The society and economy of Poland in the 16th century

The population of Poland reached 7.5 million at the end of the Jagiellonian era. Poles, Lithuanians, Ruthenians, Jews, Armenians, Tatars, Karaites, representatives of many European countries (Germans, Italians, the Dutch), who had their own religions and customs, lived next to each other. The Commonwealth of that time was a country of many nations, cultures and religions, never becoming a country where multi-faith and multi-ethnicity would lead to open wars and bloody conflicts. Thanks to this, it earned the name of a state without stakes, and religious tolerance was a constant element of the social order. The multicultural society was divided into estates that differed in laws and were subject to separate courts: nobility (approx. 8-10%), clergy (0.2%), townspeople (approx. 25%) and peasants (approx. 65% – 70%), in addition, the so-called free people were outside the structure. Membership in the estate was determined by birth (except for the clerical estate), but it was possible to move from a lower to a higher estate. The Golden Age of the Jagiellonians was a period of economic and trade development, a time of urban expansion and a flourishing of craftsmanship. We now know this primarily from written sources. This section presents original handwritten and printed documents on the social and economic history of the Jagiellonian GoldenA ge, illustrating selected issues in this field.

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Multi-faith in the 16th-century Poland



During the reign of Sigismund I the Old, the monetary system was established, which, with major or minor changes, survived until the end of the First Polish Republic. In 1526, the Sejm meeting in Piotrków passed a new ordinance establishing the so-called mint rate, i.e. a very strict definition of the number of specific coins minted from a fixed amount of gold. The Cracow grzywna, i.e. a lump of metal (silver) weighing 197 g, was adopted as the basis for weight and calculation. 48 grosze (Polish name for groats; grosze – plural, grosz – singular) or 8 six grosz coins or 16 three grosz coins were minted from such a block. In addition to grosze, there was also a denarius system, so 864 denarii or 288 ternars (three-denar coins) or 144 szelągi (coins worth 6 denarii or 2 ternars) could be minted from the Cracow grzywna. As you can see, unlike today’s decimal system, the Jagiellonian monetary system was based on a multiple of three.

In 1526, the first national coarser coin in the form of Polish grosze, was issued in Cracow – the first since the times of Casimir the Great. The new type of coin on the obverse showed a Renaissance crown, below which there was an inscription in 3 lines: “SIGISMVND // PRIM.REX // POLONIE” (Sigismund I King of Poland) and the coat of arms of the Grand Treasurer of the Crown. On the reverse there were: the Eagle surrounded by an inscription: “MONETA REGNI POLONIE” (Coin of the Polish Kingdom) and date. The small denarii bear only the letters “S – P” (Sigismundus Primus). In 1528 new denominations were introduced successively: trojaki (3 grosze) and szóstaki (6 grosze). The trojaki on the obverse show a realistic portrait of the king in a crown in right profile and the inscription: “SIGISMVNDVS PRIM[vs] REX POLONIE”, and on the reverse of the Eagle surrounded by an inscription: “MONETA REGNI POLONIE 1528”.

Sigismund II Augustus ordered the weight of the Cracow grzywna to be increased to 201.8 g, which was confirmed in the coinage ordinance of 1580.

In the times of Sigismund, a new unit of account also appeared in Poland, namely the złoty equal to 30 silver grosze. At the time, it was not a separate coin, but a theoretical conversion factor.On the other hand, coins corresponding to Western European thalers were put into circulation, the weight of which was about 27 g, and the value was just 30 grosze.

The first Polish medal thalers were ordered in the Thorn mint by Sigismund the Old in 1533. The work was continued by his successor, Sigismund Augustus, who in 1564 started minting the so-called Lithuanian półkopki (the name derives from the Lithuanian accounting system – a kopa (60) of Lithuanian grosze was divided into 2 półkopki of 30 grosze or 4 ćwierćkopki of 15 grosze). A półkopek was made of silver weighing about 27.8 g. The obverse bears the

crowned monogram of the king “SA” (Sigismundus Augustus) and the date “15 – 64”, with “XXX” below. On the reverse there is a six-field coat of arms under the grand-ducal miter, consisting of the Polish Eagle, Lithuanian Pahonia, Kiev Archangel Michael, Samogitian Bear and the Volyn Cross; in the centre, there is the Sforza serpent (or dragon), the coat of arms of the king’s mother – Bona.

In addition to silver coins, for the first time in Poland, own gold coins, i.e. ducats, minted at the Cracow mint from 1528, and from 1540 at the Gdańsk Mint, were also in circulation. The minting of gold coins was a prestigious undertaking for the last Jagiellons (the Republic of Poland did not have its own gold mines), intended to emphasize the importance of the kingdom. The value of the ducat in terms of grosze was systematically growing, in 1528 it was worth as little as 45 grosze. Coins with a denomination of one and two ducats were minted (in Polish: dukaty podwójne or dwudukaty) The first ducats of Sigismund the Old showed on the obverse a realistic portrait of the king in a crown, with half-long, evenly cut hair surrounded by inscriptions: “SIGIS.I.REX POL” and the date below. On the reverse, there was a five-field coat of arms containing the emblems of the Polish Eagle, Lithuanian Pahonia, Ruthenian Lion and Prussian Eagle with a sword, and in the centre a shield with the Austrian coat of arms of the queen mother – Elizabeth of Austria (Elżbieta Rakuszanka), and the letters on the sides: “C – N” (Cracov – Nicolaus), the symbol of the Cracow Mint and the Grand Treasurer of the Crown Nicholas Szydłowiecki, the whole is surrounded by the inscription: “IVSTVS VT PALMA FLOREBIT” (The righteous shall flourish like a palm-tree).

Łukasz Koniarek, National Ossoliński Institute