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All That: The Baltic Crusades

by Kali Harlansson of Gotland
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Teutonic master & knightWhen people talk about the Crusades, they usually think only of the wars against the Muslims in the Holy Land in the 11th through 13th centuries. But the institution of the crusade was applied at other times and places in the Middle Ages, such as the Albigensian Crusade, that wiped out the vibrant culture of Languedoc; or the crusades preached against German emperors, as they vied with the popes for dominance in Italian politics. In this article, we're covering the Baltic Crusades, and European paganism's last, best stand against Christianity.

The Baltic Crusades started in the early 12th century, not as a planned and proclaimed holy war but only a general expansionist movement, as Denmark and various German states moved aggressively into the lands of the pagan, Slavic Wends (what's now the Baltic coast of Germany). Beyond the Wends, they encountered other peoples: Prussians, Livonians, Lithuanians, and Estonians (reading west to east along the southern shore of the Baltic).

Missionaries went east to convert these pagans to Christianity and to European feudal society. But the pagans didn't always want to be converted; sometimes they resisted, violently. Threats to the missionaries led Pope Alexander III to preach a crusade against the Baltic pagans in 1171, a full crusade on the Outremer model, with remission of sins and everything, the first of a series that became almost continuous in the next two centuries.

But the crusades were still a disparate and uncoordinated collection of undertakings. Around 1200, the missionary bishop of Riga created a small order of religious knights called the Sword-Brothers to undertake conversion as a sort of protection racket. The kings of Denmark conquered Estonia at about the same time, and received their national flag in a vision. Sweden took up crusading too, fighting Orthodox Novgorod for control of Finland (mostly for the fur trade).

The crusade really got organized with the arrival in the Baltic of the Teutonic Knights around 1230. The Teutonic Order of St. Mary's Hospital in Jerusalem was founded in Acre during the 3rd Crusade, in imitation of the Templars and the Hospitallers. (The city of Jerusalem, and hence St. Mary's Hospital, had in fact been lost to Saladin three years before.) One characteristic of the Teutonic Order that distinguished it from the two larger orders was its distinctly nationalist, German character. This German background naturally attracted the Teutonic Knights to the struggles around the Baltic; when the Kingdom of Acre fell in 1290, they transferred their full attention to the region.

Alexander NevskyThe Order pretty much took over the management of all crusading and missionary work in Prussia and Livonia. When the Sword Brothers were wiped out by the Lithuanians in 1236 the Knights took over their racket, offering to pagans the economic benefits of trade with Christian Europe, and the military benefits of being on the side with the armored knights, the stone castles, and the crossbows. With Sweden, they planned a joint campaign against Novgorod, although they failed to coordinate and their attacks came two years apart. (Remember how, in the film Alexander Nevsky, Alexander was already a war hero for beating the Swedes two years before?) A century later, when the Estonians rose in a massive revolt and slaughtered their Danish overlords, the king of Denmark sold Estonia to the Order.

In all these activites, the Order had several advantages over the other crusading powers in the region. First and foremost, their monastic orders gave them discipline and organization, and a leadership selected for ability instead of birth. The estates and bailiwicks they held thoughout Germany, and indeed all of Europe, gave them tremendous resources, in both wealth and manpower, that their enemies could never so much as threaten. Furthermore, the Order became adept at playing off their rival overlords, emperor and pope, and squeezing every concession they could out of them.

The Order conquered the pagan tribes, built forts and occupied them, converted them to the Catholic faith, and basically set about turning them into European-style medieval states. Having dealt with the coastal Baltic peoples in this manner, they then turned inland but with markedly less success. Instead, the tribes of the all-but-impassable interior had time to organize and come together, and the Principality of Lithuania emerged as a pagan nation-state that could stand up to the crusaders' military machine.

For almost the entire 14th century, the crusade became a stalemate between the two superpowers, the Order and Lithuania, a war of raid and counter-raid over an uninhabited, swampy and densely forested no-man's-land. The raiding season was limited to the driest part of summer, and the parts of winter when it was cold enough for the swamps and rivers to freeze, but not too cold for a man in armor to relieve himself. Nevertheless, spending a season crusading with the Order became quite fashionable for nobility from Germany and all over northern Europe: blind King John of Bohemia, who lost his ostrich feathers to the Black Prince at Crecy, and Henry Bolingbroke, who would later become Henry IV of England, are only two of the most famous princes to spend a season on crusade in Prussia.

Wladyslaw JagielloAlthough fighting Lithuania and Novgorod in the name of Catholic Christianity, the Teutonic Knights were not all that popular with their closest Catholic neighbor, Poland. Perhaps because the cultural/language barriers between German and Slav were stronger than the bond of religion, and certainly because the Order's Prussian territories lay between it and the sea, Poland opposed the Knights practically from their first appearance in the north. As the crusade dragged on, relations between the two enemies of the Order grew closer and closer. In 1386 the Lithuanian prince Jagiello converted to Christianity and became Vladislav IV of Poland, personally uniting the two principalities and forming the largest European territorial state of the time. Not that this brought any peace with the Order: the war had gone on far too long to be settled by anything as trivial as the conversion of the pagan.

Even with Poland and Lithuania united, it was as hard as ever to bring the war to a decisive end. The Battle of Tannenberg (or Grunwald) in 1410 virtually destroyed the Order's military power in Prussia, but still they hung on. In 1415, Poland-Lithuania took the war into the intellectual and theological arena, arguing for the Church's condemnation of the Order at the Council of Constance, but to no great effect. (The Council was convened mostly to deal with the papal schism and various heretics, and that is what it's remembered for.) Finally, in 1525, the Order conceded the end of the crusading era and recast itslf as a secular state in the territories that remained to it.

Although the Order finally surrendered, it should be noted that the Crusade as a whole succeeded, to a degree that the wars in the Holy Land never did. It had brought Catholic Christianity, and German feudalism and culture, to the whole south shore of the Baltic, with consequences that resurfaced for centuries more.

Battle of Tannenberg/Grunwald
In the Current Middle Ages
Two of the Baltic states from the period merit special looks from our perspective. For one, the Teutonic Order, with the election of its Grand Masters and with its administrative organization, looks very like a modern state in a medieval setting. As such, if it could be stripped of its religious trappings (admittedly an unfair distortion) it would make a very interesting model for an SCA branch.

And for those who want to develop an overtly pagan persona, but also want the garb or other cultural attributes of the High Middle Ages, may I recommend a 14th-century Lithuanian? It would make a more valid and more interesting persona than a vague, modern sort of neo-pagan, very much out of place and inaccurate in western Europe at the time.

Further Reading
The most powerful treatment of this era (though not the most balanced or objective, obviously) is the classic film Alexander Nevsky. See it again. Cheer the good guys (except for Alexander's unfair line, "Tricky work this, not like fighting the Swedes"), hiss the evil baby-burning Teutonic Knights, and rest assured that, although the Knights probably didn't really fall through the ice, it's perfectly period to think they did.

There's also the greatest historical novel of Polish literature, The Teutonic Knights, by Henryk Sienkiewicz. The Knights are the bad guys in this one, too - hmm, maybe you shouldn't go alienating all your literary Slavic neighbors, or you'll end up with a bad reputation.

The best historical study of the subject is The Northern Crusades: the Baltic and the Catholic frontier, 1100-1525, by Eric Christiansen. It gives a balanced account of the crusades, provides good historical context, and is very readable.

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text copyright 1998 by Caleb Hanson (e-mail)
first illustration from the online version of The History of Costume, c. 1861-1880 by Braun & Schneider; also available from Amazon.com
video cover Alexander Nevsky (DVD, $19.99 at Amazon.com)
Alexander Nevsky - English subtitles (VHS, $17.99 at Amazon.com)
book cover Sienkiewicz, Henryk
The Teutonic Knights
(hardcover, $21.00 at Amazon.com)
book cover Christiansen, Eric
The Northern Crusades - New Edition
(paperback, $11.16 at Amazon.com)

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