Political Pamphlets in the 16th century

Critique of politics or political systems in Western civilizations is as old as the Western civilization itself. Various creative works of this kind (expressed via wall paintings by the society which could not have been illiterate) have been bequeathed to us by the ancient world through the Arab culture. The pamphlets, defined as the genre permeated with humour, are historically understood from the perspective of the Great French Revolution. These are the publications, letters and manifestos, sharply criticizing those in power. Among the most outstanding examples of this period is the pamphlet |Common Sense written by Thomas Paine in 1794 or even some works by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, forcing him to flee to England from the persecution of French royalists. Many minor texts of this genre have not survived until our days due to their short-lived value and an unfavourable attitude held by the ruling class toward them. Therefore, the legacy of such pieces of artwork requires not merely the literacy of the minimum part of society but also the situation,  ensuring that both the criticism expressed and its supporters are numerous enough.

Literary guns in religious battles

In the introduction of his “Contribution to the Critique of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” Karl Heinrich Marx asserts the following: “The criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.” The situation, when religion and politics was “mixed” into one whole, was faced by Martin Luther in 1517, after he posted the famous ninety five theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences (Lat. Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum) the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg.

The Reformation movement reached Lithuania almost instantaneously, with its repercussions heard even in the Dukes’ Palace.

However, the message of the first Confession of Faith by Abraomas Kulvietis (Abraham Culvensis) regarding the big politics, that is, the relationship with the Habsburgs (1543) fell on deaf ears: “Among Your Majesty’s subjects there are many of Lithuanian descent, highly educated, who could be of great merit to the State. However, intimidated by my fortune, they fled to Germany. Some of them sought refuge with His Majesty the Duke of Prussia, the others were provided shelter by other dukes. His Majesty the Duke of Prussia lavished funds to establish an excellent school. […] He intends to appoint me the Rector of this school. Therefore, if there is no vacancy for me in Your Majesty’s dominion, I will be forced to accept the proposal. This notwithstanding, Your Majesty, I deeply regret by my faith that even though we desire to work for our own folk, we are forced to work for foreigners.”

From the point of view of expression, this text should not be regarded as polemical. Its nature is more apologetical. Nevertheless, the very attempt to ground heretical faith using the content should be regarded as radical. The fact that the afore mentioned text was addressed directly to the Queen Bona Sforza makes it one of the most famous pieces of artwork, even though it is not the only known surviving example. Apart from this pamphlet, mention should also be made of a small book by Jonas Kozminietis A Letter to Servants of God’s Word and On the Customs of Tatars, Lithuanians and Muscovites, a 16th-century Latin treatise by Michael the Lithuanian. Even though the latter treatise has not survived intact and its volume is too big to be classified as a pamphlet, his and Venceslaus Agrippa’s Funeral Speech about […] Jan Radziwiłł’s life and death should be justly regarded as one.

Unlike the case of Abraomas Kulvietis, the vocabulary used by Michael the Lithuanian is stronger and more specific: “Our priests are no longer happy with the money and offering collected for the sins, with the first fruit and gifts donated by both the rich and the poor, gaining wealth from the births and marriages, from the sick, the dying and the deceased. Trampling the common sense and the established rights, they seek to acquire rich estates and manage many churches at the same time, to the detriment of the state. Living without calling, they often choose to live somewhere else, rather than next to the church they serve in. Behaving like this, as the Lord says, they do not enter the door of the church but steal in as if they were thieves or robbers.”

“Black technologies” of the Radziwiłł opponents

The manifestations of the fight between different ideas were obvious not only in the confessional but the state context as well, even though the former context prevailed. A reverse wave of texts soon started to flood the public space. Letters and various correspondence, the speeches delivered during synods were placed into the books and released as separate publications. Predictable rhetoric included a religious sphere of life, considering the fact that the relationship between the dominating religion and politics was not required to be separately discussed. Nevertheless, these were the public talks of highly educated individuals, the intellectual elite of those days, taking place in close proximity to the persons controlling religious and secular leverages. Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black. The most powerful of all the powerful, together with his cousin, his namesake Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Red, stood out as mighty supporters and patrons of the new movement of faith. However, the Radziwiłł and Sigismund Augustus share another story, which proved to be worthy of attention by the less educated people. Even though Sigismund Augustus managed to win the fight for Barbara Radziwiłł in front of the Polish Sejm and Senate in Krakow, he received harsh criticism from the residents of Vilnius.

Allegations of indecent behaviour (both generated by the entire Castle street and by a certain butcher located on that street), disseminated as pasquinades, came from the political opposition. The Radziwiłł dynasty was rapidly consolidating political power in their hands. Furthermore, they were Protestants and maintained particularly good relationship with the King. His forthcoming marriage with Barbara Radziwiłł, coming of lower origin (regardless of how influential the Radziwiłł family was, it was not of royal blood), was both the final step to embed their power and a unique opportunity to expand influence and apply pressure on the basis of this matrimony, held by many hardly appropriate.

Just the same, the texts posted even on the walls of the castle and town hall could not survive due to unfavourable political situation.

To ensure the survival of such treatises, an educated author was required, and such authors were scarce, if any, in an uneducated society.

Therefore it is through indirect sources that the news about a higher risk or danger is broken. Thus, Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black wrote to his cousin Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Red that a certain Lobocki was spreading rumours about the latter’s sister in Vilnius city. Rumour and hearsay is believed to have been a strong political argument. It should be noted, however, that the political conjuncture, exposed to criticism, was not favourable to the individuals offering such criticism. It suffices to quote the following words by Sigismund Augustus “… so that this Lobocki does not bother us any longer.”

Literature: Ingė Lukšaitė. Reformacija Lietuvos Didžiojoje Kunigaikštystėje ir Mažojoje Lietuvoje. Vilnius, 1999. 

Naglis Navakas