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The Lost World of the "Sarmatians": Custom as the Regulator of Polish Social Life in Early Modern Times.

Maria Bogucka. Warsaw: Institute of History, Polish Academy of Sciences, 1996. 44 illus + 201 pp. $18. ISBN: 83-86301-25-2.

This series of closely connected essays by a leading Polish social and cultural historian (she is now also the Editor of Acta Poloniae Historica, which publishes the results of current Polish scholarship in the western languages) provides a much needed study of the traditions and customs of early modern Polish history. Professor Bogucka takes as her starting point the problem of providing a theoretical framework for explaining the processes which provided norms of behavior and social control in the Polish (and Polish-Lithuanian) state in the Renaissance and early Baroque. She quite correctly rejects the "civilization" theory of Norbert Elias, for as she puts it, in Poland the "state was weak and unable to control the behaviour of its population as it did [in] the absolutist powers" (5). Her framework is instead upon custom as regulator; it established boundaries between social groups, defined behavior patterns, and determined conduct in every aspect of life. In this, the dominant forces were the Catholic church and particularly the noble estate, whose distinctive and consciously constructed culture (putatively derived from the early Sarmatians) expressed a coherent social model.

Her introductory chapter treats the effects of vast territorial space, sparse and unequally distributed population, and an agrarian way of life for the majority of the population. These shaped "different forms of life and a characteristic mentality and created conditions which contributed to an independent behaviour of both individuals and entire social groups" (18). Against this backdrop, she traces in ten subsequent chapters social structure and customs, the importance and character of gesture, family life under patriarchialism, rites of passage (birth, marriage, death), dwelling and dress, table and bedroom behavior, the social perspective of work (both "noble" and "undignified" occupations), leisure activities in both social and political perspective, legal culture, and finally popular piety and "Sarmatian" aesthetics. In all of this, her presentation is rich with detail, telling in its choice of anecdote and illustration, and convincing in its argument that forms of authority based on custom and tradition and derived from the outlook of the noble estate were as effective in establishing social order and stability and regulating life as the contemporary absolutist state elsewhere.

Part of the pleasure in reading this volume is derived from the magisterial use of an enormous range of source material. These include traditional literary and formal sources used by scholars in the past, but Bogucka has also successfully exploited such additional sources as memoirs (Jan Chrysostom Pasek's work is familiar to many in an Anglophone audience, but his is merely one of a great many which have not hitherto been well utilized for social and cultural history in this period); private diaries; letter collections of pro forma communications to be used for invitations, condolences, congratulations, and the like; and numerous published (and some unpublished) family notebooks - the silva rerum - which compile hundreds and, in some cases, even thousands of formulae touching behavior. Altogether the data she assembles provide a picture of the guidelines early modern Polish society relied upon to follow the norms of behavior, beliefs, and law - both formal and informal. Her work provides a gold-mine of information for those unfamiliar with the social and cultural history of Poland and suggests an alternative European tradition which will well serve those interested in comparative approaches.

Bogucka's book is a synthesis of her previously published Polish scholarship, and the individual chapters have for the most part already appeared in Acta Poloniae Historica, western conference volumes, and other publications in North America and Europe. While her own English is excellent, and she has consulted with a translator, the text retains a number of Polonicisms which are annoying. In addition, the volume lacks an index, a usable guide to the numerous illustrations, and a bibliography. These shortcomings aside, this book is a welcome addition to scholarship on the social and cultural history of early modern Poland; it is sure to stimulate further research. In particular, those interested in the history of daily life, the family, and in gender issues will find a great deal of useful material here.

PAUL W. KNOLL University of Southern California
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Knoll, Paul W.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1999
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