Jesuits in Poland according to A.F. Pollard

A. F. Pollard, The Jesuits in Poland. [The Lothian Essay, 1892] New York. Haskell House Publishers Ltd. Publishers of Scarce Scholarly Books. 1971. 98 pages. Hardcover.

Piotr Wilczek

It seems to be an easy and perhaps unnecessary task to write a critical essay about a historical book published more than a hundred years ago, even if such a book is full of mistakes and misunderstandings. The situation changes, however, when such a book is reprinted with no corrections, no introduction or appendix, and no indication that its content has long been superceded by serious scholarship. This is the case of A. F. Pollard's work on Polish Jesuits.

At the end of the twentieth century the book may be scarce but it is not scholarly. It was originally published by Blackwells at Oxford and major libraries have copies available for those interested in curiosities. In addition to this work, the author has written numerous books on early modern history. The Encyclopedia Britannica calls him 'the leading Tudor scholar of the early twentieth century.' He was 23 when he wrote the essay on Polish Jesuits, having just started his subsequently brilliant career. A year later, he was appointed to the editorial staff of the Dictionary of National Biography for which he wrote 500 entries. Still later he wrote studies which are considered models of careful and enduring work: The History of England from the Accession of Edward VI to the Death of Elizabeth, 1547-1603 (1910), Thomas Cranmer and the English Reformation (1904), The Elizabethans and the Empire (1921), and Wolsey (1929). He is also the author of several selections of source documents, including The reign of Henry VII from contemporary sources (1913).

A reader acquainted with Pollard's historical scholarship might expect The Jesuits in Poland to be another carefully researched work. Quite the contrary. First, an author who elsewhere displays expertise in locating sources writes a book on Polish history with no knowledge of either the Polish language or sources in Polish. He quotes a few Polish sources in Latin, but most of them have been proven unreliable. He makes no effort to acquaint himself with any books or documents not available at the Bodleian Library which even now, at the end of the twentieth century, is not the best place to study Polish history and literature (as this reviewer can personally attest). With what amounts to blatant contempt for a nation that lacked political sovereignty at the time, Pollard seems to take advantage of his potential readers' total ignorance of Polish history, and he regales them with stories and interpretations unworthy of a great scholar that he otherwise is. At the turn of the twentieth century, one would hope that no scholar involved in serious research on Polish history can afford studying that history without knowledge of the Polish language and basic primary and secondary sources published in Poland. Alas, the authors of general histories and of some historical movements, like the Reformation, still think that they can write whole chapters on the Polish Reformation with no knowledge of Polish. The European Reformation by Euan Cameron (Oxford 1991) is a case in point.

Pollard's erudition is limited to three kinds of sources. First, some printed Latin pamphlets, most of them anti-Jesuit, so there is no chance of response by Jesuit authors. Second, two works by Polish Protestants, Walerian Krasinski and Andreas Vengerscius (Andrzej Wegierski). Krasinski's Historical sketch of the rise, progress, and decline of the Reformation in Poland (1838), the largest book on the subject available so far, was written in English by an amateur Polish historian, a Calvinist whose objective was to show the growth and significance of Calvinism in Polish history. Krasiski overestimated both the negative role of the Jesuits and significance of the antitrinitarian movement which emerged as a result of a split in the Calvinist Church. Slavonia reformata by W´gierski is a biased account of Reformation history written from the point of view of an antitrinitarian. Again, the role of this denomination is overestimated and the Jesuits are shown as uniformly evil figures. The third group of sources consists of various histories of Russia and works on Polish history published in French or English mostly by Russian historians.

Pollard's book was written 20 years after the publication of a fundamental work dealing with issues of the Reformation in Poland: Rev. Stanisaw Zaleski's Czyjezuici zgubili Polske? [Did the Jesuits ruin Poland?] in which the author mentions the major 'enlightened' criticism of Polish Jesuits and attacks them convincingly with an apologetic verve and scientific accuracy. This work was the cornerstone of his fundamental five-volume work Jezuici w Polsce [Jesuits in Poland] published a few years after Pollard's essay appeared in print.

In Pollard's work, even basic facts of Polish history are incorrectly quoted. Mieszko I's wife Dobrawa ('Dombrowka') becomes a daughter of the king of Hungary, although she was of course a daughter of Bolesaw I, a Czech prince since 935 and a great supporter of Christianity. This significant mistake proves that Pollard had no idea of the circumstances in which Poland accepted Christianity. His only concern is that Poland unfortunately did not accept it from the East. He overestimates the significance of early medieval contacts between Poland and Eastern Christianity. He says: 'There are however traces of it in Poland as early as in the seventh century, when Poland formed part of the great Slavonic State which was converted by Cyril and Methodius.' (7) This of course is nonsense. The underlying assumption of Pollard's book is that Poland (in 1892 under Russian and also Prussian and Austrian partitions) was, is and should always be a part of Russia. That his book is written from the point of view of Russian imperial interests is indicated by the following quotation from a colonialist French historian Alfred Rambaud's History of Russia: 'This complete [Polish-Lithuanian] state plays the same part in Russian history as the Burgundy of Philip the Good and Charles the Bold in that of France. Made up in a great degree of Russian as well as Polish and Lithuanian elements, it was many times on the point of annihilating Russia in the same way as Burgundy, composed of French, Batavian, and German provinces, had been on the point of annihilating the French nation.' (7) I do not think this indication of a colonial approach towards Poland needs any comment. Alas, this view has circulated in the textbooks of Russian history before and after it appeared in Rambaud's and Pollard's works.

The book keeps silent about Russians who partitioned Poland at the end of the eighteenth century. There is no mention of the partitions, although they had major consequences for the Jesuit Order. However, there are allegations that Poles wanted to partition Russia as early as the tenth century: 'The extension [in Bolesaw Chrobry's times] was carried on at the expense of Russia whose internal struggles frequently led to Polish intervention.' (3) By the sixteenth century 'Poland, starting from the West, was adding to itself province after province that had once been ruled by Russians.' (2) The presumably sophisticated Pollard treats dynastic acquisitions of pre-Reformation Europe as if they were armed attacks against nation-states in the twentieth century. In his view, the situation worsened (from the Russian and from Pollard's point of view) in the seventeenth century: 'Again and again the Poles took advantage of the weakness of Russia and meditated its partition.' (79) One wonders what partition he had in mind? In the seventeenth century, the rulers of Muscovy were busy conquering Siberia and annexing territories to the south and west of ethnic Russia. The following quotation indicates that, from Pollard's standpoint, the Russians were right to participate in the partitions of Poland: 'The history of Lithuania presents a somewhat similar development. Originally the Poles and the Russians belonged to the same race; it was their development that turned them into different and hostile nationalities.... Most of the territory afterwards called Lithuania was united with Russia under the Varangian princes St. Vladimir and Iaroslav the Great, whose empire centered round the glory of Kiev.' (5) Again, Pollard's lack of historical sense is amazing. By his logic, the English would have the right to subjugate the French because some time in the remote past they were all one.

According to Pollard, Eastern Christianity had many advantages for the Slavs: 'The choice of a Church which put forth no pretensions to governing the State saved Russia from struggles between the secular, a national power, and the spiritual, a foreign power. (9) Roman Catholicism, on the other hand, is a power responsible for the final decline of Poland. This was written at the time when the Russian Church was treated as little more than one of the ministries of the Russian empire. The Roman Catholic Church, led by the Jesuits, this 'evil power' according to Pollard, managed to keep the spiritual and the worldly separate. But according to Pollard, the Jesuits - although they did some useful work - were generally insidious and Machiavelian figures. With this assumption both British/Protestant and Russian/Orthodox prejudices concurred with the prejudiced ideas of some of the 'enlightened' philosophers of the eighteenth century.

In fragments of the book devoted to the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Jesuit history in Poland, mistakes are less common, but still disappointing. Contrary to what Pollard writes, Stefan Bathory was not a Protestant when he was crowned a Polish king (25) and King Jan Kazimierz was never a Jesuit (87), although he considered becoming one. Pollard claims also that in the mid-sixteenth century Protestants 'outnumbered the Roman Catholics' in Poland (23) which is far from true. A remark about the Protestant Brest Bible (Biblia Brzeska) of 1563 is very significant: 'There is a copy in Bodleian, but it is extremely rare, two copies only being existence.' (15) The implication is that it was burnt by zealous Catholics. First, there were several copies of this Bible extant in Pollard's times; the Catholics were not that zealous about burning Bibles. Second, we can see again how the role of the Bodleian Library is overestimated: a source exists when it is available at the Bodleian.

The main problem however is Pollard's consistently one-sided view of the role of the Jesuits in the early modern history of Poland. When Pollard accuses Jesuits of crimes and ruthless conduct, there are no sources quoted. On page 43, he says: 'it was at their instigation that the church granted by the king and Diet to the Lutherans had been set on fire. At Polock, in Lithuania, they robbed priests of their livings.' Or: 'Physical force was not, however, the only method resorted to by the Jesuits: they exhausted all the arts of sarcasm and ridicule to bring Protestant ministers into contempt.' (38) A footnote says: 'A.Wengerscius gives a long catalogue of outrages all over Poland, which it would be wearisome to recapitulate.' Unfortunately his source is itself a work of advocacy rather than of scholarship. It was obvious even in Pollard's time that both sides used similar methods of polemic, sometimes difficult to accept for a modern reader.

There is no mention in the book of religious tolerance in sixteenth-century Poland. This exceptional historical fact was appreciated even by Poland's enemies. Pollard presents Poland as an intolerant country, referring to some eighteenth-century events: 'two instances of persecution occurred about this time, which showed that Poland had become the most intolerant country in Europe.' (92) This after the religious wars in Germany and the bloody takeover by Protestants in England. Pollard does not accept the fact that most European countries at that time should have been called intolerant and Poland was neither an exception nor the worst example. The 'enlightened' rule of Stanislaw August Poniatowski in the second half of the eighteenth century is presented as progress: 'at least it was an advance upon the state of darkness and ignorance which had prevailed since the time of Sigismund III.' (94) The stereotype of Sarmatian Poland as a country of 'darkness and ignorance' is not a surprise in a nineteenth-century book but there is no reason to present it as a work of scholarship to modern readers.

The account of relations between the Jesuits and the Greek Church is accurate from the point of view of nineteenth-century scholarship, but again Pollard's bias is unmistakable: a reader will have no doubts that Pollard is openly against any Roman Catholic influences in the East, including the Union of Brest.

The Jesuit involvement in Polish internal and foreign policy is decisively assessed as damaging. In the author's view, the Jesuits were simply agents of Rome whose main task was to put countries like Poland under foreign control: 'It has always been one of the disadvantages of Roman Catholic countries, that their foreign policy has been liable to interference from a power which looks not so much to the particular interests of each nation as to the general interests of a would-be universal Church .... From the time when they gained firm hold of the government of Poland, that country ceased to be much more than the northern agent of Rome and the house of Austria.' (75) Whether or not the Jesuits really had a decisive influence on Polish policy is an issue to be debated, but to say that they 'gained firm hold of the government of Poland' is an obvious exaggeration, even in the case of Sigismund III Vasa. In Pollard's opinion Sigismund was a 'feeble imitation of Philip II of Spain [who] possessed all the bigotry and zeal of his model without his abilities or strength of character. In all that he did he was ruled by the Jesuits.' (31)

However, the worst evil was not Jesuit preaching, its effect on ignorant folks, or Jesuit influence on Polish policy. Pollard claims that there was nothing more damaging for the Polish nation than the Jesuit influence on education. Had Poland been Protestant, intellectual life would have developed: 'Whatever be the merits of the Protestant and Catholic Churches as religious ideals, Protestantism has at least been invaluable as an intellectual stimulus, and no country was ever in more urgent need of an intellectual stimulus than Poland.' (18) But the whole educational system was in the hands of the Jesuits: 'More than once they had deluged the city with innocent blood, and soon all true learning would be abolished and all knowledge lost.' (56) This sentence refers to their struggle with the Academy of Krakow over establishing a Jesuit university. This whole issue was far more complex than what one can learn from the anti-Jesuit polemical pamphlets quoted by Pollard. But the university is only one of the issues. According to Pollard the whole educational system 'failed to produce any enlightened statesmen, and it failed to overcome the invincible ignorance and blind prejudices of the ruling caste.' (57-58)

The Jesuits are even blamed for the fact that 'the classical productions of the sixteenth century were not reprinted for more than a century, during which period there was no national literature.' (57) It is of course not true that 'there was no national literature' in Poland in the seventeenth century; many outstanding achievements can be mentioned and some of their authors were taught by the Jesuits who somehow did not deprive them of writing skills, intelligence and classical education. This was easy to ascertain even at the end of the nineteenth century.

Twenty years after Zaleski rhetorically asked Did the Jesuits ruin Poland? Pollard answered the question as his 'enlightened' French and Russian masters had done before him: yes, they did or at least they significantly contributed toward that purpose.

In the Conclusion Pollard writes: 'Their complicity was due rather to sins of omission than sins of commission; that, with the influence they possessed in Poland, literature languished, education was paralyzed, reform burked, and Poland remained as ever "for the noble a paradise, for the peasant a hell" is no light testimony, not to what the Society did to ruin Poland, but to what it failed to do to save it. Still more serious was its share in producing the indifference of the Dissidents to the fate of their country; this was directly due to the dark and intolerant form of Catholicism which animated the reaction in Poland, and of that reaction the Jesuits were the pioneers and master-types.' (98)

It would be impossible to analyze Pollard's book from the point of view of contemporary historical scholarship. The book does not possess any merits that would justify such a treatment. My aim was to show how unnecessary modern reprints of such books are. Pollard labored under a colonialist assumption that small and medium-sized nations should naturally be conquered by the large ones, and that their historical sources and languages are not worth studying. From this point of view, the languages and sources provided by the conquerors are sufficient research tools for historians.

The author wishes to thank Professor Stanislaw Obirek, SJ for rechecking several facts mentioned in this review.

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