Old Homes of New Americans

Polish Country Life in Ancient Days
Chapter 6

Picturesque Poland -- The Gulf between Rulers and Ruled -- What constituted a Noble -- Hauteville's Racy Account of the Habits of the Nobles -- Doings in the Banqueting -- Hall Free Peasants and how they were stripped of their Freedom -- The Hard Lot of the Peasants -- The Ancient Inns of Poland -- The Polish Jew.


Life in the cities to-day tends to uniformity the world around. As the frock coat and evening dress reduce mankind to a dull uniformity, so all modern life tends to sameness and monotony. Educated men are much the same in all lands. Professional men have the same earmarks in Poland as in America. In the country districts, to be sure, one finds more variety of costume and custom, but even here Paris fashions are creeping in, though Perhaps a year behind the times. To find what is most picturesque in the social customs of Poland, one must go back a century or more.

The people of unhappy Poland were divided into two great classes, the nobles and the peasants; and it·was largely because of the overbearing domination of the former and the pitiful serfdom of the latter, without any great middle class between, that the downfall of Poland was so complete. Because of the great fixed gulf between the rulers and the ruled, Poland has been swept off the map of the world.

A noble was a man who possessed land, or whose ancestors had possessed land. He might be as poor as poverty, and, barefooted, drive his one hired horse before his plough, but he was still a noble and had a right to wear a sword, though it might be a rusty one and tied by a string to his girdle. But he must not learn a trade or engage in business, or he would lose his patent of nobility. This threw the business of the country into the hands of the Jews, who fattened on the foolishness of the nobility and the necessities of the peasants.

A French writer, Hauteville, gives us a racy and amusing account of the habits of the nobles two hundred years ago, when Poland was still a very considerable factor among the nations of the world. He writes:

When the Polanders make a feast, all the guests who are invited must bring a knife, fork, and spoon along with them, because it is not a custom to lay any of these utensils upon the table; they sew a piece of linen round the tablecloth, which serves for napkins. After all the guests are come, the gates are shut and not opened till all the company are risen from the table and all the plate is found; for if they did not use this precaution, the footmen would steal part of it; and this is also the reason why they lay neither knives, spoons, forks, nor napkins upon the table. Every person of quality has a hall in his house, which they call the banqueting-hall, in which there is a place for a side-table, surrounded with balusters. This side-table, from which the cloth is never taken off till it is very dirty, is covered with abundance of plate, and over it is a place for the music, which is usually composed of violins and organs. Those who are invited to the feast bring their footmen with them, and as soon as they are seated at the table, every one of them cuts off one half of his bread, which he gives with a plate full of meat to his servant, who, after he has shared it with his comrade, stands behind his master and eats it. If the master calls twice for a glass of wine or other liquor, the servant brings as much more, and drinks in the same glass with his master without rinsing it. Though there is a great deal of meat brought to the table, there is nothing carried back to the kitchen, not even of the last course; for the servants seize upon all the meat, and their ladies make each of them carry a napkin to bring away the dry sweetmeats or fruits that are brought to the table.

This seems to be not unlike the modern Japanese custom, where it is polite to wrap up in a paper napkin the fruit and sweetmeats you do not eat, tuck them into your wide sleeve, if you wear a Japanese costume, and take them home with you.

In the earlier and happier days of Poland, one class of so-called free peasants had some rights, but gradually these were taken away, and with the lower class of peasants all practically became slaves of the nobles, who had a right to all of their labor and even to their lives; for if a noble killed a peasant, his punishment was only a nominal fine.

No peasant could own a foot of land. He could not change his home or leave his owner's estate. He was bound body and soul to his master. No wonder that under such a system, the life-blood of the nation gradually grew thin and weak. It was as bad for the nobles as for the serfs in the end.

In another chapter has been described the elegance and luxury of the Polish nobles who went as a deputation to Paris to invite Henry of Valois to become their king. Contrast this with the condition of the Polish peasants, as described shortly before this by the French author I have before quoted:-- The furniture of their houses consists of some earthen ot wooden dishes, and a bed which they make of chaff or feathers, with a sort of coverlet over it. Their stoves have no chimney to let out the smoke, which has no other passage but a small window about four feet from the ground. When they go into their cottages they are forced to stoop that they may not be stifled with the smoke, which is so thick above the little window that one cannot see the roof, and yet it is impossible to go to bed in the winter without stoves.

There are no inns in Poland where one may lodge conveniently and be accommodated with a bed. The only houses of entertainment are places, built of wood, which they call Karczma, where travelers are I obliged to lodge with the horses, cows, and hogs in a long stable made of boards, ill-joined, and thatched with straw. It is true that there is a chamber at the end of it with a stove, but it is impossible for one to lodge in it in the summer, for they never open the windows even in the hottest weather; so that strangers choose rather to lie in the stables in the summer than in the chamber. And, besides, the gospodarz, or innkeeper, lodges in that room with his children and whole family. Those who have occasion to travel in the summer may avoid part of these inconveniences by lying in a barn on fresh straw; for the gospodarz gathers and locks up every morning the straw which was given at night to those who lodged in the stable or chamber, in order to reserve it for those who shall come to lodge after them.

It must be remembered, however, that Poland was not the only country where the peasantry lived in what would seem to us the depths of destitution. It is doubtful if the condition of the English peasantry in the seventeenth century was much better, or the lodging-houses much more comfortable. Certainly many peasants' houses in Ireland, even down to the close of the nineteenth century, were little better, though recent reforms have for the most part greatly improved them.

The Jews were never a negligible quantity in Poland, having entered the country in the early years of its history. They have held the trade and commerce in their grasp during all these centuries. The peasants easily become victims to their commerciaI shrewdness, and get head over ears in debt to them, mortgaging lands and houses to obtain the means of subsistence.

This has made them hated by high and low alike. In the early days they were outcasts, and were obliged to wear Yellow caps to show their nationality. In these days, though they are allowed to discard their yellow caps, they make themselves no less conspicuous by the long corkscrew curls that hang down in front of either ear, and their long coats which come down to their heels. At least this is true in Austrian Poland, with which this book has chiefly to do, and a Jew in Galicia is as unmistakable as though he wore a placard on his forehead, proclaiming, "I am a Jew." At every railway station you see him, and in the towns you find him engaged in all sorts of business, from a push cart enterprise to a big department store, but you never see him following the plough or employed in the factory. In Russian Poland he has had to discard his curls, as they were forbidden by the decree of Nicholas I, but he clings to his long coat, his "Jewish gaberdine," which almost sweeps the ground. No wonder that, ostracized, hated, spit upon, he seeks a new and more congenial home in America.

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