Poland Social Life and Customs
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Knowing about the society your ancestor lived in can help you in your research. Learning about everyday life, religious practices, customs, and traditions is particularly helpful if you choose to write a history of your family. Research procedures and genealogical sources are different for each area and time period and are affected by the local customs and traditions.
The Family History Library does not have many books related to the social life and customs in Poland. You will probably find more books of this sort through a public or university library. The sources that are available at the Family History Library are listed in the catalog under:
POLAND - SOCIAL LIFE AND CUSTOMS
Social Classes In Poland
Magnates were Feudal Lords who lived on large estates and owned castles, towns, or villages. They became powerful in the sixteenth century and had enormous political power. Many had their own private armies. Most of the Magnates income was from rent paid by peasants living on their property and farming their land. They also found other ways to collect money from the peasants, but almost always avoided paying taxes themselves, which angered the lower nobility. The gentry which were magnates and nobility controlled the social, political, and economic life in Poland, and tried to keep the burghers and peasants from any participation of Polish culture.
The nobility of Poland emerged as clans before 1000 AD and had their own mark (taiga), and evolved in time to the symbols on their Polish Coats of Arms. They also became landowners. At first nobles were known by their first name and then by the office they held. Most surnames were taken from the name of estates called “family nests”. The eastern territories preferred Old Slavonic patronymic endings of –ic and –icz. In Lithuania –owitz was preferred. Names evolved into the format of Title, Christian name-de-Family Estate name. Sometimes the Polish “z” was used at the end of the name to denote “of” or “from”. During the fifteenth century it was changed to “-ski” or “-cki” with the same meaning as the Polish “z” (of or from). Only nobility could use the “-ski” or “-cki” ending on their surname. Having a surname ending in “-ski” or “-cki” meant the person was of noble birth, but eventually many peasants living on their lord’s land, took his surname even though they were not related to him or of a family of nobility.
By the eighteenth century, double names became popular. The clan name was followed by the surname. From 850 AD and on, all nobility, rich or poor, were equal in legal status in the Parliament (Sejm), and voted to elect the rulers of Poland. Lesser nobles soon came under the power of the magnates and were controlled by them which undermined the Parliament (Sejm) and led to the downfall of the Commonwealth’s powerful status. The noble’s duty was the defense of Poland, so they served in the military. The occupations they were allowed to hold were: soldier, gentleman farmer, scholar, priest, public official, or administrator of a higher noble’s estate. This led to the immigration of foreigners who filled other business positions.
The peasants were the largest class in Poland. Their status were from the wealthiest , who could afford to hire laborers to work for them, to paupers. The peasants were obligated to work for their lords, as this was how they paid their rent. At first it was once a week, but the lords increased it over time and the amount of work depended on the peasant’s status. The wealthiest peasants were required to do more work, but could afford to have others do it for them. Because the nobles controlled Parliament (Sejm) they could make any changes in the law that they wanted and increased their control to the point that they reduced the peasant’s status as the lord’s property and could sell serfs. The serfs needed the lord’s permission to marry, move, or choose a trade.
There was also a social order among the peasants:
A Kmiec was a farmer who worked enough land to support his family and owned two or more cows, horses, sheep oxen, goats, and pigs. He also owned several buildings on the farm.
A Potrolik worked a half-sized farm.
A Zagrodnik owned a farmhouse, out buildings, animals and a vegetable garden. Many peasants had no crop land.
A Chalupnik lived in a small cottage.
A Komornik was a tenant farmer, or day laborer.
In the nineteenth century, church records recorded peasants with land as “Agricola”. The Napoleonic Code abolished serfdom in the Grand Duchy of Warsaw (1803-1818) and ended in most of Prussia Poland in 1821 or 1823. Serfs in Austria Poland were emancipated in 1848, but their farms were so small they couldn’t make a living. Czar Alexander II abolished serfdom in all Russian lands in 1861. After the 1863 uprising, he gave the land to the tenants who farmed it. Serfs could be freed by their owners, or just run away. When the peasants gained their freedom in the nineteenth century, they became more aware of their Polish national culture, and folk culture also gained popularity in the rural areas. Peasants were more prosperous working the farmland in the German occupied areas than the Austrian occupied areas of Poland. Many Poles are still living in the 200 year old cottages. Roofs have been re-thatched and sod has been used on country roofs.
Burghers were foreigners, and free citizens in the town in which they lived. They were German, Jews, Italian, Dutch, and Scots, who immigrated to Poland to work as merchants, traders, bankers, and craftsmen. These are the occupations denied to the nobility of Poland by law.
Professionals became a separate class in the mid eighteenth century and came mostly from burgher and gentry classes. They were the physicians, scientists, clergy, scholars, teachers, architects, artists, writers, and lawyers.
Loose people were people from all social classes and had no possession. Some were thieves, others prostitutes, or runaway serfs. Romanian gypsies who lived in nomadic camps in Poland – Lithuania after 1501 were also called loose people. Remnants of the old feudal system can be seen in Poland. Rural areas still have manor houses and peasant cottages used as residences. Some have been in the same family for many generations.
Source: Chorzempa, Rosemary A. Polish Roots = Korzenie Polskie. Pages 58 - 62. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Pub. Co., c1993. (Family History Library INTL Book 943.8 D27c).