastern Europe Central Asia Northern India langs=Scythian language rels=Animism related= *Sarmatians *Dahae *Sakas *Indo Scythians *MassagetesThe Sarmatians,… …   Wikipedia

  • Maciej Miechowita — (also known as Maciej z Miechowa, Maciej of Miechów, Maciej Karpiga, Matthias de Miechow) (1457 – 8 September 1523) was a Polish renaissance scholar, professor of Jagiellonian University, historian, chronicler, geographer, medical doctor (royal… …   Wikipedia

  • Wespazjan Kochowski — Wespazjan (Vespasian) Kochowski (coat of arms: Nieczuja) (born in 1633 in Gaj in Sandomierz Land, died on June 6, 1700 in Kraków) was one of the most noted historians and poets of Polish Baroque, the most typical representative of the philosophy… …   Wikipedia

  • Age of Enlightenment — Age of Reason redirects here. For other uses, see Age of Reason (disambiguation) …   Wikipedia

  • Scythians — Infobox Ethnic group group=Scythians poptime=Unknown popplace=Eastern Europe Central Asia West Asia Northern India langs=Scythian language rels=Animism related= *Sarmatians *Dahae *Sakas *Indo Scythians *Massagetes *Jatts *NairsThe Scythians or… …   Wikipedia

  • Wawrzyniec Grzymała Goślicki — (Latin: Laurentius Grimaldius Gosliscius ; born between 1530 and 1540, died on October 31, 1607) was a Polish nobleman, Bishop of Poznań (1601 1607), political thinker and philosopher best known for his book De optimo senatore (1568; English… …   Wikipedia

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”