Thursday, July 15, 2010


[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 Lithuania the dominant power. The emblem of the battle is two swords. The poem below presents the story.   


Not in school – such stories forbidden there –
but from my pious grandmother I learned
the legend behind the Great Union
of Poland and Lithuania. The beloved 

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 France, she stops to pray;
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 grĂ¼ner 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.

   ~ Oriana


Thus, most credit should go to Lithuania, 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.


  1. What an interesting, beautiful poem. The Battle of Grunwald was my favorite history lesson in Lithuanian Saturday school. Except our teacher talked about the wily, street-smart Lithuanians and the passive, educated, helpful Poles. And, of course, the rich, wrong-headed Germans.

  2. And I want to thank my friend John Guzlowski for introduing me to this poem.

  3. Thank you both! I love the "street-smart Lithuanians." Back then, forest-smart, terrain-smart. Next summer I'm going to Vilniaus.

    I was also thrilled to learn about the recreation of the battle, esp given that it's "as hot as 600 years ago," as someone said. I imagine those Poles who thought it would be "cool" to play the Teutonic Knights (I mean, what an outfit)really broiling, broiling -- discovering that those medieval battles were not exactly fun . . .

  4. It is hard to write well about history. Thanks for this taste of time from long ago.

  5. Hi Oriana,
    I posted the link to this poem on my blog
    I hope that's okay. I want my countrymen to read it.
    I love Vilnius. I just came back from it--there were all kinds of Grunwald commemoration going on.
    Take care,

  6. Thank you, Daiva, for posting a link to the poem. I am of course thrilled.

    Interesting, isn't it, especially given that we live in such a young country as the United States, that a battle which took place 600 years ago is so "alive." I wonder if the icon of the two swords is as well-known in Lithuania as it is in Poland. Images have great power. Another image that has gained such power is the "anchor" of the Resistance during WWII, the stylized initials standing for "Poland fights." Once the Anchor got painted on the House of the Party, the Communist government knew it was the end.