Kozik on Kitowicz, 'Customs and Culture in Poland under the Last Saxon King: Selections from Opis obyczajów za panowania Augusta III by Father Jędrzej Kitowicz, 1728-1804'

Jędrzej Kitowicz
Bryan Kozik

Jędrzej Kitowicz. Customs and Culture in Poland under the Last Saxon King: Selections from Opis obyczajów za panowania Augusta III by Father Jędrzej Kitowicz, 1728-1804. Edited and translated by Oscar E. Swan. Budapest: Central European University Press, 2019. 412 pp. $105.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-963-386-275-9.

Reviewed by Bryan Kozik (University of Warsaw) Published on H-Poland (July, 2021) Commissioned by Anna Muller (University of Michigan - Dearborn)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54364

In Customs and Culture in Poland under the Last Saxon King, Oscar E. Swan introduces a fascinating eighteenth-century Polish text to Anglophone scholarship, to the benefit of scholars of both early modern Central Europe and the wider world in multiple disciplines. Swan’s treatment here of Opis obyczajów za panowania Augusta III (Description of the Customs during the Reign of August III) by Polish priest Jędrzej Kitowicz (1728-1804) does not merely translate an interesting work for curious readers. His translation, annotation, and commentary are self-admittedly novel and bold in interpretation, and they demonstrate the text’s wide-ranging scholarly applicability. It emerges well contextualized for a diverse audience, attractive as either a secondary or primary source, either literary or historical. This edition is especially useful as a model for scholars who desire to make sources from less commonly studied languages or cultures accessible to a wider readership.

Before translating the Description (as he refers to it), Swan provides the reader with a brief yet thorough introduction to the print history, historiography, authorship, historical setting, contents, genre, literary features, and peculiarities of Kitowicz’s work. The reader quickly learns that until now the text has been woefully understudied despite its multiple printings in Polish (none in English). But the author, a relatively obscure parish priest from the minor nobility who achieved little of note in the eyes of his contemporaries, has nonetheless played an invaluable historical role by recording myriad eclectic, detailed, vivid, and often comical observations of life in eighteenth-century Poland. A great number of customs, behaviors, rituals, aesthetic qualities, and daily realities from that period would be unknown to modern viewers without his text. It even contains the oldest—and sometimes only—extant record of certain Polish words. Thus, Kitowicz’s minimal personal notoriety is vastly outweighed by the lasting impact of his writing. The Description has resonated anonymously in pieces of popular culture across Europe for two centuries, and many modern popular conceptions of premodern Central European customs are derived from its contents. Swan summarizes this impact but also convinces the reader that the composition of the text deserves much more direct analysis. It contains a wealth of material to support updated historical examinations of eighteenth-century Europe. In this edition, it also invites new approaches to studying Enlightenment and nineteenth-century Polish literature. Perhaps most compellingly, though, Kitowicz’s descriptions are so much fun to read.

Even with the impressive editorial presentation, the text of Kitowicz’s Description steals the show, as Swan certainly intended. The author had a keen and timeless sense of humor, with which he conscientiously flavored his work and even stretched the boundaries of reverence for church and state. His seven sections focus on religious beliefs and institutions of piety, religious customs and ceremonies, child-rearing and early education, legislature and the judiciary, the military, lives and entertainment of the nobility, and peasant life. Each is subdivided further into narrower topics. The descriptions of popular religious practices, specifically processions and pageants around Christmas and Easter, stand out as both historical and literary sources owing to their vivid detail but also their satirical edge. They are varyingly critical of both popular piety and church institutions. They are also quite amusing for modern readers and likely would have been for Kitowicz’s contemporaries. His sections on the legislature, judiciary, and the military are tediously descriptive at times, but they also provide rich insight to how civilians perceived the later Commonwealth to function. Swan highlights how Kitowicz’s teasing description of farcical royal tribunals even mirrors the account of tribunals found in the novel Mikołaja Doświadczyńskiego przypadki, published in 1776 by his contemporary Ignacy Krasicki. Kitowicz’s longest and most detailed section focuses on the lifestyle of the nobility. Its comparative weight is fitting considering that the historiography on early modern Poland-Lithuania heavily emphasizes the role and development of the nobility in the Commonwealth. The Description’s nobility subsections range widely from the introduction of the potato crop, to the elaborate clothing and jewelry of noblewomen, to the variety and prevalence of drinking habits. They constitute an incredibly thorough illustration of noble life in early modern Poland. The most striking thread running through them is the attention to cultural change, whether it occurred in fashion, etiquette, diet, or entertainment. As the political security of the Commonwealth crumbled around him in the late eighteenth century, Kitowicz barely reflected on it. Rather he fretted over how the country’s customs and traditions had shifted during preceding decades. Modern readers ought to be thankful, though. Without his concern, we would be left with little record of the dozens of customs that he chose to discuss in the Description.

Swan’s English edition of Kitowicz’s Description is a terrific addition to the scholarship on the history and literature of early modern Europe. It makes more accessible a rich description of many aspects of eighteenth-century Polish society, and it reveals significant links between different literary genres, authors, and audiences in Central Europe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Despite the already great length of Kitowicz’s text (printed here on 362 pages), it is nonetheless unfortunate that this edition omits parts of the original, in particular the description of religious orders, even if Swan determined that those excerpts were too inaccurate or convoluted to be valuable to readers. Otherwise the editor delivers the majority of the text as comprehensively and sensibly as possible, including some welcome rearrangement of certain subsections. Swan’s translation and annotation of this work clearly are thoughtful, attentive, meticulous, and conscious of a broad historiography. His edition of Opis obyczajów za panowania Augusta III enables the obscure Kitowicz to appeal to scholarly and popular audiences in a more common language. It makes an often overlooked or oversimplified aspect of the history of early modern Poland-Lithuania much more accessible to a broad readership.

Citation: Bryan Kozik. Review of Kitowicz, Jędrzej, Customs and Culture in Poland under the Last Saxon King: Selections from Opis obyczajów za panowania Augusta III by Father Jędrzej Kitowicz, 1728-1804. H-Poland, H-Net Reviews. July, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54364

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.