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History of Poland

Early History

Humans have lived in the glaciation disrupted environment of north Central Europe for a long time. In prehistoric and proto-historic times, over the period of at least 800,000 years, the area of present-day Poland went through the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age stages of development, along with the nearby regions. Settled agricultural people have lived there for the past 7500 years, since their first arrival at the outset of the Neolithic period. Following the earlier La Tène and Roman influence cultures, the Slavic people have been in this territory for over 1500 years. They organised first into tribal units, and then combined into larger political structures.

The most famous archaeological find from Poland's prehistory and proto-history is the Biskupin fortified settlement, dating from the Lusatian culture of the early Iron Age, around 700 BC.

Poland began to form into a recognisable unitary and territorial entity around the middle of the 10th century under the Piast dynasty. Poland's first historically documented ruler, Mieszko I, was baptized in 966, adopting Catholic Christianity as the nation's new official religion, to which the bulk of the population converted in the course of the next centuries. In the 12th century, Poland fragmented into several smaller states when Bolesław divided the nation amongst his sons. In 1226 Konrad I of Masovia, one of the regional Piast dukes, invited the Teutonic Knights to help him fight the Baltic Prussian pagans; a decision which would ultimately lead to centuries of Poland's warfare with the Knights. In 1320, after a number of earlier unsuccessful attempts by regional rulers at uniting the Polish dukedoms, Władysław I consolidated his power, took the throne and became the first King of a reunified Poland. His son, Casimir III, is remembered as one of the greatest Polish kings and is particularly famous for extending royal protection to Jews and providing the original impetus for the establishment of Poland's first university.

When Casimir died in 1370 he left no legitimate male heir and, considering his other male descendants either two young or unsuitable, was laid to rest as the last of the nation's Piast rulers.

Jagiellon Dynasty

Beginning with the Lithuanian Grand Duke Jogaila (Władysław II Jagiełło), the Jagiellon dynasty (1386-1572) formed the Polish-Lithuanian union. The partnership brought vast Lithuania-controlled Rus' areas into Poland's sphere of influence and proved beneficial for the Poles and Lithuanians, who coexisted and cooperated in one of the largest political entities in Europe for the next four centuries. In the Baltic Sea region, Poland's struggle with the Teutonic Knights continued and included the Battle of Grunwald (1410) and in 1466 the milestone Peace of Thorn under King Casimir IV Jagiellon; the treaty created the future Duchy of Prussia. In the south, Poland confronted the Ottoman Empire and the Crimean Tatars, and in the east helped Lithuania fight the Grand Duchy of Moscow. Poland was developing as a feudal state, with predominantly agricultural economy and an increasingly dominant landed nobility component. The Nihil novi act adopted by the Polish Sejm (parliament) in 1505, transferred most of the legislative power from the monarch to the Sejm. This event marked the beginning of the period known as "Golden Liberty", when the state was ruled by the "free and equal" Polish nobility. Protestant Reformation movements made deep inroads into the Polish Christianity, which resulted in unique at that time in Europe policies of religious tolerance. The European Renaissance currents evoked in late Jagiellon Poland (kings Sigismund I the Old and Sigismund II Augustus) an immense cultural flowering. Poland's and Lithuania's territorial expansion included the far north region of Livonia.

Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Partition

A golden age ensued during the 16th century after the Union of Lublin which gave birth to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The szlachta (nobility) of Poland, far more numerous than in Western European countries, took pride in their freedoms and parliamentary system. For 10 years between 1619 and 1629 the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was at its greatest geographical extent in history, incorporating most of what today is Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and some parts of modern Russia. The period starts in 1619 when the Russo-Polish Truce of Deulino came into effect, whereby Russia conceded Commonwealth control over Smolensk and several other border territories. In 1629 the Swedish-Polish Truce of Altmark came into effect, whereby the Commonwealth conceded Swedish control over most of Livonia, which the Swedes had invaded in 1626.

In the mid-17th century, a Swedish invasion ("The Deluge") and the Cossacks' Chmielnicki Uprising which ravaged the country marked the end of the golden age. Famines and epidemics followed hostilities, and the population dropped from roughly 11 to 7 million.

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