Jan III Sobieski in folk song

Songs, particularly those touching on historical topics, are an extraordinarily fascinating phenomenon of folk culture. Works which have vanished from memory in other communities live on in rural folk tradition. An excellent example of these relicts is The Song of the Turkish War (Pieśń o wojnie tureckiej), performed by Maria Siwcowa for the Wilanów Palace Museum.

Equestrian portrait of Jan III Sobieski, Charles (Carl) de La Haye, based on a drawing (painting?) by Jerzy Eleuter Szymonowicz-Siemiginowski; picture from the collection of the National Library of Poland.

Jan III Sobieski holds a particular place in Polish folk songs. He is, perhaps, the only historical figure to feature for so long in a repertoire addressed to an audience able neither to read nor write. The names of other heroes of Poland’s history recorded in song have either been forgotten or appear in a context far removed from real events, while Jan III Sobieski is remembered as the defender of Vienna against the pagans.

It may well be presumed that the song performed by Maria Siwcowa began to gain popularity in the final years of the seventeenth century, spread by wandering beggars and paupers who earned a crust by singing songs which either had a religious content or functioned as ‘oral news-sheets’. The fact is that all the written Polish records of the song date from the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, both the form of the lyrics and current knowledge concerning the development of beggars’ songs allow the assumption that it emerged prior to that era. It was certainly familiar shortly after the Battle of Vienna; Czech versions of the song are preserved in records which date further back than the oldest of the Polish sources. Three Polish versions of the beggars’ song about the Relief of Vienna  are known to us today.

The oldest dates from the 1860s. It has eighteen verses and, although it demonstrates a marked similarity to the second, slightly later source, Jan III is not mentioned by name, but figures in it as ‘the king’. The description it gives of the course of events is interesting; first the Turks come to the city, where they indulge in the profanation of the Host and martyr members of the clergy. A holy image is also ‘put to the sword’; it might well be assumed that the icon in question is the Black Madonna of Częstochowa. The ‘king’ only appears later, prostrating himself in the form of a cross before the painting, from which the Virgin Mary then descends and urges him to do battle.

The second record of the song, entitled Song to the Madonna in Affliction (Pieśń do Matki Boskiej w utrapieniu), also dates from the nineteenth century. It duplicates the form of the older version, but enriches it with further elements. Besides depicting the martyrdom of the monks, it features a description of children being slaughtered in front of their mothers and of nuns having their breasts hacked from their bodies. The king, this time named as Sobieski, prostrates himself in the form of a cross before the painting, from which Mary then descends and leads him into battle. While the earlier song ends at this point, this one continues with an extensive account of the fight waged by Jan III Sobieski at Mary’s side. She not only supports him in his efforts, but even works a miracle, lengthening the day by three hours.

The longest version, which was written down as heard in Warsaw when sung by a beggar by the name of Aksamit, has more than seventy verses and dates from the late nineteenth century. It presents the events described in Song to the Madonna in Affliction in expanded form. Here, the entire story of the Relief of Vienna is enriched by a host of miracles touching both the battle itself and the martyrs slaughtered by the Turks. In this version, the king drives away not only the pagan hordes assailing Vienna, but also those laying siege to Częstochowa.

Of course, the oldest version of the song makes no mention of the fact that the Relief of Vienna occurred “three hundred years ago”, as Maria Siwcowa sings; what appears instead is the descriptor “for seven years, the Turk waged war on Sobieski”. Not that this is a precise description; exactitude is not, after all, something that can be expected of folk songs, or, indeed, of beggars’ songs. There are two primary reasons for this. First, geographical and historical awareness amongst rural inhabitants was fairly slim and we thus have the Turks sailing aboard ships to Vienna, while the sole hint relating to when the events occurred refers to the century, giving us “two hundred” or “three hundred years ago”. Second, beggars’ and folk songs combined elements of various works and, in all likelihood, neither the performers not their audiences saw anything at all amiss in that. In fact, as a principle for describing events, it afforded the opportunity of introducing Divine intervention or events which had occurred in completely different wars, mixing together fragments of historical, religious and news-bearing songs.

The current form of The Song of the Turkish War is most probably the result of a blending of several different beggars’, historical and religious songs. The evocation of supernatural events was, after all, a very frequently occurring component of folk songs. It served as a weighing-up of events, endowing them with meaning and explaining their sense by adding a religious aspect, namely, a trial sent by God, a test accomplished by visiting an affliction upon human beings. A venerable treatment, it is also encountered in the arts of the ancient epic and the writing of chronicles or even memoirs.

However, the work in question demonstrates an even more powerful link with songs about Divine scourges, a lively genre from the Middle Ages onward. One of its characteristic features was the depiction of historically distant and current events alike as retribution visited upon Christians by God for various misdeeds. Portrayed in this manner, the invasion of the Turks related not to war, to an event of a military nature, as such, but became a kind of punishment or test which could thus only come to an end as a result of Divine mercy. Outbreaks of plague, calamitous crop failures, droughts and floods were explained in much the same way.

In the works under discussion, these elements of songs about Divine scourges are particularly evident in the parts evoking the tears flowing miraculously from the eyes of the Madonna in the painting and in the descriptions of martyrdom, a kind of conventionalised depiction which can be found as far back as the mediaeval Master Polikarp’s Conversation with Death (De morte prologus, Dialogus inter Mortem et Magistrum Polikarpum). The profanation of the Host and the children slaughtered in front of their mothers’ eyes are further manifestations of those elements, which also appear in the earlier Song of the Muscovite (Pieśni o Moskwicinie) which had most probably faded from folk memory, even though it related to events which had occurred in the recent past, undoubtedly the hostilities which had occurred between 1658 and 1660. The miraculous occurrences described in The Song of the Turkish War are the lengthening of the day by three hours and the stones sent by God at Mary’s instancy, which fall from heaven and kill the Turks. All those depictions combine with the providentialism, the view that human fate and the world are directed by divine providence, which was deeply rooted in the folk consciousness. Although the events evoked in the songs are seemingly unconnected to the actual defence of Vienna, they reveal a relationship to it at the fundamental level; they are a scourge sent by God.

It is not only the descriptions of martyrdom which derive from a non-historical genre; real events also wended their way into the song about King Sobieski. The mention of the slashing of the Virgin Mary’s image will serve as an example. It treats of the Hussite invader who reportedly struck at the Black Madonna of Częstochowa with his sword in 1430, only to fall, lifeless, at the foot of the icon. On the other hand, the portrayal of Sobieski praying before it is based on fact; the king really did stop at the monastery on Jasna Góra (Luminous Mount) on his way to Vienna. These two instances demonstrate the way in which completely different events from a variety of eras and de facto, touching upon a range of historical occurrences, are united in one description.

Besides the Jasna Góra storyline, the Marian narrative thread is also developed in all the songs about the Relief of Vienna. The Madonna speaks to the king and, depending on the version of the song, descends from the painting, supports him in battle, works miracles which enable him to emerge victorious and even enters the fray against the pagans Herself. She thus appears as an instrument in the hands of God. The victory at Vienna is not Sobieski’s achievement; it is an act of Divine Mercy.

One characteristic of the oral melic was the constant updating evinced in the adaptation of old content to new contexts concerning performer and audience alike. Here, indeed, the blending of news-bearing, historical, religious and other narrative threads present in various beggars’ songs provide an example, as does the updating of their content. Maria Siwcowa sings of the Relief of Vienna, an event which took place three hundred years before the song itself emerged. However, other versions exist which speak of it as something which happened two hundred years previously. Mention has already been made of the fact that the earliest of the songs, on the other hand, contains no information at all as to when the events it describes occurred, although it does refer to their duration, telling us that they lasted seven years.

Although it existed in various forms which, to a greater or lesser extent, appropriated the content of a diverse range of beggars’ songs, each and every one of those forms preserved the memory of the figure central to the events they describe. The names of the great heroes of the historical songs of the Old Poland era were later replaced by general designations. In this context, the recollection of “King Sobieski”, albeit described simply by the appellation of ‘the king’ in one of them, is something unique, especially given that, while he was a popular figure amongst the folk to the south of the Carpathian mountains from the time of the Relief of Vienna onward, the inhabitants of Poland had little notion of who he was. It is thanks to the recollection of his name that he became a hero of the homeland, a conqueror of the unfaithful and a heroic defender of Christianity favoured by Divine Mercy.

Translation: Lingua Lab

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