Poland had her Golden Age under Sigismund I (1506–48) and his son Sigismund II (1548–72). Both were men of culture and spirit, discerning patrons of literature and art, and both gave to religious thought and worship a freedom which, though imperfect, made most other nations of Europe seem medieval by comparison. Sigismund I married the gay and talented Bona Sforza (1518), daughter of Duke Giangaleazzo of Milan; she brought to Cracow a retinue of Italian courtiers and scholars, and the King, instead of resenting them, welcomed them as a bridge to the Renaissance. A taste for luxury in ornate dress and rich furnishings took hold of the aristocracy, language and manners became more refined, letters and arts flourished, and Erasmus wrote (1523): “I congratulate this nation .... which now, in sciences, jurisprudence, morals, and religion, and in all that separates us from barbarism, is so flourishing that it can rival the first and most glorious of nations.” 6 Dominating her husband by her beauty, grace, and craft, Bona became queen in fact as well as in fashion. Her son Sigismund II was a humanist, linguist, orator, and transvestite.7 Wars marred these brilliant reigns, for Poland was involved with Sweden, Denmark, and Russia in a contest for control of the Baltic Sea and its ports. Poland lost Prussia, but she absorbed Mazovia, including Warsaw (1529), and Livonia, including Riga (1561). Poland was in this age a major European state.

Meanwhile the Reformation filtered in from Germany and Switzerland. The freedom of worship guaranteed by the Polish Crown to its Greek Catholic subjects had habituated the nation to religious tolerance, and the century-long rebellion of Hussites and Utraquists in neighboring Bohemia had made Poland somewhat careless of distant papal authority. The bishops, nominated by the Kings, were cultured patriots, favoring Church reform with Erasmian caution, and generously supporting the humanist movement. This, however, did not allay the envy with which nobles and townsmen looked upon their property and revenues. Complaints grew of national wealth being drained off to Rome, of indulgences expensively absurd, of ecclesiastical simony, of costly litigation in episcopal courts. The szlachta, or lesser nobility, took particular offense at the exemption of the clergy from taxation, and the clerical collection of tithes from the nobles themselves. Probably for economic reasons some influential barons listened with sympathy to Lutheran criticism of the Church; and the semi-sovereignty of the individual feudal lords provided protection to local Protestant movements, much as the independence of the German princes made possible the revolt and shielding of Luther. In Danzig a monk championed Luther’s Theses, called for ecclesiastical reforms, and married an heiress (1518); another preacher followed the Lutheran vein so effectively that several congregations removed all religious images from their churches (1522); the city council releasedmonks and nuns from their vows, and closed the monasteries (1525); by 1540 all Danzig pulpits were in Protestant hands. When some clergymen in Polish-Prussian Braunsberg introduced the Lutheran ritual, and the cathedral canons complained to their bishop, he replied that Luther based his views on the Bible, and that whoever felt able to refute them might undertake the task (1520).8 Sigismund I was prevailed upon to censor the press and forbid the importation of Lutheran literature; but his own secretary and Bona’s Franciscan confessor were secretly won to the forbidden creed; and in 1539 Calvin dedicated his Commentary on the Mass to the Crown Prince.

When the Prince became Sigismund II both Lutheranism and Calvinism advanced rapidly. The Bible was translated into Polish, and the vernacular began to replace Latin in religious services. Prominent priests like Jan Laski announced their conversion to Protestantism. In 1548 the Bohemian Brethren, exiled from their own country, moved into Poland, and soon there were thirty conventicles of their sect in the land. The attempt of the Catholic clergy to indict some members of the szlachta for heresy, and to confiscate their property, led many minor nobles to rebel against the Church (1552). The national Diet of 1555 voted religious freedom for all faiths based on “the pure Word of God,” and legalized clerical marriage and communion in bread and wine. The Reform in Poland was now at its crest.

The situation was complicated by the development, in Poland, of the strongest Unitarian movement in sixteenth-century Europe. As early as 1546 the antitrinitarian tentatives of Servetus were discussed in this Far East of Latin Christianity. Laelius Socinus visited Poland in 1551, and left a ferment of radical ideas; Giorgio Blandrata continued the campaign; and in 1561 the new group issued its confession of faith. Continuing the confusion of Servetus’s theology, they restricted full divinity to God the Father, but professed belief in the supernatural birth of Christ, His divine inspiration, miracles, resurrection, and ascension. They rejected the ideas of original sin and Christ’s atonement; they admitted baptism and communion as symbols only; and they taught that salvation depended above all upon a conscientious practice of Christ’s teachings. When the Calvinist synod of Cracow (1563) condemned these doctrines, the Unitarians formed their own separate church. The full flourishing of the sect came only with Laelius’s nephew Faustus Socinus, who reached Poland in 1579.

The Catholic Church fought these developments with persecution, literature, and diplomacy. In 1539 the bishop of Cracow sent to the stake an eighty-year-old woman on the charge that she refused to worship the consecrated Host.9 Stanislaus Hosius, Bishop of Kulm in Prussia, later Cardinal, carried on the counteroffensive with ability and zeal. He labored for ecclesiastical reform, but had no sympathy with Protestant theology or ritual. At his suggestion Lodovico Lippomano, Bishop of Verona, was sent to Poland as papal legate, and Giovanni Commendone, Bishop of Zante, was made papal nuncio at Cracow. They won Sigismund II to active support of the Church by stressing the divisions among the Protestants, and magnifying the difficulty of organizing the moral life of the nation on such inimical and fluctuating creeds. In 1564 Hosius and Commendone brought the Jesuits into Poland. These trained and devoted men secured strategic places in the educational system, caught the ear of pivotal personalities, and turned the Polish people back to the traditional faith.

The Bohemians had been Protestants before Luther, and found little to terrify them in his ideas. A large German element on the border readily accepted the Reform; the Bohemian Brethren, numbering some 10 per cent of the 400,000 population, were more Protestant than Luther; 60 per cent were Utraquists—Catholics who took the Eucharist in wine as well as bread, and ignored the protests of the popes.10 By 1560 Bohemia was two thirds Protestant; but in 1561 Ferdinand introduced the Jesuits, and the tide turned back to the orthodox Catholic creed.

The Reformation came to Hungary through German immigrants bearing the news of Luther—that one could defy the Church and the Empire and yet live. Hungarian peasants oppressed by a Church-supported feudalism viewed with some favor a Protestantism that might end ecclesiastical tithes and dues; feudal barons looked with grasping eyes upon vast Church properties whose products competed with their own; town laborers, infected with Utopia, saw in the Church the chief obstacle to their dream, and indulged in image-breaking ecstasies. The Church co-operated by persuading the government to make Protestantism a capital crime. In western Hungary King Ferdinand labored for a compromise, and wished to allow clerical marriage and communion in both forms. In eastern Hungary Protestantism spread freely under a Turkish rule scornfully indifferent to varieties of Christian belief. By 1550 it seemed that all Hungary would become Protestant. But Calvinism began then to compete with Lutheranism in Hungary; the Magyars, constitutionally anti-German, supported the Swiss style of Reform; and by 1558 the Calvinists were numerous enough to hold an impressive synod at Czenger. The rival focuses of reform tore the movement in two. Many officials or converts, seeking social stability or mental peace, returned to Catholicism; and in the seventeenth century the Jesuits, led by the son of a Calvinist, restored Hungary to the Catholic fold.

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