The Rise of Poland, Late 10th–13th Centuries
The Poles emerged abruptly into history in 963. In that year Saxon Germans, pushing eastward, stumbled onto an existing, well-organized Slavic state that until then had been unknown to anyone in the Germanic European world. The state was ruled by a tribal chieftain named Mieszko I (ca. 960–92), who bore the title of piast (a name originally meaning “second-in-command,” but which Mieszko’s family used so successfully to establish its rule over the various tribes within the state that it became the family’s dynastic name). A shrewd individual, Mieszko quickly realized that the Poles’ paganism made them vulnerable to increasing pressures from the Christian Germans, who could use the missionary cause as an excuse to win political domination and control of Polish territory. Mieszko pulled the rug out from under the Germans by forging contacts with the Roman papacy through the already Christianized Slavic Czechs of Bohemia. In 965–66 the Poles converted to Roman Catholicism and placed themselves directly under papal protection, thus assuring the Polish state’s continued independence from the Germans.