Commons – Poland

Landownership in Poland

A preliminary inquiry into the historiography of the Polish commons brings about interesting results. However, in order to understand these results, it is vital to be aware of the peculiar socio-economic situation of the region in the period under consideration (1496 – 1795). 

In general, due to the process of re-feudalisation, nearly all the land in the country belonged to the nobles; it was rare for peasants to own the land they cultivated, and even this level of ownership was restricted mostly to the regions near the coastline (characterized by a somehow different legal tradition). Even free inhabitants of the cities were prohibited to buy land. One of the difficulties when it comes to understanding the concept of land ownership, is the fact that the right to use the land could be traded or used as a collateral. The analysis is ever more challenging as various parts of the country were subject to different legal regimes, because the country commonly known as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was not only composed of two separate political entities, but it was also a confederation of a number of provinces. In addition to the country’s geographical subdivisions, the legal situation of an individual as well as his/her rights, duties and privileges depended on his/her nationality and socio-economical participation in one of the main groups in the country, namely towns-people, clergy, and peasantry (Bardach 1994). It is commonly argued that, due to the changes in the demand for Polish grains, nobles turned from knights into landowners/farmers and, using their privileged legal status, forced peasants to pay the rent in work rather than money, i.e. turned the peasants into serfs (Topolski 2000). This group of landowners had full juridical rights over their subjects and in practice could regulate the situation in their manors as they pleased, as long as it was not interfering with the interests of their fellow nobles.

There were, however, groups of peasants that were granted special rights, as a result of colonization that started in Eastern Europe in the thirteenth century. As there was an abundance of uncultivated land, the nobility was interested in attracting colonists from both Western Europe and the more densely populated regions of Poland to settle in their domains. These new settlements were granted special rights, that were partly standardized and based on a few commonly used legal models such as, so-called, ‘German or Polish’ (kolonizacja na prawie niemieckim lub polskim)and resulted in negotiations between a landlord and his tenants. Mostly, those deals were not made by the lords and individual households but rather by the lords and entire villages, the latter party usually, since the Middle Ages, organized in a gromada.

The gromada

The gromada was a central institution for collective action, an entity formed by all the inhabitants of one village. The word ‘gromada’ in the Polish language has a meaning similar to ‘gathering’, ‘group’ or ‘assembly’. In a nutshell, the term refers to a village organization consisting of all inhabitants and functioning as a local authority: it organized all day-to-day matters, varying from composing arable calendars to the collection of tax payments.

The study of this institution is very difficult, as legal organizations differed between various regions and even between villages belonging to one and the same nobleman. For this reason, the literature available on this topic rather focuses on the general impression on collective action, illustrating the research random examples, rather than presenting a geographical and time specific institutional typology. One needs to keep in mind, that findings in the historiography are therefore very blurry and, at this stage of the research, are telling a romantic story about the life of peasants, rather than presenting results of a thoroughly detailed analysis.

However, historians, as Woźniak (1987) argues, seem to have reached a consensus in stating the high levels of importance and popularity of gromadas in the late Middle Ages and the whole Early Modern period in all regions of the country. According to Trzyna (1992), in the seventeenth century, on Red Ruthenia, mostly in the region around the cities of Sanock, Przemyśl, and in the province of Lublin, villagers from many neighbouring villages belonging to one noble could join together and form one gromada. In contrast, in some of the villages in Red Ruthenia the poorest of the inhabitants were excluded from participation in the gromada (mostly those without assigned plots).

The origins of the gromada

Little is known about the exact origins of this form of collective action. According to Baranowski (1950/1), the need for safety was at the root of the gromada. Trzyna (1992) describes an ancient custom of protecting others from theft or murder called ‘szukanie śladu’ (tracing down). When a member of a gromada was attacked he/she screamed until someone from the gromada came, then the members of the gromada traced an offender down to another village. That village was obliged to hand over the criminal or to pay a fee. This was one of the basic and the oldest features of a gromada, it survived in Ruthenia, Kulmerland and provinces of Lublin until the late eighteenth century.

According to Trzyna (1992), the gromada originated from ancient Polish opole and the ancient Russian obszczyzna. This type of organisation was most common in the Subcarpathian region, South Polonia Minor, Red Ruthenia, Żuławy Wiślane, Mazovia, White Russia and parts of Polonia Major. It prevailed mostly in the regions where old legal traditions stemming from colonisation were more preserved. The gromada was grounded firmly in the king’s domains (krolewszczyzny), where legal status of a peasant was on average better and traditional rights were more secure. Baranowski (1950/1) also points to the ancient Slavic origins of those institutions. In his view, the lengthy prevalence of tribalism in Poland was a reason why gromadas were so common.

Possessions and finances of the gromada

Every gromada possessed some wealth, it consisted of commonly used land, meadows, forests, roads, riverbanks, et cetera. In addition, villagers had common finances, used primarily to pay taxes and to hire officials. There were many forms of collective action that were performed by the whole gromada. These ranged from rural microfinance, insurance schemes, and common grain reserves as described by Inglot (1966), through clearing land and maintaining irrigation up to even organised military actions. For example, Kotula (1982) describes how gromadas located on the outskirts of the country had to organize self-defence against enemy attacks.

On a smaller scale, neighbouring villages tended to fight over borders and resources. Sources tell stories about sneak attacks by a whole gromada on the fields of another, in order to destroy or steal its crops. These actions were often encouraged by the landlords who wanted to channel the collective protest away from the manor.

The common land of the gromada

There were two types of common pastures; the first was used by the whole gromada all year long, while the second was the arable land used primarily by one of the peasants but shared with the others in the specific parts of the arable calendar, namely during fallow or stubble. According to Wyczański (1964), in those periods wastelands located among private lands were also commonly used, as it was impossible to prevent flocks from entering. These types of fallows could not be ploughed freely in order not to limit the common pasture. A peasant, therefore, had to wait till the whole village allowed him to start cultivating his land again. Baranowski (1950/1) argues, that in many villages better off peasants were obliged to keep their animals together with the others, so that they would not use the best parts of the common land independently.

According to Jawor (1991), since the Middle Ages a permanent common pasture was present in nearly every village. The author estimates the average size of those commons to be around 1-2 łan or lanus (1 łan = 16 to 26 hectares, depending on the region this meaurement was used). Access to these was carefully organised. According to Trzyna (1963), in Polonia Minor commons were subdivided into parts designated for various kinds of animals such as horses, poultry, horned-cattle and cattle. In addition, peasants were obliged to build fences around their own pastures, probably to prevent their flocks from accessing the commons.

Pasturage depending on a village could be organised in two different ways. The whole village could appoint one of its members as a ‘full-time’ shepherd, or they could hire one using common funds. The participation in this fund was based on the amount of land and animals possessed by a peasant. A village could also choose that instead of having a permanent shepherd, the flocks were guarded every day by a different peasant. This custom was called cecha and the current shepherd was known as czaśnikBaranowski (1950/1) argues that the latter type of organization was limited to the northern provinces of the country. Moreover, according to Trzyna (1992), the number of animals that a peasant was allowed to feed on the common land was usually regulated, therefore shepherds were not only guarding the cattle, but also controlling how many animals were sent to the common by all of the villagers. Baranowski (1950/1) argues that, in particular, those of the peasants who did not possess land and/or were artisans had limited access to the commons and did not serve as shepherds.

In addition, there are examples of a village keeping one common bull designated for breeding. As an illustration, one of the instructions from 1692 for starosty of Ląkorsk stated ‘it is for the common benefit for every village to have a bull-breeder among its flock; all the villagers should take care of it and sustain it one after another, as it would be a great loss not to have one’ (Baranowski, 1950/1).

Forests and nawieś

Next to pastures, another important shared element of rural terrain was the forest. In general, there were no forests owned by individual peasants. These were either shared by a village, or were part of a manor. Villagers needed access to a forest to collect fuel and materials for buildings and fences or for constructing tools, as well as other objects needed around the house, such as spoons or bowls made of bark. In addition, forests were an important source of food, not only for humans but also for pigs. The parts of the manor used by the peasants were called easements (serwitut). Usually at the beginning of the Early Modern era, according to Rutkowski (1938), access to fuel was a natural right of everyone who had a plot of land assigned and a house in the village. Later on, in some of the areas, landlords started to introduce fees for access to their forests. Some of the landlords even started to sell the right to collect fuel or building materials separately. The sources mention several types of different fees like żerdne — for a right to collect poles for fences; łuczywne — for a right to collect resinous chips used as a source of light. The fees for collecting timber were organised in various ways — either the whole village was paying once a year or individual peasants were paying for their access with the price depending on the number of houses or land in their possession. Moreover, Rutkowski (1938) argues that, thanks to the overexploitation of forests and their commercialisation, there was a need for limitation of access. Above all, it started to be prohibited to collect wood for sale. The gromada and the landlords started controlling whether the timber was used for private consumption. As for dry twigs used as fuel and for building fences, there were more and more regulations allowing only the collection of already dead brunches that had fallen from the trees. Peasants were allowed to collect these only on designated days and they were allowed to access and exit a forest only from one side so that they could be controlled.

Not all common land was used only to collect resources or feed animals. Sources mention another type of common land called nawieś, which is difficult to identify precisely. According to one interpretation, it was a common space used for transport, access to water, production or social-religious activities that was designated for these purposes, due to poor quality of the soil or proximity to water that did not allow for cultivationAccording to Trzyna (1992), this land was usually located in the middle of a village, or next to a lake or a stream, and was used also as a source of water for various purposes; i.e. for drinking by domesticated animals and all the inhabitants of the village, or as drying space for flax and hemp and whitening linen. On the top of that, usually a church, a mill, a fulling-mill, a blacksmith or an inn were also located in a nawieś. According to Jawor (1991), land was organized in the village in this way, so every peasant’s livestock would have free access to the water as well as to a pasture, i.e. they would not have to cross someone’s land in order to get to such facilities. These paths for animals were called wygonthe plots of land neighbouring a wygon often being separated from it by a fence, in order to keep the cattle form devastating crops or grazing someone’s else’s land. Jawor also argues another usage of this land by a gromada. According to him, a nawieś could serve various other purposes and was often located outside the village. It could be a market place or even a spot for a future small town. In one of the villages in the Province of Lublin, the gromada agreed to devote this land to the construction of a monastery.

The organization of a gromada

A. The management officials

The use of commons, easements and nawieś was regulated by the whole village in cooperation with the landlord. Villages in Poland differed between each other, their organization depending on the legal origins of the village and the influence that the landlord had on his subjects. Since the late  Middle Ages, villages were set up using a number of different (e.g, Russian, Polish, or German) legal systems. In the most popular form (the so-called German form) of location, the leading political and economic position was in the hands of an official known as wójt or sołtys. Initially, in the times of colonization during the late Middle Ages, his title was inherited by his offspring. Later on, the landlord or the village could buy out this office. From that moment on, the wójt could either be elected by the gromada (with the landlord’s consent) or be appointed directly by the landlord himself. In some of the villages, the wójt was appointed by the landlord from a list of candidates presented to him by the gromada. In all of the cases, the wójt usually came from the most well-to-do families within a gromada. He was often an inn-keeper or a miller. Once appointed, he was usually exempted from any duties for the lord. In addition, a wójt often was entitled to free use of land and was paid a salary in cash, originating from taxes and fees collected.

The wójt together with the council formed a permanent governing body of a whole gromada, called urząd wiejski (rural council). Usually, the council had two to five members, called ławnicy. In some of the villages, there was also a notary who was responsible for all the book keeping and legal documents produced by a village. The council was responsible for many aspects of the gromada’s life. It acted as a court between general meetings of the gromada and was also responsible for collecting royal taxes and all the fees needed to fund the gromada’s actions. Moreover, the council was responsible for ensuring order in the village, as well as controlling the morals of the peasants. On top of this, it was the council that organized the execution of the feudal rent on the landlord’s manor. Members of the council usually came from wealthy families. Moreover, they were supported by the local lord in order to ensure their loyalty. Many people refused to be appointed to this post, as members of the council were personally responsible for the actions of the whole gromada. Their position was especially difficult in case of a conflict between the village and the landlord. In such situations, the latter could put pressure on the members of the council to make the villagers obedient. Means of coercion used by the lords were often very severe and included corporal punishment. It was customary that, in order to become a wójt, a person needed to gain some experience in the council beforehand.

B. Other officials

When managing a gromada’s affairs, the council was supported by various other officials such as foresters, shepherds, woźni, and polowi. Foresters were not only appointed in those of the villages that had their own forests, as they were protecting both the common and the landlord’s forest (easements). In the big gromadas there were many shepherds. According to Trzyna (1992), they were not only guarding the sheep but also controlling how many animals were send to the common area by all the members. The number of animals that a peasant was allowed to feed on the common land was regulated. The woźni were responsible for collecting and announcing the lord’s orders and courts decisions. The polowi looked after all that had to do with meadows and pastures. Another important official was called advocate (rugownik). He was elected from the most respected peasants. During the general meetings he was obliged to inform the gromada about all the crimes committed on its territory. All the members were obliged to report all sorts of problems to these officials beforehand. There was a wide variety of types of crimes that a rugownik could accuse fellow members of,for example: being absent in church, neglecting holidays, adultery, drinking in inns outside the own village, devastating common fields and forests, and selling out oxen. Since the eighteenth century, they were obliged to report all the crimes to the lord. Some of the well-to-do gromady also appointed accountants, collectors who helped to collect the fees, or measurers who controlled the mill in order to prevent any cheating with measures; the karbownik was responsible for counting how many drinks were drank by the officials at the local inn and land-surveyors were obliged to measure plots of land. Many of those officials were, however, no longer appointed in the seventeenth and eighteenth century (Trzyna 1992).

C. The general assemblee of the commoners

The only institution that was more important than the wójt was the general meeting of a gromada, called schadzki that was formed when all the members of a gromada gathered together. Only the landlord had the right to call such a meeting, other forms of political meetings were considered illegal. Usually general meetings took place next to the wójt’s house. According to Bujak (1903), participation in these meeting was compulsory for all the members of a gromada. He presented examples of various punishments for absence, such as simple fees added to the gromada’s chest or some wax for the local church. In some of the villages, those who refused to come to such a meeting were even flogged.

Bujak (1903) argues that at the dawn of the Early Modern era in the Province of Lublin a special kind of meetings was organised, taking the form of a public confession of all the villagers. During those meetings, actions of the peasants were compared to the commands of the Catholic Church. Those who had misbehaved were punished on the spot. Later on, this custom evolved into a special sort of a court, known as sąd rugowyIt was the official public justice institution of a gromada. During the meeting of this court members of a gromada were supposed to tell everything they knew about themselves as well as their neighbours. Moreover, general meetings could regulate all the aspects of the gromada’s economic dealings as well as the private lives of its members.

D. The relation of the landlord to the gromada

As previously mentioned, the landlord had a great impact on the affairs of the whole gromada. It should be only natural as, due to re-feudalization, he was not only the legal owner of all the land but also lord of life and death of all of his subjects (until 1768). Of course, it was in his best interest to keep his serfs happy and productive. In addition, land with peasants assigned to it was worth more than unassigned plots of land. Nevertheless, there was always some sort of a class-clash between the lord and his subjects. The more united the gromada was, the more efficient it could oppose the landlord’s demands. The landlord therefore was using institutionalization of the village in order to control it. No new law could be implemented without the lord’s consent. In addition, any decision had to be officially announced and confirmed by the lord. On the other hand, any too drastic intervention of the lord into the gromada’s affairs could create unhappiness among the villages, who, in their view, knew best how to solve their problems.

The gromada as institution for collective action

A. Legal and judicial

Collectivism did not only take the form of the common use of land. All the members of a gromada formed one legal entity; together they were responsible for actions of the individuals, they supported each other and faced the hazards of everyday life.

B. Land cultivation and maintenance

Cultivation of land was a challenging task; many obstacles that nature set against peasants could not be overcome single-handedly. Every member of a gromada was obliged to work on the common land. Usually the whole village worked together on a day chosen by a wójt. According to Baranowski (1950/1), in some villages those who refused to work were obliged to pay a significant fee, or were even punished corporally. The wójt, being the head of a gromada had to organize the common work on the fallow land (ploughing and sowing) or on the stubble fields.

Also irrigation projects, such as digging ditches and drainage of flooded areas, were not tasks for an individual. A nice illustration of this practice comes from an instruction of the villages Zegrze and Rataja, belonging to the city of Poznań: ‘ the meadows that are covered by bushes or were deformed by moles’ hills should be cleared by all the people, and a wójt should choose a day when all the landowners together with their helpers would gather and work on this side by side.’ Moreover, according to Baranowski (1950/1), when a ditch that served only a few peasants had to be cleaned, those people were suppose to co-operate or at least prepare the work at their section of the line individually. However, a single owner could not jeopardize the whole project, as he was forced to co-operate under the threat of punishment. Similar was the problem of building fences around a wygon — a common road used to lead cattle to the pastures; in some of the villages all the peasants whose plots were near to the common road had to build fences.

C. Credit system

According to Inglot (1966), the credit system in rural areas is a very old institution. The main source of capital was the manor. The right to cultivate the land was usually used as a collateral. In order to help peasants to deal with poverty, in the late  Middle Ages an institution of załoga was created. Usually, it was a donation of animals, grain, or tools to a peasant by the manor, but it could also be a small sum of money. Landlords needed serfs to have the proper equipment in order perform their duties properly. Later on, the expenditure of this help was shifted from the lord to the village. These were the origins of common microfinance institutions, subdivided into two main types: chests and granaries. The initial capital usually came from the manor; later on, they were financed by private donations, compulsory fees from the villagers, surplus from the tax collection and even money loaned by the lords against interest. These rural chests usually granted consumption credit. The credit was usually granted to those households that suffered from natural disasters, newlyweds who needed to organise a wedding and build a house, artisans who needed money to finance their studies and, of course, to buy tools. Usually these were short term loans, for one year only.

Inglot (1966) also describes common granaries that were lending grains to those in need in the wintertime, in case of a famine, or just to sow. Some of them used the revenue to help orphans, proving their non-profit character. The loans were borrowed against interest. One of the methods of collecting interest, in an economy not based on money, was changing the method of measurement. These institutions mushroomed in the second half of the eighteenth century. Some of these institutions could engage the gathered capital in trade for the benefit of the whole gromada. Baranowski (1950/1) argues that in some of the areas, especially in the second half of the eighteenth century, it was the manor that started to organize this sort of institution as a form of philanthropy. However,  in some regions these turned out into yet another form of extraction and put peasants into a spiral of debt.

Related institutions of collective action

Insurance systems were another form of collective action related to transferring wealth. Institutions of rural insurance in Poland date back to the late Middle Ages. Baranowski (1950/1) argues that,, should someone become an orphan, or be crippled by a illness or misfortune, in many regions the whole gromada usually helped to cultivate his or her land. Inglot (1966) argues, that the earliest signs of institutionalised insurance against fire are known for the region of Zuławy Wiślane, an area densely populated by Dutch settlers: members of a group were paying fees sufficiently high to cover a future damage. The debt of the group was secured on their private possessions. The insurance was paid out despite the cause of the fire. The insurance protected both the real estates and the movables.

One of the oldest regulations of fire insurance dates back to 1623. A group from a region near the city of Nowy Dwór insured both private and public buildings. The insurance was based on the amount of land cultivated by the household. Losses of livestock and crops were also reimbursed and were estimated by the wójt. If someone’s hay burned up, the livestock belonging to that person was fed by the other members of the community. In this case however, those who had not taken proper care of their chimneys were not granted the full reimbursement. There were strict regulations regarding the use of fire. Baranowski (1950/1) argues that, in order to secure their possessions from fire, gromadas organised night watches. According to this author, the duration of this duty was usually independent from the amount of land or houses that a peasant had.