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SL13: Introduction to the Language, Literature and Culture of Poland

This paper is available for the academic year 2023-24.

This paper is available to all MML and HML Part IB and Part II students.

Poland is the largest country in the eastern part of the European Union and a rising economic power, while Polish is now the second most widely spoken language in England. This paper introduces students to the language, literature and culture of a resurgent country that has often been battered by the storms of European history.

The paper will pay close attention to the hybridized and multi-ethnic nature of Poland’s past, pointing to the interlocking cultural narratives of a broader region laced with shifting borders. There will be a strong focus on often painful international relations – especially with Russia – and on comparative perspectives that place Poland in a much larger, pan-European context.  

Weekly lectures and fortnightly supervisions will cover the history of Polish culture from before the symbolic beginnings of 966 until the present day. Students will encounter a wide range of cultural productions, including novels, poems, plays, short stories, memoirs, historical studies, films, musical compositions and works of visual art. Throughout the paper, the powerful influence of historical experience on national culture will remain a central concern.

Students will learn the basics of the Polish language in twice-weekly classes throughout the academic year. No prior experience is required.

The second half of the paper will feature an increasing emphasis on the challenges and techniques of creative translation. By the end of the paper, students will be able to complete short literary translation assignments from Polish into English


1. Pagan Pre-History to the Middle Ages

This topic begins with a brief overview of the present state of Polish culture, before turning back to the history of the Polish lands from pagan pre-history to the Middle Ages and the formation of the Polish-Lithuanian Union. Lectures will emphasize Poland’s liminal status from the earliest moments of its historical existence – “east of the West and west of the East”, as the playwright Sławomir Mrożek once described it.

2. The Golden Age and Sarmatian Culture

This topic covers the period from the Golden Age of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the sixteenth century through to the Polish Baroque of the seventeenth century with the peculiar gentry culture of "Sarmatianism". Lectures will introduce students to the extraordinary ethnic, cultural and religious diversity of this period. 

3. Romanticism

This topic extends from the dramatic decline and fall of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the eighteenth century through to the powerful uprising of national culture in the Romantic age and the heretical Messianic philosophy of Poland as "the Christ of the Nations". Lectures will devote some attention to the challenges of translating the poetry.

4. Positivism and Young Poland

This topic begins with the post-Romantic period of “positivism” and “organic work”, concentrating on the rise of the Polish realist novel at the end of the nineteenth century. The second half of the section will focus on the turn of the century and the Young Poland movement in art and literature leading up to the First World War and Poland’s renewed independence.

5. Independent Poland and the Second World War

This topic begins with the explosion of creative activity in Poland’s short-lived spring of independent existence between the wars, before entering the heart of darkness into which Hitler and Stalin plunged the country between 1939 and 1945.

6. Communist Poland

This section examines Polish political and cultural life under communist rule from 1946 until 1989. The topic places a strong emphasis on the blooming of a powerful and original Polish cinema in this period, as well as on influential innovations in lyric poetry. The section also explores the significance of John Paul II, the Catholic Church and the “Solidarity” revolution in Polish culture.

7. Post-1989 Poland

This topic introduces students to the history and culture of post-1989 Poland by following certain key conflicts that have shaped and divided Polish society. In particular, the section will examine the fundamental divide between traditional visions of Polish identity and the various new models that have emerged as Poland’s economy has modernized, especially after the country’s accession to the European Union.

8. Jews in Polish Culture

This topic introduces students to the history and cultural contribution of Jews in Poland. Students will become acquainted with the vibrant religious, political and intellectual life of what was at various times the world’s largest Jewish community from its beginnings until the Nazi genocide of the Second World War.

To download the course handbook please click here.

Preparatory reading: 

Before the beginning of the academic year, students should read either Heart of Europe: The Past in Poland’s Present by Norman Davies or Poland: A History by Adam Zamoyski. Students should also familiarize themselves with the first two units of the Polish language textbook, Colloquial Polish: The Complete Course for Beginners (2011 - 3rd edition).

Full reading list

Please see the course handbook for the full reading list for this paper.

Teaching and learning: 

The course consists of four main elements: lectures, seminars, supervisions and language classes.

Lectures: The course will include sixteen lectures, eight in Michaelmas and eight in Lent. The lectures provide an introduction to and overview of the course.

Seminars: There will be two revision seminars in Easter term.

For the SL.13 Moodle site, please see here. The password can be collected from the paper coordinator.

Supervisions: Students will have ten supervisions: four in Michaelmas, four in Lent and two in Easter.

Language classes: Students will attend two language classes weekly, commencing from absolute beginner level. Lessons will strongly focus on practical elements of spoken and written communication.


The exam will include a translation task and two essay questions. Students will have plenty of opportunities to practice these tasks throughout the year.

Course Contacts: 
Dr Stanley Bill

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