Wiesław Wydra

THE OLDEST EXTANT PROSE TEXT IN THE POLISH LANGUAGE. THE PHENOMENON OF THE HOLY CROSS SERMONS.

The finely edited Holy Cross Sermons are a unique phenomenon against the background of our medieval prose.1

1. Where do the Sermons come from?

When on 25 March 1890 Aleksander Brückner found the Holy Cross Sermons in manuscript Lat.I.Q.281 of the Imperial Public Library of St. Petersburg, it seemed fairly obvious to him that they must have been created in a Benedictine monastery, the Święty Krzyż [Holy Cross] Abbey, since their parchment remnants were concealed in the binding of a 15th-century paper codex from that abbey. This possibility was further acknowledged by Paul Diels, the next editor of the Sermons;2 other researchers also assumed this conjecture to be almost natural. However, in 1943 Władysław Semkowicz, the subsequent editor of this monumental work, strongly countered this assumption.3 He concluded that the codex where the fragments of the Sermons were discovered had been kept far away in Leżajsk before it was brought to Łysa Góra [Bald Mountain]. This was clearly demonstrated by a note of origin on the first parchment leaf of the codex. In the note, reading: Iste liber est monasterii Sancte Crucis in Monte Liszecz, the words monasterii Sancte Crucis in Monte Liszecz were written over an erasure, in a place where – instead of the name of the Holy Cross Monastery – the previous words in Lansensco anno d. 1445 could be found. Hence, the manuscript must have been kept in Leżajsk before, and since that was the place where the Order of the Holy Sepulchre (also known as the Order of Miechów) was active, it must have also been in the monastery of this Order that the Sermons were cut into strips and utilised in the binding of the codex. The book, in turn, was brought to Leżajsk from the original dwelling of the Order in Miechów. According to Semkowicz, it was also in Miechów that the Polish Sermons were once written down.4 The codex had supposedly reached the Holy Cross Monastery after 1459, as on the night from 7 to 8 October that year, a fire broke out there and – as Semkowicz thought – the entire library burnt down. In the following years, efforts were made to reconstruct it by acquiring and copying books, which were supposedly generously contributed by Michał of Kleparz, the abbot at that time. It was presumably then that the codex with the Polish Sermons in its binding came from Leżajsk as a donation or acquisition. In order to simplify the ex libris inscription, a part of the old inscription of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre was scratched out, with the Holy Cross being substituted for Leżajsk. This hypothesis of Semkowicz was widely accepted by researchers for many years.5


1 J. Woronczak, “Polskość i europejskość literatury naszego średniowiecza” [Polishness and Europeanness in the Literature of our Middle Ages], in Studia o literaturze średniowiecza i renesansu, Wrocław, 1993, p. 37

2 P. Diels (ed.), Die altpolnischen Predigten aus Heiligenkreuz. Mit Einleitung, Übersetzung und Wortverzeichnis, Berlin, 1921.

3 J. Łoś, W. Semkowicz, Kazania tzw. świętokrzyskie, Kraków, 1934. The Holy Cross Sermons were also published by F. Kortlandt, J. Schaeken: this edition, however, provides nothing but an account of the lections of all the other editors to date.

4 Semkowicz associated the Holy Cross Sermons with Stanisław, son of Stojkon of Książ, doctor of decrees, parish priest of the monastery of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre in Miechów from 1384 to 1395, and preacher. He presumed that the manuscript of the Sermons had formed part of the “homily literature gathered at the monastery of Miechów, and might have even been used by Stojkon’s son himself in his daily activities” (Semkowicz, “Przedmowa” [Preface] in Łos, Semkowicz (eds.), Kazania tzw. świętokrzyskie …, p. 17). 

5 Let us note that Semkowicz’s hypothesis, although strongly documented, had one essential defect: if we agree that the Holy Cross Sermons were published in the first half of the 14th century (possibly during the reign of king Władysław I the Elbow-high), there is little probability that they could have originated in the monastery of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre in Miechów. The Order of the Holy Sepulchre, or the Canons Regular of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem under the rule of St. Augustine, was created in 1099 in Jerusalem to protect the tomb of Jesus Christ. They also ran a hospital and a guesthouse. Following the fall of Jerusalem, the Order spread throughout Europe. They came to Poland in 1163 to build churches, hospitals and homes for the poor in locations such as Gniezno, Nysa, Bytom, Pyzdry and Miechów. Like the others, the Order of Miechów was from the very beginning almost exclusively composed of foreigners, predominantly Germans, Bohemians and Germanised Silesians (an ethnic enclave weakly connected with the Polish society). During the fights for the unification of the Polish lands, they strongly supported Wenceslaus II of Bohemia. In revenge, the army of Władysław I the Elbow-high plundered Miechów and the monastery in 1297 and 1300. Also, in 1311, when Bishop Muskata and Albert, Mayor of Cracow, rose against Władysław I the Elbow-high with the intention of placing John of Bohemia (John the Blind) on the Polish throne, the monastery of Miechów joined in the conspiracy. Upon pacification of the rebellion, Władysław I the Elbow-high occupied Miechów and expelled the foreign monks. They came back in 1314 due to admonitions from Rome, but from then on the priors were Polish; nonetheless, ethnic conflicts within the order lasted for many years, up to the first half of the 15th century. These specific circumstances of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre in the late 13th and early 14th century in Poland make it hardly probable that the text of the Sermons could have been created in such an environment, and even less that it could have been written there in the form as we know it. For the Holy Cross Sermons are a literary masterpiece and a monumental text demonstrating a high culture of writing in Polish. No Polish texts from Miechów earlier than from the 15th century are known. The atmosphere there was not favourable to the creation of such texts. While there is little probability that foreign friars could practise preaching in Polish at such a high level of proficiency, it seems even less likely that they owned a scriptorium where a considerably long tradition of copying Polish manuscripts would have let them develop such a coherent and meticulous brachygraphic system. Therefore, the creation of the Sermons (or their copy) should not be associated at all with Miechów or the Order of the Holy Sepulchre in Leżajsk. See also i.a. Z. Pęckowski, Miechów. Studia z dziejów miasta i ziemi miechowskiej do roku 1914 [Miechów. Studies in the History of the Town and its Region up to 1914], Kraków, 1967, pp. 50-53, 250, 311, 315, 362; see also: “Bożogrobcy” [Order of the Holy Sepulchre], in Encyklopedia Katolicka 2, 877-882 (with an extensive bibliography).