[Queen Yadviga's Black Christ in the Wawel Cathedral]
Today, July 15, 2010, marks the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Grunwald, one of the largest medieval battles. This decisive defeat of the Teutonic Knights by the armies of the Polish-Lithuanian Union changed the balance of power in Eastern Europe, making the United Kingdom of Poland and
THE TWO SWORDS OF GRUNWALD
Not in school – such stories forbidden there –
but from my pious grandmother I learned
the legend behind the Great Union
Poland and . The beloved Lithuania
Polish Queen Yadviga, secretly engaged
to a young French prince, dreads marrying
a barely baptized Lithuanian king
she pictures as half beast.
About to flee to
, she stops to pray; France
sees Christ nod to her from the crucifix.
Thus she too consents to her crucifixion:
the marriage to Yogaila, that barbarian
whose armies her country needs to fight
against the Teutonic Knights of the Cross.
1410, a hot July the Fifteenth:
the Teutonic Knights, out in open plain,
sweat in their armor. In the shade,
the Polish king attends the High Mass;
the Germans broiling, slowly broiling.
Two heralds arrive. Not deigning
to dismount, they declare to the king:
“Since you are afraid to begin the battle,
the Grand Master, Ulrich von Jungingen,
to encourage you, sends these swords.”
And they thrust two swords
into the ground, where they quiver.
The Polish nobles seethe.
The king, that barbarian,
replies, “We thank the Grand Master
for this gift. Let the battle start.
Victory is in the hand of God,
who punishes pride, which is unbearable.”
Fighting flares up. The Lithuanian
cavalry suddenly retreats.
A storm of black crosses,
the Teutonic Knights
give chase; are trapped in a marsh.
The heavy stallions begin to sink.
From the pagan forest,
from that grüner Wald,
Lithuanians pour out. The swift
Polish cavalry cuts off escape.
The rest is carnage –
the Grand Master slain,
and other elders – terrible news
for the Polish nobles, who want
to seize the Knights alive for ransom.
The Lithuanians do not understand.
They slaughter the enemy until dusk.
What can one expect of peasants.
Those two swords quivering, thrust
by the haughty heralds –
what a lesson for schoolchildren.
Later I discover
another lesson: the staged retreat
was a favorite Tatar stratagem,
learned by the Lithuanians
in their battles with the Mongols –
those slant-eyed barbarians
on their small, invincible mares.
Thus, most credit should go to
, and my poem implies that, along with the whole irony of this battle: Germans deeming Poles barbarians, Poles deeming Lithuanians barbarians or semi-barbarians, and everyone seeing Tatars as total barbarians. Lithuania