Again, the line between alchemist and apothecary was once very fine, and the things once used to create medicine were wondrous indeed. Many also suspicious, invented, disgusting. And far too many argued as aphrodisiacs.
Of course there were herbs, wondrous herbs. The smell in the attic of Krakow’s wondrous Pharmacy Museum was amazingly pungent and sweet.
Dragon’s Blood, sadly only a combination of powdered plants with astringent qualities:
Mandrake, not a screaming homunculus pulled from the earth, but a funny shaped root:
Herbs, roots, flowers, leaves, seeds were not the only things used in medicines, however. Clay and other minerals dug from the earth such as lazurite, orpiment, sulphus, chalcanthite, and talc were also used. Here is cinnabar for treating wounds and ‘women’s problems’, and today used for acne — I love these intensely coloured powders.
Hematite powered and used to cleanse wounds and to treat blood diseases. Copper sulfate good for scars, and for its antibacterial properties.
Skinks! Dried and ground they became a ‘panacea’ for many things, and the old aphrodisiac standby…
Powders of scorpions, snakes and lizards — powdered cockroaches, crab’s stones, powdered oysters, sea sponges, musk, earthworm oil and leeches were also of course in use:
Castor, or the powdered glands of beavers — look at that picture! A stimulant, antispasmodic, good for hysteria from sexual causes…
Spermacetti, or sperm whale oil…
‘Unicorn horn’, powdered, good as a universal antidote and of course, an aphrodisiac. Really, narwhal of course, or anything approaching powdered horn…
Powdered horn, and ivory looks just like it, tusks of walrus and hippopotamus…once believed a universal cure and aphrodisiac:
Bezoars! found in the stomachs of ruminants, they look very cool but are really just hollow spheres made up of fur and undigested plant remains. But I still love imagining them as universal cures…
Spanish flies, whose smell alerts you to their presence, who blood causes painless blisters. Crushed they were used as a diuretic, but more famously as an aphrodisiac and older form of viagra — but you had to be very very careful you didn’t get it wrong…
Human scalp made into a panacea — also collected and used were human fat, ox bile, bull’s blood, and calf’s stomach.
Dried lizards, coral and pearls:
Pharmacists were also apparently the principal makers and purveyors of candles and sealing wax until the 18th century, as wax was another key ingredient in ointments and plasters. I loved this way of making them:
And of everything, perhaps this was the most incredible…Multiple use laxative pills of antimony. Crikey. You had to swallow — retrieve — clean — repeat.
Suddenly I realised it is not just the rows of bottles and jars, the mysterious names in Latin, but also the colours, smells, madness of what they held within them. The dreams they represent of cures for everything, of magic in the form of a powder or oil or pill. The intellectual endeavour they also represent, to explore the world and uncover what within it can ease our way through life and improve the days and years we are given. I owe so much to medicine as we know it, and its origins are here in these bottles and in this lore drawing on centuries of experimentation and learning.
Only a thin line separated alchemy from old pharmacies once. Apothecaries (who only later became the mystery-stripped ‘pharmacies’ or even worse ‘drug stores’) once contained wondrous collections of barrels, bottles, alembics, retorts, crucibles, pestles and mortars, animals whose bodies and bones were crushed and used in medicines. Of the medieval collections in Krakow’s Pharmacy Museum, the notes quote Shakespeare:
I do remember an apothecary—
And hereabouts he dwells—which late I noted
In tattered weeds, with overwhelming brows,
Culling of simples. Meager were his looks,
Sharp misery had worn him to the bones,
And in his needy shop a tortoise hung,
An alligator stuffed, and other skins
Of ill-shaped fishes; and about his shelves
A beggarly account of empty boxes,
Green earthen pots, bladders and musty seeds,
Remnants of packthread and old cakes of roses,
Were thinly scattered to make up a show.
–Romeo & Juliet, Act 5, Scene 1
This is Krakow’s museum in a nutshell. From the medieval section:
Cabinets of poisons clearly marked to avoid accident:
Great vaulted cellars, full of more wondrous things, above all the medicinal wine, either steeped in herbs or to be later mixed with dried herbal powders:
We found this hidden round a corner. I don’t even know what this is.
Old water distillers, coloured glass vials, presses, alembics:
As time moved on, techniques became refined, the furniture in polished inlaid wood of the Baroque or the Biedermeier style, the glass neatly labelled:
Rows and rows of canisters in glass and porcelain sitting above wonderful drawers of uniform shape, all rescued from old apothecaries across the city and brought here:
Hirudines! Aka leeches. A collection of more mortars and pestles, pictures of leading pharmacists of Krakow and their documents now of historical relevance rather than professional necessity:
Enormous mortars and pestles. And oh, my love for bottles and small labelled drawers full of strange powders and herbs and medicines overfloweth:
Old books are here also, with velveted covers:
Wooden boxes of superb craftsmanship filled with strange bottles and implements for the storing and mixing of musk:
Stoppered bottles of vibrant colour that make my heart beat faster:
Clear glass of strange shape and design:
Strange scissors of a shape perfectly crafted to an unknown task, old herbals, locked and keyed and made into beautiful works of art:
A map of plants and the ‘world’ as it was once believed to be:
Tiny glass vials and velveted boxes of syringes used and reused.
Cork-crushers and medicine makers
Herbs and storage
All found in the attic, where warmer and dryer air might do their work:
This is one of my favourite places in this city, and I will be writing more because this only scratches the surface of the apothecarial wonder.
Also, please let us resurrect the term apothecary and use it more in everyday life.
I shall end with another quote from the museum, this from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude:
The rudimentary laboratory—in addition to a profusion of pots, funnels, retorts, filters, and sieves—was made up of a primitive water pipe, a glass beaker with a long, thin neck, a reproduction of the philosopher’s egg, and a still the gypsies themselves had built in accordance with modern descriptions of the three-armed alembic of Mary the Jew. Along with those items, Melquíades left samples of the seven metals that corresponded to the seven planets, the formulas of Moses and Zosimus for doubling the quantity of gold, and a set of notes and sketches concerning the processes of the Great Teaching that would permit those who could interpret them to undertake the manufacture of the philosopher’s stone. Seduced by the simplicity of the formulas to double the quantity of gold, José Arcadio Buendía paid court to Úrsula for several weeks so that she would let him dig up her colonial coins and increase them by as many times as it was possible to subdivide mercury. Úrsula gave in, as always, to her husband’s unyielding obstinacy. Then José Arcadio Buendía threw three doubloons into a pan and fused them with copper filings, orpiment, brimstone, and lead. He put it all to boil in a pot of castor oil until he got a thick and pestilential syrup which was more like common caramel than valuable gold. In risky and desperate processes of distillation, melted with the seven planetary metals, mixed with hermetic mercury and vitriol of Cyprus, and put back to cook in hog fat for lack of any radish oil, Úrsula’s precious inheritance was reduced to a large piece of burnt hog cracklings that was firmly stuck to the bottom of the pot.
Today started with Copernicus (1473-1543) — a visit to Collegium Maius where he was a student. Though never a professor. We had a splendid, if quick, tour with decidedly witty commentary. Copernicus kept his head down in a deeply Catholic atmosphere, kept quiet, and published nothing until the year leading up to his death at age 70. Not Galileo, and look what happened to him…
I am not sure of the moral of this.
Collegium Maius is an amazing place, gothic brick construction along with limestone exuding knots of flint and two most beautiful ammonites. It has vaulted ceilings, incredible carved wood, has been a place of learning and study since the 14th century, and in this form since the 15th. Professors lived upstairs and taught downstairs, and it is most splendid.
I was most excited about the instruments Copernicus used — early ways people were trying to understand our universe before lenses or proper telescopes. They are amazing, these three.
The Jagiellonian Globe:
Made in 1510 in France and most likely the first globe to show the Americas. In completely the wrong place.
A copy of On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, the famous text by Copernicus positing our own revolution around the sun:
Many more most wonderful instruments of astronomy, like these from Moorish Toledo:
The college itself is more stunning than I can say, with wonderful carved wood and painted ceilings, carvings, instruments, books, windows, furniture, murals, beaten metal shaped to reflect candle-light to illuminate a room, the most wonderful wooden spiral staircase I have ever seen, the Nobel prize medal won by Wisława Szymborska who was a student here, the Oscar and other awards won by Andrzej Wajda, an intricate inlaid door commemorating Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of American and showing the maiden Europe distributing justice to the New World and Africa. We did not, however, manage to catch the clock figures striking the odd hour…
This was only the beginning of a day in Krakow, which also included an exhibition of Max Ernst: An Ornithologist’s Dream (most wonderful) a trip to the Pharmacy Museum (again wonderful), lunch at Noworolski’s, where Lenin once took his mistress (and sometimes his wife), drinks in Kazimierz at Propaganda… but I have no more energy, and all of these things demand more thought.
In Nikiszowiec, the housing is terribly terribly permanent. Coming from a place where company housing was built, picked up, moved, rebuilt, swallowed by pits, this seems very strange. It has all the weight of New Lanark, if not quite the grace. It is solid in red brick, windows, doors and balconies picked out in bright red paint and wonderful details built into each and every facade.
It is beautiful. I know that does not mean it is necessarily a beautiful place to live. It does have a vaguely institutional feel, like the Peabody estates in London, which are from much the same time period.
Built between 1908 and 1912 to house workers in the backyard of their place of employment – the large smoke-churning Wieczorek (formerly ‘Giesche’) coal mine – the enclosed residential complex of Nikiszowiec is composed of six compact four-sided three-storey blocks with inner courtyards. Distinguished by its uniformity of style – red brick buildings accented with red-painted windowframing, and narrow streets joined by handsome arcades – the neighbourhood was designed by Georg and Emil Zillman of Berlin-Charlottenburg to be a completely self-sufficient community for 1,000 workers with a school, hospital, police station, post office, swimming pool, bakery and church. Thanks to WWI and the subsequent Silesian Uprisings – St. Anne’s Church (Pl. Wyzwolenia 21) wasn’t able to be finished until 1927, but it became the crowning glory of the neighbourhood as soon as it was.
There is almost nothing written about them online in English, a fragment from google books notes that the Zillman’s were inspired by worker’s housing built by Krupp, and just as paternalistic. It is still owned by the company, but has become the subject of town regeneration and an attempt to get it declared a UNESCO heritage site. This explains both some of the crispness and the roughness around the edges, which I confess I liked very much.
A model of the development as a whole:
Nikiszowiec: Public Spaces:
A large central square, with church, hall, pubs, shops, cafes:
Each courtyard had room for ovens, playgrounds, animals…
Arches, and long beautiful streets. We heard they are normally filled with children, but weekends they are more for the tourists. The locals eyed us with indifference if not annoyance, and traces of an array of opinions about just why we thought this should be worthy of visiting at all:
The ‘Naive Art’ fair just starting as we left:
One rumour goes that every arch is different, and these differences were introduced to ensure that drunk miners always found their way home to the correct door…
Graffiti that means ‘fuck the police’, though an alternative explanation is that it means something like Put Your Windows in Your Basement from the days of a rumour that the police were raiding people looking for pirated copies of Windows.
And finally the mine itself:
Building community, building housing…and this is only the first of the two complexes of worker housing the Zillman’s built. The other, Giszowiec, is completely different and also for another post.
Ania drove and drove selflessly (if interestingly) until we found hills, then wonderful pillars of limestone and then Pieskowa Skała above a wildflowered hillside.
Pieskowa Skała castle, built by King Casimir III the Great, is one of the best-known examples of a defensive Polish Renaissance architecture. It was erected in the first half of the 14th century as part of the chain of fortified castles called Orle Gniazda (Eagles Nests), along the highland plane of the Polish Jura extending north-west from Kraków to the city of Częstochowa.
The castle was rebuilt in 1542–1544 by Niccolò Castiglione with participation from Gabriel Słoński of Kraków. The sponsor of the castle’s reconstruction in the mannerist style was the Calvinist, Stanisław Szafraniec, voivode of Sandomierz.
Old and new fortifications blending one into the other into a unified whole.
A courtyard full of flowers, and below a lovely formal garden to be admired from a height.
A display of ‘English’ paintings in three rooms, all of them copies of Constable and Reynolds among others, or attributed to most questionably. Wonderful faces staring down at us from the inner courtyard.
From there Ania drove us to Ogrodzieniec Castle, a very different kind of place though also part of this same group of fortifications along the Jura. We walked up a long road lined by stalls selling the most wonderful and terrible of Polish kitsch — at its best funny painted wooden cats and owls which I rather coveted, at its worst plastic Uzis and AK-47s. There was a house of horrors to the right, a fun fair to the left, the screaming of children, rides, balloons. The castle was crawling with people, and more selling of kitsch in the main courtyard but at times its atmosphere and history were recoverable. It is most beautiful:
Established in the early 12th century, during the reign of Bolesław III Wrymouth (Polish: Bolesław Krzywousty), the first stronghold was razed by the Tatars in 1241. In the mid-14th century a new gothic castle was built here to accommodate the Sulimczycy family.
One of its owners created a beautiful marble room for his lady, which was destroyed — among several waves of destruction — by Swedish troops during The Deluge. Fitting, then, perhaps, that I am slowly getting through the first half of the second book in Henryk Sinkiewicz’s trilogy. A beautiful view of what they were fighting for apart from wealth and fame and power…
The other view is looking down on the gauntlet of consumption, and the miniature park created so you don’t actually have to visit real castles but can see them all in one place.
Pieskowa Skała is castle as national history and heritage, Ogrodzieniec is castle as camp and consumption. As theme park.
Hopeless to feel any of the other famous history of the place among a horde of holiday makers:
According to some investigators of paranormal phenomena, the Ogrodzieniec Castle is a place haunted by mighty dark powers. There have been locally famous reports of the “Black Dog of Ogrodzieniec” being seen prowling the ruins in the night-time. Witnesses have claimed that the spectre is a black dog much larger than an ordinary dog, and is supposed to have burning eyes and pull away a heavy chain. The dog is believed to be the soul of the Castellan of Cracow, Stanisław Warszycki. Interestingly, his soul also haunts the ruins of the Dańków Castle, where it appears as a headless horseman.
It has been a funny time, days spent listening and coming to grips with this entirely-new-to-me new materialism, speculative realism, weird realism and object-oriented ontology — theories that I think are sometimes useful, sometimes so not useful. I am so grateful, though, that I was able to come to this conference, and even more so for a lovely weekend spent with new friends and getting to know such a beautiful place.
And yet the news. God the news. The shootings of the police in Dallas, two more black men killed by cops, latinos killed by cops, violence soaring so this from facebook on Friday:
news relentlessly unfolds and violence and injustice and death and lives twisted by this world we’ve created, and hearts breaking and so my love goes out to everyone but especially to all those whose skin is darker than mine, I am thinking and worrying about you so much, every day, I hope you stay safe and stay whole. Take care of one another, know where we stand and who we stand with and fight to change things for the better in ways big and small wherever we are…I suppose that is all we can do?
It is hard to know even how to react anymore. Much of our conversation here has been about the turns to the right, the rising of violence. Poland has its own worries…it is good to find people who stand against this tide.
Before we go to Poland, memories of ways my life has brushed up against its people…
In 6th grade everyone brought dishes from our cultural background to share. I had never seen a beet. A taste of Adam’s borscht and I had to run to throw up in the girl’s bathroom.
‘Pollack’ jokes, before blonde jokes were a thing (and usurped much of their content). We had no cultural context for them.
Ricki went to our church, she lived for a long time down the trailer park but for a little while with us. After I had left home. She would sit, a tiny lady with big smokey glasses in the big maroon chair, wearing her powder-blue flowered dressing gown. She would smoke and do paint-by-numbers and talk about everyday things. I loved her laugh. She owned a polka bar in Chicago she told me once, in the basement of a tenement and all was well until the mob approached her with a sharing-of-space and acting-as-a-front deal she couldn’t refuse. She didn’t, she sold up when she could. Moved away, far away, right away to Tucson Arizona. I never knew if I believed her, sometimes I wonder if I remember it right at all. But I always imagine with pleasure a smokey neon-lit polka bar and Ricki presiding over it all in polyester. Better than a trailer and a son-in-law who scared me with his unfocused eyes and unfocused words and whip thin body and scars and the oxygen tank and the anger he trailed though his 30s.
Mrs Ross, Auschwitz’s numbers tattooed across her arm. Manny used to do handy work for her, and often we just went for chat and latkes and fish cooked in ways I had never encountered before. Sweet and salty and tomatoed. Almost blind, her house lay shrouded in low light to protect the fragility of her eyes in all their enormity. Peering around I would drink in a European house of fringe and velvet and wallpaper. A house like none I had been in before. She fit the house, with high necked ruffled blouses and a touch of lipstick always, her hair coiffed though everyday it seemed wispier. A contrast to heavy jewelry. Clip on earrings. She would grasp my arm with her tiny hands and cast up her eyes to the dim ceiling and say Poland! Oh, how beautiful it was! The drives and the summers and the trees and the parties … I remember so little. Too little. No town name, no markers for me to find, to share these loved memories with her. Only Auschwitz, the murder of everyone she knew, but she never talked about that. Only about her work translating for others after the liberation, into Russian and a more broken English. I remember my surprise at her scorn for English arrogance and preference for the Russians, and I remember her trouble adjusting to America. Oh, Poland she would say. I loved her, loved her enthusiasms, loved her expansive gestures and exaggerated sayings and sighs. Oh Poland, I can hear her saying. The most beautiful place on earth. The most beautiful place to be young.
She never went back.
An old coworker in Glasgow, beautiful, blonde and so smiling, so kind. Until we started talking about Arabs. Her ex-boyfriend with such white teeth, such a pretty face, such frightening eyes and all he wanted to be was a police officer. My discomfort drinking his round of pints. He hated more than Arabs.
A more recent coworker, also lovely and smiling. She always had a warm hello, a meaningful how are you. She blamed more recent immigrants than herself for problems with the NHS and felt they should be denied health care, felt happiness when Cameron was elected, leaned to the right in all matters. So it surprised me to look over her daughter’s first communion pictures after months of updates on the trip back to Poland, the dress, the party — only then staring in surprise did I discover her daughter’s father was West Indian. She knew I would be surprised too, and that I would have to unpick some of my own assumptions.
Stanislaw Lem, so rarely found in used bookshops by my father, and carried home as treasure. My universe expanded with him. Bruno Schulz, my own treasure, inspiration for one of my novel’s chapters that I love the most. Stuart Dybek newly discovered, Chicago’s working class Catholic mix of Polish and Mexican and crystalline prose. Others that I am now discovering.
I am looking forward to visiting this place, and we are off today.
I write and write and write here, too many words spilling across the screen in a struggle to grasp, understand and above all remember. To make mine, so that I can recall things when needed. So they do not escape me. Boring words often, missing so much and grasping at details.
I have to struggle for memory.
Time feels so fleeting and there is so much to read, to write, to know, to puzzle through. I will never get it all thought.
I read poetry and find deeper things than I had ever contemplated expressed in a few lines (not all poetry, not even most, but Wisława Szymborska yes, oh yes). The sifting of meaning already done, language perfected so nothing gushes out across page after page.
The poetry of Wisława Szymborska is deep, humble, filled with grief and wonder. Terrifying.
Who are we?
I give you three poems. One for where we are (literally) going:
“La Pologne? La Pologne? Isn’t it terribly cold there?” she asked,
and then sighed with relief. So many countries have been turning up lately that the safest thing to talk about is climate.
“Madame,” I want to reply, “my people’s poets do all their
writing in mittens. I don’t mean to imply that they never remove
them; they do, indeed, if the moon is warm enough. In stanzas
composed of raucous whooping, for only such can drown out the windstorms’ constant roar, they glorify the simple lives of our walrus herders. Our Classicists engrave their odes with inky icicles on trampled snowdrifts. The rest, our Decadents, bewail their fate with snowflakes instead of tears. He who wishes to drown himself must have an ax at hand to cut the ice. Oh, madame, dearest madame.”
That’s what I meant to say. But I’ve forgotten the word for
walrus in French. And I’m not sure of icicle and ax.
“La Pologne? La Pologne? Isn’t it terribly cold there?”
Well, my poor man,
seems we’ve made some progress in my field.
Millennia have passed
since you first called me archaeology.
I no longer require
your stone gods,
your ruins with legible inscriptions.
Show me your whatever
and I’ll tell you who you were.
A scrap of engine.
A picture tube’s neck.
An inch of cable. Fingers turned to dust.
Or even less than that, or even less.
Using a method
that you couldn’t have known then,
I can stir up memory
in countless elements.
Traces of blood are forever.
Secret codes resound.
Doubts and intentions come to light.
If I want to
(and you can’t be too sure
that I will).
I’ll peer down the throat of your silence,
I’ll read your views
from the sockets of your eyes,
I’ll remind you in infinite detail
of what you expected from life besides death
One for the startling abilities of language in the present.
From trapeze to
to trapeze, in the hush that
that follows the drum roll’s sudden pause, through,
through the startled air, more swiftly than
than his body’s weight, which once again
again is late for its own fall.
Solo. Or even less than solo,
less, because he’s crippled, missing
missing wings, missing them so much
that he can’t miss the chance
to soar on shamefully unfeathered
naked vigilance alone.
and calculated inspiration. Do you see
how he waits to pounce in flight; do you know
how he plots from head to toe
against his very being; do you know, do you see
how cunningly he weaves himself through his own former shape
and works to seize this swaying world
by stretching out the arms he has conceived–
beautiful beyond belief at this passing
at this very passing moment that’s just passed.
There is a lovely essay by Joelle Biele here on Szymborska’s relationship with the communist party and Poland’s long tradition of poetry.
Thank you also to the translators, who are part of these poems now for all of us who are lacking, who cannot read them in Polish: Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh.
The Polish Empire…I confess my ignorance, immense ignorance, and thus shamefaced astonishment to find such an empire existed once. I realise anew how parochial US education is. Perhaps in high school’s elective class on European History there was a mention, but I remember Poland above all as a tragedy, a land of both centrality and flatness, leading to repeated invasions by countries and peoples bigger and stronger and bent on a vastness of domination. I am not sure how much is my failure and how much faulty interpretation U.S. style, where Polish jokes were sadly legion through my growing up and our own history of conquest and empire (and fear of decline) so steadfastly ignored. Both of which perhaps explain avoidance of presenting this history and its aftermath alongside the tragedy (which is no less true for the existence of the commonwealth).
A map of the changing borders:
I am going to Poland! It is a good year for going places, given unemployment and a wonderful partner who I can trail after like the discombobulation of stars behind a comet. Hopefully at some point here we will start trading off who gets to be the comet and who the (poetic rather than realistic) discombobulation. Anyway, I came up with a list to read as I always do, and started in chronological order, now slightly broken but happily. I find Henryk Sienkiewicz’s With Fire and Sword (1884 — translated by Jeremiah Curtain in 1898) more interesting since reading Czeslaw Milosz’s The Issa Valley (1955) because of the way one echoes in curious ways the subjects of the other.
Of course, all of With Fire and Sword takes place in Central Ukraine, based on the historical uprising of the Cossacks against the land’s occupation by Polish nobility. That was initially a bit disappointing, but almost made up for by some splendid descriptions of Chigirin, giving it such a border town feel but also doing much to show the diversity of connections between town and wilderness and agriculture and the meeting of different cultures that I have become so interested in. Also, in this case, the machines of war.
Barabash pointed to the market-square and to the people moving around upon it. The whole square was thronged with great gray oxen on the way to Korsún for the army; and with the oxen went a crowd of herdsmen (Chabani), who passed their whole lives in the steppe and Wilderness,–men perfectly wild, professing no religion, (“religionis nullius,” as the Voevoda Kisel said). Among them were forms more like robbers than herdsmen,–fierce, terrible, covered with remnants of various garments. The greater part of them were dressed in sheepskin doublets or in untanned skins with the wool outside, open in front and showing, even in winter, the naked breast embrowned by the winds of the steppe. All were armed, but with the greatest variety of weapons. Some had bows and quivers on their shoulders; some muskets or “squealers” (so called by the Cossacks); some had Tartar sabres, some scythes; and finally, there were those who had only sticks with horse-jaws fastened on the ends. Among them mingled the no less wild, though better armed men from the lower country, taking to the camp for sale dried fish, game, and mutton fat. Farther on were the Chumaki (ox-drivers) with salt, bee-keepers from the steppes and forest, wax-bleachers with honey, forest-dwellers with tar and pitch, peasants with wagons, registered Cossacks, Tartars from Bélgorod, and God knows what tramps and “vampires” from the ends of the earth.
It continues with some of the persistent and matter-of-fact contextual anti-Jewish sentiment that shouldn’t have surprised me yet did.
The blaze from the piles on the square spread such a glare over the town that all Chigirin seemed burning. The bustle and shouts increased with the approach of night. The Jews did not peep from their houses.
Jews hide in their houses throughout this book in fact. The (simplified and partial) explanation for people’s own understanding of this is given by Hmelmitski, leader of the rebellion:
I want no war with the king, I want no war with the Commonwealth! It is the mother, and he is the father. The king is a merciful lord; but the kinglets!–with them it is impossible for us to live; their extortions, their rents, meadow-taxes, mill-taxes, eye and horn taxes, their tyranny and oppression exercised through the agency of Jews, cry for vengeance.
Sienkiewicz writes, of course, in celebration of the Polish kinglets vital to the existence of the Commonwealth. He tries for balance occasionally, but passages like the following occur over and over again expressing a belief in the requirements of progress through the civilization of the wilderness (we meet once again these tropes), and support for the unspeakable levels of violence acceptable for its achievement, though this is often sorrowful.
Order reigned in all the lands of the prince, with plenty, justice, peace, but also terror,–for in case of the slightest opposition the prince knew no bounds to his anger and to the punishments he inflicted; to such a degree was magnanimity joined with severity in his nature. But in those times and in those regions that severity alone permitted life and the labor of men to thrive and continue. Thanks to it alone, towns and villages rose, the agriculturist took the place of the highwayman, the merchant sold his wares in peace, bells called the devout in safety to prayer, the enemy dared not cross the boundaries, crowds of thieves perished, empaled on stakes, or were changed into regular soldiers, and the wilderness bloomed.
A wild country and its wild inhabitants needed such a hand…
Impalings and the destruction of entire villages along with each of their inhabitants…there is no ‘civilian’ in these battles. Nothing sacred. No woman unraped, no field unburned, no child spared. No cruelty too extreme.
They saw on both sides of the road a long row of “Cossack candles,”–that is, people with hands raised above their heads, and tied to stakes driven into the ground, wound around with straw steeped in pitch and set on fire at the hands.
A little thought and you realise the peasants must have quite a lot of grievances to have embarked on a course of rebellion.
“Why do you croak, grandfather, like a raven?” asked an old peasant. “We believe that the black hour is coming on the lords; and there will be neither on the Russian nor Tartar bank lords or princes,–only Cossacks, free people; there will be neither land-rent, nor barrel-tax, nor mill-tax, nor transport-tax, nor any more Jews, for thus does it stand in the letter from Christ which you yourself spoke of. And Hmelnitski is as strong as the prince. Let them go at it!
Again, the a long list that has me nodding my head until we reach the Jews. The violence shown by peasants in the revolt is treated very differently by Sienkiewicz of course:
Through the broken windows Skshetuski saw the multitude of drunken peasants, bloody, with rolled-up shirt-sleeves, going from house to house, from cellar to cellar, and searching all corners, garrets, lofts; from time to time a terrible noise announced that a nobleman, a Jew, a man, a woman, or a child had been found. The victim was dragged to the square and gloated over in the most fearful manner. The crowd fought with one another for the remnants of the bodies; with delight they rubbed the blood on their faces and breasts, and wound the still steaming entrails around their necks.
It is terrifying to read the battle cries on every side: Kill! Slay! It is full of irony to hear bemoaned on the one hand the terrible betrayal of the Cossacks joining with the Tartars in their uprising, and then on the other to celebrate the mercenary Tartar regiments of the crown putting down the rebellion.
Above all is the weight of contempt heaped upon non-Polish peasantry. I present you a short selection among so so many phrases:
in his ears the words of Yeremi were roaring: “Better for us not to live, than to live in captivity under peasants and trash.”
The peasant breaths, filled with the odor of gorailka, came upon the faces of those nobles of high birth, for whom the pressure of those sweating hands was as unendurable as an affront. Threatenings also were not lacking among the expressions of vulgar cordiality.
Would not every dog-brother of them be better at home, working his serfage peaceably for his land? What fault is it of ours if God has made us nobles and them trash, and commanded them to obey? Tfu! I am beside myself with rage. I am a mild-mannered man, soft as a plaster; but let them not rouse me to anger! They have had too much freedom, too much bread; they have multiplied like mice in a barn; and now they are dying to get at the cats. Ah, wait! There is one cat here called Yeremi, and another called Zagloba.
I have not started on the misogyny. I don’t think I will. I don’t know enough to argue that Sienkiewicz necessarily agreed with all of these views expressed through the mouths of characters and sympathetic narration. But the overwhelming feeling is their promotion, alongside a fierce nationalism tied to land and a certain kind of honour. Written, as well, in a period where Poland as a country did not officially exist.
So many of the better parts of the book engage in lyrical descriptions embodying a love of land, of crops, of wildlife. An understanding of seasons. A desire to create a peaceful land of fertility and beauty. This is partly what it shares in common with The Issa Valley, maybe why I kept reading. It could also be just the absurd knightly adventures with swords and romance.
Milosz’s memoir of the Issa Valley is lyrical, lovely, haunted. Its rural community remains divided, separate and ranked along the same lines established by the Commonwealth. A Polish ruling class still sits in position over Lithuanian ‘peasants’ (though Sienkiewicz’s account numbers a Lithuanian knight amongst the heroes. A man capable of cutting off three heads at once and splitting people down the middle a-la Song of Roland).
I found this about Czeslaw Milosz — In Memoriam, from the University of California, Berkeley:
Czesław Miłosz (d. 14 August 2004), Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures and the University of California, Berkeley’s only Nobel Prize winner from the Division of Arts and Humanities, was witness to much that was central to the history of the twentieth century. He was born on 30 June 1911 in Szetejnie/Šateiniai, a small town in rural Lithuania, then a part of the Russian Empire. His parents, Aleksander and Weronika (née Kunat), were members of the long polonized lesser Lithuanian nobility. Miłosz would always place emphasis upon his identity as one of the last citizens of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a place of competing and overlapping identities. This stance—not Polish enough for some, certainly not Lithuanian to others—would give rise to controversies about him that have not ceased with his death in either country.
Again there is a narrative of colonization, of civilization of empty wilderness (but without the swords and scythes and impalings):
Starting in the sixteenth century, the Issa Valley had been colonized by settlers lured there by the Princes Radziwill, and the Bukowskis had come from the Kingdom of Poland in their covered wagons, through forests, across fords and uncharted wilderness, before reaching their destination in the virgin forests of Lithuania. Many fell on distant fields of battle — in the wars against the Swedes, the Turks, and the Russians. (92)
Covered wagons and virgin forests almost left me speechless, confused about the parallels with, or borrowings of, US mythologies. Again there is a constant divide between Polish (Polonized?) nobility and Lithuanian peasantry:
Masiulis, the wizard, sat with his back against the farmhouse wall, smoking his pipe. They were not on the best of terms. The magician laid claim to as much land as Romuald, but he was a peasant — a Lithuanian peasant. (93)
But no Bukowski had ever married a peasant. (172)
Though this Bukowski did in fact end up marrying the peasant.
Thomas, the young boy of the story, comes of age and grows into the immensity of the distance between himself and the peasants who surround him, despite his love of the land, his knowledge of the harvest, threshing, hunting, fishing. He is increasingly separate, which he feels with sadness and longing and his family bolster with pride and constant vigilance. The book opens with pages of factual moving to lyrical description of the place, love and memory constantly well up through every phrase throughout the whole of the novel:
I should begin with the Land of Lakes…This part of Europe was long covered with glaciers, and the landscape has much of the severity of the north. The soil is sandy and rocky and suitable only for growing potatoes, rue, oats and flax. This explains why such care was taken not to spoil the forests, which helped to soften the climate and offered protection against the Baltic winds. The forests are [predominantly of pine and spruce, though birch, oak, and hornbeam are also in abundance… (1)
This continues to be a world where everyone has their scythe. This continues to be a world of peasant uprising and violence — a grenade is thrown through the mansion’s window. It fails to explode, and comes to rest under Thomas’s bed. This is the time of land reform — resented by the narrator’s family who use money and corruption to try to preserve their lands. The Deluge is remembered in the form of The Swedish Mounds, great earthworks from the 17th century battles.
I am a third of the way through Vol. 1 of Sienkiewicz’s second volume The Deluge, though I am a little at a loss as to quite why…
The other thing the two books share in common is the uncanny, which I quite love. An example or two from Milosz:
The Issa Valley has the distinction of being inhabited by an unusually large number of devils. (3)
And this brilliant thing that recalls another aspect of history:
…he was visited by a monster. Shatybelko described it as a sort of bumpy log that moved sideways, level with the ground, and which was mounted with three heads — all with Tartar features, he said — baring their teeth in hideous grimaces. (41)
With Fire and Sword, however, has Horpyna. A beautiful giantess dressed as a man and valiant, who shows promise of great supernatural powers.
I had served long in Wallachia, where there are more vampires than people, but where there are weapons against them. I sprang from the horse and thrust my dagger into the ground. ‘A vaunt! disappear!’ and it groaned, seized the hilt of the dagger, and slipped down along the edge under the grass. I cut the ground in the form of a cross and rode off.”
“Are there so many vampires in Wallachia, father?”
“Every other Wallachian after death becomes a vampire, and the Wallachian vampires are the worst of all. They call them brukolaki.”
“And who is stronger, father,–the werewolf or the vampire?”
“The werewolf is stronger, but the vampire is more stubborn. If you are able to get the upper hand of the werewolf, he will serve you, but vampires are good for nothing except to follow blood. The werewolf is always ataman over the vampires.”
“And Horpyna commands the werewolves?”
“Yes, surely. As long as she lives she will command them. If she had not power over them, then the ataman would not give her his cuckoo, for werewolves thirst for maiden’s blood above all.”
Vampires! Werewolves! Still:
The giantess herself who guards the princess is a powerful witch, intimate with devils who may warn her against us. I have, it is true, a bullet, which I moulded on consecrated wheat, for a common one would not take her; but besides there are probably whole regiments of vampires who guard the entrance.
I was so hoping for a supernatural turn and a novel all about Horpyna, yet these are left only as stories. Still, I greatly desire a visit to Wallachia, part of Romania.
Just communities, just cities, Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.