Wroclaw: Politics, religion and economics


The development of the town of Wroclaw in Poland from the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries was the result of the combination of a particular set of political, religious and economic elements. These elements were, individually, not unique to Wroclaw but the particulars of their combination and interaction uncovers the complexities of Wroclaw’s development and its influence across Silesia.

In 1096 Zbigniew, the natural son of Duke Władysław, became involved in a plot against Sieciech, the Voivode of Cracow. A group of discontents captured Zbigniew, took him to Wroclaw and promised that he would inherit the lands of a Baron Magnus if he joined with them. The plotters pleaded with the chief citizens of Wroclaw for support. Władysław on hearing of the situation sent several envoys to negotiate, unsuccessfully, with the citizens of Wroclaw. Władysław then marched on Wroclaw and was met with a delegation led by the bishop and finally negotiations ensued. Zbigniew fled from Wroclaw to the town of Kruszwica. The importance of the town and respect for the local elite had led to Wroclaw being chosen as the town from which to launch the revolt in the first place and had been the reason for Władysław negotiating rather than simply attacking the town leaders. The elite of Wroclaw were men to be dealt with on relatively equal terms not merely small towns men to be bullied or attacked. In contrast there was no negotiation at  Kruszwica where Władysław attacked his son even though Zbigniew had, by that time, Pomeranian and Prussian forces at his disposal.

In 1244 Wroclaw was involved in yet another dynastic feud. Bolesław and Henry, two of the sons of Henry II the Pious, received Wroclaw and Legnica respectively as part of their inheritance when their father died. Bolesław disputed the settlement and swapped his land with Henry giving up Wroclaw for Legnica which he, Bolesław, believed to be superior. However, Bolesław then regretted the swap and wanted Wroclaw back. This dispute quickly became part of the overall dynastic feuds being played out at the time. While it could be argued that this dispute was merely the usual arguments over the acquisition of land by medieval rulers keen to promote their own status and prestige, it is noticeable that both Bolesław and Henry appear prepared to spend considerable time and resources in securing Wroclaw for themselves over a period of some eight years.

But why was Wroclaw so desirable? Wroclaw had became a Bishopric as early as 1000 and soon became firmly established as the alternative power player to the Ducal court. By the twelfth century the bishopric was strong enough to see the building of several new churches under the Patronage of Peter Wlast and in 1149 Walter de Malonne was appointed bishop. During de Malonne’s tenure the territorial possession of the Bishopric were confirmed by Pope Adrian IV.  In the matter of the confirmation of the territorial claims of the bishop the claims of other landowners would have had to have been rejected no doubt raising tensions between those whose land was given back to the church and the bishop.
de Malonne was ambitious and campaigned on the issue of lapses in conduct by his fellow clergy. The campaign against the lapses of the clergy was part of the Canonical Reform of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The Lateran Synod of April 1059 had promulgated an Easter message of new awakening life for the Church. The canons of cathedrals and other chapters were to be called to live a true apostolic way of life. de Malonne’s territorial authority and clerical campaigns were, by their very nature, not universally popular amongst the clergy or landowning families and in both cases de Malonne faced opposition. However, known for his force of personality he ignored the challenges from the local elites and remained as bishop for some twenty two years.

Bishop Thomas II was  a similarly strong bishop. In 1284, Duke Henryk IV Probus required money for his political campaigning and sought to raise funds by making ‘unlawful demands on Bishop Thomas and the clergy of Wroclaw’ for money. The bishop refused and Duke Henryk seized his property, ejected ecclesiastical officials and demanded all tithes to be paid to him. Bishop Thomas stood firm and after some fruitless personal negotiations applied to the Archbishop of Gniezno who placed Wroclaw under interdict in 1285. The Duke ignored this and expelled the bishop. The bishop left Wroclaw to live in exile in the town of Racibórz under the protection of Duke Casimir. Henry demanded that Casimir expel the bishop and laid siege to Racibórz in 1287. Thomas then dressed in his finest ecclesiastical robes and led a procession out of the town and down to Henry’s camp when Henry was suddenly ‘seized with fear’ and prostrated himself on the ground in front of Thomas.
It is curious that Henry appeared unwilling to allow Thomas to live quietly in Racibórz; perhaps he did not want to lose face in front of other dukes. But the  fact that he was willing to continue this dispute over three years and to the extent of bringing siege warfare against his own bishop demonstrates the position and authority of Thomas. One does not expend time and money on someone of no consequence. However, Henry appears to have been equally matched by Thomas’ willingness to defend the dignity of the church rather than quietly acquiesce with the Duke. The final event in the dispute is a quintessential piece of medieval performative politics. When Thomas in his full ecclesiastical regalia and vestments processed out of Racibórz into the camp of his enemy he was undertaking a very public display of the authority of the church. Thomas could regain his position either as the living bishop or as a dead martyr for Wroclaw. In either event the authority of the church would be enhanced at the expense of the Ducal power.

In addition to the court and the church the third element in Wroclaw’s development was trade. Initially trade was probably restricted to the movement of goods and raw materials from its own hinterland however this soon expanded due in no small part to Wroclaw’s geographical location. In the twelfth century Wroclaw was a conveniently situated transit point for merchants from Prague travelling east and for Baltic traders travelling south. Wroclaw gained from the provision of hospitality, taverns and stabling and the like, but also in the trade of some local goods to merchants travelling further afield. Trade developed as the many religious orders moved into the area and engaged in agriculture and mining and as artisans and merchants engaged in secondary trades also migrated attracted by the economic opportunities.

By the thirteenth century Wroclaw’s economic opportunities included international trade. Traders from Wroclaw were noted in towns and areas such as Kiev, Regensburg, Munich, the Netherlands, Northern Italy and Venice. Wroclaw merchants traded fur pelts for luxury items such as spices and silks.  Records from Florence in 1299 and 1300 show credit notes from the Frescobaldi bank to a Wroclaw trader, David, for the transportation of furs and reimbursements of expenses. Trade continued to develop and by the fourteenth century Wroclaw was importing luxury items such as silk, taffeta, pepper, ginger, saffron, figs and raisins. Myśliwski’s investigations outline not only the extent of Wroclaw’s foreign trade connections but also the sophistication of that trade. The reimbursement of expenses to the Wroclaw trader indicates the involvement, at least at some level, with the complexities of the Italians banking system. In addition the volume, type and number of goods traded suggests a home market that must have been used to and was able to afford such luxury items; in other words an advanced economy.

One of the major changes that helped that advanced economic to develop was the adoption of Magdeburg Law by Wroclaw in 1261. Magdeburg Law, which had originated as a set of German town laws, was implemented slightly differently in Poland from the original German format incorporating local civil and criminal law codes. Interestingly Davis and Moorhouse raise the possibility that Wroclaw was incorporated before 1261. Documents from the Abbey of Trzebnica in 1242 describe Wroclaw as an ‘incorporated city’ and the planning for the Market Square could possibly push incorporation back as far as the 1230s. Nevertheless, Magdeburg Law was adopted in 1261. German became the official language of administration and many German and Jewish merchants were encouraged to settle in Wroclaw. Trade was regulated within Wroclaw to favour local traders with restrictions placed on foreign merchants. Trade guilds were established under a grant from Duke Henryk Probus and by 1272 membership of a guild became mandatory for every ‘Christian merchant and craftsman’. Experienced artisans and merchants became elders within the guilds loyal to the City Council. However, over time these elders started to form a ‘patrician elite’ that held considerable influence on the City Council. The increased wealth generated by Wroclaw’s traders and artisans allowed the elders to acquire a certain level of political power within the council; a political power that presumably allowed them a degree of independence from complete domination by court or church.

The interaction between court, church and trade drove Wroclaw’s development and influenced other Silesian towns. The political machinations of the Piast dynasty frequently saw disputes over the right to rule Wroclaw; a right which was presumably worth fighting over due to the role as the seat of power of the Silesian dukes, the prestige of its existence as a Bishopric and the wealth generated by its trade. Within medieval Silesian many of the clergy were related to the leading families as the church offered a career for those younger brothers unable to inherit and build up a retinue in the secular world. The church was also an extremely important element in the trade of Wroclaw. Several monastic orders arrived in Wroclaw in the early to mid-twelfth century including the Benedictines and the Premonstratensians who became wealthy landowners indulging in agriculture and related trades, the Augustinians, who started breweries and the Cistercians who mined gold and silver at Lubiąż. This list indicates not only a lively religious milieu but one in which the monastic orders were actively involved in economic development. These economic developments attracted migrants, who settled and expanded local small communities which soon became incorporated into the city itself. For example the Augustinians, who had arrived at the request of Bishop Walther, brought Walloon artisans with them when they first moved to Wroclaw.

Politics also played its part in economics. For example, in 1355 Wroclaw was under the rule of Charles IV of Bohemian who pursued an actively pro-Italian policy. This resulted in favourable terms being extended by the Doge of Venice to all of Charles’ subjects including traders from Wroclaw. However, this positive influence was counterbalanced by the opposition from Austrians to allow Wroclaw merchants to travel through their lands to Venice. This opposition could have been due to the economics trade which the Austrians were losing or could have been a political challenge to the Bohemians by the Hapsburgs. It is, however, most likely to have been a combination of the two.

One component of Wroclaw’s development that runs through the political, religious and economic elements is the changing ethnic mix within the city. The earliest religious orders brought Germans and Walloons into Wroclaw and this influx was further expanded by the arrival of Jews attracted by the mercantile opportunities offered by Wroclaw. As early as the eleventh century Jews were involved in land transactions around Wroclaw. The church in Wroclaw seems to have been reasonably relaxed with regards to the Jewish population in its community with little evidence of the implementation of the restrictions on Jews laid down at the fourth Lateran Council of 1215. These restrictions only appear to have come into play after the Synod held in Wroclaw itself in 1267. While it is not known why the church in Silesia was so slow to implement these restrictions the economic benefits derived from Jewish trading may have played its part.

Several Polish towns, such as Kraków, Minsk, Poznań, Łódź, adopted Magdeburg Law using the ‘settlement with German law’ as seen in Wroclaw. While many towns implemented the law using local derivations Wroclaw was an important influencing element on towns in Silesia and further afield with regards to the incorporation and implementation of the law. A further feature where Wroclaw led and Silesia then followed is in the forging of trade routes. Wroclaw’s merchants required furs to trade; furs which were supplied from across Silesia. In time these commodities were followed by traders from Silesian towns such as Strzegom.

Between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries politics, religion and economics drove the development of Wroclaw aided by an ethnically mixed population.It was the interactions between the political, religious and economic elements that were important in Wroclaw’s development and gave it its pre-eminent place in Silesia which could not help but affect the development of other towns in the region. Where Wroclaw led Silesia followed.


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