Piast dynasty - early beginnings history
Last updated on

The Beginnings of the Piast Dynasty

The origins of the first independent Polish state are firmly associated with the Piast Dynasty and the first historical ruler of Poland, Duke Mieszko I.

This post, thus, briefly considers the beginnings of the Piast dynasty and the predecessors of Mieszko I. 


The Beginnings of the Piast Dynasty – The Semi-Legendary View

The very beginnings of the Piast dynasty based on legend and folk memory are tied to a semi-legendary figure known as Piast Chościkowic. This is how Gallus Anonymus, author of the oldest Polish chronicle, referred to him. In the Polish language, he’s often called Piast Kołodziej. Sources in the English language often refer to Piast as Piast the Wheelwright.

Piast Chościkowic, along with his wife, Rzepicha, and father, Chościsko, appear in the Polish Chronicle of Gallus Anonymus (Gall-Anonim). Written in around 1113, the precise name of the work is Cronicae et gesta ducum sive principum Polonorum (Chronicles and deeds of the dukes or princes of the Poles).

Apparently, Piast Chościkowic’s reign began in the 8th-century and ended in the 9th-century. According to legend, he died in 861 aged 120 years.

Overall, Piast Chościkowic, as little more than a semi-legendary figure, can only be considered as the presumed founder of the Piast dynasty.


Selections from Gallus Anonymus’s Chronicle about Piast Chościkowic

Back to Gallus’s chronicle. It describes an unexpected visit that two strangers paid to Piast. They ask to join Piast’s family to celebrate the 7th birthday (a pagan rite of passage for young boys) of Piast’s son, Ziemowit. In gratitude for the hospitality they received, the guests cast a spell which makes Piast’s cellar ever full of plenty. Upon viewing this, Piast’s compatriots declare Ziemowit their new prince. Therefore, Ziemowit subsequently replaces the late Prince Popiel II (a legendary 9th-century ruler of two proto-Polish tribes, the Goplans and Western Polans*):

Selection 1:

" The inhabitants of the hospitable house were: one Piast, son of Chościsko, and his wife named Rzepka; both from the depths of their hearts tried as they could to satisfy the guests' needs, and seeing their wisdom, they resolved to seek their advice for one confidential project which they had. When they sat down according to custom and talked about various matters, and the strangers asked if they had anything to drink, the hospitable ploughman replied: "I have a small barrel of fermented beer, which I have prepared for the shearing of the only son I have, but what is this little thimbleful good for? Drink it up, if you will." This poor peasant had resolved that during the time when the duke, his master, was having a feast for his sons, he would prepare a somewhat better meal for the shearing of his little boy-as at other time he could not do it on account of his poverty-and invite equally poor friends not to a feast but to a modest meal; so he fattened a piglet which he destined for that occasion. I will tell you about some strange happenings but who can fathom God's ways? Or who will dare to immerse himself in inquiries into God's blessings, who even in this life often elevates the humble poor and does not hesitate to reward hospitality even among the pagans? So the guests calmly told Piast to pour out the beer because they knew well that because of their drinking, no quantity would be lost but rather it would increase. And it was said the beer increased continually, until all the borrowed dishes were filled with it, while the revelers at the duke's feast found their cups empty. They also ordered that the aforementioned piglet be slaughtered, with whose meat-a thing beyond belief-they were said to fill ten buckets, which were called in Slavonic cebry. So Piast and Rzepka, seeing the miracles which took place, sensed in them some important prophecy for their son, and they were just about ready to invite the duke and his companions but they did not dare without asking the travelers about it first. Why delay? So with the advice and encouragement of the guests, their master, the duke, and all his table companions are invited by the serf Piast, and the invited duke did not consider it below his dignity to pay a visit to his peasant. The reason for this was that the Polish dukedom was not that big yet, nor did the duke of the country carry himself with such conceit and pride, nor did he appear so splendidly surrounded by a large retinue of vassals. So when the customary feast was arranged and everything was prepared in abundance, these guests sheared the boy and gave him the name of Siemowit in augury of his future fate. "

Selection 2:

" After all this, a young Siemowit, the son of Piast Chościskowic, grew in strength and years and from day to day he progressed and grew in uprightness to such a degree that the king of kings and duke of dukes5, with universal acclaim, appointed him the duke of Poland, and completely removed Popiel with his progeny from the kingdom. Venerable old men also say that Popiel, driven out from the kingdom, suffered so much harassment from mice that he was transported by his attendants to an island, where he was defended for a long time in a wooden tower against those enraged animals which swam by there, until, deserted by everybody because of the deadly stench emanating from the multitudes of slaughtered mice, he died a most shameful death, devoured by those monsters. "

Source for selections from Gallus Anonymus’s Polish chronicle:


* Who were the Western Polans?

The Western Polans (Polish: Polanie), also known as Polans and Polanians, were a West Slavic and Lechitic tribe (certain West Slavic tribes who inhabited modern-day Poland and eastern German). They inhabited the Warta River basin of the contemporary Greater Poland region beginning in the 6th century.


The Etymology of the word Piast

Regarding the etymology of the word Piast, two theories prevail. The first refers to the roots as piasta (“hub” in Polish). This a reference to Piast Chościskowic’s profession as a Wheelwright. 

The second theory connects Piast to piastun (“keeper” or “custodian”). This could hint at Piast’s initial role as “steward of the house”, and the ensuing takeover of power by Piast. 


The Beginnings of the Piast Dynasty – A Historical View

Unsurprisingly, many historians have paid scant heed to the semi-legendary status of Piast Chościkowic. Conversely, they have tended to label Piast as a purely legendary figure. For example, Lukowski and Zawadzki (2019, p.3) accuse ‘the anonymous Gaul’ of using “folk memory … to locate the founder of the ruling house in a successful peasant adventure called ‘Piast’, who had overthrown a tyrannical predecessor, Popiel.”

Historians such as Lukowski and Zawadzki (2019, p.4) and Reddaway et al. (1978, p.16) are more sure of the existence of Piast’s ancestral successors to power. Next in line as rulers of the Polans were Ziemowit, Lestek and Ziemomysł. Hence, Ziemomysł would have been Piast’s great-grandson. Reddaway et al. (1978, p.16) state that:

The very names of these ancestors, whose actual existence we have no reason to doubt, point to the native origin of the dynasty.

Therefore, the beginnings of the Piast dynasty may be placed as early as the second half of the ninth century – when Duke Ziemowit came to power.

The commercial and administrative centres of the Piast dynasty were in Gniezno and Poznań. 


The Piast Dynasty – Much Intrigue and Many Question Marks

Whether Piast was a semi-legendary or wholly legendary figure may still be a matter of debate. 

Perhaps it’s an irrelevant discussion anyway. The majority of prominent historians of Polish history, such as Lukowski and Zawadzki (2019) and Reddaway et al. (1978), are only really willing to place the beginnings of the Piast dynasty from the second half of the ninth century. This was when Ziemowit, the presumed son of Piast the Wheelwright, succeeded Piast himself. Adam Zamoyski (2009) is yet another historian who refuses to admit that the Piast dynasty was established in Piast’s supposed reign. Instead, Zamoyski (2009, p.2) writes that:

What set the Polanie apart from their sister peoples were their rulers, the Piast dynasty established in Gniezno at some time during the ninth century.

Unfortunately, the scarce availability of historical sources determine that the history of the Piast dynasty can be reliably traced only since 963 (Reddaway et al., 2014) when Duke Mieszko I reigned supreme.

Summing up, Piast certainly wasn’t the first legendary Polish ruler in terms of chronology. There are plenty of legendary Polish rulers, who appear for the first time in chronicles from the 13th century, with ties to the 7th, 8th and 9th centuries. These figures include Krakus I, Krakus II, Wanda and Lech. Lech was the legendary founder of the Polish nation according to folktales.


Lukowski, J., and Zawadzki, H., 2019. A Concise History of Poland, Third Edition, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

Reddaway, W.F., J.H Penson, Halecki, O. et al. (eds.), 1978. The Cambridge History of Poland: From the Origins to Sobieski (To 1696), Octagon Books: New York

Zamoyski, A., 2009. Poland: A History, First Edition, HarperCollins e-books: London


Comments are closed.