Silesia: A Brief Overview
Silesia: A Brief Overview

By Sébastien Rossignol | Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador

Historical Overview

Medieval Silesia’s geographic location made it a zone of contact between the German lands, Poland, and Bohemia. Silesia is the region along the upper part of the Odra River, bordered by the Sudetes in the west and the Carpathians in the south, but with no clear natural boundary with Greater Poland in the north or with Lesser Poland in the east. Traditionally, Silesia has been divided between its northern part, Lower Silesia, around Wrocław (German: Breslau; Latin: Wratislavia); its southern part, Upper Silesia, or the former duchy of Opole (German: Oppeln); and Moravian Silesia, around Opava (German: Troppau), which today belongs to the Czechia. In spite of the mountain ranges in the west and south, geography linked Silesia with its neighbors. The Odra connected to Brandenburg and Lusatia in the northwest, the Moravian Gate offered passage to the Czech lands, and various routes led to other regions of Poland in the north and east.

Between the 11th and 17th centuries, Silesia was in turn a province of Poland, a series of independent duchies, a land of the crown of Bohemia, and part of the Habsburg monarchy. Silesia entered the historical record as a province of the kingdom of Poland, in the 11th and 12th centuries. As the Polish monarchy and the seniorate had fallen apart by the early 13th century, Silesia (Lower Silesia) and Opole (Upper Silesia) became independent duchies. In the second half of the 13th century, dynastic partitions divided both territories into ever smaller units. By the beginning of the 14th century, more than a dozen Piast dukes were ruling autonomous territories and were rivals with one another.

Few regions of Central Europe were as profoundly affected by the transformations of the 13th century as Silesia, especially during the reign of Duke Henry the Bearded (r. 1201–38) and his wife, Hedwig of Andechs (d. 1243). Henry the Bearded attracted settlers in the countryside and in the towns. Agriculture became more effective with new techniques and methods; urbanization intensified as towns were granted versions of German law and re-organized according to new legal, social, and topographical concepts; and the mining industry developed. According to her vita, Hedwig of Andechs promoted the establishment of multiple religious institutions, relying on her connections with her native southern Germany. By the end of the 13th century, Silesia was a prosperous land with a mixed population of Germans and Poles, with minorities of Jews and Francophones or Walloons.

Silesia broke with Poland when the Piast dukes of the region refused to join the kingdom reunited by Ladislaus the Short (r. 1320–33) in 1320. Instead, they chose, beginning in 1327, to pay homage to the king of Bohemia, John of Luxembourg (r. 1310–46). Silesia’s contacts were re-oriented and integration with the rest of Europe was intensified. This occurred with Bohemia and, especially under Charles IV, with the German lands. The court of Prague acted as the closest political and cultural center for Silesians. Silesia provided Bohemia with a reservoir of well-educated, German-speaking young men. The Silesian dukes married women from Bohemia, the German lands, and Poland. The 14th century witnessed a long period of stability. Silesia profited from its central position at the crossroads of trade routes connecting various parts of Europe. The via regia had, since the early Middle Ages, connected West to East, from Central Germany to Kyiv. The Odra linked with the Baltic Sea, enabling Wrocław to become a Hanseatic town. Through Bohemia, contacts with the Mediterranean flourished.

This prosperous period came to a dramatic end in the early 15th century when the Hussite Wars broke out. Emperor Sigismund, elected king of Bohemia but unable to reside in Prague, moved his court to Wrocław. Silesian society overwhelmingly opposed the religious reformers and the region was devastated by the incursions of Hussite troops. The second part of the 15th century was a period of economic and social reconstruction for the region. Landlords restricted the rights of peasants and built their centralized authority through the intensification of demesne lordship. The mining industry was revitalized. Municipal authorities gained accrued independence, which allowed them, beginning with Wrocław in 1454, to expel Jews for good.

Political insecurity reigned in the later part of the 15th century. The Utraquist king George of Poděbrady (r. 1458–71) fueled controversy, and after his death, the rule over Silesia became a bone of contention between Bohemia and Hungary. Ferdinand of Habsburg, Archduke of Austria (1521–64) and future emperor (1556–64), was able to seize control of Silesia in the turmoil that followed the Hungarian defeat against the Ottomans at Mohács in 1526. Silesia remained part of the Habsburg monarchy until it again became the subject of conflicts, this time with Prussia, on the eve of the Seven Years’ War.

Humanist culture reached Silesia in the late 15th century, and the Protestant Reformation in the early 16th. Although plans to establish a university failed, Wrocław became a center of humanist culture. In contrast to Hussitism, the 16th-century Reformation found fertile ground in Silesia. The region did not become Lutheran at a specific date, but reform ideas gained acceptance without a radical break with Rome. It was not until the Council of Trent that the Silesian Church was forced to clarify that its moderate approach to reform meant, in the end, that it could not be considered Catholic.

Written sources for Silesia in the 11th and 12th centuries are rare, and the Silesian society of that period is mostly known through the progress of archaeological research. Many of the written sources available for medieval Silesia have been published in the several volumes of the Codex diplomaticus Silesiae. Chronicles began to be written in Latin in the later 13th century. A few urban chronicles are dated to the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Literary sources include Die Kreuzfahrt des Landgrafen Ludwig von Thüringen, which was written at the court of the duke of Opava in the early 14th century, and various texts of the late 15th century, such as the so-called Wiener Osterspiel, named after the location of its manuscript but written in the Silesian-German dialect. The most abundant sources, however, beginning in the 13th century, are the charters produced by the chanceries of the ducal courts and religious institutions. Charters were first written in Latin, and increasingly in German during the 14th century. Czech documents appeared in some parts of Silesia in the late 15th century. The 14th century also saw the emergence of law books with normative texts and various registers recording legal affairs, especially property transactions. Legal scholars also wrote numerous commentaries and handbooks.

Key Issues and Debates

The historiography of medieval Silesia cannot be approached without consideration of the history of the region in the 20th century. Before 1945, Silesia (Schlesien) was a province of Germany with a predominantly German-speaking population. In 1945, Silesia (Śląsk) became part of Poland; the vast majority of the German-speaking population resettled in various parts of Western and Eastern Germany, while Polish citizens moved in, many of them coming from areas of eastern Poland, such as the region of Lwów (now Lviv; in German, Lemberg), which had become part of Ukraine and thus of the Soviet Union. The scholars of the German-language University of Breslau also left, and teaching and research resumed in Polish at the University of Wrocław. Postwar study of the history of medieval and early modern Silesia has thus been pursued by Polish scholars who had access to the holdings of Silesian archives and libraries, and by scholars from Germany who considered the history of Silesia to also be part of German history. Polish and German are still the two main languages of scholarly publication for the history of Silesia, and it would be impossible to study it without the ability to read both. Cooperation between Polish and German scholars has improved over time and has intensified since the 1990s. It is still rare for scholars from other countries to undertake research on Silesia.

The migration of mostly German settlers in the 13th century, and the consequences of that migration, have long been an area of research interest in the history of Silesia. Walter Kuhn, who moved from Breslau to Hamburg after 1945, published numerous detailed studies between the 1950s and 1970s, recording the migration of German settlers in various parts of Silesia. These studies remain valuable for their thorough documentation. More recent research has been devoted to the migration of specific groups: Benedykt Zientara reviewed the evidence concerning Walloons, Marek Cetwiński and Tomasz Jurek investigated the migration of German knights, and Ulrich Schmilewski studied the effects of migration on the Silesian nobility. Attention has also been given to the modes of integration of the migrants (Piotr Górecki; Josef Joachim Menzel).

The complex political history of the region and of its diverse populations has spurred numerous investigations into the constructions of collective identities for the region. In seminal articles, Tomasz Jurek and Halina Manikowska reviewed the various understandings of the region’s name in medieval sources. More recently, Stanisław Rosik and Przemysław Wiszewski dedicated cooperative projects to the study of the historical identities of Silesia (Rosik) and to an inquiry into social and cultural cohesion in the Middle Ages (Wiszewski). Sébastien Rossignol has also written about regional identity as reflected in ducal charters.

Charters and related documents have been the subject of very important research. Publication of the six volumes of the Schlesisches Urkundenbuch, which comprise all known documents produced in Silesia until 1300, has been completed by Winfried Irgang. Regesta of documents available in Silesian archives have been compiled for the 14th and 15th centuries. Foundational studies of various chanceries have been completed by scholars of the University of Wrocław, such as Rościsław Żerelik, Marek L. Wójcik, and others. Research has focused heavily, however, on the 13th century, a period for which there are fewer documents available, which makes systematic research more manageable. Much remains to be done for the later centuries, when the number of documents produced expanded dramatically. An important pioneering work in that regard has been the publication by Tomasz Jurek of the Landbücher, or register books, of the duchy of Świdnica (German: Schweidnitz) of the late 14th century, during the rule of Duchess Agnes.

Another subject that has long attracted scholarly attention is urbanization. Immense progress has been made in understanding medieval urbanization through advances in archaeology. Jerzy Piekalski, in particular, conducted excavations and studies of various aspects of urban material culture as well as syntheses and comparative studies of the transformation of urban topography in the 12th and 13th centuries. Mateusz Goliński used tax records of the late 14th century for numerous studies of the socio-topography of medieval towns, and published various primary sources. Numerous local studies on the history of specific Silesian towns have also been published.

The history of Jews in medieval Silesia is an important area of research. Markus Brann’s book, published in 1896, still provides a useful introduction. Although many specific aspects of his research have been revised, the book remains the most approachable and comprehensive overview. More recently, several scholars, including Mateusz Goliński, have studied various aspects of the life of Jews in Silesian towns. Marcin Wodziński published an edition – with abundant commentary – and Polish translations of Hebrew inscriptions from medieval and early modern Silesia, thus providing an invaluable tool for research. Rural history, by contrast, has been largely neglected in postwar Silesia. Richard C. Hoffmann’s study of rural developments of the duchy of Wrocław from the 13th to the 15th century is as impressive in its scope and detailed analysis as it is unique. More recently, Krzysztof Fokt reviewed archaeological evidence of rural settlements in medieval Lower Silesia.

Research on medieval Silesia still favors the 12th and 13th centuries, a period of dynamic transformations and integration into the broader European world. The long period of stability during the 14th century, and the crises of the 15th century, which tend to attract less attention, have much to offer to scholars interested in exploring unpublished documents and manuscripts.

Further Reading

Górecki, Piotr. A Local Society in Transition: The Henryków Book and Related Documents, Studies and Texts 155. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2007.

Piotr Górecki’s book contains not only a translation of this cartulary-chronicle that illuminates so much of the history of Silesia in the 13th century, but also a 90-page introduction to the source and its context. Górecki has also published numerous other studies on the Henryków Book and on the social and economic history of medieval Silesia and Poland.

Herzig, Arno. Geschichte Schlesiens: Vom Mittelalter zur Gegenwart, Wissen. Munich: C.H. Beck, 2015.

Arno Herzig’s small book is the most recent overview of the history of Silesia in a language other than Polish or Czech. The book is short and concise, and the bibliography provides a useful orientation.

Hoffmann, Richard C. Land, Liberties, and Lordship in a Late Medieval Countryside: Agrarian Structures and Change in the Duchy of Wrocław, Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989.

Richard Hoffmann’s book is a monumental study, based on decades of archival research, on the society and economy of rural settlements in the duchy of Wrocław, from the 14th to the 15th century. The book discusses the organization of agriculture, village life, economic change, and much more.

Piekalski, Jerzy. Prague, Wrocław and Kraków: Public and Private Space at the Time of the Medieval Transition, Wratislavia Antiqua 19. Wrocław: University of Wrocław – Institute of Archaeology, 2014.

This comparative study by Jerzy Piekalski summarizes the state of research on the archaeology of Wrocław, Kraków, and Prague in the Middle Ages, with an emphasis on the transformations of the 13th century. It provides an approachable introduction to the study of material culture and how it relates to the understanding of urban societies in medieval Central Europe.

Wiszewski, Przemysław, ed. Cuius regio? Ideological and Territorial Cohesion of Silesia (c. 1000-2000) 1: The Long Formation of the Region (c. 1000-1526). Wrocław:, 2013, available in open access (

This book resulted from an international project funded by the European Science Foundation studying historical regions in a comparative perspective. The articles of this volume investigate various factors that had the potential for contributing to integration and cohesion in the history of medieval Silesia. Although not conceived as a textbook, this publication provides the most accessible introduction to the history of medieval Silesia in English.

Wiszewski, Przemysław. “Politics and Change: The Silesian Dukes and the Transformation of the Land in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries.” In Landscapes and Societies in Medieval Europe East of the Elbe: Interactions between Environmental Settings and Cultural Transformations, ed. Sunhild Kleingärtner, Timothy P. Newfield, Sébastien Rossignol and Donat Wehner, 183–203. Papers in Mediaeval Studies 23. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2013.

Przemysław Wiszewski’s essay provides a concise overview of the transformations of the 13th century in Silesia in the context of the historiography of the period.

See also the article “Poland: A Brief Overview.”

Sébastien Rossignol, "Silesia: A Brief Overview," Mapping Eastern Europe, eds. M. A. Rossi and A. I. Sullivan, accessed June 10, 2024,