Bear Academy in the Lithuanian wilderness

Bear Academy in the Lithuanian wilderness

The town of Smorgonie, although small, was a picturesque place. Located on the left bank of the Wilia River, Smorgonie was one of the points on an important trade route connecting Królewiec, Vilnius, and Moscow. The town was located at the junction of two worlds: Lithuanian (and thus Catholic) and Ruthenian (Orthodox). In the 17th century, another element was added to this colorful mosaic: the bear training school.

Since the Middle Ages, tamed bears performing circus tricks with their trainers have been a popular entertainment all over Europe. The bear-tamers wandered from one settlement to the next, collecting money from onlookers itching for thrills. It was a popular pastime both in peasant villages and in the palaces of the nobles. Where bear tamers could find their pets? For example, in a special school, which was founded in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Bear tamers, folk woodcut from the collection of Józef Kraszewski. Source of the image:

At that time, Lithuania was famous for its vast forests and the animals that inhabited it. This not fully known country, which was the last in Europe to adopt Christianity, was the source of many rumors and amazing stories. It was said that in Samogitia, in inaccessible and dark forests, common folks still worshiped the old gods. Indeed, the pagan Balts held for sacred groves, rivers, and lakes in high esteem, as that places were homes to supernatural deities. Testimony to this was given by King Sigismund Augustus himself, who in a letter to the bishop of Krakow 1547 stated: The breath of Christian spirit is still very fresh in this Grand Duchy of ours. Here, apart from Vilnius, and especially in Samogitia, the dark, uncouth people worship (and I will be silent about other superstitions) the groves, oaks, lime trees, boulders, and serpents, and make public and private sacrifices to them.

Almost 150 years later, Bernard O’Connor wrote:

From henceforward the Lithuanians have for major part continued Christians, tho there are yet some Idolaters among tem of different Beliefs towards the Frontiers of Muscovy and Samogitia, in the great Woods, who still worship Serpents as they used to do. (…)

No part of the King of Poland’s Dominions abounds more in Wood and Deserts than Lithuania, and there is one Forest of above a hundred Miles long, in which People are very wild and ignorant, tho the Gentry of Lithuania for the most part are more polite, more sociable and more active than the Poles.

Many bears lived in these Lithuanian forests. On the one hand, the mighty animal evoked legitimate fear and respect. Bears were caught and “imported” to other parts of the realm to arrange hunting parties. This happened in 1527 when King Sigismund Augustus took part in hunting in the Niepołomice forest. Enraged Lithuanian bear attacked the ruler’s retinue. Queen Bona’s horse was scared, and the queen fell to the ground. This accident had a grim repercussion because the woman had a miscarriage.

Tarzan in Sarmatian fashion. Children raised by bears

Bears were also heroes of the folktale, which was extremely popular in the early modern period, according to which wild animals were able to take care of abandoned children. There are many accounts according to which female bears suckled human babies as if they were their own young. Such feral children, found by humans, were a curiosity for contemporaries. O’Connor devoted a lot of space to this phenomenon in his History of Poland. Let us once again look at the work of this Irish physician:

Illustration from the History of Poland by Bernard O’Connor. Source of the image:

It was assur’d me often at Court, and it is certainly believ’d all over the Kingdom, that Children have been frequently nurtur’d by Bears, who are very numerous in these Woods. There was one kept in a Convent in my time who was taken among them, as I have describ’d in my Latin Treatise, of the Suspenfions of the Laws of Nature. He was about ten Years of Age (which might be guess’d only by his Stature and Aspect) of a hideous Countenance, and had neither the use of Reason, nor Speech: He went upon all four, and had nothing in him like a Man, except his Human Structure: But seeing he resembled a Rational Creature, he was admitted to the Font, and christen d; yet still he was restless and uneasy, and often inclin’d to flight. But at length, being taught to stand upright, by clapping up his Body against a Wall, and holding him after the manner that Dogs are taught to beg; and being by little and little accustom’d to eat at Table, he after some time became indifferently tame, and began to express his Mind with a hoarse and unhuman Tone; but being ask’d concerning his course of Life in the Woods, he could not give much better account of it, than we can do of our Adions in the Cradle.

This story was confirmed not only by senators and magnates but also by King Jan III Sobieski himself.

Inside the Bear Academy of Smorgonie

French Jesuit Philippe Avril, professor of the Parisian Sorbonne, was chosen by Louis XIV to travel to the Far East in search of convenient trade routes. He also wanted to learn about these fascinating and largely unknown countries to Europeans. The route of the French Jesuit ran through Syria and Turkey towards Moscow. There, Avril and his travel companion were forced to turn back, and the Jesuit went to Warsaw, seeking support at the court of King Jan III. After the unsuccessful expedition, Avril left a written account, in which he also devotes space to the Commonwealth:

Those Cruel Beasts, that are passionate Lovers of Ho∣ney, are very troublesom to the Bees, and prejudice the Peasants, for whom they work considerably. However they secure them by making kind of Fence round about the Trees they are in, with Spikes at top of them, or by covering the hole they come in at with several Branches of Thorn (…) As the Forests of Lithuania furnish the Inhabitants with Honey, and Wax, they also yield them abundance of Skins, and Furs. Elks, Foxes, and Bears are as com∣mon there as in Muscovy (…).

Besides the Example of the Child, that was Suckled by a Bear in the time of the Late Queen of Poland, Louise Maria, I was as∣sur’d, that the same Prodigy happens often, and that Children are often found in their Caves without the least hurt, tho’ they have lain there several days. They also shew’d me the Academy, where they are manag’d, before their being led through the Cities of Europe, as they commonly are. It is a Town call’d Samourgan, where they are taught what we see them practice with so much dexterity, and as it were Judgment.

Smorgonie near Vilnius. Fragment of the map from 1630. Source of the image:

The town described by Avril was the Lithuanian town called Smorgonie (today part of Belarus). It cannot be stated with certainty when the training center was established in the town: perhaps it happened in the 16th century when the property belonged to the Zenowicz family. Certainly, already in the mid-seventeenth century, the “Smorgonie Academy” enjoyed well-established fame and achievements.

In Smorgonie, bears were trained by brutal means. By using music and hot tiles, efforts were made to develop a conditioned response in these animals. Special footwear was put on the hind legs of the animal. The bear was led on the hot tiles, and under the influence of heat, the animal stood on two legs. Thanks to this cruel practice, the desired reactions were forced, which to outsiders might seem like a dance. Special quarters for bears were arranged in Smorgonie, including cells where the animals could spend the winter in peace. A similar training center was located in Klewań. Trained bears often appeared at magnate courts, being a curiosity and a sign of prestige for their owners.

After the period of the collapse of the Smorgon Academy, related to the devastation caused by the Third Northern War, the center was rebuilt on the initiative of the famous magnate Karol Radziwiłł, who was the richest man in the 18th century Commonwealth. The cear tamers brought by Radziwiłł came mainly from the Romani minority living in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The eccentric Karol Radziwiłł kept trained bears at his court in Nieśwież, and according to legends, he even moved in a carriage to which four furry beasts were harnessed!

Karol Radziwiłł. Source of the image: National Museum in Kraków

The powerful magnate appointed Jan Marcinkiewicz, so-called Gypsy elder, as the chief of the Smorgonie Academy.

The Romani people in the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

Thus, the Smorgonie Academy is a very interesting chapter in the story about the Romani people in Poland and Lithuania. The Romani appeared in Poland as early as the Middle Ages. The first wave most likely came from Hungary. In 1401, in the town book of Kazimierz near Krakow, there is an entry about Mikołaj Czigan (Cygan means Gypsy in Polish) who leased land in the city. Interestingly, the Romani in Krakow had to lead a sedentary lifestyle: they were most likely engaged in trade, and some of them even served at the royal court.

Over time, large groups of nomadic Roma came to Europe. Often, many conflicts arise between them and the natives, which is why in the 16th century many rulers issued special edicts to banish the Romani people. In the face of repressions, the colorful caravans headed to the East and South.

The Romani dealt mainly with horse trade, boiler making, animal taming, and fortune-telling. Some of them settled down, resigning from eternal wandering, and they often entered the service of local nobles. In the former Commonwealth, there was a distinction between settled and wandering Romani, and the latter were treated with much greater reserve. There were also laws against them in the Commonwealth, including attempts to expel them. However, in reality, it was dead and disregarded law, and some nobles even demanded its abolition. Particularly large groups of Romani lived in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

The Romani people in the mountain village, 1876. Source of the image: National Museum in Kraków

So the unique concept was created, which meant to be a tool for better integration of Romani people within the kingdom. A special superior was appointed for them (so-called Gypsy king), who on the one hand was to take care and protect the Roma. On other hand, he had to ensure that they did not break the law or any local customs. Such an institution appeared in the times of Władysław IV Vasa and Jan Kazimierz. From 1662, this position was occupied by noblemen. The Romani were ordered to obey the elder of the Gypsies, who could discuss disputes and impose penalties. The last “Gypsy king”, Jakub Znamierowski, died in 1795.

The lands of the Radziwiłł family were unique. They were inhabited by a very large group of settled Roma, for whom the magnates appointed separate superiors. The aforementioned guardian of the Smorgonie Academy, Jan Marcinkiewicz, was the head of the Roma in the town of Mir. The Romani bear tamers in Smorgonie were not an exotic minority, but representatives of an ethnic group that had been settled and tolerated in Lithuania.

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