City through Empires: Toruń (Poland) in an Ontology of Historical Geographic Information Systems from the 10th to 20th Centuries

by Wiesława Duży

Modern-day Toruń is a capital city of its voivodeship and consists of 202.5k citizens, inhabiting an area of 116 square kilometres on both banks of the longest river in Poland, the Vistula River. Its other river is Drwęca River, which is also important to the landscape of Toruń as its valley was a historical border between Dobrzyń and Chełmno. At the outlet of the Drwęca into the Vistula, there is a part of the Toruń powiat which will be further examined later in this article. The town of Toruń was first established in the thirteenth century on the eastern bank of the Vistula River at its lower course, by the ford between lands belonging to the Piast dynasty and Prussia, 175 kilometres south of Gdańsk. The origins of the settlement can be traced back to the year 1230, and only three years later it had grown enough to be granted town privileges. Due to its unfortunate location directly on the riverbank, which threatened the town with flooding, Toruń was relocated a few kilometres up the river in as early as 1236. Its dynamic development and the growing influence of Toruń’s bourgeoisie class resulted in the Teutonic Knights (the proprietors of the entire area on the eastern bank of the Vistula River) establishing the New Town of Toruń, subject to their influence, directly by the walls of the Old Town of Toruń. The two towns developed simultaneously for nearly two hundred years until their merger in 1454 into one of the most powerful towns of its time (next to Elbląg and Gdańsk) in Prussia (Ciesielska 2008; Mikulski 1999).

At that same time, the settlement on the western bank of the Vistula River developed according to a completely different course. Despite assuming a modern perspective as a vantage point for this study, it is worth remembering that, up until the twentieth century, the now western-bank part of Toruń did not belong to the town whatsoever. The border between Polish Kujawy and Prussian Chełmno lands ran along the Vistula riverbank. The river border constituted a state border, which rendered Toruń a border town. In the thirteenth century, the lands belonged to the Piast dynasty. It was then that the Teutonic Order was invited by Konrad I of Masovia, and spread their influence to the western bank of the river, stretching from the ford opposite to where Old Toruń was to later be established. After the year 1226, a small stronghold, probably called Vogelsang, was built there (Ciesielska 2008). In 1230 Konrad I granted the Teutonic Knights a narrow stretch of land between the two fords, a gord in Stara/Mała Nieszawa, and four villages. From there, they entered Chełmno lands on the eastern bank, while, on the western bank of the Vistula River, they established a Nieszawa commandry (Pl. komturia nieszawska). The Order ruled these humble lands up until 1422. The majority of the lands on the western bank of the Vistula River now encompassed by Toruń first belonged to the Piast Dukes and, later, the Kings of Poland (Ciesielska & Zakrzewski 2005).

In the years 1425-1428, the King of Poland, Władysław II Jagiełło, established a settlement, and built Dybów Castle (the ruins of which remain to this day) near New Nieszawa. Nieszawa was granted town privileges in the year 1425 and became competition for Toruń on the other side of the river (Tęgowski 1983; Duda & Jóźwiak 2017). However, the castle and town of Nieszawa were demolished by the Teutonic Knights in the year 1431, who re-established a Nieszawa commandry in their stead, which was in operation until the year 1435 when they nearly entirely withdrew to the eastern bank of the Vistula River. Meanwhile, the settlement surrounding Dybów Castle developed constantly, steadily strengthening its position.

In 1454, Royal Prussia, and consequently Toruń, were subjected to the rule of the King of Poland, which ultimately decided the fate of Nieszawa. The bourgeoisie of Toruń were powerful enough to convince the king to relocate Nieszawa up the river. From then, the town was called Nowa Nieszawa (Eng. New Nieszawa) (Andrzejewski & Wroniecki 2015). The city functioned opposite Toruń until 1460, but until as late as 1465 there were still a few dozen people living there. Eventually, due to the Second Peace of Thorn (Pl. Toruń) in 1466, the town of Nowa Nieszawa completely ceased to exist in its location across from Toruń. Only the castle remained, along with some humble dwellings surrounding it named Nieszawa village. Its inhabitants were relocated nearby to the hills of newly established Podgórze in 1555, which resulted in the final disappearance of Nieszawa-Dybów (Dumanowski 2004; Grzeszkiewicz-Kotlewska 2002).

Figure 1: Border between Royal Prussia (Pl. Prusy; with Toruń on the right Vistula river bank) and Greater Poland (Pl. Wielkopolska) in 16th c.

Meanwhile, on the eastern bank of the Vistula River existed a mighty, independent town under the Polish kings’ rule, which operated until the eighteenth century. (cf. Figure 1). Toruń became the owner and administrator of vast estates, greatly exceeding the area encompassed by the town nowadays (Tandecki & Kozieł 1995). Presently, Toruń covers only a small share on the eastern riverbank, as well as part of the estates of the Bishops of Kujawy. The area is similar to that owned by the town and its patrimony in 1457 before the King granted the town vast areas of land. As far as the settlement network is concerned, it did not contain any major locality until the nineteenth century and only villages were established, some by Dutch settlers. The area currently encompassing the western riverside of Toruń had no major connection to the city up until the nineteenth century, when the railway was built. The location of a train station on the western bank of the Vistula River resulted in an accelerated increase in settlements there, including the creation of the village, and later town, Podgórz.

Figure 2: Border between Commonwealth of Poland an Prussia after the First Partition in 1772 presented at the Friedrich Schoetter map from the beginning of 19th c. (1:150 000)

During the Partition period, all of the area described above belonged to the Kingdom of Prussia, and then for a short period of time was under the jurisdiction of the Duchy of Warsaw under Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1815, according to the Congress of Vienna, the region was granted to Prussia (cf. Figure 3) and finally, after the restoration of Poland’s independence, Toruń became a part of Poland, while the settlements on the western riverbank were incorporated into the town’s borders, losing their independence.

Figure 3: Location of Toruń in Kingdom of Prussia after 1815 presented on Topographical Map of Polish Kingdom printed in 1843 (1:126 000)

The description of the settlement network within the present Toruń region is part of a project called “Ontological foundations for developing historical geographic information systems”, conducted in the Institute of History at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw (Pl. IH PAN). The project aims to create an ontology of the settlement network and administrative units within the area of the old Polish Lands, as well as a database of types of locality and administrative unit, and a dictionary of the terms connected with the settlement in the area in question. The results will be published in the form of a website. The ontology will include temporal changes, which are not limited to the changes of types of locality, but also entail changes of administrative units over time. The area of Toruń is one of the preliminary pilot areas chosen for a more detailed study of settlement networks and administrative division. Based on the present methodology, the research includes all settlements existing between the tenth and twentieth centuries, in the area of 12 chosen districts as of 2017. Additionally, the study includes all administrative units in the entire area of Poland between the tenth and the twentieth centuries. The preliminary results on the localities’ typology and the changes in their identity were presented at the Spatial Humanities Conference at the University of Lancaster in September 2018.

In order to include the changes involving the administration units existing in the old Polish lands in the prepared ontology, it was necessary to construct a general hierarchy of all the possible types of administration units in the area in the course of time. Thus, a ten-tier structure was elaborated, ranging from the smallest, most common in the area of that time:

  1. Gmina (Eng. Commune)
  2. Wójtostwo (Eng. Voyt dominion)
  3. Powiat (Eng. District)
  4. Ziemia (Eng. Land)
  5. Województwo (Eng. Voivodeship)
  6. Prowincja (Eng. Province)
  7. Kraj (Eng. Country)
  8. Królestwo (Eng. Kingdom)
  9. Państwo złożone (Eng. Federation)
  10. Cesarstwo (Eng. Empire).  1

The highest level of the hierarchy is occupied by the empire. Within the domain of old Polish lands, we can distinguish three units of this sort: the Russian Empire (1775-1917), the Holy Roman Empire, and the German Empire (from 1871). In the area under scrutiny, the highest tier units comprised:

  1. Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (created in 1569, the ninth tier in the hierarchy), which means that it was under King of Poland’s rule, who was both the owner of the lands on the western bank of the Vistula River and overseer, though not owner, of Toruń, which, in turn, was in the Kingdom of Prussia on the eastern riverbank.
  2. The German Empire (since 1871, the tenth tier of the hierarchy), meaning that the highest ruler of the land was the German Emperor.

Since the eighteenth century, in the area occupied by modern-day Toruń, the highest administrative power was, consecutively, in the hands of: the Kingdom of Prussia (from 1772 to 1806, ninth tier of hierarchy), the Kingdom of Warsaw (from 1807 to 1815), the Kingdom of Prussia (from 1815 to 1870), and the German Empire (since 1871). After the restoration of independence in 1918, the administrative power within the region of present-day Toruń was represented by the Republic of Poland (Toruń was incorporated into Poland in January, 1920; cf. Figure 4).

From the perspective of database elaboration, the situation described above presents a variety of difficulties with regards to classification. For instance, due to the First Partition of Poland in 1772, Prussia occupied a significant area of the lands governed by Toruń, a small portion of which lies within the area of modern-day Toruń. This means that between 1772 and 1795, in the region under analysis, there were administrative units introduced by the first Prussian administrative reforms, the former administrative system of the Kingdom of Prussia on the eastern riverbank, as well as the old Polish administrative system on the western riverbank.

The units occupying the lowest tier in the entire area of Poland were the communes, though they did not operate everywhere or appeared only along with the development of local government. For instance, in the State of the Teutonic Order, established in the area in question, the fundamental administrative unit was a commandry (Pl. komturia) (the third tier in the general hierarchy), while in some parts of the state, there were still wójtostwos (Eng. Voyt dominions) (the second tier). The choice of basic territorial unit depended on the source of administrative power in the area – whether there was a monastery or a Teutonic castle, the residence of a commander. In the Middle Ages, in other regions of Poland such as Silesia, due to great fragmentation of ownership the fundamental territorial unit could also be a kingdom (the fourth tier in the hierarchy). In the area of modern-day Toruń, the basic territorial units were as follows: commandry (the fourth tier), district (the second tier), commune (the first tier). The changes in this respect, in the course of the following centuries, clearly illustrate the development of local government and administration system.

Moreover, the organisation of Prussian administration within the entire Western Prussia province (the sixth tier in the hierarchy of the administration units) is also an interesting issue, though still requiring further studies. In the nineteenth century, the province encompassed the entire area of modern-day Toruń, which is of interest to this study; however, we can observe that on the lower level of the administration units’ stratification (the fifth tier – Ger. Regierungsbezirk, Pl. rejencja), there were shifts in the administrative affiliation of the area in question in the nineteenth century. Additionally, we can note the change in the structure of administrative division at the beginning of the twentieth century after the introduction of Polish voivodeships (the fifth tier in the hierarchy) instead of Prussian Regierungsbezirks or provinces. The problems associated with governing the territory, caused by the adoption of the responsibilities of the former Prussian offices, are described in, among others, historical office instructions and procedures (Dubiel & Saloni 1925). The analysis of competences of particular offices allows for the conclusion that the voivodeships were the counterparts of the former Regierungsbezirks (Pl. rejencje), though spatial analysis suggests that they rather corresponded to Prussian provinces. All of the above issues are under the detailed examination of the team working on the project “Ontological foundations for developing historical geographic information systems”.

Figure 4: Toruń in Poland after 1920 as a capital city of the Pomeranian Voivodeship (due to specific political situation of the Free City of Gdańsk situated on the seaside) presented on the map of the Polish Military Geographical Institute (1:100 000)

It is also worth mentioning that the changes in administrative division and affiliation were also connected with official language changes. Thus, in the entire area of Poland, in the period in question, there were such languages in use as Latin and Polish, but also German, Russian, French and Czech. The area of Toruń, however, was within the sphere of influence of German and Polish. This is why the administrative units varied over time, not only as far as their area was concerned, but also regarding their competences and names. For instance, the voivodeship from the Republic of Poland period covered a different area than the Regierungsbezirk (Pl. rejencja) from the Kingdom of Prussia period, despite occupying the same tier in the hierarchy of the administrative units. It is worth remembering that the proposed hierarchy is a simplified model of reality, serving the purpose of harmonising various and incoherent historical data in order to create a uniform database.

Translation: Paulina Wacławik


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  1. This tier structure is currently work in progress, especially as the Polish-English translation needs to be carefully revised. The final version of this structure is going to be one of the project outcomes in late 2019. Links to references provided in this article [accessed 28 February 2019] may be considered as examples and introduction to our development.