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Birth of the Intelligentsia – 1750–1831

A History of the Polish Intelligentsia – Part 1, edited by Jerzy Jedlicki


Maciej Janowski

The three-part work provides a first synthetic account of the history of the Polish intelligentsia from the days of its formation to World War I. Part one (1750–1831) traces the formation of the intelligentsia as a social class in the epoch of Enlightenment. It stresses the importance of the birth of bureaucratic institutions that created the demand for the educated stratum. It analyses the results of the collapse of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1795 – the ominous event that transformed the political geography of East Central Europe. The work combines social and intellectual history, tracing both the formation of the intelligentsia as a social stratum and the forms of engagement of the intelligentsia in the public discourse. Thus, it offers a broad view of the group’s transformations which immensely influenced the course of the Polish history.
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Chapter 2: Friars, men-of-letters and Jacobins (1764-1795)


The Polish intelligentsia is heir to the nobility’s tradition, a number of authors have stated. On a basic level it seems natural: the traditional elite, that is, the nobility, could more easily than any other group take advantage of every opportunity to advance and transform themselves into a new type of elite.

This notion that the intelligentsia is of noble origin, if looked at carefully, becomes less obvious. What does it mean, in fact, that someone is of ‘noble origin’? With the wave of political reforms of the late 18th century, representatives of varied social circles were admitted to nobility, a number of burghers among them. Did the formal ennoblement act therefore mean that those new people took in the social life a place analogous to that owed by the once-nobility? Not really. To start off with a formal estate affiliation might be misleading. Moreover, the production of documents evidencing one’s nobleness was rarely demanded from anyone in the pre-Partition Commonwealth. Consequently, the estate or class identification declared, for example, while enrolling in a school, did not always reflect the formal state-of-affairs.

We are basically interested for the present purpose in the ‘social origin’ not of individuals but of the entire group; then, the difficulties multiply. Whenever it comes to investigating the social origin of any group (e.g. Krakow Academy students, Warsaw-based physicians), we usually have biographical information on just a fraction of the people of our potential interest. We usually lack complete data which would...

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