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From its Mediaeval Inception to its Fall in 1807 



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Journal of Croatian Studies, XXVIII-XXIX, 1987-88 – Annual Review of the Croatian Academy of America, Inc. New York, N.Y., Electronic edition by Studia Croatica, by permission. All rights reserved by the Croatian Academy of America.

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Among the many European mediaeval principalities, which after centuries of varying fortune went under, one after another in the aftermath of the French Revolution, the Croatian principality of Poljica (pronounced Pol'yeetsa), with its special brand of rural democracy, occupied a special, indeed unique position. Its most conspicuous feature was that throughout its long and eventful history, unlike any other of its sister states, it never developed an urban centres on its territory. Its economy almost exclusive) depended on animal farming and agriculture. Although its territory included a good stretch of Adriatic coastline, shipping never played a significant part in its economy. Nor was there a concentrated effort to develop fishing. The reason for this, no doubt, was part) due to the absence of good natural harbours, where ships and small craft could shelter from weather, but also partly to the fact that the steep mountain ranges made access to the coast difficult. All the same, there did not seem to be a great deal of interest in the sea.

However, what set Poljica even more apart from other European principalities was its political constitution, which was in category of its own. For although throughout the principality history, its social structure retained many distinctly feudal feature; the sheer complexity of its political organisation, the two species of nobility, the unusually large number of 'noble' families in proportion to the size of its population[1], with no single family ever gaining the position of dominance, and especially the intricate system of tribal and individual property ownership, made Poljica unlike any other community in feudal Europe.

In Poljica, it seems, there were no serfs in the more extreme sense of this term. Instead, there were bonded peasants, who were allowed to own property of their own, and could in principle leave their masters if they so wished, provided they surrendered their master's property. Moreover, it seems, it was accepted that the could leave their masters even without the latter's consent if the had been maltreated in any way.[2] There were also independent tenant farmers and free labourers and herdsmen; the last of these belonging mainly to the tiny minority of surviving Illyrian tribesmen, descended from the pre-Roman and pre-Slav population of Dalmatia, and occupying the bottom end of the social scale. Yet despite the social differences, a general consensus in important decisions was a statutory requirement. Thus a number of articles of the principality's statute begins with the significant phrase 'All the men of Poljica together have resolved ...' or words to this effect.[3] The prince had to be a nobleman, but his office was not hereditary and both the prince and the other main officials of the principality's government were elected to their respective offices for a one-year term only.



The territory of the principality - or, as local people often also called it, 'commune' or 'county'[4] - occupied an area of approximately 100 sq. miles of mountainous land just to the south of the town of split, between the rivers Žrnovnica and Cetina, and except for a relatively short stretch of the ragged open terrain to the northwest where its border was not marked by any distinctive natural features, physically it was a fairly enclosed, easily identifiably entity; which is, no doubt, why its name survives to this day as a geographic concept, even though administratively it has long been parcelled out and divided among neighbouring districts. The dominant physical feature of the area is the Mosor massif, which stretches along the whole length of the principality and whose highest peak rises to nearly 4,500 ft. The physical shape of the massif is such that it divides thee area roughly into three distinct regions: Upper Poljica to the north, between the main Mosor range and Cetina river; Central Poljica, beginning in the west with a valley, almost at sea level, and rising to a high plateau between the main mountain range and the Tatter's southern ridges; and Littoral Poljica, representing a stretch of mostly terraced land, sloping from the Perun, Vršina and Mošnjica hights down to the sea. For the most part, the area consists of rocky, unhospitable terrain, with sparse vegetation, and, except for the middle part and the coastal area, relatively little arable land. Not surprisingly, the population of Poljica, until the very recent sharp rise in number due mainly to tourism, remained always fairly small. One of the early visitors to the county, the classical scholar and writer a geographical topics Palladius Fuscus Patavinus, who in the second part of the 15th century (probably not later than 1460), made a exploratory journey down the 'Illyrian' coast, found that Poljica at that time was inhabited by about two thousand people, who he noted, lived 'under their own laws and for a long time past ha not been subject to any external authority.[5]  Three and half centuries earlier, when Poljica first emerged into being as a self governing commune, its population was probably less than half that number. Gradually the rate of growth picked up, but not by a large amount. Thus some three and a half centuries after Fuscui in 1781, a census of Poljica's twelve katuni (villages, or cluster of hamlets) revealed the population figure of only 6,813; and in 1806, the French-appointed civilian governor of Dalmatia Vicenzo Dandolo recorded an even smaller number: 6,566. A hundred and fifty years after this, in 1953, just before the advent of the modern tourist boom, a census showed an increase to a little below twelve thousand.[6]  Clearly there were limits to the number of mouths the county could feed with its modest resources.



Yet the Poljicans tended their meagre fields with meticulous care and clung to their land with prodigious loyalty and pride than inspired many a romantic legend. There is a story about the origins of the name of the county that perhaps owes something to this romantic sentiment. According to the widely held view the name 'Poljica' draws its root from the small, sometimes near-circular fields (field = polje) or plots of fertile land, of which there are a great many in the mountains, and which often have been reclaimed for cultivation only at great effort by being labouriously cleared of stones, sometimes boulder-size, that had lain there half buried in the soil and now can be seen heaped up in mounds or neatly stacked up in dry walls that rim the fields. Yet plausible though it appears at first sight, this explanation needs to be firmed up by more evidence if it is to stand up to closer scrutiny. To begin with, the supposed etymology of the name does not make an impeccable grammatical sense.[7]  But quite apart from this, there are other similarly named places elsewhere in Europe that point to different linguistic roots, for example the town of Polizzi (the mediaeval Policium) in Sicily. Another example is the town of Montepulciano in the province of Siena (the mediaeval Castellum Politianum) whose citizens still refer to themselves as 'i poliziani'.[8]

As to how exactly Poljica got its name may never be established with complete certainty, but perhaps it is not altogether unreasonable to suppose that its name derives from politia (i.e. the Latin form of πολτεια) which in the Middle Ages was a term often loosely applied to any kind of organized community;[9] or, at any rate, from the italianate versions of politia, such as polizza, policia, polizia, all of which, incidentally, as well as politia, occur in mediaeval documents as names of Poljica.[10]

What seems likely is that the county was given its name by foreigners some time during the 12th, or possible in the early 13th century, when, by all accounts, its ancient conventions and legal practices were codified in its first written statute. In earlier times, it was known simply as 'Mosor' (Massarum) or the 'parish of Mosor.'[11]  Moreover the latter designation seems to have been confined exclusively to Central and Upper Poljica. By contrast, Littoral Poljica, for a considerable time, seems to have had something of a special status. Thus in early Middle Ages, possibly as far back as the 8th century, long before Poljica came into being as a sell governing commune, Poljica's Littoral seems to have formed part of what was known as Parathalassia (i.e. Littoral Region or County), which stretched on either side of Split and included some islands; and which, according to the testimony of the Byzantin emperor Constantine Porphirogenitus, was one of the eleven 'županijas' into which Croatia was divided at the time.[12]  Parathalassia, or Littoral County, whose administrative centre was Klis[13], survived as an administrative entity until well into the Middle Ages, albeit with varying boundaries. This, added to the fact that Split patricians owned a great deal of land in Poljica' coastal region, was responsible for the somewhat ambiguous political status of the Poljica Littoral within Poljica proper. Thus the heads of the three 'katuni' from this area (Duće, Jesenice and Podstrana), along with the head of another 'katun' from Central Poljica (Srinjine), where there was also a considerable number of bonded peasants working the Split-owned land, were not eligible to stand for election as Prince or judges, even though they all had full voting rights.

The centre of power in Poljica was always in the mountain interior, where most of the principality's 'nobility' lived. Annual open air electoral assemblies were held on St. Georges day (23 April) near the village of Gata in Central Poljica, in a place called Podgradac. There the twelve 'katunari' or village headmen, a elected representatives of their respective villages, together will all the nobility, would gather to elect the new government of the principality. That a place near Gata was chosen for this all important annual event was perhaps not entirely accidental, for as a recent archeological discovery of the remains of a large sixth century Byzantine church in Gata[14] seems to suggest, this village must have been some kind of centre - perhaps the administrative as well as market centre - of this region already a long time before the arrival of the Slavs.




Slav tribes migrating from the north, began settling in the territory of Roman Dalmatia during the sixth century, but the Croats did not arrive there, it seems, until the third decade of the seventh century, probably between 625-630. They came from what is in later sources described as 'White Croatia'[15]  ('white' being the colour symbol for 'west'), a region comprising parts of modern southern Poland and eastern Czechoslovakia. As they made their way to the coast, they engaged in fierce battle with the Avars, whom they eventually subdued. A large number of the Croats subsequently settled close to the old Roman towns such as Salona (sacked by the Avars in 614), the neighbouring town of Split (which grew rapidly due to the influx of Salona refugees), and the town of Zadar farther up the coast, all of which at that time were under the jurisdiction of Byzantium. It was this region that some two centuries later formed the nucleus of the Croatian mediaeval state.

The territory of Poljica, or rather its mountainous interior, it seems, did not at first attract many settlers among the newcomers, and in early documents a significant proportion of it was regularly referred to as terra regalis, the crown property. Some of this land was donated by the various Croat princes to the Split Archdiocese, partly no doubt in an attempt to secure the good will of the local hierarchy and smooth out the often tense relations with a city which was still largely populated by Latins, and partly as a means of enhancing their own prestige. This, however, later became a constant source of friction and hostility between the Poljicans and the Split Church, especially after repeated attempts were made by the Archdiocese to extend its possessions in Poljica on the basis of forged title deeds. Violent clashes were a frequent occurrence, and in one tragic incident that took place in August 1180, the Archbishop Rainerius, who came to Poljica to repossess some disputed land, was attacked and stoned to death by local peasants.[16]

This conflict over land was exacerbated by the fact that the Split Church represented the powerful Latin culture, which with its enormous prestige and superior literacy was increasingly penetrating into all aspects of social life, and was feared by the Slav population as a threat to their own identity. This was the main reason why, for example, there was a continuing and stubborn resistance, notably in Poljica itself, to the Church's attempts to replace the Croat vernacular by Latin in church liturgy. This was also the reason why the Croats insisted on retaining their own Glagolitic script. The Glagolitic, and later the specifically Croatian version of the Cyrillic, became important instruments of cultural self-assertion in face of the Latin 'threat'. The Church, for a long time, tried unsuccessfully to break this resistance, particularly where liturgy was concerned, and it was not until 1750 that the Split Archdiocese, no doubt with a tacit agreement of the Vatican decided to come to terms with the situation and establish the first 'Glagolitic' Seminary for training of young priests in the Poljica village of Priko. It should be mentioned at this point that the statute of Poljica was itself written in Croatian Cyrillic. This version of the Cyrillic, described in the statute itself as 'Croatian' but more widely known as Bosančica, remained in use in parts of Southern Croatia until the 19th century, when it increasingly began to yield ground to the Latin alphabet and soon all but vanished. The Glagolitic too slowly went into a decline, and was eventually dropped by church authorities as a liturgical script, even though old Glagolitic texts continued to be used by individual clergy for some time afterwards. In 1927 the old paleo-Croatian (Old Church Slavonic) Roman Missal written in Glagolitic characters, that ha been in use hitherto, was re-issued for the first (and only) time is a Latin transcription, and since then no new liturgical books have been printed in Glagolitic. This transcribed Missal remained in us until the Second Vatican Council when the paleo-Croatian, as well as Latin, were finally abandoned in favour of modern vernacular.

The term Bosančica indicates a connection with Bosnia, an in Poljica in particular the ties with Bosnia are deeply rooted in history. The local tradition in Poljica links the origins of the commune with the arrival there, probably in 949 AD, of the three son of the Croatian king Miroslav - Tješimir ('Tišemir' in the local dialect) Krešimir and Elem[17] - following the murder of their father at the hands of the Bosnian banus (governor) Pribina during the civil war that flared up, it seems, over the rights of succession and the question of regional autonomy, shortly after the death of Krešimir I. who had died four years previously.[18] It was these princes and their families that, according to the local tradition, were the originators of the three ruling clans of Poljica, which are mentioned by name in Article 3 of the oldest surviving copy of the Statute. They were Poljica's old gentry, the didići as the Statut calls them (did = grandfather).



The commune increasingly asserted its internal autonomy, and for the next four hundred years or so it was effectively ruled by the didiči, even though during lengthy periods in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries it was formally under the jurisdiction of the Priors (or Princes) of Split. Later on, the didići were joined by a second species of nobility, the so-called vlastela. The arrival of the vlastela can be traced to the ascendancy of the Hungarian power around the middle of the 14th century under Louis of Anjou, king of Hungary and (from 1370) of Poland. Croatia had been formally united with Hungary in a personal union in 1102, following the expiry of the Croatian royal line after the death of Zvonimir. The Hungarian claim to the Croat throne arose from the circumstance that Zvonimir's wife was a Hungarian princess. The union of the two countries was eventually set up, but not before the Hungarians had waged a military campaign against the anti-unionist forces in Croatia and managed to defeat them in a decisive battle on Mount Gvozd in 1097. The opposition to the Hungarian rule, however, continued to simmer under the surface, and this was perhaps nowhere more so than in Poljica itself. On one notable occasion the Poljicans with a deliberate display of defiance gave their full support to their arch-enemy, Split, when the city fathers decided to deny sanctuary to king Bela IV, who had fled to Dalmatia during the Tartar invasion in 1242.

However, there were other powers who competed with the Hungarians for the control of Dalmatia, and chief among them was Venice. Whereas in northern Croatia the Hungarians gradually succeeded in consolidating their rule, southern Croatia, what with continuing local resistance, the constant incursions of Venice and the devious political machinations by the Byzantium (later to be replaced by the Turks), remained very much a disputed territory.

This situation changed in 1358, when Louis managed to gain control over the whole of Dalmatia by a treaty concluded with Venice and signed on February 18 that year in Zadar. By his marriage, five years previously, to Elizabeth Kotromanić, daughter of the Bosnian banus Stjepan Kotromanić, Louis had secured for himself a wide measure of support throughout Croatia, and in 1358 even the independent republic of Dubrovnik, in a gesture of solidarity, voluntarily placed itself under his suzerainty.[19]

Having forced the Venetians out of Dalmatia, Louis immediately proceeded to make a number of new administrative appointments, one of which was that of a royal commissioner for Poljica, The commissioner - a man by the name of Juraj Rajčić - arrive there, it seems, in June of the same year. Since he was in the king' service and came from a region in the north that was officially regarded as part of Hungary, even though himself ethnically Croat he became known locally as 'the Hungarian'. It was his descendants, who eventually settled in Poljica and largely inter-married with the then most prominent Poljican family of Dražoević,[20] that represented Poljica's second species of nobility - the so-caller vlastela.

The arrival of the vlastela entailed some constitutional change in the internal political structure in the county, and this inevitably caused a great deal of friction. The relations between the vlastela and the ancient 'tribal' nobility, the didići, were never easy especially since the vlastela tended to insist on their superior rank and demanded for themselves the positions of power in the commune. Eventually a power-sharing formula was devised whereby the didiči chose the prince from the ranks of vlastela, while the vlastela chose the duke, or vojvoda, from the ranks of didiči. The vojvoda was in charge of military matters, and was responsible in particular for law and order. In addition, the magistrates and the procurators were also elected from the ranks of didiči. This arrangement, with the exception of the periods during which the commune was forced to accept the prince of Split as their titular ruler, remained in force until the late eighteenth century, when the didići finally re-established their position of dominance and restored their right to stand for prince, as well as the other offices in the principality.



Louis died in 1382, and the period that followed was market by a power struggle and political turmoil, as a result of which the Hungarian influence, especially in littoral Croatia, went into a sharp decline, from which it never entirely recovered. For a short period Bosnia, under king Tvrtko (who was a nephew of Stjepan Kotromanić and Queen Elizabeth's first cousin) filled the power vacuum and assumed the dominant role in Balkan politics. In 1385 Poljica readily recognised Bosnian suzerainty, whereas notably Split, at least initially, declared its allegiance to the German/Roman emperor Sigismund, who in March of that same year succeeded to the Hungarian/Croatian throne.

Sigismund was never much liked, however, and he had an uphill struggle trying to establish his authority. In southern Croatia, in particular, such support as he was able to drum up for himself, even after Bosnia's influence in the region had waned, was patchy and short-lived. The local magnates opposed him, naturally enough, primarily because they resented his interference and wanted to protect and expand their own fiefdoms, but their opposition found a wider echo among the local population, who nursed a long standing grudge against the enforced tutelage by the meddlesome northern neighbour.

However, the opponents of Sigismund, though fairly numerous, were not strong enough to unseat him, and they appealed for support - with ruinous consequences, as it turned out - to Ladislaus of Naples, who was a distant relative of Louis I. Eventually, Ladislaus was persuaded to come to Zadar, where on 5 August 1403 he was crowned by the rebels as king of Croatia and Hungary. It was a political gesture that many of them soon had a cause to regret. For when a few years later Sigismund's luck turned, Ladislaus decided that it was not worth his while to pursue his doubtful claim to the Hungarian throne and withdrew from the conflict, having sold, in 1409, his Dalmatian possessions (the towns of Zadar, Novigrad and Vrana, and the island of Pag) together with all his rights to Dalmatia to Venice for one hundred thousand ducats. This unsavoury deal was to remain for a long time in the memory of the local people as a supreme act of treachery. It enabled Venice, almost exactly fifty years after the Treaty of Zadar, to return to Dalmatia, and to entrench itself firmly along most of the Croatian Adriatic coast (the only significant exception being Dubrovnik) where it remained in continuous occupation for the next four hundred odd years, until its own demise in 1797.

The Venetians did not move in unopposed, however, and it took them some time before they were able to crush the armed resistance they encountered in various parts of the country. They first occupied major towns, from which they mounted military expeditions into the surrounding territory. At the end of 1443, their navy invaded littoral Poljica, and the following January the neighbouring town of Omiš, one of the last remaining free strongholds, surrendered to their forces. This placed Poljica in an impossible position, and, after much heart-searching, the Poljica's leaders decided they had no option but to agree to accept Venetian suzerainty in exchange for a recognition of their ancient privileges. A deal to this effect was struck in Split on 29 January 1444, and was officially approved, with minor alterations, by the doge on March 3rd. It is generally believed that the oldest surviving manuscript of the Statute of Poljica was prepared specifically for the purpose of these negotiations, although this cannot be established with certainty.[21] 

The relations with Venice, initially, were extremely uneasy with the Poljicans jealously guarding their internal autonomy, and looking for possible alternatives to the Venetian connection. However, with the Turkish menace drawing ever nearer, the Poljicans found themselves increasingly relying on Venice, both for arms supplies and such protection as the Venetian diplomacy was able to afford them. A major Turkish detachment crossed the river Cetina into Poljica for the first time in 1500, taking one hundred and fifty people prisoner. From then on incursions and acme clashes were a daily occurrence. Often Poljicans were forced to fight beyond their borders, chiefly but not exclusively in surrounding Dalmatian and Bosnian districts, as part of the Venetian troupe to which they were obliged by treaty to contribute five hundred men.



However, as the military situation deteriorated, it soon became obvious that Venice was unable to offer any effective protection and the Poljicans came reluctantly to the conclusion that the only way to save their country from total destruction and secure some semblance of peace was to place themselves formally under Turkish suzerainty. It was a traumatic change of policy, which, as it turned out, did not produce the results they had hoped for. Very little is known about the actual negotiations they conducted with Turkish representatives, or the contents of the final treaty. However, from a report submitted to the Venetian Senate by the prince of Split in February 1514, it transpires that by that time the Poljicans had already agreed terms with the Turks, involving, among other unspecified, conditions, a payment of an annual tribute. In return the Turkish Sultan apparently gave orders to his military commanders in the area to treat with civility his newly acquired subjects.[22] 

The agreement never worked, and for the next two hundred odd years Poljica led a precarious existence, often fighting at the edge of extinction. This was without a doubt one of the most difficult periods in its entire history. It was not until 1699, when the Treaty of Karlovac was concluded, that Poljica was able to breathe a sigh of relief. Following the heavy defeat of their armies at the hands of the Austrians at Zenta on the Tisa two years previously, the Turks were forced to agree to peace terms, involving, among other things, a re-drawing of the borders in Dalmatia, whereby the territory of Poljica reverted to the Venetian jurisdiction. From the Poljicans point of view, a complete independence would have been preferable, but the Venetian rule was definitely lesser of the two evils.

There was no question that the Turks, mainly because of their sheer physical proximity and notorious ferocity, were regarded as the main enemy. The extreme severity of the penalties that the principality's statute decrees for anyone who might be tempted to collaborate with them, testifies to the strength of the feeling in the community on this issue. The battles that the Poljicans fought with the Turks were numerous and savage. Often the Poljicans themselves provoked armed clashes by refusing to pay the heavy tribute imposed on them by their masters. They tended to use any political or military reversal that the Turks suffered elsewhere as an excuse to stop payment of the tribute, whereupon the Turks would mount a punitive expedition and there would be a bloody battle, with numerous casualties on both sides. Most of these clashes occurred in Upper Poljica close to the north-eastern approaches to the county, but skirmishes and even full-scale battles in the interior of the county were not uncommon. On these occasions many acts of prodigious heroism were performed, later to be sung about and recounted in countless folk songs and folk tales. One such act of heroism due to a young woman by the name of Mila Gojsalić ingrained itself particularly deeply on popular memory and is celebrated to this day as a symbol of Poljica's spirit of resistance in numerous poems, plays, and at least one modern opera.[23] When in 1530 a large Turkish force invaded Poljica, Mila Gojsalić, by all accounts a striking local beauty, walked into the Turkish camp on the pretext of wishing to offer herself to the Turkish commander, and used the occasion to set the gun powder alight, whereupon the Poljicans launched an attack and routed the invaders. A life-size statue of Mila by the sculptor Ivan Meštrović was erected close to the place where these events took place as recently as 1967.



The Treaty of Karlovac of 1699 liberated Poljica from the Turkish dominion, but the Turks remained in the neighbourhood and one more savage round of fighting was still to come. The Turkish resentment at the humiliating terms they were forced to accept at Karlovac finally came to the boil in 1715, when they launched a new offensive against the Venetian-held territory in Dalmatia and elsewhere. Initially they scored some successes, but then the campaign ran into severe trouble, especially after they became en broiled in an additional war with Austria the following year. At the end, mainly through the mediation of England and Holland a peace agreement was signed in Požarevac in 1718, with Turkey once again being compelled to give way and relinquish some of its previously held territories. It was on this occasion that the line separating the Turkish occupied Bosnia from the Venetian-held Dalmatia was finally settled. This line, with minor alterations, still marks the border between the two provinces.

Although most of the fighting on this occasion took place we outside Poljica's own territory, the Poljicans took part in some of the fiercest battles as part of the Venetian army. As always when fighting the Turks, they fought with bravery and distinction, which earned them much praise, but very little else. Once the fighting was over, there were still the Venetian taxes to be paid, which, in view of the total impoverishment of their county as a result of the ravages and devastations of continuous wars, represented a heavy burden. In 1705 the taxes were set at three hundred Venetian gross per every property owner per year, payable in four quarterly instalments. Moreover the Venetians decreed that everyone who owned land in Poljica, however small the possession, had to pay the same amount, even if the owner had long left the county and had settled elsewhere.

Yet what with the general feeling of war weariness and the desire to rebuild their commune, the Poljicans were not in a mood for a new fight, and the relations with Venice actually improve in the remaining decades of the century. The Venetians, provide they received their taxes, were happy to let the Poljicans order the: lives as they pleased. As a result, as years went by, the economy of the county began to show real signs of improvement. Fields were tilled again, houses were rebuilt, and the Poljicans began to build up an increasingly profitable export trade with their wine, olive oil and fruit, especially the small black 'maraschino' cherry, which grew there in abundance and was sold mainly as a raw material, for the world famous liqueur of the same name produced at Zadar.

However, no sooner they had begun to enjoy a taste of modest prosperity than the threat of a new war suddenly appeared on the horizon. The French Revolution broke out in 1789, and as its shock waves began to spread throughout Europe, in Dalmatia, as elsewhere, there was a great deal of agitation, especially by the Church, against the 'godless Jacobins'. Napoleon's victorious Italian campaign propelled the fears of the conservative establishment to a new pitch, and when Venice herself came under threat, there was a frantic attempt by the local administration and some sections of the clergy to whip up support for her by portraying her as a defender of the faith against the French 'Antichrist'. This did not fail to make an impression on God-fearing Poljicans, who immediately offered to send voluntiers to Venice, even before the official recruitment campaign got under way. As it happened, it all ended in a farce. The ruling oligarchy of the 'Serene Republic' realised that time was up, and gave in without a fight, and Venice as a state ceased to exist.

Following the fall of Venice, most of its former possessions in Dalmatia were annexed by the Austrians, but when in 1805 Napoleon routed the Austrian armies at Austerlitz, they were forced to surrender Dalmatia to France, and in February 1806 the first French military contingent arrived in Zadar, the administrative centre of Dalmatia. For a great many local people, but especially for the ruling nobility, the arrival of the French was a traumatic experience. The Poljicans, in particular, had a good reason to be apprehensive about their future. Suddenly they found themselves at the mercy of a new master who was much more powerful than any of the others they had to contend with in the past. But more worrying still was the fact that the French had brought with them the new revolutionary ideas, which the spectacular victories of their armies gave a powerful impetus throughout Europe. A confrontation at the social as well political level was inevitable. The French looked at Poljica, at first, with wry amusement, but soon lost patience when the Poljicans began to insist on their privileges. The new administration set about introducing new judicial and fiscal measures, as well as launching a recruitment drive for the army, without paying much attention to local interests and local sensitivities. This inevitably caused a great deal of alarm and resentment among the population. Before long, the whole of Poljica was astir.

Changes were very necessary, but the habits were centuries old. Unhappily the manner in which the new administration went about implementing the new measures was such that they upset more people than they otherwise might have done. To make things worse, the Russian warships, which had been cruising off the Dalmatian coast, keeping an eye on French military movements, and, whenever the opportunity presented itself, harassing French garrisons, suddenly turned up off the coast of Poljica. A contact was established with the local leaders, and the Russian admiral Sinyavin lost no time in trying to encourage the Poljicans to rise against the French, promising help in men and material. Eventually, after a stormy meeting of Poljica's leaders in the Glagolitic Seminary in the village of Priko, it was decided to begin armed resistance against French troupes. In view of the circumstances, it was a hopeless and futile gesture, as the Russians, in particular, must have known.

The dissenters were very much in a minority. According to an eye-witness report, one of the dissenters, the 'Glagolitic' priest and professor at the Seminary Marko Kružičević, who had travelled through Italy and happened to be in Venice when the French troupes marched into that city, apparently made valiant efforts to persuade his compatriots to change their mind, but to no avail. The plan went ahead, and, predictably, ended in disaster. Admiral Sinyavin, at first, made a show of support by landing some of his marines,[24] but when a large detachment of French infantry came on the scene and began attacking him from the surrounding mountain heights, he quickly withdrew his men back to his ships and sailed off. The French suppressed the rebellion with extreme savagery, wreaking terrible vengeance upon the local population. The Russians, for their part, disembarked most of the rebels who fled with them on the neighbouring island of Brač, and after some more unsuccessful attempts to encourage anti-French resistance further down the coast they eventually sailed for home, taking with them the last prince of Poljica. He died in St. Petersburg in 1816.

The rebellion lasted seven days. The first shots were fired on 4 June 1807, when an attack was made on a small detachment of French soldiers escorting a shipment of supplies from Split to Omit. Seven days later, on June 11, it all ended in ignominy when the Russians turned tail and made off. On that same day the French administration issued a public statement announcing the abolition of Poljica's old privileges and statutes, and its full integration into the French legal and fiscal system. In addition, Poljica's territory was to be split up and divided between the three neighbouring districts. This decision was given the force of law on 21 September of the same year, and the political history of Poljica as an autonomous principality, going back seven centuries, was thereby brought to an end.

Within only a few months, the only other free Croatian principality on the Adriatic, the republic of Dubrovnik, suffered a similar fate. After a year and a half of occupation, and de facto abrogation of its sovereignty, the French formally abolished it on 31 January 1808. It is interesting to compare these two principalities. Although situated only about a hundred miles apart, they could not have been more dissimilar in their political organization and style of life. One was typically city-based, very much like the majority of western European principalities at the time; the other was exclusively rural. In its heyday Dubrovnik was renowned for its extraordinary achievements in literature, art, science and architecture, as well as for its wealth and commercial acumen. By contrast, Poljica was poor, little known beyond its borders, and could hardly boast a similar record of achievements in the field of culture. Living as they did, in a geographically and politically highly exposed position and having to fight daily for bare existence, the Poljicans had no time to build fine cathedrals or write leasurly verse. Yet they were by no means culturally inactive, and their mediaeval monks in particular initiated a tradition of education which was kept alive even during the darkest periods of Poljica's history. The Benedictine abbey of St Peter of Gumay established in the eleventh century in the village of Selo (the present day Sumpetar), the cartulary of which survives to this day[25] played an important part in promoting general education in the area during the two and a half centuries of its existence. However, it was Poljica's 'Glagolitic' clergy and the religious, who were mainly responsible for continuing the educational effort and maintaining the tradition of indigenous culture. Throughout its history Poljica identified itself closely with the 'Glagolitic Movement', fostering and furthering the 'Glagolitic' tradition as an instrument of national self-assertion in the face of the powerful Latin culture, and it was in Poljica that the majority of 'Glagolitic' priests working in this part of Dalmatia received their training. The famous illuminated 'Glagolitic' Missal of Hrvoje was in all probability designed and executed by Poljican monks around 1404.

But the most remarkable and unusual document to come out of Poljica is its statute. In its surviving version it represents a collection of rules and regulations spanning several centuries. It provides a fascinating record of the fortunes of a small community of peasant farmers, who tried to organize their lives as best they could in uniquely adverse circumstances, and survived on little more than the love of their country and faith in each other.


* This paper was presented at the 19th National Convention of the American Association for Advancement of Slavic Studies held in Boston, November 5-8, 1987.

[1] A document from 1799, prepared at the behest of the new Austrian administration, following the fall of Venice, for the purpose of settling the dispute over ancient titles and privileges, lists 79 such families, plus a number of other living outside Poljica, but descended from its gentry.

[2] For a bondsman to leave his lord 'secretly', or without going through the prescribed procedure, was a punishable offence, but not, it seems, if there was a good cause. Thus the article 89c of the statute of the principality states explicitly: … different cases should be treated on their merits. A man is free to flee from evil if he can.

[3] Cf. articles 21, 23a, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, and 29 of the Statute.

[4] The Croatian terms used were općina (commune) and župa (in its older sense, which was indistinguishable from that of županija, i.e. 'county', rather than in its more restricted modern sense of 'church parish'), as well as knežija (principality).

[5]  'Ea [Poljica - E.P.) vicatim tantum habitata ad duo millia virorum continet, qui suis iuribus viventes nulli externo diu paruerunt'. See Palladius Fuscus Patavinus, De situ orae llyrici, reprinted in Thesaurus Antiquitatum, ed. Joannus Georgius Graevius, Leyden 1725, p. 454. Fuscus, who taught rhetoric at Justinopolis (the Istrian town of Koper) is said to have 'floruit in humanioribus' around 1445, and 'claruit' cca. 1470; and it would seem that he made his journey some time between these two dates. His reference to the Poljicans not being subject to 'any external authority' is particularly interesting, since it seems to indicate that the Venetian suzerainty which - if other sources are to be believed - Poljica was acknowledging at the time was little more than a business arrangement whereby Venice undertook to provide such protection as she could from external enemies in exchange for a suitable annual tribute or tax; with Poljica enjoying full autonomy in internal matters.

[6] 6 cf. Ivo Rubić: Poljica, in Poljički Zbornik, Vol. II, Zagreb 1968, p. 29.

[7] The diminutive form of the Croatian word 'polje' is 'poljence' or 'police'; which yields the plural 'poljenca'/'poljca' - never 'poljica'.

[8] The famous 15th century humanist and poet Poliziano (1454-1494) came from this town.

[9] Any kind of 'regimen' or 'administratio' seemed to have qualified as 'politia'. (Cf. Du Cange). Palladius Fuscus, incidentally, says explicitly that Poljica was called Politia by the natives ('ab indigenis Politia vocatur'). Op. cit. (See footnote 5).

[10] See Ivan Pivčević: 'Nekoliko poljičkih isprava iz XV. stoljeća'; Supplement to 'Bulletino di archeologia e storia dalmata' 1908.

[11] One of the earliest references to 'Massarum' occurs in an endowment deed by the Croatian duke Trpimir in 852. 'Massarum' is also mentioned in a similar deed by king Zvonimir in 1078, and again in the Cartulary of the Benedictine Abbey of St. Peter of Gurney 1080-1187; cf. English edition (ed. E. Pivčevič, Bristol 1984) p. 75. The Split historian Archdeacon Thomas (1200-1268) in his Historia Salonitana (cf. facsimile reprint with translation by V. Rismondo, Split 1977, pp. 46 and 236) in an eleventh century context speaks only of the 'parish of Mosor' parochia Massarum). It is only when recounting some events that took place in 1239 that he seems to make an oblique reference to Poljica, viz. by briefly mentioning a certain Tollen Polizian(us), who, it transpires, was an 'implacable enemy of the Split people' and who, to the latter's evident relief, suddenly died that year (see pp. 112 and 330).

[12] See De Administrando Imperio, Greek and English, Greek text edited by Gy Moravcsik. translation by R.J.H. Jenkins, Budapest 1949, p. 145.

[13] A fortress in a mountain pass between the Mosor and Kozjak mountains controlling the access to Split from the interior.

[14] See Frane Mihanović: 'Arheološka istraživanja oko crkve i u crkvi sv. Cipri jana u Gatima', in Poljica, No. 1(10), 1985, p. 51. See also J. Jeličič: 'Ikonografiji ranokrščanske lunete iz Gata', in Prilozi Povijesti Umjetnosti u Dalmaciji, Vol. 25 Split 1985.

[15] See De Administrando Imperio, chps. 30 and 31.

[16] This incident is recounted by Archdeacon Thomas in his Historia Salonitane (see footnote 11) p. 68.

[17] The last of these was probably a nickname derived from 'Velimir' or 'Velemir'.

[18] The murder of Miroslav by banus Pribina is referred to by Constantine Porphirogenitus in his account of Croatian history. See De Administrando Imperio ch. 31.

[19] The humiliating withdrawal of the Venetians from Dalmatia imposed on them by the Treaty of Zadar - although, as it turned out, their withdrawal was only temporary, for they came back fifty years later - was celebrated at the time throughout the land as a great national event, and Louis and his Croatian Queen were feted as national heroes. Louis came to Zadar for the signing of the Treaty, and his entry into the city is depicted in a relief on the silver sarcophagus of St Simeon, the patron Saint of Zadar, which was specially commissioned by Queen Elizabeth from local craftsmen. The sarcophagus was completed in 1380.

[20] For more details about the Dražoevič family see: Rafo Ferri, 'Prilog ispitivan ju porijekla osnivača Poljičke republike', in Poljički zbornik, Vol. II, Zagreb 1971 pp. 35-41. See also: Tomislav Heres, 'Poljički knez Žarko Dražoević u povijesti književnosti', in Poljica, Vol. IX, Gata 1984, pp. 25-43. According to these writers the family of Dražoević belonged to the 'Tišemir' clan of the didiči-nobles.

[21] The manuscript has suffered some damage, and in particular one of the letter symbols indicating its date of origin appears to be missing. Only the letter symbols signifying the year 1400 are clearly visible. According to V. Jagić, the missing letter symbol was probably M (40), which would mean that the manuscript originate in 1440. However, if this conjecture is correct, then (contrary to Jagić's own speculation) the connection between this particular copy of the statute and the negotiations with Venice becomes extremely tenuous, for it is not clear why the Poljican needed to prepare a copy of the statute for the negotiations which did not take place until four years subsequently. The manuscript, incidentally, contains in its heading an explicit reference to an earlier, unfortunately lost, version of the Statute. Cf. V Jagić, Poljički statut, in 'Monumenta historico-juridica slavorum meridionalium' Vol. IV, Zagreb 1890.

[22] Cf. Ivan Pivčević, Povijest Poljica, Split 1921, p. 61.

[23] The opera, by the composer Jakov Gotovac, was first performed in 1952.

[24] According to the French military governor of Dalmatia Marshal Marmont (cf. 'Memoirs du duc de Raguse de 1792 a 1832', Paris 1857), Sinyavin landed a thousand men, but Marmont, who came to Poljica to take personal charge of the French military operation, is clearly exaggerating in order to magnify his own victory in forcing the Russians to beat a hasty retreat, without himself suffering any serious losses. Local sources put the number of Russians at five hundred, which is probably closer to the mark.

[25] See footnote 11 for details of the English edition.




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