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On the ruffians’ paths

The beginnings of the Carpathian ruffians date back to the 16th century. Ruffians organized themselves in groups amounting from several to several dozen people with a ringleader called hetman, kapitan (eng. captain) harnaś. They had their infrastructure among the local people. They looted mansions, presbyteries, inns, peasants houses, shepherds‘ sheds. They were convicted to the so-called qualified death (pl. śmierć kwalifikowana), by famous hanging on a hook by a middle rib. read more

The ruffians trail goes through places which are described in documents and tradition as places with presence of good lads, as ruffians were called in Podtatrze.

Brigandage, inseparable from the history and culture of the whole Carpathian Mountains was one of the peasants’ movement forms, characteristic exclusively for the mountains area. Beginnings of brigandage in the Carpathian Mountains date back to the 16th century, and it ended only in the 19th century.

Various causes were underlying this phenomenon, starting from advantageous terrain conditions, through reasons of historical, economic nature concluding with complicated processes and cultural traditions. Ruffians’ campaigns, apart from inhabitants of Carpathian villages, were made of runaway criminals of various social strata, all those who were in conflict with law, and people who could not find their place in the contemporary narrow social framework.

Ruffians organized themselves in groups of several up to several dozen people called bursa, kompania (eng. company) towarzystwo (eng. society). The group was headed by the ringleader called hetman, kapitan, harnaś. A candidate for a ruffian was subject to a type of a test, during which harnaś and remaining members of the group verified his physical skill, courage, resistance to pain etc. This feat comprised precise shooting, jumps, knife or axe casting. The person entering the ruffians’ society was sworn in front of the harnaś.

Ruffians’ kompania had their infrastructure among the local people, they provided the members of the groups with food, arms and clothes, they supported them when they were ill, offered shelter in winter and during pursuits. Frajerki, which were ruffians‘ lovers had special place here. Ruffians hid their loots in their houses, they hid there from the pursuit and during winter. Frajerki also accompanied them on their way to execution and during its performance. At the same time frajerki were sometimes the reason for their defeat. Many ruffians were captured, during the meeting with their lover or on their way to a meeting. Sometimes the girl decided to give her lover away to the minions of the law as revenge for his cheating, or for greed, bribed by gendarmes.

Bold robbers looted mansions, presbyteries, inns, peasants’ houses, shepherds‘ sheds. Legends about ruffians describe also their votive gifts given to churches for the good luck of the planned robbery, they were founding shrines and chapels. On the whole Podkarpacie there is a whole series of sacral objects, described in the tradition as created for the ruffians' gold. Saint John the Baptist (24th of June) was the ruffians’ patron in the Western Carpathian Mountains, in the Eastern Carpathian Mountains it was Saint Jerzy (23th of April); their piety is described in legends and songs.

Court documents show that ruffians in majority were young people, most often in their twenties. They performed their shady business usually for several or a dozen of months, rarely for several years.

Brigandage cases were almost exclusively punished with death sentence of the so-called qualified death, signifying quartering, braking bones with a wheel and placing in a wheel, impalement, tearing apart with horses, preceded with maiming: cutting off hands, legs, ears, taking eyes out, tearing skin, and first of all the famous hanging on a hook by the middle rib. This type of death was considered among inhabitants of the Carpathian Mountains as especially glorious. Executions took place on markets of cities, and first of all in places of execution located beyond the borders of settlements, often on a nearby hill.

Carpathian Mountains brigandry also became one of main themes of spoken local colour: songs, stories and legends. It gave birth to the myth referring to old structure of hero myths rooted in antiquity. The ruffian from the legend was generous, fair, strong and invincible, he made the world fair by taking away earthly goods from the rich and distributing them among the poor.


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