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9 March, 2019  ▪  

A noble identity

Who were the gentry that lived on the Ukrainian lands in the 14th-16th centuries?

The nobility, a privileged social class, were an indispensable element of any pre-modern society. In the late Middle Ages and Early Modern Period on the Ukrainian lands, it was divided into many groups. In general, if we try to describe these bellatores, or people of war, in the categories of the Middle Ages, then we fall into the trap of the sources that we use, which, in turn, provokes strong associations that have gained a firm foothold in not only the historiographical canon, but also the perception of our distant history.

The positivist habit of historians to categorise everything has played a cruel joke on the gentry. The requirements of grand national narratives to make it clear who is "ours" and who is "foreign" have led to categorical but completely unwarranted notions about the nobility that lived on the Ukrainian lands in the 14th-16th centuries. Below, I will try to illustrate how complex – and sometimes impossible – it is to characterise it using the definitions contained in textbooks and most works by Ukrainian historians. The time in question is between the middle of the 14th century and the Union of Lublin, which took place in 1569. The territory concerned is the Ukrainian lands within the Polish kingdom: Galician Ruthenia (the Ruthenian and Belz Voivodeships) and Western Podillya (the Podolian Voivodeship). The protagonists are the gentry that lived on this land.

Classification Difficulties

Let's start with the Ukrainian word for "gentry" – shliakhta, a loan word from the Polish (szlachta) and Czech (šlechta) languages, into which it was borrowed from German a good 100 years before it reached us. This is enough to ensure that on merely hearing the word, the first reaction is that it is Polish and therefore foreign – not "ours". We can find a way to deal with this by agreeing that we have no other term to define the privileged social class of the 14th-16th centuries and that we will use it even after that period – until the descendants of the gentry on both banks of the Dnieper became Russian nobility at the end of the 18th century. But that was already the era of an empire that had its own terms for defining this class.

If we try to make some sort of classification of the nobility in the Ukrainian lands, we will immediately face the problem of how to describe them. Of course, the easiest thing is to do this according to the simple principle of "us and them", where "us" means Ukrainian nobility and "them" are foreigners, i.e. those that came to our land. Despite the simplicity and clarity of such a division for the modern Ukrainian reader, one fundamental dilemma remains unanswered. If we should consider the old Ukrainian elite – the descendants of the boyars and the dukes' retainers – to be "our" gentry, who except the Poles could be the "foreigners"? Finding an answer to such simple questions brings great difficulties, even for the small group of professional researchers. We will return to these traps below.

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An important criterion for intra-class divisions is property status, which is quite simple: there are the wealthy, petty, poor and landless gentry. The only thing that can be discussed is the exact parameters for "wealth" and "poverty", which a historian sets according to the year and region. For example, a nobleman that owned 50 villages in the Halych Land in the 15th century would be considered wealthy, but this figure can be reduced to 20 or 30 for the Belz Land at the same time. This difference is due only to the fact that these two areas are not comparable in size and climatic conditions. Not to mention the lack of prosperity in the Podolian Voivodeship, where no one at all reached 50 villages in the 15th century, and the profitability of farming was probably very low due to constant attacks from the Tatars.

However, all these numbers are arbitrary without looking at what they actually meant for the gentry. After all, it is one thing when you own 50 villages that are home to many peasants, have well-developed local trades and are located on lively transport routes, which all brings the owner considerable profit. The wealth of someone who owns the same number of villages in the mountains, where there are not so many people, the land is not so fertile, and the roads are in almost the same state as they are now, is another thing entirely. Nevertheless, these quantities directly affect wealth, so should not be discounted, as they also influenced the position of a nobleman in the society of the time.

If we try to see who received land from the kings in the Ruthenian lands of the Polish Crown, the picture is not as clear as it may seem at first glance. Almost none of the rulers gave any special preferences to the gentry that came from outside these lands. Such assertions are based on detailed study of land assignment policy in the Lviv Land of the Ruthenian Voivodeship, as well as the Belz and Podolian Voivodeships. The fact that higher offices were mainly held by non-locals who had large land holdings was not the result of a purposeful policy by the kings to grant land to gentry from Lesser Poland, Mazovia or even outside the Kingdom of Poland.

According to Rank

The next criterion to draw attention to is which position a nobleman held in society, which was then measured by the office that he held. It could be at the district, borough or even crown level. When it comes to the latter, it is necessary to distinguish between the offices of the monarch's court and those of the wealthy gentry that sought to reproduce the trappings of a royal entourage within their own estate. With these criteria, it is easy: if you hold an office, you belong to the official class of the gentry, if you do not – you are one of the rest that tries to get into any position possible. After all, there were few offices in general. And even less that actually meant something and had influence.

Intellectual ability. The publishing of the Ostroh Bible was an important humanitarian project of the Ostroh dukes



For example, take any voivodeship. Each has one voivode – the governor of this territory. This office had a great influence on the society of the time as soon as it emerged in the Ukrainian lands. After all, whoever held it was brought into the state's elite, allowing him to speak with the king more often, which – combined with the ability to serve and connections to others in power – helped significantly increase the prestige of his own family. Subsequently, the holder of this office or that of castellan was given a seat in the Senate, the upper house of the Sejm. Let's look at one of the first Podolian voivodes in the Ruthenian lands, Hrytsko Kirdei. He held this position from 1439 until 1462 – almost a quarter of a century. If we try to define him according to criteria that are clear to the modern reader, we get a strange combination of everything we know about the 15th century. Hrytsko Kirdei is a Ruthenised descendant of immigrants from the Golden Horde, a Catholic by religion, the owner of a vast estate in the Podolian and Ruthenian Voivodeships, which makes it much harder to put him in a regional community, and a sincere supporter of the Polish king and the kingdom as a whole. We will return to him and those similar to him. If we try to classify him by his nickname/surname, he will be a Tatar (despite the arbitrariness of this word), by name a Ruthenian and by faith a Catholic, so... who is he?

Another Kirdei, Vanka from Kvasyliv, who was the castellan of Chełm, is known to historians as the initiator of the translation of the Wiślica Statute – the main source of the kingdom's law at the time – into the Ruthenian language. And unlike Hrytsko, he was Orthodox.

The next office after the voivode is that of castellan. There were more castellans in Ruthenian lands than there were voivodeships. This is due to the fact that individual lands and counties in the Ruthenian and Belz Voivodeships had their own castellans, while there was only one for the entire Podolian region. This comes to three voivodes and nine castellans. In total, 12 officials. In other words, very few for satisfying the ambitions of all those who sought to hold these posts.

Next, it is worthwhile to look at the group of officials linked to the courts, which there are a lot of. There is the district court, made up of three people – a judge, a subjudge and a clerk, the chamberlain court, where formally there is only a chamberlain, and the borough court, headed by a starosta (mayor), who is assisted by at least a substarosta and a clerk. If we count the number of courts, there are 8 district, 15 borough and 7 chamberlain. A total of 30. If there are at least three officials in each district and borough, this is a total of 69 people, to which we can add seven chamberlains for a total of 76 court officials. These calculations are very arbitrary, given that the starosta was a representative of the crown and could appoint his own servants and clients to the court, in contrast with the offices at the county and chamberlain courts, for which local nobility would submit 4 candidates to the king. Consequently, there were 88 voivodes, castellans, borough starostas and court officials. Not very many when compared to the entire brotherhood of knights.

Among the other offices, it is worth drawing attention to the standard-bearer, who was responsible for the local banner, and the wojski, who organised local gentry during periods of mass mobilisation. The rest of the offices were completely arbitrary or titular in nature. It is difficult to imagine the duties of a Sword-bearer, Cupbearer, Pantler or Master of the Hunt. But such a decoration was still very important to a nobleman, since even their grandsons were allowed to use a title related to their grandfather's office. Not to mention the sons of voivodes and castellans. An office made a nobleman stand out and, if it did not bring him immediate material wealth, at least served as a moral or honourable distinction in the local community.

If we try to answer the question of who occupied these positions in the Ukrainian lands in the 14th-16th centuries, then the absolute majority were noblemen that came from outside these lands. There is again the dilemma, or the curse, of classification. If we are dealing with noblemen who held offices in the second half of the 14th century and first part of the 15th in places they did not come from, we can call them the foreign gentry. No buts about it. What about their descendants who received their offices from the king after 1434? They were the second or third generation of those families in these lands. The Przemyśl and Chełm Lands did not become their homes – they already were. Here is an important clarification for our classification: for a nobleman of the time, belonging to the gentry was essential and he associated this with a certain territory or kingdom. In those markers there was not yet a place for national characteristics, which would appear much later. We will see their first manifestations only in the seventeenth century, when rigid confessionalisation became to some extent an equivalent of the future nationality.

Identify the Confession

Almost all people in the late Middle Ages and Early Modern Period believed in God. Each in their own way. If you look at the gentry from this perspective, everything is more or less simple until Protestant "novelties" found their way to the Ukrainian lands. In general, all nobles are Christians. Some followed the Eastern Rite, others the Western. "Who was there more of?" is a simple but very irritating question for Ukrainian historiography. At first glance, there are more outsiders, if one takes a superficial look at 15th century sources. But when we open those from the 16th century, when a massive amount of taxation documents and better preserved registers are at our disposal, we see a huge number of petty and poor gentry, most likely of local origin.

It is rather difficult to respond to these assumptions about ethno-confessional affiliation, since questionnaires where the gentry would indicate this had not been invented yet and we do not have access to their own reflections from that time. Let's try to look at it differently. How many Catholic churches were there to meet the weekly religious needs of Catholics? It looks like there were not so many churches, despite the presence of the Lviv Catholic Metropolitanate and three episcopal sees in Przemyśl, Kamyanets and Chełm. Indeed, in the Podolian Voivodeship, the number of Catholic churches did not exceed ten until the end of the 15th century (Kamyanets, Smotrych, Yahilnytsia, Chervonohrod, Yazlovets, Horodok, Letychiv, Medzhybizh, Zinkiv and Orynyn). If we take away the capital city, Kamyanets, the geographical spread is pretty predictable: all urban settlements – cities and towns. Consequently, they did not meet the religious needs of the Catholics of Podillya, which, looking at the available sources (land assignments to people from Mazovia, Lesser Poland, Moravia and Silesia), there were quite a few of. And they all lived outside of these towns.

In the Belz Land – after 1462 a voivodeship – the situation was even more interesting. Since this territory was ruled by the Mazovian Piasts from 1388, the lion's share of land was assigned to Mazovians. It is difficult to doubt their religious affiliation at that time – they were Catholics, but there were very few places of worship for them. This situation gave rise to an interesting phenomenon, the so-called county parishes, which there were also very few of – no more than ten. Finally I will give an example from the history of the Żółkiewski family, who came from Mazovia and used the Lubicz coat of arms. Finding themselves in the unfamiliar surroundings of the Chełm Land, they professed Orthodoxy for some time for one very simple reason. The nearest Catholic church was almost 2 days away.

The aforementioned tax documents from the sixteenth century allow us to reconstruct the network of Orthodox parishes on these lands, and they dwarf the solitary Catholic churches there in number.

All these reflections on the religious affiliation of the nobility living on Ukrainian lands in the 14th-16th centuries can not be interpreted unambiguously. We will never find out their perceived origin first-hand. Indeed, there was probably some sort of ancestral memory regarding the region or even village that a family hailed from. Even in the second half of the sixteenth century, when the first roll of arms – The Nest of Virtues – was made by Bartosz Paprocki in 1578, the gentry was only beginning to think about its origins and construct family legends about it. However, their fantastic nature brings modern researchers nothing more than a smile. Did they ascribe as much importance to this as they did to faith? This question will remain without the categorical answer that traditional positivist-oriented history would like to hear so much. There are more questions than answers, and they mostly relate not to faith, but to such aspects as religiousness, religious consciousness and religious discipline, i.e. individual manifestations of faith. But for this there is a lack of sources and thoughtful analysis of them.

The "Nationality" Label

Finally, let us examine the criterion that is gladly used in all national narratives – ethnicity. It brings us back to the simple classification of "us and them". Although at the same time it is so speculative that it is even hard to find any specific arguments against its use. All right, let's try to clear one thing up: how can we prove the ethnic origin of a nobleman? Again, we have to set certain criteria to be able to say what is "ours" (Ruthenian, Ukrainian), and what is "not ours" (Pole, German, Lithuanian, Czech, Hungarian, Polish).

To begin, we will consider our possibilities for classification and interpretation. Each nobleman is indicated in sources by a name, nickname and very rarely a coat of arms, which we can find when he attached his seal to a document. Traditionally, the gentry was designated in documents by having the following words in front of their names: nobiles(noble), terrigena(landowner) or, for the lowest stratum, boyaryn or boyarones(boyar). The latter should be simplest, because the phenomenon of the boyars was exclusively linked to ancient Ruthenian heritage and therefore we should be able to count all the boyars as ethnic Ruthenians. But not all of those who, for example, lived in the vicinity of Bar in the middle of the 16th century were of Ruthenian origin. Among them, we encounter boyars of Tatar and Wallachian (Moldavian) origin.

Let's go back to the name. For most, it seems to be the best criterion for determining ethnicity. After all, if a source mentions an Ivan, Ivashko or Ivanko, this automatically indicates his Ruthenian origin. At first glance, it is difficult to argue with this, especially when dealing with Ruthenian-language documents from the second half of the 14th century. When we start to deal with Latin, our confidence is eroded very quickly. An Ivan, Jan, Johann and Yoan can all "hide" behind the names Ioann, Iohan or Ian. For example, the starosta of Przemyśl, Halych and Sniatyn in 1375-1401 was equally comfortable writing his name in the Ruthenian language or in French as "Benko de Zabokruky". But the coat of arms that used clearly confirms his Silesian or Saxon origin, suggesting he belonged to the Biberstein family.

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It is equally difficult to deny the Ruthenian origin of Danylo Dazhbohovych Zaderevtskyi, a loyal supporter of Duke Švitrigaila and starosta of Halych and Zhydachiv in the first quarter of the fifteenth century whose estates were located in the counties of Halych and Zhydachiv, but he used the Korczak coat of arms. Researchers consider this to be one of the specifically Ruthenian coats of arms that depicts three parallel lines placed one above the other. Everything seems to indicate his Ruthenian origin: name, nickname, the village from which he chose to write and his coat of arms, which is typically Ruthenian. But in one document he is designated as "lord Danylo the Wallachian, owner of Zaderevchi, known as Milevkovych" (dominus Danilo heres Zadarzewsko Wolosko dictus Milewkowic). This at one time gave reason to consider him a native of Wallachia, where rapid Ruthenisation was by facilitated by the common Orthodox faith and the Ruthenian language used for administrative purposes (it was the main language in the Principality of Moldavia until the start of the 16th century).

Historians themselves bring even more confusion when they try to modernise the names of the subjects they study. Examples of this can often be seen in catalogues of medieval documents, where Andrzej and Piotr of Sprowa Odrowąż become Andriy and Petro respectively, while Marty Romanovskyi is known as Marcin in Polish. There are no grounds for such transformations and they only mislead the reader.


If we try to answer the question of what was decisive for identifying a nobleman at that time, it would be simple: which social category and regional community he belonged to. After all, only as a nobleman could he realise his potential in the social circumstances of the time. The regional community was the basis around which his entire life revolved. Only land ownership made it possible to get an office and its powers only applied to this land. It was also only possible to participate in court sessions and sejmiks (local parliaments) when the community recognised you as one of their own. Moreover, on the demand of the king, a nobleman had to join the pospolite ruszenie (mass mobilisation) under the banner of his voivodeship or land. All this alongside land ownership made him a representative of the local regional community – the Lviv, Przemyśl, Halych, Sanok, Chełm, Podillya or Belz gentry. If we look at the list of those who signed the 1464 act of the Lviv Confederation protesting the abuses of general Ruthenian starosta and Ruthenian voivode Andrzej of Sprowa Odrowąż, we find both Ruthenians from the Lviv land and those whose ancestors came to these lands from Lesser Poland, Mazovia and Wallachia. These and similar examples show, above all, the importance of state and territorial identity, not ethnic or religious.

The latter markers will become important and fundamental at a different time, when society had to make a choice regarding its faith due to religious upheaval at the end of the 16th and first half of the 17th centuries. Everyone was faced with the dilemma of deciding who to be.

A witness to majesty. Lutsk Castle hosted a congress of monarchs in 1429


So who were the gentry that lived on the Ukrainian lands in the 14th-16th centuries? We are still not ready to answer this question if we are going to raise the issue of ethnic origin or religious preferences. At the moment, little has been done about this in Ukraine – the be more precise, we have not even investigated the sources on the genealogy of the gentry from the 14th-15th centuries that are available to us. But if we try to give a general answer, then all the gentry that lived on the Ukrainian lands of the Kingdom of Poland at the specified time was Ruthenian, where we understand "Ruthenian" to mean the Ruthenian lands of the Polish Crown. Further stratification took place along territorial lines, giving us the Podillya, Halych, Lviv, Przemyśl, Sanok, Chełm and Belz gentry. This division would be decisive in the future for forming the local parliaments, or sejmiks. The next division, which took these circumstances into account, divided the nobility into those lucky enough to hold offices and the rest.

All subsequent divisions will be related to property: wealthy, petty nobility, poor and landless. In each of the regions, the level of prosperity or poverty is correlated with geographical and economic factors.

Is it as simple as talking about an influx of Polish gentry and the Catholicisation of local nobles? In my opinion, no, it is not. After all, the sources at our disposal and the professional scepticism of a historian do not allow me to make such sweeping statements. Perhaps the most important thing in all these discussions and passions is the gentry. It seems that in the 14th-16th centuries they were not too bothered about the things that historians of the 20th-21st centuries are concerned with.

By Vitaliy Mykhailovskiy


Translated by Jonathan Reilly

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