How to travel in the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth? A quick guide for chrononauts!

How to travel in the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth? A quick guide for chrononauts!

Poor roads, faulty conditions in roadside inns, bad weather, and marauders looking for easy plunder – traveling in the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was not easy. To prepare for your time travel below is a quick reference guide!


Polish nobles are observing the movement of ships on the Motława River in Gdańsk. A print by M. Deisch, the second half of the 18th century, source: Polona.pl

As of today, in the early modern era, the reasons for going on a journey varied greatly. Some wanted to gain knowledge and see a piece of the known world: that’s why young people from rich noble or patrician families set off on several years of grand tours, during which they visited other countries, cities, and universities. Thanks to this, they learned languages, good manners, and foreign customs, and, in the case of scientists, built a network of contacts necessary for an active academic life. For example, the future King, Jan Sobieski, set off on such a journey, visiting the countries of the Holy Roman Empire, the Netherlands, England, and France.

For others, religion was the driving force behind the journey, as pilgrimages did not lose their popularity in the early modern era. Pilgrims were made to redeem their sins, to thank God for the grace they had received, or because of their ardent faith. The poorer wandered on foot, with the inseparable staff and pilgrim outfits; the rich chose carriages or ships. The wayfarers were especially eager to go to Rome, Santiago de Compostela, and the Holy Land itself – a lot of Polish-language accounts have survived during visits to the Middle East. One of them was left by Mikołaj Krzysztof Radziwiłł (1549-1616). This is how he describes his arrival in Jerusalem:

And after entering the church and kneeling with the monks, we sang “Te deum laudamus”, thanking God for such a great blessing that he deigned to lead us to these holy places with health and happiness, in which his most holy feet stood when he, Lord, exercised our salvation.

It is difficult to imagine trading without travel. In old Poland, grain was floated to Gdańsk, and in the city itself, nobles could buy luxury goods such as books, furniture, cloth, and spices. People traveled also because of the offices they held, or the need to appear at the land sejmiks (diets) or in the general parliament. Although there were many reasons for the journey, all those setting out on the journey had to reckon with the same dangers and obstacles.

The condition of roads

To put it bluntly – the roads in the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were in a pitiful condition. Although villages, towns, and cities were connected by a network of roads, trails, and paths, their quality was often much to be desired. Sometimes traveling with them was impossible because of the mud; others disappeared and were overgrown. There were also seasonal roads, for example in winter through frozen marshes. When thaws or heavy rains came, the roads turned into swamps. Winter brought obstacles in the form of snowdrifts, blizzards, and icy ruts; sleds were used more often at that time.

Fragment mapy Erika Dahlbergha z 1696 roku. Widczona sieć dróg, łącząca miasta. Źródło: Polona.pl

After all, sometimes attempts were made to improve the quality of important roads. Lithuanian scholar Tomas Čelkis in his article about roads in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania cites an event from the 17th century. In 1647, King Władysław IV ordered the inhabitants of the town of Simno (lit. Simnas) to cut wood in the royal forest and to strengthen the roads around the city, because it was in a valley and the roads became impassable due to rain.

People of that time noticed the problem of poor quality roads. There were even wide-ranging projects to improve the situation. Jan Ostroróg (1436-1501), a close associate of King Kazimierz Jagiellończyk and Jan Olbracht, wrote in 1477 a work entitled A memorial about the repair of the Commonwealth, containing postulates aimed at reforms within the state. Ostroróg appealed:

Custom duties, however, and tolls are established solely for the good of the Republic and the country. However, the roads are now badly attended, most of the bridges are broken and are unskilfully repaired by customs janitors. It is, therefore, necessary for those who pay the duty to know what they are paying for. But to prevent damage to the fields and crops, and to quarrels between travelers who do not want to yield to each other on the narrow roads, there will be double roads everywhere along the highways, and peculiarly on the bridges, at least two or three cubits apart. Once it has been ordered and announced under penalty, every noble in his estate should do so. As soon as two parallel roads are built, fights that used to be usual between travelers will disappear.

Unfortunately, this visionary project of making two-lane roads was not implemented in the Commonwealth, and the noblemen’s duty to keep roads in good condition often turned out to be a dead law.

Roadside taverns

The roads – although not the best – were not the travelers’ greatest annoyance. The taverns, or rather their deplorable condition, were the thing that kept wanderers awake at night on Polish tracks. The Anglican Reverend Robert South, chaplain of Earl Rochester, accompanied him on a diplomatic mission to King Jan III Sobieski. South stayed in Poland longer, and the result of this visit was a letter sent from Gdańsk to Edward Pococke, in which South describes his stay in the country.

Karczma w Podlodowie, 1905 r. Źródło: Polona.pl

Let’s see what South had to say about this:

I shall close all with the Customs and Manners of Travelling in Poland. As an Introduction to which, you are to understand, that there are scarce any Inns in that Country, except those the Natives call Karczma’s, where Travellers are obliged to lodge with the Cattle. These Inns, or rather long Stables, are all built up with Boards, and cover with Straw, within there is no Furniture, neither are there any Windows, but all the Light comes in either at Holes made by the Weather, or the Crevices of ill-joined Boards. Tis True, at the further End they have a little Chamber with a Fire-Hearth; but to make an Abatement for that, there is no Lodging in it, because of the Gnats, Fleas, Bugs, and especially the Noisom Smell that incommodes it. For if they happen to have a little Window there (which is a Rarity if they do) yet they never open it, tho’ the Weather be at its Extremity of Heat: So that Strangers chuse to lie in the aforesaid Stable where the Gospodarz or Inn-Keeper Lodges himself and his Family, than to be suffocated by the Stink and Smell of so close and small a Room. In the long Room there is also an intolerable Smell, occafion’d by a parcel of rotten Cabbages, which those people always keep by them. And this, though it may be agreeable enough, to the Natives who are used to ir, yet to Strangers it must be very offensive.

If we are not convinced by the relations of foreigners, let us take a look at the staunch defender of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Łukasz Opaliński the younger (1612-1662), who in his work Defense of Poland to John Barcla (Polonia defensa contra Joannem Barclaium) argued with with the critical and ironic presentation of the Commonwealth. Despite passionately defying the accusations of the Scottish satirist John Barclay, in the case of the inns, Opaliński surrenders completely: 

In this, although in his custom Barklaj presents things lengthily and exaggeratedly (as he is always talkative), he does not, however, fail to tell the the truth. It is true that we do not have inns that would make it easier for travelers to sleep and eat. (…) And how ugly and disgusting it is to endure bed dirt, often with stains and signs of filth, scab, and venereal diseases. Indeed, together with Seneca, I would prefer to “have dry bread, food without any dishes, but without having to wash my hands for it, and a bed, though hard but leaving no traces,” rather than using this filth. For who can deny that, for the most part, apart from perhaps the biggest cities, there are poor inns?

Łukasz Opaliński

Not only the taverns themselves enjoyed a bad (and, it seems, well-deserved) reputation, but also the hosts of these establishments. Opaliński talks about cursed innkeepers driven only by greed and a desire to earn money. For Reverend South, the lack of hygiene is striking because, according to his account, he did not even change the hay on which the previous guests slept. Opaliński’s dislike of innkeepers could also have been caused by another issue, noticed by strangers, related to the Sarmatian mentality. Gaspard de Tende:

I think the reason you can’t find anything in taverns is because the nobles never pay for what they get. That is why the innkeepers refuse them everything, saying: I don’t have. Nevertheless, they give foreigners what they have without any probelms.

What was the recipe for such travel conditions? It was recommended to carry as much equipment as possible – including … the bed. A popular means of transport was the cart called kolasa, in which the sheets, headboard, mattress, and bedspread were packed, all kept in one travel bag that could be hidden under the seat. It was also recommended to bring your own provisions (alcohol included!) and oats for the horses. Reverend South:

By reason of this ill Entertainment on the Roads, all Travellers in this Country are obliged to have a Calash with two Horses, wherein they carry all their Necessaries and Provisions. Their Beds, Quilts, Bolsters, Sheets, and the like, are generally pack’d up in a large Serge Bag, which afterwards serves them instead of a Seat in their Leathern Convenience. They must provide also for the Belly, by a Case of Bottles wherein to put the Drink they make use of on the Road, and a Basket for their Meat, Bread, etc. Moreover they must furnish themselves with every individual Thing that they may have occasion for, and take care to renew what they have Exhausted, when ever an Opportunity Shall offer; For he that expects any thing but the indifferent Lodging which I have before spoken of, will be in a fair way o lying down in it Superless.

Podróżnicy w drodze do Elbląga – fragment panoramy miasta z pierwszej połowy XVIII wieku. Źródło: Polona.pl

So the nobles would take their food with them, which was then served to them in the inn, which Opaliński considered a good custom, also known outside Poland. The nobles who traveled on horseback carried a quilted mat, which they kept under the saddle.

An additional inconvenience for travelers who wanted to stay in the inn were … holidays. On the rare occasions when peasants could break away from heavy physical labor, the surrounding villages descended to the inn where they drank, sang and danced. It was hard to sleep in such conditions, especially as the noise grew louder as time passed.

City taverns

In the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the nobles were not the only ones who went on journeys. The townspeople were also very mobile, especially in Royal Prussia. Patricians willingly sent their sons to foreign (preferably Protestant) universities, and sometimes they traveled because of trade, politics, or diplomacy. Magistrates often sent their deputies to regional councils or to the royal court.

In large cities it was much easier to find accommodation of a much better status than those located along the roads; there were also many more inns in the cities. In Gdańsk, the biggest city in the whole country, taverns were located in the city itself, but also in its immediate vicinity. Some of them were intended primarily for seamen, but there were other places of a much better reputation for richer travelers.

An example of an inn intended for people of the sea was Western Inn (Westkrug). It was built before 1577, so it was one of the oldest buildings erected in Nowy Port (New Port) district. In the following years, it was joined by two more taverns, successively at the end of the 16th and mid-17th centuries. The Cistercians from Oliwa Abbey were the owners of these lodges, which they leased, which was another source of income for the wealthy convent.

Karczma Zachodnia i Twierdza Wisłoujście – fragment obrazu Isaaka van den Block Apoteoza Gdańska z 1608 roku. Źródło: Muzeum Gdańska

Western Inn’s customers were not only residents of the surrounding villages (such as Brzeźno or Zaspa) or fishermen working on the lake. Around the inn – and on the opposite bank of the river, in the Wisłoujście Fortress – there was a constant movement of ships, and yet the people of the sea were always eager to pass the time with a mug of beer. Thanks to a fortunate coincidence, we are able to say exactly what laws and regulations the lessee of the Western Inn had to follow at the beginning of the 17th century. Wilkierz, i.e. a set of regulations, issued for the subjects of the Oliwa monastery by abbot Dawid Konarski comes from 1616:

XXII. There is also no need for any innkeeper to sell imported beer except one that leaves our brewery, unless it happened with our permission, under severe guilt. And to make beer, everyone from each village should run to the manor house or brewery one by one.

XXIV. We also strictly command all innkeepers to have all kinds of resource needs both for travelers and citizens, under the loss of their rights.

XXV. Every innkeeper should have a charity box for the poor. Dood and merciful Christians will voluntarily offer a donation to the poor. Also, money will be put there by people who swear a lot or other mischiefs. Once a year, money from the charity box will be given to the poor.

Everyone on board!

Land routes were by far the most popular among the former inhabitants of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Polish nobleman was reluctant to board the ship – the sea for the Sarmatians was a strange and terrible element that they did not want to deal with. Only nineteenth-century romanticism will bring delight over the sea landscape. Before that, sea meant trouble. People trembled in fear before storms, diseases, hunger, and finally encounters with enemy units; in those days, many sailors could not swim, so falling overboard was often a death sentence.

Flis do Gdańska, druga połowa XVIII wieku. Źródło: Muzeum Narodowe w Krakowie

Rivers were chosen more willingly. A characteristic element of the former Polish landscape were barges filled with grain and wood, floated to Gdańsk, and from there – to the whole of Europe. It was the source of the wealth of the Gdańsk emporium and many noblemen. Raftsmen were involved in the timber rafting, usually, peasants, who set off down the river on packed boats. The barge supervisors were called retmans. In Gdańsk, they received a fee for their services and spent it on their pleasures.

Their traces were recorded in name placing in Gdańsk: from the 17th century, the name Polski Hak (Polnischer Hacken) appears in the sources, i.e. the area where the raftsmen stopped. No wonder an inn has been built here! Even in the first half of the nineteenth century, Johanna Schopenhauer from Gdańsk fondly recalled the times of her youth in Gdańsk and the sight of raftsmen gathered around fires, spending time with the accompaniment of yellow violins, painted with flowers. On the other hand, the raftsmen seemed somewhat wild strangers from afar – she even compared their figures to monkeys. The raftsmen were sometimes accompanied by nobles who wanted to look after their own interests. By the way, being in Gdańsk, they could buy luxury products and experience entertainment offered by the largest city of the whole Commonwealth.

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