Memoirs of the Polish Baroque by Jan Chryzostom Pasek

More properly: The Writings of Jan Chryzostom Pasek, a Squire of the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania edited, translated, with an introduction and notes by Catherine S. Leach because a title appropriate to the era is important.

If Sir John Falstaff walked off of Shakespeare’s stage and wrote his memoirs, they would read a lot like Memoirs of the Polish Baroque. Admittedly, Pasek lived 300 years later than England’s Henry IV, but the type is nearly immortal. Pan — the rough Polish equivalent of “Sir” and pronounced “pahn” — Jan Chryzostom Pasek is a low-ranking nobleman out for renown, love, adventure, riches, land and titles if he can get them, and glory for his commander, king and country. He fights the Swedes with at least as much enthusiasm as Capt. Jack Aubrey showed for “thumping the Frenchies.” The Swedes having been mostly driven off, he fights against invading Muscovites just vigorously. He has fighting spirit left over for fellow Poles who have risen up against their king. His pugnaciousness never left him. He was mostly settled by 1667, when he had some land in the Krakow region. What happened next?

At the first session [of the local assembly of the gentry], the Kraków gentry began to slight me, calling me a newcomer. But I, after dealing one a punch in the head, another a punch in the nose, another on the back, was left in peace and no longer called a newcomer. (p. 203)

Memoirs of the Polish Baroque

Pasek is not just — in his telling — brave on the field of battle, clever in his stratagems, fortunate when swords are swinging, he is also a formidable orator, one of the most prized skills in the nobles’ republic of Poland-Lithuania. In the early 1660s, parts of the Polish army and nobility rebelled against the king, who had not paid them for their services in various wars, and who was otherwise reneging on promises made. Rebellion was lawful within the Commonwealth, provided certain forms were observed, when the elected monarch was held to be violating the oaths made at the start of his reign. In this rebellion, Pasek held to the royal party, but was at one point captured by confederates. Pasek recounts dueling speeches at a meeting of Senators and other grandees in Grodno, where he, a mere country gentleman, held his own against magnates and bishops, winning his freedom and making points for the king’s side. He didn’t quite end the rebellion single-handedly, if only because the historic record would have shown otherwise and Pasek was averse to telling entire untruths in his Memoirs. But the account that he does provide leaves no doubt about his view of his own importance.

Catherine S. Leach provides supplementary material with her translation to aid a reader who is not as intimately familiar with the politics and geography of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of the late 1600s (admit it) as Pasek expected his audience to be. I started with the very last bit in the book, eight pages on “The Military in the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania,” which I found particularly helpful because Pasek writes about battle with the detail of someone who was there, and the lack of context of someone writing about well-known contemporary events. In the book’s appendixes, Leach includes a key to Polish pronunciation, a glossary of titles and state offices, and a quick summary of relevant historical events from 1656 to 1688. Her introduction does a terrific job setting the stage for the Memoirs. Her goal “for the reader who would prefer not to let the shape and sense of the Memoirs to remain locked within the texture of history, I shall try here to capture some of its volatile substance, to describe the political, economic, social and literary seedbed from which the historical person of the author, together with his literary image, emerged in the Memoirs.” (p. xxvii)

She sketches the lands and peoples of the Commonwealth before turning to its specific aspects during Pasek’s lifetime. For modern readers, perhaps the most important idea about the Commonwealth is that sovereignty rested in its nobility, which formed about 10 percent of the population. Assemblies of nobles governed the provinces, alongside some royally appointed officials. They also sent representatives and instructions to the national parliament, the Sejm. Along with making laws and raising taxes, the Sejm also elected the kings. (Incidentally, this meant that at the time the share of Poland-Lithuania’s population that could vote to elect the king was larger than the share of Britain’s population that could vote for Parliament. The share of the electorate in the United Kingdom did not exceed this level until the Great Reform of 1832. People who say there are no traditions of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe don’t know what they’re talking about.) For about 200 years, this was a formality as the Sejm always elected someone from the Jagiellonian dynasty, much as the electors of the Holy Roman Empire chose Habsburgs. By the time Pasek is writing about, there had been no Jagiellonians for nearly a century, and successive Sejms had chosen a French candidate (Henry Valois, who abdicated after two years; wags have observed that he thought Warsaw was worth a miss), a Transylvanian (Steven Báthory), and three Swedes of the Vasa dynasty. At the opening of the Memoirs, the third Vasa, Jan II Kazimierz (John II Casimir) is king.

All kings were bound by the Henrician Articles of 1573. The 18 articles established the supremacy of the nobility, as represented by the Sejm, in matters of succession, royal marriages, taxation, freedom of religion, and declaration of war. The Articles further established that if a king broke the law or trampled on noble privileges, the nobility could refuse royal commands and act against the king. This formed the basis for the confederation Pasek writes about, one among many in the Commonwealth’s history. Further, upon election each king swore to uphold promises made in a pacta conventa, an agreement between the nation (as represented by the nobility) and the king. It’s not surprising that the Commonwealth is often called the Nobles’ Republic.

Pasek embodies and gives voice to the nobles’ perspective. They are all equal in the eyes of the law, and though some are richer and more influential than others, none is inherently superior to any other. Pasek respects his commander in the army, but he is by no means awed by the Senators and other magnates he addresses, not to say berates, at the assembly in Grodno in his recounting of 1661. Thus also his willingness to brawl in the Krakow assembly when other nobles attempt to make him a second-class newcomer. Nobody is going to tell Pasek that he’s not as good as they are and come away unscathed.

I don’t think I would enjoy having Pasek as a neighbor — Leach notes how litigious he was, quite apart from how willing he was to have a good punch-up — but he’s a splendid raconteur. Leach suggests that he had probably told the stories in the Memoirs many times before finally setting them down on paper in the last years of his life. If he tells why he sat down to write, that is now lost along with the first 50 pages of the manuscript. In addition to her terrific translation, Leach is a judicious and considerate editor. Noting the missing beginning, she adds, “The text began with Pasek’s apostrophe to his horse, six stanzas of which remain; they have been omitted from this edition.” (p. 3) Later on she explains another omission:

Pasek’s defense follows. It is an even more flowery and lengthy reiteration of the previous arguments outlining his modesty, his loyalty as a soldier of his country, his fears of losing the war owing to petty political rivalries, bad councils, and foreign intrigues; he concludes by pleading that the circumstances of his arrest prove his innocence. The whole speech is well-stuffed with Latinisms, quotes from both classical and Christian sources, indiscriminately mixed. (p. 120)

That last is a feature of Pasek’s style, and of the age, a time when nobles went to Jesuit schools, peppered their speech with bits of semi-Polonized Latin, and were expected to declaim with the best of them. As Wiktor Weintraub (a Polish historian born in 1908, and a Harvard professor at the time of this book’s publication in 1976) notes in his foreword, “This style poses a terrific challenge to any translator. Its seventeenth-century flavor should be conveyed accurately, but without suppressing Pasek’s idiosyncrasies, his easy abandon and joyful spontaneity in the telling of a story.” (p. xiv) Leach meets this challenge admirably, in my view, making it easy to picture Pasek telling his tales, regaling listeners. The mix comes through in this description from the assembly in Grodno:

When I finished, Pan Gumowski, the cupbearer, delivered his speech very facunde, very erudite, but mixing the meaning et connexiones, and anyone who knew a thing or two noticed this, especially the clergy; he skillfully got himself out of it later, complaining that I took several arguments that were part of his speech, so then he had to discard the ones that people heard in mine. He set forth how an architect is embarrassed if someone takes the wood already trimmed and planed for making a framework. Everybody understood the circumstance, and so it often happens, one orator taking the material of another. (p. 59)

When Pasek wants to move a story along quickly, he can compact whole tales into just a few sentences. Describing how he reconciled with a fellow suitor of the woman he eventually married, he continues:

And [Pan Komorowski] was ever after my good friend; soon after, he married; he took a widow, Pani [the female form of Pan] Brezinska, but such a shrew was she that he deemed himself an unfortunate man and swore to become a priest if God were to separate him from her. And so it came to pass, for soon she died, while he became a priest and died soon after, too. (p. 202)

As historians have looked through confirming sources in Polish archives, they have found Pasek reasonably reliable despite his braggadocio. Likewise, Pasek is almost certainly a model for one of the most famous characters in Polish literature, Pan Jan Onufry Zagłoba, a recurring character in the historical Trilogy of Henryk Sienkiewicz. Pasek’s Memoirs bring a lost era of European history back to life; more than that, they’re exciting adventures and revealing — sometimes unintentionally — portraits of people from another age. Not bad for a minor noble from a poor corner of a big country.

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