In the imagination, Old Lviv was as an ideal city of quaint cobblestone streets, spectacular Renaissance architecture, ornately decorated churches and brightly colored tenement houses, a place of devotion, wealth and tradition. The city walls proscribed the boundaries of a tidy burg infused with charm and grandeur. To be sure there was some of that, but Old Lviv was also a place of inborn prejudices, rigid social hierarchies and segregated living spaces. Where the haves held all the power, while the have nots had very limited freedom. Intolerance was a way of life. The threat of death was constant, either at the hands of invaders – Lviv suffered numerous sieges – or more likely, due to disease.
In comparison to the present day, this was a dangerous world. Life was short and precarious. Then there was the law, which was marked by rigidity, tradition and penal in the extreme. Torture was often used to extract confessions. Verdicts were harsh and the punishment even worse. For those who failed to obey the status quo, justice could be swift and severe. This was not a world for the sentimental or romantic. Even falling in love could bring the cruelest of consequences. Such a case of fatal romantic bliss occurred in Lviv during this time.
Of Passion & Prejudice – A Renaissance Regression
There is nothing more endearing than two people who love each other so much that they refuse to be kept apart. A couple so smitten with one another that they cannot control their passion and will sacrifice everything in the pursuit of love. Such romances seem to be a product of destiny, but they can also be ill-fated. This was the situation in late 16th century Lviv when an Armenian widower and a young Polish woman fell hopelessly in love. By today’s standards their romance would not be problematic, but according to the laws of the time they were committing mortal sin. Such a relationship was considered a crime due to their religious affiliations. This would lead to the harshest of punishments.
The love affair occurred at a time when religion was as much a marker of identity as ethnicity. Though both were of the Catholic faith, practitioners of the Armenian and Polish branches of the religion were seen as incompatible. Interfaith romantic relationships or marriages were strictly forbidden. This would threaten the very fabric of society. Division was the organizing basis of Lviv’s Renaissance–era society. Paradoxically, this was what held the society together or so it was believed. Within the city walls of Old Lviv was a completely segregated society based on class, religion, ethnicity and profession. One marker of identity often informed another. For example, ethnic Germans were wealthy burghers, ethnic Poles mainly aristocrats and ethnic Armenians merchants and tradesmen. There were separate quarters for Armenians, Jews, Ruthenians (Ukrainians), while the Poles and Germans dominated Rynok Square. Everyone was supposed to know their rigidly proscribed role. This was a microcosm of central and eastern European societies prior to the Enlightenment.
A Crime Of Love – The Condemnation of Passion
The two lovers, Ivashko and Zofia, were charged with committing a serious criminal offence. There was no denying the couple’s passion. It was obvious that the two were under the spell of love. What were the judges going to do? They were the guardians of social order. The couple were convicted and sentenced to death by burning. The judges of Lviv decided to make a searing example out of the couple. The ensuing verdict was to be a warning to anyone contemplating such romantic endeavors. Though they had lived and loved inside the city walls, as commoners they could not be executed within them, that dubious honor for the condemned only pertained to aristocrats. The couple would be executed atop a hill outside the city walls, a display of the harshest penal justice for everyone to see. The only solace for the two lovers is that they would be together in their final moments, chained to each other back to back, bound in death, as they were in life by their love.
The fateful day arrived. The condemned were brought to the execution site. A pile of firewood had been prepared for the couple to stand upon. Each of them clutched a torch. When these were lit, the firewood would ignite. The lovers would be helping light the fire that was to consume them. There is no record of any last words between them. Despite their public humiliation and the terrible pain that was about to ensue, the couple may have found solace in each other’s company. Their greatest hope had been to consummate their love in marriage, to be together forever in life. Fate in the form of a terrible justice had intervened. They were bound together in death. The torches were lit. In a matter of moments the two were ablaze and soon dead. There has rarely been a more tragic end to a romantic affair.
Intolerance For The Masses – Life In Old Lviv
Despite the horrific nature of this ill-fated romance there is still much to be learned from the story. The good old days were not very good at all. Life was precarious at best and deadly at worst. The history that still stands today in the city from the Renaissance era is magnificent, but also gives a false impression of life during that time. Most of the city’s inhabitants were commoners doing their best to survive. They did not live in pastel painted, multi-story tenement houses or commission beautiful works of architecture. For the commoner, eking out a hard scrabble existence was the best they might expect. The law was against them. The justice system existed to benefit the few over the many. Keeping such a system in place meant heavy handed laws and brutal punishments. Racism, religious intolerance and economic inequality were rife. Fortunately this system eventually crumbled, but not before an innocent couple suffered an unjust and tragic fate. Today Lviv is known as much as anything for being a city of romance, a place where love affairs blossom. The citizens are free to live and free to love. This is quite the opposite of Old Lviv where there was nothing really romantic about life, especially when it came to love.