With Fire and Sword, IV: The Political Dimension
Sienkiewicz has set his narrative in the most troubled period of Polish history. This is not one of the historical subjects I know at all well and will content myself with a brief comment that will probably do as much to distort as to clarify the context.
From today's perspective, Poles frequently comment on the tragedy of their nation, caught between two ruthless imperial peoples, German and Russian. One might add, that the Swedes to the North were also a threat. That is a valid way of looking at the situation, but there is another: Poland was in a good position to expand in several directions, and in the glory years, she did exactly that.
The Germans, even as barbarians, were among the greatest warriors the world has ever known, and, despite their constant feuding, they eventually developed a capacity for building and sustaining state apparatus, as we can see in the history of Merovingian and Carolingian France, England under Alfred and his successors, and the absurd and unwieldy Holy Roman Empire. Like all feudal polities--Polish, French, Spanish--the German states were torn between centralizing impulses I call centripetal and the centrifugal forces that always threatened to split kingdoms into duchies, duchies into baronies, and baronies into petty fiefdoms. In the hands of strong dynasties, Germans could be formidable in their unity of purpose, and they had been taught by Saint Boniface (I believe) to equate Slav with Slave. They suppressed various Slavic groups within Germany (e.g. Sorbs) and pushed the Poles to the East, where they found it easier to expand into the Ukraine, a name that means border region.
The Russians, who had been conquered and oppressed by Mongols and Tartars, had been checked in their state-building, and the more or less Russian peoples of the region did not offer much resistance to the expansion of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth. The wild-cards were the various Cossack groups, predominantly Slavic (probably) but with a mixture of Tartars and renegades of every type. As federate shock troops, the Cossacks had been very important in the Polish expansion and defense of their empire, but the misgovernment of the Polish nobility had aroused resentments among both Cossacks and the peasantry of the Ukraine.
The 17th century was a key period for the Poles, since their empire was assailed by Cossacks, Tartars, and, from time to time, the Swedes. Their great strength was the heroism of the independent Polish nobility, and their great weakness was the independence of the heroic and not-so-heroic Polish nobility.
Among political historians and theorists, the commonplace judgment is that the Poles could not form a proper state because of not just their turbulence but also the anarchism of a political structure in which all members of the ruling class, that is the nobles, were regarded in principle as equal. They all had a vote in choosing, a king and anyone could propose a measure. During the 17th and 18th century, they developed the liberum veto--the free veto--that required unanimity in major decisions.
Such a commonwealth, so the cliche runs, had to he unstable, and it was not simply the unanimity rule or the power of their parliament but the entire society that fundamentally rejected good order. From the perspective of the state-building nations of France, Spain, and England, the cliche appears true, and yet the Poles for a time were among the largest and most powerful nations in Europe. Some of their greatness certainly derived from their ability to take care of business in all their little principalities and fiefdoms, and in the greatness of people like Prince Yeremi.
I have only been to Poland once, to meet with a group of independent Catholic intellectuals in Cracow. Much of the conversation turned on their defense of the old Polish system. But let us postpone further discussion of this after a number of readers have been able to comment. Obviously, none of us is able to speak with authority but let us test the contesting theses by applying them to the novel.