1050 years of Christianity on the Polish Lands. The state of Mieszko I and the problem of early Christianization of Poland in the light of archaeological research

Andrzej Buko


The first description of the rise of the Polish state appears in the twelfth century chronicle of Gallus Anonymous, whose chronicle refers to the legendary predecessors of Mieszko. The chronicler states that the version given there of the oldest history was that which was preserved by as he put it “faithful memory”. The thesis of the evolutionary beginnings of the state has dominated the majority of the interpretations for many years. More recent archaeological investigations however, carried out in different regions of the country indicate that all over the Polish lands a similar, though not identical series of events took place in the tenth century. As a result there was a rapid, sometimes even catastrophic, collapse of many of the pre-existing tribal centres. These events were accompanied by permanent or temporary depopulation of former areas of settlement. Within a short time new centres of the Piast state arose on new sites, beginning the thousand year history of the Polish nation and state. A problem which is more widely discussed by the author is the origin of the creators of the Piast dynasty. In Polish historiography they have been assigned both a local as well as foreign (Varangian) origin. Archaeologists however have not earlier considered this problem in much detail, but the author belives that some archaeological evidence suggest that the birthplace of the new dynasty might have been southeast Wielkopolska and the region of Kalisz. This area shows a lack of the traces of the destruction of tribal centres so characteristic for other parts of the region. On the contrary, here we see traces of investment of considerable resources in stronghold construction and other evidence of the growth of the Kalisz region and the centre of Kalisz itself. What is more, Kalisz (which arose in the tribal period), unlike the rest of the pre-state strongholds, not only survived, but also developed successfully after the rise of the state. Thus, in the opinion of the author, it was precisely here that the best conditions xisted for the beginning of the Piast revolution, the archaeological traces of which are the destroyed tribal strongholds and the construction of new political centres in new locations. The Podebłocie complex situated 100 km to the south of Warsaw composed of a stronghold,  settlements and cemeteries, has gone down in history because of the scholarly storm which erupted around the discovery of three fragments of fired clay, called conventionally “the Podebłocie tablets”. They were found in two archaeological features in a settlement of the “tribal period”, dated to the ninth century. The objects have one feature in common: on their surface they have signs resembling writing. These inscriptions have been read as the monogram of Jesus Christ. If these hypotheses could be positively verified, we would be dealing with the evidence of the presence of Christians at least 150 years earlier than the date of the acceptance of Christianity by Poland. In the same context as the tablets were found pottery dated to the ninth century with interesting solar ornament. Similar decoration on ceramics from Poland are unique. From the point of view of Christianization of the Polish State the crucial position play discoveries which took place in the leading centers of the Mieszko I in the 2nd half of 10th century. In Poznań – in agreement with a tradition which tells of the place of residence of Jordan, the first missionary bishop – the greatest discovery of the past few years has been the palatium of Mieszko I, which has been dated to the second half of the tenth century. Further investigations have shown that adjacent to this building there probably was a chapel in the rectangular form with an-apse. The entire complex was therefore similar to that known from Ostrów Lednicki. Another discovery which has been the subject of controversy for many years is the so-called ‘baptistery’ from Poznan. This is a structure with a central post identified under the cathedral. This is regarded by some investigators as the remains of a mortar-mixer, others reject that interpretation, demonstrating that around this structure stood a rectangular structure. Even however if this was so, it still remains unclear whether this supposed baptistery functioned beside a church already in existence (and if so, what kind of church?). No trace of such a structure has been found. Another centre – Ostrów Lednicki, situated in Great Poland has a number of exceptional features. Here, within the circuit of the stronghold on the island, in its central part, was situated a residential complex of the first Piasts. This consisted of a two-part structure, identified as a palatium and accompanying centrally-planned chapel (or baptistery). The form of the palace shows Ottonian and southern influences. Another important element is the nearby aisleless masonry church, around which was a small cemetery. The uniqueness of Ostrów Lednicki is due to the fact that, besides fulfilling a residential function for the first Polish rulers, at the beginning of statehood, it became an important place for baptisms, a necropolis of the Piast dynasty, a place where the elite of the princely retinue gathered, as well as an example of engineering ability – the construction of bridges. From here has come one of the richest collections of archaeological finds of the highest rank. Giecz, situated forty kilometres south of Ostrów Lednicki, first enters the Polish historical record in a mention by Gallus Anonimous. On this basis we may assume that the stronghold fulfilled an important military role in the early Piast state. Within the ramparts of the site were uncovered the remains of a palatium building with a rotunda, as well as the remains of a church of St John the Baptist situated in the north part of the stronghold. The foundation of the palatium has been ascribed to Mieszko II, and the cessation of the construction explained by the invasion of the Bohemian prince Břetyslav at the end of the 1030s. A great change which occurred at the beginning of the early state period in the Polish lands was the transition from cremation to inhumation which was brought about by the introduction of Christianity in the second half of the tenth century. But many biritual cemeteries existed into the 12th and 13th centuries. This concerns principally those areas where paganism lasted longer (Pomerania and Mazovia), or those places where people of a different cultural tradition were buried. According to the Author many evidence, as 14C dating of human bones from the oldest cemeteries, showed that the beginning of great conversion – from incineration to inhumation took place still in the times of Mieszko I. Poland of the times of Mieszko I was, in today’s terminology, a country undergoing deep structural changes. The processes of the fortification of the country and the beginnings of early urbanisation were inevitably accompanied by deep demographic changes. The scale of changes which were occurring at this time is a reflection of the position of a leader in charge of a well-trained and professional army, in which immigrant Scandinavians (among others) played an important role. The transformations which took place in Polish lands in the times of Mieszko I, were part of the processes of state formation which were taking place all over central Europe. The major structural transformations and political and ideological reconstruction of tribal organizations lie at the basis of the preservation of cultural and ethnic identity of the Lechitic tribes – later Polish – in the community of European nations


state formation processes, early christianization, central places, duke Mieszko I, burial rites, archaeological discoveries, residential complex, first churches, Poznań, Ostrów Lednicki, pagans, christians

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