Tuesday, January 18, 2011


All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree. All these aspirations are directed toward... leading the individual towards freedom.
--Albert Einstein

[Today is the 492nd birthday of Isabella Jagiellon, a princess of Polish and Milanese blood who issued the first edict of universal religious tolerance during the early Reformation period in central Europe. In recognition of this event, I thought we’d visit the Transylvanian monarch and ask her about the Polish virtue of Wolność (Freedom). ] [The word, by the way, is pronounced “VOLL-noss-ch.”]

Ten Thousand Virtues: Your Gracious Majesty, thanks for giving us your attention.
Queen Isabella: Dzień dobry. Truly, it is I who should thank you. There are so few in your time who have even heard of me. Aside from a few tourists visiting my tomb at Gyulafehérvár, I’m afraid I’m just a faint echo of history.
TTV: Gyulafehérvár?
QI: The cathedral in Alba Iulia, where I’m bured. It’s in what you now call Transylvania. We didn’t call it Transylvania, though; we referred to it as "the Eastern Hungarian Kingdom."
TTV: “We”? Is that the regal “we”?
QI: [Gives interviewer an unamused glare.]
TTV: Ahem... Uh, well. Can you tell us about your life? You were born in Krakow, Poland, isn’t that right?
QI: Yes. My father was King Sigismund the First [See pic - ed.], and my mother was Bona Sforza. I’m told that I got my blue eyes from my father and my Spiritedness from my mother.
TTV: I understand you also benefited from her educational influence.
QI: [Nods.] As your history states, Italy was the cradle of the Renaissance. My mother had obtained a good education, and she made sure I had the same. I learned Latin and German, in addition to Italian and Polish. My mother’s own teacher was Crisostomo Colonna, a member of the Academy of Pont, who tutored her in history, law, theology... She was... [pause] Well, let’s just say she played the game of politics very well. She never crossed paths with Niccolò Machiavelli, but in hindsight, she could have taught him a thing or two. I think it bears mentioning that, as with virtually all marriages of royalty at the time, her marriage to my father was highly political. She was 24; he was a widower more than twice her age.
TTV: Speaking of politics, I understand your own hand was first offered in marriage when you were only four years old?
QI: Yes. As a Princess of Poland whose mother had ties to the royal house in Milan, I was offered to Prince Henry of France, to create a potential French-Polish alliance and strengthen Henry’s father’s ambitions for Milan. I guess your era would find offering a girl of 4 in marriage scandalous, but then, Henry himself was only 4 as well. And this was just the way of politics at the time.
TTV: But that marriage proposal fell through?
QI: Well, my mother also had ambitions on Milan, too, and thought to offer my hand to Federico of Gonzaga, the Duke of Mantua. He was 20 years my senior, and I’m glad that fell through, as he died of syphilis... She offered me to the Hapsburgs, too, but they weren’t biting.  
TTV: Wow... Your family intrigues sound like an episode of Dynasty.
QI: Well, we were a dynasty. The Jagiellon family line represented Poland, a nation caught between the great powers of the time: The Hapsburgs, rulers of Austria and the Holy Roman Empire, who represented Christian Europe; and the Ottoman Empire, which was Muslim, controlled by Suleiman the Magnificent.
TTV: Hmm, for representing the virtue of Wolność, you sure didn’t have much personal Freedom... Ultimately, you wound up marrying John Zápolya, the King of Hungary.
QI: Yes, in a marriage much like my mother’s. He was 52, I was 20. Within the year I was pregnant. My husand died of a stroke shortly after the baby was born.  
TTV: Ouch, I’m sorry. What did you do then?
QI: Played the role of Dowager Regent and worked to keep my son alive. Trouble was, my husband foolishly had made an arrangement with his rival for control of Hungary, King Ferdinand of Austria. In exchange for an annual payment of a certain number of florins, he agreed to relinquish his line’s claim on the Hungarian throne.
TTV: What did you do?
QI: Reached out to the Sultan, of course. He’d heard the baby wasn’t mine, just some ruse I’d designed to keep my hold on the reigns of power. And, well, stranger things had happened, I suppose.
TTV: How did you convince him you were sincere?
QI: When his envoy, Beg Rusztem, came to see me, I was dressed in the black of mourning, up on the throne, with the baby on my lap. John Junior started to cry, so I opened my blouse and nursed him.
TTV: What did the envoy do?
QI: Fell to his feet, kissed John Junior’s little toes, and promised Suleiman’s protection... Ferdinand, meanwhile, sent about 40,000 troops in our general direction.
TTV: How’d that sort out?
QI: The Sultan came on a “social visit,” sneaking dozens of Janissaries disguised as tourists into my late husband’s strongest fortress, Buda. While Suleiman tickled John Jr. with his beard, his troops quietly took the city. He calmly announced that he’d annexed Hungary to the Ottoman Empire. He turned the Church of the Virgin Mary into a mosque, said a prayer, and sent John Jr. and me to Transylvania. We stayed there for ten years, maneuvering between the Turks and the Austrians. Finally, Ferdinand took Transylvania, and we were forced to flee.  
TTV:  It is said you carved three letters into a tree as you left the border of Transylvania: “SFV.” What does that mean?
QI: “Sic Fata Volunt.” In other words, “It is the will of Fate.”
TTV: Hmm, that sounds like an expression of Surrender to Divine Will.
QI: [Tilting her head.] If you like.
TTV: Before we take our leave of Your Highness, I wonder if you could explain your proclamation of religious tolerance.
QI: Ah, yes. Well, you see, we ultimately returned to Transylvania, and while John Jr. navigated his teen years, I took as an advisor Giorgio Biandrata, an Italian physician who had worked for my mother. These days you would describe him as a Unitarian. I issued the “Decree of Religious Tolerance” in 1557, calling for... Well, see here: “Each person to maintain whatever religious faith he wishes, with old or new rituals, while We at the same time leave it to their judgment to do as they please in the matter of faith, just so long as they bring no harm to bear on anyone at all.”
TTV: Wow, that’s an impressively tolerant document in a time of war, religious persecution, and Inquisition.
QI: Thank you. My own mother had sent heretics off to burn at the stake. It’s her own fault she had me educated; I thought for myself. I guess living in a region like Transylvania, with Roman Catholics, Romanian Orthodox, Lutherans, Calvinists, Unitarians, Jews, even a few Muslims... I felt we had enough to keep track of, simply dealing with the infighting of politics. I couldn’t keep up the same continuous conflict against so many religious lines. I didn’t have a lot of power in my little corner of Transylvania, but I did what I could.
TTV: And your son, John Junior, continued your vision by issuing the Edict of Torda, nine years after his death.
QI: He was always a good boy!
TTV: So, in closing, Your Faithfulness, given a life that showed very little personal control or options, how would you describe Wolność?
QI: True Freedom is Surrender to the will of the Divine. All that we see in the world is just as the Divine wills it, and each of us is here in accordance with Providence, in all our Variety and Splendor.
TTV: Thank you!
QI: Do zobaczenia!

May we see the gates of Wolność, and perhaps make a home there.

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