Migration forms an important part of the history of Central and Eastern Europe. From the current and past centuries’ perspective it might seem surprising that in earlier centuries migration flows actually ran in a different direction to what they do today. Considering the formation of the European Union and the fairly recent migration crisis caused by the political upheaval in Africa and the Middle East, the focus of our attention may have been on the influx of those asylum seekers and economic migrants who have been making their way into Western Europe. It is a little-known fact, however, that during the preindustrial era a major migration flow was headed eastward to Eastern Europe, where scores of migrants, in their pursuit of happiness, hoped to fulfil their dreams, have their own farm or set up a company, achieve a higher social status, and benefit from religious freedom and tolerance. In this article I shall investigate why venturing into the unknown but seemingly bountiful lands of what was to become the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth seemed to the eastward migrants of the Middle Ages and early modern period to be a risk worth taking. The Polish–Lithuanian state eventually failed, falling prey to the partitioning powers of the late eighteenth century, but it seems to have held considerable appeal among the migrants who decided to relocate within its boundaries. It is also for this reason that its history and extraordinary culture is worth studying.

Until the latter half of the thirteenth century or even the beginning of the fourteenth century (Lopez 1976), most countries of Western Europe had witnessed an era of prosperity that had lasted approximately three hundred years. Throughout that period, those countries had seen an increase in commercialization that had a tremendous impact across various social groups. Culturally, one manifestation of such prosperity was the twelfth-century Renaissance (Benson et al. 1985), while in terms of geography and the history of civilization the era brought about the “Europeanization” of Europe (Bartlett 1994). The technological advancement in agriculture hardly matched the population growth in Europe’s most developed regions, which prompted lords, knights and even common serfs to look for opportunities in the peripheries of European kingdoms. Medieval texts mentioned the instability of agriculture in Flanders, Netherlands and Zealand, which, from the perspective of their authors, stood in stark contrast to the fertile soils and attractive landscapes of Central Europe. As for migrants, these were not exclusively penniless peasants on the lookout for a piece of land to claim as their own; relatively well-off landowners would also liquidate their inventories and use the proceeds to start a new life in the lands beyond the Elbe. The institutional framework for the migration was laid out by German, Czech and Polish princes, who accelerated the process by incentivizing new settlers (hospites) and proprietors (locatores, who recruited the former), as well as through propaganda. Those who took the risk of resettling to the East were thus primarily motivated by the opportunities that the distant lands of Central Europe provided (Piskorski 2017). The anonymous author of an old medieval Flemish song portrayed their enthusiasm in the following terms:

To the Eastern land we want to venture on horseback.

To the Eastern land we want to venture together.

All together towards the woodlands green.

All together towards the woodlands.

Where a better life awaits (Zientara 2006, 58).

The alluringly large expanses of land, together with tax privileges and the prospects of relative autonomy, attracted scores of bold, enterprising and hard-working settlers to relocate to the East. The colonization was bolstered by the institutional framework provided by Magdeburg law and manifested itself in several distinct forms. Such regions as Brandenburg and Pomerania (among others) saw the proliferation of large villages consisting of several dozen households, which resulted in the establishment of fixed settlement structures. Communities of settlers were granted privileges that allowed the inhabitants to preserve their own national identities and cultures for many decades or even centuries. As regards the settlements where the number of immigrants was relatively low and the majority of the inhabitants were primarily of local (e.g. Slavic) descent, a range of particular legal and organizational models were put in place. While in the case of towns it was more apparent, villages were also affected: in the later Middle Ages, even though most villagers had no experts in written Magdeburg law at hand, they nonetheless adopted the self-government model laid out in the Sachsenspiegel and recognized the validity of such written statements as borough rights and court records. Beyond doubt, the settlers from the West had a number of advantages over the locals: better equipped to thrive in an economy of steadily progressing commercialization, they could avail themselves of more advanced agricultural techniques (such as the three-field system) and of more sophisticated appliances (including the iron plough and the harrow).

The limitations of the pre-statistical era make the scale of migration-related colonization difficult to gauge. Historians estimate that between 100,000 and a million German migrants settled in Poland during the Middle Ages and the early modern period (Piskorski 2002). During the early modern period (the 16th–18thc)., numerous immigrants also arrived from the Low Countries, which is why more than 1,000 settlements bearing the name “Olędry” (“from Netherlands”) were founded across Poland, indicating either the ethnic origin of the settlers or the settlement’s organization following the Dutch model. From an early date, municipal and royal officials enthusiastically installed settlers from the Low Countries in Pomerania and along the Vistula, recognizing their skills at managing wetlands for agriculture. As for the settlers themselves, the prospect of owning their own farm was very promising; most importantly, their chances of obtaining one were much higher in Poland than they were in their homeland, where the capital invested in agriculture had resulted in the majority of villagers losing their property rights and being demoted to the status of employees. Beginning at the end of the sixteenth century, Poland’s reputation as a place worth relocating to began to grow steadily, especially as the country was regarded as one that offered attractive economic prospects and guaranteed freedom of religion. The majority of Dutch settlers were Mennonites, a Protestant denomination persecuted in the Low Countries. Mennonite settlers escaped to Poland for safety, being confident that they would be allowed to maintain their cultural identity (Targowski 2016).

Religious tolerance, the right to autonomy and financial prospects also made Poland appealing to Jewish communities. Beginning in the Middle Ages, the safety and various privileges offered by the country’s rulers and the great landowners attracted a substantial influx of Jewish migrants, which continued until the fall of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (Stampfer 2018). In towns large and small, Jewish communities grew, and their businesses thrived. By the end of the eighteenth century Jews constituted approximately 8% of Poland’s total population (Mahler 1967).

Another group of migrants were Scots, both Catholics and radical Protestants, who were motivated to relocate to Poland for financial and religious reasons. After arriving in Poland, they would become merchants, soldiers and, at times, even officials at the royal court. At first, they settled primarily in Gdańsk and in other cities; with time, many were granted nobility (Bajer 2012). Similar to German, Dutch and Jewish settlers, Scottish immigrants would build social networks based on trading relationships and, at times, family ties. While the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth is associated with a very strong social and political position of the Catholic Church, it must be emphasized that it incorporated regions with substantial non-Catholic populations, among them Evangelicals (such as Royal Prussia) and members of the Eastern Orthodox Church or the Ruthenian Uniate Church (in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and in Ukraine). Most of Europe was riven by religious conflicts, while Poland retained its reputation for religious tolerance for many years. In 1573, Polish parliament proclaimed peaceful coexistence between members of different religions (dissidentes in religione). This, however, did not mean that religious conflicts in Poland did not occur. Like other countries, Poland, too, saw scenes of rivalry between religions, often intertwined with politics; this rivalry, however, never led to wars of religion.

The Union of Lublin between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland incorporated the vast territories of Ukraine, adequately safeguarded against Tartar raids since 1569, into the borders of the latter political entity. As a result, the “effectively limitless stretches of fertile farmland in the Dnieper Ukraine and Bracław (and, since the end of the sixteenth century, also territories to the east of the Dnieper river) acted like a giant vacuum cleaner, absorbing the most active representatives of the peasant class from other regions” (Jakowenko 2000, 184). It also absorbed members of other social groups, including nobles, Jews and German migrants. In the latter half of the sixteenth and first half of the seventeenth centuries no other region in Europe could compete with Ukrainian voivodeships of the Commonwealth when it came to urban and rural population growth. During that period, more than a hundred towns and settlements were established. They enjoyed numerous privileges, partly as a result of the actions of Polish and Ruthenian magnates, who anticipated financial gain, but also of the immigrants themselves, who cherished their freedom and independence.

The steady influx of settlers that continued until the late Middle Ages attests to the appeal of the territories that later formed the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. When, during the early stages of colonization, one of the Polish princes reorganized his city, Cracow, under Magdeburg law, he proclaimed in the document granting new privileges to the city that his goal was to bring together people from “different climates” (Piekosiński 1879, 1). The actions undertaken initially by the central government and its institutions became increasingly more spontaneous, as they came to rely on trade partnerships and social ties that emerged from them. This was further facilitated by the incorporation of Eastern Europe into the world-system in the early modern period. The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, a polity based in a peripheral region of Europe, came to symbolize the attractiveness of peripheral countries. While the modernization of the country and its economy was not as dynamic as in the most developed parts of Western Europe, and the emerging serfdom system progressively disadvantaged its people, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth was still perceived as a place of opportunity. At the height of its territorial expansion, the Commonwealth spanned an area of almost a million square kilometres. Ecologically diverse, it included vast woodlands, fertile chernozem belts and long rivers, which allowed transportation of grain and timber to the port cities of the Baltic Sea, and the vast plain expanses that allowed for herding of oxen from Ruthenia into Central Europe. These territories prospered, even during the challenging climatic conditions of the Little Ice Age; most notably, the recorded consequences of extreme weather and long-lasting climate changes were the same as in Western Europe. Despite the climatic disadvantage and the fact that the Commonwealth was simultaneously at war with Sweden, the Grand Duchy of Moscow, Transylvania and the Cossacks, the Polish–Lithuanian state did not suffer any long-lasting social or economic crises. Neither droughts (such as the drought of 1540) nor the particularly harsh winters at the beginning of the seventeenth century affected the country’s economy to such an extent as did the Swedish blockade of the Baltic ports. Peasant immigrants arriving in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth were at an advantage over indigenous peasants. Nonetheless, despite the growing importance of the serfdom system, all subjects (including German and Dutch immigrants) of the estates owned by the nobles, royalty and the church were granted certain privileges, which made it possible for more resourceful individuals to make a profit and boost their social status. One significant privilege was that they could freely trade in grain and also benefit from the removal of internal borders and tariffs that weighed heavily on the vast territories of the Commonwealth, which was composed of large swathes of modern-day Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus and Ukraine. As a result, the benefits resulting from trade in the Baltic region and from the integration of markets not only lined the pockets of the nobility and clergy, who collected tithes in kind, but also trickled down to peasants, who traded in grain using a network of trading posts (they also formed companies that traded in goods derived from agriculture) and involving local farms in their businesses (Topolski 2000).

Reduced tax rates benefitted the migrants and likewise the locals. Initiated in the late medieval period, the transition from the domain-funded state (sustained primarily by the proceeds from crown lands and monopolies) to the tax-funded state (financed primarily through taxation) was commonly associated with an increase in tax rates. The Kingdom of Poland, and eventually the Grand Duchy of Lithuania as well, also went through this transition; however, they did so with a much greater delay compared to the Western countries and, as evidenced in the later history of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, to an insufficient degree (Boroda and Guzowski 2016). Nevertheless, from the perspective of both locals and migrants from the West, taxes levied on peasants, which constituted a considerable portion of the state’s tax revenue, were still much lower than in the absolutist regimes governed by dukes and monarchs. Compared to the West, the average Polish peasant in the latter half of the sixteenth century had more land at his disposal and had to sell a mere 10–20% of his grain harvest to pay his tax and rent. In Prussia, the Low Countries and France, the tax to be paid in proportion to the income was at least twice as much (Guzowski 2008). The nobility, who had established democratic rule, made sure that taxation was not excessively burdensome. While the nobles perceived the exploitation of peasants as beneficial, the increases in tax resulting from the establishment of the military-fiscal state did not lead to major peasant uprisings.

Nonetheless, the Commonwealth did not enjoy continuous success throughout the late medieval and early modern periods and was ultimately partitioned by its more developed neighbours. Despite its ultimate fate, however, the territories governed by the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth attracted rural and urban settlers from more developed areas of Europe. On the one hand, it offered large strips of uncultivated and sparsely inhabited land suitable for farming—in a sense, the migration to European peripheries stood in agreement with the populations’ preindustrial Malthusian mechanism, and Eastern territories benefitted to some degree from their own underdevelopment, attracting bold and resourceful individuals—whereas on the other hand, the Kingdom of Poland, which later became part of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, offered a fair degree of religious freedom and numerous rights that allowed settlers to govern themselves autonomously and maintain their cultural identity. What is equally important is that it also guaranteed various economic privileges, among which free trade, the removal of tariffs and low taxation were the most attractive. In their glory days, such peripheral countries as the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth offered considerable business opportunities that were not hindered by the nascent early modern bureaucracy, feudal relationships, the investments in agriculture by towns from the most developed areas of Europe or fierce competition. In addition, entering the global market allowed migrant merchants, particularly those from Western Europe, to maintain and access the social networks they had established in their homeland. States attracted settlers who could exhibit their advanced technical knowledge and organizational skills but did not make them dependent in a colonial-like fashion. Port cities and some large land estates were dependent on Western capital to an extent, but they still benefitted from the opportunities resulting from the integration of the local and regional markets of the Commonwealth with the markets of Europe at large. These processes did not lead to environmental degradation or a substantial transformation of the landscape. To Western immigrants, the natural resources might have seemed boundless; however, as early as in the sixteenth century, during the period of an economic boom, the country put in place its first resource management programmes, including management of woodlands in the crown lands, and of the great land estates owned by the magnates and clergy. Despite the ongoing development of settlements, population density in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth was lower (in some regions even by several times) than Europe’s average, which helped preserve the balance between humans and the natural world. Even several hundred years after the ecological revolution that took place in the early modern period, the name of the Polish–Lithuanian border region of “Podlasie”, which means “near the forests”, is still suitable. The high degree of conservation of forests may have minimized the effects of the most severe historical droughts (such as in the 1530 s, which was by and large the driest decade). The somewhat harsh climate, which the migrants had to grow accustomed to, meant local agriculture had to specialize in less demanding crops. Rye, which constituted 90% of Polish grain exports, was more resistant to snow and sub-zero temperatures and became the primary bread grain for the local populations, contrary to the West, where wheat was the standard. To gain a better understanding of Central and Eastern Europe’s history, we may benefit from considering the modern-day context of migration and conclude that, over the course of several centuries, individuals who relocated eastward did so to express their preference and fulfil their need for change: it seems that this was easier when they moved beyond their homelands and ventured east.