Poland (called by the natives Polslca, a word of the same root as Pole, 'a plain '), a former kingdom of Europe, was, immediately previous to its dismemberment, bounded N. by the Baltic Sea from Danzig to Riga, and by the Russian provinces of Riga and Pskov; E. by the Russian provinces of Smolensk, Tchernigoff, Pultowa, and Kherson; S. by Bessarabia, Moldavia, and the Carpathian Mountains; and W. by the Prussian provinces of Silesia, Brandenburg, and Pomerania. Its greatest length from N. to S. was 713 English miles, and from E. to W. 693 miles, embracing an area of about 282,000 sq. m. (40,000 larger than Austria-Hungary is now). This extensive tract forms part of the great European central plain, and is crossed by only one range of hills, which run NE. from the Carpathians, forming the watershed between the Baltic and Black Seas. The soil is mostly a light fertile loam, though there are large barren tracts of sand, heath, and swamp, especially in the east. Much of the fertile soil is rich pasture-land, and much is occupied with forests of pine, birch, oak, etc. Rye, wheat, barley, and other cereals, hemp, timber, honey and wax, cattle, sheep, and horses, vast mines of salt and coal, some silver, iron, copper, and lead constitute the natural riches of the country; and for commerce the Vistula, Dnieper, Dwina, and their tributaries afford great facilities. The present population of the provinces included in the Poland of former days consists of Poles, Lithuanians, Germans, Jews, Malo-Russians, Roumanians, Gypsies, etc. The Poles, who number 10,000,000, form the bulk of the population; the Lithuanians, 2,100,000 in number, inhabit the north-east of the country; the Germans, of whom there are 2,000,000, live mostly in the towns; the Jews are very numerous, being reckoned at 2,200,000. Of Roman Catholics there are about 9,400,000; of members of the Greek Church (including Uniates), 7,900,000; of Protestants, 2,360,000; the rest are Jews, Armenians in Galicia, etc.
The Polish people takes its name from the Poliani, a tribe that early became dominant amongst the Slavonic inhabitants of the Polish area. The history of the kingdom begins with its Christianisation about the end of the 10th century; in the 11th the kingdom was extended beyond the Oder, the Carpathians, and the Dniester. In the 12th century a contested succession led to dissensions and the loss of Pomerania. In the 13th the Teutonic Knights were summoned by the kings to assist them, but soon became the most formidable enemy of the Polish monarchy, conquering large districts and necessitating frequent wars. The Mongol invasion of 1241 devastated the country, and was followed by the immigration of German colonists and Jews. The marriage of Hedwig or Jadviga, daughter of King Louis, in 1385 to Jagiello, grand-duke of Lithuania, led to the union of Lithuania and Poland under the Jagellon dynasty - a union made permanent and indissoluble" in 1569. The kingdom at its greatest extent was subdivided into about forty palatinates, which were mostly governed by hereditary chiefs.
The people were divided into two great classes - nobles and serfs. The noble class, which was the privileged and governing class, included the higher nobles, the inferior nobles (a numerous class, corresponding to the knights and gentry of other countries), and the clergy, and numbered in all 200,000; the serfs formed the agricultural labourers, and were attached to the soil. Their condition is described by all travellers as a very pitiable one. Such trade as the country had was mostly in the hands of the Germans and Jews. The nobles were the proprietors of the soil, and appropriated the larger portion of its products. They were brave and hospitable, but quarrelsome, and generally preferred their own interests to that of their country; the serfs were sunk in poverty and ignorance. Long ere the union with Lithuania, the diet, first summoned in 1331, had absorbed almost all the kingly power, and was becoming the centre of furious and selfish dissensions amongst the nobles, which did more than anything else to ruin the nation. Other causes were the feuds of Catholics and Protestants, and the persecution of the Greek Catholics; the miserable condition of the serfs, downtrodden by the nobles; and the want of natural frontiers. The crown was practically elective - another source of difficulty and civil war. Moldavia and Wallachia, long under a Polish protectorate, were taken by the Turks; Livonia was conquered by Sweden (1605), and ceded in 1660; and Brandenburg became independent (1657). The Cossacks, goaded by Jesuit persecution, went over to Russia (1654). Sobieski's glorious victory over the Turks (1683) brought little good to the country, torn as it was by the dissensions of the nobles. Disputed elections and rival claimants to the crown led to the intervention of the adjoining powers, and the first partition (1772) of Poland, by which 84,000 sq. m. of Polish territory were divided between Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Renewed dissensions in 1792 led to a like result; a second partition (1793) gave Russia and Prussia another slice of 118,000 miles, in spite of the efforts of Kosciusko and other patriots. A Polish national rising was utterly unsuccessful, and merely precipitated the third partition (1795), when 82,000 miles of Polish soil were divided amongst Russia, Prussia, and Austria, and the Polish monarchy was at an end. Some readjustment took place by the Treaty of Vienna in 1815; and rebellions against Russian rule in 1830,1848, and 1863 have only brought further humiliation on Polish hopes and aspirations.
The so-called 'Kingdom of Poland,' united to Russia in 1815, had its own constitution till 1830, and a separate government till 1864, when after the suppression of a widespread revolt, the last visible remnant of independence was taken away. The administration was at first given to eight military governors, and then to a commission sitting in St Petersburg. Finally, in 1868, the Polish province was absolutely incorporated with Russia, and the ten governments into which it was divided are grouped with the governments of Russia proper. In 1S67 the area of this section of old Poland was about 49,000 sq. m., with a pop. of about 5,700,000, of whom 4,330,000 were Roman Catholics. In 1905 the ten Polish provinces - Kaliscz, Kielce, Lomza, Lublin, Piotrkow, Plock, Radom, Siedlce, Ssuwalki, and Warsaw - had a collective pop. of over 9,500,000. Commerce is still mostly in the hands of the Jews.
The Polish language, a typical representative of the western Slavonic, is a highly cultivated tongue, with a literature already extensive in the 16th century. Mickiewicz (1798-1855) is the greatest poet; Sienkiewicz one of the most esteemed and prolific of recent novelists. See historical works on Poland by Lelewel (French trans. 1844), Moltke's Poland (trans. 1855), and Morfill's Poland (1893).