Notes (1882)
by Adam Mickiewicz, translated by Maude Ashurst Biggs
Adam Mickiewicz1232338Notes1882Maude Ashurst Biggs


(1) "In towers of Marienbourg the bells are ringing."

Marienbourg, in Polish Malborg, a fortified town, formerly the capital of the Teutonic Order, under Kazimir Jagellon (1444-1492) united to the Polish Republic; later on, given as a pledge to the Margraves of Brandenburgh. It came at last into the possession of the Kings of Prussia. In the vaults of the castle were the graves of the Grand-Masters, some of which are still preserved.

(2) "But foreign houses of his fame were full."

Houses—so were called the convents, or rather castles, scattered through various parts of Europe.

(3) "The strife of keen-edged swords"=combattre à outrance.

(4) The Archkomtur.

The Grosskomthur was the chief officer after the Grand-Master.

(5) "Some unknown pious woman from afar."

The chronicles of that time speak of a country girl, who, having come to Marienbourg, asked to be walled up in a solitary cell, and there ended her life. Her grave was famous for miracles.

(6) "Our master he."

In time of election, if opinions were divided or uncertain, similar occurrences were often taken as omens, and influenced the decisions of the chapter. Thus Winrych Kniprode gained all the voices, because some of the brothers heard, as though from the tombs of the Grand-Masters, a three-fold calling: "Vinrice, ordo laborat."

(7) "A fire eternal burns in Swentorog's halls."

The castle of Wilna, where formerly was maintained the Znicz; that is, an ever-burning fire.

(8) "The place was Witold's."

[Witold, the son of Kiejstut, after rising over the heads of the other Lithuanian princes to the sovereignty of the whole country, was ultimately dispossessed by his cousin Jagellon, founder of the Jagellon dynasty, which reigned over Poland and Lithuania from 1386 to 1572.]

(9) Song of the Wajdelote.

The Wajdelotes, Sigonoci, Lingustoni were priests whose office was to relate or sing to the people the acts of their forefathers at all festivals. That the old Lithuanians and Prussians loved and cultivated poetry is proved by the enormous number of ancient songs, still remaining among the common people, and by the testimony of chroniclers. We read that during a grand festival on the occasion of the election of the Grand-Master Winrych von Kniprode, a German Minnesinger, being honoured with applause and a gold cup, a Prussian named Rizelus, was so encouraged by this good reception of a poet, that he entreated for permission to sing in his native Lithuanian tongue, and celebrated the deeds of the first king of the Litwini, Wajdewut. The Grand-Master and the knights, not understanding and disliking the Lithuanian speech, ridiculed the poet, and gave him a present of a plate of empty nutshells. In Prussia the Crusaders forbade officials and all who approached the court to use the Lithuanian tongue, under penalty of death; they banished from the country, together with the Jews and gipsies, the Wajdelotes, or Lithuanian bards, who alone knew and could relate the national annals. Again in Lithuania, after the introduction of the Christian faith and the Polish language, the ancient priests and the native speech fell into disrepute, and were forgotten; thence the common people, changed to serfs, and attached to the soil, having abandoned the sword, also forgot those chivalric songs. Still something has remained of their ancient annals and heroic verse, long joined with superstition, communicated in secret to the people. Simon Grunau, in the sixteenth century, came by accident on the Prussians at a solemnity, and with difficulty saved his life, on promising the peasants, that he never would reveal to any one what he should see or hear; then, after performing sacrifice, an old Wajdelote began to sing the deeds of the ancient Lithuanian heroes, mingling therewith prayers and moral instructions. Grunau, who well understood Lithuanian, confesses that he never expected to hear anything similar from the lips of a Lithuanian, such was the beauty of the theme and the phraseology.

(10) "Stands visibly the pestilential maid."

The common people in Lithuania figure pestilential air under the form of a maiden, whose appearance, here described according to the popular song, precedes a terrible sickness. I quote, in substance at least, a ballad I once heard in Lithuania:—"In a village appeared the maiden of the pestilence; and, after her custom, thrusting her hand through door or window, and waving a red cloth, scattered death through the houses. The inhabitants shut themselves up in a state of siege, but hunger and other necessities soon obliged them to neglect such means of safety; all therefore awaited death. A certain gentleman, although well provided with victuals, and able to maintain a long while this strange siege, yet resolved to sacrifice himself for the good of his neighbours, took a sabre of the time of the Sigismonds, on which was the name of Jesus and the name of Mary, and thus armed, opened the window of the house. The gentleman, with one stroke, cut off the spectre's hand, and got possession of the handkerchief. It is true he died, and all his family died; but from that time the disease was never known in the village." This handkerchief was said to be preserved in the church, I do not recollect of what village. In the East, before the appearance of the plague, a phantom with bats' wings is said to appear, and to point with its fingers at those condemned to die. It appears as though popular imagination wished to present, by such images, that mysterious foreboding and strange anxiety which usually precedes great misfortune or destruction, and which often is shared, not by individuals only, but by whole nations. Thus in Greece were forebodings of the long duration and terrible results of the Peloponnesian war; in the Roman Empire of the fall of monarchy; in America of the coming of the Spaniards.

(11) "The trees of Bialowiez."

[The trees here referred to are of an immense age and extra-ordinary height, challenging comparison with the giant trees of California. Many of them were venerated as divinities by the pagans of Lithuania, in whose religion tree and serpent worship formed a prominent feature. Oracles were supposed to be given from a peculiar species of oak, called Baublis, ever green both summer and winter. In the trunk of one of these, cut down about the year 1845, there were counted 1417 rings.]

(12) "Do burn the German knights in sacrifice."

The Lithuanians used to burn prisoners of war, especially Germans, as offerings to the gods. For this purpose was set aside the leader, or the roost distinguished of the knights for high descent and bravery; if several had become prisoners, the unfortunate victim was chosen by lot. For example, after the victory of the Lithuanians over the Crusaders, in the year 1315, Stryjkowski says: "And Litwa and Zmudz (Samogitia) after this victory, and after taking abundant spoil from their conquered and thunder-stricken foes, when they had paid to their gods sacrifices and the accustomed prayers, burnt alive a distinguished Crusader of the name of Gerard Rudde, the chief of the prisoners, with the horse on which he made war, and with the armour which he had worn, on a lofty pile of wood; and with the smoke they sent his soul to heaven, and scattered his body to the winds with the ashes."

(13) "They gave me the name of Walter."

Walter von Stadion, a German knight, taken prisoner by the Lithuanians, married the daughter of Kiejstut, and with her secretly departed from Lithuania. It frequently occurred that Prussians and Lithuanians, carried off as children, and educated in Germany, returned to their country, and became the bitterest foes of the Germans. Thus the Prussian Herkus Monte was remarkable in the annals of the Order.

(14) War.

The picture of this war is drawn from history. [The circumstances of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow, no doubt largely furnished the painful and realistic details in the text.]

(15) "The secret tribunal descends to council."

In the Middle Ages, when powerful dukes and barons frequently permitted themselves great crimes, when the power of ordinary tribunals was too weak to humble them, secret brotherhoods were formed, whose members, unknown to one another, bound themselves by oath to punish the guilty, not pardoning even their own friends or relatives. As soon as the secret judges had pronounced the decree of death, the condemned man was made aware of it, by a voice calling under his windows, or somewhere in his presence, the word—Weh! (woe!) This word, three times repeated, was a warning that he who heard it should prepare for death, which he must infallibly and unexpectedly receive from an unknown hand. The secret court was called the fehm tribunal (Vehmgericht) or Westphalian. It is difficult to determine its origin; according to some writers it was instituted by Charlemagne. At first necessary, it gave opportunity for many abuses later on, and governments were forced to exercise severity occasionally against the judges themselves, before this institution was completely overthrown. [Scott's graphic description in "Anne of Geierstein" of the court and procedure of the Vehmgericht will be instantly suggested.]

(16) ''A sudden cry."

"What cleaves the silent air,
So madly shrill, so passing wild?
It was a woman's shriek, and ne'er
In madlier accents rose despair;
And they who heard it as it passed.
In mercy wished it were the last."Parisina.

[The coincidence, or borrowing of ideas, is manifest, but the image has been amplified and beautified in the Polish poem.]

N.B.—In all the Polish words retained in the text j is pronounced like y, and w like v.