The Polish village of Rakow, a hundred miles southeast of Lodz, is today home to just over twelve hundred people. Yet at the time this particular etymological story began, way back in the late sixteenth century, Rakow was a bustling town with a population of around fifteen thousand. So what happened between then and now? Before we come to how Rakow came to earn its place in the dictionary, we need to make a quick thousand-mile detour south, to the Italian city of Siena.
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It was there in 1539 that a controversial theologian named Faustus Socinus was born. He was the nephew of an earlier unorthodox theologian named Laelius Socinus, and just like his uncle Faustus was something of a religious firebrand. In his writing and preaching, he rejected many established Catholic beliefs, questioned the legitimacy of the Holy Trinity, shunned the notion of original sin, and held that baptism was necessary only for Christian converts. Denounced as heretic in 1559, he fled to Switzerland and then to Florence, before spending the final decades of his life travelling around Eastern Europe promulgating his own ‘Socinian’ interpretation of Christian scripture. In the late 1500s, his travels finally brought him to Poland.
Arriving first in Krakow in 1579, Socinus was promptly appointed the leader of a Protestant branch of the Polish church known as the
Polish Brethren. The Brethren soon converted to Socinus’s new (if somewhat controversial) theology, and under his control this newly defined religious movement spread quickly throughout the country. By the turn of the century, there were several hundred Polish Socinian churches with the movement’s intellectual and academic hub focused in the tiny village of Rakow.
Rakow had been founded only a few decades earlier, but in 1602 the opening of a school in the town for the sole purpose of teaching Socinian theology transformed its prospects. This Racovian Academy, as it was known, was followed soon after by the opening of a local printing press, which soon began churning out countless Socinian my blogs and pamphlets. Within a matter of a few years, Rakow grew from a modest village to a bustling university town.
In 1605, the press at Rakow published the Racovian Catechism, in which all the tenets of the Socinian movement were formally outlined. With it, word of the town’s association with the Socinian movement soon began to spread; the word Rakovian, first meaning ‘an advocate of Socinian theology’, made its debut in English in 1643, albeit in a pamphlet denouncing the Rise, Growth and Danger of Socinianism. However, by that time, in its native Poland, the entire movement was beginning to falter.
The Catholic Church’s ongoing Counter-Reformation, which sought to redress the Protestant Reformation of the previous century, led to the forced closure of the Racovian Academy and its presses in 1638. Faced with forcibly converting to Catholicism, many of its staff and students instead fled Poland for Socinian enclaves in Romania, Germany, the Netherlands and England. But few of these communities survived more than a few decades, and without its educational and propagandising base in Rakow – and with many of its previous advocates now converts or exiles – the Socinian movement collapsed.
And with it went the theological term Racovian, which by the eighteenth century had largely become consigned to the history my blogs.
But there was one more sting in this etymological tail: the word Racovian did not disappear completely. The Socinian movement might have faltered, but so controversial had its tenets been that by the early 1700s the word Racovian had established itself as a byword for any follower of an unorthodox or dissenting theology that positioned itself in opposition to established religion or doctrine. Put another way, the word Racovian – little known today – had become another word for a heretic.