Jan III Sobieski as Godfrey of Bouillon

Irena Komasara quite rightly once described Jan Sobieski as a ‘lover of books’. The wealth of tomes which made up the royal library included more than one hundred and forty literary works. Like other Polish collections of those bygone times, the literature of Ancient Greece and Rome predominated, with French and Italian literature also abundantly represented. The Polish literary works it held, be they in Latin or Polish, numbered merely five. One of them was Torquato Tasso’s epic poem, Godfrey, or Jerusalem Delivered, translated by Piotr Kochanowski. The singling-out of that particular work should come as no surprise when viewed in the context of its reception in the seventeenth century.

Antonio Tempesta, illustration to Torquato Tasso’s poem, Jerusalem Delivered (La Gerusalemme liberata), Canto 1, pre-1607; National Library of Poland

It was first published in translation in 1618 by the Franciszek Cezary printing house in Krakow. The Polish translator changed the title; the original Italian, Gerusalemme liberata, underscored the liberation of Jerusalem during the first Crusade (1096-1099), which was commanded by Godfrey of Bouillon. The Polish rendition brings to the fore the heroic central character, Godfrey, described in the body of the poem as a devout and God-fearing hetman. The work immediately met with enormous interest from readers and was interpreted first and foremost as treating of religious war, even though the epic of the Crusaders’ struggles was accompanied by narrative threads in the Chivalric Romance vein. Read in a manner that endowed the work with a clear topicality, it was construed as pertaining to the concept of defending Christianity and doing battle with the unbelievers and was taken as relating directly to the then situation of the Polish and Lithuanian Commonwealth, which was described as an antemurale christianitatis, a bulwark of Christianity and was entering into the period of its bitterest strife with the Ottoman Empire.

One expression of this reception of Tasso’s poem in the aforementioned rendition is Piotr Kochanowski, Author of ‘Godfrey’ in Translation, a poem by Olbrzycht Karmanowski, poet to the Radziwiłł family. Karmanowski ends his eulogy to the translator by proffering the wish that:

“(...) your rhymes be renowned,
Though there be rhymes elsewhere, I speak not of those where
The memory is all of t’knights golden and fair
Who freed Our Lord’s Tomb from the cruel pagan hand.
If Christ’s Knights today, by their precedent fanned,
Were to stir, ‘twould be for the attire and nought
But wearing the Cross; for the battle they spare not a thought”.

Regardless of whether his words are read as an allusion to the knights of the Order of St. John, who wore a cross emblazoned on their surcoats, or as a general reference to knights who used that symbol simply for ornamental purposes, they are a direct rallying cry to act in the name of the same ideals as those conveyed in Godfrey. Much later, Wespazjan Kochowski was also to invoke the example of the conquerors of Jerusalem in To Neighbouring Christian Monarchs Quamquam (Latin: wheresoever), a poetic admonition to Europe published in a collection entitled Unidling Idleness:

“Oh golden ages, oh times the most glorious,
When under the standard of Godfrey valorous,
All Europe, Our Lord’s Tomb in her heart to the fore,
Set out ‘gainst the Saracens, riding to war”.

However, the most eloquent evidence of the attribution of the poem’s central idea to the Polish reality of the time comes from its subsequent publication in 1651 and 1687, when the printer added “A Tale of A [Military] Camp” as a descriptor on the half-title page and “Printed for the Amusement of the Noble Knightage” on the title page. Designating the personage of Jan Sobieski a ‘second Godfrey’ is a continuation of interpretations of this ilk.

The allusions to Godfrey are first and foremost connected with the Relief of Vienna. However, they had accompanied the figure of the victorious monarch in the past. In 1676, during a vote in the sejmik, the local parliament, in the Wielkopolska town of Środa Polska, Krzysztof Grzymułtowski, castellan of Poznań and a contemporary associate of the king, said:

His Royal Majesty has in assistentia angelum [the aid of an angel], like to the one who, in Torquata’s history of Godfrey, be it truth or be it fabulatur [invention], having seized a diamond shield from the heavenly arsenal, covered the knight dimicantem pro Christo [fighting for Christ], which shield, no longer of diamond, but the gentilicio scuto [shield bearing the ancestral coat of arms] of His Royal Majesty, covers His Majesty’s personage and thus, in his person, tuetur [protects] all of us, sheltering us so that even the most mighty of forces are shattered against it.

Here, the speaker was referring the episode in Canto 7 where an angel with a miraculous shield supports Rinaldo in his fight against Argantes. The comparisons of the king’s person with the figure of the Christian hero and of the monarch’s shield bearing his family coat of arms with the miraculous one in Tasso’s epic served as both an unequivocal eulogy of Sobieski’s martial virtues and as a means of extolling his deeds, which were also held to merit God’s particular care.

King Jan III not only had a copy of Godfrey in his library, but knew the poem and the association with its central character and the religious war he waged must have been extremely familiar to him. Writing to Marysieńka on 13th September 1683, after the battle itself, but still in camp, he compared his victorious army to the one led to the Holy Land by “le grand Godfrey”. His court historiographer, Wespazjan Kochowski, was with him at Vienna and it was he who set out to create a great, epic work wherein he not only used the form of Tasso’s poem in Kochanowski’s translation as his model, taking the ottava rima from it, but also set out to make of Sobieski a defender of the Christian faith, a second Godfrey, who was leading the whole of Christendom on a new crusade. In the preface to the reader which precedes A Divine Work, or Songs of Vienna Liberated (1684), he calls the king “the valorous Godfrey” and, in stanza LII of the poem itself, he juxtaposes the war against the Turks and the era of the victorious crusades:

“Time was when the faithful their standards raised
With valiant Godfrey ‘gainst the pagan foe;
(...) Succouring Austria’s Troy as she stood alone,
The Pole deflected a Troy of his own”.

Kochowski’s work remained unfinished; perhaps reality in the form of the subsequent fate of the expedition and the king’s evident isolation prevented him from continuing to pursue his intended concept.

We are familiar both with the welcoming ceremonies which took place when the monarch returned to Poland and the eulogies to the great victor proclaimed in many a panegyric. In that period of immediate response following the victory, laudatory comparisons of the king’s deeds with those of the great Christian hero were made in a school performance given by the students of the Jesuit college in Warsaw in 1685. The six-act play, entitled Imago victoriae a Ioanne III in Godifredo Bullonio adumbrate, presented scenes from the histories of Godfrey and Jan III, treating them in parallel. And in this case, despite its explicitly persuasive aim, the literarily created likeness could have no influence on the political evaluation of the events. In the Europe of the late seventeenth century, the concept of religious war, which had contributed to the formulation of the Sarmatian ideology and found the same expression and support in literature as the other convictions underlying that ideology, was no more than an echo of another world. By the same token, dubbing Jan III “the valorous Godfrey” rendered him more a figure from an epic past which was long since over, rather than creating a topical political message.

Nonetheless, the relationship between King Jan III and Godfrey endured in the Polish tradition. When Gustaw, the central character in Part Four of Adam Mickiewicz’s epic Romantic verse play, Forefather’s Eve, recalls his schooldays, he reels off a list of the books seminal to his envisaged dream of heroic deeds. And, alongside the epea of Homer and Tasso, the figure of King Sobieski features on an equal footing as a hero of the epic past:

“There, to a grove of an evening or ere break of day,
I went visiting Homer, conversing with Tasso,
Or watching Jan at Vienna win victory in the fray”.

Translation: Lingua Lab