Mikolaj Rej, the Father of Polish Literature, 500th Anniversary of his Birth

Mikolaj Rej (Rey) was one of the giants of XVI century Renaissance Poland. He was born in Little Poland in a Rusyn village on the Dniestr River. Rej was blessed with good health and lived a long life (1505-1569) compared with his contemporaries, since the average lifespan at that time was about 20 years and those who lived longer than 49 were considered old.

Rej was born into a noble family entitled to use the Oksza coat-of-arms, and thanks to his hard work and family inheritance, he grew in prominence from an average noble to almost magnate status. Near the end of his life he administered about 20 villages Rej established two towns, and he also owned two noble manors in Krakow and Lublin. He avoided any permanent administrative function that would cost him too much time and money, but he was active politically and he frequently attended the sessions of the state and local parliaments as well as court sessions and Protestant synods as a member of the executive party.

Rey was mainly self-educated; he did not know the three basic languages of the ancient world: Hebrew, Greek and Latin. He never went abroad and knew foreign languages only slightly; thus, he did not write in Latin as was common, but wrote only in the beautiful Polish language, although Polish was only weakly developed at that time. Following Rej's example, Jan Kochanowski (1530-1584), the most prominent creator of the Slavic Renaissance language, also wrote in Polish rather than in Latin.

Rej was a good poet but he was an even better prose writer. Rej produced thousands of pages of written works of different kinds: some of them were religious, some had a didactic-moral overtone and some were satiric or comedic. He was also the most prominent Protestant writer in Poland. Until the death of the very Catholic King Sigismundus I in 1548, Rej could not disclose his true Protestant sympathies, so he was known simply as anticlerical. After Sigismund's death, he was able to show his support for Lutheranism, and later turned towards Calvinism, which he followed until his death

In his writings, Rej was especially critical of the papacy, monks, enforced celibacy for priests, and the Counter-Reformation, which began in Poland in the first half of the 1660s. Rej not only criticized Polish Catholics but also Polish Arians, the precursors of modern-day Unitarians. He even rebuked his Protestant brothers if they broke their own rules. Rej's most important religious work was "Postylla," published in Krakow in 1557; it contained a set of sermons on 7000 large pages. It became so popular that it had five Polish and one Lithuanian edition in the XVI century. "Postylla" is very important for Polish ethnography since Rey described and debunked numerous folk traditions, which according to him were superstitions. Following the customs of his time, Rej often modified biblical and West European stories, not only for creative reasons but in order to pass them through Krakow's censorship.

In his most famous work "A Short Conversation between a Squire, a Bailiff and a Parson" he defends the oppressed peasants against the Church and priests. Later he published "The Self Image of the Honest Man" (1558) and "The Life of the Honest Man" based on Calvinist moral rules. Both poems showed the idyllic life of Polish nobility surrounded by their happy family, servants and delicious food dishes, and even reading the poems of ancient philosophers. In spite of being a harsh critic of the Church, Rej was not a fanatic. He prized some contemporary bishops if they did something of value, according to his standards. He had some friends among moderate Roman Catholics, around 1550 he socialized with the monsignors from Krakow. Rej saw humans in serving him peasants, he could be critical towards his own noble class. He wrote that noble people have to be worthy of being "noble", having a coat-of-arms is not enough.

In contrast to numerous Protestant nobility, Rej did not force his Catholic subjects to convert to the Protestant religion. He allowed at least some churches on his property to serve Catholics, although he took advantage in choosing pastors who were not true Catholics, but also showed Calvinist sympathies. Rej's sons were similar to their father in this respect. They were so tolerant that they were even criticized by their Protestant church administration.

Rej fathered eight children: everyone with the last name Rej or Rey (for example, the previous USA ambassador to Poland, Nicholas Andrew Rey) are his descendents. His most prominent offspring was his grandson, Andrzej Rej, royal secretary and Calvinist. Another granddaughter was illiterate, in spite of the fact that she was married to the rector of the Krakow Calvinist gymnasium. Rej's grave has never been found, but his body was probably removed from his grave since he was considered a heretic.

Rej was still partly a man of the middle-ages, just as many Poles who lived in the middle of XVI century; this is also a reason why his works were so popular among his contemporaries. Kochanowski emerged as a man of the Renaissance only about 1570. Both writers liked and respected each other although Jan was ten times poorer financially than Rej.

Rej's significance for Polish culture is enormous. Several people wrote in Polish during this time, but only Rej could wholy embrace the problems of Poland and its people. Certainly he was not as well-educated as Kochanowski and he was not that literally gifted, but he was very productive, he wrote much more than Kochanowski and his works reflect the life of his time in an engaging and humorous way.

written by Prof. dr hab. Waclaw Urban,
retired professor of history from universities in Krakow and Kielce
and also world known expert on Renaissance
translated by Jagoda Urban-Klaehn and Nancy J. Maciolek
published in August 2005 edition of Polish-American Journal

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