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

 16 August 2019

In the mid-fourteenth century, expansion of Europe eastward to lands where no one had any idea of “Europe” seemed inconceivable. However, a bizarre endeavour of Lithuanian princes, who had themselves just recently become Christians, managed to move the European frontier into territories that belonged to nomadic peoples. This expansion created a new historical region called Podillya. It was a remote land on the edge of Medieval Europe, where contested territories regularly turned into a battleground. Today it is part of Ukraine. In this very place, then and now. we can observe how European values struggled to embed themselves into people’s everyday practices.

This book demonstrates how six centuries ago a settled Christian population, which until the second half of the fourteenth century had lived under the Tatars, succeeded in escaping the hardships of the steppe and adopted a new regime, on how to administer property, practise law, and live 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 redoubt of Christendom. It shows how the new legal structure imported from the West attracted nobles, bourgeois, and mercenaries from Central Europe to move east to advance their careers.

I talk about three things in this book. First, I explore where Europe ends in the east in the late-medieval period. What makes Podillya interesting is that it undermines a notion that creating a new region in Europe in a region that knew no kind of statehood or governance by ruling families stood little chance. Nowhere else can we observe such a European frontier moving eastward so far and so fast. And yet, Podillya managed to take advantage of the trade routes running from east to west, carrying exotic goods – silk and expensive fabrics, spices, and also slaves – from Asia into Europe.

Second, I show how Podillya absorbed rulers from different countries and traditions, and how they came together to support the Koriatovych brothers who in turn gained the support of the Polish King Kasimir III the Great and the Hungarian king Louis I, so becoming their vassals. This led to them establishing a Catholic diocese in the city of Kamyanets and introducing European practices to Podillya, primarily land ownership by fief.

Third, I outline how, after Podillya’s partition in two, Western Podillya became the easternmost province of the Kingdom of Poland and became a place where local and incoming nobles created a specifically elastic community, serving the monarch in return for offices and lands, whilst at the same time forming a protectorate of magnates, such as the Buzcackis. All of these factored into making by the fifteenth century the Podolian voivodeship a unique territory on a key frontier with Asia.

While writing this book it became clear to me that the history of Podillya is a model for something bigger. This bigger thing is a history of modern Ukraine – a large country that emerged on the same Eurasian border. Podillya in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries matches the Ukrainian experience of the same time. There too, European practices prevailed in a part of the country. Some of them have survived till today as a vague recollection and understanding of the rule of law and justice. They manifest themselves in public protests against the abuse of power.

Today 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 tribute to Tatars as money well spent in return for a quiet life. Now, Ukrainians face a similar dilemma – a choice to live as before and serve people in power or foreign rulers, or to bring power into the hands of the people. Late-medieval Podillya provides examples of identical situations. In 1464, the Podolian nobles opposed their local magnates, the Buczackis family. The nobles agreed to collect a special tax in return for reclaiming control (by them and the king) over the main city in the Podolian voivodeship – Kamyanets. The money was paid to the Buczackis who controlled the monarch by virtue of being his creditor. But joint action to assert the authority of the king and the local nobles over their main city was an exemplar of solidarity that later evolved into parliamentary practices

Another perhaps surprising aspect of late-medieval Podillya is its multiculturalism, which we see thematically and linguistically. Few Podolian sources are written in Ruthenian; the majority are in Latin, but hugely influenced by Old Polish. This is a huge challenge for scholars, particularly with spelling and interpreting proper names. For example, Podillya is the Ukrainian name for the territory. However, this name exists in hardly any English text. Instead we find transliterations from Polish (Podole) or from Latin (Podolia). It is even more complicated working with proper names that have been in use in English for a while: Kamyanets, if it were properly transliterated would be spelled Kamianiec, Kamenets, or Kamenetz reflecting Polish, Russian, or Jewish spellings of the city’s name. I struggled to remember that the Buczackis family should be spelled in this Polish way to follow established convention, while the name of the city from where their name originates would be transliterated as Buchach. I followed the rule that everyone who came to Podillya from Bohemia should be spelled in Czech, Lithuanian princes in Lithuanian, and Moldovan rulers in Romanian. So, the multiculturalism of Podillya has strongly invaded the present-day English narrative of its history. Something of a historical irony.

A final point I make is that border provinces of empires are never homogeneous. They do not always want to remain in the political and cultural orbit of old imperial centres. When they become the objects of expansion by European countries, as happened in Podillya, the provinces actually face a choice to accept or reject new structures and laws. It is a process. Native people and newcomers take time to find a shared language and align the past with new values. This had a direct impact on the ability of the local people to form a new state. The inability or lack of desire to unite is a function of 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 diverse people who are united only by their place of residence.

As you may intimate, these historical lessons have much relevance to countries in east-central and eastern Europe today.

by Vitaliy Mykhaylovskiy