he Baltic Crusade

            Ruth Williamson


Maps:  Black,J., Atlas of World History, London, 2000

             Putzgers, F.W., Historischer Schul-Atlas, Bielefeld, 1929





The Baltic Crusades of the 11th to the early 15th century formed the fulcrum of the transformation of the Baltic region from rural pagan farming peasants paying tribute to whatever lord prevailed over the others to rule them, to the Christianized, market-oriented, urban foundation of modern Baltic society. 




 The rise and fall of the knighthood during this period is indicative of the changes that occurred.  The institution of knighthood represented the values of medieval Europe, and the incursion of the knightly orders into the Baltic countries during these crusades transmitted those values to the Baltic regions despite the strong resistance of the independent, unchurched peoples living there.  The involvement of north Germans and Scandinavians in the crusades left critical political and social imprints and changes that affected the future path of historical events in the Baltic region that was to evolve into the countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.


The Baltic Crusades are a branch of the Catholic crusading movement that comprised five main Crusades that occurred between 1096 and 1221.  The Crusades were “armed pilgrimages” (Haverkamp, p. 12) called and blessed by the Pope, originally to reclaim Jerusalem and its surrounding territory in the Middle East, both considered “holy land,” for the Catholic Church.  The enemies in these Crusades were supposed to be non-Christian, primarily followers of Islam.  As the balances of power shifted in the 12th century, the Eastern Orthodox Church, based in Constantinople and the seat of the Christian Byzantine Empire, became a focus of the Crusades as well.  As in the Baltic Crusades, the motivation of the combatants—primarily knights and princes—was more related to acquisition of land and power than holiness, although the granting to Crusaders of eternal salvation by the Pope was a meaningful incentive.  Notably, the success of the Crusades, as measured by conversion to Catholicism, was negligible in the Middle East, but high in the Baltic region, where all but the Lithuanians were converted to Catholicism by the close of the 13th century.  



Expanding European Frontiers


Turmoil prevailed among 12th century north central Europe’s (present-day Germany) secular and religious political powers, with players such as the Holy Roman Emperor, the Pope, assorted princes and nobles, and bishops vying for territory, power and revenues. Peasants were struggling to escape the control of these same players, so incentives were offered to peasants to settle lands to the east for the benefit of a particular player’s interests, and the incentive usually included relief from the obligations of serfdom.  To make up the lost revenues, cities and commercial enterprises were taxed instead.  This structure was not the norm in medieval Europe, which was dominated by the feudal system that gave the balance of power to landed nobles under their demesne powers.


East of north central Europe is, of course, the Baltic region.  The traditional peasant, farming and raiding lifestyle of Baltic peoples was ended when central European societies’ need for more land grew into a need for the products and natural resources available in the Baltic, attracting professional traders who then wanted some kind of protection from the security risks to life and property of trading in the remote northeastern territory.  At the same time, the Catholic Church was interested in preventing the Russian Orthodox Church from making inroads any further west into the Baltic lands, and in converting all Orthodox Christians to the one and true Catholic Church and re-uniting all of Christendom.  Thus the 12th century saw a convergence of the goals of the Catholic Church and the secular commercial interests to expand the frontiers of medieval European civilization into the Baltic lands for political and economic reasons.


Meinhard, an Augustinian monk from Holstein, accompanied some merchants up the Dauvaga River in the late 12th century on a mission to begin the attempt to convert the people of Livoniato Christianity, establishing the first church building and the first churched community of believers.  Building on Meinhard’s foundation, his successor Bishop Berthold established a crusading force to more aggressively convert the local populace in 1198.  This effort coincided with the declaration of the Fourth Crusade by Pope Innocent III and is considered the beginning of the Baltic Crusade.


   The next bishop, Albert, established the knightly crusading order known as the Swordbrothers in 1202, obtained papal blessing of an official crusade in 1204, and by 1208 had forcibly converted the Kur and Lett peoples to Christianity.  Concurrently, after Bishop Albert established the city of Riga in 1201 its growth was fed by the economic activity generated by the Crusades and Riga attracted merchants looking for a stable base from which to trade in the Baltic region.  Albert was a strong leader who managed to placate the competing interests of the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor and to fend off a Danish take-over move before his death in 1229.


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The Crusading Orders


The Christian military orders emerged around 1120, after the First Crusade to the Holy Land, evolving from the early form of charitable religious orders doing good in the Holy Land to become a blend of military and religious disciplines embodied in a special type of knight, a religious knight.  Pope Urban II, in calling the First Crusade, established a new Christian philosophy, saying that it was possible to combine warfare and religious life for “…to lay down one’s life for one’s brothers is a sign of love.” (Forey, p.12).  Suceeding popes relied on this new philosophy to recruit both short-term crusading forces from the upper classes as well as the permanent members of the various Christian military orders.  The first orders were called The Templars and The Hospitallers, for reasons related to their original functions.  The Teutonic Order grew out of a German order that ran a hospital in Acre, near Jerusalem, in 1193, and became established in central Europe by invitation of the Hungarian king in 1211.  In contrast, the Order of the Swordbrothers was specifically founded to provide a permanent military presence in the Baltics to reinforce the “missionary work” of converting of the population by force without the necessity of relying on volunteer recruits.




Hermann von Salza, the fourth Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights (1209 -1239)




While the missionary monks and bishops introduced Catholicism into the Baltics, it was the ascendency of the knightly crusading orders, first the Swordbrothers and then the Livonian Order of the Teutonic Knights, that defined the Baltic Crusades.


As with the other orders, the Swordbrothers were an order of professional military men who also took vows of devotion to Christ to live a monastic life and fight against the unbelievers.  Their ranks were recruited for the most part from the non-landed, administrative class of the lower nobility who also composed the ministerial staff of medieval German princes.  The Order itself was broken into classes of knight, priests and several classes of servants who performed a wide range of essential duties.  The Swordbrothers were led by their master, who was elected from the ranks and held the position for life.  While Bishop Albert and the other missionaries in the Baltic benefited from the presence of the Order in its formative years, because the Swordbrothers owed allegiance solely to the Pope in Rome, as the Swordbrothers gained power and influence, they increasingly encountered conflict with Bishop Albert.


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Military Strategy and Gradual Conquest


As the Swordbrothers gained experience in warfare against the Baltic natives they also learned how to effectively fight in the foreign climate of Livonia by taking advantage of the ease of travel over ice and snow in the winter, instead of struggling in the mud the rest of the year.  In addition, they learned to take advantage of the tribal social structure of the Baltic native, with many small groups intent on fighting each other for local power.  Using this cultural characteristic the Crusaders conquered one small tribal group at a time and recruited them to mount attacks on the next tribe, whom they likely hated.  So gradually the Livs, Semigallians, and Selonians joined the Letts and the Kurs in succumbing to Catholicism.  The Swordbrothers were also struggling for control of the land and power that they increasingly thought befit their role in the Christianizing and civilizing of Livonia.  Bishop Albert was forced to share 1/3 of his small holdings with the Swordbrothers, and they held out for the right to claim 1/3 of all future lands gained through the crusading effort.  Meanwhile, the Bishop had to constantly negotiate and hold off masked threats from neighboring powers such as Russia and Denmark to gain a foothold in his territory.  The Swordbrothers were itching to take on the Estonians who were fighting to claim the allegiance of the defeated Letts, and had some successes in smaller engagements when the Bishop wasn’t available to restrain them.  Ultimately in 1218, through the combination of Russian aggression, the Swordbrothers’ ascendancy, and Danish interest in gaining a foothold in Estonia and fulfilling their Christian crusading vows by joining the Baltic Crusade, the Baltic Crusade entered Estonia and brought the Estonian people into the Catholic sphere.


The Chronicle of Henry of Livonia is a primary source from this period, written by a priest named Henry who lived in the region from 1205 to 1259 and recorded its history in 1225-6 for his superiors.  His account begins, “Divine Providence, by the fire of His love….aroused in our modern times the idolatrous Livonians from the sleep of idolatry and of sin in the following way.”  (Brundage, p. 25).  Henry’s biases reflect the prevailing Catholic view of the time that the indigenous pagan people were deceitful and untrustworthy because they were inclined to go through cycles of adopting and then renouncing Christian beliefs, according to the dictates of political expediency.  “The most treacherous man…was baptized, as were all the others….They promised that they would always keep the Christian law faithfully.  This promise, however, they later violated with their treacherous devices.”  (Brundage, p. 140).  For instance, if they were about to be killed they agreed to be baptized, but once peace returned they washed their baptism off again in the river.


In the ten years after 1217 Estonia changed hands several times, ending up in 1227 back under the Swordbrothers’ and Bishop Albert’s regime.   In 1234, veterans of the Jerusalem crusades were invited to stop the invasion of pagan Prussia into Christian territories and the Order of the Teutonic Knights arrived in the Baltic--a larger, more traditionally established German-based order than the Swordbrothers.  After the complete defeat of the Swordbrothers by the Lithuanians at the Battle of Saule in 1236, the remaining Swordbrothers merged into the Order of the Teutonic Knights, forming the Livonian Order.  In 1242 the Russians defeated the Livonian Order in the Battle of Lake Peipsi, establishing a defined boundary between the German-speaking Baltic lands and Russia that lasted for centuries.


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The Struggle for Lithuania


In 1252 the Teutonic Order captured the Lithuanian city of Klaipeda, cutting off Lithuania’s only access to the sea (not regained by Lithuania until the 20th century).  In 1253 Duke Mindaugas of Lithuania--surrounded by knights on almost every side--agreed to accept Christianity.  Then all of Lithuania fell into the Christian realm except Samogitia which refused to recognize Mindaugas as their leader and continued to fight the Order. 


When Mindaugas was assassinated in 1263 by an insider, Lithuanian reverted to pagan faith and a chaotic time followed .  In 1284 the Teutonic Order succeeded in defeating Prussia, which disappeared as a distinct tribe, assimilating into the neighboring societies of Poland, Germany and Lithuania.  Later German conquerors appropriated the name ‘Prussia’ for themselves.


The Crusaders in the 14th century continued the consolidation of their hold on the Baltic lands, strengthening their power in Estonia in 1343 as a result of the peasant rebellion against Danish rule and the subsequent Danish sale of northern Estonia to the Teutonic Order for 10,000 marks.  Early in the century Grand Duke Gediminas of Lithuania had successfully expanded his territory to the south and east and also prevented Crusaders’ incursion into the land.  But in 1382 Lithuania lost Samogitia and it was ruled by the Teutonic Knights for almost 30 years.  In 1386 Grand Duke Jogaila of Lithuania preserved his country by marrying the Polish queen in the Union of Kreva and created the powerful Lithuanian/Polish state.  In this union is cemented the Christian character of Lithuania.  Finally, in 1410, Lithuaniain a coalition with Russians, Poles, Tatars and Czechs, defeated the Teutonic Knights in the Battle of Zalgiris at Tannenberg and Grunwald, ending the military existence of the Teutonic Knights forever.



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City Paper. “The Baltic Crusades: A Chronology,” n.d,. http://www.balticsww.com/Crusaders.htm  (9 April 2002)


This site is sponsored by a Baltic regional newspaper called City Paper and is a graphically attractive timeline of the Baltic Crusades combined with a narrative of excerpts from The Chronicle of Henry of Livonia and William Urban’s book The Baltic Crusade.


Brundage, James A.  The Chronicle of Henry of Livonia; ATranslation with Introduction and Notes.  Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1961.


This is the current classic translation of this important primary source of the early period of the Baltic Crusades into English.


Christiansen, Eric.  The Northern Crusades: The Baltic and the Catholic Frontier, 1100-1525. Minneapolis: University of MinnesotaPress, 1980.


As its title indicates, this book covers over three hundred years of crusades in the Baltic region of northeastern Europe.  A detailed but concise chronology of the events of the era is included, as well as a list of the relevant northern secular and religious rulers of the Baltic, Scandinavia and Russia.  It has a number of excellent, detailed but easy-to-read maps of the region at various milestone dates in the period covered.  The content appears to thoroughly cover the secular, political, social and religious factors issues in northeastern Europe during the existence of the crusades in the Baltic region.


Forey, Alan.  The Military Orders: From the Twelfth to the Early Fourteenth Centuries. London: MacMillan Education Ltd., 1992.


The title says it all—this book is an exhaustive study of the military orders from the 12th to the 14th centuries.


Haverkamp, Alfred. Medieval Germany 1056-1273.  Translated by Helga Braun and Richard Mortimer.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.


The first three chapters of this book provide dense but useful background information on the political landscape in the rest of Europepreceeding and concurrent with the Baltic Crusades, especially the role of the Catholic Church in the context of the Crusades.


Ots, Loone. “Estonian Literature,”1998, http://www.ibs.ee/ibs/culture/estonian%5Fliterature/   (6 April 2002)


This site has excerpts and summaries of the Chronicles, among many other resources on the Baltic world, from an Estonian point of view.  The section on Henry of Livonia has several interesting links to depictions of the crusaders, Vikings, and other images.


Urban, William. “An Historical Overview of the Crusade to Livonia,” 1995-1999, http://orb.rhodes.edu/encyclop/religion/crusades/cruurban.html  (9 April 2002)


Urban is a prolific writer on Baltic history subjects and a professor at Monmouth College in Illinois.  This article is a 12-page history with maps and a good bibliography.


Urban, William.  The Baltic Crusade. DeKalb:  Northern Illinois University Press, 1975.


This book covers the history of the Baltic crusades for the period 1175-1300 A.D.  It is the most definitive, one-stop source of information on the Baltic Crusades.  It has good maps, genealogical charts for important royal houses and influential families of the period, and provides comparative chronologies for the period of both events in Livonia and Europe, and of the important leaders of the various countries, religious orders, the Holy Roman Empire and the prominent family affiliations of the time.


Urban, William. “The Sense of Humor Among the Teutonic Knights of the Thirteenth Century” 1979, http://department.monm.edu/history/urban/articles/humor_of_Teutonic_Knights.htm  (12 April 2002)


This is another Urban article, focusing on humor in the society of the Teutonic Knights, the knightly order that was most prevalent in northern Europe in the 13th century and that set the standard for other medieval knightly orders.


Urban, William. “Victims of the Baltic Crusade,” 1998, http://department.monm.edu/history/urban/articles/VictimsBalticCrusade.htm  (12 April 2002)


This article explores the application of the modern concept of victimization to the events of the Baltic Crusade.  Because of the expertise of the author, this article contains more relevant historical detail than it might appear and has a good bibliography.



            Originally published at http://depts.washington.edu/baltic/papers/crusades.htm



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