A Polish Duel
While two noblemen might fight a one on one duel, there were other methods that generally involved, retainers, mercenaries, bandits, sabers, horses, fire, and raids. If it sounds like war- that's because it is.
In Poland during the 17th century the nobility were known as szlachta. They were legally above everyone, even the king, and some applied an even racial superiority over the Polish populace with Sarmatism. These nobles developed a unique way in which they could challenge one another to a duel.
The Italian method of private dueling, described by authors such as Baldassare Castiglione, involved the sending of a challenge back and forth between seconds, often involving a glove. The use of a glove was a leftover from judicial duels in which an armored gauntlet was tossed to the ground as a form of challenge. During the issuing of a challenge, rules were put in place regarding the duel including, time, place, and the matching of weapons. The expectation was that the two aggrieved parties would meet, and the dueling would take place between only the aggrieved and the accused. While seconds at times jumped in, this was not expected. The arranging and fighting of a duel was done by agreement, and became the standard by which most Europeans approached private dueling from the 16th century on.
In Poland, the szlachta did engage in the Italian method of private dueling, which by its nature was illegal, but also had their own, entirely legal way of engaging in a duel.
If a Polish szlachta felt he was insulted, or in danger, from another noble, an official challenge could be written up. This was called an odpowiedź which means, answer or reply. The odpowiedź included details as to why the challenge was being issued. The odpowiedź was delivered to the district court, which acted as a post office as well as a place where legal matters between nobles could be brought up. The head of the District Court was a judge called the Sędzia Ziemski. If the slights and insults were deemed legitimate by the judge, then he would approve the odpowiedź.
Once the challenge was approved, the aggrieved party was legally entitled to make war on the accused by any means. This include conducting raids on his territory, ambushing his retainers, burning his villages down and trying to ambush him in the dead of night. For the Polish, the odpowiedź was a legal, private war, not just a duel.
Stanisław Stadnicki, known as the Devil of Łańcut, was a war-hero turned robber baron of the late 16th and early 17th century. From the safety of Łańcut castle, he and his men raided the roads and harassed the villages and towns of the local nobility. His particular favorite target was Łukasz Opaliński, a powerful noble, who held offices in the name of the king and was seen as a royalist. The excesses continued, with Stanisław trying to force trade to his illegal fair, the mutilation of those merchants who didn’t play along, and the possible minting of counterfeit coins in his castle’s basement taking place alongside the torture of his victims.
Stanisław might have been a merciless bandit lord, but by targeting a favorite of the king, he endeared himself to the Polish nobility, who were always fearful of royal power and couldn’t help but root for the fellow, in much the same way criminals, the likes of Billy the Kid, Bonny and Clyde, and Lucky Luciano had popular notoriety with the American press.
Eventually, Stanisław’s excesses proved too much and Łukasz issued an odpowiedź to the district court. This was approved and the private war was on. Raids were launched back and forth, but the Devil’s luck ran out. His castle was burned and his mercenary bandits were forced to live off the countryside. He was wounded in an ambush on August 20 1610 and was caught by a Tartar in some nearby woods. The Tartar beheaded Stanisław with his own saber and for his deed was made a noble by Łukasz.
While the Polish nobility had legal means to exact vengeance and war upon one another, situations like that of the Devil of Łańcut were rare. Jan Pasek, in his 17th century memoirs, noted that he did not like challenges very much because he feared ambush. His preferred method of dueling was to engage, one on one, in the Italian style, but minus the ceremony.
As for the Devil, though dead, he wasn’t quite done. His wife and children went on to cause trouble in Poland earning their own nicknames, namely, the wife and brood of the Devil.
The odpowiedź was just one expression of the power of the Polish nobility. The szlachta were as a whole more powerful than the king. They were able to flout his laws, ignore his call to arms, and they could even legally rebel from him, and legally wage war upon one another. They were a fiercely independent group which would define the Polish character of the 17th century, but also consign the Commonwealth to ruin as the independence of a few was at the cost of the nation.
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This is an awesome article. It also gave me ideas for my Pathfinder RPG campaign.
"If you're a guy full of sh** without the gold medal...when you get the gold medal, you're still a guy full of sh**"- Didier Berthod, First Ascent