History of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

State – Society – Culture – Editorial work by Iwo Hryniewicz – Translated by Grażyna Waluga (Chapters I–V) and Dorota Sobstel (Chapters VI–X)

by Urszula Augustyniak (Author)
©2016 Monographs 574 Pages
Open Access


The book presents an outline of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from the 16th to the 18th century and offers a view of the realities of political life, organization of the judiciary, the economy, coexistence of different ethnic groups and religions, high and popular culture and achievements of art. While the federal character of the state and multicultural society is often overlooked in the synthesis of this period, the creation of civil society in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the cultural heritage was the joint achievement of its residents, regardless of their state and ethnic divisions.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Editors’ Preface
  • Introduction
  • History of a Society, not of a Nation
  • The Question of Nations in the Early Modern Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth
  • Structure and Periodization
  • The State of Research and Literature on the Subject
  • Chapter One: Physiognomy of the Commonwealth
  • 1. Names, Emblems, Capitals
  • 1.1. Name
  • 1.2. Emblem and Coats of Arms of the Lands
  • 1.3. Capital Cities
  • 2. Geographical Position and Natural Conditions
  • 2.1. Geographical Position
  • 2.2. Natural Conditions
  • 2.3. Geopolitical Location
  • 2.4. Region of East-Central Europe
  • 3. Federative Commonwealth
  • 3.1. Granular Structure of Early Modern Europe
  • 3.2. Federative Structure of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth
  • 3.3. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth
  • 3.3.1. Terms of the Union of 1569
  • 3.3.2. Consequences and Appraisals of the Polish-Lithuanian Union
  • 3.3.3. The Influence of the Union on the Rise of Magnates’ Power
  • 3.3.4. Legal and Constitutional Consequences of the Polish-Lithuanian Union
  • 4. Territory
  • 4.1. Territory of the State
  • 4.2. Administrative and Judicial Divisions
  • 4.2.1. The Crown
  • 4.2.2. Great Poland and Little Poland
  • 4.2.3. Masovia
  • 4.2.4. Rus (Ruthenia)
  • 4.3. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania
  • 4.3.1. Judicial Provinces
  • 4.4. Ukraine
  • 4.5. Provinces and Fiefs of the Baltic Region
  • 4.5.1. Royal Prussia
  • 4.5.2. Warmia (Ermland)
  • 4.5.3. Fief Territories on the Baltic Sea
  • 4.5.4. Changes in the Relations of Provinces and Baltic Fiefs with the Commonwealth in 16th–17th Centuries
  • 4.6. Border Territories
  • 4.7. The Danubian Principalities
  • 5. Mastery of Space
  • 5.1. Mapping Techniques and the Development of Cartography
  • 5.2. Distances
  • 5.3. Communication Routes
  • 5.4. The Space of Power
  • 6. Borders
  • 6.1. Technical Aspects of Boundary Delimitation
  • 6.2. Cultural and Administrative Borders
  • 6.3. Defence of Borders
  • 7. Territorial and Border Changes to the End of the 18th Century
  • 7.1. Administrative Changes at the Decline of the Republic
  • 7.1.1. Administrative Reform of the Four-Year Sejm
  • 7.1.2. Grodno Sejm Legislation
  • 7.1.3. The Partitions of the Commonwealth (1772, 1793, 1795)
  • Chapter Two: Political System and Form of Government
  • 1. Political Terminology
  • 2. Legal Political Orders of Mixed Government
  • 2.1. Interregnum
  • 2.2. Institutions and Proceedings of the Interregnum
  • 3. Institutions of Central Government
  • 3.1. The King’s Authority
  • 3.2. Limitations and Obligations of the Elected King
  • 3.3. Sources of Royal Incomes
  • 3.4. Lèse-Majesté
  • 3.5. The Royal Court
  • 3.6. Royal Chancellery and the Royal Secretaries
  • 4. Central Offices of the Commonwealth
  • 4.1. Offices of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania
  • 4.2. The Hierarchy of Central Offices
  • 4.3. Appointment to Offices
  • 4.4. Central Officials
  • 4.5. Attempts to Modernize the Central Administration under the Wettins
  • 5. Local Administration
  • 5.1. Starostwo
  • 5.2. Land Offices
  • 5.3. Promotions of Officials
  • 5.4. Sale of Offices
  • 5.5. State Administration versus Private Administration
  • 6. Parliamentary System
  • 6.1. Parliamentary Traditions of the Crown and Lithuania
  • 6.2. The General Sejm
  • 6.3. Three Estates of the Sejm
  • 6.4. Organization of the Sejm
  • 6.5. Procedures of Sejm Sessions
  • 6.6. Liberum Veto
  • 6.7. A Sejm on Horseback
  • 7. Confederation and Rokosz (Rebellion)
  • 7.1. The Genesis of Confederation
  • 7.2. General Confederation
  • 7.3. Rokosz
  • 8. General Sejmiks and Convocations in Lithuania
  • 8.1. General Sejmiks
  • 8.2. Lithuanian Convocations
  • 9. Sejmiks
  • 9.1. Types of Sejmiks
  • 9.2. Rule of Sejmiks
  • 9.3. Clientelism of Sejmiks
  • 10. Towards a Constitutional Monarchy
  • 10.1. Program of Reforms
  • 10.2. Reforms of the Early Years of King Stanisław August
  • 10.2.1. System of Government
  • 10.2.2. The Project of Unification of the Crown and Lithuania
  • 10.3. Legislation of the Delegation Sejm (1767–1768)
  • 10.4. Legislation of the Partition Sejm (1773–1775)
  • 10.5. Sejms of 1776–1786
  • 10.6. The Four-Year Sejm. First Stage of Works (1788–1790)
  • 10.7. The Government Act of 1791 and Later Legislation of the Four-Year Sejm
  • 10.8. The Most Important Provisions of the Government Act of 1791
  • 10.8.1. Political System and Central Authorities
  • 10.8.2. Parliamentary Institutions
  • 10.8.3. Polish-Lithuanian Relations in the Legislation of the Great Sejm
  • 10.9. Legislation of the Grodno Sejm of 1793
  • 10.9.1. Laws on Political System
  • 10.9.2. Polish-Lithuanian Relations in the Legislation of Targowica and Grodno Confederations
  • 11. Political System of the 1794 Insurrection
  • 11.1. Central Authorities
  • 11.2. Local Administration
  • 11.3. Polish-Lithuanian Relations in the Acts of the Insurrection
  • 12. Ideas of Political System after the Loss of Independence
  • Chapter Three: Three Pillars of Power: Judiciary, Finances, and Army
  • 1. Heritage of the Estate Monarchy
  • 2. Codifications and Sources of Law
  • 3. The Judiciary
  • 3.1. Royal Courts and the Sejm Court
  • 3.2. Nobility Courts
  • 3.2.1. Courts of First Instance – Land Courts, Borough Courts and Chamberlain Courts
  • 3.2.2. Tribunals
  • 3.2.3. Special Courts
  • 3.3. Rural and Urban Courts
  • 3.4. The Bar
  • 3.5. Performance of the Judiciary
  • 3.6. Reforms of the Legal System at the Four-Year Sejm
  • 3.6.1. The Noble Judiciary System
  • 3.6.2. The Sejm Court
  • 3.6.3. The Municipal Judiciary and Assessory Courts
  • 3.6.4. The Rural Judicial System
  • 3.7. Criminal Courts of Kościuszko’s Insurrection
  • 4. Fiscal and Financial Matters
  • 4.1. Development of Public Finances and Taxes in the Commonwealth of the 16th to 17th Centuries
  • 4.2. Organization of Financial Authorities
  • 4.3. Court Treasure and Public Treasure
  • 4.4. Public and Private Income of the King
  • 4.5. Revenues of the Court Treasury
  • 4.6. Revenue to the Treasury of the Commonwealth
  • 4.7. Reforms of the Fiscal System in the 17th–18th Centuries
  • 4.8. Financial Burdens of the Catholic Clergy
  • 5. Military System
  • 5.1. Organization of the State Army in the 16th–17th Centuries
  • 5.2. Formations
  • 5.3. Command
  • 5.4. Social Composition of the Army
  • 5.5. Participation of Townsmen in the Defense of the Commonwealth
  • 5.6. Military Recruitment
  • 5.7. Military and Professional Training
  • 5.8. Soldier’s Pay and Army Supplies
  • 5.9. Modernization of the Army in the 18th Century
  • Chapter Four: The State and the Churches
  • 1. Relations between the State and Churches in the Early Modern Commonwealth
  • 1.1. Theory of Confessionalization
  • 1.2. Confederation of Warsaw (1573)
  • 1.3. Equal Rights of Confessions as a Constitutional Principle
  • 1.4. Equality of Confessions or Toleration?
  • 2. Christian Churches in the Commonwealth of the 16th–18th Centuries
  • 2.1. Roman Catholic Church
  • 2.2. Protestant Churches (Reformation Churches)
  • 2.2.1. Reformed Church
  • 2.2.2. Lutheran Church (Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession)
  • 2.3. Churches of the Eastern Tradition
  • 2.3.1. The Orthodox Church
  • 2.3.2. The Union of Brest (1596)
  • 2.3.3. Greek Catholic (Uniate) Church
  • 2.3.4. Orthodox Church after the Union of Brest
  • 2.3.5. Armenian Church
  • 3. Evolution of the State Policy towards Religion, the 16th–18th Centuries
  • 3.1. Religious Policy of the Two First Elective Kings
  • 3.2. King Sigismund III and the Counter-Reformation
  • 3.3. The Decline of Protestant Patronage. Conversions and Dying out of Protestant Families
  • 3.4. King Wladislaus IV’s Religious Policy
  • 3.5. An Attempt at Conciliation – Colloquium Charitativum (1645)
  • 3.6. Anti-Arian Decrees
  • 3.7. Limitation of Public Rights of Dissidents
  • 3.8. Situation of Protestants in the Wettin Times
  • 3.9. Dissident Cause under King Stanisław August Poniatowski
  • 3.10. Enlightened Catholicism
  • 3.11. Catholic Confessionalization
  • Chapter Five: Economy
  • 1. The Place of the Commonwealth within European Economy
  • 1.1. Economic Specificity of the Commonwealth
  • 1.2. A division of Europe along the Line of the Elbe River?
  • 1.3. Economic Regions of the Commonwealth
  • 1.4. Economy of the Crown versus European Economy – Main Stages and Factors of Changes
  • 2. The Crisis of the 17th Century
  • 2.1. Monetary Crisis
  • 2.2. Global Crisis of the 17th Century
  • 2.3. Mercantilism
  • 2.3.1. The Commonwealth’s Economists in the Face of the Monetary Crisis
  • 2.3.2. Solutions to the Crisis
  • 3. Commerce
  • 3.1. Organization of Commerce and Banking
  • 3.2. Place of the Commonwealth within European Trade
  • 3.3. Commercial Specificity of the Provinces and Regions
  • 3.4. Fairs and Contracts
  • 4. Transportation
  • 4.1. Land Transport
  • 4.2. Waterways
  • 4.3. Sea Transport
  • 5. Agriculture
  • 5.1. Farming Methods and Tools
  • 5.2. Stages of Transformation of Manorial Economy in the 16th–17th Centuries
  • 6. Horticulture and Fruit Farming
  • 7. Animal Husbandry
  • 8. Forestry
  • 8.1. Forest Protection
  • 8.2. Beekeeping
  • 9. Fishing Industry
  • 10. Crafts
  • 10.1. Organization of Crafts and Technological Innovations
  • 10.2. Main Stages and Tendencies of Changes
  • 11. Industry
  • 11.1. Cloth Manufacturing
  • 11.2. Mining Industry
  • 11.3. Metallurgy
  • 12. Economic Changes in the 18th Century
  • 12.1. Recession of the Second Half of the 17th – Early 18th Century
  • 12.2. Reconstruction of Economy in the Wettin Times
  • 12.3. Era of King Stanisław August Poniatowski
  • Chapter Six: Society
  • 1. Population Changes since the End of the 16th Century towards the End of the 18th Century
  • 1.1. The Reliability of Demographic Data
  • 2. Estates of the Realm
  • 2.1. The Factors of Social Structure Change in 16th to the 18th Centuries
  • 3. The Nobility
  • 3.1. Noble Exclusivism
  • 3.2. The Numerical Amount of the Nobility
  • 3.3. Citizenship
  • 3.4. The Factors of the Disintegration of the Noble Estate
  • 3.5. Economic Divisions within the Nobility
  • 3.6. The Magnates
  • 3.7. The Specificity of the Magnate Patronage in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Ukraine
  • 3.8. Groups at the Margins of the Noble Estate
  • 4. The Clergy: Estate or Estates?
  • 4.1. Catholic Clergy
  • 4.2. Internal Divisions within the Clergy
  • 4.3. Clergy of Other Christian Confessions
  • 5. The Burgher Estate?
  • 5.1. The Size of Cities and the Level of Urbanization
  • 5.2. Internal Divisions within the Burgher Estate
  • 5.3. The Decrease of the Burghers’ Participation in Public Life
  • 5.4. Methods of Bribing the Urban Elites
  • 5.5. Economic Decline of Cities in the Commonwealth
  • 6. The Peasant Estate?
  • 6.1. Stratification of the Peasants
  • 6.2. Regional Differentiation of the Rural Population
  • 7. Ethnic-Legal Groups
  • 7.1. The Scots
  • 7.2. The Armenians
  • 7.3. The Karaites
  • 7.4. The Jews
  • 8. Groups Outside the Law
  • 8.1. The Romani (Gypsies)
  • 8.2. Social Margin (the Loose People)
  • 9. Ethnic and Confessional Divisions
  • 9.1. The Ethnic Structure of the Commonwealth
  • 9.2. Multiculturalism
  • 9.3. The Nations of the Crown of the Polish Kingdom
  • 9.4. The Nations of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania
  • 9.5. The Evolution of Confessional Relations
  • 9.6. The Social and Ethnic Structure of Polish and Lithuanian Protestants
  • 9.7. The Nationalization of the Orthodox Church
  • 10. Multiethnicity and Multiculturalism in the Cities
  • 10.1. Tumults (Riots)
  • 11. Changes in the Social Structure during the Enlightenment
  • 11.1 The Collapse of Magnate Patronage
  • 11.2. Cities and Burghers
  • 11.3. Intelligentsia
  • 12. Peasant Reforms in the 18th Century
  • 12.1. New Regulations Regarding Land Usage
  • 12.2. Peasant Reforms of the Four-Year Sejm
  • 12.3. The Peasant Reforms of the Kościuszko Uprising
  • 13. The Enlightenment Civic Nation
  • 13.1. The Shift in the Concept of Nation
  • 13.2. The Nation and the Citizens
  • 13.3. The End of the State-Nation
  • Chapter Seven: Social Bonds and Conditions of Life
  • 1. Family and Marriage
  • 1.1. Family
  • 1.2. Marriage
  • 1.3. The Position of Women in the Family and in the Society
  • 1.4. Lifespan and Procreation
  • 1.5. Custody
  • 1.6. Kinship
  • 1.7. Clientelism and Patronage
  • 1.8. The Rituals of Social Life
  • 1.9. Upbringing and Socialization
  • 2. Social Environment
  • 2.1. The Countryside
  • 2.2. The City
  • 2.3. Noble and Magnate Courts
  • 3. Social Bonds in the Confessional Institutions
  • 3.1. The Parish
  • 3.2. Orthodox Brotherhoods
  • 3.3. Protestant Congregations and Synods
  • 4. Social Care
  • 4.1. The Stages and Tendencies of Change
  • 4.2. Catholic Social Care
  • 4.3. Protestant Social Care
  • 4.4. Social Care in the Ethnic-Legal Groups
  • 5. Hygiene and Health
  • 5.1. Personal Hygiene
  • 5.2. Epidemics and Plagues
  • 5.3. The Development of Medicine
  • 5.4. Remedies
  • 6. Life Standard
  • 6.1. Quality of Life versus Lifestyle
  • 6.2. Nutrition
  • 6.3. Lifestyle
  • 7. Housing
  • 7.1. The Noble Estates
  • 7.2. Palaces and Castles
  • 7.3. Peasant Buildings
  • 7.4. Impoverished Nobility Farms (Zaścianek)
  • 7.5. Burgher Housing
  • 8. Clothes and Hairstyle
  • 8.1. Noble Dress
  • 8.2. Burgher Dress
  • 8.3. Foreign Dress
  • 8.4. Peasant Dress
  • 8.5. Hairstyle
  • 8.6. Cultural Breakthrough of the Enlightenment: “Moustache and Wig”
  • Chapter Eight: Culture and Ideology
  • 1. Models of Culture
  • 2. Noble Culture and Sarmatism
  • 2.1. Myths of Origin
  • 2.2. The Sarmatian Worldview
  • 2.3. Attitude towards Foreigners
  • 2.4. Sarmatian Customs and Mentality
  • 2.5. The Noble System of Values
  • 2.6. Liberty and Liberum Veto
  • 2.7. Three Currents of Noble Political Ideology
  • 2.8. Monarchism. The Ideal Model of a Ruler
  • 2.9. Political Ideology of Decadent Sarmatism
  • 2.10. Constitutionalism versus Neostoicism
  • 3. Urban Culture in the Commonwealth of the 16th and the 17th Centuries
  • 3.1. Urban Ideology
  • 3.2. Urban System of Values and Role Models
  • 3.3. Urban Political Ideology
  • 3.4. The Sarmatization of Burghers
  • 3.5. Cities as the Cultural Centres
  • 4. Popular Culture – Folk Culture
  • 4.1. The Creators of Popular Culture
  • 4.2. Characteristic Features of Popular Culture
  • 4.3. Social Range of Popular Culture
  • 5. Folklore
  • 5.1. Noble Folklore
  • 5.2. The Noble Manor as a Cultural Institution
  • 6. Religiousness
  • 6.1. Mass Religiousness at the End of the 16th Century
  • 6.2. Methods of Ministry
  • 6.3. The Folklorization of Catholicism
  • 7. The Enlightenment – an Ideological and Cultural Breakthrough
  • 7.1. Assumptions and the System of Values
  • 7.2. The Native versus the Foreign
  • 7.3. Transformations of Political Ideology
  • 8. The Romantic Rehabilitation of Sarmatism
  • Chapter Nine: Social Communication – Education – Alphabetization
  • 1. The System of Social Communication in the 16th–18th Centuries
  • 1.1. The Culture of the Living Word
  • 1.2. Points of Social Contact
  • 1.3. The Role of Urban Centres in the Communication System
  • 1.4. The Postal Service
  • 1.5. Censorship of Information
  • 2. Languages of Communication
  • 2.1. Latinitas
  • 2.2. Multilingualism
  • 2.3. Polonization
  • 2.4. The Development of the Polish Literary Language
  • 2.5. The Enlightenment Tendencies of Unification
  • 3. Literacy and Alphabetization
  • 3.1. Printing Houses and Readership
  • 3.2. The Circulation of Manuscripts
  • 3.3. The Press
  • 4. Education
  • 4.1. Education of Girls
  • 4.2. The Confessional Character of Educational System
  • 5. Catholic Education
  • 5.1. Parish Schooling
  • 5.2. The Role of Religious Orders in Education – Colleges
  • 5.3. Higher Education
  • 6. Protestant Education
  • 6.1. Lutheran Gymnasia in Royal Prussia
  • 6.2. Reformed Noble Gymnasia
  • 6.3. Gymnasia in Raków and Leszno
  • 7. Orthodox Education
  • 7.1. Brotherhood Schools
  • 7.2. Academy in Ostroh
  • 7.3. The Kiev-Mogila Academy
  • 7.4. Hospodar Schools in Moldavia and Wallachia
  • 8. Education of the Ethnic-Legal Groups
  • 8.1. Jewish Schools
  • 8.2. Tatar Schools
  • 9. Studies Abroad
  • 10. Military Education. Projects of the School of Chivalry in the Commonwealth of the 16th–17th Centuries
  • 11. The Reform of Education in the 18th Century
  • 11.1. The Reform of Convent Education
  • 11.2. The Piarist Reform and the Collegium Nobilium
  • 11.3. The Reforms of Military Education
  • 11.4. The Reforms of the Commission of National Education
  • Chapter Ten: Art – Science – Literature
  • 1. Terminology and Periodization
  • 1.1. Renaissance – Reformation – the Renaissance Breakthrough
  • 1.2. Art and Literature. Between Renaissance and Baroque
  • 2. Mannerism
  • 2.1. Architecture and Arts
  • 2.2. Literature
  • 2.3. Music
  • 3. Baroque
  • 3.1. Sarmatism versus Baroque
  • 3.2. The Social and Geographical Range of the Baroque
  • 3.3. Early Baroque (1600–1630)
  • 4. Mature Baroque (1630–1670)
  • 4.1. Architecture and Arts
  • 4.2. Royal Patronage and the Propaganda of Power
  • 4.3. Belles Lettres
  • 4.4. Science
  • 4.5. Theatre
  • 4.6. Music
  • 5. Late Baroque and Rococo (1670–1770)
  • 5.1. Architecture and the Arts
  • 5.2. Literature
  • 5.3. Science
  • 5.4. Music and Theatre
  • 5.5. The Beginnings of the Enlightenment
  • 6. The Era of King Stanisław August Poniatowski
  • 6.1. Civilizational Changes
  • 6.2. International Propaganda of Polish Reforms
  • 6.3. The Enlightenment Influences in the Stanisław August Poniatowski’s Commonwealth
  • 6.4. Urban Elites in the Enlightenment
  • 6.5. Warsaw and the Province
  • 6.6. Patronage
  • 6.7. Architecture and Arts
  • 6.8. Classicism (1770–1800)
  • 6.9. Applied Art
  • 6.10. Literature
  • 6.11. Science
  • 6.12. Music and Theatre
  • Conclusions
  • Glossary of Polish and Latin Terms
  • List of Polish Monarchs
  • Main Historical Events of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, 1573–1795
  • Bibliography
  • Studies
  • Sources
  • Maps and Diagrams
  • List of Polish Geographical Names and Their English or Naturalized Counterparts
  • Index of People
  • Index of Geographical Names
  • Series index

Editors’ Preface

Language is an intrinsic part of any culture and any history of a given society. Thus, preparing an English version the History of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was an immensely difficult task. It was not the first and certainly will not be the last book devoted to this multicultural, multiconfessional, and multi-ethnic area. Yet, the fact of huge diversification, plenty of languages in use, and vicissitudes of East-European history, always made it difficult for historians and other scholars writing in English to render crucial terms in an understandable way.

In the case of geographical names, we tried to use generally accepted English versions (Warsaw, Cracow, Great Poland, Little Poland) whenever possible. In many instances, the names used in the 16th–18th centuries have been changed (sometimes several times), thus we adopted the principle to use modern names (with a few exceptions: for example, Königsberg instead of Kaliningrad) and to give names appearing in the sources in brackets. This is why we opted for Gdańsk instead of Danzig and Wrocław instead of Breslau. For the same reason, the reader of this book will find Kaunas instead of Kowno. The principal reason for this choice is the spread of the new media and, above all, the Internet with its omnipresent Wikipedia, which adopted the same principle. Of course, this principle has some disadvantages (for example, there is the city of Cracow and Kraków Voivodeship).

Most personal names are given in their original language (for example, Jan Zamoyski, Heinrich von Brühl), even though in various Polish sources their names were sometimes slightly differently spelled. There are two major exceptions from this rule: the names of Polish-Lithuanian monarchs and generally accepted Anglicized or Latinized names (John Calvin, Desiderius Erasmus, Justus Lipsius). There is no consensus on the matter of the names of the Polish-Lithuanian kings. For example, in the case of the second Vasa on the Polish-Lithuanian throne we opted for a semi-Latinized version Wladislaus, but there are at least three other versions that the reader may find in other books. To clarify this issue, we included a list of Polish monarchs at the end of the book.

Variety of different names for offices and institutions have been used in the historical writing on the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In this book, we have taken “a middle way.” Whenever it could be reasonably explained we rendered Polish terms in their English version; e. g. podskarbi wielki koronny is translated as Grand Crown Treasurer, but it would make no sense to render hetman wielki koronny as grand crown general, which is why in this book we opted for Grand Crown Hetman. Such examples can be multiplied. Yet, in many cases we decided to leave the original names, even if some attempts have been previously made to find their English counterparts. Such names include very common words such as sejm and sejmik; they were sometimes translated as diet and dietine, but in our opinion such rendering blurs the historical reality and suggests much greater similarities to the institutions of other countries than there actually were.← 23 | 24 →

In order to avoid getting overflowed by italic text, we decided to treat most common Polish words as if they were English and apply English plural form to them. In the case of less common words e. g. grzywna, wilkierz, we opted for using Polish plural.

We hope that more difficult terms have been properly explained in the glossary at the end of the book. The reader may find it useful to refer to the tables included in the book in order to systematize the terminology.

Jan Burzyński, Iwo Hryniewicz

← 24 | 25 →


The first version of this book was published by the Polish Scientific Publishers PWN under the title History of Poland, which fits in with the Polish historiographical tradition. Adapting the term Poland (Polish: Polska; Latin: Polonia) with reference to the Polish-Lithuanian state between the end of the 16th century and the end of the 18th century is not a manifestation of historical imperialism.1 It is justified by the fact that, at that time, the name referred to a state/territory and was employed to describe the community of Polish people2 – the symbol of familiarity for the Crown nobility in the same way as the name Lithuania was for the citizens of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Not only was Poland a synonym of the Polish Kingdom but also of the whole Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in cartography and propaganda texts designed for foreigners,3 and in texts written by urban historiographers from Silesia, Pomerania, and Royal Prussia, where the Renaissance image of Polonia played an important role in Polish-German cultural relations. Nevertheless, in the English edition the name Poland has been given up in order to emphasize the common and indivisible heritage of all the contemporary nations, whose ancestors inhabited the early modern Polish-Lithuanian state.

Writing about the Polish-Lithuanian state in the 16th–18th centuries we use most frequently a simple term Commonwealth, without any adjectives resulting from current fads, such as the Commonwealth or Republic of Many Nations4 – suggesting the existence in the 16th–18th centuries of nations in the modern sense of the term, or Nobles’ Commonwealth5 – attributing to the privileged estate the whole cultural heritage, created also by plebeians.

After the union of 1569 the Commonwealth of Both Nations was neither a state of all Poles nor primarily a state of Poles. The perception of bonds between lands that once belonged to the Piast dynasty diminished and the desire to unite them ← 25 | 26 → deteriorated, superseded by an awareness of a new, federative identity.6 The process of legal and mental integration took place within the noble nation crosswise ethnic (community of language, culture, and historical tradition) and confessional bonds. Attempts to impose confessional and ethnic uniformity under the banner of a Pole-Catholic – undertaken since the end of the 16th century by the Catholic Church, and at the end of the 18th century by the state administration – turned out to be unrealistic and often counter-productive.

History of a Society, not of a Nation

Our purpose is to present a full picture of functioning of a multi-ethnic and multicultural society, taking into consideration both what united and what divided it. Thus, if we focus on the nobility and Polish language speaking population, it is the result of the limited space of this book and availability of sources.

Domination of the nobility in public life and of the Polish language in early modern culture of the Commonwealth does not change the fact that its history includes the fortune of all its inhabitants, regardless of economic, legal, confessional, and ethnic divisions. In the social reality of the 16th to 18th centuries they did not live in separate enclaves but coexisted and influenced one another. There is no substantive justification for a “parcelling out” of the common heritage between present Poles, Lithuanians, Belarusians and Ukrainians. The fact that the past weighs heavily on the present is commonly observed as a specific feature of the East-Central European countries. As Juliusz Bardach noticed, “Past difficulties, the memory of harms suffered determine to a large extent – also today – the consciousness of some nations in the region, especially those which have relatively recently developed their political identity.”7

Understanding the emotional attitude towards the concept of a nation in the societies that have recently regained their sovereignty, one should not ignore the danger of mistaking nationalism for patriotism and of “intermingling of traditions of discord in the formerly federative states, merged or reconstructing their contemporary statehood in the territories that once belonged to the neighbouring states.”8

Nonetheless, it is as natural that Polish historians are interested mainly in Polish contribution to the political and cultural history of the Commonwealth of the 16th–18th centuries as is writing history anew by researchers from the countries that ← 26 | 27 → once were a part of this multi-ethnic state – Lithuanian, Ukrainian, Belarusian or German historians specializing in the history of Livonia and Courland.9

The Question of Nations in the Early Modern Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

In Polish and – in general – in European historiography a national community is considered to be a superior form of social bonding. At the same time, there is a strong conviction that European nations should be understood as direct heirs of ethnic groups, whose origins can be traced back at least to the Early Middle Ages.10 According to this view, differences between “modern nations” developed after the English and French revolutions and earlier types of national communities are rather quantitative than qualitative.

Recently, scholars interested in the ethnic developments of East-Central Europe raised an issue of the uniqueness of this region and of limited applicability of Weberian “ideal types” in studying these problems as well as of commonly adapted by Anglo-Saxon political theorists (above all by Ernst Gellner) constructionism, which presupposes that it is impossible for authentic state-wide and society-wide bonds in preindustrial era to emerge.

It is noteworthy that the subject of study of political theorists are not the nations themselves, but it is the concept of nation. Highlighting the instrumental, or even manipulative aspect of nationalist activities and deeming a nation to be the result of 19th- and 20th-century social engineering, a work of political and opinion-forming elites in the age when the old order collapsed, they yet recognize that the modern nation was in a way “moulded” out of varieties of pre-existing supra-local forms of group consciousness and social bonds (tradition, language, religion/confession, customs etc.). In this study we accept Gellner’s general idea that: “It is nationalism which engenders nations, and not the other way round.”11 In spite of Tomasz Kizwalter’s sceptical remarks on the issue of the range of influence of Sarmatian ideology,12 we maintain that there are reasons to believe that already in the mid-17th century Commonwealth, the “Sarmatian” cultural identity of Poles and Lithu ← 27 | 28 → anians began to emerge. Some traces of this identity can also be found among the plebeians.13 At the same time – basing on Jūratė Kiaupienė’s, Hienadź Sahanowicz’s, Teresa Chynczewska-Hennel’s and Natalia Jakowenko’s research – it is possible to conclude that already in the early modern period there existed ethnic and cultural identities among Lithuanians,14 Belarusians,15 and Ukrainians.16 Moreover, in the case of the last of them it was not only on the level of social elite.

Already at the end of the 16th century intellectual elites of the Commonwealth’s provinces – not only the nobility but also patriciate (regardless of their estate affiliation) – began evolving into “political nations.”

Of course, this does not alter the fact that neither in the Commonwealth, nor anywhere else there were nations in the modern meaning of the term. Lithuanian, Belarusian, Ukrainian or Polish nations – understood as having a society-wide sense of membership – had not yet come into being. Therefore, I consider the term the Commonwealth of Many Nations17 popularized by Andrzej Sulima Kamiński and used also to refer to various ethnic, legal and confessional groups living in the diaspora (Jews, Armenians, the Romani people) and to immigrants (Scots, Vlachs, Olędrzy [German: Holländer], and Mennonites) a fancy mental construct, albeit leading to a false picture of the past.

“Parcelling out” of the common cultural heritage of the Commonwealth of Both Nations is contrary to historical reality, in which people of changing ethnic consciousness, shaped by territorial, confessional and linguistic affiliation coexisted and influenced one another. Following the advice of Sir Isaiah Berlin,18 we must not dis ← 28 | 29 → regard the dangers of patriotism turning into nationalism or of growing tendencies to unify the politics of memory as well as of using the past for one’s own interests.

Structure and Periodization

The sequence of the presentation reflects the way of thinking about the 16th–18th-century Commonwealth by its citizens and early modern historians who began their descriptions of Polonia with its geographical location, characterization of its natural conditions, and only then presenting its political system and customs of its inhabitants. The fact that we have devoted a separate chapter to the church-state relations and to confessional policy reflects recognition of the crucial importance of this issue, considering the fact the notion of a secular state did not come into being until the 18th century, which entailed that religion influenced all spheres of human life. For history of art and literature, the entire course has been arranged into epochs, with a further division into sub-periods proposed by specialists in these fields.

The State of Research and Literature on the Subject

In our presentation of the history of the Commonwealth we have tried to make good use of the significant progress that has been made in recent years in all the fields of historical study: history of parliamentarism and finances, military history, social history (a theory of clientelism) and political history (especially of the 18th century), history of social communication and culture, of mentality and art, history of churches and confessional relations, ethnic-legal groups (especially Jews) and economic history. It has become a common practice to study the history of the Commonwealth against a broad European background and to draw on the achievements of other disciplines: historical statistics, cultural anthropology, sociology, political science, and linguistics.

Because of the limited space of the book, we had to restrict the references only to the sources and studies quoted in the text. The bibliography includes mainly syntheses and collective volumes, as well as the most important editions of sources – from both present-day and the 19th century – and papers, which are crucial for interpretation of the studied issues. Of course, it was virtually impossible to take into consideration all monographs. Texts in Polish and other languages are treated equally. ← 29 | 30 → ← 30 | 31 →

1     Andrzej Sulima-Kamiński, Historia Rzeczypospolitej wielu narodów 1505–1795, Lublin, 2000, pp. 10–11.

2     Ewa Bem-Wiśniewska, Funkcjonowanie nazwy Polska w języku czasów nowożytnych, Warsaw, 1998, pp. 108–133.

3     Marcin Kromer, Polonia sive de situ, populis, moribus, magistratibus et Republica regni Polonici libri duo, 1557 (Polish edition: Polska czyli o położeniu, ludności, obyczajach i sprawach publicznych Królestwa Polskiego księgi dwie, trans. S. Kazikowski, introduction and preparation R. Marchwiński, Olsztyn, 1977); Stanisław Krzysztanowic, Polonia seu brevis descriptio status Regni Poloniae, Moguncja, 1606; Szymon Starowolski, Polonia, 1632 (Polish edition: Polska albo opisanie położenia Królestwa Polskiego, trans. A. Piskadło, Cracow, 1976).

4     Andrzej Sulima-Kamiński, Historia Rzeczypospolitej, pp. 1–11.

5     Andrzej Wyczański, Polska Rzeczą Pospolitą szlachecką 1454–1764, Warsaw, 1965; Jarema Maciszewski, Szlachta polska i jej państwo, Warsaw, 1981.

6     Michał Tymowski, Jan Kieniewicz, Jerzy Holzer, Historia Polski, Paris, 1986, p. 115.

7     Juliusz Bardach, “Od narodu politycznego do narodu etnicznego w Europie Środkowo-Wschodniej,” Kultura i Społeczeństwo 37 (1993), no. 4, p. 5.

8     Barbara Maria Topolska, “Z dziejów kultury Wielkiego Księstwa Litewskiego od XV do XVIII wieku,” in: Litwa i jej sąsiedzi od X do XX wieku. Studia ofiarowane profesorowi Jerzemu Ochmańskiemu w 60. rocznicę urodzin, Poznań, 1999, p. 171.

9     Hienadź Sahanowicz, Historia Białorusi. Od czasów najdawniejszych do końca XVIII wieku, trans. H. Łaszkiewicz, Lublin, 2001; Zigmantas Kiaupa, Jūratè Kiaupienè, Albinas Kuncevičius, The History of Lithuania before 1795, Vilnius 2000; Zigmantas Kiaupa, The History of Lithuania, Vilnius, 2002; Natalia Jakowenko, Historia Ukrainy. Od czasów najdawniejszych do końca XVIII wieku, trans. O. Hnatiuk, K. Kotyńska, Lublin, 2000; Almut Bues, Das Herzogtum Kurland und der Norden der polnisch-litauischen Adelsrepublik im 16. und 17. Jahrhundert, Giessen, 2001.

10   Benedykt Zientara, Świt narodów europejskich. Powstawanie świadomości narodowej na obszarze Europy pokarolińskiej, Warsaw, 1985.

11   Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism, Oxford 1983, p. 55.

12   Tomasz Kizwalter, O nowoczesności narodu – przypadek Polski, Warsaw, 1999, pp. 42–90.

13   Urszula Augustyniak, Koncepcje narodu i społeczeństwa w literaturze plebejskiej od końca XVI do końca XVII wieku, Warsaw, 1989.

14   Jurate Kiaupienė, “Mes, Lietuva”. Lietuvos Didžiosos Kunigaigštystės bajorija XVI a., Kronta, 2003; ead., “Litewskie cechy kultury politycznej szlachty Wielkiego Księstwa Litewskiego w XVI wieku,” in: Kultura Litwy i Polski w dziejach. Tożsamość i współistnienie. Materiały międzynarodowej konferencji zorganizowanej w dniach 15–17 października 1998, Cracow, 2000, pp. 67–78; Mathias Niendorf, Das Großfürstentum Litauen. Studien zur Nationsbildung in der Frühen Neuzeit (1569–1795), Wiesbaden 2006 (Polish edition: Wielkie Księstwo Litewskie. Studia nad kształtowaniem się narodu u progu epoki nowożytnej (1569–1795), trans. M. Grzywacz, Poznań, 2011, passim).

15   Hieniadź Sahanowicz, Historia Białorusi do końca XVIII w., trans. H. Łaszkiewicz, Lublin, 2002, pp. 185–190.

16   Teresa Chynczewska-Hennel, Świadomość narodowa szlachty ukraińskiej i kozaczyzny od schyłku XVI do połowy XVII wieku, Warsaw, 1985; Natalia Jakowenko, Druga strona lustra. Z historii wyobrażeń i idei na Ukrainie XVIXVII wieku, trans. K. Kotyńska, ed. T. Chynczewska-Hennel, 2010, pp. 263–305.

17   Andrzej Sulima-Kamiński, Historia Rzeczypospolitej wielu narodów 1505–1795, Lublin, 2000.

18   Isaiah Berlin, “Nationalism – Past Neglect and Present Power,” in: Against the Current, Essays in the History of Ideas, New York, 1980, pp. 341–343.

Chapter One

Physiognomy of the Commonwealth

1.   Names, Emblems, Capitals

1.1.  Name

The official name of the Polish-Lithuanian state after 1569 arouses controversies. Introductory formulas of documents written for internal use (for instance, in the pacta conventa) refer to the estates of “the Commonwealth of the Polish Kingdom and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Provinces belonging to them” or to “the Commonwealth of Both Nations,” and only exceptionally to “the Crown of the Polish, Lithuanian and Ruthenian Nations and states belonging to them” (1699). Diplomatic treaties with foreign states, in turn, were concluded on behalf of the Crown and the Grand Duchy, with emphasis on the equal status of both political entities.

Names used to refer to the state functioning in public life were neither imposed by an administrative decision nor accepted thoughtlessly, but they were changing between the 16th and 18th centuries together with the evolution of social conditions and political system. The term Polish Kingdom already at the end of the 16th century was predominantly replaced by the term Crown. Contrary to the declaration included in the act of the Union of Lublin that “one common Commonwealth, one people blended and united is made out of two states and nations.”19 Names Polish Crown or simply Crown were used alternatively with the term Commonwealth to denote the whole polity. Some scholars assume that initially political elites of the Crown wanted the term Corona Regni Poloniae coined in the mid-14th century to encompass the whole Polish-Lithuanian state, with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania playing a role of a province. According to Henryk Wisner, only ca. 20 years after the Union of Lublin the unifying terminology was abandoned, and the union of the Crown and Lithuania acquired a character of a federation of two states.

Paradoxically enough, although the practice of calling only the Crown the Commonwealth was abandoned, Lithuanian political elites continued using the term “Lithuanian Commonwealth” in reference to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania itself, in order to emphasize its individuality. This tendency (traditionally regarded in Polish historiography as a manifestation of Lithuanian “separatism”) found its expression even during the debate on the “arrangement of the form of government” during the Great Sejm (Polish: Sejm Wielki) in 1789–1790, when the project of adapting a new name – Polish Commonwealth – suggesting a greater homogeneity of the state, ← 31 | 32 → was rejected. Zaręczenie wzajemne obojga narodów (The Reciprocal Warranty of Both Nations) of October 22nd, 1791, in turn, refers to the duty “towards the common homeland, the Polish Commonwealth” as “the one, common and indivisible”20 – although in actual fact, the document emphasized the dualism of the state.

Thus, both these tendencies – centralist and federalist – coexisted until the end of the Polish-Lithuanian federation.

1.2.  Emblem and Coats of Arms of the Lands

The national emblem was a combination of the emblems of both states: on the left side there was a white eagle (originally the emblem of the Cracow Land [Polish: ziemia krakowska]) – with its head turned to the right and spread wings, under a golden crown against a red background, usually with an initial or coat of arms of the current king on its chest; on the right side there was the Jagiellonian (Lithuanian: Jogalias) the Pahonia (Polish: Pogoń)– a silver mounted knight holding a sword in his right hand above his head, also against a red background. In official representations (seals, royal coins, tombstones, medals, official documents) the emblem was accompanied by a set of coats of arms of the major lands of the Crown (the lion of Red Ruthenia and the black eagle of Royal Prussia). Lithuania was represented solely by the Pahonia (originally the coat of arms of Vilnius Land), whereas Archangel Michael (the coat of arms of Kiev Land) first became the emblem of Bohdan Khmelnytsky’s troops, then of Ukraine. In the 17th century the coat of arms of Moldavia disappeared from the set of coats of arms of fiefs, representations of coats of arms of vassalized lands with the king’s monogram, indicating their direct relation to the ruler became a symbol of dynamic territorial development of the state. According to Henryk Wisner: “All that […] means that it was not the Commonwealth itself, but rather the King of the Commonwealth and the states that composed it, that had the coat of arms.”21

1.3.  Capital Cities

Until the end of the 16th century, the nominal capital of the state and the residential city was Cracow, but in fact rulers resided most often at the places where the Sejm sessions were held (Piotrków, Lublin) and in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania; King Sigismund II Augustus in Vilnius, Stephen Bathory (Polish: Stefan Batory) – because of the Muscovite and Livonian wars – in Grodno. “The unfortunate location ← 32 | 33 → of Cracow in the very southwestern corner of the state”22 discredited it as a place of permanent residence of the king of the state directed towards the east. Thus, although till the end of the First Commonwealth Cracow retained some attributes of a capital city; it remained the place of coronations and burials of monarchs, while the actual capitals were: Vilnius – of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Warsaw – of the Crown, and virtually of the whole Commonwealth.

Warsaw, the capital of the Duchy of Masovia (Polish: Księstwo Mazowieckie, Mazowsze), situated at the centre of the Polish-Lithuanian state– that is, at the junction of an important transit road from Germany to the Muscovite state23and the Vistula (Polish: Wisła), which was the major grain trading route – began growing rapidly after the incorporation of Masovia into the Crown (1526) and (according to Marek Wrede) the town surpassed Cracow already during the reign of Sigismund II Augustus. By virtue of its location, Warsaw became (after 1569) the permanent place of the general Sejms. Already in the second half of the 16th century a new (territorial and political) form and strategic policy of the state determined its being a capital city in that it served both residential and political functions of the decision centre at the scale of the whole Commonwealth and was the seat of the highest offices of the Crown (chancellor, marshal, and treasurer). Thus, a widely held opinion that it was Sigismund III Vasa who “moved” the capital from Cracow to Warsaw in 1596 is untrue, despite the fact that it was after his return from the Muscovite War (1611) that Warsaw became his permanent residence.

The capital position of Vilnius has been occasionally questioned, for in the post-Jagiellonian era the city was not a permanent residence of rulers – in the time of king Stephen Bathory this function was performed by Grodno, where from 1673 on, every third session of the Sejm was to be held, although in practice it was less frequent (by 1793 only eleven Sejms met there).

The capital of Ruthenia, and then of Ukraine, was Kiev, described in the 1569 Incorporation Act as the town: “which was and still is the head and principal city of the Ruthenian Land.” Lviv and Poznań were also called capital cities (the constitution of 1674 Sejm), which proves that as late as the 1670s the notion of a capital city was understood not only in legal terms; customarily, it was also used to refer the centres of main provinces of the Commonwealth: Little Poland (Polish: Małopolska), Great Poland (Polish: Wielkopolska), the Grand Duchy (or Lithuania; Polish: Litwa) and Rus (or Ruthenia; Polish: Ruś) – Ukraine. ← 33 | 34 →

2.   Geographical Position and Natural Conditions

2.1.  Geographical Position

Already in the 1560s the geographical position of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was described in a modern way – in degrees of longitude and latitude. According to Marcin Kromer:

[…] Poland at the time we are describing it [after the Union of Lublin], making one Kingdom and remaining within one legal system, spreads over […] a strip of inhabited land from 38° to 52° or 53° […] running diagonally from the summer sunset – to its winter sunrise over a distance of more than two hundred Polish miles […].24

According to Szymon Starowolski:

The Polish Kingdom together with the adjacent provinces spreads length ways between 38 and 54 degree from the summer sunset to the winter sunrise, over a distance of more than two hundred and forty German miles, and breadthways […] of circa two hundred miles.25

Yet, these data do not conform to reality. The area of the Polish-Lithuanian state in the mid-17th century extended between 15°16′ and ca. 36°44′ E, and between ca. 46°50′ and 59°5′ N. The distance between the westernmost and easternmost borders was not greater than two hundred German miles, and between the southernmost and northernmost (from Zaporizhia [Polish: Zaporoże] and Livonia) – smaller than two hundred German miles, which was over two hundred Polish miles, that is, ca. 1500 kilometres.

2.2.  Natural Conditions

Propaganda descriptions of the Commonwealth – from the 16th century more and more often called Sarmatia – depicted it as a happy land (terra felix) with fertile soil, luxuriant flora, abundant game and rich mineral deposits:

Almost the whole country is flat and sunny, except for a few highland and forested areas adjacent to the Hungarian border. Yet, the further from here, the more even, fertile and better cultivated is soil. There is only one mountain in the middle of Little Poland, called Łysa [Bald Mountain]. […] Other hills in almost the whole Kingdom are rather knolls than mountains. In olden times dense forests had covered, not only Lithuania but also much of Poland, yet now the land is farmed more thoroughly, pregnant with ← 34 | 35 → vegetables and crops and abundant with meadows. And though the climate is too changeable most of the time, in different parts of the country there are many orchards with endless abundance of pears, apples, plums, peaches, cherries and nuts, which in their multitude of varieties and taste are by no means inferior to Hungarian and Italian ones. There are also grape vines in many places whose grapes are pleasing for palates, especially if the summer and autumn weather is fair, but the wine made from them is too tart. There also grow in the Polish land chestnut trees, mulberries, quinces, figs, almond trees, saffron crocus, rice, watermelons, melons, herbs and flowers of various kind and other delights of Italian gardens and taste allures. There is also plenty of metal and ore […], namely lead, copper, bronze, silver and gold. There is also abundance of fowl and poultry, then of cattle of various kinds and wild beasts or game, to wit deer, wild boars, bears, wolves, squirrels, roe deer, hares, wild donkeys, wisents, goats, aurochs, lynxes, wildcats, foxes, wolverines, otters and beavers. And a profusion of fish of any possible sort, for there are many rivers, lakes and ponds. The most important of these are: the Vistula, the Dunajec, the San, the Wieprz, the Warta, the Noteć, the Dvina, the Neman, the Dniester, the Prut, the Boh, the Pripet, the Narew, the Drwęca, the Berezina, the Dnieper – almost all suitable for navigation.26

Similarly, to European eyes the Commonwealth of Both Nations was a vast, populous and wealthy country. In 1572 a French envoy Jean de Monluc pointed out to a huge – twice the size of France – territory of Poland, its great fertility and excess of food. Foreigners travelling through the Commonwealth also praised its lowland nature:

Because Poland is a flat country, neither stony nor mountainous, it is easy to travel through it by carriage.27

Starting from the mid-17th century, the admiration for the plain lay of the land and the lack of natural frontiers both in the west and east diminished, and they began to be seen not as a facilitator of contacts with other countries but as a hindrance in the organization of defence. A location in the corridor between the two parts of the European continent – in the narrowing between the Baltic and the Black Sea, widening towards the northeast – encouraged the neighbouring countries (especially Muscovy and Turkey) to invade the Commonwealth.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2015 (September)
Territory Population Political system Economy Religious relations
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 574 pp., 1 coloured fig., 10 b/w fig., 6 tables, 2 graphs

Biographical notes

Urszula Augustyniak (Author)

Urszula Augustyniak is Professor at the Department of Modern History at the University of Warsaw, where she is head of the team Old Polish Cultural History.


Title: History of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth
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576 pages