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    Justice and Mercy in Wincenty Kadłubek's System of Political Virtues

Juliusz Domański

When studies of the Polish past began to be written in partitioned Poland in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the current historical methodologies such as scientism and positivism failed to provide tools to properly assess Wincenty Kadłubek’s Chronicles of the Kings and Princes of Poland, a thirteenth-century text.[1] The failure of methodology was accompanied by insufficient knowledge of, and prejudice against, the Middle Ages. In his popular Historical Sketches of the Eleventh Century, historian Tadeusz Wojciechowski coined the contemptuous term “Kadłubek’s tribe” to describe Kadłubek’s interpretation (later repeated by his followers) of the conflict between King Bolesław the Brave (1039-1081) and Bishop Stanisław Szczepanowski.[2] Even though Wojciechowski was a learned man, his censorious and prejudicial attitude toward Kadłubek (who expressed sympathy for Bishop Szczepanowski) was all too obvious.

We have traveled far since that time, and we know much more than our predecessors about medieval literary culture and about Kadłubek’s mannerisms and ways of writing. We therefore can better assess his achievement as a chronicler and cultural historian. The state of available knowledge about the Middle Ages no longer permits the contemptuous references to the “Dark Ages”: indeed, such references are themselves manifestations of ignorance and prejudice regarding this intellectually remarkable period.

In the 1950s historian Aleksander Gieysztor (editor of Wojciechowski’s Historical Sketches) suggested that Kadłubek was one of the best-educated European intellectuals of his time. Even earlier, in the 1930s, Oswald Balzer’s Studying Kadłubek analyzed Kadłubek’s art of narration, replete with parables, anecdotes, and learned allusions. Three recently deceased scholars further enlarged our knowledge of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries: medievalist and classicist Marian Plezia, who published an annotated edition of Kadłubeks’ Chronicles; historian and translator Brygida Kürbis, who translated and annotated the Chronicles and wrote scholarly works about them; and historian of medieval philosophy Jerzy Bartłomiej Korolec, who studied the philosophical sources of Kałubek’s reflections on the ideal ruler and his role in the medieval world.[3] My study follows Korolec’s and Kürbis’s work, as well as my own immersion into sources. I am particularly interested in Kadłubek’s mental formation and intellectual personality which has not yet been sufficiently studied. Kadłubek’s device of fictitious narrators in the first three books of his monumental tome also deserves attention.

It should be noted that Kadłubek’s work was preceded by the Chronicle of Gallus Anonymous who wrote several generations earlier and limited himself to the description of deeds (gesta) of the ruler, with an introduction detailing the history of nation and country. Kadłubek’s work is richer: he does not limit himself to chronicling events, but also weaves into his narrative a moral tale based on events and illustrated by them. He brings to bear the legal categories (Oswald Balzer suggested that Kadłubek was a lawyer by profession), and occasionally provides an intricate framework of moral and political philosophy for the events he records. It has to be said right at the beginning, however, that Kałubek’s grasp of philosophical problems is less impressive than his excellent knowledge of twelfth-century canon law. He often quotes the Bible and comments on theological issues although his knowledge of theology, like his knowledge of philosophy, is somewhat less detailed than his knowledge of canon law. Still, some of his conclusions are original and they carry implications relevant to our times.

Virtue is a habit of mind in which both nature and reason are in agreement.


Kadłubek’s combination of factual narrative and moralistic commentary involves the use of parables and sententious expressions, some of which border on fictional narratives. This is not unusual if one takes into account functions played by chroniclers in the Middle Ages. Such scholars as Laetitia Boehm, Bernard Guenée, and Bogdan Lapis agree that at that time the writing of history was treated as a literary genre similar to the fairy tale, yet different because it was “a story about what really happened”; however, it was assumed that the narrative should contain stylistic, moral, and educational instruction for readers. Historical texts were meant to provide not only factual knowledge but also moral instruction and recognition of God’s intervention in history. In addition to conforming to these standard requirements, Kadłubek’s Wopus introduces a stylistic innovation in that it uses a dialogue rather than a monologue in the first three books. It is possible that twelfth-century philosophical disputations, so common among the learned men of the time, provided a stimulus for Kadłubek’s invention.

Kadłubek spends much time discussing virtues and their taxonomy, a topic that usually plays an ancillary role in chronicles and historical narratives. He begins by providing anecdotal illustrations of a number of virtues, then goes on to a more fundamental definition of virtue per se. What is virtue and why is it important to use this concept in human discourse? In chapter 24 of the second book, Bishop Matthew outlines the contrast between Prince Władysław Herman’s two sons: the older Zbigniew, who in spite of his obnoxiousness and obstinacy is favored by his father, and the younger Bolesław Krzywousty, dedicated to his father and extremely intelligent (he brought to naught the plot organized by Voivoda Sieciech against his father and himself)-but not valued enough in spite of his virtues.[4] Bolesław excelled in love of country and love of his father, and Kadłubek uses him to show what virtue is. According to Kadłubek’s narrative, Bolesław wore a chain on his neck on which he hung a tablet with his father’s name. This tablet was meant “to remind him that he should speak and behave in such a way as to not be ashamed of himself before his father. . . For it is not appropriate to say silly things or to act dishonestly when one’s father is present,” Kadłubek writes. “Bolesław became so accustomed to behaving in a way that would find his father’s approval that it seemed that he honored not the father but some kind of superior spirit . . . . Having acquired the habit of probity, he treated his brother in a noble way, even though Zbigniew was a rascal by inclination. Bolesław never complained about his brother even though he knew that Zbigniew was looking for an excuse to destroy him.”

Scholars have pointed out that Kadłubek’s description of virtue is not entirely original. It is similar to those articulated by other twelfth-century writers who in turn were indebted to the writings of the Roman stoics. Specifically, Kadłubek’s definition virtus est habitus mentis bene constitutae (virtue is a properly structured habit of mind), with an additional comment on the term “habit” (habitus vero qualitas est difficile mobilis), derives from De virtutibus, vitiis et donis Spiritus Sancti by Alan from Lille (ca. 1170).[5] Even earlier, Anselm from Laon and his school maintained that virtus est quaedam qualitas mentis rationi undique consentientis. It should be noted that both definitions lead us to Cicero’s widely used textbook Rhetorica vetus: De inventione (II, 53, 159), where they are considered as part of a disputation about the meaning of “honestum”: virtus est animi habitus naturae modo atque rationi consentaneus (virtue is a habit of mind in which both nature and reason are in agreement). This leads us directly to Stoicism. It is possible that Kadłubek did not himself read Seneca and got his ideas from some obscure author of the early Middle Ages, but the fact is that a certain passage in Seneca’s Letters contains an interesting hint about the definitions of virtue discussed above-and it should be noted that according to a legend popular in the Middle Ages, Seneca corresponded with St. Paul himself.

Seneca states that one way to acquire virtue is to constantly imagine some wise and noble person observing us and our actions:

Epicure says (and permit me to quote him here): “Do everything in such a way as if Epicure were looking at you all the time. It is extremely useful to set up a guardian for oneself, someone to look up to and about whom you assume that he knows everything about you. And while it is praiseworthy to live as if some noble and omnipresent individual were looking at you, it sometimes is sufficient to live as if someone of a lesser status were observing you. It is solitude that breeds evil thoughts and deeds in us. When you reach the point where you can always bear an imaginary person watching you, you will be in a position to give up having a guardian. Until that time, let the gravitas of others guard you. You can imagine yourself being guarded by Cato, or Scipio, or Lelius, or someone else whose very presence restrains evil people. Persist in imagining this until you yourself become the sort of person in whose presence you would not dare to act dishonorably.

Professor Marian Plezia identified twelve borrowings from Seneca’s Letters in Kadłubek’s work.[6] It is thus likely that the form that Kadłubek chose to foreground Boleław Krzywousty’s desire to be virtuous and to please his father comes from Seneca as well. Krzywousty chose his father as the guardian of his conscience; the tablet on his chest foregrounded Krzywousty’s devotion to his father. While Bolesław Krzywousty’s desire to be an upright man has been confirmed by other sources, the existence of the tablet has not.

However, it should be noted that to this point Krzywousty had not yet become king, he only strove to acquire virtue in universali rather than possessing those specific virtues that become a politician. A general state of virtuousness is good, but in the case of a future ruler certain specific virtues have to be acquired. It is highly instructive to see how Kadłubek approaches this subject and how he ranks the virtues.

Let us start with a look at the medieval intellectual formation’s influence on Kadłubek. In addition to the Stoicism of Seneka and Cicero, he was also exposed to two varieties of Neoplatonism: one represented by such writers of late antiquity as Ambrosius Theodosius Macrobius and Martianus Capella (both of the fifth century), and the other modified by Christianity, as exemplified by the writings of St. Augustine and Dionysus Pseudo-Areopagite. In his study of Kadłubek, Professor Korolec argued that Aristotle’s definition of virtue as a rational and prudent choice between two extremes (both considered to be vices) was not Kadłubek’s choice. This definition is only superficially similar to the stoic one: they both stress reason, but in Stoicism it is“cosmic reason.” so to speak, whereas in Aristotle it is a practical and down-to-earth reason. This emphasis is placed on the hierarchy of virtues, while in Neoplatonism a similar hierarchy is assumed with regard to the various groups of virtues. Plato’s moral and political reflection produced the four virtues that were called “cardinal virtues”: prudence, moderation, courage, and justice. It is generally agreed on that Plato regarded justice as the chief virtue, treating the other three as elements of it. In contrast, while Aristotle too distinguished between the kinds of virtues and their relative importance and weight, he treated the intellectual or noetic virtues as superior to the moral ones. The classification of virtues and their gradation was common in ethical reflection in antiquity, the only exception being the Stoics who instead stressed the separate identity of various virtues and their synthesis in Virtue writ large.

In my opinion, these classifications and gradations play only a secondary role in Kadłubek’s Chronicles; however, the names of individual virtues and formulas according to which their gradation has been accomplished show Kadłubek’s indebtedness to Neoplatonic thought. While characterizing one of the main heroes of his Chronicles, Casimir the Just, Kadłubek brings to bear the Plotinian distinction between political and cathartic virtues. He may have learned it from Macrobius or from some other philosopher of the early Middle Ages. Professor Korolec believs that the source was Wilhelm from Auxerre’s work Summa aurea in quattuor libros Sententiarum, because both Kadłubek and Wilhelm classify virtues as external and internal, that is, those that are related to human nature and those issuing from God’s grace and bestowed on an individual. Wilhelm rather than Macrobius seems a more likely source, because Kadłubek does not pay attention to Neoplatonic “higher virtues” that supposedly can be acquired after an individual is “purified” by cathartic virtues. Also, the idea of competition between virtues is characteristic of Kadłubek; this idea relates to his parenetic and biography-oriented writing style. Thus while praising Boleław Krzywousty’s son, Casimir the Just (1138-1194), as a virtuous statesman and unfolding before us an entire range of his virtues, Kadłubek addresses the two virtues of Neoplatonic parentage: “Who is this man who received so great a mind from nature and so much grace from God? At first sight, one cannot guess whether natural or spiritual virtues prevail in him. The two compete in a sisterly fashion, trying to outdo each other but without envy if the other wins. For it is nature that gave him political virtues, while God’s grace allowed him to excel in cathartic ones” (Book IV, 5, 4-5).

Virtue is a properly structured habit of mind.

Wincenty Kadłubek

Kadłubek’s eulogy then proceeds to the description of the four cardinal virtues as practiced by Casimir. For Kadłubek, all four are political virtues to which our hero was predisposed by nature. But the Platonic taxonomy according to which justice reigns above the other three cardinal virtues is transformed into a system in which the leading role is played by prudence (prudentia). Kadłubek even calls Casimir “Prudentia’s offspring” (IV, 5, 20). This is a major modification of the Platonic system and it leads Kadłubek toward Aristotle. Did he read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics? It is unlikely, even though a translation into Latin by Wilhelm of Moerbeke already existed. But he certainly read Cicero, and it is in Cicero‘s De inventione that similar views can be found. This treatise was a common medieval source of concepts concerning ethics and virtue (II, 53, 159-162). As mentioned before, Cicero took the four cardinal virtues as defined by the Stoics and divided them into practical and supernatural. Similarly, Kadłubek divides virtues into political (stemming from nature) and cathartic, the latter aquired through God‘s grace acting upon an individual. Thus one can point to several possible sources of Kadłubek’s taxonomy and of his emphasis on prudence as the virtue essential for a politician.

Let us now analyze the consequences of assigning virtues in their plenitude to Casimir the Just. Is that important for the subsequent parts of the Chronicles? At first, it may appear that the Neoplatonic distinctions concerning the various virtues and their distribution between grace and nature are simply a means of characterization with no further consequences. Kadłubek’s Chronicles is not a rigorous scholarly treatise but rather a narrative that combines elements of history and fiction, and the author may have abandoned some themes accidentally or deliberately. However, Kadłubek did not abandon this topic. I contend that this is Kadłubek’s original contribution to the classification of virtues, and that it created a pattern to be imitated in the future.

Kadłubek’s thought combines Aristotelian and Neoplatonic approaches.

Kadłubek first describes the advantages that accrue to a man who tries to maintain himself in good physical shape (IV, 5, 10-13), and then states that “a man is possessed of fortitude not so much because of his physical strength, but because of spiritual probity” (virum fortem non tam robur corporis quam animi commendat gravitas, IV, 6, 14). This leads him to the description of Casimir’s work at self-improvement: “Casimir valiantly struggled in his soul to conquer monsters resembling the wild beasts” (non minus pectoris monstra quam bestias studet Casimirus domuisse). In juxtaposing the external and the internal or the struggle to keep in good physical shape and one oriented toward spiritual matters, Kadłubek makes his contribution to the distinction between external, or nature-bound political virtues, and the internal and grace-bound cathartic ones. He does not elaborate on the concept of grace, but he stresses the importance of the concept of internal life. Prince Casimir‘s internal life includes not only a struggle to conquer temptations, but also “an extraordinary generosity of spirit, great courage, and patience even in the greatest outbursts of courage” (cuius quanta sit magnanimitas, quanta constantia, quae animositas, que in ipsa etian animositatis torrente patientia, non est promptum expedire).

The first virtue, the Aristotelean magnanimitas, is illustrated by the story of Prince Casimir playing a game of dice with a certain Jan (IV, 5, 15-20). Casimir’s win makes the defeated Jan furious; he attacks the prince. Not only does Casimir not punish the insolent partner, but he actually articulates a lesson for himself on the basis of this event. According to Kadłubek, he opines that “a ruler should not expose himself to a game of chance, but instead should remain steadfast and prudent.” He then thanks his adversary for teaching him a lesson, and even offers him a small gift. Kadłubek concludes by praising the patience and prudence of some strong men (O mira in viro forti tam patientiae constantia quam prudentiae industria), then offers an allegory about Prudence and its daughter Patience, as well as about Courage and its relative Stoutness:

The entire family of virtues, irrespective of duties they perform in the life of man, are obliged to submit themselves to the judgment of Prudence. For instance, Patience, who is the daughter of Stoutness, carries in her sack three loads: the load of tiredness, the load of labor, and the load of insults and injustices. Upon meeting her, Prudence asks: “Daughter, what do you carry in your sack?” Prudence answers: “Mother, help me carry these burdens! Your Sister asked me to bring this sack to you.” Prudence retorts: “I recognize my Sister. She tells us to serve her. I am sorry for you, Patience, hold on a while longer, and I’ll do what my Sister demands.” She throws the loads in Patience’s sack into the oven of desires, melts them, bends and tests them, and with her amazing artfulness creates ornaments made of gold. Thus Prudence’s mastery creates the masterpieces of Virtues out of the unwanted burden of misery. Prince Casimir of whom I write possesses the virtue of Prudence to the highest degree.

The above allegory as well as the narrative about Casimir illustrate the Prince‘s prudence, patience, moderation, humility, mercy, and charity. Charity is not the same as the magnanimity shown to Jan after the game of dice, but sometimes both virtues seem to generate similar behavior.

Thus justice and mercy predominate in Kadłubek’s descriptions of past rulers of Poland. He describes in this way one of Poland’s great kings, Bolesław Chrobry (967-1025): “[Bolesław] selected for himself twelve advisors, so that he might be edified by their hearts and minds, and he treated them as if they were fonts of wisdom that he could use to his advantage (de quorum pectoribus velut divinis fontibus omnimoda virtutum elicebad rudimenta-II, 10, 5-6). ” But [he] “also knew how to punish the guilty and how to restrain them by goodness; he was not so severe as to forget about mercy, nor so merciful as not to punish at all. He combined a sense of justice with gentleness (ex iustitia et mansuetudine); he emanated serenity to such a degree that his severity was not unbending while his gentleness was not a sign of weakness.”

In turn, Bolesław Krzywousty, who fought the Pomeranians and defeated the rebellious city of Biłogard, faced the choice of either punishing the disobedient inhabitants of Błogard or accepting their entreaties for mercy (III, 2, 6): “The kindness of the Prince spares all and forgives all; he decided that it is more righteous to show kindness and mercy to the defeated than to treat them with strict justice (iustiorem enim censuit piam humanitatis indulgentiam quam districtam iustitiae ultionem).” This sentence is uttered by Bishop Matthew, one of Kadłubek’s interlocutors. The other bishop consents and answers as follows: “No one is truly charitable except the just ones, for justice without mercy is cruelty, whereas mercy without justice is stupidity (Nemo tamen misericros nisi iustus, nemo iustus nisi misericors. Nam iustitia sine misericordia crudelitas est et misericordia sine iustitia fatuitas, III, 3, 1).”

In my earlier work published in Studia Mediewistyczne XXXIV-XXXV (2000), I called this last statement a paradox and sought a theological source confirming that justice and mercy are united and identical in the God of Christianity. Here I stress that one should not be excessively concerned with the accuracy of Kadłubek’s use of synonymous terms, such as misericordia/masuetude, or misericordia/humanitas, because on the side of justice, a similar reliance on synonyms takes place: justice/judgment, and even justice/truth: iustitia/iudicium/veritas, and not only in Kadłubek but also in the Latin version of the Bible, in the writings of St. Augustine, and in many theological reflections about the identity of the two concepts in God’s being. This is best expressed in St. Thomas’s Summa teologica, I, q. 21: necesse est, quod in quolibet opere Dei misericordia et veritas [a synonym of iustitia] inveniatur. . . . Opus autem divinae iustitiae semper praesuponit opus misericordiae. In the same spirit, Kadłubek’s narrative about the three greatest rulers of eleventh- and twelfth-century Poland argues that each of them considered mercy/charity (misericordia) to be the highest virtue. This is particularly true of Kadłubek’s favorite hero, Bolesław Krzywousty, who so well (according to Kałubek) exemplified political virtues that originate in nature and cathartic virtues originating in grace. In accordance with this way of looking at justice and mercy, Kłubek gave high praise to related virtues such as gentleness, patience, understanding, and generosity, hence his statement that nothing is more praiseworthy about the legendary primordial ruler of Poland, Grakch/Krak, than his effort to replace the earlier lawlessness (equal to servitude, said łubek) and former laws that favored the powerful only with laws and justice that shielded the weakest: ante hunc servituti ancillari libertas et aequitas pedissequari iussa est iniuriae, eratque iustitia, quae plurimum prodesset ei, qui plurimum posset. . . extunc tamen violentiae desiit subesse potestati et dicta est iustitia, quae plurimum prodesset ei, qui minimum potest (I, 5, 3).

Thus Kadłubek has done two things. First, he firmly asserts that mercy is the highest of virtues. Second, he points out that virtues that at first sight do not seem to be synonymous constitute a unity in God. Among the biblical texts, St. James’s Epistle is closest to this point of view (I wrote about this in greater detail in the aforementioned article in Studia Mediewistyczne).

Justice and mercy are joined together in Kadłubek’s description of Bolesław Chrobry: [Boleław] “emanated serenity to such a degree that his severity was not unbending while his gentleness was not a sign of weakness.”

Other implications of Kadłubek’s explanation of the mercy-justice paradox are related to the characteristics of European thought in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. By taking great care to stress gentleness and charity as present in the eleventh- and twelfth-century rulers of Poland, Kadłubek showed himself to be a precursor of trends that were soon to overtake Europe. His academic education led him to take a stance regarding the change of emphasis in taxonomizing intellectual and moral issues. In the twelfth century and at the beginning of the thirteenth, literary culture that resulted from a symbiosis between the highly professional philosophizing of philosophical schools on the one hand, and on the other the incipient humanistic tendencies gradually began to shift from pure professionalism to a level accessible to nonprofessional literate people, without abandoning its philosophical and theological inspirations. The works of Pierre Abelard and John of Salisbury exemplify this tendency. An even better-known example of this tendency is Roman de la Rose by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meung. This poem justly has the reputation of belonging to the most popular level of medieval culture, if only because it was written in the vernacular. Here too the issue of justice and mercy and the “superiority” of mercy over justice (especially in the second part of the poem) is broached, and the author’s stance is similar to Kadłubek’s. The Polish translator of Roman de la Rose, Małgorzata Frankowska-Terlecka, discussed it in “The Concept of philosophy in Jean de Meung: the second part of Roman de la Rose.”[7] She points out that in Roman de la Rose justice and mercy were interdependent, but at the same time mercy was implied to take precendence over justice. The second part of Roman de la Rose was written in the mid-thirteenth century, or several decades after Wincenty Kadłubek’s death (1223). Jean de Meung (1250-1305) thus represented the same tradition as Kadłubek.[8] The writings of both men find their philosophical confirmation in Thomas Aquinas’s Summa quoted above. The medieval culture of Europe constituted a unity confirmed by tracing such similarities throughout the Latin and vernacular texts of the period. Whether purely scholastic or oriented toward a broader reading public, these texts converged in asserting that each action of God implies mercy/charity, that justice is synonymous with truth, and that God’s justice presupposes God’s mercy.

Translated by permission by the Sarmatian Review staff. All Greek and some Latin quotations were translated into English. This article first appeared in Teologia Polityczna (Józefów, Poland), no. 1 (2003/2004), 154-163.

1.Magistri Vincentii Chronicon Polonorum, or Chronica seu originale regum et principum Poloniae (different mss. have different titles), late twelfth century. The translation into Polish by Brygida Kürbis and Kazimierz Abgarowicz was published in 1974 in Warsaw and titled Kronika Polska. Wincenty Kadłubek (1150-1223) became Bishop of Kraków in 1207. In 1218 he resigned the bishopric and retired to a Cistercian monastery in Jędrzejów where he dedicated himself to scholarly work. He was beatified in 1774 by Pope Clement XIII. The first three volumes of his Chronicles take the form of a dialogue between Archbishop John of Gniezno and Bishop Matthew of Kraków.

2. Bolesław the Brave opposed Bishop Szczepanowski’s attempts to bring Poland closer to Germany. The conflict between the king and the bishop has been subject to many debates: some historians side with Bolesław as representative of Polish national interest; others claim that the king was merely a proud and vain man, a Henry VIII in the making, and that Bishop Stanisław was trying to restrain him. Bolesław killed Szczepanowski while the latter was saying mass.

3. J. B. Korolec, “Ideał władcy w “Kronice” Mistrza Wincentego. Rola cnót moralnych w legitymizacji władzy,” in Pogranicza i konteksty literatury polskiego średniowiecza, edited by Teresa Michałowska (Warsaw, 1989); “Les vertus de la view publique,” Société et l’Église dans les Universités d’Europe central pendant le Moyen Age Tardif (Actes du Colloque international de Cracovie, 1993), edited by Sophie Włodek (Tournhout, 1995).

4. Władyław I Herman (1043-1102), ruler of Poland from 1079 until death. Bolław III Krzywousty (1085-1138), ruler of Poland from 1102 until death, withstood German emperor’s attact on Głogów (1109), conquered western Pomerania and annexed it to Poland in 1122. Zbigniew Herman (1017-1112) was removed from power by his stepbrother Bolesław Krzywousty. He avenged himself by turning to the German emperor and precipitating a German attack on Poland. Sieciech, a Kraków-area aristocrat influential under Władyław I Herman, was expelled byłaław’s children after 1097.

5. This borrowing was ascertained by Professor Brygida Kürbis.

6. Marian Plezia, Scripta minora: Łacina średniowieczna i Wincenty Kadłubek (DWN, 2001).

7. Małgorzata Frankowska-Terlecka, “Pojęcie filozofii u Jana z Meun: druga część “Powieści o Róžy“,” Analecta, vol. 7/2 (1998).

8. The issue of Jean de Meung’s dependence on the writings of Wincenty Kadłubek has not been investigated. (Tr.)

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