The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, 1733-1795. Light and Flame

There is no doubt that for some time now the situation has been ripe for an attempt at writing a new synthesis of the history of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 18th century, and particularly of the period of Stanisław II August’s rule. This is due to the fact that for several dozen years very intensive research has been carried out not only into issues which had already aroused interest, but also into those which had hitherto been overlooked or were impossible to study due to the inaccessibility of sources.

As a result, our knowledge of the internal political history of the Commonwealth, and probably even more so of its international dimension, has been expanded and deepened. With regard to certain issues, one can even speak of a breakthrough in their representation in historiography. In the circumstances, the need to take a breather, to pause, as it were, and take stock of what we have learnt so far has become ever more acute. The book presented here is undoubtedly a response to this need, at least to a considerable extent, since it does not cover the entire 18th century, but only the reign of the last Saxon on the Polish throne and the times of his – Stanisław II August’s – rule.

Richard Butterwick was prepared like few others for the task he undertook, given his output to date and his knowledge of sources, especially in relation to the times of King Stanisław II August. Not only is he the author of a great many important articles based on extensive archive searches, but also two extremely important monographs, including the fundamental work The Polish Revolution and the Catholic Church. Hence, many of the findings of the book presented here are based not on studies, but on his own source research. It is worth adding that his output to date shows that this researcher combines the ability to analyse detailed issues with a talent for synthetic approaches, quite a rarity indeed. He is also able, which is not without significance in a book addressed to a wider audience, to present the discussed themes in a way that is both clear and interesting.

At first glance, one could say that the book has been prepared in a standard manner. However, this does not mean ‘just like his predecessors’, nor does it mean conservative. Rather, it is about the reliability of the author’s method, resistance to all scientific fashions and ideologies, and finally also about the precision and, so to speak, elegance of his argumentation.

The work is devoted to the 18th century, or at least a significant part of it, but the first chapter (‘Commonwealth’), which is introductory in nature, presents an outline of the history of the Commonwealth from the times of Casimir the Great until the 1820s. This is no more than a sketch (p. 11–33), necessary for readers unfamiliar with the history of the Polish-Lithuanian state, yet one which does not seem to miss any of the issues important for understanding the specific character of the Commonwealth of Both Nations: its ethnic and religious composition, the meanders of the union, its international location, a picture of its society or its political organisation.

The following chapters present the history of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from 1733 until 1795 in chronological order. However, this arrangement is definitely not proportional. Only two chapters and about 50 pages (34–79) are devoted to the Saxon times (1733–1763), while the entire remainder of the book, i.e. over 250 pages, including one hundred focusing on the Four-Year Sejm, is devoted to the era of Stanisław II August. In a sense, then, this is a synthesis of the history of the last monarch’s era, and the ‘Saxon’ chapters could be regarded as a further, more developed continuation of the introduction. Is this a criticism? Not in my view. Firstly, an author of this type of work has the right to highlight certain issues or periods which they find more important for the epoch presented, and there is no denying that the reign of Stanisław II August was in many respects a watershed period, with the Great Sejm its culmination. Secondly, shorter does not mean worse.

In the chapters ‘Impasse’ and ‘’Sacrum and Profanum’, the author draws a political, social, religious and economic panorama of the Saxon times with the expertise and freedom that only an excellent knowledge of the subject can provide. In fact, there is no issue that he misses. These are not separate discussions, but one complex and at the same time coherent picture, in which the issues connect with one another, arise from one another, and finally form a background for one another. Although brief, this is a brilliantly constructed and complete synthesis of the last thirty years of the Saxon era. This also applies to political history, both internal - here the characterisation of magnate factions both in the Crown and in the Grand Duchy is noteworthy - and the international position of the Commonwealth. It can be said that the chapter devoted to these issues (‘Impasse’) is not only a history of the Polish-Lithuanian state, but in a sense an outline of the political history of Central and Eastern Europe, showing the links between the internal situation of the Commonwealth and the struggles of the superpowers, in which it was unfortunately only an object.

As regards the part devoted to Stanisław II August’s era, it would not be possible to present all the themes - there would not be enough space to show the whole wealth of topics contained therein. After all, this is a summary of an extremely turbulent period in the history of the Commonwealth and enumerating all the problems discussed therein would be like listing the main issues relevant for the epoch, as none seems to have escaped the author.

On the other hand, it should be emphasised that the author tries (successfully) to show each issue as comprehensively as possible, taking into account the current state of research and, let us repeat it once again, the results of his own investigations. At the same time, in presenting each event, action or process, he builds it into a broader internal and external context. In his book, the Commonwealth appears as a country which in many aspects differs from others (just as every state is and was different), but which at the same time constitutes one of the elements of the mosaic making up 18th-century Europe.

Although some chapters (e.g. ‘Growing pains’) are more devoted to social or economic issues, the book does not have a clear thematic division. Unsurprisingly, the author pays most attention to political history, which is the leitmotif and guides the narrative, although other issues such as demography, the economy, culture in its broadest sense, education, social issues and the role of the Church are also thoroughly discussed. At the same time, the author conducts his argument in such a way that apparently very different threads combine, interweave and result from one another, giving a rich picture of the reality of the time, as well as of the changes occurring in the Commonwealth and its circumstances over several dozen years.

The author’s discipline is admirable here: each digression turns out to be only apparent, built into the main argument, constituting its point or starting point for presenting another problem. The pages of the book also feature vivid and full-blooded characters. Sometimes the author tries to analyse the motivation behind their actions, and he does not shy away from making assessments, as in the case of the Targowica confederates (p. 306–307, 305). Undoubtedly, the most important figure is King Stanisław II August, which is eloquently demonstrated by the references to his statements in the chapter titles (‘A new creation of the Polish world’; ‘The King with the Nation’; ‘The Nation with the King’, etc.).

Although the book shows, or at least hints at, the situation of all members of the community living in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the main collective hero is the nobility. This is not surprising as it was the only social stratum that participated in political life, and inevitably any study whose main subject is political history must focus on its members. Prof. Butterwick shows its social structure, career opportunities, political games, the changing balance of power, the mechanisms of the magnate factions, and how in the late 1780s, in the face of weakening ‘clientelist’ ties, the old arrangements began to crumble. Other classes, especially city dwellers, including Jews, have their place in parts of the book devoted to social, economic or demographic issues, while in the political context they actually appear only during the Four-Year Sejm, and later the Kościuszko Uprising, i.e. when their cause, and later themselves, somehow entered politics. The author also stresses that one of the elements of the ‘Polish revolution’ was precisely the change in the understanding of the notion of nation and the recognition of its members other than the nobility (p. 208, 261).

The chapters devoted to this ‘Polish revolution’ would actually merit a separate review, as they constitute, due to their volume (p. 206–301, and if the chapter on the Polish-Russian war and the Targowica confederation is added, then up to page 325) and thoroughness, a kind of book within a book - a monograph on the Four-Year Sejm. The analysis of the Constitution of 3 May 1791 (p. 260–268) and the post-May system (283), thorough and accurate, deserves attention, and this is only a fragment of a brilliantly constructed and knowledgeable history of the most important (and certainly most optimistic) four years of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 18th century. It is clear that the author is the best specialist on this era at the moment.

In concluding his book, Richard Butterwick expressed the modest hope that ‘perhaps it has even made some contributions of its own, which may be of interest to specialists’. (p. 385). I think he has achieved this aim without any doubt, and in several fields at that. It is already valuable that the work is an excellent summary of research to date, which the author knows like few others and uses with expertise, which allows him to show certain issues in a new and not-so-obvious light. Even more important is the fact that it contains new and important findings relating to specific issues, such as the place and role of the Church in the state, the meanders of the political activities of King Stanisław II August (and his opponents), the political games and decisions of the Four-Year Sejm, and many others.

However, what seems most important to me is that the analysis of the fate of the Commonwealth is set in a broad European context. This is probably the first historical synthesis of this epoch in which the author has followed so closely the political situation in this part of Europe, and at the same time shown that, without this knowledge, it is impossible to understand the internal political activities of a state deprived of sovereignty.

It is therefore to be hoped that these qualities of the book will also be preserved in the Polish translation, which should appear as soon as possible.


Prof. Anna Grześkowiak-Krwawicz (Institute of Literary Research, Polish Academy of Sciences)


The text is an abridged version of a review which will appear in the journal Wiek Oświecenia.


Richard Butterwick, The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, 1733–1795: Light and Flame, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, pp. 482, ill.