Szlachta (pronounced: ['ʃlaxta]) were the noble social class in Poland and Lithuania from the late middle ages up to the 18th and to a lesser extent to the 19th century. They were owners of landed property, often in forms of folwarks. Szlachta had many privileges until the partitions of Poland in the late 18th century. The last szlachta privileges were annuled during the Second Polish Republic in the 1920s.
When referring to early szlachta, the terms możni or knights (Polish rycerz) are sometimes used.
The word likely originated with the German geschlecht (family), or the ancient lower german slahta (to hack).
Szlachta history and culture
There were many differences between the szlachta and the nobility in other countries, the most important being that while in most European countries the power of the nobility waned and rulers gained power by steering their countries towards absolute monarchy, in Poland the reverse process happened: the szlachta gained power at the expense of the king and the political system evolved towards democracy (or, as some would argue, anarchy).
The szlachta were also more numerous than the usual noble class - about 10% of the population, and in some regions like Mazowsze even about 30% population were members of the szlachta - while the usual percentage in Europe was closer to 1-3% (with the exception of Spain).
There were several ways to become szlachta - it was not a rigid, closed cast like French aristocracy. This made it possible for many low born people (even peasants and Jews) to rise in Polish society and thus in that regard it was much more stable than many other noble classes, avoiding the internal disintegration that occured during the French revolution.
All szlachta children were szlachta. Also, people could be nobilitated (Polish noblitacja and indygenat) for special service to the state.
There was almost no formal division between 'better' and 'worse' szlachta. This equality was an important part of szlachta mentality - in terms of law, even the poorest of szlachta had the same rights as the most wealthy magnate. There were few exceptions to that rule, mostly concerning several szlachta famillies like the Radziwiłłs, who received the title of prince before the Union of Lublin. Also, szlachta cherished the administrative office titles which were used even up to the third generation of the office holder.
In terms of wealth, szlachta can be divided into:
- magnates - most wealthy
- middle szlachta
- lesser szlachta (Polish zaściankowa, zagrodowa, szaraczkowa, zagonowa, okoliczna, drążkowa, gołota, panki, brukowa)
Szlachta political privileges
The effects of szlachta political privileges is discussed in depth in an article about the Organisation and politics of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth
Polish szlachta had many rights that no other noble class had, and each new monarch granted further privileges. Those privileges became the basis of the noble's democracy in Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Despite having a king, Poland was called the Republic (Rzeczpospolita) at that time because the king was elected by all members of the szlachta and Poland was considered to be property of the class, not of the king or the ruling dynasty.
Monarchs granted the privileges to szlachta for short-term gains like favour during elections (in their promised pacta conventa), permission to raise taxes or call pospolite ruszenie outside of what normal laws allowed.
Most important individual privileges of szlachta were given:
In 1374 Louis I of Hungary granted the act of Koszyce (Polish przywilej koszycki or ugoda koszycka) extended the definition on who was the member of szlachta. The entire szlachta class was exempted from taxation, except for reduced poradlne tax . From now on the district officiess (Polish urzedy ziemskie) were reserved for local szlachta only. In addition the King's right to raise taxes was abolished and no new taxes could be raised without the agreement of the szlachta.
In 1422 Władysław II Jagiełło granted the act of Czerwińsk (Polish przywilej czerwiński). It granted property protection laws to szlachta (confiscation of estates was only permitted upon appropriate verdicts by judge) and passed part of fiscal policy to Royal Council (later Senat) (the right to mint money).
In 1430 at act of Jedlnia and in  at Cracow (known in Polish as przywileje jedlneńsko-krakowskie) szlachta received protection similar to Habeas corpus, known more popularly in Poland as neminem captivabimus. From now on, no szlachcic could not be imprisoned without a warrant issued by a competent court of justice - which meant that king can neither punish nor imprison any member of the szlachta at whim.
In 1454 Casimir IV the Jagiellonian granted the status of Nieszawa (Polish statuty cerkwicko-nieszawskie). It clarified the law basis of the local voivodship's parliaments (Polish sejmik). The king could create new laws, raise taxes or call for the pospolite ruszenie only with the consent of the sejmiki and the szlachta were protected from abuse in the law courts. Status of Nieszawa also limited the powers of magnates, as Sejm received the right to elect many officials (including the judges, voivodes and castellans).
The first free election (Polish wolna elekcja) of a monarch took place in 1492 (although it should be noted that some earlier kings of Poland have been elected with help from bodies like wiec, which put Casimir II the Just on the throne and this set the tradition for free elections). Only senators voted in that free election. John I Olbracht was elected. During the reign Jagiellonian Dynasty, candidates were chosen from members of that dynasty; later, there were no limitations on the choice of candidates.
- Senate (81 bishops and other dignitaries)
- Sejm (54 deputies (Polish poseł representing the local sejmiki)
Numbers of dignitaries and deputies increased in time.
In 1496 Jan Olbracht granted privilege of Piotrków (Polish przywilej piotrkowski or konstytucja piotrkowska). This act increased the feudal power of szlachta over serfs. It bound the peasant to the land as only one (not the eldest) son was permitted to leave the village, the townsfolk (Polish mieszczanstwo) were forbidden to own land and stated that significant positions in the Church hierarchy could be given only to members of the szlachta.
In 1501 at Mielnik the tradition of the coronation sejm (Polish sejm koronacyjny) is founded. Once again szlachta attempts to reduce the power of magantes with the law that made them impeachable for malpractice before the Senate. The szlachta are conceded the right to refuse to obey the King or his representatives - non praestanda oboedentia and form confederations, that is armed rebellions, against the king or state officers if they thought that the law and granted priviliges were being broken.
In 1505 Alexander the Jagiellonian grants the act of nihil novi. It forbade the king to pass new laws without the agreement from szlachta representatives (Sejm and Senat) and greatly strenghtened the political position of szlachta.
In 1520 at act of Bydgoszcz the Sejm is granted the right to convene every foury years with or without king's permission.
Around that time the executionist movement (Polish egzekucja praw) movement is formed. Its members would seek restrict the power of magnates at Sejm and strenghten the power of the country and the king. In 1562 at Sejm in Piotrków they would force magnates to return many leased royal lands to the king and the king to create a standard army (wojsko kwarciane). One of the most famous members of this movement was Jan Zamoyski. After his death in the begining of 17th century this movement would lose its political strenght.
The prevalent mentality and ideology of szlachta manifested itself in sarmatism. The name came from alleged ancestors of the szlachta (Sarmatians). This belief became an important part of szlachta's culture and penetrated into all aspects of life. Sarmatian concept enshrined traditions, provincial village life, peace and pacifism, popularised eastern (almost oriental) clothing (żupan, kontusz, sukmana , pas kontuszowy, delia) and looks and right to bear weapons (sabre-like szabla was an almost obligatory everyday szlachta item). It served to integrate the multiethnic nobility by creating an almost nationalism sence of unity and pride of the szlachta's Golden Freedoms.
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 devotion, honesty into political naivity, pride into arrogance, courage into stubborness, queality and freedom of szlachta into warcholstwo and nihilism.
Until the Reformation, the Polish szlachta were mostly Catholic or Orthodox. However, many families quickly adopted the reformed religions. After the Counter-Reformation, when the Roman Catholic Church regained power in Poland, the szlachta became almost exclusively Catholic, despite the fact that Roman Catholics were not the majority religion in Poland (the Catholic and the Orthodox churches counted approximately 40% of the population each, while the remaining 20% were Jews and members of various Protestant churches).
- Confederation of the Polish Nobility
- Association of the Belarusian Nobility
- Association of Lithuanian Nobility
- The Inexorable Political Rise of the szlachta
- Short article on The Polish Nobility