Unattributed painting of a Polish assembly, the Wiec, which met to discuss the issues of the day even before the establishment of the Kingdom of Poland in the 10th century. The wiece evolved into the sejm or parliaments which played an important role during the era of the Nobles’ Democracy which isthe focus of this case study.
Today we associate the word “Democracy” with parliamentary and presidential systems of government characterised by constitutions, competing political parties, the universal right to vote, free and fair elections, elected representatives, independent courts and protection of human rights. But the idea of “Democracy,” and some of its institutions and practices are much older than the systems we are now familiar with.
The ancient Athenians gave us the word ‘demokratia’ which is variously defined as ‘rule by (or of) the people’ , ‘the power of the people’ or ‘power resides with the people’. Imperial Rome had a senate which passed laws and had judicial powers. During the first millennium and then in the early medieval period we also find examples, particularly in Scandinavia, German-speaking lands and eastern Europe, of assemblies where ‘the people’ made important decisions on behalf of their communities.
These early forms of assembly tended to be controlled by the elites and their power depended on how strong or weak the ruler was, the extent to which he was an absentee monarch fighting wars in foreign lands and the extent to which he depended on the support of the elites in order to raise money.
Here is an example of an interesting experiment in democracy which took place in Poland between the 13th and the 18th centuries. It came to be known as the “nobles’ democracy” because the rights and privileges associated with democratic rule were only enjoyed by the Polish nobility.