Verwaltete Vielfalt. Die königlichen Tafelgüter in Polen-Litauen, 1697–1763

Collmer, Peter
Quellen und Studien zur Geschichte des östlichen Europa (90)
Stuttgart 2022: Franz Steiner Verlag
Anzahl Seiten
378 S., 10 Abb.
€ 72,00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Urszula Kosińska, Wydział Historii, Uniwersytet Warszawski

“Table goods” (Polish: ekonomie, Latin: mensa regia, German: Tafelgüter) were crown lands, enterprises (e.g. salt mines), and other regalia (e.g. tariffs) separated from the state estates of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It was from these resources the king maintained his court. Peter Collmer’s focus is on the functioning of the Polish-Lithuanian royal estates during the Polish-Saxon union, i.e., during the reign of two kings of German origin (the Wettins): Augustus II and Augustus III (1697–1763). In comparison to the last major study on this topic, written by Edward Stańczak in 1973[1], Collmer draws on a much greater number of source materials from “the Archiwum Kameralne” at the Central Archive of Historical Records in Warsaw (Poland) and Hauptstaatsarchiv in Dresden (Germany), and expanded his query to include the collections of the State Archive in Toruń (Poland). The work consists of a preface and six chapters divided into numerous subsections, a list of abbreviations and a currency conversion table, a source appendix, and an index of persons. The extensive bibliography includes works in Polish, German, English, French and Latin.

The author considers his research area as a special “Archipel” (pp. 14, 323) in the territory of the Commonwealth. Using this example, he aims to show the diversity of the country, and thus of all modern Europe, which he regards as a distinct zone of contact characterized by linguistic, religious and structural diversity, in which various cultures of government met. According to Collmer, the royal estate was transformed by the Wettins’ independent economy, influenced by German cameralism and Saxon practice, thus becoming the “embryo” of the modern bureaucracy and the modern state in Poland. Collmer also shows how important diversity was for the concepts of governance before the time of nationalism. Analyzing communication processes, he juxtaposes the history of the institution with an analysis of how conflicts between different actors were resolved pragmatically, often contrary to existing or imposed formal and legal norms.

Chapter I provides an overview of research within the boundary zone between economic and cultural history. In this context, the author explains why he chose something that looks like a peripheral problem of European and even Polish history. He argues that the state-building process (Staatsbildungsprozess) or, to put it more precisely, the attempt to build modern statehood in the territory of the Polish-Lithuanian state, can be observed more closely using this “small” topic. He points to the possibility of observing lines of development and areas of tension, or the intertwining, of state power and governance with the traditions of the local nobility culture. Mensa regia was not only a source from which the king obtained his funds for his court, but an area in which the king clashed with the nobility—the managers of the estates or their neighbors. It was a place of multicultural contact, characteristic of the diverse Polish society. “Diversity” (Vielfalt) is therefore one of the most important terms used in the work.

The author tries to integrate his research into modern concepts of cultural history, such as “shared history” or "multiple modernities”. However, the Polish reader cannot resist the impression that Collmer perpetuates an a priori dichotomy in his introduction: the advanced West versus the backward East, resulting in understanding the time of German kings as an opportunity for modernization through contact with European tendencies and structures. Polish historiography is not without fault in this respect, as the traditionally negative evaluation of the Saxon period is largely accompanied by a critique of the excesses of aristocratic “anarchy”. The latter opinion not only develops from a realistic assessment of the Commonwealth in the first half of the eighteenth century but is also a legacy of the partitions and the constant consideration of the problem by Poles and historians: “must it have been so?” and “who was guilty?” Collmer automatically adopted many of the judgments endorsed by historians. However, he rightly notes that his “interest in the contradictions of change and regional differences may have a corrective effect here” (p. 26).

Chapter II presents the functioning of the mensa regia using a broad historical background and discusses the fate of the royal estates from the end of the Middle Ages to the beginning of the Saxon era. It also approaches important issues of the Polish-Saxon union, such as the different legal situation, the different cultures of governance, and the importance of Saxon cameralism. Following this, in Chapter III, Collmer discusses issues related to the functioning of the so-called “Saxon Camera” (the Finance Commission, the Finanzgericht), i.e., the institution established by August II for the management of his estates. He briefly presents its beginnings, which fell in the years of the Northern War, and subsequent reorganizations (in 1710, 1717, 1729, 1736, 1739, and 1750) aimed at increasing profitability. The instruction from 1736 is published as an appendix (in French).

In Chapter IV, the author discusses the functioning of all the royal economies in Małopolska, Royal Prussia, and Lithuania; the salt mines in Wieliczka and Bochnia; as well as other revenues of the table, customs duties and postal charges. Collmer sets out to explain their importance to the king’s income and, in Chapter V, points out the diversity of administrative practices. According to him, these depended on the legal status of individual estates, as well as on the diversity of cultures (noblemen, burgers, and peasants, as well as Polish, Lithuanian, Ruthenian, and German), of faith (Catholic, Greek-Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Mennonite, and Jewish), of spoken language (Polish, German, Yiddish, and Ruthenian—today Belarusian or Ukrainian,), and of the languages of documents (Latin, Polish, German, and French). Taking a closer look at selected conflicts and multinational circles of tenants and administrators, the author reconsiders the limits and possibilities of integration management methods in such a diverse environment.

Collmer adds new details concerning the arrangement of the table goods in that period, especially regarding the communication process. He elegantly describes the problems of misreporting, the court’s efforts to know the actual condition of the estates, and the process of “privatization” of the Commonwealth by noble tenants. By contrasting the institutional history of “table administration” with administration practices themselves, Collmer depicts the administrative environment of the mensa regia as an environment in which the king and the court, tenants and officials, burgers, peasants, and Jews interacted, expressed their interests, and thus influenced the government. These considerations are supported by an appendix with a list of table goods, their location, and the number of towns and villages (sometimes population, area and income are added). Unfortunately, the differing states of the sources did not permit following the same data reporting scheme for each economy.

In his summary (Chapter VI), Collmer emphasizes that, despite the Saxons’ attempts to reform the management of the economies according to cameralism and to create a central governing office (zentrale Schatzbehörde), it was not possible to break completely with traditional local practices. Successive reforms of the control system were inefficient, and a compromise between modernity and tradition was necessary. Nevertheless, the author argues that the table goods of the Polish kings became a European contact zone and an island of modern state formation (Staatsbildung) in the Commonwealth. After the end of the Polish-Saxon union, the new king Stanislas August Poniatowski created his own finance commission. He relied largely on the rules and methods of the Saxon period, often also on the same people, as well as on the Camera Archive collected by August III.

Given the comprehensiveness of his endeavor, it must be admitted that Collmer provides the first study in which information about all the table goods of Polish kings are gathered in one place, indicating the different origins of the estates as well as the specificities of their laws, economies, populations and the ensuing problems. Despite firm chronological boundaries, the work in many places goes beyond the self-imposed limitation and can be a source of information about the status of the Polish-Lithuanian economy before and after the strictly defined Saxon era of the years 1697–1763.

[1] Edward Stańczak, Kamera saska za czasów Augusta III [Saxon Camera in the times of Augustus III], Warszawa 1973.

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