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What is a Silva Rerum?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A silva rerum is a special type of multigenerational family journal which was kept by members of the Polish nobility in the 16th-18th centuries. In Poland, the silva rerum is a writing tradition in and of itself, and excerpts from notable examples have been widely printed and distributed. In addition to being a historical writing style, the silva rerum also appears in modern literature, with some authors attempting to recreate the look and feel of the traditional silva rerum in their work.

The size of a silva rerum would have varied, depending on how verbose the authors were and how long the journal was kept. Most would have been under 1,000 pages, although a few were much longer, and the contents were generally quite diverse. Far from being a simple diary, a silva rerum was a complex and multifaceted chronicle of events in the lives of the family members, tied in with events going on in the larger world.

In addition to traditionally formatted journal entries, a silva rerum would have had original artwork, copies of legal documents, comments on events of the day, notable quotes and comments, and entries from friends as well as family members. The silva rerum was a collective document used by all members of the family to record events of importance, and it was primarily intended for internal circulation, although a few families did publish theirs on occasion.

You may also see a silva rerum referred to as a family chronicle, home journal, or simply “sylwa,” a Polish corruption of the original Latin “silva.” In Latin, “silva rerum” means “forest of things,” and that's exactly what these books contained: an assortment of diverse and varied items which collectively told the history of a family. Incidentally, there is some dispute over the pronunciation of the “v” in Latin. Some people feel that the “v” had a soft sound, more like a “w,” while others prefer a hard “v,” so you could say “syl-wah” or “syl-va,” depending on your personal taste.

The fad for keeping such journals has been an immense boon to historians, who have been able to construct lush pictures of what life was like in Poland during the period in which these diaries were kept. Thanks to the often meticulous details in these journals, it is possible to see how much tenants paid for rent, what the prevailing costs of foodstuffs were, and how communities responded to various events and crises, along with many other things.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By allenJo — On Feb 18, 2012

@nony - While I appreciate the fact that this artwork has been resurrected in modern literature, I can envision it being used as a gift or coffee book of some sort.

Imagine being able to put together a diary and putting in it all sorts of scrap artifacts and things like that which tie into the special moments.

I realize that we already have things like scrap books but this seems to be more comprehensive. I would love to pass something like this to my children, rather than just hand them down the family photo album.

By nony — On Feb 17, 2012

@NathanG - Yeah, I can think of another benefit to having this kind of diary. It improves upon the accuracy of the historical record in my opinion.

For example, think about how many times we discover the so called facts of history turn out to be wrong later on, based on a something that is unearthed – perhaps an artifact or scroll – that upends prior beliefs about that culture.

With the silva rerum, you have both the documentation and the artifacts bound up in the same volume. I think that it makes for a more accurate historical record.

By NathanG — On Feb 16, 2012

Wow, this is a real treasure trove for a documentary historian. I envision these books as being a cross between scrap books and diaries.

Being able to have access to source material like legal documents – embedded in the books themselves – is an amazing resource for a historian to have at his fingertips. It’s almost like being an archaeologist and a historian at the same time, being able to dig up the unique artifacts that defined the times and peoples of that era.

It’s too bad that other cultures didn’t take up with something similar. It’s curious that this tradition seemed to exist solely in the Polish culture. I am not sure why that is, but it’s encouraging that we have attempts to emulate it in modern literature.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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