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Lydia Ordering the Death of Her Sons (Loyset Liédet and Pol Fruit, ca. 1467–72), Tempera colors and gold leaf on parchment,

Let’s take a break from parade floats, summer flowers, and ice cream artwork to renew our appreciation of all things Gothic.  Today’s post involves taking a step back in time to check out the footwear of yore–namely those astonishing pointy Gothic shoes which you see in medieval illumination (like the horrifying Game Of Thrones-ish painting above).  Those shoes don’t just exist in ancient artworks and period dramas, specialty cobblers still make them. Here are some photos of Gothic-style footwear which you can buy right now online!

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Long-toe Suede Poulaines from armstreet.com

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I like all of those, but that green pair is particularly splendid!  I would totally wear those if I was accepted into Hogwarts or dragged into a time portal.  But what is the story with those toes?  Why did lordly fops of the 12th-15th century wear these extreme pointy elvish-looking shoes?  The fashion spread throughout northwest Europe, but it originated in Poland (which was going through a sort of golden age) which is why such shoes are called are called “Poulaines” or “Crakows.”  The toes were originally filled with moss or other pre-industrial packing materials in order to hold their shape.  As the toes became more elaborate and more curved, architectural internal elements made of cork or leather became necessary so they would hold their shape.

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I wish I could tell you some satisfying tale of how the pointy toes poked venomous snakes out of the way or helped lords walk on tippy-toe over muddy peasants or something, however, the reason footwear looked as it did then, was much the same as now: namely impractical shoes betokened status. A vast pan-European network of conspicuous consumption existed in the high middle ages and it was a big part of how the elites “kept score.”

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So Crakows with their long poulain toes were apparently the Manolo Blahniks of their day.  I will keep looking for more to the story, but it seems like this might be a classic case of the things we do for fashion.  Don’t worry though, we are not done with Gothic shoes: there is more to come from eras much more recent and familiar.  Just stay tuned to Ferrebeekeeper and keep on your toes!

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White Crested Black Polish Rooster

White Crested Black Polish Rooster

Allow me to present a truly magnificent breed of show chickens! Polish chickens are known for their plumage—especially their splendid bouffant crests.  Despite the name, Polish chickens were apparently bred in the Netherlands (although there are some apocryphal stories about how they first arrived in Europe with Mongol raiders!).  Some historians speculate that they are known as Polish chickens because their feathery crest resembles the flared hat of the Polish lancers, but the real reasons for the name are lost in time.

A Polish Lancer of the Imperial Guard (re-enactor)

A Polish Lancer of the Imperial Guard (re-enactor)

Bantam Frizzle Polish

Bantam Frizzle Polish

Bearded White Polish Hen (from Cackle Hatchery)

Bearded White Polish Hen (from Cackle Hatchery)

Like many of the truly chic, Polish chickens suffer for their beauty: their feathery crests impede their vision—which often makes them skittish and flighty. They have good reason to be anxious: because of their reduced eyesight, they are easy prey for foxes and other predators (and, if kept with other doughtier breeds of chickens, they fall low on the pecking order).

Tolbunt (Beard) Polish Hen

Tolbunt (Beard) Polish Hen

Golden Laced Polish Chicken

Golden Laced Polish Chicken

 

Silver Laced Polish Rooster

Silver Laced Polish Rooster

Polish chickens are mild-mannered and can make good pets (if you happen to want a pet chicken). Additionally they can be decent egg-layers–though nothing like modern egg-laying breeds like the leghorns.  As you can see from the images included in this post, there are many different colors and varieties of polish chickens to suit your palette and your ornamental tastes!

Buff Laced Frizzle Polish Hen

Buff Laced Frizzle Polish Hen

Aurochs Fighting Wolves (Heinrich Harder)

About 8,000 years ago, Neolithic people in India, the Middle East, and Sub-Saharan Africa first domesticated cattle. Although the domestication of goats and swine occurred earlier, cattle have a more central role in human history—they were sacred to many of the first civilizations in a way which goats and pigs were not.  Cows and cattle are still highly esteemed today.  In India cows are sacrosanct and not to be harmed, but, in herding societies like Texas or Argentina, the creatures are arguably even more important. There are estimated to be 1.3 billion head of cattle grazing the green earth today.  They collectively outweigh all of the humans on the planet.  Of that immense herd, what percentage would you guess are actual wild cattle–forest dwelling primogenitors from which the domestic cattle descended?

Domestic Cattle

That number would be none.  The aurochs, (Bos primigenius primigenius) the ancestral cow, went extinct in Poland in 1627. It was the second recorded extinction of an animal (after the hapless dodo).  The aurochs were not defenseless dodos: the animals were magnificently muscled giants with wickedly sharp lyre-shaped horns.  An adult male aurochs would have stood nearly 2 meters (six feet) tall at the withers and weighed over a ton.  Living in swampy and wet wooded areas which they grazed for grass and the occasional fruit, aurochs shared some of their range with the wisent, the Eurasian bison. Aurochs were domesticated in various different parts of the world around the approximate same time.  Unfortunately for the wild species, they soon found themselves competing for land and resources with domesticated cattle while still being hunted by human hunters.

Aurochs Cave Painting (ca. 15000 BC)

Julius Caesar evocatively described aurochs and their hunters in the 6th chapter of The Gallic Wars writing “These are a little below the elephant in size, and of the appearance, color, and shape of a bull. Their strength and speed are extraordinary; they spare neither man nor wild beast which they have espied. These the Germans take with much pains in pits and kill them. The young men harden themselves with this exercise, and practice themselves in this sort of hunting, and those who have slain the greatest number of them, having produced the horns in public, to serve as evidence, receive great praise.” Aurochs feature in some of humankind’s most stirring early artworks showing up in cave paintings throughout Europe and on the Ishtar gate of Babylon (where they share company with ceramic lions and dragons).  For all the respect that people had for aurochs, the herds began to fail fast, and populations winked out one by one in the wild redoubts of Asia, Africa, and Europe as civilization and agriculture spread.

Aurochs Mosaic on the Ishtar Gate of Babylon (ca. 575 BC)

The last aurochs lived in Poland, which was remarkable for the remote and untouched wildness of some of its forests and for the game loving policies of certain Polish kings, who tried to keep aurochs and wisents alive in order have formidable trophies to hunt.  Unfortunately disease and parasites from domestic cattle had weakened the last herd beyond saving.  Even with the royal threat of a death sentence for anyone killing an aurochs and with gamekeepers to look after the last individuals, the last female slipped away from natural causes in the mid-17th century.  Her remains were reverentially kept by the royal house but they were stolen by Swedes during the havoc of the Swedish deluge.  In one respect it was a sad end to a mighty animal.  In a more real respect, cattle, the direct descendants of aurochs are everywhere and are doing great!  They outweigh any other single species on the planet except perhaps for krill.

RIP Aurochs

Białowieża Forest

Long ago Eastern Europe was covered by vast virgin forests.  Almost all of these woodlands have long ago been cut down to make way for agriculture, roads, or towns, but in the northeast corner of Poland one of these ancient forests still survives.

Until late in the 14th century, Białowieża forest located at the junction of the Baltic Sea watershed and the Black Sea watershed was a primeval forest so thick that travelers could pass through the region only by river. Even in the fifteenth century roads and bridges were rare in the ancient woodlands of eastern Poland and the human population remained sparse to non-existent.  Because the lands were so empty of people but full of animals, the kings of Poland adopted Białowieża forest as a royal game preserve.  The Polish monarchy also used the forest as a wilderness retreat: it was in the dark fastness of his forest hunting lodge that King Władysław holed up to escape the Black Death.

Hunters returing to Białowieża Hill (1820, print)

The region remained a pristine royal forest until the partition of Poland delivered the forest to Russian hands.  Even the Russian tsars were beguiled by Białowieża forest, for it was one of the last wild preserves for the largest land animal in Europe, the mighty wisent.  In 1801 Tsar Alexander I was moved by the plight of wisent herds (which had swiftly dwindled due to poaching). The tsar reintroduced a hunting ban and hired a small number of peasants as game rangers.  Alexander II reinstated the ban in 1860 and in 1888 the tsars assumed direct ownership of the entire forest.

Great Gray Owl

During World War I the forest fell under German control and, from 1915 to 1918, the occupying army rushed to cut down Białowieża’s timber and hunt down all remaining wildlife. But even the Germans had their hands full during those tumultuous years and they lost World War I before they could despoil the entire forest.  Białowieża came under Soviet control and during Stalin’s era, all Polish inhabitants were “deported to remote parts of the Soviet Union” and replaced by Soviet forest workers.  When German troops again retook Białowieża in World War II, the Soviet forest workers in turn disappeared. Hermann Göring harbored ambitious plans to create the world’s biggest hunting reserve at Białowieża, but, in the end, the Nazis predictably used the remote location as a grave for resistance fighters.  When the Germans retreated they destroyed the ancient hunting lodges of the Polish throne, but they did not destroy the forest itself. After the war the forest was divided between Poland and the Belarusian State of the Soviet Union. Both regions became protected wilderness areas.

The brickwork Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas on the outskirts of Białowieża

Because of this history, Białowieża Primeval Forest is now the last remaining primary deciduous and mixed forest of the European lowlands.  The land is a refuge for pine, beech, alder, spruce, and towering oaks which have never known the axe. Just as the forest lies in the place where two watersheds meet, it also straddles the boreal and temperate zone: plants and animals from south and north live wild in the park.

The World Heritage Convention website enumerates the many wildlife species which currently live in the forest writing, “these wilderness areas are inhabited by European bison, a species reintroduced into the park in 1929, elk, stag, roe deer, wild boar, lynx, wolf, fox, marten, badger, otter, ermine, beaver and numerous bats. It is also a showplace reserve for tarpan (Polish wild forest horse). The avifauna includes corncrake, white-tailed eagle, white stork, peregrine falcon and eagle owl.”

A Wisent Flees into Bialowieza Forest

Wisent (Bison bonasus)

The magnificent American Bison (Bison bison) was very nearly exterminated by hunters, soldiers, and politicians, but the bison did not come nearly as close to extinction as its closest relative, the wisent (Bison bonasus).  Wisents are the largest native land animal in Europe today; an average wisent measures 1.8 to 2.2 m (6 to 7 ft) tall, and weighs up to 1000 kg (more than a ton). Although similar to American bison, the wisent is slightly smaller with larger horns and a hairier tail.  Whereas bison graze grass, wisents browse the forest–and the two animals therefore have different postures and necks. Wisents once roamed Eurasia from England to far eastwards of the Volga River where they were hunted by Caspian Tigers and Asiatic Lions.  The wisent herds also ranged north as far as northern Sweden and south to Italy.

Cave painting of a Wisent (from Altamira, Spain, from the Palaeolithic Age ca. 21,000 BC to 13,000 BC)

In prehistoric times, wisents were a mainstay of European megafauna and beautiful cave paintings (among the first known artistic achievements of humankind) often portray the mighty creatures, but, as humanity burgeoned in Europe, the wisent declined.  Starting in Gaul in the 8th century, whole populations of the shaggy giants gradually disappeared.  The creature vanished from northern Sweden in the 11th century, and then from England in the 12th. Tiny herds survived in the Ardennes forest and the Vosges Mountains until Frenchmen finished off these remnants in the 15th century.

A Wisent Hunt Depicted on a Hungarian Stamp

The wisents’ best friends turned out to be the kings of Poland, devoted big game hunters who proclaimed a death sentence on anyone poaching the mighty ruminants within the kingdom. Sadly though, the Polish Crown suffered…setbacks in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Although the Russian tsars (who seized the Eastern forests of Poland) tried to keep the last herds of wisent alive, by the twentieth century, the animals survived only in zoos, the remote Caucasus, and in the primeval depths of Poland’s Białowieża Forest.  The ancient trees of Białowieża (and the animals living under them) remained largely untouched until World War I, when the region was captured by Germans, who built a railroad and timber mills there.  Within four years the remaining herd of 600 wisents was slaughtered.  When the Germans left only 9 of the beasts remained and the last of this tiny herd was killed in 1919 (probably by Soviet poachers).  The last wild wisent was slaughtered less than a decade later in the Western Caucasus, where a few hardy individuals had somehow managed to survive.

In the late twenties only about 50 wisents remained alive, all of which lived in various zoos. Fortunately an early pioneer of wildlife conservation stepped in to save the dying species.  Heinz Heck, the director of the Munich Zoo, established the first studbook for non-domestic animals and organized a groundbreaking breeding program to bring the wisent back from the brink (Heck was a determined and far-sighted man who also tried to personally resurrect several species of extinct megafauna—but we’ll deal with that quixotic quest another time).  Thanks to Heck’s ongoing efforts, captured populations of wisents started to grow and the animals were reintroduced into Białowieża in 1951.  The reintroduced wisents burgeoned and the forest is now home to more than 800 European bison. Wisents have also been reintroduced to protected parks in Russia (including the western Caucasus) and herds can now be found in Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Latvia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, and Spain.  Germany and the Netherlands hope to reintroduce the animal in the near future—perhaps someday the wisent will find its way back to Scandinavia, France, and even Great Britain.

Wisent herd in Caucasian mountains (Photo by Sergej Trepet)

An anachronistic portrait of Bolesław the Brave wearing the Crown of Poland

According to legend, the first Polish monarch, Bolesław the Brave, received his crown from the hands of the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto III, in 1000 AD when the two commanders met during the Congress of Gniezno.  Bolesław was one of the greatest kings of Eastern Europe.  His sword was allegedly presented to him by an angel and he famously notched it by striking the Golden Gate of Kiev as that great fortified city fell to his army.

An anachronistic picture of Bolesław notching his sword on the gate of Kiev (Jan Matejko)

Unfortunately the crown of Bolesław was lost only a generation later.  History has speculated that it was carried off to Germany by the Queen of Poland, Richeza of Lotharingia, in 1036.  Whatever happened, the Polish monarchy remained crownless until 1320 when a new crown was crafted for the coronation of King Ladislaus the Short.  Because of this latter monarch’s unfortunate epithet, the new crown was also known as the crown of Bolesław the Brave.  This second crown was carried off by Louis I of Hungary in 1370 but found its way back to Wawel (the seat of Polish royal power) in 1410.  During the Swedish Deluge of the mid seventeenth century, when Poland was invaded and occupied by their cold northern neighbors, the crown was hidden away in Spiš.

The Partitions of Poland

Unfortunately Poland has never lacked for bad neighbors: in 1793 Russia and Prussia arranged the Second Partition of the Commonwealth of Poland which divided Polish territory between the two nations. Poland, which had already been stripped of substantial territory by Austria, Prussia, and Russia back during the partition of 1772, effectively ceased to exist. This situation was unbearable to Tadeusz Kościuszko, the American Revolutionary hero (famous today for the delicious mustard which bears his name).  In 1794, Kościuszko lead a great peasant uprising against the armies of Prussia and Russia.  Kościuszko’s rebellion failed gloriously.  Poland was completely divided by Austria, Russia, and Prussia.  The Polish crown was stolen by the Prussian army (as were the rest of the Polish crown jewels).  These treasures were held by the Prussian king until 1809 when he had them melted down and made into coins.  The jewels were given away to the Directorate of Maritime Trade in Berlin.

The Modern Reproduction of the Crown of Poland

A restoration of the crown of Bolesław the Brave was constructed in 2001 out of Prussian gold, imperfect emeralds, synthetic rubies, and cultured pearls.  This new (third?) crown of Bolesław is kept with the one original item from the crown jewels, the notched sword, Szczerbiec, which has somehow survived the tumultuous history of Poland. The sword was owned by a series of Western European collectors during the nineteenth century, returned to Poland by the Soviet Union in 1928, and kept in Canada from World War II until 1959.  Interestingly Szczerbiec is not the original item either. Bolesław’s original sword was lost in the middle ages (carried off by a disgruntled queen as well?) and the ornamental coronation sword which exists today was commissioned by Ladislaus the Short in the 14th century.  The sword still remains controversial: Ukrainians revile the object as a symbol of hatred used by Polish nationalists to whip up anti-Ukrainian sentiments.

Szczerbiec, the notched sword

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