Full text of Polish literature’s oldest masterpiece found
The discovery of Polikarp’s Dialogue with Death, with a complete Polish text of 918 verses, makes it the biggest event in the country’s language and literature scholarship for several decades.
A thin, pale woman, her face yellowish, without a nose, blood streaming from her eyes – thus appeared Death in medieval Poland, an image apparently inspired by leprosy victims. In common, however, with the better known skeleton imagined by contemporary western Europeans, she carried a scythe.
The image comes from Master Polikarp’s Dialogue with Death, widely recognised as the first masterpiece of Polish literature, which until last month was known only in fragments. Until Professor Wiesław Wydra’s discovery at an undisclosed “library of a European university” of a print edition from 1542, only 498 verses of the original dialogue were known from a fifteenth-century manuscript.
The ending of the piece had to be (partially) reconstructed from a translation into a Ruthenian, a forerunner of today’s Russian, Ukrainian and Belarussian languages.
The newly found book has a complete Polish text of 918 verses, making it the biggest event in the country’s language and literature scholarship for several decades. Professor Wydra, who teaches at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, expects to bring out a critical edition of the full text as soon as the end of this year.
The Death of the Dialogue… is given to anger but also to reflection and even witticism: her knowledge of all people regardless of class and wealth seems to give her a keen sense of human foibles and her account of clergymen in particular spares the hypocrites few blushes.
With a magnificent disdain for worldly goods, she cares only about human sin which it is ultimately her job to punish. Yet, if insistent that she will spare no one, she is at least more discerning in the choice of targets of her satire: while monks come in for the same treatment as priests and bishops, Death appears in awe of the stern morality of nuns: she wonders what the point of living is for those who suffer such deprivations.
While describing the Dialogue… as a proto-feminist text would be a massive over-interpretation, the satire seems to make it clear that perception of the injustice suffered by women was not unknown to medieval society.
That, at least, is what we can read in the partial version of the text known to date. The aficionados of Poland’s literary past will have to wait several months before learning what the newly found parts of the dialogue have to reveal.