The Context

“Nobles’ Democracy” in Poland from the 13th – 18th centuries

The idea of a “Nobles’ Democracy” – a form of government where only the nobility have the right to make important political decisions - may seem strange to us today but throughout recorded history “democracy” has rarely meant government by all the people. In ancient Athens ‘the people’ did not include women, slaves, freedmen, those who were not born in Athens or whose parents were not Athenian. Ancient Rome had popular assemblies but during the Republic and then the Empire their powers were gradually transferred to the Senate and only wealthy property owners who were the sons of Senators or appointed by the Emperor were entitled to take part in the legislative and judicial process. Similarly the medieval assemblies which emerged in Scandinavia and amongst the Germanic tribes, and which spread east into the land of the Rus and then into central and south-eastern Europe, were controlled by the elite classes. The more recent history of liberal democracies shows that ruling elites were reluctant to broaden the electorates in their countries to permit working class men and then women to have the vote. Even today, most countries that we would regard as democratic have some form of representative system which means that we elect others to make laws on our behalf rather than participate directly in the political process.


The Pnyx, close to the Agora and the Akropolis, was the place where the assembly or ekklesia of citizens of ancient Athens would meet to debate the issues of the day.