This is a study of the "periphery" of Europe which demonstrates again that the region east of the Elbe was by no means "peripheral" to medieval society. Not long ago it was understandable that medieval Poland was neglected by historians: primary emphasis always went to one's own country, and most medieval scholars were western; the seminal institutions and ideas for Italians, Frenchmen, and Britons were developed in the West; the best archives and research centers were in the West; and tsarist oppression, followed by Soviet domination, made work in the "East" difficult, if not impossible; and most of the secondary works were written in languages which few western scholars had managed to master. This is no longer the case. Poland is now back in "Central" Europe, and Paul Knoll, The Rise of the Polish Monarchy (1972) and Richard Hoffmann, Land, Liberties, and Lordship in a Late Medieval Countryside (1990)--to name the two most prominent American scholars--have demonstrated that Polish political and economic/social history is as comprehensible as its contemporary counterparts in the West. Of course, Polish medievalists have frustrating problems which need to be resolved, as Norman Davies demonstrated in God's Playground: A History of Poland (1982), but who doesn't? Górecki combines in this study a thorough grounding in Polish historiography and a training in present-day western methodology, producing a convincing picture of Polish rural life in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries--an era which attracted the attention of James Westfall Thompson, Feudal Germany (1928), since the German migration offered a test for Frederick Jackson Turner's Frontier Thesis.
German immigration (the famous Drang nach Osten) was encouraged by the anticipatory introduction of German law, resulting in western ideas and institutions running far beyond the ethnic frontier. Ducal and ecclesiastical desires to settle their "deserta" with peasants and burghers (regardless of their ethnic origin, but usually German because of their supposedly superior agricultural skills) caused Thompson to speculate that the landlords lured immigrants east by offering them very favorable terms of service. Górecki finds this now traditional stereotype inaccurate, the traditional categories being too complex and the Polish efforts to achieve uniformity in defining class rights and duties being more successful than previously imagined. At this point and others, the reader may wish that Górecki had as good a command of style as he does of vocabulary--the text requires a very close reading to determine what he means.
Górecki bases his study on six hundred charters issued by Polish ecclesiastics and dukes in the century and a half after 1000 and on three excellent contemporary chronicles (Gallus, Vincent Kadlubek, and Abbot Peter of Henryków) and one later work (The Chronicle of Great Poland). The most complete account is the 1136 survey of the scattered estates belonging to the Archbishop of Gniezno, but later records from monasteries and bishoprics yield more information on settlement and trade. He finds lords trying to balance the need for dependable revenues with hopes to profit from the dynamic economic changes of the era. This could be accomplished best by appropriate legislation (usually the adoption of German law), simplifying the class structure, and giving preferential rights (immunities) to knights, ecclesiastics, immigrants and merchants. The recipients of immunities were not always German--by 1230 "German law" had become the standard legal code for any type of new settlement; and by the fourteenth century it was applied to areas inhabited solely by Polish peasants. This suggests that Polish agriculture was not always so backward, nor German so advanced, as is usually assumed.
Granted that the author may be defending Polish honor, but he is not at all anti-German. Górecki reflects the current objectiveness of German and Polish scholarship regarding their common history. He concentrates on the documents, leaving out Grunwald (Tannenberg), the Partitions, and the nationalistic novels and poems. While the shelf-life of ground-breaking scholarship is short, for the foreseeable future Górecki's book will be among the commonly cited English-language works on medieval Poland.