Defining Culture, Creating Identity, Building Nations: An Examination of the Polish Sarmatian Myth

Gretchen Beasley

Advisor: Mills Kelly, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Robert DeCaroli, Peter Stearns

November 19, 2018, 11:00 AM to 01:00 PM


The dichotomies that occur within the word empire are vast. Multicultural societies exist within the geographical confines of empires, yet we often look at the culture of empire as unified rather than a collection of societies, a patchwork of culture. This dissertation examines the distinct creation of a noble-born national identity during the early modern period in Poland through its appropriation of cultural elements from other societies. While aspects of Polish identity manifested itself much in the same way as its neighbors – through customs, attire, decorative elements, military accessories, and architecture – the Polish nobility exhibited their identity through the adoption of a Sarmatian myth, which they presented through their fashion, decorative arts, and literature. The creation of Poland’s Sarmatian past is worthy of examination because it was more than a myth to the nobility of early modern Poland; it was their past. This dissertation argues that the early modern Polish state was successful because the creation of Sarmatianism enabled the state to legitimize its place within the political climate of Western and Eastern empire creation.

While Poland serves as the primary case study for national identity creation in this dissertation, there is something mesmerizing about the socio-political relationship between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Ottoman Empire that is worth examining in detail. These two societies were at times in conflict with each other, but were ultimately united culturally in large part because of the Polish belief in a Indo-European Sarmatian heritage. There is no doubt that the frequent interactions, especially seen in the exchange and adoption of material culture, as well as the physical proximity between the Turks and the Poles, provides a wealth of historical evidence for this dissertation’s examination of how Sarmatianism was real and not imagined for the Polish nobility.