What does Medieval Podillya, an Unknown Multicultural Fronteer in the East of Europe, Tell the World?

 16 August 2019

In the middle of the 14th century, the expansion of Europe eastward, where no one had ever heard of Europe, seemed hardly possible. However, a bizarre endeavour of Lithuanian princes, who themselves became Christians not long ago, managed to move the European border further over to the territories that belonged to the nomadic Empire. This expansion created a new historical region of Podillya. It was a remote land at the very end of Medieval Europe, where contested territories regularly turned into a battleground. Currently, it is a territory of Ukraine. Right there the European values fought their way to people’s everyday practices. Sounds contemporary, doesn’t it? This book demonstrates how six centuries ago a settled Christian population, which until the second half of the 14th century lived under the Tatars, succeeded in getting free from the hardships of the steppe and gained a new set of rules, which stipulated the way they administered their property, practiced law, and lived as a multi-ethnic community. It tells how the new rulers of the territory, the Koriatovych brothers, the ancestors of the Great Lithuanian Duke Gediminas, turned this vast territory into the easternmost province of Medieval Europe. It shows how the new law coming from the west attracted nobles, bourgeois, and mercenaries from Central Europe to come over here to advance their careers.


I talk about three things in this book. First, where Europe ends in the east in the Late Medieval time.  What makes Podillya interesting is that it undermines an idea that the formation of a new region in Europe on the territory that never knew any kind of statehood or governance of any ruling families stood very little chances. Nowhere else the conditions provided for such a fast and far move of a European frontier. And yet, Podillya managed to take advantage of the trade routes running from the east to the west and carrying eastern goods – silk and expensive fabrics, spices, and also slaves – to Europe. Second, I determine how the Podolian territory integrated rulers from different countries and traditions, and how they came together to support the Koriatovych brothers in their gaining support of the Polish King Kasimir III the Great and the Hungarian king Louis I and becoming their vassals. This led to them establishing a Catholic diocese in the city of Kamyanets and introducing European practices in Podillya, first of all, the fief land ownership. Third, I outline how after Podillya’s partition in two parts, the Western Podillya became the easternmost province of the Polish Kingdom and turned into a place where the amalgamation of local and newcoming nobles created a specific elastic community, which served the king in return for offices and lands, and at the same time found a protectorate of magnates, such as the Buzcackis. All of these factored in making the Podolian voivodeship a unique territory on a great European frontier in the 15th century.


While writing this book I made a personal discovery that the history of Podillya is a kind of model of something bigger. This bigger thing is a history of a modern Ukraine – a large country that emerged on the great European frontier. The events of the second half of the 14th– first half of the 15thcentury closely match a contemporary Ukrainian experience. Then, European practices won at a certain part of the country. Some of them survived till today as a vague understanding about the rule of law and justice. They manifest themselves in a form of a public protest against the abuse of power. Now Ukraine is facing a choice very similar to the choice Podillya faced six centuries ago. This choice is difficult and not obvious for many. Back then, Podolians could have continued to pay the tribute to Tatars and considered that a fee for a calm life. Now, Ukrainians face a similar dilemma of choice – a choice to live as before and serve people in power or foreign rulers or to bring power in the hands of the people. A history of Late Medieval Podillya provides examples of identical situations. In 1464, the Podolian nobles opposed an authoritative power of local magnates, the Buczackis family. The nobles agreed to collect a special tax to reclaim their own and the king’s control over the main city of the Podolian Voivodeship – the city of Kamyanets. The money was paid to the family of Buczackis who was the king’s creditor at the time. A joint action aimed at asserting the king’s and the local nobles’ authority over their major city became a good school of solidarity that later evolved into parliamentary practices.


One more striking aspect of the Late Medieval Podolian history is its multiculturalism that imposes itself on the work of a historian both thematically and linguistically. A few Podolian sources are written in Ruthenian; the majority – in Latin hugely influenced by Old Polish. This makes an explosive cocktail for a scholar and causes a collision with spelling and interpreting proper names. For example, Podillya is a Ukrainian name of the territory. However, it is not present under this name in hardly any English texts. One can rather come across a transliteration from Polish – Podole; or from Latin – Podolia. It is even more complicated to work with proper names that have been in use in English for a while: Kamyanets, as it should be transliterated from Ukrainian, is spelled as Kamianiec, Kamenets, and Kamenetz reflecting Polish, Russian, and Jewish spelling versions of the city’s name. When writing this book I had to always keep in mind that the family of Buczackis should be spelled in Polish version to follow an established convention, while the name of their city is transliterated as Buchach. Everyone who came to Podillya from the Czech Kingdom should be spelled in Czech version, Lithuanian princes – in Lithuanian, and Moldovan rules – in Romanian. The multiculturalism of Podillya strongly invaded the present-day English narrative of its history. This is a kind of historical irony.


One more point I make is that border provinces of Empires are never homogeneous. They do not always want to stay in a political and cultural orbit of the old imperial centers. When they become the objects of expansion of the European countries, as the Podolian case, the provinces actually face a choice to accept or protest the new rules. And it’s a process. The locals and the newcomers take time to find a common language and align the past and new values. This has a direct impact on the ability of the locals to establish their own state. The incapability or the lack of desire to unite is directly tied to the heterogeneity of the population. It is extremely hard, painful, and time-consuming to shape a community that has a chance to later evolve into a nation out of different people who are united only by a place of residence.


by Vitaliy Mykhaylovskiy