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After crossing the Volga

„Year 6562 (1054). (…) That summer came Bolush with the Polovtsians and Vsievolod has agreed peace with them and the Polovtsians returned where they have come from (…) Year 6569 (1061). The Polovtsians came to fight on the Ruthenian land for the first time; thus Vsievolod went to face them on the 2nd day of February. As they fought, the Polovtsians have defeated Vsievolod and went away pillaging the land. It was the first evil done by the pagan and godless enemies, whom Iskal led.”. .


„The Tale of Past Years”
[Rozmiar: 24198 bajtów]

Relatively numerous written sources are known and basing on them allows to reconstruct the history and culture of the Polovtsians, from the moment when they appear on in European history. This group consists of chronicles, of which the most important is “The Annual Tale” or “The Tale of Past Years, written in the 20s of the 12th century and continued until 1117. The other sources are the codices: the Lavrientievsk Chronicle, 2nd half of the 14th century, the Ipatievsk Chronicle, early 15th century and the Radzivill Chronicle, 12th century, containing iconographic images of the nomads (the extant copy is dated to come from the 15th century). The Polovtsians are also mentioned in the Old Ruthenian poem, “A word on Igor's expedition against the Polovtsians”, written in 1185-1187, of which the anonymous author has probably took part in the battle. The following traces are linked with the stories of the 13th century travellers. The most lyrical trace in literature that relates to the Polovtsian presence in Europe are the poems of Nizami from Azerbaijan describing the customs of that people (e.g.: to bow before the idols and to make sacrifices to them). The conditions of living, economy and cult have been described in the reports of the emissaries sent to the Polovtsians from Western and Central Europe. A Franciscan monk, Giovanni da Pian del Carpine, an emissary of pope Innocent the Fourth, who was also accompanied by another Franciscan, Benedict Polak, travelled in 1245 – 1247 to the court of great khan Guyuk. The objective of this mission was to gather the information about the Mongols and their state. A similar mission has been executed by a Franciscan, Willem de Ruybroec, who was an emissary of king Louis the Nineth of France.

The descriptive name “Polovtsians” was derived from an Old Ruthenian word meaning “hay-yellow, yellowish” and it was associated to the colour of hair of that people, which is a controversial issue, regarding their ethnic origins (Turkic with strong Mongolian elements). Another meaning refers to a notion “onopolovtsians”, used in the Ruthenian chronicles, meaning “the people living on the other side of the river”, so the new neighbours of the Ruthenians. The Polovtsians were also called the Kypchaks (oriental origins) or Koumans (Byzantine and Hungarian sources).

In the early 11th century, the Kypchaks and Kimaks appeared near Volga and then reached Dnieper. In 1054, the presence of the people, referred to as the Polovtsians in the chronicles, on the steppes north from the Black Sea steppe was mentioned (see the quotation above). In 1055, the first contact with Ruthenia was made and the expansion towards the south-west has been proceeded. Soon, the steppes were ruled by the invaders. The Ipatievsk Chronicle said: „The land of the Polovtsians is measured by Volga and Dnieper”. After the conquest of the Black Sea terrains, the Polovtsians established contact with the local population, under whose influence, some of the Polovtsians acquired a semi-settled way of life. The settlements began to appear and they were becoming the centres of craftsmanship related to animal breeding and stone processing. In the basin of Seversky Donets, several towns-boroughs existed and they were named after the khans, who have founded them: Sharukan, Sugrob and Balin. The agricultural products were still the main goods of trade. The Polovtsians controlled all of the trade routes that crossed their land, including the most important: the Greek, salt and iron trade routes. The merchants were safe within the Polovtsian land, as even in the time of war they were not attacked. The hordes with huge herds of horses, sheep, goats, cattle and camels occupied all the terrains, where nomadic life was possible. If they were able to do so, they were overtaking the neighbouring territories, stealing the herds and enslaving the local people or making them join the horde. The nomadic territories of separate hordes and kins increased and decreased, depending on the energy and strength of their khans. The economy was purely nomadic, the whole nation has been migrated within the territory with their herds throughout the year.

0107 Donieck 2007-8

In 1060, a military expansion to the neighbouring territories was initiated. The Polovtsians made 40 expeditions to Ruthenia, including two to Kiev, which are mentioned by the chronicles in details. Two or three expeditions were made to Poland, one to Hungary, six to the Principality of Halych-Volhynia, and even more to the rich Byzantine provinces (1089, 1091-1092, 1095 and 12th century - 1114, 1148, 1187 and 1192). They prove that the Polovtsians had a fine military organization, as well as their courage end endurance. During the 11th century, the most threatened Ruthenian princes have not initiate any offensive action, which was a result of the fact that the hordes of the Polovtsians were very difficult to be located in the vast steppe.

In the time, when the Polovtsians arrived to the region of the Black Sea, the social organization was mostly patriarchal. A kin, based on the blood connections, was the basic unit of the society. In the social hierarchy, the highest position was held by the khans, who were the leaders of the tribes. The next place belonged to the begs, who were the elders and the leaders of the kins. Below them were the free warriors, who also, in the time of peace, took care of the animal herds. The bottom of the hierarchy contained the serfs, artisans, prisoners and slaves. The women had a significant role – beside the duties linked with every day life, they were defending the tabor and the herds. Female-warriors could also participate in the military expeditions. According to Anna Komnena “the maids and women ride horses and jump with agility, just like men do”. It is assumed that in the higher layers of the society, the family of the mother usually had an important role in the matters of the inheritance.

In the early 12th century, the borders of the Polovtsian territory were becoming more and more stable and clear. At the turn of the 11th and 12th century, a new, patriarchal and feudal, social system has been created. The alliances of the particular numerous hordes, with the rise of meaning of the aristocratic families began to evolve into durable state structures. These were the Polovtsian unions and in the 12th and the early 13th century, there was eight of such Polovtsian unions, named after their location:


  1. the Dnieper union, which contained three major hordes,

  2. the Lukomor union, which has been connected to the Dnieper union in the end of 12th century,

  3. the Donetsk union (called also the Low-Donets union),

  4. the Priazov union, connected with the passing of time to the Low-Donets union,

  5. the Don union (called also the High-Donets union),

  6. the North Caucasus union,

  7. the Crimean union,

  8. the Volga union.

Two of those unions were the most powerful: the Dnieper Union and the Low-Donets union. They have not merely united the nearest territorial hordes, but also other, less mighty unions. Besides, both alliances – khanates often co-operated in their marches towards Ruthenia.

Such neighbours were a true disaster for Ruthenia. The invasions lasted for 180 years, until the Mongolians attacked, and they have been proceeded while Ruthenia was divided in several factions and Ruthenian princes fought one another. The first leader who managed to defeat the Polovtsians and pursue them to region of Ural, which gave Ruthenia several years of peace was Vladimir Monomakh. After his rule, his son, Mstislav has utterly defeat the Polovtsians in 1129. The following stage was another period in which the Polovtsians had the advantage. It was a consequence of the conflicts between the descendants of Monomakh and Oleg for the throne in Kiev. Some of them decided to ally themselves with the Polovtsians to plunder the cities and lands of their opponents (the descendant of Oleg, Yuri Dolgoruki), while the others tried to establish peace by marriages with the Polovtsian princesses. A characteristic feature of the next stage were military conflicts and invasions, proceeded by both sides, with varied effects. (the victory of Sviatoslav Vsevolodovich, the defeat of Igor Sviatoslavovich). Years 1190-1193 were the period of the last clashes of the Polovtsians and the Ruthenians that ended in the victory of Ruthenia and the fall of the military power of the Polovtsians. In the 20s of the 13th century, the Mongol threat caused the recent enemies to unite. Despite all these efforts, 31 May 1223 was the day, when a bloody battle of the Kalka river, in which the armies of Ruthenians and the Polovtsians have been crushed.

In 1238 and 1239, the hordes of the Polovtsians that remained in the steppe have been destroyed. A part of the people has been enslaved and led to Mongolia, but the major part of the Polovtsians have accepted the dominance of the Mongolians. The rich Polovtsian burials of men and women, made not sooner than in the 2nd quarter of the 13th century prove that a significant part of the Polovtsians that have fled to the Halych-Volhynia, Hungary or Egypt returned to their lands fairly quickly and willingly, or called by the Mongolian khans, who wanted the economy of the conquered regions to be reconstructed as soon as possible. It may be assumed that some of the Polovtsian aristocracy that have not accept their hordes to be dominated, have been slaughtered when they have clashed the Mongolians for the first time, but another part, that followed khan Kotyan, has settled in Hungary and fairly quickly assimilated into the local people and the Burtshewich have managed to start a new mameluke dynasty of sultans in Egypt. The burials that were found prove that the Polovtsian aristocrats have managed to regain their influence as soon as in the 60s of the 13th century. Willingly subordinated to the descendants of Genghis Khan they have also managed to gain power over the Ruthenian people. In the new cultural situation, the free Polovtsians have ethically and culturally assimilated with the invaders, as well as the people they have “acquired” in the middle of the 11th century.



POLISH WRITTEN SOURCES ON THE POLOVTSIANS

„And though it happened not sooner then he (Boleslav) has been knighted that the Polovtsians gathered at once in great number, and as they intended to spread all around Poland, as it was their custom, they have divided their forces into three or four separate groups and crossed the Vistula river at night. On the morrow, they have spread and plundered, to return with countless to the other river bank, where they have camped to seek a safe rest for the night. (...) God (..) inspired the courage of a few of the faithful and threw their attack, in Sunday glory, he triumphed by his might. And that day struck such a great fear into the Polovtsians, as they have not dare to visit the Polish land as long as Boleslav ruled.”.



„The Chronicles of Gall Anonymous”

This is how Gall Anonymous has narrated the clash between the Polish knights and the Polovtsian invaders that took place in 1101. The defeat they suffered from Boleslav Wrymouth have not discourage the Polovtsians and they have invaded once more, in 1135 – their troops have managed to reach Wiślica that they razed. Their way west led along Dnieper and it was limited by a very dense forest, which was almost impossible to for the horsemen to pass. There was, a narrow pass between Dnieper and Bug, threw which the Polovtsians could attack Poland, though were not doing it very willingly – only twice or three times. After that, their presence in Poland was mostly related to the military interventions in the dynastic struggles. As mercenaries of the Ruthenians, they have participated in the clashes of Vladislav the Exile and his brothers 1146.





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