Silesia and its past

When we hear about Silesia today, we direct our thoughts
towards Katowice, and therefore Upper Silesia.



Duszniki-Zdrój, historic paper mill


The perpetuation in our consciousness of such a narrow understanding of Silesia stems from the fact that in the Second Republic of Poland (1918-1939) its upper Silesian lands belonged to the province called Silesia (and not Upper Silesia), with its own parliament, also Silesian. Hence, nowadays, citizens of Wrocław and Legnica are not considered Silesians, but at most Lower Silesians. At that time, when it appeared as a region – and that happened in the context of Piast Poland probably not until the 12th century – Silesia included approximately only the territory of the present Lower Silesia (without the Kłodzko region).
The areas of Upper Silesia joined the whole of the historical region only in the 15th century, and its territorial framework designated the scope of the diocese of Wrocław.
The oldest, albeit debatable as to its authenticity, evidence of the use of the title „Duke of Silesia” appears in a document of Bolesław the Tall from 1175.
He ruled the duchy from his capital in Wrocław. The Silesian title was consolidated during the time of his son and successor, Henry the Bearded (1201–1238), the husband of St Jadwiga. They both contributed significantly to the civilizational development of Silesia and its spiritual heritage. In their time, the Silesians were seen as a community worthy – according to the spirit of the era – of being accorded legendary ancient roots.
A bit of history to this history…
At the turn of the 12th and 13th centuries, the Polish chronicler Wincenty Kadłubek traced an image linked to the legend of the Battle of Psie Pole in 1109, where he presented the Silesians among the allies of the Poles fighting under the leadership of Bolesław Wrymouth and the German ruler Henry V.

The alliance had already existed in the struggle of the Lechit-Poles with Alexander the Great. These stories are fairy-tale-like, but their sense does not lie in facts verifiable with „lens or eye”.
The legend praises values that have always been, from the mythical „golden” age, accompanying the Lechit as the source of their power. The country of the Silesians appears in this narrative as part of the Polish monarchy, called the „Holy Province of Silesia”, in Latin „Sacra silentii Provintia”. This evokes an association with silence (devotion?) due to the similar sounding silentii from the Latin silentium.
A few centuries later Silesian intellectuals – by then, Germans – considered themselves, in turn, to be the descendants, for example, of the Germanic gods. In their name they found resemblance to the Latin name for Silesia, i.e. Silesia, and also to the Elysium of the hereafter; and so the lands on the Odra gained „elysian”, heavenly, beginnings. From the 18th century, the idea definitely began to be discussed that the first inhabitants of Silesia were the Silings, an off-shoot of the Germanic vandals, who in the 5th century became famous for their sack of Rome (hence, „vandalism”). And so Silesia, or Silesia, became „Silingia”, the homeland of the Silings. This view came to be held in scholarly historical studies in the 19th and 20th centuries.
On the other hand, however, it was stressed that the inhabitants of these lands in the early Middle Ages were unquestionably Slavs and, in particular, there is primary evidence from the 9th century of the Ślęzan tribe. It has even sometimes been suggested as a compromise that when the Silings went south to seek their fortune in the ruins of the Roman Empire, the Ślęzans then occupied the lands they had vacated, taking the name from their country.

Aula Leopoldinum, University of Wrocław


From then on, the question of where this name came from was fundamental. The oldest reports on this topic, given by the German chronicler Thietmar, were crucial when 1000 years ago he reported the conflict between the Polish prince Bolesław the Brave and the ruler of Germany, Henry II.
Discussion today – „back to Source”
Describing the defence of Niemcza in 1017, Thietmar mentions that the settlement was located in a land called silensi. It covers the country of the Ślęzans. Such naming of territories and their Slavic inhabitants the chronicler did not change by accident; for example, amongst others the name Diedesi refers to the Dziadoszans, the inhabitants of what later became Silesia from the vicinity of Głogow. However, he intended that silensi could be read as an instrumental from silensis, in Latin „Silesian”, and so – also in German or English translations – for centuries this word was translated in this way in Thietmar. Thus, in the same way the country of the Ślęzans is often treated as „Silesia” and the people themselves as the Silesians. Rather prematurely, because, as already mentioned, Silesia was formed as a region at a time when state organization had already replaced the tribal.

However, the name of Silesia actually comes from the Ślęzan, those Silensi in Thietmar, whose country according to him was supposed to derive its name from „a certain great and high mountain.” He had in mind Mt Ślęża.
At most, he was referring here to legendary tradition and thus his message cannot be irrefutable proof that the origin of the name of Silesia is from the mountain. Hence, an alternative scholarly view is that the Ślęzans received their name from the river, Ślęża, along which they were to settle, just as there are the Vistulans on the River Vistula or the Buzhans on the Bug. And so in the 20th century the dispute about the origin of the name Silesia was dominated by the question: from the river or the mountain?
Linguists note that the root „Śl-” in the name of the lands on the Odra indicates something wet, which in the local dialect sounds like drizzly weather: „śląkwa”. It is worth considering the possibility that the name Ślężan referred not only to the river, but generally to some wetland. However they themselves, according to Thietmar, believed, perhaps, that the centre of the lands was Mount Ślęża, which they considered a holy site.

Henryków, Cistercian monastery


Moreover, the mountain was also supposed to have been honoured earlier, by the Silings.
However, it should be stressed that, although thanks to archaeology there is no doubt that the Germanic peoples were present in the first centuries A.D. on the Silesian lands, the presence here of the Silings is not certain. The main argument in this case is the convergence of their name with the name of Silesia, and this is a weak premise.
In the kaleidoscope of history
Silesia as a region was therefore formed in Poland during the Piast dynasty, taking its name from the area containing, in tribal times, the homeland of the Ślężan. At the end of the 12th century, this included what would later be Lower Silesian lands, and its border in the southeast was the Silesian Przesieka separating it from the Opole region.

In 1355, it officially became part of Czech, in the German Reich, from the 15th century called the Holy Roman Empire of the German People.
The medieval divisions of the duchy gave rise to regions such as Cieszyn Silesia, mostly today in the Czech Republic, or Opole in the historical Upper Silesia, which – let us not forget – only joined the whole region on the Odra in the 15th century. In 1526 Silesia passed directly under the authority of the Habsburgs who ruled the said empire, and then, as a result of the Silesian Wars from 1740 to 1763, almost entirely under the control of Prussia, and from 1870 it was part of the united Germany. After the Silesian Uprising, from 1919 to 1921, part of the Upper Silesian region was ceded to Poland, and as a result of the post-war movements of the borders in 1945, almost all of the historical Silesia was then to be found in Poland.

16th-century map of Silesia from the atlas of Abraham Ortelius,
published in the years 1571–1584. Collection of the National Library of Holland