By 1580, the territories of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth included Lithuania, Prussia, Ukraine and the semi-autonomous principality of Transylvania. The Commonwealth was prosperous, largely through grain exports, with a large landed aristocracy who diluted the power of the monarchy and fostered regional freedom (the ‘golden freedoms’). There was, however, a significant under-class of peasants who were far from free and virtual slaves to the booming agricultural industry. Tensions between the peasantry and nobility were heightened in Lithuania and on Poland’s eastern borders, with ethnically non-Polish peoples feeling resentment against their Polish overlords. This later erupted into Ukrainian and Lithuanian nationalist movements. Despite these tensions, Poland was a safe sanctuary for religious minorities and in 1582 harboured 150,000 Jews. 1580 was also at the midway point in the Polish renaissance, a flowering of cultural and scientific endeavour. Only 37 years earlier Nicolaus Copernicus, born and educated in Poland, had revolutionized astronomy, by placing the sun at the centre of the universe.
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