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7: The New Forces of the Fourteenth Century

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The Luxemburg dynasty was to govern Bohemia until its extinction in 1437. But this long period is clearly divided in two parts. The death of the second Luxemburg, Charles, in 1378, a landmark in general European history along with the Great Western schism of the same year, has a special significance for Bohemia’s development. A long internal crisis came soon after what is called her “Golden Age.”

    That brilliant era did not start immediately in 1310. On the contrary, there soon followed a rebellion of the Czech nobility against their first foreign king, who neglected their interests and proved a very poor administrator. The opposition was defeated, but John of Luxemburg hardly took advantage of his success. He preferred to play the part of a knight errant, abandoning the affairs of the kingdom to the nobles, until in 1333 his son Charles was associated with the government, and long before John’s death at the Battle of Crécy in 1346, he exercised a decisive influence.

    The old king’s participation in the Hundred Years War of course had nothing to do with Bohemia’s own problems, and when in earlier years he joined the raids of the Teutonic Knights into Lithuania, his role in these alleged crusades in distant lands touched the interests of his kingdom only indirectly as far as any joint action with the so-called Knights of the Cross was a pressure put upon Poland. It was of little practical value that one of the princes of distant Mazovia temporarily made himself a vassal of the Bohemian crown. But when John of Luxemburg received similar homage from most of the Silesian princes in 1327 and 1329, the recognition of his suzerainty by these Piasts necessarily led to the final separation of that important province from medieval Poland. It was included in the lands of the crown of St. Václav, together with Bohemia, Moravia, and parts of Lusatia which were also acquired in John’s time. The recognition of that accomplished fact by the King of Poland, in the years 1335—1339, was obtained by King John by giving up the henceforth useless support of the Teutonic Knights and his own claims to the Polish crown which anyway had no chance of practical realization.

    The relations with Poland which had badly deteriorated under the last Premyslids and the first Luxemburg were gradually improved by the second, although Charles too had participated in his father’s last attack against Cracow in 1344. It was not only in restoring conditions of good neighborliness with the other Slavic kingdom that Charles’ policy proved much more constructive than his father’s. To what an extent it was a truly Bohemian policy, however, will always remain controversial, since a few weeks before he succeeded to John in Prague he was elected Holy Roman Emperor.

    That election put an end to the internal crisis of the Empire under Louis the Bavarian and restored, at least temporarily, the cooperation between Empire and papacy, with the Avignon popes consistently supporting the Luxemburgs. It was also undoubtedly a success for Bohemia, whose king reached the goal which Premysl Otakar II had sought in vain. Her position in the Empire now became indeed a leading one, with Prague its undisputed center, but at the same time her connection with Germany became inseparable. Since it happened under a German dynasty it was hardly favorable to the national development of the Czechs.

    Nevertheless, Bohemia gained so much in political influence and in cultural and economic progress that Charles IV, as he is called as emperor, is rather blamed for having neglected German interests. How difficult it is to interpret the character of his policy is particularly evident in the case of the foundation of the University of Prague in 1348. The importance of the creation of a first university north of the Alps, outside the Romance and Anglo-Saxon world, is of course evident. But while it is impossible to consider Prague as the first German university, it also is questionable whether it was founded as a Czech institution. Like all other medieval universities, it was a universal center of Western culture, open to all nations. Medieval universalism, though already in decline in the fourteenth century, is the only possible key to a genuine understanding of what the King of Bohemia, of German race but deeply influenced by French and also Italian culture, really wanted to achieve as emperor.

    There can indeed be no doubt that these achievements in all spheres of life were of real advantage to the peoples of Bohemia, without distinction of origin, and particularly to the city of Prague, now the emperor’s residence. And the significant fact that in 1344 Charles obtained from Pope Clement VI, his former educator, the raising of Prague to an archbishopric, is the best proof of his concern with Bohemia’s independent position. Now, at last, her ecclesiastical life was no longer under the control of the German Archbishop of Mainz.

    Charles’ whole imperial policy, which made him twice travel to Rome—for the first time in 1353 in order to be crowned—does not of course belong to the history of East Central Europe. The same can be said of his reforms in the government of the Empire, although the famous Golden Bull of 1356, establishing permanent rules for the election of future emperors, must be mentioned here because it confirmed the privileges of the king of Bohemia as first among the lay electors. There are, however, both in his foreign relations and in his internal activities, important features directly affecting Bohemia as one of the Slavic nations of the Danubian and in general of the East Central region of the continent.

    It so happened that among the rulers of that region there were several contemporaries of Charles of Luxemburg who played a prominent role, similar to his own, in their respective countries. One of them was Rudolf the Founder, first archduke of Austria, whose land was serving more and more as an intermediary between Germany proper and the non-German part of Central Europe. He was also the first of the Habsburgs who made systematic efforts to prepare the future succession of his dynasty to the thrones of Bohemia and Hungary through treaties with the Luxemburgs and the Anjous. Even Poland got involved in the intricate diplomatic game which in 1360 led to a conflict between Charles IV and Louis the Great of Hungary. Louis was offended by a derogatory statement about his mother, which was attributed to the Emperor.

    Avoiding any major war, however, the two opponents settled their dispute through Polish mediation. Charles of Luxemburg, who in spite of the Czech-Polish rivalry in Silesia had made alliances with Poland in 1348 and 1356 which were apparently directed against the Teutonic Order, now went to Cracow twice. After the death of his first wife, in 1363 he there married a princess of Western Pomerania who was a granddaughter of King Casimir the Great. The following year, reconciled with Louis of Hungary, he participated with him and the kings of Denmark and Cyprus in the Cracow Congress where the problem of a new crusade was discussed and the whole situation in East Central Europe carefully reviewed.

    The Emperor returned to these problems in the later part of his reign in connection with two issues which were of vital importance for his Bohemian kingdom. One of them concerned the March of Brandenburg, which after the acquisition of practically all of Lusatia had become a neighboring country. In this formerly Slavic land where, as in Lusatia, the native population had not yet entirely disappeared, Charles IV obtained the succession for his son Sigismund, after a branch of the Bavarian Wittelsbachs, old rivals of the Luxemburgs, which like their Askanian predecessors had made the march the most important German outpost in the East, particularly threatening to Poland. For the dynasty which now governed Bohemia this succession was a distinct success. Whether it would also be a check to German influences and expansion was to depend on the personality of Sigismund of Luxemburg.

    However, the Emperor wanted to secure a much higher position for him, equal to that of his elder brother who received the typically Czech name Václav and was to inherit Bohemia and possibly also the imperial crown. Therefore, along with the Habsburgs, Charles of Luxemburg entered into negotiations with the last Anjou king of Hungary, his former rival Louis the Great, who had only daughters, the future heiresses of both Hungary and Poland. Almost simultaneously one of them, Mary, was betrothed to Sigismund of Luxemburg, and her younger sister Jadwiga to William of Habsburg. For the old Emperor it seemed a guaranty that Sigismund would succeed to Louis in either Poland or Hungary, and in any case this was to be a gain not only for the Luxemburg dynasty but also for Bohemia where their power would remain based.

    Under Charles IV, who did not live to see the outcome of these carefully planned developments, Bohemia also made a great deal of progress in the field of administration, thanks to his codification of the law of the country. He enjoyed the full support of the hierarchy, with Arnost of Pardubice, the first Archbishop of Prague, as his main advisor. Both not only maintained a close contact with the papacy, the Emperor in 1368 paying a visit to Urban V when he had temporarily returned to Rome from Avignon, but they also showed a real interest in missionary problems, such as the conversion of Lithuania, whose princes came to see Charles in 1358.

    It was even more important that both of them realized the necessity of ecclesiastical reforms which were claimed by eloquent preachers from among the Czechs and from abroad. These were shocked by the wealth and worldly life of part of the clergy, including the richly endowed monasteries. In the days of Charles that reform movement had not yet had any heretical or distinctly anti-German character. It was a serious warning which gained in significance when in 1378 the final return of the Holy See to Rome was followed by the outbreak of the Great Western schism.

    It was regrettable that the Emperor died just at the beginning of that crisis. But his death was a special loss for Bohemia, where the general problems of Christendom were to have particularly serious repercussions. The country soon lost the position, unique in its history, which it had occupied under Charles, while the close association of a Slavic people with German power, apparently successful during his lifetime, soon produced the most dangerous consequences. And none of his sons, the last Luxemburgs, proved equal to his task.


That task was the more responsible because four years after the death of Charles IV the Hungarian branch of the Anjous was extinguished and the parallel development of Bohemia and Hungary under the foreign dynasties established there at the beginning of the fourteenth century came to an end. There are, however, other differences in that development. The reign of the Anjous in Hungary was much briefer than that of the Luxemburgs in Bohemia, limited as it was to two generations in the male line, and that dynasty, although of foreign origin, was not German but French.

    There was, therefore, no danger whatever that the foreign rulers, the second of whom had incidentally already been born and bred in Hungary, would promote a foreign influence dangerous to the independence and national character of the country. Their French homeland was faraway, without any ambitions or possibilities of controlling or absorbing a country in East Central Europe which even the neighboring German Empire had failed to include. It is true that the Anjous who took the place of the Árpáds did not come directly from France but from Italy. Their ancestors, so long as they ruled Sicily, had shown the usual ambitions of all masters of Sicily directed toward the East. But even these aggressive aims were directed at the Byzantine Empire and its possessions in the south of the Balkan Peninsula, and since as early as in 1282 Sicily had been lost to the kings of Aragon and the Italian kingdom of the Anjous practically limited to Naples, that dynasty could hardly dream of creating an empire on both sides of the Adriatic.

    In Hungary, they did, of course, spread from their brilliant court at Buda or nearby Visegrad, a Romance culture, partly French, partly Italian, already touched by the early Renaissance movement. But this proved a real contribution to Hungary’s genuine cultural life which in spite of an entirely different racial background was Latin in its character from the day of her conversion. Under the Anjous there could not possibly appear that German impact which at the equally brilliant court of the Luxemburgs in Prague, in connection with a German colonization much more important in Bohemia than in Hungary, gradually supplanted the native Slav and also the Romance elements introduced by the French contacts of the Luxemburgs and Charles IV’s relations with great Italians such as Cola di Rienzi and Petrarch.

    All that does not mean that the Hungarians did not resent, at least at the beginning, the establishment of foreigners at the site of their native kings. Just like the Bohemian nobles in the early years of King John, so also important factions of the Hungarian nobility, nationally more homogeneous, proud of their Golden Bull, and organized in powerful genera as in Poland, created opposition to Charles Robert when he arrived in 1308. But his wise policy, which enabled him to find a large group of supporters for his efficient administration, soon made him much more popular than John had ever been in Bohemia. Residing permanently in his new kingdom, he fully identified himself with its national interests, leaving those of Naples to his brother.

    Even better than many of the Árpáds, Charles Robert realized the importance of a close cooperation with neighboring Poland, restored as a kingdom and always popular among the Hungarian nobles, especially in the northern counties where at the outset there had been the greatest reluctance to accept the Anjou rule. The king s marriage to Elizabeth of Poland, the highly intelligent and ambitious daughter of Wladyslaw Lokietek, which was contracted in 1320, the very year of the latter s coronation, was accompanied by a close alliance which was to last throughout the whole Anjou period.

    That alliance made Charles Robert the natural mediator in the conflict between Poland on the one hand and Bohemia and the Teutonic Order on the other. It was therefore at Visegrad, the Anjou residence, at a congress of the three Kings of East Central Europe held in 1335, that an arbitration suggested by Charles Robert tried to appease that conflict. While it did not put an end to the basic antagonism between the Poles and the Teutonic Knights, it prepared the rapprochement between Poland and Bohemia. Such a friendly collaboration with both Slavic kingdoms in Hungary’s immediate neighborhood was in itself an advantage to that country. But as far as the relations with Poland were concerned, they opened for the King of Hungary two additional opportunities, both discussed, at a second Visegrad meeting in 1339, with his Polish brother-in-law, King Casimir the Great.

    First, there was the old Hungarian claim to Halich and even to Volhynia, expressed in the addition to their title, rex Galiciae et Lodomeriae. After the death of the last descendants of Roman and Daniel, around 1323, one of their Polish relatives, Boleslaw of Mazovia, called George when he became the ruler of an Orthodox country, succeeded them. Facing internal troubles which were to lead to his assassination in 1340, George in turn designated his cousin King Casimir as his successor, precisely on the occasion of the second Visegrad congress. It probably was at once anticipated that Hungary would support Poland in that matter, as she actually did in the following years, but not without serious chances of connecting, one way or another, the regnum Russiae, as the heritage of Daniel used to be called, with the crown of Hungary.

    That issue was inseparable from an even more important one. Although the King of Poland was still quite young, discussions regarding his successor immediately started. It was decided that if he were to continue to have only daughters the Hungarian Anjous would inherit the crown of Poland, uniting both countries in a powerful confederation. If, however, these prospects, so attractive to the new Hungarian dynasty, would not materialize, the regnum Russiae could be redeemed by the King of Hungary.

    These arrangements became final under Louis, the son of Charles Robert. He succeeded his father in 1342, two years after the beginning of the struggle for Halich and Volhynia between Poland and Lithuania. The new King of Hungary participated in this struggle on several occasions, once personally joining an expedition into distant lands. But the problem of the Polish succession, combined with Ruthenian and Lithuanian entanglements, was merely one aspect of the many-sided foreign policy of a king whom the Hungarians, proud of his achievements, called the Great. And he proved equally remarkable in his internal administration.

    Like his neighbors, he also founded a university in the Hungarian city of Pécs, but that foundation of 1367 did not develop into a lasting institution. And though he contributed successfully to the country’s cultural and economic progress, favoring particularly the cities and promoting their trade relations, he was chiefly interested in a better organization of the military forces needed for Hungary’s territorial expansion. To the geographical unit already formed by the lands of the Crown of St. Stephen, he wanted to add a surrounding belt of vassal provinces. In the east, in addition to his Ruthenian project, he tried to bring under Hungarian suzerainty the principalities created by the Rumanian people; not only Wallachia which already had an existence of more than a hundred years, but also Moldavia, organized in his own time, where Hungarian and Polish interests had clashed from the beginning.

    Even more ambitious in that respect was Louis’  program of expansion toward the south, far into the Balkans. Here his prestige was at its height when in 1366 the Byzantine Emperor, John V Palaeologus, visited him in Buda to get military assistance against the Turks. In spite of papal appeals and encouragements, Louis’ plans for conducting an anti-Ottoman crusade never materialized. But he extended Hungarian influence over at least part of Bulgaria, checked Serbia’s expansion in the years of her greatest power, and tried to keep Bosnia under his control, marrying Elizabeth, the daughter of Stephen Kotromanich, the rival of Stephen Tvrtko, King of Serbia and Bosnia. In all these regions the advance of Hungary was also a progress of Catholic influence.

    Like his predecessors, however, Louis of Anjou had as his main rival another Catholic power, the Republic of Venice. He definitely served the interests of his country when in 1358, in his first war against Venice, he regained the maritime province of Dalmatia for Hungary. But when he joined the coalition against the Republic which toward the end of his reign almost destroyed Venetian power, it was in connection with his Italian policy, in which he was deeply interested for dynastic reasons. Louis’ brother Andrew, who had gained the Kingdom of Naples by marrying its heiress, his cousin Joan, was murdered in 1345, not without his wife’s responsibility. Through repeated but unsuccessful expeditions into Southern Italy, Louis wanted not only to avenge that crime but also to conquer Naples for himself or his successors.

    This was an additional reason why he regretted having no son, and why after the birth of his three daughters in the early seventies, one of his main objectives was to secure a third kingdom in order to leave a royal crown to each of them. From 1370 onward he already possessed a second kingdom in Poland where, according to the frequently confirmed earlier agreements, he succeeded the last Piast. Even here, however, it was not without difficulty that the hereditary rights of one of his daughters were recognized because the Poles blamed him for neglecting their interests and for placing the province of Halich under Hungarian administration. It also proved difficult to determine which of the daughters, all of whom were already engaged in their childhood to members of the leading European dynasties, would inherit which kingdom. Since Naples was never retaken from the Italian branch of the Anjous, and since the eldest daughter, Catherine, the fiancee of Louis of France, the future Duke of Orléans, died before her father, the problem was reduced to Hungary and to Poland.

    It was Louis’  final decision that Hungary should be left to his youngest daughter Jadwiga, and since she was engaged to William of Habsburg, this would have resulted in a first Austro-Hungarian union. Mary, who was supposed to rule in Poland, would have connected that country with the Brandenburg March of her fiancee Sigismund and thus with the domains of the Luxemburgs. The consequence of this intricate dynastic policy of Louis the Great and of his matrimonial projects would have been, therefore, a wide advance of German influence in East Central Europe, an advance which that Hungarian king of French-Italian descent had rather opposed throughout his life.

    The artificial combinations of his last years were reversed after his death by the strong national forces which he himself had fostered in Hungary and never completely controlled in Poland. But when he disappeared in 1382, he left behind him the memory of a period of real greatness which Hungary had enjoyed under the last Anjou, who did his best to make her the leading power of East Central Europe, closely associated with the Latin West and yet fully independent in her national development. It soon became evident, however, that such a role was beyond the forces of Hungary alone; she was not even in a position to maintain the union with Poland and entered into a very serious internal crisis. The death of Louis of Anjou, coming only four years after the death of Charles of Luxemburg, is therefore a similar landmark in the course of the history of East Central Europe.


The Hungarian crisis which followed the Anjou period was the more regrettable because at this very moment the Turkish onslaught was already approaching the Danubian region after conquering most of the Balkans, while the rest of the Byzantine Empire was completely isolated. Hungary was, however, not without responsibility for the main reason which made possible that sweeping advance of a new Muslim power—the lack of unity and cooperation among the Christian countries. A serious obstacle was, of course, the continuing schism between Catholics and Orthodox, but even among the Orthodox, who were supreme in the Balkan Peninsula, there was no coordination in defense against the Asiatic invaders. On the contrary, there continued, first, the agelong antagonism between the Greek Empire and the Slavic states north of its reduced territory, and secondly, the almost equally old rivalry between Bulgarians and Serbs.

    In the fourteenth century it was definitely Serbia which was assuming the leading position in the Balkans. Under Stephen II’s equally prominent and warlike successor, Stephen Urosh III, the kingdom of the Nemanyids had to face the joint opposition of Byzantium and Bulgaria which were temporarily allied. But the Serbs defeated both of them in 1330, when Michael Shishman, together with his Bulgarian army, was killed in the battle of Velbuzhd, and when Emperor Andronicus III had to make peace after the loss of most of Macedonia. In the following year Stephen III was replaced by his son and former co-ruler, Stephen Dushan, who ranks among the greatest monarchs of his time and who aimed at the creation of a Serb Empire which would take the place of the declining empire of the Palaeologi.

    His chances seemed quite favorable because Byzantium, after losing almost all its possessions in Asia Minor to the Ottoman Turks during the reigns of Andronicus II and Andronicus III, after the death of the latter in 1341, entered into a period of civil war between his son John V and a highly gifted usurper of the Cantacuzene family who made himself a rival emperor under the name of John VI. Both of them continued the negotiations with the papacy, which had been started by their predecessor with a view to putting an end to the eastern schism and joining the league against the Turks which was promoted by the Avignon popes. But while that action was making little progress, both emperors occasionally used Turkish auxiliaries in the civil war. It was of little avail that in 1344 Catholic crusaders took Smyrna from a less dangerous Turkish ruler, since about the same time the Ottomans, under Osman’s particularly aggressive successor, Urkhan, started their invasions of European territory as allies of one or the other Greek Emperor.

    In the meantime, Dushan, at the beginning, also unaware of the supreme Ottoman danger to all Christendom, was occupying more and more imperial territory, extending the frontier of Serbia far into Albania and Thessaly. First crowned in 1333 as king of Serbia only, in 1346 he celebrated another coronation in the Macedonian capital, Skoplje, assuming the ambitious title of Emperor of Serbs and Greeks or, as he was later called, Imperator Rasciae et Romaniae. During all these years he also strengthened Serbia internally, unifying the country under a well-organized administration, codifying the customary law, and favoring cultural relations with the West.

    In addition to negotiations with Emperor John V who in 1354 finally defeated his rival, Pope Innocent VI also tried to gain Dushan for a religious union with Rome and for an active participation in the crusade against the Turks. The Serbian ruler now realized the urgent necessity of stopping the Muslim invaders who inflicted upon the Serbs a first defeat near Adrianople in 1352 and finally, in the critical year of 1354 gained a first permanent foothold on European soil by occupying Gallipoli. Unfortunately, Dushan’s possible cooperation in a crusade which he himself wanted to lead was troubled by the persistent hostility of the other prospective leader of the Christian forces, Louis of Hungary, the rival of the Serbs in Bosnia. Under these conditions even Dushan’s better relations with Venice were of little help, and the plan of Serbia’s religious union with the Catholic world, which would have been so important for the cultural unity of all Yugoslavs, was abandoned.

    Another obstacle to any joint defense of the Balkans was of course Dushan’s imperial ambition which made impossible any real collaboration with Byzantium. When he suddenly died in 1355, it was at the very moment when instead of marching against the Turks he was probably preparing for the conquest of Constantinople. Nevertheless his premature death was a serious blow not only for Serbia but also for the Christian peoples of the Balkans in general. The kingdom of the Nemanyids was divided among the last members of the dynasty, who proved of much less prominence, and local chieftains, among which the Balshas in the Zeta region—the future Montenegro—were most important and most interested in relations with the Catholic West. Bulgaria, too, which was divided among the last Shishmanids, could not possibly be a really helpful ally of the Byzantine Empire. When Emperor John V, in spite of his conversion to Catholicism of the Western rite and the sympathy of popes Urban V and Gregory XI, did not receive any Catholic assistance against the Turkish power, rapidly growing after Murad I’s conquest of Adrianople, the Orthodox party in Constantinople, led by the Patriarch, continued to hope for efficient cooperation with the Orthodox Slavs of the Balkans. But all such prospects came to an end with the battle on the Maritsa River near Adrianople, then the Turkish capital, in 1371.

    Even at this critical moment no league of Christian powers, either Catholic or Orthodox, had been concluded, and it was Serbian forces alone, under Dushan’s last successors, which were crushed in that first major victory of the Turks in Europe. And it was Serbia which Murad I now wanted to destroy completely before attempting to conquer encircled Constantinople where his influence was already decisive. The final blow came in the famous battle at Kossovo Polje “the field of the blackbirds” where the Turks crushed the remaining forces of free Serbs in 1389. The assistance of other Balkan peoples had again proved entirely inadequate, and even one of the Serbian chieftains, Marko Kralyevich, wrongly praised in later legends, probably fought on the Turkish side. It is true that along with the Christian leader, Lazar, Murad I also lost his life, but his son and successor, Bayazid I, continued his policy of ruthless conquest.

    The next victims were the now isolated Bulgarians. While some Serb elements continued to resist in the northwestern corner of the Balkan Peninsula, in the mountains of Zeta and of Bosnia where Stephen Tvrtko’s kingdom disintegrated only after his death in 1391, Bulgaria, near the European center of Ottoman power, was completely subjugated in 1393 after the fall of its capital, Tirnovo. The cultural leaders who had been active in that city went into exile, and the national life of the Bulgarians was simply annihilated for almost five hundred years. There always remained, however, the tradition of Bulgaria’s medieval power, just as Dushan’s glory and the tragedy of Kossovo continued to inspire the Serbs not only during their last local struggles in the following century but also until their liberation in the nineteenth.

    With Wallachia threatened and repeatedly raided immediately after the conquest of neighboring Bulgaria, there started, therefore, for all free peoples of the Balkan region the dark era of Turkish oppression and of the imposition of a completely alien Muslim civilization and political organization. For Christian Europe this was a serious though insufficiently realized loss. Greater was the impression created by the imminence of the conquest of Constantinople, now completely encircled and engaged in a policy of appeasement under both the old Emperor John V and, after his death in 1391, his son Manuel II. Only in connection with attempts at saving the Eastern Christian Empire, was the liberation of the Balkan Slavs also incidentally considered.

    Even these attempts were, however, more difficult than before, since Constantinople was now impossible to reach except from the sea, and since, instead of ending the Eastern schism, the Great Western schism had been started, adding another element of division to the lack of unity among the Christian countries. Although the Catholic powers of East Central Europe at first remained loyal to the legitimate pope in Rome, the participation of Burgundy—the Western country most seriously concerned with the Eastern problem, but siding, like all of France, with the Pope of Avignon—excluded any papal initiative in the crusade of 1396, which seemed to have a good chance of success. That expedition ended, however, in the defeat of  Nicopolis, where the crusaders, long before reaching imperial territory, met the Turkish forces near the Danubian border between Wallachia and Bulgaria. That fateful event therefore merely strengthened in that whole region the position of the Ottoman conquerors who had even compelled Serbian forces to fight on their side.

    Strangely enough, it was also an auxiliary Serb detachment which distinguished itself six years later in the battle of Angora, where Bayazid I was in turn defeated by another Asiatic conqueror, Timur the Lame, or Tamerlane, who for a short period revived the empire of Jenghis Khan. It is well known that this unexpected catastrophe of the rising Ottoman power permitted the Byzantine Empire to survive for another half century. Under the impression of his intervention in Turkish affairs, the Christian West even considered the savage Mongol leader as a possible ally. Only Venice never shared this illusion, having lost her Eastern European colony of Tana, at the mouth of the Don, in 1393, through an earlier invasion of Tamerlane in northeastern Europe.

    That same invasion not only threatened Muscovite Russia, where the opposition against Mongol rule had just started, but also the new power in East Central Europe which the Venetians and other experts on the whole Eastern question rightly considered an indispensable factor in any action against the Muslim onslaught, even in the Balkans. This was the Polish-Lithuanian federation, including also the Ruthenian lands of the old Kievan State, which had been formed, thanks to the restoration of a powerful kingdom of Poland and to the stupendous expansion and eventual Christianization of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy. These two events are therefore an important part of the profound changes in the whole structure of East Central Europe which developed in the course of the fourteenth century.


The growing international role of Poland in the fourteenth century, so different from her precarious political position in the thirteenth, was the natural result of her restoration as a united kingdom. That restoration on a national basis and as a permanent factor in the European state system was the achievement of two remarkable rulers, father and son, and it came immediately after the merely temporary and territorially limited restoration of the kingdom under Przemysl II and its occupation by a foreign ruler, Václav II of Bohemia, followed for just one year by his son Václav III.

    After the death of the latter in 1306, the Piast prince, Wladyslaw Lokietek, who had become the leader of the national opposition against Czech domination, immediately succeeded in occupying Little Poland, but it took him six years before he was universally recognized in Greater Poland where he had a Silesian cousin as his rival, and eight more years before he was crowned king in 1320. Through his tireless efforts during these difficult years. of transition, he emerged as the first restorer of the kingdom which, after his death in 1333, his only son Casimir could inherit without any difficulty.

    It was, however, a state which included little more than the two basic provinces of Little and Greater Poland with Cracow and Gniezno as main centers, in addition to Lokietek’s original patrimony, which was only a small part of Cuyavia. In that very region there remained local dukes, close relatives of the king, who recognized his authority but who also enjoyed a large degree of autonomy, while the dukes of Mazovia, the youngest line of the dynasty, were practically independent. And even before the loss of Silesia, which the numerous descendants of the eldest Piast line placed under the suzerainty of Bohemia, Lokietek suffered the equally painful loss of Polish Pomerania.

    In the difficult beginning of his reign, when that province, together with the port of Danzig, was threatened by the margraves of Brandenburg, Lokietek asked the Teutonic Order, still considered a friendly neighbor and possible ally, to come to the rescue of the city. They did so, but only to occupy it for themselves after the treacherous slaughter of a large part of the Polish population. By 1309 the conquest of the whole province and its incorporation into Prussia was completed, and Poland was completely cut off from the Baltic Sea.

    The king was so determined to regain Pomerania that in the very year of his coronation he submitted the dispute to the judgment of the Holy See. Pope John XXII, with whose agreement Wladyslaw I (as he was called as king) had been crowned, appointed leading representatives of the Polish clergy as arbitrators. After a careful canonical trial, they recognized the king’s claims. Their decision was of course disregarded by the Teutonic Order, and as soon as the king had added to his alliance with Hungary a similar alliance with Lithuania in 1325, threatened by the Order in her very existence, he tried to reconquer the lost province by force of arms.

    In the course of these years of hard fighting, he even invaded Brandenburg, now allied with the Teutonic Knights, but the cooperation with the still pagan Lithuanians did not work, while the Order enjoyed the support of John of Luxemburg. In 1331 and 1332 Poland herself suffered invasions and devastations by the Knights of the Cross, which limited victories, like that of Plowce, could not possibly compensate, and when the king died, even his native Cuyavia was occupied by the Germans under a truce which he had been obliged to accept.

    It was therefore in extremely difficult circumstances that his son Casimir took the power the next year. But his reign of thirty-seven years proved so successful that, alone among all kings of Poland, he was later called “the Great,” and already in his lifetime he enjoyed an extraordinary prestige both at home and abroad.

    His greatness is particularly evident in the field of internal administration, which had been rather neglected by his father. With experienced jurists as collaborators, throughout his whole reign he worked at a codification of Polish law which helped him to restore order in the whole country and to establish a sound balance of all classes of society. In his time the Polish knighthood already appears as a privileged class of nobles, but supported by faithful partisans he checked any possible abuses of turbulent aristocratic leaders, particularly in Greater Poland where a first “confederation” or league of nobles directed against his authority had been formed. He also promoted the development of the cities, which continued to enjoy the franchises of German law but under a local court of appeal established in Cracow. Finally, he became famous as protector of the peasants and also of the Jews, who having already received charters of liberties in the preceding century, now settled in Poland in rapidly growing numbers, thus escaping from persecution in the Western countries.

    It is doubtful whether Casimir succeeded in having a unified code of law accepted in all Poland which would have combined his separate drafts for Great and Little Poland that had been promulgated around 1346. But great progress was achieved in the unification of the administration through the creation of central offices, and almost all local duchies were converted into provinces directly under the king whose Cuyavian cousins died out with only one exception. As to the dukes of Mazovia, they gradually recognized the king’s suzerainty, and here too the extinction of various side lines of the dynasty enabled Casimir to establish his immediate rule over at least part of that province and to remove any foreign interference with its affairs.

    In his foreign policy, Casimir realized the necessity of beginning with concessions made to stronger neighbors. After the unavoidable recognition of Bohemia’s suzerainty over almost all the Silesian duchies, he hoped to concentrate against the Teutonic Order and tried once more to recover Pomerania peacefully through the decision of another papal court of arbitration which this time met in Warsaw in 1339 and was composed of French prelates. But once more a decision favorable to Poland was rejected by the Order, and in 1343 Casimir felt obliged to conclude the peace treaty of Kalisz, which gave only Cuyavia back to Poland, while Pomerania was left to the Teutonic Knights as a “perpetual alm.”

    The king never ceased to look for an occasion to reclaim it, but he was already engaged in a political action which was to be his main objective from 1340 onward and which kept him busy at the eastern borders of Poland. It was the problem of his succession in Halich and Volhynia after the death of his cousin Boleslaw—a problem intimately connected with that of the Hungarian succession in Poland.

    Casimir was well received by the population, though mostly Ruthenian, of that controversial border region, to which he granted full autonomy and respect of their local customs. He was, however, opposed not only by the Tartars, but particularly by the Lithuanian princes who also claimed the heritage of the former princes of Halich and Volhynia. The King of Poland, after occupying all the former state of Halich and Volhynia in 1349, had to limit himself to the province of Halich in 1352. Lwow, a recently founded but rapidly developing city, was its new capital. Finally, in 1366, he added the western section of Volhynia to it and his overlordship was recognized by the Lithuanian rulers of Podolia.

    Time and again he tried to come to an understanding not only with that Podolian line but with the whole Lithuanian dynasty and to cooperate against the Knights of the Cross. He encouraged all projects of converting Lithuania to the Catholic faith. There are also some indications that he was already considering the opportunity of a Polish-Lithuanian union, again in connection with the choice of his own successor. This choice was his permanent concern in the later part of his reign when he realized that in spite of his three marriages he would leave no male heir.

    Casimir did not see any suitable candidate for the Polish crown among the surviving lines of the Piasts, and though he seems to have taken into consideration various alternatives, including the succession of a grandson, Casimir of Stettin, whom he adopted and endowed with large territories in Poland, the original idea of leaving Poland to Louis of Hungary prevailed. The relations with this nephew, so important for Casimir’s policy in general European affairs, were particularly close at the time of the Congress of Cracow in 1364, when Casimir showed his unusual versatility, dealing even with Scandinavian and Balkan problems. In the very year of that memorable assembly which best evidenced the rise of Poland’s power, the king also made his greatest contribution to the progress of Polish culture by founding the University of Cracow on the model of the famous Italian law schools.

    When Casimir died prematurely in 1370, Louis of Hungary started the twelve years of his Polish reign in cooperation with his mother, the sister of Casimir. Supported by a strong party among the aristocracy of Little Poland, opposed by most of Greater Poland where native candidates were much more popular, he practically limited his interest in Polish affairs to the desire of having the succession of one of his daughters recognized in Poland also. He reached that goal at the price of a charter of liberties granted to the Polish nobles in 1374 at the second of three successive meetings he held with them in Kassa (Kosice) in northern Hungary.

    It was then that the privileged position of the szlachta, which had been developing throughout the preceding centuries, was legally established. The most important concession, which limited the ordinary taxes to a small merely symbolic payment, was the origin of parliamentary government in Poland, since no further taxation was henceforth possible without a vote of representatives of the nation. Equally important was the participation of the nobles in the settlement of decisive political problems. Well trained in that respect under a foreign ruler who was frequently absent, they themselves were prepared to take care of the vital interests of the country when he died in 1382, hoping in vain that the daughter whom he had chosen for Poland would rule there, together with her future German husband who had also been selected by her father.

    His plan to assign Poland to Mary, who was engaged to Sigismund of Luxemburg, failed as soon as the Hungarians elected her as queen. Nobody wanted the personal union with Hungary to continue. Amidst the general confusion of an interregnum which seemed to favor the election of a Mazovian Piast, the Poles remained faithful to their obligations toward the Anjou dynasty but invited Louis  youngest daughter, Jadwiga, who in spite of her age of hardly ten was sent to Cracow in 1384 and crowned as “King” of Poland.

    The choice of her husband was to have a decisive importance for all East Central Europe. She, too, had a German fiancee, William of Habsburg, but the Poles were no less opposed to him than to Sigismund of Luxemburg. They decided to choose another candidate who was himself eager to gain the Polish crown in the interest of Lithuania, his country of origin.


While two remarkable kings re-established the great medieval tradition of the Poland of the Piasts, two simultaneous generations of Lithuania’s rulers succeeded in making Europe’s last pagan country the largest state in East Central Europe. They did it through an almost uninterrupted struggle on two fronts: defending what remained of the free Baltic tribes against the German Knights of conquered Prussia and Livonia, and at the same time expanding in the opposite direction in spite of Tartar opposition and the growing power of Moscow, while the Ruthenian population remained practically passive.

    That tremendous task, which resulted in a basic change of the map of Europe and in the creation of its largest body politic outside the German Empire, was started by the first prominent representative of Pukuveras’ dynasty, his son Vytenis. But it was chiefly by his brother Gediminas, who followed him in 1315, and after the death of the latter in 1341 by his numerous sons, successfully led by two of them, that the decisive achievements were performed.

    Gediminas realized even better than his predecessors, from Mindaugas onward, that he could not create a real European power nor even assure the peaceful survival of the Lithuanian peoples without converting them to the Christian faith. As early as 1321 he started negotiations with the papacy, avoiding the dangerous intermediary of the Teutonic Order and using Franciscan friars to take his letters to Avignon. Again there is some doubt as to the authenticity of the source material, and it is hard to determine whether Lithuanian hesitation or German intrigues made the whole project fail, although papal delegates arrived in Vilnius (Wilno), Gediminas’ recently founded capital, and peace was concluded with his German neighbors in 1323.

    A few years later, in spite of his temporary alliance with Poland, Gediminas again found himself in an extremely difficult position, while regular raids of the Teutonic Knights penetrated far into Lithuania and used her persistent paganism as a pretext for crusades which attracted participants from all Western Europe. But in addition to the permanent effort of organizing the defense of the country along the western border, the rex Lithwinorum et multorum Ruthenorum, as the grand duke proudly called himself, continued to extend his eastern frontier by connecting the main White Russian principalities with Lithuania. These principalities were Polotsk, where Lithuanian influence had already been established, and Vitebsk, whose prince gave his daughter in marriage to Gediminas’ heir. He also incorporated minor territories, still held by the Tartars, as far as the limits of Volhynia and Kiev.

    After a few years of internal crisis which followed the death of Gediminas, his most prominent sons, Algirdas and Kestutis, settled the problem of succession. In 1345 they made an agreement which put the whole state, including the duchies of their other brothers, under their joint leadership. Loyally cooperating with each other for more than thirty years, they divided the two main problems of Lithuania’s foreign policy between themselves. Algirdas, the senior partner who resided in Vilnius, mainly directed the activities in the East, while Kestutis, from nearby Trakai (Troki), organized the defense against the Germans. Frequently, however, they would both join in facing that increasing danger or in invading the Teutonic Order’s territories in turn. Sometimes they suffered serious defeats and saw a large border region of their country practically turned into a wilderness, but they still resisted the onslaught of what was then the strongest military power in Central Europe.

    From time to time there again appeared projects for the conversion of Lithuania, including her great leaders, to the Catholic faith, possibly through imperial, Polish, or even Hungarian intermediaries. But there was another conflict with these friendlier Catholic neighbors which proved to be a serious obstacle. It was rivalry for the possession of Halich and, at least, Volhynia. This protracted struggle, which started shortly before Gediminas  death, was only part of a much bigger problem which Algirdas summarized in his ambitious statement that omnis Russia ought to belong to the Lithuanians.

    This was first of all a challenge to the Tartars. Their European realm was disintegrating, but they still opposed the Lithuanian advance. Finally a great victory, gained by Algirdas in 1363, brought Kiev itself together with most of what was later called the Ukraine under his control, which thus approached the Black Sea. He was wise enough to leave considerable autonomy to all the Ruthenian territories, merely replacing their native princes by members of his own family. One of his sons, for instance, was established in Kiev, after a long interruption of the historic role of that city. Most of the territory of the old Kievan State being now associated with Lithuania in one way or another, it would seem that the grand duchy was a continuation of that state under Lithuanian leadership.

    As a matter of fact, that leadership was purely political, since not only did the Lithuanian princes ruling in Ruthenian lands adopt the Orthodox faith, the language, and in general, the more developed culture of their new subjects, but there was also a possibility that Lithuania proper, smaller in area and population than her acquisitions in the East and the South, would come under Ruthenian influence and, threatened by the Catholic West, turn Greek Orthodox. The Lithuanians and their dynasty, had, however, an Orthodox rival also. Moscow, too, was trying to unite “all the Russias” under her leadership, and the common faith was indeed a very important asset. On the other hand, the control of Moscow, itself still under Tartar overlordship, was not yet that full liberation from the Tartar yoke which was one of the advantages of Lithuanian rule, a rule which, autocratic in the nucleus of the state, was nevertheless more respectful of local traditions than were the despotic princes of Moscow.

    Therefore various principalities, even in Great Russia, sided in that conflict with the pagan Lithuanians, in spite of the indignation of the ecclesiastical authority which was headed by the metropolitan residing in Moscow. Tver, in particular, was looking for Lithuanian protection, and it was with this and other Russian allies that Algirdas, whose second wife was a princess of Tver, thrice advanced as far as Moscow, without, however, taking the city or decisively beating his eastern neighbor. Therefore various principalities, including Smolensk, were hesitating between the two hostile powers.

    The situation of Lithuania, placed between two equally irreconcilable enemies in addition to the Tartars, whose invasions did not end at all, and hesitating between Western and Eastern influence, became particularly critical when Algirdas died in 1377. It now became apparent that the internal political structure of the huge realm was also rather weak and had depended exclusively on the cooperation of two unusually gifted brothers who supplemented each other well. One of Algirdas’ twelve sons, Jogaila, was supposed to continue such cooperation with Kestutis, and later with the most prominent of Kestutis’ sons, Vytautas. But the relations between uncle and nephew were not as harmonious as they had been in the earlier setup, and their mutual distrust, skillfully exploited by the Teutonic Order, soon led to a disastrous civil war.

    First, Kestutis, the old pagan hero of so many years of struggle against the Germans, defeated Jogaila and, taking Vilnius, expelled him to Vitebsk, inherited from his mother, in 1381. But the next year he was in turn crushed by his nephew and killed in jail. His son Vytautas escaped to Prussia and tried to recover his patrimony with the support of the Knights of the Cross, to whom he abandoned the coveted province of Samogitia, the territorial link between the two Baltic colonies of the German Knights, Prussia and Livonia. Baptized as a Catholic, Vytautas, if placed on the Lithuanian throne by the Teutonic Order, would have made the rest of the country a German protectorate.

    Jogaila’s policy seemed undecided. He himself would negotiate with the Order, making promises similar to those of his cousin. At the same time he would consider the possibility of turning toward the East, although it proved to be a legend that at a given moment he accepted as did many of his brothers the Orthodox faith. Against Moscow he was even ready to cooperate with the Tartars, but he avoided joining them in the decisive campaign of 1380 which ended in the famous victory of Dimitry Donskoy, so called in memory of the battle of the Don. And he was fully aware that some of the Lithuanian princes, already converted to Orthodoxy, particularly his brother Andrew of Polotsk, in alliance with Moscow if not with the Germans, were ready to oppose him. In their duchies, some of which were far away from Vilnius, they could at any moment challenge the authority of the grand duke, as Vytautas had done.

    Lithuania’s expansion, almost unique in its rapid success, thus proved beyond the real forces of the Lithuanians alone and of a dynasty which in spite of the unusual qualities of many of its members was too divided by the petty rivalries of its various branches to guarantee a joint action under one chief. At a time when the Teutonic Order reached the height of its power under Grand Master Winrich von Kniprode (1351—81), while Moscow tried for the first time to replace the Tartar power in Eastern Europe, Lithuania, larger than either of them but composed of loosely connected territories different in race and creed, excluded from the European community because of her official paganism, was doomed to destruction or disintegration. The comparatively small group of ethnic Lithuanians would have been the main victim, but the whole of East Central Europe would have suffered from a chaotic situation amidst German, Muscovite, and possibly Tartar interference.

    But in these critical years, especially in 1384 when he made a move toward appeasing the Teutonic Order after a precarious reconciliation with Vytautas, Jogaila was already conducting secret negotiations with the Poles which were to change the situation altogether. The son of Algirdas had realized that the only way to save his country and her proud tradition, as well as his personal position, was to come to an agreement with the only neighbor who could help reorganize Lithuania as a Christian nation without destroying her very identity. A union of Poland with Lithuania and her Ruthenian lands, added to those already connected with Poland, could indeed create a new great power, comprising a large and crucial section of East Central Europe and strong enough to check both German and Muscovite advance. The amazing success of a plan which would seem almost fantastic was a turning point in the history not only of that region but also of Europe. In connection with so many other changes around 1378 and the following years, it inaugurated a new historical period.

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