Poland: A Travel Guide Through Time. #1 Elbląg, a great small city of old

Poland: A Travel Guide Through Time. #1 Elbląg, a great small city of old

Although many newcomers complained about the conditions of traveling in the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, let us not be discouraged by these reports. Let’s mount the horse, get into the carriage, or, in the case of an empty purse, set off on foot on a journey north, to the early modern Royal Prussia. Our guide will be Anton Friedrich Büsching’s geography textbook from the 18th century.


Elbląg in the first half of the 18th century by Friedrich Bernhard Werner. Image source: www.slovakiana.sk

Anton Friedrich Büsching, a German geographer, published in the middle of the 18th century an unfinished, multi-volume work entitled Neue Erdebeschreibung, translated into English in 1762 as A New System of Geography. It was intended to be a compendium containing geographic, political, and cultural data from around the world. In 1768, a part concerning Poland and Lithuania was published in the Commonwealth, translated into Polish as the Geography of the Polish Kingdom and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. This publication will be our starting point for a journey into the past.

Royal Prussia. Fragment of the map from the 18th century. Image source: Polona.pl

In our first time travel, we will go to Royal Prussia, a unique province of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It was under the rule of the Polish king under the Treaty of Toruń of 1466, which ended the Thirteen Years’ War between the Teutonic Order and Poland. In 1569, Royal Prussia was incorporated into the Crown. The province was divided into three voivodships (Pomorskie, Malborskie and Chełmińskie) and the Prince-Bishopric of Warmia. Royal Prussia had a kind of autonomy within the Polish-Lithuanian state. Only nobles from Royal Prussia could hold offices and dignities; the judiciary was also separate. The former Prussian states evolved in the General Sejmik of Royal Prussia, which included bishops (Warmia and Chełmno), voivodes, castellans, chamberlains, and representatives of three so-called Prussian large cities, as well as noble deputies organized in the lower chamber. Sejmik meetings were held alternately in Malbork and Grudziądz. Despite attempts to fully unify it with the rest of the lands of the Crown, Royal Prussia retained its separateness until the end of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which resulted in the development of a certain identity and regional patriotism. Thanks to rich, developed cities and lively trade contacts with the rest of Europe, Royal Prussia was the most developed region of the country.

Elbląg in the 17th century. Image source: Polona.pl

One more thing should be added – the adjective Prussian is a very problematic matter. It can refer to the pagan tribes of Old Prussians or citizens of early modern Royal Prussia; in the 18th and 19th centuries, it could mean something from the Kingdom of Prussia formed by Hohenzollerns. So if someone from Gdańsk in the 17th century used adjective Prussian, he most likely meant Royal Prussia; but two hundred years later inhabitants of the same city meant something different using the same word.

An important role in Prussia was played by the already mentioned so-called great Prussian cities: Gdańsk, Toruń, and Elbląg. Not only did they enjoy a lot of autonomy, but they were also great landowners themselves, and representatives of cities took part in the sessions of the Sejmik.

Today we are going to the smallest of the great cities – Elbląg. The city played a special role – it was here that the seal of Royal Prussia was kept. Elbląg was situated in the Malbork Voivodship, although it was incomparably larger and richer than Malbork; the territory belonging to Elbląg was 512 square kilometers!

“Elbing, a handsome, large city, which is fortified after the old way…”

Many roads and routes led to Elbląg; the most frequented were those leading from Gdańsk and Malbork. From a distance, we can see the towers of Elbląg churches and the huge city walls surrounding the city. Although today we will not find many traces of them, it is enough to look at the modern city map to see on the west side of the Elbląg river the starry relics of old fortifications in the shape of old bastions. Let’s take a look at A New System of Geography:

Elbing, a handsome, large city, which is fortified after the old way, and stands on a river of the same name, which has its source in the Drausen [Druzno] lake. It was built in 1239, and is a place of considerable trade. This city dates its first privilege from the year 1246, when the right of coinage was granted to it. The Newstadt, or New Town, received its privileges in 1347. Between the Altstadt, or Old Town, and the suburbs, where the store-houses of the merchants are erected, runs the river Elbing; and the Old Town is separated from the New Town by a wall and moat.

In the beginning, Büsching offers the readers the history of the city in a nutshell. In 1237, in the place of the future city of Elbląg, a Teutonic stronghold was built, soon destroyed by the Old Prussian tribe of Pogesanians. However, the knights of the Order managed to rebuild the castle soon; at the same time, they invited German colonists to settle here. In 1246, the Old Town in Elbląg was founded under the Lubeck law, and the Komtur and the Landmeister were both stationed at the castle.

Old Town: fragment of the Elbląg panorama from the 17th century. Image source: Polona.pl

Elbląg, along with its port, was one of the most important urban centers in the Teutonic state, and the city became an active member of the Hanseatic League. Over time, the importance of Elbląg decreased, because the state borders shifted, and a huge castle was built in Malbork, which became the heart of the monastic state. In 1337, the New Town was established, and, interestingly, it was supposed to be a competition for the Old Town. The consolidation of both organisms into one urban complex took place only in 1478!

The aforementioned suburb is Granary Island in Elbląg. It is located on the left bank of the Elbląg River. There the relics of the old moat have been preserved to this day. Warehouses appeared in this place already in the Middle Ages; over time, the granaries filled the entire area, creating a district so characteristic of Hanseatic cities. There were two bridges across the river to get to the Old Town.

Granary Island: fragment of the Elbląg panorama from the 17th century. Image source: Polona.pl

St. Nicholas church between tall and narrow tenement houses

Let us enter the city from the north, crossing the Market Gate because it is the only remnant of the city’s fortifications that still exists today. The remarkably high, gothic structure was built at the beginning of the 14th century, i.e. at the stage of the construction of the medieval brick fortifications.

Market Gate: fragment of the Elbląg panorama from the 17th century. Image source: Polona.pl

It obtained its height through subsequent reconstructions. In the first half of the 17th century, a clock was installed on the Gate, funded by the Elbląg patrician Izaak Spiering, the owner of a tenement house rebuilt after the war, known as the House of the Kings. About the time when Büsching’s work was published, the gate gained a baroque helmet. Although the building suffered significantly during the war, its reconstruction was quickly started, but the eighteenth-century pinnacle was not reconstructed. And what will we see when entering the old Elbląg?

The houses are high, narrow in front, and built in the old taste, almost like those at Dantzick. The streets are also very narrow, occasioned by the Beyschlage or Galleries which project into them; and before these are placed receptacles for all the dust and filth thrown out of the houses. Here are ten churches in which Divine Service is performed. That of St. Nicholas, which is the handsomest and largest structure of that kind in Prussia, was given up to the Papists in 1616.

As of today, the church spires already informed travelers of the imminent arrival in the city from a considerable range. From a distance, you can see the high tower of the church of St. Nicholas – the most characteristic dominant of the Elbląg landscape. The temple was erected in the central point of the Old Town in the first half of the 13th century. Thanks to successive extensions, the church expanded and gained new chapels; it obtained its final form at the end of the 14th century. At the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries, the tower was crowned with a beautiful Renaissance helmet, which, however, burned down in the fire of 1777.

St. Nicholas Church in Elbląg, first half of the 18th century. Image source: www.slovakiana.sk

As in most of the cities of Royal Prussia, Martin Luther’s revolutionary ideas drew large numbers of city dwellers to them. As early as 1523, the first demonstrations of Protestants took place in Elbląg; two years later, religious unrest led to the so-called Elbląg Revolt. These riots were not only religious but also resulted from the frustration of the majority, who demanded greater political influence and opposed the oligarchy of the patriciate. The City Council successfully manipulated the rebels, who directed their anger towards the Dominicans from Elbląg. Despite the pacification of the city and the announcement by the royal commissioner sent by King Sigismund I the Old of statutes (Statute Sigismundi Regis) intended to stop the spread of the Reformation, Protestantism took root in Elbląg. However, in the following decades, certain activities were carried out to strengthen Catholicism in the city, in which Cardinal Stanisław Hozjusz, the bishop of Warmia, was very much involved. One of the manifestations of the struggle between Catholics and Protestants was the conflict over control over the main temple of the city.

After a dispute that had lasted several decades, in 1616 the argument was finally resolved. As a result of pressure from the king and the bishop of Warmia, the church of St. Nicholas ended up in the hands of the Catholic minority, but in return, Protestants from Elbląg were guaranteed supremacy over other churches in the town.

“The Gymnasium or School belongs to the Lutherans…”

The Gymnasium or School belongs to the Lutheran – such a brief mention of the school in Elbląg was made by a geographer. And this school deserves much more attention – after all, it was the first such school in the whole Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth! The institution was established at a time when the townspeople were heated by the fire of Reformation ideas. The Lutheran Gymnasium was to educate youth in the spirit of Luther’s teaching; young people from all over the region came to Elbląg. One of the initiators of establishing the Gymnasium was Wilhelm Gnapheus, a Dutchman who came to Elbląg to escape persecution in his homeland. Thanks to his aspirations, on September 29, 1535, the Gymnasium was opened, steeped in the spirit of Protestantism and humanism. Gnapheus himself was the first rector. The school’s fame spread throughout Royal Prussia, and soon Toruń and Gdańsk opened their Gymnasiums.

Lutheran Gymnasium in Elbląg in Elbląg, first half of the 18th century. Image source: www.slovakiana.sk

The curriculum also includes subjects related to the Polish language, history, and the law of the Polish-Lithuanian state. Among the pupils of the Gymnasium, there was a place for the sons of Polish magnates – among others, Paweł Jan Działyński, the Pomeranian voivode, was educated within the walls of the Protestant school in Elbląg … known for his later counter-reformation activities.

In 1599, a new building was erected for the needs of the school, because until now students and professors used the monastery buildings, once occupied by Bridgettines. The new building survived the turmoil and today is the seat of the Archaeological and Historical Museum. The complex included not only classrooms but also residential cells for boys and rooms for staff. A botanical garden was also established at the Gymnasium.

In the shadow of the Hohenzollern eagle

If we went to one of the city’s taverns and, over a glass of Elbląg beer, asked the locals about regional news and maladies, they could tell us a story about the great injustice that befell the city. To understand it, one has to go back to the events of the mid-seventeenth century. In 1657, during the devastating war with Sweden, King John II Casimir reached an agreement with Frederick Wilhelm Hohenzollern, elector of Brandenburg and ruler of Ducal Prussia. The result of this compromise was the disastrous Welawa-Bydgoszcz treaties – Ducal Prussia, former Polisf fiefdom, became freed and out of the sphere of influence of the Commonwealth, which at the same time opened the gate for the Hohenzollerns to reach for the royal crown and, subsequently, the birth of the Kingdom of Prussia.

Among the provisions of the treaty, there was a point relating to Elbląg. The city became a pledge for a loan of 40,000 thalers, which the Great Elector gave to the Polish king, who desperately needed funds to continue the war. Although Frederick William did not take over Elbląg (because he did not fulfill all his obligations), his claims to the city became a thorn in the flesh of Elbląg inhabitants. In 1698, the newly elected Polish ruler, Augustus II the Strong, signed a secret agreement with the elector Frederick III (who only three years later became the first king in Prussia). According to this treaty, he transferred Elbląg to Hohenzollern in exchange for 150,000 thalers of a loan. Fryderyk happily agreed to such conditions.

General Wilhelm Brandt took possession of the city by force, which was met with a public outcry throughout the Commonwealth. Pressure from nobles, burghers, and neighboring countries led to renegotiation. The Elector was forced to return Elbląg in exchange for … 300,000 thalers, which were additionally secured by pawning some of the crown jewels. However, it was not possible to pay the entire amount, so in 1701 Fryderyk, already as king in Prussia, seized part of Elbląg’s land estates as compensation for his alleged losses. Overnight, the inhabitants of Elbląg lost a large part of their income. To make matters worse, the Great Northern War that was just underway brought the city under the occupation of Swedish, Russian, and Saxon troops. The misfortune of Elbląg was described by Büsching in his work:

In the year 1658, Elbing, indeed, by the convention of Bromberg [Bydgoszcz], was promised as a mortgage to Frederick William Elector of Brandenburg, to be held by him as a security for the payment of 400,000 rix-dollars, and in 1660, it was confirmed to that Prince by a new instrument; but he never got posession of the town: and though he remitted a fourth part of the sum, he never received the money. That Elector’s son, however, took it in 1698; but he restored it to Poland in the year 1700; and gave up his right to the mortgage, in confideration of which he was promised 300,000 rix-dollars, and, as a security for the payment of the money, some jewels out of the royal treasury were put into his hands.

Around the city – Żuławy, fields and villages

One cannot be surprised at the contempt of Elbląg burghers, who could daily watch Ducal Prussian soldiers guarding the country estates they had occupied, which now brought income to the foreign king.

Elbląg, like Gdańsk or Toruń, was not only a city itself but also a powerful landowner. Already in the times of the Teutonic Knights, Elbląg was granted numerous lands between the Nogat and Elbląg, on which many settlements and industrial plants were established. Later, Elbląg possessed a significant part of the Żuławy region.

The Żuławy is a region situated in the alluvial delta plateau of the Vistula river. In the early modern era, Żuławy were part of Royal Prussia. It was an important place of destination for Mennonite immigrants from the Netherlands, who were seeking shelter within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Żuławy near Elbląg. Fragment of the map from first half of the 18th century. Image source: Polona.pl

The persecution forced Menno Simmons’ followers to emigrate, and many of them chose Royal Prussia, where they were greeted with open arms. The “Olęders”, as they were sometimes called, settled mainly in Żuławy, where, thanks to the experience in draining the area, they started farming. They created small settlements which enjoyed great independence; they avoided strangers and held their services in private homes. Although the Mennonites are no longer here, there are relics of their centuries-old presence – such as cemeteries and beautiful timber-framed houses.. Let’s take a look at Geography:

The urban district is divided into the Elbląg Lowlands and the Uplands. Elbląg Żuława, which has already been mentioned above, belongs to the latter. In both, there are 10 evangelical church villages, namely: Furtenau, Gros-Mausdorf, Neu-heyde, Zeyer, Pomhrendorf (Pomorska Wieś), Trunz (Milejewo), Lenzen (Łęcze), and Dorbek (Próchnik).

Mennonites also settled in Elbląg itself. Although a law was issued in the middle of the 16th century that forbade the Olęders from settling in the city, it was not zealously respected. With time, the former royal edicts became a dead law, and the Mennonites could even acquire city citizenship. They created a small community in Elbląg that dealt mainly with trade. From 1590, they performed their religious practices in the tenement house of Jost von Kampen, a Mennonite merchant and citizen of Elbląg, at 12 Garbary Street. This building served the Mennonites until 1900! There is also a mention of him in Geography:

The Calvinists perform Divine Service in a large hall, and the Mennonites in a private house, in this city.

Druzno Lake – a witness to history

Büsching mentions Lake Druzno (or Drużno) twice. He mentions the lake for the first time as the source of the Elbląg River; the second time when the surname of city itself was mentioned:

Because of the Drausen [Druzno] Lake nearby, city is called Urbs Drusiana.

There were also municipal estates in the vicinity of the lake; the greater part of the basin was also in the power of the Elbląg townspeople (the rest belonged to the castle in Malbork). At the turn of the 10th and 11th centuries, Druzno was part of the Bay of Gdańsk; a large part of Żuławy was under the water. As a result of silt carried by the Vistula, overgrowth, and human activity, in the fourteenth century, the former part of the Bay became a lake.

Druzno Lake. Fragment of the map from first half of the 18th century. Image source: Polona.pl

Before that happened, before anyone thought about the location of Elbląg, a trading settlement grew on the shores of the future Druzno, which went down in history as Truso. The mysterious habitat awakens the imagination to this day. Among the numerous hypotheses, the most popular is the one that identifies Truso with a trading post established by the Vikings in the proximity of today’s village of Janów, which was an important port on the trade route leading from Scandinavia to the south. Truso was probably founded at the end of the 8th century at the meeting point of Scandinavian, Old Prussian, and Slavic cultures. In Truso, not only trade was carried out, but also craftsmanship was carried out. The port situated by the water had wooden buildings, among which we would recognize the characteristic long Viking houses. At the end of the ninth century, Wulfstan of Hedeby, an Anglo-Saxon traveler and merchant, arrived at Truso, whose account was included in Alfred the Great’s translation of Orosius’ Histories. It was also translated to modern English:

Wulfstan said that he went from Heathum to Truso in seven days and
nights, and that the ship was running under sail all the way. Weonodland
was on his right, and Langland, Læland, Falster, and Sconey, on his left,
all which land is subject to Denmark. “Then on our left we had the land
of the Burgundians, who have a king to themselves. Then, after the land
of the Burgundians, we had on our left the lands that have been called
from the earliest times Blekingey, and Meore, and Eowland, and Gotland,
all which territory is subject to the Sweons; and Weonodland was all the
way on our right, as far as Weissel-mouth. The Weissel is a very large
river, and near it lie Witland and Weonodland. Witland belongs to the
people of Eastland; and out of Weonodland flows the river Weissel, which
empties itself afterwards into Estmere. This lake, called Estmere, is
about fifteen miles broad. Then runs the Ilfing east (of the Weissel)
into Estmere, from that lake on the banks of which stands Truso. These
two rivers come out together into Estmere, the Ilfing east from Eastland,
and the Weissel south from Weonodland. Then the Weissel deprives the
Ilfing of its name, and, flowing from the west part of the lake, at
length empties itself northward into the sea, whence this point is called
the Weissel-mouth. This country called Eastland is very extensive, and
there are in it many towns, and in every town is a king. There is a
great quantity of honey and fish; and even the king and the richest men
drink mare’s milk, whilst the poor and the slaves drink mead. There is a
vast deal of war and contention amongst the different tribes of this
nation. There is no ale brewed amongst the Estonians, but they have mead
in profusion.

Wulfstan calls the Old Prussians Estonianians; the Ilfing River is the first recorded name of the Elbląg River. The end of Truso’s prosperity came at the turn of the 10th and 11th centuries when Gdańsk took over the role of an important port in the region and after major political struggles among the newly created states.

The epilogue

Before we finish our walk around the former Elbląg, it is necessary to mention the modern city. After fierce battles, Elbląg was captured by the Red Army in February 1945, and the city became a sea of ​​ruins from which everything valuable and possible to be exported was plundered. In the following years, the demolition continued, and old bricks found their way to the reconstruction sites in Gdańsk and Warsaw, and the Old Town in Elbląg became an empty space with several islands of architecture, rebuilt only a few decades after the war.

Plan of Elbląg from 1657. Image Source: Polona.pl

However, it was decided to rebuild the Old Town of Elbląg. In the 1980s, the first works began, which, however, were far from the orthodox approach to reconstruction, and which continue to this day. It was decided to rebuild the Old Town using the so-called retroversion: that is, maintaining plots, the grid of old streets and the scale of buildings, but with forms only loosely referring to the original buildings. Although this method quickly gained popularity all over Poland, it also attracted a very large group of critics. The reconstructed buildings, which combine the features of modernism and historicism, are accused of being kitschy. A positive effect of these activities was archaeological research on an unprecedented scale – Elbląg is probably the best-researched city in Poland in this respect.

Is it worth visiting Elbląg then? Despite the destruction of the city after World War II, it is worth visiting this city. Walking through the streets of Elbląg, we can capture the spirit of this place that is still present here.

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