There is a millennium of Polish coinage as Poland,
and an additional 1500 years or so of known economic activity before that.
From the Renaissance to the 18th century the numismatic product was complicated
I always like to begin with a geographic overwiew, so we have some idea what part of the world we're discussing. And then I like to start the "stuff" discussion with the fossil record, since some of us like to annoy the paleontologists by collecting their objects of study as we more regularly annoy the archeologists by collecting ancient coins that they would prefer to lock away in their drawers never to be seen again, because they're "just coins" after all.
In the case of Poland the political geography is peculiarly plastic. 60 years ago Russia took almost half of the Republic of Poland. 70 years ago large chunks of Poland were in Germany, and filled with Germans whose ancestors had been living there for hundreds of years. 100 years ago there was no Poland. In the middle ages and Renaissance "Poland" meant half of modern Germany, all of the Baltic states, most of European Russia and most of Ukrainia.
What we have today, in geographic terms, is a northern band of low lying plains extending from west to east proceeding inland from the Baltic coastline, a central piedmont zone that expands to the southeast into Ukraine, and the southern mountains, Carpathian and Sudete chains, higher in the west, petering out to the east, forming the border with what used to be Czechoslovakia, and is now two countries; Czech and Slovakia.
(That was supposed to be a joke. No, just kidding, not a joke. Changed my mind, call it a joke.)
And, having just stumbled across a "cz," a brief digression into Polish spelling may be appropriate. Though the same alphabet is used in English and Polish, the sound value of the letters can be wildly different. A few nuggets: "cz" is "ch," "sz" is "sh," "szcz" is "shch," (a popular Slavic sound), "w" is "v," "l" with a diagonal through it is "w," "ch" is that gutteral throat clearing sound as in German, "prz" is "sh," final "l" is often silent, "z" is often "sh," "c" is usually "ch" but sometimes "ts," "j" is "y"... It goes on, and is rather complicated. My favorite example of Polish orthography, never fails to bring a confused smile: how do you pronounce "Przemysl?" "Shemish."
The word "polye" in various Slavic languages refers to plains, and it is generally assumed that this is how the name of the country is derived.
Keep the southeast region in mind - Upper Silesia. Lots of coal there.
Which brings us to the fossils. Most of the coal was laid down during the Carboniferous era, 250 million years ago, more or less, unless you are a creationist, in which case it was created on, I think, the first Tuesday. They dig up the coal and occasionally they split out a cast and impression of a fern leaf and other things like that. The layers of coal are sandwiched between layers of slate mostly, and there are fossils there too. The retrieval of these fossils for study and sale to tourists and fossil collectors is a small scale economic activity in Silesia.
Northern Poland was covered by the glaciers of the last ice age, which ended, scientifically speaking, something more than 10,000 years ago. Because of the ice there is not much in the way of the fossils of large mammalian fauna that are found elsewhere in Europe - pieces of mammoths, sloths, cave bears and so forth. The Polish government website mentions evidence of Neanderthal activity, around 100,000 BC, in the far south. Then there is a long hiatus. Then there is, suddenly, a bit of mesolithic activity about 10,000 years ago, also in the south. The Polish government, and seemingly everyone else who has an opinion, thinks that those people came from further south, perhaps Romania.
This is not the venue to go into any kind of detail about the differences between "paleolithic," "mesolithic," and "neolithic," but a bit of reductionist sloganeering might be useful.
"Paleolithic" refers to the type of stone work practiced before about 12,000 BCE. It encompasses the work of pre-sapiens hominids such as the
australopithecines ("Lucy"), homo erectus, the neanderthals, and the early homo sapiens (cro-magnon, etc.) Paleolithic people were all hunter-gatherers, and their stone tools were not meant to be mounted on wooden shafts or handles until the very end of their period.
"Mesolithic" refers to short micro-blades that were mounted on wooden bases with resin. Sickles, clubs, and other tools were made thus, with an evolving continuation of the old paleolithic axes, hammers, and points, most of which were at that point mounted on shafts or handles. The time frame for
mesolithic is about 15,000 to 10,000 BCE.
"Neolithic" refers to a varied and specialized set of tools, many finely made, many with an evident esthetic sensibility. Grinding and polishing began to be used for axes, and they started seriously cutting down trees to make fields for agriculture. Time frame is about 10,000 to 2000 BCE.
So there is mesolithic and neolithic stuff found in Poland, but not a whole lot of it. For instance, any of the European paleo dealers will have a ton (figuratively speaking) of stuff from France, Spain, Germany, etc. But they're not going to have much from Poland.
We all know that at some point people started playing with metal. The two earliest metals, not counting the rare specimens of native copper, native silver, and the odd gold nugget, were meteoric iron and that stuff that oozed from some green stones when they were heated very hot. Around 5000 BCE, give or take 1000 years, copper smelting began to happen in various places around Eurasia. After some modest delay, couple hundred, maybe 1000 years, the practice became general, if still rather scarce, and the so-called "chalcolithic" age began.
Again, Poland was an outlying region as regards these developments. Tons of chalcolithic material are not found anywhere. Copper was rare and valuable, made more for showing off than for use. For collecting purposes Bulgaria is the place, not Poland.
And copper was succeeded by bronze, which is copper with a bit of tin in it, which makes it tough and hard enough that one can make real tools out of it that actually do things. Learned opinion may be tending toward the view that bronze began to be made in southern Thailand, which makes sense, since there is a lot of tin there. Whatever the facts, by 3000 BCE or so bronze was going strong in Eurasia, and by about 1500 BCE it was all over the place in the Old World. And Poland? Poland too. Just not as much. Sparsely populated. A bit behind the times. Centers of civilization - Egypt, Iraq, China, Pakistan. Poland was way out there on the edge with the lions and bears and snow demons.
Some time maybe 3000 BCE or so massive movements of people started to occur in Eurasia. All of them had large animals to ride on, and all of them were metalworkers. Perhaps they started moving because they cut down all of the trees in their homelands to make fires for their metalwork and had to move. Or maybe not. Maybe there was a drought, or maybe not. Or a plague. The earliest of these movements may have been the Semites entering Iraq, or perhaps the Hyksos invading Egypt. The movements of these people, wave after wave of them out of central Asia, continued until the time of the Mongols in the 13th century CE.
In every case they brought war and military innovation. Often repulsed, often victorious, they mixed up culture, technology, and the gene pool all over.
In Poland the neolithic-chalcolithic-bronze age farmers were bothered for several hundred years by people called Sarmatians, Scythians, and, to a small extent in the deep south, Celts. This would be starting around 600 BCE. It is likely that these horse nomads brought iron smelting technology with them.
At that point we can start talking about coinage, token economy, topics of particular interest to us, the numismatists. Way back, before the round metal things with designs on them that we recognize as "coins," there were bracelets and rings, some of them too big or small for any ornamental purpose, and ingots of a size and shape suspiciously convenient for hand to hand commerce. I just got some of that kind of stuff from Ukraine, which is pretty close to Poland. As for Poland itself, who knows? (Probably someone.)
We don't have any coins of the Sarmatians, nor for the western Scythians (though they coined extensively in Afghanistan and Pakistan) but we do for the Celts. Starting around the 3rd century BCE various Celtic tribes, who were active from Ukrainia to Ireland, started making imitations of Greek coins, eventually producing a large series from all over Europe. Some of these are quite Greek looking, some of them are stylized to the point of incoherence, with blobs and squiggles making up the designs.
What does this have to do with Poland? Once again, Poland was in the wings. The main Celtic coin action was further south and further west. No one knows exactly where these things were made, so there is no justification either for or against the assertion that Celts struck coins within the territory of modern Poland. Such coins are, however, found there, not very many, and mostly, in a pattern that we are used to by now, in the south.
It was in the time of the Celts that a major aspect of the Polish economy developed. That was the amber trade. Amber is fossilized resin of pine and other trees. Looks like a rock but light. Takes a polish, becomes transparent, looks beautiful, sometimes has bugs and other stuff in it. Dug out of the sand in the Baltic regions. When it burns it smells like what it is. You'd think that even back then they would have thought "Hey, this is pine resin," and maybe they did. But they treated it as a gem and prized it highly. A trade route developed between the amber beds and the culture centers. Silver and gold went north, amber went south. And as long as
the traders were there why not pick up some furs, and maybe some of those exotic blond slaves?
One of the main references for Polish numismatics is the "Handbook of Polish Numismatics" by Marian Gumowski. It exists in Polish, but is mostly encountered in a revised German version. Mr. Gumowski mentioned a few hoards of archaic Greek coins found along the "amber road." Most of the coins, he wrote, point to a predominance of trade with the the Black Sea settlements of Bulgaria and Crimea, which makes sense because those are pretty close, relatively speaking. But he also noted Athenian and Boetian coins from Greece proper, and even one from Greek Italy.
As might be expected, the trade picked up during the Hellenistic period after Alexander the Great, and contemporary with those later Greek coins are found the Celtic imitations discussed above.
There was evidently a significant increase in trade with Rome starting in the 2nd century BCE and continuing great guns, so to speak, until the 2nd century CE, which is to say the time of the Antonines. After that the trade diminished as the frontier wars in that region heated up and stayed heated for several centuries. Poland was never part of the Roman empire, no coins were made there. After Constantinople was up and running the flow of coins north from Italy dwindled more or less to nothing as the business all shifted east. 4th and 5th century material found in Poland is almost all Constantinopolitan gold.
The Byzantines found themselves in hard times starting in the late 6th century and the amber trade too dwindled almost to nothing. The hiatus lasted about 150 years while the "civilized world" reorganized itself. When the dust settled the Byzantines were essentially sealed off on the east by the newly Islamic and boldly insurgent Arabs. Arabs are people too, they allowed themselves, despite the abstemious requests of their religion, to seek after luxury, and the amber-fur-blond slave trade reopened, its proximate terminus in Bulgaria where the Arab traders unloaded their silver dirhams and took the stuff back to Baghdad. The Arab silver found its way into Poland. Evidently the people there failed to appreciate the beauty of the coins as they perhaps had with the Roman and Byzantine coins, for most of the Arab dirhams are found hacked up into pieces. Thin coins are easy to cut. Maybe they were using them as small change, or maybe they were just bullion.
Mr. Donald Yarab, an advisor for this article, has informed me that some 25,000 dirhams have been found in Poland, mostly in Pomerania in the west. The Arab stuff was all there was in the way of coinage until the 10th century, which is when Poland emerged as Poland by becoming Christian and joining part of the developing European civilization.
I was talking with a guy from Germany recently about
the origin of coinage. He noted several interesting facts and posed
questions about them. Why, he asked, has no one ever discovered the
ancient Greek iron spits called oboli, the ones that were used as "coins"
before they made coins and which they hung up in their temples after they
started using the stamped metal discs? And why are there so many
spears, bows, knives, helmets, shields, and other military paraphernalia
on ancient Greek coins and very few shoes, bowls of food, saws, drills,
spoons? And no cradles, looms, and other woman tools? His theory
was that the first coins were used to pay soldiers, period. Local
economies were barter. State warfare was the business of mercenaries.
Infantry was paid in silver. Officers were paid in gold. Farmers
and potters could make do with copper, or do without, or they could just
go and die, plenty more where they came from.
I mention this because of something he said about the ancient and "Dark Ages" economy of northern and central Europe. You'll recall that last month I mentioned amber, furs, and slaves as typical northern products of the period. Turns out I neglected to notice a major product, perhaps the premier product of the northlands. My excuse is that I was slavishly following Gumowski, who did not mention it. I just turned my brain off, read the German (with a dictionary, slowly), and presented to you the results of my "research." Mea culpa. The product was big, strong soldiers. They went down to Constantinople and fought with the Byzantines against the Arabs. They went with the Arabs to Afghanistan and fought with the Muslims against the Buddhists and the Hindus. They were paid in gold and silver coins, and they brought those coins back home with them if they survived. There are many records of northern soldiers. They were all over the place.
That's how a lot of those coins got to Poland. It wasn't so much daughters of the guys in the next parcel over stolen and sold into slavery, though that certainly happened. It was sons plying the mercenary trade.
OK, then. On to the Christian era, and the coins thereof, what Gumowski called the "denar period."
To the east of Poland is Russia, in which, during the 7th-8th-9th centuries, was some serious disorganization; Slavic villages, Huns running around, Turks, all kinds of different peoples, no organized territorial government, no coins. South and east was Muslim territory, south and west was, at some distance, Byzantine. West was Germany.
When the Roman empire in the west dissolved into the squabbling Germanic tribes they (the Romans) were making gold coins for big business and tiny coppers for everything else. No silver to speak of, just bits of presentation issues and other specialty coins here and there. At the end of the 5th century the eastern Romans (Byzantines) started making big coppers, but they didn't get around much in the west, not at all in the north. If you're going a-trading far away you're not going to weigh yourself down with copper.
The various Germans, some of them, made imitations of Roman coins, and eventually they started making them with their own designs. They developed a certain fondness for the third of the gold solidus, or tremissis. In the course of time, and in various places, exigencies of financial need, possibly combined with shortage of bullion, produced debased gold tremisses. At a certain period, perhaps as early as the late 6th century CE, in various places, perhaps more northerly than Italy and Spain, the tremissis of about 1.5 grams was replaced by something lighter based on a German standard of about 1.3 grams, based on 20 barleycorns and called something that sounded a whole lot like "shilling."
That's a gold coin, the shilling. When there are two kinds of money floating around, one worth more than the other, one of two things happens. If the government prohibits circulation of one of them then that type is hoarded and smuggled to where it can be spent, with the occasional apprehension of some poor sod hoarder, whose stash is confiscated, and maybe they string him up as an example. If there is free trade, or taxed open trade, the types circulate in a relation to each other. Weights could be compared accurately, but alloy was more or less of a guessing game, and games could be played involving heavier coins of baser alloy, plating, washing, etc.
Tremisses continued to be made in the south, and shillings of various sorts were made in the north, in France & Germany. Some time in the late 7th century in the Frankish zone they started making silver coins. It is generally considered, by people who think about such things, that business on the ground in 6th-7th century Europe was barter, government business was in gold, and there was no middle class at all doing the kind of middle business that required middle money, which was silver. Take England, for example, a rather clearly cut situation, relatively speaking. They had no coins between the departure of the Romans and the arrival of the Saxons, who produced, when they got there, gold "shillings." Down in Spain were German Visigoths, doing their state business in gold, perhaps a few towns making a few coppers from time to time. All the silver business is over on the Arab side, where they promoted small business and permitted the development of a "middle" class.
They didn't see the need for one in Dark Ages Europe. They thought they were OK with just soldiers and farmers. And the Church.
It seems, though it is not certain, that the reintroduction of silver coins in Europe was not a final devolution of the debasement of the gold tremissis, but rather a deliberate innovation. Its purpose was to facilitate trade at markets and, of course, to pay soldiers.
The new coins were more or less the same, in terms of size and shape, as the old Roman denarii, and that's what they were called in the Romance language zones. Where Germanic was spoken they called them "pennies" or variants thereof. They seem to have started making them in what is now France, which was filled with Christian Germans. What is now Germany was filled with pagan Germans, who didn't use coins except to make into jewelry. Further east, in the Poland we are supposedly discussing, were pagans of who knows what variety.
Once they got the silver coins going they found that they liked them. Silver coins made things happen. Use of silver grew, gold more and more sat in the strong boxes. By the end of the 8th century, a hundred years later, pennies were all over Christian Europe, gold only in use around the edges, where there were Arabs to trade with.
The main thing that happened in 9th century Europe was Charlemagne.
Let's ignore everything that Charlemagne did for western Europe, and Europe in general, and briefly mention the two things he did that are pertinent to a discussion of Polish numismatics, which has thus far, in this segment, been completely ignored.
The one thing was the regularization of the currency. Silver pennies of the same weight and fineness, and of limited types, throughout his realm. The other thing was the conquest and forced conversion of the inhabitants of Saxony, which, in the Carolingian context, went right up to what is now the eastern border of Germany, the Elbe river, beyond which is Poland.
Charlemagne crossed the Elbe and encountered the Wilzi, also called the Wends, who were Slavs. He fought them and won, but just barely, and made them tributaries rather than subjects. His position in Wendland was tenuous enough to preclude forcible conversion such as he had perpetrated in Saxony, and the Wends remained pagans, and, coincidentally, coinless.
The 9th century progressed. Markets and their economies grew, also the population. This growth of business attracted the attention of outsiders, particularly those up north in Scandinavia. Those guys were pagans, they thought of Christians as enemies. They had been in the habit of sending their second sons south into Byzantium and the Muslim lands as mercenaries back in the 6th and 7th centuries, but the new money in Europe began to attract their attention, and some of them started making predatory raids into Christendom. They called the practice "going aviking."
The Franks in central Europe, and the Angles and Saxons in England, found that it was possible to partially buy off the Vikings with silver money, so they made a lot of it to give to them.
Meanwhile, some of those Scandinavians followed their time-honored trade and mercenary routes down the Volga, set up permanent trading stations, established governments, became slavicised and Christian, pretty soon, couple of centuries, presto - Russia.
Vikings on the east, Vikings on the west, Poland in the middle. Filled with Wends and other Slavs. Tough customers, no money. The Vikings tended to
Charlemagne's successors, to make a long story short, could not maintain his empire, and power devolved into locales. This was immediately reflected in
the coinage, which in the 9th century became local and differentiated. There was essentially no minting going on in Germany during that hundred years, never mind Poland. But the Vikings began to settle here and there in some of the places they had been raiding: England, Ireland, Normandy. They began to pick up some tricks from the locals: coinage, for instance, and, eventually, Christianity.
In the 10th century the Carolingian empire was thoroughly fragmented, France in little pieces and getting heavily feudalized, Germany in bigger chunks. Serious coining began to be done in Germany, with significant outputs in cities like Cologne, Regensburg, Magdeburg, and others, smaller productions in smaller towns, perhaps 100 mints in all, run by dukes and bishops mostly.
In Saxony, which is to say eastern Germany, over by Poland, there was a tendency to make coins with imitation legends of lines and circles. Gumowski wrote that such "Sachsenpfennige" were made for export to Poland, and they are certainly found there, in hoards assumed to have been buried by Wends, whence their 19th century designation as "Wendenpfennige." There is always the possibility that some of the Sachsenpfennigs found in Poland were actually made in Poland, so one could call these the first Polish coins if one wanted to.
The people living in 10th century Poland were not Germans. They were Slavs. And they were not Christians. And they liked to raid and pillage in Germany. They were not good neighbors, and the Germans, when they had strong governments, campaigned against them. They usually won their battles, but they never could hold the eastern territories, and eventually they had to go back in and do it again. Eventually they decided that it would be a good idea to promote settlement in the east. The tendency to move eastward got a name after a while: drang nach Osten, or drive to the east.
The Wends were not the only group of people living in the east. There were others, perhaps ethnically related, but with a different political culture, one perhaps more open to the possibilities presented by feudalism and royalty.
mong these were the Bohemians and the actual "Poles." The Bohemians organized into a kingdom early in the 10th century, shortly devolving into a duchy for a while before acsending to royalty again, and the Poles soon after.
This first Polish duchy was created by a family that came to be known later as the Piasts. The first "duke" was Mieszko in Polish, Miseco in German. His dates were 960-992.
While the Wends were fighting the Germans in every way they could the Poles under the Piast family tried to fight fire with fire. While the Wends remained stubbornly pagan, Mieszko became a Christian and his people in time followed him. The Wends never did give up their love of raiding. The Poles went for a market economy. The Wends could not abandon their tribal rivalries. The Poles got themselves a duke, whose descendants became kings.
There are these coins that bear legends containing parts of the name "Miseco." They have been traditionally assigned (by Gumowski, for instance) to Mieszko I, though the idea that they are actually relics of Miezko II or even Mieszko III will not die. The coins are rare, and basically don't show up in places where you could buy them.
Interesting guy, Mieszko. They argue about whether or not he was vassal to the emperor Otto I, and/or Otto II, and/or Otto III. Maybe he conquered Pomerania, or maybe only part of it, or maybe he only campaigned there. He had no established capital, but he built fortresses in Poznan, Gniezno, and Gdansk (Danzig). There is a portrait of him, appropriately heroic, on the current Polish 10 zlotych note, and another on a coin of 1979, but no one pretends that it is really him, . There are no true likenesses, any more than there are true images of Charlemagne, or of anyone in Europe of that time.
There is also a picture of "his" coin on the back of that note. That's probably as close as most of us are going to get to the Mieszko coin. Of Mieszko's successor, Boleslav I Chrobry (the Brave), 966-1025, there is less doubt. He expanded his holdings in all directions, and in the last year of his reign declared himself king. He struck plenty of coins, in Poland and also in Bohemia, which he conquered and ruled for a while as Boleslav IV. Boleslav's coins are "common" in comparison with Mieszko's, but there is no doubt that they are his, and they are still rare and expensive. He is counted the first true king of Poland, and Polish patriot collectors will pay handsomely for one of his coins. They go in European auctions for several thousand dollars when they show up.
Most of the money in Poland at the time was not produced by the Piasts. Some of it was produced by bishops and abbots imitating the Sachsenpfennige, but most of it was the Sachsenpfennige themselves Hard to tell the difference between the church coins and the Saxon things they imitated, since both lacked useful legends or symbols. But you can find them to collect if you want to, and you can afford them too.
Some of my ancestors came to the United States from
Poland. They came from the part of what is now Poland that was, at
the time of their departure, part of Austria, and they were not Poles.
Nevertheless, there was that connection, which always made me prick up
my ears when subjects related to that country came up. And I knew
and still know plenty of Polish-Americans. There are a lot of them
in the USA, at least where I grew up. And some actual Polish Poles
have found their way to me. So I am not, personally, unacquainted
with things Polish.
There is has been a tendency for Polish people I have come in contact with to remember and hold on to some concept of their "roots." There was a time when Poland was a leading light in European culture and a dominant political force. I noticed a tendency amongst some Poles of my acquaintance to remember this. If I am talking Polish history in the presence of a Polish person, and gave voice to an incorrect assertion, chances are I will be corrected.
I was not surprised therefore, when, after the publication of the first two articles on Poland, I was contacted by more than one person gently informing me of the facts, or perhaps in some cases "facts," of matters relating to certain aspects of early Polish numismatics.
I carefully considered their statements, compared them with other things I had read, including my laboriously self-translated German version of Gumowski, and came to this conclusion: Early Polish numismatics is a mess. No one knows for sure who issued many coins or why. Attributions are provisional, or are lumped into rude groups like "episcopal." And were those "Episcopal" coins made in Poland, or Saxony, or Pomerania - who knows? By Germans or Poles - who knows? "Officially" or not - who knows?
There are so many coins of which a single example is known, or two, or three. So many coins horribly struck, can't make heads or tails of them. Plenty of coins that don't have any legends. Experts use their prestige to make an assignment. Maybe they know something, maybe they don't. There is a lot of material that is just impossible to pin down.
But I know something. If you call it Polish you can get a lot more for it than if you call it Saxon.
That said, let's recap that earliest emergence of the Polish state, when parts of the European culture complex, including among other things, Christianity and coinage, began to take hold. And let us bear in mind constantly, that whenever anything Polish is to be considered the facts of Germany to the west and the vast expanse of territory, eventually to be known as Russia, to the east, can never be ignored.
Polish duke Miezsko I, (960-992), did his thing during the reigns of Holy Roman (German) emperors Otto I (962-73), Otto II (973-83), and Otto III (980-1002), whose coins, by the way, in most cases cannot be differentiated. Poland "submitted" to the empire in 979. The extent of Miezsko's holdings, his
activities, his realm, are not known in detail, though certain specifics are not in dispute. The few coins attributed to him are subject to doubt by people who do not possess them. Among his children was one who became the mother of Danish king Canute of England, and another, Boleslaw, who became the first king of Poland.
Not that Miezsko was in any way mythological, though many details of his story are unclear. But with Boleslaw the picture becomes considerably clearer, the clarity pleasingly reflected in the coinage, which agreably confrms for us that he was here and there, that he did this and that.
Boleslaw I became duke of Poland on the death of his father, Mieszko I, in 992, and made his personal submission to Holy Roman Emperor and king of Germany Otto III. He had several wives in succession, among them two daughters of the margrave of Meissen in Saxony, the significance of which connection will shortly become apparent.
In 997 Boleslaw sent soldiers to guard Adalbert, bishop of Prague, on a mission to convert the Prussians. Adalbert had converted the Hungarians and had had a hand in the conversion of the Poles, so he was considered the man for the job. But he cut down a sacred grove to prove that the heathen gods were powerless, and the Prussians, grown wroth, slew him. Boleslaw bought his body for its weight in gold, and some years later Adalbert was canonized, eventually becoming the patron saint of Bohemia, Hungary, Prussia, and Poland.
In 999 Boleslaw took Moravia. A year or two later he took Slovakia. In 1000 the emperor made Boleslaw's capital, Gniezno, holding the remains of the saintly Adalbert, an archbishopric.
That emperor, Otto III, died in 1002, bequeathing one of those messy and violent succession disputes that have plagued human history since forever. Boleslaw took advantage of the situation, grabbing Meissen, where he had contacts, and Lusatia, a region on the southern border of what are now Germany and Poland and just north of the current Czech Republic. Boleslaw backed the winner in the imperial sweepstakes, who became Henry II, and went on exploiting his position by making himself duke of Bohemia and Moravia in 1003-4.
The emperor got to thinking that the Polish duke was getting too big for his britches and several armed conficts ensued over a number of years until 1018, when a treaty recognized most of Boleslaw's positions and he renewed his oath to the imperium.
Boleslaw also sent soldiers to help his nephew Canute invade England in 1015. And there was a brief adventure in Kievan Rus' in 1017 on behalf of his locally unpopular son in law, Sviatopolk, which ended in withdrawl, then there was another attempt, also unsuccessful, and in the end the whole affair was for nought. This was the first time Poland had tangled with the Russians, and it ended badly.
The emperor died in 1024 and Boleslaw crowned himself king of Poland in 1025, dying shortly after.
So what? Turns out that many of these doings seem to be reflected in a bunch of very rare coins. Go find a copy of Gumowski (good luck!). Observe the line drawings on page 87 and on table I. There is the duke, his own portrait we can assume, with his name, on the reverse the name of his capital: GNEZDVN. Another, attributed (how?) to him, inscribed PRINCES POLONIE. Observe the German types testifying to his seized Saxon lands: the wooden church, name of the emperor, ODDO (probably III), in the angles of the cross, even empress mother Adelaide shows up. And there are the Bohemian types, Boleslaw III as he was known there, from the city of Prague. There's a coin commemorating Adalbert. And there's an and to the series, obviously datable to 1025: REX BOLIZLAVS.
But it's not all cut and dried. The Polish duke's foray into Bohemia provoked disorder and dissension. Thus one finds, should one be so lucky, coins of the native resistance, so to speak, bearing the names of Vladivoi, Sobieslaw, and of Emma. widow of the deceased Bohemian duke also named, confusingly, Boleslaw. You could bone up on the history and narrow the period of issue of these coins to within a year or two, maybe even a period of months. But actually finding the coins, that's a different story, not often told.
And for some spice please note the hoard finds of Canute pennies found in Poland, brought back by the Polish soldiers sent by the Dane's uncle to help him in his conquest of England. I found this assertion in an article on www.kwinto-coins.com, which please consult, as the English translation should be there by now. If it is not, get in touch with me, I have it on file.
None of these coins is likely to come into one's possession. The PRINCES POLONIE coin in the accompanying illustration is valued in the $10,000 range.
If you're a "normal" coin collector the coin you'll find for 11th century Poland will be something "episcopal." It might be something locatable, like the ones that name "EBERHARDVS," which hail from Kruszwica (Kreuzwitz), then Saxony, now Poland, but more likely it will be an imitation of German types with traces of letters for the legend, or maybe just dots and lines. These coins come in various sizes ranging from full weight German denar to light weight Hungarian obol. Kwinto, mentioned above, states that many of the episcopal coins are silver plated copper. Shall we then suspect rampant fraud in the 11th century Polish eccelsiastical coining operations?
Long have I wondered on this: that there is so much fakery in the coin business in so many fields, but in the medieval Europeans there is very little. I've stumbled upon some modern copies of Anglo-Saxon coins, but not much else. In the Polish I read on Kwinto's website of a fake Miezsko I that surfaced recently, but for run of the mill coins that one could profitably peddle for $20-50 or so, 11th century central and eastern European "episcopals" for instance, such things have not turned up that I know of. It is strange, because a few years ago someone was making fakes of 19th century Russian coppers with market values of a dollar or two. Don't blame me now if in 6 months a batch of fake ODDO coins turns up. Fakes can be very good these days, but so are the fake detection techniques, so they tend not to get very far. A word to the wise who might be contemplating a career in skulduggery and deception: go into politics, or pension fund management.
Boleslaw I died in 1025, shortly after crowning himself king of Poland, and was succeeded by one of his sons, Miezsko II. Miezsko was unfortunately involved in wars for much of his reign, initially with success, later with significant failure. The start of his humiliation involved a simultaneous invasion by the German emperor and the duke of Kievan Rus, partially at the instigation of his older half-brother, Bezprym. Miezsko escaped to Bohemia, where he received a mutilation as a housewarming gift, and in the settlement of that war he was obliged to accept a demotion from king to duke and the division of his territory between himself, Bezprym, another brother Otto, and yet another guy, Thiedric.
That situation was unstable, Thiedric was killed by his own people, Miezsko waged more war and took back the rest of Poland. Then he was forced to abdicate and died in 1034, probably in a coup at the hands of some nobles. A period of anarchy ensued, highlights of which included a peasant revolt and an invasion from Bohemia. The Polish state disintegrated for a few years, finally to be restored in 1039 by Kazimierz I, who managed to win the confidence and support of old enemies the Holy Roman emperor and the grand duke of Kievan Rus'. Kazimierz ruled as duke until his death in 1058.
None of these people issued coins as far as we can tell.
Boleslaw II succeeded as duke, and in a partial reprise of the history of Boleslaw I, took advantage of problems in the Holy Roman Empire to make himself king of Poland in 1076. He got into trouble in 1079, when he instigated the assassination of the bishop of Krakow. This misstep allowed a coalition of nobles allied with the emperor to force him into exile, to be replaced by his brother, Wladislaw Herman, known to history as Wladislaw I.
Gumowski attributed a few coins to Boleslaw II, some inscribed with his name, others not. All have a characteristic small module that reminds me of Hungarian stuff. There is a similar profile for the coinage of Wladislaw I. All of these coins are rare. Episcopal coins continued during this period.
I was at the NYINC for a short time, walking around.
Mr. Ochochinski, pictures of whose beautiful coins accompany these articles,
emailed to tell me that he had seen me there, but he did not introduce
himself at that time. Since I have been in a Polish kind of mood
these last few months (nicely melded with my normal Spanish colonial mood),
I was looking for Polish coins. Other than the usual 17th century
small stuff, that is. Didn't see any, I don't think, though there
was a lot of stuff there, and I didn't spend any significant time at the
tables of the "usual suspects" (Polishly speaking), whose coins could be
counted on to be out of my profit margin range.
I did overhear several people coming up to whatever table I happened to be at and asking "Do you have any Polish?" Always disappointed. I was showing some stuff too. People asked me the same question. Didn't have any. Polish is evidently popular at the moment.
Well, so let's pick up where we left off, end of 11th century, Poland in anarchy, Polish coins extremely rare, "episcopal" coins slightly less so, imitations of Saxon and imperial German coins less yet, the originals of those coins relatively common. I must say, though, that I was looking for those coins up in NY, hoping to buy some for pictures. 11th century Cologne of small module, made, I read somewhere, for export to the east. I didn't find any. Hard to believe there were none there. Should have looked harder. Should have asked. But I didn't. I just cruised.
Anyway, Boleslaw II, that miscreant, had an argument with local nobles, nothing unusual there, and there was violence, par for the course, and the bishop of Krakow, Stanislaw, later made a saint, kind of got on the other side from the king. Boleslaw had Stanislaw seized and condemned for sedition to a most barbarous punishment that I will refrain from describing. The bishop happened to die as a result. He was popular, king Boleslaw was not, discontent mounted, rebellion developed. Boleslaw's younger brother, Wladislaw Herman, was trotted out by his handlers to head the "reform" movement and become its leader. Stanislaw had died in April of 1079. By July of the same year Boleslaw was forced to flee to Hungary, where he was stashed in a monastery in which two years later he died.
Wladyslaw Herman took the throne, allowed a demotion of his status from "king" to "duke" to ingratiate himself with the emperor, and has become known to history as Wladyslaw I.
As Boleslaw left the country Wratislaw, the king of Bohemia, took advantage of the situation and occupied Krakow. He went on to marry Boleslaw's sister and got himself recognized as "king of Poland," though he only had a small chunk of it. Wladyslaw let the situation sit. He had a reputation as a sit around kind of guy. In 1085 Ladislas of Hungary invaded and took Krakow away from the Bohemians. He gave it to a son of Boleslaw, the exiled and dead former Polish king, Mieszko, by name, who became "king" of "Poland." The real "king," duke Wladyslaw, let this situation sit for a while, as was his normal procedure, until 1089, when Mieszko and his wife were poisoned, presumably at the behest of Wladyslaw, or of his behind-the-scenes puppetmasters. The duke proceeded to march into Krakow and that was the end of divided Poland for the time being.
I ran out of time here. Apparently no one on the web thinks that anything interesting happened for the rest of Wladyslaw's reign, which ended in 1102.
Gumowski has a few coins listed for Wladyslaw II, all small module silver denars, sort of in the Bohemian style. Rare. Also shown is a coin with the name of Siechiech, the power behind the throne. Extremely rare.
The next duke, son Boleslaw III, was a vigorous monarch who fought his enemies and expanded his holdings. The more he succeeded the greater the resistance, and he did not succeed in regaining the title of king. So what, but, more seriously, the Polish nobles united against him and forced him, in the last year of his reign, to issue a testament dividing his holdings amongst his sons after his death. This setup inaugurated a century and a half of regional and dynastic strife and set the stage for the critical weakness of the Polish government in succeeding centuries that would ultimately prove fatal to the monarchy.
Someone will probably write in to tell me that I've mischaracterized Boleslaw's testament. I will be advised that it was a courageous attempt to keep the peace amongst the sons, that the provision that the holder of Krakow be "high duke" could have worked, even though it didn't. Well, arguing about motives and might have beens is one of the joys of the study of history, isn't it?
For Boleslaw III Gumowski lists a few small module denars and the first Polish bracteate.
Some of you know about bracteates, but there will be newbies reading this article, so I will explain what they are, if not why. In the late 10th century in northern and central Germany, etc. the standard silver denars, which had been "normal" 18-20mm coins of "normal" thickness, began to be struck on flans thinner and larger. Why? People have theories, but no one knows for sure. I think the dominant thought these days is that the authorities on the one hand wanted to make fragile coins that broke easily so they had to be turned in for new good ones, a fee charged for the exchange, and on the other hand got in the habit of making regular recoinages in which the old money had to be exchanged for new, tax applied at the changeover. Anyway, the coins got wider and thinner until the same mass of silver was spread out to 45mm sometimes, very thin, very fragile, only one die used, frequently carved of wood. How were you supposed to spend something like that?
Then, since the coins were so big, it began to seem reasonable to make smaller fractions. The giant "ones" faded out in the 13th century, but small fractional bracteates continued to be made in Germany, and as far afield as the Netherlands and Switzerland, into the 17th century.
And they made them in Poland too. A little. In the west. That first one, in the reign of Boleslaw III, was an evolution of the episcopal coinage that continued to be struck along with the ducal coins. Extremely rare.
In some ways politics then was the same as politics now. People in a good position would force people in a bad position to do things they didn't want to do. They would make pieces of paper that purported to establish the relative positions forever. The terms of those papers were generally abrogated whenever it became possible or convenient, all to the accompaniment of much squawking, lying, whining, and, frequently, war. The main difference was that they married each other's women for political advantage, which pretty much doesn't happen these days.
An aspect that I have not referred to much in this discussion, but which was crucial to Polish history then and now, was the fact of Germany to the west, at that time the seat of the "empire." The Polish kings were demoted to dukes because of their relationship with the emperor. The emperor was always either interfering or thinking about interfering with Polish politics. And the empire was not utterly impartial and fair in its policies. There was a constant tendency to advance the interests of the emperor's ethnic group, not necessarily to the positive detriment of others, but still, the emperor, given a choice, would tend to prefer the side that spoke his language, which was German.
There was a constant tendency for Germans to go east and settle there, found German settlements, do German business. Part of the impetus was military, the east being the abode of fractious and occasionally rapacious peoples. There were religious aspects as well, the unruly barbarians being non-Christian pagans. But day to day life, over the long haul, is economic, and that was what most Germans did most of the time. They went east for the opportunities. The emperor would pacify a zone and then would give land to some reliable German peasants who could be counted on to behave and pay taxes.
Thus the "drive toward the east." In the 12th century there were plenty of Germans in Bohemia, not so many in Poland, but they were coming. The Polish dukes tried to keep them out, but they were weak, some local guy in charge, a brother, or brother in law, etc. would let them in, and then there they would be, under the protection of the emperor, nothing to be done. A lot of that kind of activity happened in the southwest, in Silesia.
The next duke of Poland was Wladislaw II, 1138-46, driven out of his lands by his brothers. The next was Boleslaw IV, 1146-73, who had to deal with an invasion by the emperor Frederick Barbarossa, that conflict not lost, but certainly not won, the Poles maintaining their political integrity, such as it was, but more Germans on the Polish ground. After that came Mieszko III, 1173-1202, who spent most of his years of rule fighting with his brothers & cousins, four times driven from the high ducal seat in Krakow. During the first of his exiles he was replaced by Kazimierz I "the Just," 1177-94, who organized the Polish Senate and promulgated laws protecting peasants, what novelty!
Each of these persons struck coins. For Wladislaw II and Boleslaw IV there are several types of denars, including types with effigies of bishops assumed to have been issued in conjunction with one of them. Little symbols start appearing on some of these coins, indicating "something," privy marks, time frames, workshops, no one knows for sure. For Miezko III the coins are mostly small bracteates, some, for the first time, bearing Hebrew letters referring to Jewish mintmasters.
In the time of Mieszko III there were also coins struck by regional potentates. In Gumowski are shown little bracteates of Odo,struck in Posnan, of Leszko of Masovia, struck in Plock, of another Boleslaw, struck in Wroclaw (Breslau), of the archbishop of Gniezno, of his (Mieszko's) son, yet another Boleslaw, in Kujawy, of another son, Mieszko (no number) in Kalisz. Confused? There are more.
The nice thing about these coins, in general though not necessarily in particular, is that, though rare, they tend to be more affordable than the earlier stuff. Couple of hundred dollars instead of couple of thousand. But still not so easy to find.
At the start of the 13th century Poland was divided
into several duchies. All of the regional dukes were related to each
other, and all were supposed to defer to the "high duke" of Krakow, but
they spent all of their time scheming against each other, whispering vile
calumnies into the ears of the emperor and the pope, trying to make deals
with the king of Hungary, etc. The result was a social mess.
The emperor in Germany was always interested in strengthening his eastern borders. Over in that direction, beyond Poland, pagan barbarians roamed, frequently raiding into Christendom, stealing stuff and people, constantly causing trouble. The (German) emperors had a colonization program of sorts in the east. It involved pacifying a zone and bringing in (German) farmers and traders to build civilization in the newly safe region. The facts on the ground involved people who were already there. The facts typically caused problems for the settlers, and those problems tended to be addressed, sooner or later, militarily.
Let's talk about the Teutonic Knights for a bit.
The first Crusade succeeded in capturing Jerusalem in 1098. A large massacre of the population ensued, but never mind that. Military activity continued in the Holy Land and pilgim activity grew. Around 1127 a group of Germans established a hospital in the area, which evidently did what it was supposed to do and attracted praise and support. It endured through various vicissitudes until 1187, when Saladin kicked the Crusaders out of Jerusalem.
Three years later the Third Crusade was launched and some people in the German contingent founded another hospital, possibly in memory of the first one. When Acre was taken by the Crusaders the German Hospitalers, named as "Teutonic Knights," where given a tower to share with some other organizations. In subsequent years they were given other properties, including buildings in Italy, and in 1196 they were taken under the personal protection of the pope.
The order formally constituted itself as a military force and fought its first battles in 1198. In 1211 they were given land in Transylvania by the king of Hungary, the following year they got some more from the king of Cilician Armenia. The head of the order met the emperor. They became friends and allies.
A certain high handed and haughty attitude became evident in the behavior of the Order. They tended to lord it over their subject populations. They caused some annoyance to certain of their benefactors. For instance, they were forcibly expelled from Transylvania after 14 years by the same Hungarian king who invited them in the first place. But they continued to enjoy the favor of the emperor and the pope. And in 1225, as they were leaving Transylvania and looking for something to do, Conrad of Masovia got in touch with them.
Conrad was one of those Polish regional dukes, not the high one. His big town was Warsaw, not so big back then. Conrad was having problems with the
Prussians, who were pagan and warlike. The emperors had been having problems with the Prussians for generations. They had asked the Poles, being closer to the problem, to do something, but the Poles were kind of preoccupied with their familial bickering. Also, the relations between Poland and the empire were always a little iffy, there were always cross purposes in play. Maybe Conrad thought that adding a third factor to the equation might change the dynamics in his favor.
So he invited the Teutonic Order to fight the Prussians.
Big mistake from the Polish point of view. In about a decade the Order had conquered Prussia, pretty much cleaning out the Prussians in the process, and the pope leased it to them. He could do that because the Knights were fighting under his authority, so what they conquered was technically his.
The Poles had always been trying to keep the Germans away from the Baltic coast with its fish and its amber. That was why they kept telling the emperor not to worry, they'd take care of the pagan Pomeranians and the pagan Lithuanians and the pagan Prussians. Only they didn't take care of them. Now their worst fears were realized. Germans to the north, Germans to the west, unfriendly Hungarians to the south, Russians to the east. It did not look good.
And then another problem. Out of the sea of grass to the east came these new pagan raiders. They were short, dark, had funny shaped eyes, were deadly with the bow and arrow, which they wielded from horseback, at a gallop no less. At first there were a few hundred, then there were thousands. They took booty of course, but they seemed fond of burning and killing. No one had heard of them before. They were the Mongols.
The Mongols were on a continent-wide rampage. They had come from nothing to almost everything in Eurasia. Firmly in control of Russia, they toyed with the idea of continuing westward into central Europe. Their campaigns in Hungary and Poland were not full fledged assaults but rather probes. Nevertheless, they destroyed the armies of both countries. The Poles, in their desperation, united with the Teutonic Knights, not to mention the Templars and the Hospitalers. The Mongols destroyed them all at the battle of Legnica in 1241.
They would have gone on into Germany and France most likely. No normal tactics worked against them. But the Mongol general was called back to Mongolia for a succession "negotiation." Divine intervention, it was called in Europe. The Mongols left, though they remained just over the border in Russia for another century and a half.
Well, let's talk about coins.
I'm just going through my Gumowski and I find 13th century issues of the archbishops of Gniezno, little bracteates, of the duke of Kujawy, also little bracteates, some with Hebrew legends, of the duke of Kalisz, Hebrew again, 2-sided coins of several rulers in "Little Poland" (Malopolska in the south, think Lublin), various bracteates of Silesia, of Conrad of Masovia, of the Teutonic Knights, of the high dukes in Krakow of course, and, and, and...
Kind of like Germany at that time. Coin issuers all over the place. And the main thing about these 13th century coins - rarity. It was a troubled time, they were busy, they didn't make too many coins. People were more likely to be running away than doing business, if they were not dead.
So the tide of Mongols washed back out of Poland into the sea of grass and the shattered people picked up their shattered lives and got back to the business at hand, which for the people who struck coins was trying to undermine each other, and for the ordinary people, who might spend those coins from time to time, was keeping their heads down. And stuck in the middle of the body politic, like a splinter, were the Teutonic Knights, year by year nibbling away at the Baltic coast. The Lithuanian king became Christian to get the Teutons off his back but that gambit didn't work. The Order got a renewed go ahead from the pope and continued their advance.
In 1277 a new duke came to power in Poznan, Przemysl by name (pronounced Shemishu). Through various alliances and inheritances he gained formal power over most of Poland, and being in possession of the royal regalia, the time being, as he thought, right, he had himself crowned king in 1295. A year later he was kidnapped and murdered by some dissident Polish nobles (usually an oxymoron) in alliance with the elector of Brandenburg, as Prussia was called at the time. The restored monarchy was in no way stable, but it endured in various forms for the next 500 years.
Przemysl was succeeded by an old enemy, Wladislaw "the Short." For complicated reasons he is known as king Wladislaw I, even though there were two others of that name before him. He is considered the uniter of Poland. It was not all peaches and cream. He was kicked out of Poland by Wenceslaus II of Bohemia, whose pragergroschens you may have run into. Wenceslaus got himself crowned king of Poland, but found more trouble than it was worth and left after 5 years. Wladislaw returned, ruled reasonably, got the crown back on his head in 1320, continued on until 1333, passed his kingdom on to his son, Kazimierz, later known as "the Great." Poland was starting to act like a kingdom.
Coins. There are coins of Wladislaw as duke and as king. These are 2-sided denars of small module and perhaps some degree of baseness. All are rare. There is also a ducat of the Krakow mint, first Polish gold coin. Very rare. For the 13th century there are many unassigned coins, mostly bracteates. Certain small ones, well made with simple designs, form a stylistic group nicknamed "buttons."
Kazimierz III ruled from 1333 to 1370 and set the stage for Poland's greatness and its eventual destruction. The latter outcome would come from powers, preferences, and exemptions granted to nobles at the expense of the country, the monarchy, and the merchants. The greatness came from almost four decades of nation building.
The borders were secured, and later expanded. The laws were regularized throughout the kingdom. All kinds of people were protected, including, unusually for the time, Jews. The finances were regularized too, this evolution clearly visible in the suppression of the local coinages.
Trade grew in this relatively calm situation, and Poland became relatively wealthy. Kazimierz refrained from wasting all of the new wealth on military ventures, though he did some campaigning in the east. Russia and Ukraine were somewhat depopulated at the time as a result of the Mongol invasion and occupation, and the Poles engaged in a little bit of the "drive to the east" on their own account. By the end of Kazimierz's reign the size of Poland had approximately doubled through acquisition of lands in western Ukraine and a bit of southern Russia. It should be noted, though, that Silesia was not part of Poland at the time.
The coinage of Kazimierz consisted mainly of billon denars, most with a crowned "k" paired with the Polish eagle. These are relatively available compared with previous Polish coins. Not like they're all over the place by any means. I have seen little batches of low grade pieces a couple of times in the last two decades, prices under $20.00 for mediocre specimens way back then. Now they probably get more than $100.00. There are other denominations: obols (half denars), "kwartniks" and halves ("scherf" in German, equivalent to the German kreuzer, analogous with English pennies), groschens (at that time the premier silver coin), all scarce and rare. For the east there were specially made coins, basically denars struck in copper, and a few provincial types.
Kazimierz ran into the dynastic problem, which was that none of his kids were good for much and he couldn't safely leave his country in their hands. So he arranged for his sister Elizabeth and her son Louis/Lutvik/Ludwig, the king of Hungary, to take over after his demise.
The Poles in general, and the nobles in particular, were not pleased to have a foreign monarch. They grumbled. Some trends toward dissolution of the Polish state began to become apparent, and the financial state of the country began to languish. Lutvik's Hungarian denars are common, but no so his Polish coins. During his reign there were some coins struck by local authorities, a practice suppressed by Kazimierz the Great. Special coinage in the east continued, notably coins of Lemberg (Lvov) in Ukraine issued under the authority of Wladislaw of Oppeln.
When Louis died in 1382 his designated heir was his daughter Mary. Everyone who was anyone in Poland seemed to have a problem with this plan.
They didn't much like Hungarians and didn't much want to continue the partnership. After some nasty negotiations and some civil war activity a compromise was reached. Mary was out, but her younger sister Jadwiga was OK. She was duly brought to Krakow in 1384 and crowned king, there being no concept of a reigning queen in Poland. She was 10 years old.
Naturally, the child queen had no real power. Naturally, lots of royals wanted to marry her. The one who got the nod from her handlers turned out to be the Lithuanian king, Jogaila, who promised to become Christian and to join his country with Poland. She was 12, he was 36. At his baptism he took the Polish name Wladislaw, and with his Polonized Lithuanian name, he is known today as Wladislaw II Jagiello.
The two kings ruled well. Successful military campaigns recovered lost territories in Ukraine. Public works were accomplished. Shortly after giving birth to a daughter in 1399 both mother and child died. Jadwiga began to be venerated immediately, and was made a saint by pope John Paul II in 1997.
There are only a few coins of Jadwiga, rare denars struck in Krakow and Posnan.
Debate ensued regarding the right of Jagiello to rule without Jadwiga, but no better candidates appeared with the correct pedigree and any degree of competence. He continued on for another 35 years. His reign is taken as the start of Poland's "golden age."
Must discuss Lithuania for a bit. In the 15th
century Poland and Lithuania had one king and did everything together.
The joint country was a mover and shaker in Europe. Rich, powerful.
Not to be ignored.
Lithuania today is a little country on the Baltic coast. Poland to the south, Belarus to the east, Latvia north. Today there is this little chunk of Russia to the
southeast, cut off from the rest of Russia, called Kaliningrad, which we'll have occasion to discuss again at some point. Back then, around 1400, Lithuania went all the way up to Estonia and deep into Russia, which didn't really start until Moscow and then became Mongol territory not too much farther to the east.
Lithuania's defining characteristic is its Baltic location. Its people speak a language that is related to Latvian but has not much in common with the languages of its other neighbors. The Lithuanians were pagans until 1230, when the duke became Christian in a futile attempt to prevent an invasion by the Teutonic Order. The German knights made a mess in Lithuania, but they did not manage to actually conquer it. Then they were distracted by the Mongols for a while, but they got back to hassling the Lithuanians as the 13th century went on. While fighting for their lives the Lithuanians went on with their social development, which included the continued absorption and adaptation of European culture, including Christianity.
The Baltic fish, and the presence of amber in the ground, allowed for growth of the Lithuanian economy, and with the money came the power. But there was a psycho-social problem. Lithuania was not a formally Christian nation. The Lithuanians were mostly Christian by that time anyway, but there were political considerations. Lithuanians held a lot of Russian territory, filled with Orthodox Russians. If the Lithuanians became Orthodox they would be under the religious rule of Russians. If they became Catholic at the behest of the Teutonic Order they would become vassals to the Germans. What to do?
Enter Poland, experiencing one of its numerous dynastic crises. The duke of Lithuania made a proposal for the hand of the reigning queen (they called her "king") Jadwiga, and it was accepted.
Jogaila, the Lithuanian duke, was duly informed that he, 36 years old, could marry Jadwiga, 12, when he became Christian. No problem, done. Lithuania safely in the European boat and still on its feet rather than on its knees with a rope around its neck.
Jagello, or Wladyslaw II Jagiello, did great benefit to Poland. Possibly the best thing he did was the smashing of the Teutonic Order at the Battle of Grunwald in 1410. He refounded and augmented the University at Krakow, finances were good, he basically set the stage for the Golden Age of Poland, despite the fact that he was not a Pole.
Nationality is funny, isn't it? George Washington - traitor or patriot depending which side your were on. Jenghis Khan - outstanding world class murderer or Father of his Country. Jagiello/Jogaila subject of similarly mixed interpretations in both of his countries.
Enough of that. The realm of Wladyslaw II was really an empire encompassing a number of populations with different customs. Just as today we find Queen Elizabeth's portrait on dollars and pounds in the various countries of which she is queen, Wladyslaw had distinctive coins for his holdings in Lithuania, in Poland, in Russia, and in Ukraine. All of these coins are small, silver, billon, and copper. His Krakow coins are common enough that a number of them are always on offer on ebay. His halfgroschen, with crowned Polish eagle on one side and a big crown on the other, set the style for the rest of the 15th century. His Lithuanian coins are another story, not at all common, and subject of modern counterfeiters. The Ukrainian and Russian stuff is rare.
Wladyslaw Jagiello ruled in Poland for 48 years. On his death in 1434 he was succeeded by his 10 year old son by his third wife. The kid was also named
Wladyslaw. Of course he came with a bunch of regents who schemed against each other and neglected the business of the nation.
Wladyslaw III never really hit his stride. In 1440 he was offered the crown of Hungary. Wow, you might think. But it was a trap. Hungary was threatened by the Ottoman Turks, and a Polish king of Hungary would be obliged to deliver Polish blood and treasure to its defence. The Hungarians were of two minds about a Polish king, and a couple of years of war ensued, which could be called civil or not depending which side you were on. Poland was not uninvolved in the hostilities. Eventually the young king of Poland did indeed become king of Hungary as well.
At that point an envoy from the pope started whispering in his ear about a crusade, glory, heaven, etc. The teenager, that's what he was after all, stars in his eyes, ate it up. He and others of similar station and resources campaigned in the Balkans and made, from their point of view, progress. After those gains a treaty was signed with the Turks, but the line from Rome was that they were infidels and could not be trusted to keep their word. Better the Christians preempt them and break their word first. I kid you not. If this seems to have modern echoes I can't help it. That's what happened.
So hostilities resumed. The Turks, mad as Hades, threw a mass of soldiers against the Europeans and pretty much wiped them out. Amongst the casualties was the young Polish king. 1444.
Well, I'd never seen a coin of Wladyslaw III, check Gumowski. But what's this? No Polish coins listed for this guy, only Hungarian. So on to the web, where I found... nothing. Can this be? King of Poland for 10 years and there are no coins? Evidently that is indeed the case. And there were no Lithuanian coins of his, there being a separate grand duke of Lithuania at the time.
Polish kings were selected by a collection of kin and royals and nobles who had enough power to muscle their way to the conference. They decided they wanted Wladyslaw's younger brother Kasimir, who had been made grand duke of Lithuania some years earlier. Just a kid he was, but capable. The Lithuanians liked him and wanted to keep him. They were also feeling somewhat aggrieved with the union, such as it was. Lithuania at the time had about five times the territory of Poland, and was better run. To Lithuania Poland looked like a problem. It took the Poles three years to get him down to Krakow so they could get the crown on his head.
Once there the kid showed his mettle in a long reign that ended in the momentous year 1492. He had basically three problems to deal with. One was the relationship between Lithuania and Poland, with the two sides constantly getting on each other's nerves, each feeling that it was getting the short end of the stick. In Poland there was the problem of overweening nobles, full of themselves, no concept of national unity, and though that was the normal attitude of the time the Polish nobility was consistently more united against the crown than in other countries, to the detriment of the developing national interest. The third problem, utterly insoluble, was the Germans.
We keep coming back to the Germans because, as history has shown, they do not go away. For the Poles this has always been either a potential problem or a pressing problem. In the 15th century the Holy Roman Empire was more of a potential problem. The Teutonic Order, with an iron grip on Prussia and control of much of the Baltic coast, was a pressing problem.
The Order had set up a government in Prussia, which it substantially ignored, using it essentially as a tax collection and manpower agency. The Prussian government complained, the Order told it that God's work needed Prussian treasure, where was it? Continued complaints resulted in a referral to the pope, who excommunicated the entire country. The ban allowed the Order to Crusade against Prussia if it wished. In desperation the Prussians turned to Poland.
Kasimir's response was wholehearted, but his nobles kept up a constant strategy of foot dragging. They argued about details, promised things and didn't deliver, came late, left early, won fiscal concessions just to stop whining, and generally hindered rather than helped. The war against the Order went on for 13 years, the tide gradually turning against the Germans, until a treaty in 1466 granted West Prussia to Poland and allowed East Prussia to remain with the Order, but under fief to Poland.
One of the reasons that treaty happened was because the pope had decided he needed Kasimir to clean out the Hussite rebellion in Bohemia and then, hopefully, to fight the Turks. Bohemia worked out from the papal viewpoint, and Kasimir was allowed to put his son on the Bohemian throne. As for heading an anti-Ottoman coalition, up popped Hungary again to get in the way. Good thing the Hungarian king died before too much damage was done. Then Kasimir died, in the famous year 1492.
Many people remember 1492 for various reasons. For Poland perhaps the biggest thing that happened in that year was not actually the death of their king, but rather the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. There were already lots of Jews in Poland. The kings had liked them, found them useful. In future there would be more.
OK, the coinage of Kasimir IV. There are billon denars and half groschens struck in Krakow, moderately easy to obtain, usually badly stuck. There are schillings struck for use in Prussia. A mint was opened in Torun (Thorn) in central Poland, at which were struck schillings and bracteate pfennigs. Danzig (Gdansk), whose history had been thoroughly German up to that point, became formally associated with Poland, and its coins began to bear the name of the Polish king. And Elbing (Eblag), an important trading town east of Danzig,. begins to show up as a mint place. Generally speaking, the non-Krakow emissions of Kasimir IV are hard to obtain.
The next king up was Jan I Olbracht. He came to the throne as a grownup with a solid resume as a military man. A council of Hungarian nobles had chosen him to be king of Hungary, but his brother, Wladyslaw II of Bohemia, went to war over the matter and ended up on top. When Jan ascended in Poland he was wildly popular, but he had "hero-itis" and couldn't stop himself from messing around with armies. Turks, Moldavians, the Teutonic Order of course. He spent his 9 years on the throne essentially playing reality chess and spending money, and when he died in 1501 the Polish position was a little less secure.
As might be expected from such an expeditionary guy the coinage was somewhat neglected. In Central Europe at that time the gold to pay the generals was Hungarian, the silver to pay the infantry was Bohemian, the little stuff for petty trade was, pretty much, who cares? Jan Olbracht struck denars and halfgroschens at Krakow, the latter available rather cheaply, and Gumowski lists a denar from Wschowa (Fraustadt) in western Poland. Jan Olbracht was succeeded by his brother, Alexander, who immediately found himself in hot water and out of pocket. The Teutonic Order was uppity, Russia (Grand Duke of Muscovy) was coming on, vassal Moldavia was trying to pull away. The Order and the Russians went to work in Lithuania, biting off large chunks of territory. The Polish nobles squeezed the money, even taking the mint out of his hands. An unhappy and unfortunate reign, short too, as he died in 1506.
Alexander's Lithuanian coinage is common. His Krakow half groschens are available, usually come worn, are less common than those of his predecessors and successors.
So many coins. So little time.
Important points of 16th century Europe from the politico-numismatic point of view are the conquest of the Americas with eventual enormous influx of silver
therefrom and the wars accompanying the Protestant Reformation, on which wars most of that silver was spent. The numismatic result was the appearance of silver crowns all over the place, followed by inflation and the widespread debasement of the minor currency used in petty commerce.
The point of entry of all that silver was Spain, which became theoretically the richest and largest country in the world by virtue of its theoretical ownership of most of the western hemisphere. Early in the 16th century it happened that the king of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor were the same person, Charles by name, with a different number after that name depending on which of his crowns he happened to be calling attention to at the moment.
Recall please the relationship of the kingdom of Poland with the Holy Roman Empire. Picture in your head not particularly clear on that relationship? Not surprising, that. Technically the king of Poland was a vassal of the emperor, but in practice that meant whatever it happened to mean at a given moment. Occasionally the two parties were uneasy allies, usually they were at odds, occasionally they were at war.
The moment of origin of the Protestant Reformation is traditionally that during which the hammer hit the nail that attached Martin Luther's letter to the door of that Church in Wittenberg in 1517. Talk about a shot heard round the world, eh? Luther, called before a church board of inquiry, was placed under a papal ban (1521), which essentially made him an outlaw. Politics got involved when the elector of Saxony, who had founded the school at which Luther taught, said to the world "Don't worry about him, I'll take care of it." The elector protected Luther, not exactly what the church wanted, and Luther continued his career.
Over east, in Prussia, Albert of Brandenburg, head of the Teutonic Order, vassal to the king of Poland by the way, found himself strangely moved by Luther's positions. In 1525, a mere 7 years after the Wittenberg incident, Albert converted to the new option, taking all of Prussia out of the Catholic church and the Empire.
The Polish king, Zygmunt (Sigismund) I, (1506-48), remained Catholic, but it was fine with him that Prussia cut some of its strings with Germany and Rome. The Teutonic Order had been a sore affliction to the Poles for centuries, and had only most recently been subdued. Now the ex-Grand Master of the Order actually needed Polish help. The result was the creation of the hereditary duchy of Prussia, not imperial, not Catholic. For the first time ever Poland had a buffer state on one of its borders.
Just in time too. The Russians were getting feisty, and some of the eastern provinces of Lithuania had been lost a few years previously. Zygmunt passed much of his long reign fighting with Russians, and all of it fighting with his nobles and "magnates," or non-noble rich guys. The Polish money had extracted a provision from Zygmunt's predecessor that no law would be passed without its formal consent. This made it rather difficult for the king to get anything done. Zygmunt persevered, and left the country in better shape than when he started, albeit a bit shrunken (Polish interest in Hungary & Bohemia given up to the empire in return for imperial acceptance of the Prussian situation, and the aforementioned losses to Russia).
Zygumtian coinage is rather extensive. There are coins of Poland proper, of Lithuania, of Prussia (as overlord, there are also ducal coins of the same time), of Danzig, and of Elbing. Denominations range from little billon denars, ternars and schillings through fine half, one, three and six groschens, to the very rare thaler of 1533 and a few gold ducats. Most of the coins are dated, the bigger ones carry a nicely modelled lifelike portrait. The little stuff is not hard to find by and large, and the Lithuanian halfgroschens are common.
The seeds sown by Zygmunt I flowered in the reign of his son, Zygmunt II August, 1548-72, considered the golden age of Polish power and culture. A very
delicate balancing act was required to preserve the peace between Catholics and Protestants, to manage the nobles and magnates, empire and papacy, Russians and Turks. The second Zygmunt threaded the needle throughout his reign while adding territory, reforming the relationship between Poland and Lithuania, promoting culture, and building public works. Poland became a paragon of toleration and liberality.
All but the smallest of Zygmunt August's coins are dated. Many types are the same for both Poland and Lithuania, demonstrating thus the new organic union of the two nations. It is at this time that those initials and privy marks become important to tell which mint made the coin, a factor often ignored by collectors, and a field in which relative scarcities are in many cases still undetermined. Denominations are substantially the same as for the previous reign with the addition of the half thaler and gold multiple ducats. Danzig had its own coin series, and denars were struck at Elbing (Eblag) and Fraustadt (Wschowa).
If you're building a Polish monarch set Zygmunt II will not be too hard to acquire.
The one thing that this great monarch did not bring off was a child to succeed him. In the vacuum following his death the council of notables set down a set of restrictions on the next king. Among other things he would be required to relinquish the right to name an heir and to choose his wife. He could not declare war or levy taxes without the consent of the council, and was required to have a set of council representatives in his presence at all times. Pretty onerous. They had the new guy sign on to this stuff before they let him have the throne.
The new guy was French, Henri of Valois. He looked at the situation and said to himself "This bites." In a continent of kings becoming increasingly absolute the Polish monarch had become the powerless figurehead of a republic of bigshots. Thirteen months into his reign the French throne became vacant and Henri was out of Poland and back in France before anyone could say "Hey, king, where do you think you're going?" He became Henri III in France, had a long and eventful reign, and ended up assassinated.
There are a few coins of Danzig dated 1573, and those are obviously Henri's. Not common.
The bigshots spent the next year and a half looking for a suitably weak king. They didn't find one so they turned to a woman, Anna, sister of former king Zygmunt II August, and called on the prince of Transylvania, Stefan Bathory, to marry her and be the king.
Bathory had a great advantage over other possible candidates in that he came from a country that practiced religious toleration. The emperor and the pope would have preferred some strong Catholic, the emperor for instance, who would prosecute the counter-reformation, but the feeling in Poland was that religious war was the last thing they needed. They went with the Transylvanian.
Its funny, me being the thoroughgoing anti-autocrat that I am, I feel some kind of sympathy for the Polish kings. There they were, trying to get something done, and all they got was grief and problems from the bigshots. It was not as if the bigshots were interested in anything besides their own family interests. In that historical era it was actually the monarch who might, just might, offer some protection to the teeming population of underdogs who actually produced the stuff that the bigshots appropriated as their right and privilege. It wasn't the nobles in the senate or the magnates in their assembly who protected the scholars, the peasants, the Jews, etc. It was the king. And the nobles didn't guard the country either. That was the king's business too. And in Poland the king couldn't even force a levy from the bigshots. He had to beg.
Well, Stefan turned out to be very persuasive. He came from a region that permanently faced the Ottoman Turks, and was very focused when it came to security. He had a problem at first with Danzig, which had backed the emperor's candidacy, but that ended after a 6 month siege and a set battle. A treaty brought Danzig back into the fold.
Bathory proceeded to spend much of the next decade fighting the Russians, finally settling on a treaty in 1582 which included, among other things, the restoration of Polish rule in Livonia (Latvia, more or less). He founded a university in Lithuania, reformed the tax system and the judiciary, reorganized the army, including the addition of a trained peasant infantry corps. That last was a genuine innovation - the training part. Before that peasants had just been grabbed and sent out into the battlefield to die. Bathory's idea was essentially the seed of the conscript armies of later centuries.
In his final years Bathory dreamed of putting together an alliance with the Russians against the Turks, but he died before he could do much.
Bathory issued a lot of coin types in Poland, Lithuania, Prussia, Danzig after it submitted, and Riga in Livonia after he got it back from the Russians. And there are some coins from Transylvania of course. The smallest coins have his initial as the main type, the larger coins, from 3 groschen through multiple ducats, had his portrait. Quite distinctive that portrait is, with that beard of his, and I think that the combination of his curiously attractive face with his exotic Transylvanian origin makes his coins peculiarly popular amongst the Polish coins of the renaissance. Or so it seems to me. Coins of the Zygmunts, all of them, exhibit some tendency to sit around in the inventory for a while. If I get a Bathory it goes pretty much right away.
Oh, and Danzig under siege struck some coins in 1577 ranging from schillings to ducats. They have a long bust of Christ, invoke His protection, and are extremely rare.
Bathory gone, the Polish parliament of bigshots looked around for candidates. As usual, the emperor was in there, this time in the person of his brother, and as usual he couldn't get the votes. Following tradition to the letter, a little exploratory war was indulged, but it came to nothing. The winner of the shenanigans was a son of the king of Sweden and his royal Polish queen. In Poland he is known as Zygmunt III.
Zygmunt turned out to be something of a problem in both political and personal terms. He was a strong Catholic and had an interest in the ruinous militant counter-reformation that was being waged by his contemporary monarchs in Spain, Philip II and then Philip III. That was a congenial idea in Poland at the time, and was really scary to the Swedes, who had become almost entirely Lutheran by his time. In 1592 the old king of Sweden died and Zygmunt (Sigismund Vasa in Sweden) inherited the throne. The Swedes held their breath and waited.
It turned out that Zygmunt had an idee fixe involving the union of Poland and Sweden under his personal and autocratic rule. This couldn't work in Poland, where the king had to beg the parliament for everything, and the Swedes were wary. With good reason, it turned out. Zygmunt went championing Catholicism all over the place, the Swedes grew more and more alarmed. Eventually Zygmunt's Swedish regent, his uncle Charles, rebelled in 1598. A war ensued, Zygmunt lost, and Sweden was gone.
Stuck in Poland, Zygmund brooded and schemed to get Sweden back. Several unsuccessful wars resulted. In between those wars he began an unsuccessful campaign to create an absolute monarchy for himself which ended in a civil war. A gang of upset bigshots retired south and eventually fought a war with the king that split off Moldavia from the kingdom. He also interefered in Russia, which was preoccupied with internal problems, gaining some territory in Ukraine and a lot of ill will. And, for a little pleasant diversion, there was some military action against the Ottoman Turks, as well as dipping the toe into the blood of the Thirty Year's War in Germany.
All of that military mucking around was expensive, and a lot of coinage was struck to pay for it. Zygmunt III's numismatic output is more extensive and varied than that of any other Polish monarch.
There are series for Poland proper, Lithuania, Danzig, Thorn, Elbing, Riga, Posen, Fraustadt, Lobsenz, and Reval. Let us ignore for now the Swedish issues. In Poland there were the usual 17th century denominations in silver and gold. Demonstrating the habits of the time there are numerous examples of off-metal strikes, double thick coins, multiple thalers, monster gold coins, odd-shaped "klippes," medallic quasi-coins, and other specials. Numerous mints were established where none had been before. All of those little marks and shields and letters on the coins mean something, and there are a lot of them.
Within this massive corpus of coinage are some exquisitely rare items of course, but also some of the most common European coins of the 17th century. I refer here to the silver 3 pfennig coins, or "dreipelker," of the 1620s, which can be purchased by the hundred for a couple of bucks each if you happened to find yourself with the urge. The 3 groschen coins, same diameter but thicker and with a portrait are almost as common, as are the larger 6 groschens and even the large "ortes," or quarter thalers. These coins were struck in a hurry though, and sloppy strikes on lousy flans are common.
Zygmunt also moved the capital from Krakow to Warsaw. After his passing it was all downhill.
Albert II, duke of Prussia and vassal of the king
of Poland, died in 1618. His place was taken by Johan Sigismund Hohenzollern
of Brandenburg. Brandenburg to the west, Prussia to the east, Poland
found itself therefore between two chunks of Geman territory belonging
to the same guy. The thought of a Polish Catholic cherry in a pair
of German Protestant jaws must have occurred to the Polish king.
It certainly occurred to people in later years. I wrote about the
Swedish king of Poland Zygmunt (Sigismund) III last time and I think I
had a point of view. Pigheaded and heedless. Spendthrift in
lost causes. When he died in 1632 his approval rating was approaching
the single digits. He left behind a national debt, inflation, discontented
populace, alienated allies, more enemies than friends.
During the last of his wars with Sweden the Swedes found themselves in occupation for several years of a swath of Polish territory that included the mint town of Eblag/Ebling. While there the Swedes issued a normal denomination set of coins that lasted into the early years of the next king. The small billon solidi and the silver 1/24 thaler are not uncommon. The solidi look like similar coins from Riga and Livonia, are scarcer, but attract little interest in the market. The 1/24 thalers look pretty much like Sigismund's 3 pfennig coins, and are sometimes found together with them. Look for coins that have GVS AD... instead of SIG... The bigger coins of this period are all scarce or rare.
Zygmunt was followed by his son Wladyslaw IV. Wlad was 37 years old at the time of his accession. During his father's occupation of Moscow in 1610 he had been put up as Tsar of Muscovy by Russian nobles to forestall his father, who wanted that crown for himself as part of a harebrained scheme to Catholicize Russia. That venture ended in failure 2 years later. Wlad discovered that he liked warring and engaged in numerous campaigns during his princehood. This was good practice for what was to come.
So Wlad was elected king in 1632. That same year the Russians invaded. Wlad beat them. 1633, before the Russian war was quite over, the Turks invaded. Wlad beat them to a standstill. That settled, he attempted to get a war going with Sweden, whose crown he, like his father before him, coveted. He couldn't get anyone to go along with him on that scheme, so it didn't happen.
After those early sort-of-successful ventures Wlad settled down to a life of scheming and attempts at culture and grandeur. There was something of a lack of funds, so little of it came to pass. The Polish bigshots got themselves an exemption from income taxes, but Wlad was always scraping together a little something for a little war here or there. He died in 1648. His son had died before him. At least he had managed to keep Poland out of the 30 years war.
In coins of this period you have a couple of thalers from Bromberg and Torun from the election period of 1632. These display the royal regalia, crossed swords, and a motto translated as God Will Provide. Of course they are very rare.
Then for Wladyslaw himself we have a surprise: no minors. For the entire 16 years of his reign, from all possible mints, the smallest coin is a half thaler. Pretty interesting, this absence, almost as interesting as a collectible presence. Of course it means that you have to shell out some real bucks to get a Wlad coin. But why?
To me, not having delved deeply into the economic commentaries of the period written in languages in which I am slow or illiterate, I do not know what other people say about this dearth of minors. Gumowski notes it but does not offer an explanation. So I will make some up.
First possible reason: Wlad had no money. Not none, of course, but not enough to service the bottom end of the economy. We know that he was spending on credit and was always coming up with schemes to get money from other countries, trading future rights to some territory, trying to get unpaid royal dowries, trying to marry some rich person, etc. The big coins and gold were for shows of grandeur.
Second possible reason: there was so much of his father's minor coinage around that he didn't need to make any. Kind of a weak explanation this, I think. Most of the Zygmunts found are lousy strikes in relatively high grade, leading one to think of hoarding rather than free commerce.
Third possible reason: foreign coins in use. These would have been Prussian, Holy Roman, maybe even Hungarian. No, I don't think so. We don't get hoards of Hungarian denars from Poland.
Actually, what we get from the time of Wladylaw's reign are billon schillings of the Swedish occupation of Livonia and Riga and not much else. The 30 years war was in full flood, Europe was a mess. The entire continental economy was slowly collapsing. Inflation was everywhere. In Germany silver minors were disappearing, replaced with copper.
I imagine the minister of finance, or whatever he was called, going to king Wlad and asking what should be done. Wlad, not looking up from the letter he was composing to the emperor or the map of the southern marches, tells him to go away, he's busy. So year after year the requirements of petty commerce are not addressed. The people grumble, taxes are not paid.
There is a rare 3 kreuzer coin from Silesia, and there are rare "wire" kopeks from the Russian venture of 1610. Basically, the coinage of Wlad IV is all rare and expensive.
The next king was Jan Kazimierz, Wlad's brother. He was a problem, possibly had mental problems, and his reign was marked by mistakes and bad luck. The Cossacks of the Ukraine revolted in the year of Jan's coronation. The Cossack rebellion initially took the form of extensive antisemitic massacres, the outcome of a complicated story involving the hiring of Jews as tax farmers by Polish bigshots who had acquired land in Ukraine. A Polish army eventually defeated the Ukrainians in 1651, but the result was a treaty, not an absolute victory. Poland kept title to its Ukrainian territories but was forced to give up actual control on the ground. Russia saw this as a power vacuum and invaded in 1655, gaining and keeping eastern Ukrainia, with a few blips, until the end of the 20th century.
That same year Sweden invaded Poland. It looked like a reasonable idea at the time. Jan Kazimierz had few friends in Poland and some of the Polish nobles and bigshots had been treasonably begging the Swedes to come in and clean the place up, so to speak. So they did, wrecking it in the process.
This period of general war came to be known as "the Deluge." The result was the permanent loss of Riga and Livonia and eastern Ukraine and Poland in ruins. Most of the Protestants who had sided with Sweden were kicked out. The Polish golden age was totally over.
Throughout his life Jan Kazimierz didn't know what he wanted to do. He had joined the Jesuits in 1643, was made a cardinal without real qualifications as became his royal status, didn't like the job, quit, became king, married, etc. His wife died in 1667. He abdicated in 1668, went to France, became an abbot of a monastery, died in 1672.
Perhaps the biggest mistake made in Poland at the time was the institution of the so-called "Liberum Veto" in the practices of the parliament of bigshots. This was the curious provision that a single deputy could block any measure and even dissolve parliament. Obviously nothing would ever get done again in the Kingdom of Poland, and in some ways nothing was.
The coins. Jan Kazimierz had made the first Polish copper coins, little things, smaller than a dime, called "schilling" in German, "szelag" in Polish, and "solidus" in Latin on the coins themselves. Copper was being used all over in Europe at that time, a consequence of everyone being broke because of the wars. These Polish coppers are common and cheap in the bad condition they usually come in. King Jan also struck a full range of 17th century denominations in silver and gold, from groschen to multiple ducat, from a number of mints in all sorts of varieties. Krakow is a common mint. Other mints include Bromberg, Wschowa (Fraustadt), Posnan, Lemberg, and that's for the "crown" coinage for Poland proper. There are also the Lithuanian coins, the Danzig series, which includes rare large multiple thalers and ducats, the Eblag coins, the Torun coins, and a few from Silesia.
Examples of representative silver denominations up to the 1/3 thaler or gulden can be easiliy found. Bad strikes are normal for the minors. From half thaler on up into the gold the coins are more or less rare.
For the period there are also coins of the Swedish occupation of Eblag/Elbing. There is a normal denomination set from billon solidus through gold multiple ducat, all scarce, rare, or very rare.
The next king was Michal Korybut Wisniowiecki, ruled 1669-73, lost some territory to the Turks, got not much of anything done. He struck a few coins in Krakow, Danzig, Torun, and Eblag, mostly large silver and gold for prestige purposes. All rare or very rare. He died and Jan III Sobieski was elected to
Sobieski was the last great king of Poland. He was the architect of a long string of military victories, the crowning achievement being the breaking of the Turkish assault on Vienna in 1683. Because of this military record he was popular with the people so he had standing and the Polish bigshots found themselves somewhat constrained in their self-serving greed. Thus some degree of temporary internal stability was obtained. It can't be said that he actually solved the problem of Poland's borders. Wars kept happening, got settled, then another one, Poland allied with the previous enemy. At one point Sobieski was trying to arrange an alliance with France and Turkey against Austria but ended up with Austria against Turkey, France glaring hostile on the sidelines. That was when the battle of Vienna was fought.
After Vienna was 13 years of resting on his laurels, then he died in 1696.
Sobieski's coinage is standard 17th century but with no copper on the bottom. The smallest coin was the silver 3 groszy, which is actually not so common, and not counting the 1688 schilling of Danzig, which is not easy to find either. The "normal" Sobieski coin is the 6 groszy, the size of a quarter but lighter, usually badly struck. 18 groszy coins, called ortes and occasionally tympfs, are not uncommon. Anything bigger than that is hard to find and rather expensive, up through double ducat of Krakow and quadruple ducat of Danzig.
The Polish crown was not hereditary, but rather a matter of election by the parliament of bigshots. In 1696 there were three candidates: a son of Sobieski, a French prince, and the German elector of Saxony, Friedrich August. Massive bribery was the modus operandi in that election, and actually the French prince won the vote. The Frenchman was not actually in Poland at the time however, and Saxony was right next door, relatively speaking. Friedrich hightailed it over to Poland, did some more gifting, and got himself crowned. There was incessant grumbling from then on that his election was illegal, but the facts stood firmly on the ground. Friedrich August I of Saxony became August II of Poland, nicknamed "the Strong" for obvious reasons; he liked to break horseshoes with his hands for showoff. He was also said to have fathered an unreasonable number of children, more than 300.
Friedrich August was a Protestant, and a bigshot Protestant at that, but he had to become Catholic to become king of Poland, so he did. He remained head of the Protestant Estates, sort of the United Nations of Protestantism, or United Churches, so to speak. A Catholic not-quite-president of the Protestants. Rather uncomfortable. The Saxons didn't much like it, nor the large amounts of money he'd spent on bribery in Poland. But that's what you get when you have an unaccountable leader aiming at autocracy.
In Poland they didn't like him much either. Never mind that he was German. The political fashion in Europe at that time was absolutism, exemplified by Louis XIV of France. The general idea was to break the power of the nobles, and only an unfettered king could do it, or so went the thought at the time.
It worked for Louis, though with no one around to tell him different he spent an awful lot of blood and money on war and fancy buildings. In Poland August had to deal with a bunch of nobles and bigshots who had been fighting absolutism for centuries and who were used to winning. They let him build some of the grandiose buildings he wanted so he could pretend to be modern, but they nixed any move on his part to actually accrue any power.
Looking for some outlet for his aggressive tendencies he indulged in a little war with the obligingly bellicose Turks, which he won, sort of, followed by a war with Sweden in alliance with Denmark and Russia, which he lost, more or less. Actually, Sweden invaded Poland, and in 1704 put up a rival king, Stanislaw Leszczynski, who remained present for a couple of years until Peter the Great of Russia trounced the Swedes and brought back August as pretty much of a puppet. Poland passed the rest of his reign as a Russian lapdog. In the records I consulted nothing of note is mentioned of the reign of August from his restoration to his death in 1733.
August's Polish coins are rather sparse and scarce. There's a copper szelag of 1720, a few 6 groszy and 18 groszy coins, a couple of thalers, a few gold coins. There are a couple of coins of Danzig, a szelag/solidus of Elbing/Eblag, and a ducat of Thorn/Torun. If you just want a coin of this guy try Saxony. There are some common coins on up into the large silver.
For Swedish puppet Stanislaw Leszczynski there is nothing in the way of coins. There ought to be a medal (or medals) for the coronation, but I didn't find any references in 4 minutes of research. A commemorative 2 zloty coin with his portrait was issued by Poland in 2003.
In Northern and Central Europe at the start of the
18th century the big players were Sweden, Prussia, Saxony, Austria, and
parvenu Russia. They were knocking each other around in their struggle
for supremacy. Sweden and Saxony were in the process of diminishing,
Austria was maintaining its position, Russia and Prussia were expanding.
So where was Poland in the 18th century? It was in the process of disappearing as a political entity. By the end of that century it was gone
It is generally thought that it was the structure of the Polish political system that allowed it to become a pawn in the games of its neighbors. The Polish system was a monarchy with a powerless king who was elected by a parliament of notables responsible to no one but themselves. Imagine England without a House of Commons, only a House of Lords, nobles imperious and/or impecunious, rich people who had bought themselves a title, friends of friends, all looking out for their own interests, many available for rent or purchase by outside agencies, the king of France perhaps, or the Russian Tsar. These guys had no concept of any kind of national interest. They just did as they pleased and left the trash from their sallies and depredations for someone else to pick up.
The first third of the 18th century passed in Poland with an unsympathetic Saxon king, Friedrich August, called August II in Poland. Stronger than an ox, with pretensions to grandeur and an aspiration to absolutism, he failed in most of his ventures and ended up as a Russian puppet. The Swedes, in their bloody argument with Russia, put up their own puppet, Stanislaw Leszczynski, and the two marionettes played Punch and Judy for 30 years. Mostly Friedrich August was top dog, but for 5 years he was in exile while the Swedes put on the Stanislaw show. And when the Saxon king died in 1733 Leszczynski was brought back for a final bow.
The coins of August II were discussed last time, but I would be remiss if I did not mention a show ducat struck by the bishop of Gniezno in 1721. This coin pretty much never shows up but is worth noting as the first coin of that town in several centuries and as an example of the numerous semi-medallic issues of all sorts of places in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. There are also some coins of the bishop of Breslau/Wroclaw, now listed under German states in the Standard Catalog.
In 1733 the choices for next king were not promising. Friedrich August's son, of the same name, liked food, hunting, food, art, food, food, opera (the 18th century TV), food, and, as the saying goes, had no head for politics. He didn't like Poland or Poles much either, choosing, as it turned out, to spend almost all of his life in Saxony. Russia and Austria, the backers of his father, thought so little of him that they actually looked to the king of Portugal as a possible higher quality substitute. The other possibility was Leszczynski, the candidate of Sweden.
In the event, the Polish parliament went with the known quantity Leszczynski. This despite the mobilized armies of Russia and Austria just across the border. When news of the Leszczynski election came the armies crossed the border and quickly took Warsaw. A faction of the parliament defected to the Russian side and had another election in which the playboy gourmand Saxon was elected. Leszczynski fled to Danzig, which was beseiged, and he shortly departed permanently for France.
The repercussions of this little war rippled out across the continent, causing disturbances as far away as Spain. The eventual outcome was a seriously weaked Austria, a somewhat damaged France, dislocations in secondary states like Naples & Sicily and Lorraine, and Sweden practically out of the picture. Russia's position was much enhanced. Prussia, which had backed Austria in a small way, grew and prospered.
Poland thus got itself another Russian puppet king who was never home. Neglect and pilfering of the treasury was the order of the day. During the 30 year reign of August III Prussia grew mighty under Frederick the Great and the 7 years war took place. Here in America we experienced part of that war. We call that part the French and Indian War. Poland was technically neutral in the European phase of the conflict, but of course was tied to Russia, and therefore was allied with Austria and France against Prussia, and, distantly, England. Russian troops were stationed on Polish soil to more easily threaten Prussia. The Prussian response included the production of massive quantities of counterfeit Polish coinage.
This brings us to the numismatics. For August III in Poland proper there are small copper coins called szelag in Polish, schilling in German, and solidus in Latin, slightly larger triple schillings, also called, grosz or groschen. The date run for the coppers is 1749-58. The types are not common, but they can be obtained. Low grade and crude manufacture are normal. Prices tend toward low in normal grade. There are 2 types each of billon 3 pfennigs or poltoraks, 3 grosze, and 6 groszy not so common. (Those variant word endings for different quantities being a cutely complicating aspect of Slavic languages in general - English has them too but not as much.) There are several minor varieties of the 18 groszy or tympfs, probably the most easily found of the billon coins.
August III silver denominations are 8 groschen or 1/4 thaler, 1/2 thaler, and thaler. None of these are common. There are gold coins from 1/2 to double ducat and from 2/12 to 10 thaler, all rare. Take note of base versions of 5 and 10 thaler coins struck from 1755 to 1758, which are actually the Prussian counterfeits mentioned above. Those counterfeits are known as "Ephriamites," after the mintmaster in charge of their production, who happened to be Jewish. Right, blame the Jews. Why don't they call them Frederikers? It was his idea. You can tell the Prussians from the Polish by the color. Prussians show their copper alloy. The die work is bit cartoonish too.
And, due to data migration problems, a lot of these silver and gold coins are missing from the 3rd edition of the Standard Catalog, though they are present in the 2nd. Hope they show up again in the 4th.
Note that all of the coins of this king were made after 1748, and only a few after 1756. August III was not enamored of Poland and only showed up for a couple of years when a crisis seemed to require his presence. The numismatic product was relatively small.
In keeping with the habits of the time there are all sorts of off-metal strikes, klippes, medallic issues, and other oddities, and some of these show up occasionally. There is a beautiful series of silver coin/medals with some kind of insect, sort of a cross between a butterfly and a dragonfly I guess, that memorializes the infant royal son, who died in 1733. At least one of these has shown up in an auction in the last decade.
Danzig issued its own money as usual during this period. Danzig coins are always more popular than contemporary Polish coins, though there may be the same quantity in existence, so they will always be harder to find and more expensive. Similar coins of Elbing/Eblag are scarcer but usually cheaper because they're not as popular. Coins of Thorn/Torun are scarcer still. Finishing off the August III period are the coins of East Prussia, which is now part of Poland but at the time wasn't and never had been. It was occupied by Russia between 1756 and 1762, and the normal denominations of the region were struck with either the portrait of the empress, her monogram, or the Russian double eagle. In addition to being scarce the Russian related coins are popular, as is everything Russian at the moment. When these coins are found they are almost always quite worn and unreasonably expensive. Finally there are a pair of coins, one billon, one gold, struck probably for presentation by the bishop of Krakow in 1761-2. Rare. Never seen them.
After the death of August III in 1763 the parliament met and in due course, having been heavily pressured, the Russian candidate, Stanislaw Poniatowski was elected. The new king took the name Stanislaw August.
Stanislaw had been a "favorite" of Russian empress Catherine the Great. As king he quickly gave indications that he would not be a lapdog. Stanislaw began to push reforms in Poland. Russia began to push back with some heavyhanded meddling. In 1767 a new constitution was forced by Russia that formalized the bad old methods such as the liberum veto whereby a single parliamentarian could kill a bill.
Though the new constitution actually strengthened the nobles against the king, a faction formed to oppose it, mostly, it seems, out of opposition to a Russian initiative to restore civil rights to Protestant and Orthodox Christians. Eventually an armed rebellion developed against both Russia and the king. It got rather messy. Austria and Prussia both meddled and tried to take advantage. Catherine in Russia began to think that Poland was getting to be too big a headache and plans began to be drawn up to establish "spheres of influence" with the meddlers.
After several years of diplomacy the three neighbor countries had an agreement and in August 1772 they all marched into Poland at the same time and occupied their agreed zones, about a third of the country. The rebels did not lay down their arms and in the course of their suppression over 100,000 were killed.
Like Ethiopia in 1935, like Hungary in 1956, like Czechoslovakia in 1968, Poland appealed for help and none came. The occupiers worked to build up their zones of control while keeping the squeeze on the truncated kingdom, so times were hard in what was left of the kingdom of Poland.
With their backs against the wall the Poles started to make heroic moves. Parliament met and enacted reforms designed to strengthen the government. Attempts at diplomacy were made. These shows of independence irritated the three occupiers. In 1790, as an attempt to gain some breathing room from the suffocating embrace of Russia, the kingdom made a treaty with Prussia. In 1792 parliament adopted a liberal constitution and again Russia invaded.
Prussia was supposed to come to the aid of the kingdom, but that didn't happen. Instead Prussia connived with Russia and together the two neighbors bit off two thirds of the remaining Polish territory. They put together an agreement to demobilize the Polish army to forestall more trouble, but when a cavalry unit refused to disband anti-Russian riots broke out all over the country. In 1794 Tadeusz Kosciuszko, returned from the American Revolution, proclaimed a general uprising. After some successes against disorganized Russian forces the Prussians sent an army into Poland, and between them Prussia and Russia defeated the patriots. After that they ate up the little rump state, and in 1795 Poland disappeared as an independent country.
Well, so while all of this was going on coins kept being made with the portrait of that king, Stanislaw II August Poniatowski. The denomination range is similar to that of the previous king. There are copper szelags and grosz, also 3 grosze coins, including some made of copper from the Krajowy mines. There are billon coins of various sizes and fineness, grading up into half thalers and thalers of "reasonable" fineness and weight, not as good as Austrian coins, but better than Prussian or Russian crowns. There are "ordinary" gold ducats and a few specials like the 1794 3 ducat and its half.
There are a few Stanislaw August coins from Danzig, might as well call them scarce and rare, and a couple from Thorn/Torun. Rounding out the coinage there are some coins made for use by the Austrians occupying the Auschwitz/Oswiecim region 1774-7. These coins are not common, and the territory was annexed afterward. There are also coins for East Prussia and West Prussia. They look Prussian, so when you find one, which you occasionally do, you get annoyed when you can't find it in the Prussia section. The last coins of that series were dated 1811. They're all minors, not common, but not too expensive by and large.
There are no coins of the Kosciuszko uprising.
Poland was submerged for 12 years and then Napoleon came along and made war against Austria and Prussia, then against Russia. Napoleon didn't care a whole lot about Poland, but the Poles, some of them at least, clutched at him like he might be their saviour. Polish units joined Napoleon's army, and the French emperor, when he had a spare moment in 1807, set up a "Grand Duchy of Warsaw" from captured Austrian lands. It lasted as long as Napoleon did. There are some coins, ranging from copper grosz to gold ducat. The dates go from 1810 to 1814. The coppers are not common but neither are they rare, perhaps you might stumble across a low grade specimen. Five times SCWC for a VG would be reasonable, I think. The bigger coins really don't turn up very often. Troops of the Duchy in Zamosc, beseiged by the Russians in 1813, made a set of siege coins which are rare, and I may have run into a counterfeit once, I can't ositively remember.
After the defeat of Napoleon and the return of the old guard the Duchy of Warsaw was dissolved and the territories given back to Austria and Prussia. The Prussians made a few special coppers for Posen in 1816 and 1817, hard to find, but not horribly expensive, should you happen to be so lucky. There was also a tiny independent Republic of Krakow for a while which lasted until the continental revolution year 1848. Some billon coins were made in 1835, supposedly not rare, but I've never seen one.
After the fall of Napoleon the victorious powers
and their sycophants met in the "Congres of Vienna" to nail down their
stakes and to squabble over the broken pieces of many former jurisdictions.
Amongst these chunks was what had been at one time Poland.
Poland had been devoured whole in 1795 by its neighbors. The northern tier and most of the Baltic coast went to Prussia, a relatively small chunk in the southwest became Austrian, and the rest, most of it, went to Russia.
The Prussian and Austrian parts were stripped of everything that smacked of independence including the name and became mere provinces of their respective owners. The Russian portion was treated somewhat differently thanks to the efforts of the Russian minister of Foreign Affairs, Adam Czartoryski, who happened to be Polish. His efforts produced a formally independent constitutional monarchy with the Tsar of Russia as king. Officially it was called just plain "Kingdom of Poland," nicknamed "Congress Kingdom" after the gab fest in which it was created.
On paper the Polish entity was possessed of the most liberal constitution in Europe. There were civil liberties, guarantees of property, religious and ethnic toleration, limited royal powers, a legislative assembly constituted to actually do things. But there was, as there always seems to be, a problem. The Tsar of Russia, as mentioned above, was the king, and he was accustomed to absolute rule. That was the way things were done in Russia, always had been. It just kind of made the Tsar feel funny to be advised that he couldn't do something. or that he had to, because of some rule or other in Poland. His natural tendency would have been to just go ahead and do whatever it was he wanted to do in the first place. Wasn't he, after all, annointed by God to rule?
If the Tsar was of a relatively balanced and benevolent disposition things might be expected to go smoothly. Alexander I, who defeated Napoleon and was in on the Congress of Vienna, was such a guy. Since he had created the Kingdom of Poland he participated fully in it, accepting both crown and constitution, allowing Poland to grow as an exotic plant in the Russian garden.
Alexander died in 1825. His successor, Nicholas I, was quite another kettle of fish. He saw his job as the protection of the Russian nation, took seriously that divine sanction bit, believed completely in his absolute personal authority. He thought all that newfangled personal libert stuff from the Enlightenment was just dangerous nonsense. Look at the French Revolution! Anarchy. What the world needs are strong men at the helm of the ships of state. Like him. And none of that nambypamby constitution bunk. Get all those selfish whiners out of here. Clear the decks.
Nicholas declined to accept the crown of Poland. He ignored the Polish constitution and put loyal henchmen into controlling positions in the government. Then he tightened the screws.
In 1831 a rebellion broke out in Poland. The Poles knew they were going to lose but they figured they might as well get it over with, go out with a bang. After a bit of palaver the Russians invaded, met unexpectedly strong resistance that made them mad, became grim and implacable, and after 11 months had ground the rebellion into the mud.
The name of the territory was retained thereafter but the constitution was abolished. Over the next three decades more and more of the local administrative and legal functions were eliminated in favor of direct Russian rule. The notional kingdom came to an end in 1863.
Now for the Congress Kingdom coins. The Polish coinage had been based on a German model for many centuries, while Russia was basically on a Turkish model of tiny silver and copper coins. Early in the 18th century Tsar Peter the Great had reformed the Russian coinage on a decimal model, the first in history it seems. Decimalization was brought to the Congress Kingdom of Poland through Russia then, 100 groszy made a zloty.
The coinage neatly divides into two periods: pre-rebellion and post. Look at the double headed eagle found on all Congress Kingdom coins. Before the rebellion one finds the Polish eagle residing on the Russian eagle's breast. After the rebellion it is gone. The eagle became purely Russian. Pre-rebellion coins were struck in copper, billon, silver, and gold. The copper denominations were 1 and 3 groszy. A few were made with legends indicating that their copper came from the Krajowy mines, an old practice that we have noticed before. 5 and 10 groszy coins were billon, 1, 2, 5, and 10 zlotych were silver of various finenesses, and gold 25 and 50 zlotych. The zlotys had Alexander's portrait.
In practice, meaning on the show floor and in dealer boxes, one will find the occasional odd copper in low grade, and equally occasionally one of the smaller silver coins, usually equally worn. The portrait crowns and gold are not just lying around waiting for you to cherrypick the gems. They show up rarely, usually in auctions, and usually get well above estimate.
Note please that Alexander died in 1825 but that his face continued to appear on the major coins during the reign of Tsar Nicholas and even after the rebellion of 1831. Funny fact. Why? Because Nicholas refused to be crowned king and therefore be bound, if only in theory, by the Polish constitution. The Poles therefore chose to memorialize Alexander as the founder and benefactor of their kingdom, such as it was. Do you suppose this might have rubbed Nicholas the wrong way? Probably most everything about Poland rubbed him wrong at that time. But that was really no different from the previous, oh, 800 years or so.
One may, rarely, come across a thing that looks like a coin but is actually an official gold weight. It has the Congress Kingdom eagle on the obverse and a reverse legend starting "CIEZAR." I saw a picture in V.V. Uzdenikov's book "Moneti Rossii," but I've never seen one in person. Other things never seen, by me at least, is that rather extensive list of patterns at the end of the Standard Catalog listings.
The rebels struck coins in 1831: 3 and 10 groszy. 2 and 5 groszy, and a gold ducat imitating the contemporary Dutch coin. Those Dutch ducats were the standard gold coin in Europe and parts of Asia at that time. The Russians had been officially counterfeiting them since 1768, making copies good enough to annoy the Dutch. The rebel version had a little Polish eagle as a privy mark, a nicely honest touch. In the Standard Catalog these rebel coins are priced rather low. Just my opinion. There's supposed to be a specimen set of these coins.
Post-rebellion coinage is marked by the elimination of the portrait from the major coinage and the substitution of the Russian imperial eagle for the Russo-Polish version. The zloty-rouble ratio was fixed and expressed on the major coinage, and some of those majors began to be made in the St. Petersburg mint instead of in Warsaw.
One runs into various of the silver coins not infrequently, and occasionally they will turn up in high grades. Among the minors is one extremely common coin: the 1840 10 groszy. The other denominations and dates occur rarely or never. The odd 20 zlotych gold coin will appear occasionally at an auction. Russian style copper denominations were struck at the Warsaw mint from 1850 to 1859. They are scarcer than the same types from the Russian mint, but typically are not heavily sought after by Polish collectors, rather by the Russians. Of course there is some overlap of predeliction, but typically these are considered to be what they are, which is Russian coins.
As things tightened up after 1831 more and more Polish aspects were repressed or abolished to be replaced with Russian things. Resentment simmered. In the late 1860s conscription into the Russian army was introduced for Polish men. The response was widespread draft evasion, kids living in the woods. There were also demonstrations in town squares and so forth, some of which became violent. The violence spread, became general, was joined by Polish officers serving in the army, who smuggled weapons, pretty soon there was something that could be called an uprising. Some reluctant leaders were found to stick at the head of the movement and in 1863 the Poles took off on another doomed enterprise.
It took the Russians about two years to stamp out that fire. Afterwards they abolished the so-called "kingdom," replacing it with an "organic union" which made Poland essentially a province of Russia. A program of cultural suppression was introduced that included the banning of the Polish language in 1880. It obviously did not work, but back then people used to imagine that such things could be done to a culture. Later, finding that direct cultural suppression did not work, various ethnic supremacists attempted reversion to older methods of elimination, which practices we have come to term "genocide." But the Russians imagined that they could force the Poles to stop being Poles and they tried that for about 50 years.
There was no Poland at all in the second half of
the 19th century. There was a part of Russia where they spoke Polish,
though they didn't teach it in the schools. There were Polish speaking
provinces of Austria and Prussia as well. Prussian Poland became
Imperial German Poland. None of these places were considered Poland
except by the Poles who lived there. Poland, that antique and troublesome
country, had ceased to exist.
The 19th century was a high point of the ideology of colonialism, which I will define here as the notion that it was OK for a powerful culture/people/country to occupy and expropriate the territory and property of a weaker group, to force them to do whatever the stronger group wanted them to do, to eliminate them if they resisted too strongly. This process was not different from what strong people had been doing to weak people since forever, but it was different in that a philosophical rationale was proposed. In common with all ideologies it made use of any concept at hand to justify itself. Bits of science, religion, logic, etc. were cobbled together into a narrative. Nuggets of wishful thinking were set in the framework of these narratives. All this to provide a polite cover for what was really going on, which was, of course, that someone wanted something and they were going to get it, you guys are going to help us. Why? This gun is why. And this whip.
Poland had become, essentially, a colony of its three neighbors. There seemed, at the moment, no way out of the box. The empires were so strong. If they had avoided sliding into World War I things might have remained as they were, but they didn't, and by the end of that war the three great empires of continental Europe had destroyed each other. Out of that wreckage, like a phoenix with a broken wing, Poland reemerged.
It happened like this:
German and Austrian armies acting in concert occupied Russian Poland in 1915. Russia, on the defensive more or less throughout the war, was preoccupied with other issues. Late in 1916 the Russian territory was declared an independent kingdom under German regency, with a king to be elected in the future. Nothing much happened in the way of governance. There was, after all, a war on.
There are numismatic relics of this occupation and of the puppet government it used as window dressing. Coins denominated in fenigs and banknotes in marks are not uncommon. The coins are all iron, struck at the mint in Stuttgart, Germany. At that point in Germany they were making the same minor denominations in "normal" copper-nickel, iron, and zinc, and they were also making local notgeld in metal and paper to accommodate the "shortage of small change." Most of those coins are very common, so one has to figure that the shortages were local and temporary.
The Polish iron coins of 1917 and 1918 are fairly common as well, with a scarcish "near legend" variety of the 10 fenig and rare proofs. Rust spots are normal, toned uncirculated is a possible grade, I've never seen bright uncirculated in this series.
World War I did not end in one stroke of a pen. Various of the belligerents dropped out starting in 1917 with Germany being the last, not exactly to give up, but merely to stop fighting late in November, 1918.
In Poland, the Regency Council declared Poland independent and started organizing a government and an army. Communists immediately started putting
together a government of their own.
Let's bring in a character - Jozef Pilsudksi. Pilsudski had become a Polish nationalist as a teenager. That meant that he was rock-solid anti-Russian. During the early part of World War I he worked with the Central Powers against Russia, but as the Centrals started to lose he switched over to the Allies and was put in jail in Germany, being, after all, a traitor.
At what seemed at the time a propitious moment the Germans released Pilsudski and threw him into the bubbling political stewpot that was Poland. He arrived as something of a white knight, was immediately given command of the new Polish army and shortly after was made "chief of state."
In short order Poland had to fight a war with a briefly independent Ukraine attempting to annex parts of southeastern Poland occupied by Ukrainians. That threat beaten back another invasion had to be dealt with - the Red Army from Russia. OK, Poland beat them back too, though it took a couple of years. There was also fighting up in Lithuania and on the border of newly independent Czechoslovakia, both resolved adequately from the Polish point of view. Pilsudski was lionized. Poland was free.
A constitution was promulgated and an electoral democracy put together early in the 1920s. The Warsaw mint was reestablished and began operations in 1924.
Let's talk about the coins of the "classic" Republican period. The model is generically decimal, the silver content of the zloty carefully calibrated to make conversion with the neighboring currencies more difficult. The 1923 base metal coins are fairly common, 10, 20 and 50 groszy, struck for a number of years with frozen date, very much so. High circulated is no problem, but choice uncirculated are, in my experience at least, rare. The other base metal dates seem to be obtainable. My records tell me I've had most of them, including the supposedly semi-key 1930 1 grosz, but not the 1934 5 groszy.
The first zloty denominated coins show a similar availability profile, at least in regard to types. Circulated is easy and cheap, choice uncirculated is hard and expensive, relatively speaking, for type. Uncirculated is a different story entirely. The 1924 silver coins were not made in Warsaw but were rather contracted out to London, Paris, Birmingham, and Philadelphia. Not so easy to find in any kind of decent grade, and you're encountering collector demand these days, should have bought them back in the 90s.
1925 was a year for special coins: silver 5 zlotych constitution coin in several varieties and metals, the cheapest of which is a key to the Republic series, and a pair of gold coins, equivalent to pre-war French 10 and 20 francs, never released, but available on our market, should we care to pay the somewhat inflated prices.
1926 was a year without coinage. This rather makes sense, as Poland was preoccupied with a military coup led by Pilsudski with the aim of curbing the power of the legislature, which, in the view of his people, was exhibiting the traditional Polish political disease of arguing forever about everything while nothing got done. The takeover was accomplished with minor casualties, only a few hundred, and a new government was established with the appearance of democracy and the actuality of military rule led by Pilsudski himself.
Coinage of minors resumed in 1927, same types as before, still hard to find in uncirculated. Various silver coins were struck in the dictatorship period, some commemorative, some not. Generally these are available, as usual for this period there is scarcity to be savored at the level of uncirculated and better.
This is a good point to briefly discuss Danzig.
What is now Poland was filled with millions of Germans before and after World War I. Danzig was almost entirely German. In the postwar settlement Danzig was declared a "Free City" under League of Nations auspices. It was internally self-governing, foreign affairs were run by Poland. At this time there were Germans all over the place in the new countries, and a big chunk of what is now Poland was German territory, East Prussia it was called. The Germans by and large wanted to be part of Germany, some more than others, the people who eventually became the Nazis to an extreme. So with Danzig: wanted to be German, couldn't be.
While they were waiting, as it turned out, for the Nazis to come they issued coins. The start of the modern Danzig series is a pair of 10 pfennig zinc notgeld tokens dated 1920, just like all the other German notgeld of the period. The "small" 10 variety is scarce, the "large" 10 is rare, spots are normal, uncirculated is highly abnormal. Beware of acid cleaned specimens with pitted surfaces. Most common coins of the series are the 5 and 10 pfennig of 1932 with the fish. The other minors are not too hard to get, but the bigger the coin the scarcer it is. There was a headline a few years back when a batch of the slightly less rare of the two gold coin types showed up. They did not go cheap. Probably a few of them were held back. They are certainly not around now.
Back to "Poland." The Nazis invaded in 1939 after manufacturing a "provocation" and destroyed the Polish army in a couple of weeks. They proceeded to wreck, destroy, liquidate, murder, steal, and exploit in Poland until the end of the war. They left two series of metal numismatic relics: the so-called "occupation coinage" and the Lodz ghetto tokens. The occupation coins are copies, more or less, of the normal republican minors but in junky zinc instead of strategically important nickel. The common ones are the frozen date 10 and 20 groszy. 1 grosz is not so common, 50 groszy, plated and unplated versions both, not common either, and apparently I have never had the 5 groszy. Is it rare? I don't know.
Lodz tokens have a good story to them that I will not recount here. There are several books about them, including one that states that only a handful of 20 mark tokens exist and that every one you're likely to see is fake. The most common fake has a notch cut out of the star around the word "GETTO," but there are others. You need to get a return guarantee if you buy one of these, and then show it around to people who allow themselves to be called experts.
The question may arise: is it aluminum or magnesium? Aside from trying to set your token on fire, you will want to know that a magnesium piece will ALWAYS be corroded, and dark gray. Aluminum may be corroded too, but it will be the normal light color you expect for that metal. Generally you want to be wary of sets of these things, or any kind of "good price" on a 20 mark. Go find the books and read them.
Poland after the war was very different from what it had been. Russians occupied it, the borders were all changed around, a few million Germans were kicked out. Russians and Poles are like oil and water, politically speaking, but it turned out that the Poles were stuck with them for another 50 years. After a few years of beleagured democracy the Russians installed a puppet government and that was that until the bubble of communism burst in 1990 more or less.
Now I should describe the shape of the Polish collector market rather than the communist coins per se. Why? After the fall of communism the newly free economy quickly produced some people with excess funds, and some of them decided to collect coins. Those collectors initially disdained the commie stuff, by and large, and it languished, at least the bulk of easily available stuff did. The market for the commie stuff has come up from its initial "yuk" level. Enough water under the bridge, I guess. Standard Catalog values tend to track reality for most of them, and as usual some of them are rather hard to find. The really serious objects of desire all along have been the ones with pictures of the Polish pope, John Paul II. I asked Mr. Ochocinsky of www.eticoins.net about the current price of the big gold John Paul 200,000 zlotych coins of 1988 and 1989. $20,000.00, more or less, a bit lower than last year. In the Standard Catalog they are about $6000.00.
So let's discuss the rather extensive series of PROBA patterns. The Polish Numismatic Society had a deal with the mint such that the mint kept making these things and if you were a member, and knew the right people, and were there at the right time you could get them as they came out. This practice apparently started during the old Republic. The most commonly seen items in this general medallic/pattern category of that period are the silver klippes of 1933 and 1934, pleasantly showy pieces that regularly appear in auctions to regularly get decent prices. During the communist period several hundred different types were produced, of which a small handful are fairly common. The others, with mintages averaging a few hundred, do not turn up. They are kind of like French piedforts that way: a couple common, most rare. People tend not to get involved, thinking they'll never be able to complete the collection. Probably they're right, but is that any reason?
Now to quickly deal with the coinage of the new post-communist republic. Note the monetary reform in which several zeros were dropped. Note also that the brass they're using for the yellow coins is prone to spotting, so that there will be a premium on unspotted specimens in the future. Note that they started out in 1990 with a lot of commemoratives and have gone absolutely hog wild since then, with dozens of issues every year in brass, silver, and gold. They've stopped making PROBA patterns, but they seem to be having fun at the mint. I wish them well.