William L. Urban

(This essay won the Vitols Prize for the best article printed in the Journal of Baltic Studies in 1998)

    The term, the Baltic Crusade, is today understood to refer first of all to the crusading program in medieval Livonia (modern Latvia and Estonia) and secondarily to those in Finland, Prussia and Lithuania. The campaigns undertaken by a variety of nationalities (primarily German, but also Swedish, Danish, Polish, English and French) extended over three centuries. The first goal was to protect missionaries and merchants, the second to protect the converts to Christianity, the third to extirpate barbaric practices--piracy, highway robbery, infanticide and human sacrifice. These goals, together with the spiritual benefits of crusading and the Christian duty to protect the weak and downtrodden, would have been familiar to any medieval audience addressed by the friars and bishops who recruited crusaders. These goals are less well-known today: in the age of victimology, the emphasis is on those who were attacked by the crusaders: the victims. Who were these victims? What makes them victims?

    The emphasis that our culture places on victims may be stronger than usual today, but it is traditional. Western intellectual culture is often sympathetic toward those who have lost out in political and military struggles, especially if the defeated peoples can be identified with a more natural, more idyllic world than the contradictory and artificial societies of the West. This came forcefully to my attention twenty years ago, when the publicity flyer for The Baltic Crusade noted that the "objects of the Baltic Crusade" were "victims in the march of conquest and trade."(1) I had not intended to make that point quite so prominently, but the publicity agent surely had his fingers on the public pulse when he tied that phrase to a citation about the natives having lived "quiet lives like their ancestors, in which the cycles of birth, marriage, and death, plenty and famine, victory and defeat in war, and the monotony of daily work repeated themselves unnoted by outsiders." In short, innocent children of nature had been ravaged by cruel civilization. However prescient that may have been of today's cultural wars, the situation in the medieval Baltic was much more complex than literate barbarians oppressing barbarian illiterates. Today, the publicity agent would surely have used the word victim.(2)

    Three immediate problems arise applying victimization theory to the Baltic Crusade: 1) The dynamics of a crusade that lasted three and a half centuries and involved so many peoples do not lend themselves to easy simplification. Moreover, the outcomes were so different from the original intents that one might use them as examples of the Law of Unintended Consequences. 2) Recent studies, especially that by Robert Bartlett, suggest that characteristics of the Baltic Crusade which were once considered specifically German were, in fact, more widely European, more "Frank" than we had imagined.(3) 3) The comparison of the Baltic natives, with their tribal organization and their noble chiefs, with other peoples around the world and across time confuses the issues.

Origins of the Baltic Crusade

    The Baltic Crusade had several origins: 1) Missionaries (mostly but not exclusively Germans) to the Baltic peoples discovered that if they were successful in attracting converts, they frightened the native shamans (the pagan priesthood) who then agitated among the tribal leaders and the most convinced believers in the old gods to kill or expel the foreign priests and their converts. 2) Merchants (again, mostly Germans, but also Scandinavians, who came to Visby on Gotland for trade) wanted protection from native pirates and access to local markets along the Baltic coastline, up the Daugava (Dvina, Düna) River, and in Rus' [Novgorod, Pskov, and Polotsk]. 3) Western princes (Sweden, Denmark, Poland) and prelates eager to expand their domains saw the crusades as a convenient excuse and a means of obtaining outside military help. 4) Popes and papal legates were concerned that the peoples of this region would be left outside Christendom completely, or, almost as bad, would fall into the schismatic errors of the Orthodox Church; the salvation of souls became mixed with the contest for power in the Holy Roman Empire. 5) Local conditions and great personalities put events into motion and determined the direction of that movement. For example, the Bishop of Uexküll (later Riga) made an agreement with the Liv tribesmen to provide protection against the Lithuanians, on the condition that the Livs would pay the taxes necessary to pay the workmen who built a stone castle and support the mercenary troops recruited by the bishop, and that they would undergo baptism; when the natives reneged on the agreement, he called for help from the merchants of Gotland, who took the cross on his behalf. This bishop's successor founded a crusading order, the Brothers of the Sword, who provided troops to protect his diocese through the long northern winter after the bulk of the crusaders had returned home. The Brothers of the Sword later carved out a state for themselves from the Christian territories in Livonia (as did the Teutonic Order in Prussia), and the traders who settled in Riga created a commercial empire.(4) 6) An aggressive combination of nobles, clerics and merchants was prepared to risk itself on the frontiers of Europe--Spain, the Holy Land, Poland and the Baltic. The knights were especially important. Not just because of their military superiority, which was short-lived, but because of their vigor.(5) This upstart nobility was ambitious and daring--pan-european in its origins and attitudes, its men were good at war, its women were eager for profitable marriages. Similarly, merchants were heroically active in their search for new markets. Together, these rising classes opened up the Baltic in ways that monarchs and prelates were able to exploit.(6)

    This process of state-building was so pronounced, at least in retrospect, that it was perhaps inevitable that modern historians should make comparisons with superficially similar events elsewhere.(7) In place of this, however, we might consider looking at the crusade through the eyes of contemporaries, to see it as an international peace-keeping force. As such, it faced all the problems that modern peace-keeping efforts have: who is in command, where does the money come from, and who provides the volunteers; lastly, what do you do when you succeed? and what do you do when success seems just out of reach?

    Of course, not all the motives of the various crusaders can be praised or even considered well-intentioned. Sometimes the motives were so mixed or so obscure that we should be very cautious about making judgments; sometimes they were so obvious (mercenaries out to earn a living, nobles wanting estates, prelates wanting power and fame, missionaries hoping to earn their place in heaven, and probably a few who were mentally disturbed, personally disorganized, or running away from problems at home) that we can understand why some contemporaries advocated alternative policies, or even abandoning the crusades altogether. Moreover, the leaders of the crusades faced some difficult choices. They did not have the luxury of picking troops to fill the ranks on the basis of moral qualities; they needed every warrior they could recruit, and (within limits) the bigger and meaner, the better. To put it bluntly, the crusaders would rather achieve victory through the used of flawed sinners than die in the company of saints.

    Without question, many crusaders were sincere in their Christian beliefs and saw no contradiction between hearkening to the call of the Church and advancing their own interests. However, this did not mean that others did not see those contradictions and comment on them. We are able to criticize the motives of individual crusader leaders today because their contemporaries criticized them; churchmen in particular disagreed with military policies even when the success of the holy war was still in doubt.

False Comparisons with America

    Superficially, there were some similarities between the Balts and the woodland Indians of North America: at the end of the twelfth century the Baltic peoples were still organized in tribes, remained pagan and were somewhat backward in their economic and mercantile life. The climate was not hospitable--the growing season was short, the soil sandy, and the variety of local products very limited. Trade was not a likely source of wealth, either, since there were neither large towns nor dependable markets nor a mercantile tradition beyond rudimentary trade with visiting Russian and western visitors (and only the Germans and Scandinavians had the cloth and iron that local consumers wanted). On the other hand, the Baltic peoples were much more advanced politically and economically, and in the thirteenth century were able to reduce quickly the difference between their technological and organizational skills and those of the West.(8)

    If there is a comparison to be made between the New and the Old Worlds, it lies in the willingness of oppressed peoples to fight the dominant native peoples. As Henry of Livonia wrote in the early thirteenth century, explaining why the Letts were eager to have crusader protection against invasions from the south:

The Lithuanians were then such lords over all the peoples, both Christian and pagan, dwelling in those lands that scarcely anyone, and the Letts especially, dared live in the small villages. Not even by leaving their houses deserted to seek the dark hiding places of the forest could they escape them. For the Lithuanians, laying ambushes for them at all times in the forest, seized them, killing some and capturing others, and took the latter back to their own country.(9)

    Livonians were threatened from the north by Estonians, who, like the Vikings, used their longboats to cross the Baltic in search of prisoners and booty. Henry's description of Oeselian pirates encountered by crusaders off the coast of Gotland:

They had recently burned a church, killed some men and captured others, laid waste the land, and carried away the bells and belonging of the church, just as both the pagan Esthonians and the Kurs had been accustomed to do heretofore in the kingdom of Denmark and Sweden.(10)

    Historians, hard-pressed for time and space, have often condensed the complex and sometimes contradictory human story into familiar forms: the Drang nach Osten, imperialism, exploitation, and genocide. Critics of the crusade range from idealistic to nationalistic to politically correct.(11) However, a sufficiently deep investigation into the Baltic Crusade will show that it, like most human endeavors, has nuances, even contradictions.

Just and Unjust Wars

    When medieval men heard of gross injustice, and had some ability to correct it, they knew that it was a sin to refrain from action. For many years now westerners have been less sure of right and wrong; perhaps we are wiser in knowing that good intentions are insufficient to produce a just outcome of any effort; perhaps we are only more tolerant of evil. However, it may be possible now, at the end of the 20th century, that the link between ancient wrongs and modern rights has become sufficiently weak that we will entertain an alternative description of the crusade in the Baltic--one which will hopefully avoid the extremes of defending every action of the crusaders and justifying every reaction of the native peoples. Then we can decide who are the victims, and why.

The Baltic Peoples

    Medieval society had a more obvious military foundation than do modern societies. Consequently, it should be no surprise that Baltic society before 1200 represented a military culture in which young men and aspiring chieftains demonstrated their courage and ability through participation in or leading raids on the least powerful of their neighbors. In fact, without the booty and slaves obtained in these wars, it is hard to imagine young men of the warrior class starting out on a successful career.(12) The pagan religion sustained and justified this militarism: the gods had to approve of every proposed expedition, they shared in the booty won by their adherents, and they welcomed the dead who rode straight to them from the funeral pyre. Among the motives which persuaded Germans and Scandinavians to leave their comfortable homes and travel across the seas to crush paganism was a hatred of this kind of militarism. Henry of Livonia filled his chronicle with references to pagan raids, robbery, theft, and human sacrifice; papal bulls, alternately appealing and ordering, urged Christians to hurry to the rescue of the Church in the Baltic or to contribute money (even in those days good intentions were expensive). Henry concluded his book with a hymn of praise both to those who fought and to the Queen of Heaven, in whose name they had sacrificed lives and treasure:

To vanquish rebels, to baptise those who come voluntarily and humbly, to receive hostages and tribute, to free all the Christian captives, to return with victory--what kings have hitherto been unable to do, the Blessed Virgin quickly and easily accomplishes through Her Rigan subjects to the honor of Her name. When this is finished, when it is done, when all the people are baptized, when Tharapita is thrown out, when Pharoah is drowned, when the captives are freed, return with joy, O Rigans. Brilliantly triumphal victory always follows you. Glory be to the Lord, praise to God beyond the stars.(13)

    The native peoples, of course, took somewhat different views of much of this. Their perceptions were as mixed as those of the Christians, reflecting the situation of their individual tribes and personal circumstances. For example, the choices made by many native elders (seniores) in the early years of the crusade were expressions of traditional foreign policies intended to bring in wealth from plunder and to ward off attacks by all outsiders. Some may find it difficult, of course, to think of political units smaller than a state having foreign policies, but there is no reason to think that Baltic tribesmen could not understand their situation or evaluate their choices.(14)

    At first the native peoples did resist the crusaders fiercely, even those tribes which later became their staunchest allies. This was largely because the Christian military machine was dependent on money--and because donations from the Holy Roman Empire were available only in crisis times, the only reliable income imaginable was taxes and tithes paid by the natives;(15) booty obtained in warfare was much desired, but any reader of the Old Testament knew that God's favor could not be depended upon year in and year out. The taxes and tribute were less than German peasants paid, but Germans lived in a richer land, their manorial system was more effective at using technological advances, and they had been burdened with payments and services over a longer period of time, so that their introduction to them had not come as a sudden innovation as they did to Baltic farmers; moreover, German peasants and burghers, living in a more complex society, appreciated more fully what they got for their money--protection from the ravages of war, churches, hospitals, roads and bridges, and so forth.

    There is little doubt that the crusaders would have failed quickly in establishing a permanent presence in the Daugava River valley if the Livs there, and later the Letts, had not seen that cooperation with the foreigners was in their long-term interest. "Divide and rule" may have been the crusaders' policy, but the divisions were ready-made. In a militarily backward, quarreling land the crusaders made alliances with the weaker tribes against the stronger, until the whole country came under their control. Only the strongest native peoples--the Russians and the Lithuanians--could defend themselves against the combined forces of traditional enemies and the crusaders.

    The period 1200-1300 was filled with struggles which are often called wars of conquest.(16) These were terribly long and cruel contests--as one might expect when the two sides were sufficiently evenly balanced that no one was ready to admit defeat quickly. Brutalities in these cruel wars were committed by westerner crusaders, immigrant German knights and burghers, native nobles, militiamen and irregulars; and by raiders from Rus' and Lithuania. Native troops were responsible for gathering loot, rounding up prisoners, and searching fields for hiding places and refuges. At such times they had ample opportunities to commit atrocities unobserved; they had ample reason to do so, too. Their already ancient hatred of other tribes was fanned by the memory of recent injuries and insults until it burned at a white heat.(17)

    To cite Henry of Livonia again:

Russin, who was the bravest of the Letts...made plans against the Esthonians.... They killed those whom they found, both women and children, together with three hundred of the better men and leaders of that province, not counting innumerable others. Finally, on account of the exceedingly great slaughter of the people, the tired hands and arms of the killers failed them....Collecting many spoils from all the villages, they took back with them beasts of burden, many flocks, and a great many girls, whom alone the army was accustomed to spare.(18)

    For most Livs and Letts assisting the crusaders against traditional enemies was a more logical act than fighting to the death or fleeing into the interior--as some tribesmen close to Russia and Lithuania did. The Semgallians were occasionally allies of the crusaders against Lithuanian domination, and the Kurs joined the Christians for that same reason. Of the peoples inhabiting Livonia, only the Estonians, who lost the dominant position they had enjoyed in their region, had reason to see the conquest as a thorough and complete disaster.(19) Logic, alas, is a poor guide to public opinion in the thirteenth century. Just as today people have such diverse opinions about policies and even such different assessments of their own well-being that political scientists and professional politicians frequently fail to guess how public opinion will react to their proposals, that was undoubtedly true in the Middle Ages. The death of relatives, the loss of one's cattle and homes were surely as important as complaints about taxes and government regulations; yet we have little to base judgments upon. While an armed uprising might seem the ultimate form of peasant resistance, the more we know about any medieval rising, the less we seem to able to fit it into a pattern. There were, nevertheless, discernible patterns in Livonia and Prussia: tithes and taxes, labor services, and military duties; famine and plague, floods and other natural disasters which might suggest that the ancient gods were angry; enforced changes in family organization, veneration of the dead, and religious ritual; ambition, opportunism, personal quarrels, family ties and clan obligations; and a suspicion that the pagans might be winning (in which case one avoided invasion and reprisals by a swift reversal of allegiance). In short, a more complex story than simply a desire to throw the foreigners out.(20)

    To the south, the Prussians suffered an even more thorough defeat than the Livonians: their fate was resettlement to areas which could be more easy supervised and protected. The Teutonic Knights then invited in German, Polish and Pomerellian immigrants to fill the lands left empty and to settle hitherto uninhabited swamps and forests.(21) By the seventeenth century the Prussian population had been absorbed into the German and Polish peoples. For two centuries following the conquest, however, their military skills--like those of the Estonians--made them valued subjects; consequently, little was done to change their customs and way of life.(22)

    The Lithuanians had been moving toward greater unity and the creation of a national state before the crusaders arrived, but the need to work together in defending the country undoubtedly hastened national unification. The formation of the first kingdom, in fact, was achieved with crusader help in 1251. However, the development of Lithuania into an ethnic state was hindered by the combination of pagan militarism and the collapse of Kievan Rus' under the Mongol onslaught. Many Russians, seeking help against Tatar attack and Polish invasions, were willing to accept Lithuanian help/administration/overlordship. As a result, in the fourteenth century Lithuania grew to become the largest state in Europe, and arguably the most multi-cultural. Eventually, it was the religious question that determined the future.(23) By chosing Roman Catholicism in 1387, Duke Jogaila alienated some of his Orthodox subjects; eventually his successors lost the bulk of their lands in Rus' even as their boyars succumbed to the attractions of the Polish language and culture. The failure of the effort to balance eastern and western traditions and still retain a national identity has left its imprint on modern Lithuanian attitudes and politics: whoever is so incautious as to bring Polish-Jewish Wilna to mind is sure to be reminded that the proper name is Vilnius and whoever mentions Russian influence will be told that Lithuanians are not Slavs.(24)

    One might wonder what purpose is served by the glorification of a military past being combined with a view of oneself as the perennial victim, but one has only to look at the names twentieth-century Lithuanians have given their children: not from the Catholic saints' calendar, not for communist heroes, but mythological and historic names from the pagan past. Memory of the ancient past has made possible the survival of the nation through centuries of Polonization and Russification. The Teutonic Knights serve as the national enemy--one which could be safely criticized through those long eras when the rulers were Poles and Russians.

The Fate of the Livonians

    Had the native peoples of Livonia joined in a common effort against the crusaders in the early days, while their levies from abroad still arrived irregularly and soon departed, the crusaders could never have held their foothold at Riga. As it happened, the native peoples were both very democratic and very short-sighted--they mistrusted the ambitions of talented leaders who called for preventive war and they feared their neighbors' leaders even more than they did their own. It was easier to bend to the winds of history for a while, because the chances were that the newcomers would go away or eventually let down their guard long enough to be chased off. This had happened before.

    One of the most attractive features of native society along the Baltic coast was its lack of a feudal system. However, this proved to be a fatal flaw when the crusader challenge required strong leadership over a long period, access to resources (especially money) which could be raised only by taxation, and the ability to maintain garrisons in strategic castles far from the villages and fields. Tribal leaders (seniores) were unable to persuade the clan elites to surrender power to them, just as the stronger tribes had been unwilling to promise the weaker that the future would be more than a return to the status quo. That the Lithuanians had no intention of sharing power with the lesser peoples of the north was demonstrated after the Estonians rose in rebellion in 1343. Potential rebel leaders in Livonia approached the Lithuanian Grand Duke, offering to revolt and become his subjects if he would recognize them as nobles. His response was gruff: peasants you were, peasants you shall remain. Then he beheaded them.(25)

    What were the choices for the surviving native leaders? On the one hand, after the crusaders had demonstrated an unexpected prowess at pitched combats and sieges, the seniores saw no means of avoiding military defeat; those who chose to become Christian knights or ministeriales would rise in honor and wealth, and the rest could continue to act as tribal leaders for their lifetimes and pass down their positions to their heirs. The chronicles and documents are filled with names of native leaders, the important roles they played in political and military decisions, and their exploits on the battlefield.

    Though sources mentioning the native nobility are frustratingly few, we know quite a bit about them. First of all, they never had been a true nobility--the bishops attempted to make the seniores into a service nobility, but the native elders, unlike feudal knights, had neither the incomes from manors or taxes to equip themselves as heavy cavalry or the expertise to serve as ministeriales. It was easier for the bishops to import poor German ministeriales and give them a tax fief.(26) Secondly, losses in battle were terrible. The death of Caupo removed the one Liv who seemed to be making the transition to full equality with the Germans. Undoubtedly, some widows of prominent leaders, especially in Estonia, married newly-arrived German knights.

    Race or ethnic origin was never a problem in medieval Germany for arranging marriages, and even religious differences seldom stood in the way. All that was important was class. Since the ministeriales of the crusading era were roughly equal to the seniores, intermarriage was no problem from the German point of view. In fact, given the knights' poverty (which would make it impossible to bring wives from home) and their desire to establish some claim upon land, marriages were likely common in Danish Estonia, Dorpat, and Oesel-Wiek in the era before records become abundant. In contrast, relatively few German nobles settled in the lands comprising modern Latvia until much later, and the ones who did tended to be wealthier than the knights in Estonia. Though some of these knights could have afforded to import wives from Germany, several (including the Bishop of Riga's brother) married local women. These were not love matches any more than would have been arranged marriages back home; they were cold-blooded family alliances, useful to all parties.(27)

    Native nobles who did accommodate to the newcomers faced less formidable barriers to assimilation than nineteenth-century historians assumed. At least one became a knight in the Teutonic Order and others became part of the German-speaking nobility.(28) As contemporary practice in Poland toward Germans demonstrated, tension between ethnic groups did not prevent immigration or intermarriage. Medieval nationalism cannot be equated exactly with its modern counterpart. Moreover, it is very important to remember that the new rulers did not attempt to make sweeping changes in local society: farmers were not forced into manors; the three-field system may have existed before the conquest, but in any case the two-field system remained dominate; and the newcomers were unable to recruit or train a sufficient number of priests to make more than superficial changes in religious thought and practice.

    The seniores in the lands ruled by the Teutonic Order retained their traditional roles to such an extent that churchmen accused the knights of not doing all they could to Christianize the peoples under their control.(29) Archaeologists, judging by the relative dearth of western artifacts found in the villages around the castles, believe that the native culture in isolated settlements must have been completely unaffected by the western presence for several centuries. On the other hand, they think that the quality of life may have declined significantly: the dead were buried with fewer luxury items, the garbage heaps contain more bones of game, suggesting that the people had to augment their meager diet by hunting. Christian rule brought peace to the countryside for long periods of time, which, being spared the ravages of war, should have been prosperous; one might, therefore, infer that this decline in the standard of living was due to taxation.(30) Nevertheless, our knowledge of the era is far from satisfactory. The prosperity of cities everywhere was partly achieved at the expense of the countryside. More work needs to be done in the fields of archeology, climate change, agriculture, mercantile trends, and disease to determine what the level of exploitation in the Baltic was, compared to exploitation in the Holy Roman Empire or Scandinavia.

    Despite frequent assertions that slavery and serfdom were an immediate result of the conquest, slavery was not a viable institution in the Baltic,(31) and serfdom did not become common until the early sixteenth century.(32) However, from the beginning some tribes were required to pay double tribute as punishment for having revolted; later, many individuals were probably deprived of their rights for crimes or failure to pay taxes and debts, and numerous prisoners-of-war were settled on estates as serfs.(33) Nevertheless, the Teutonic Knights understood that serfs make poor soldiers, and since they had no choice but to employ native militia units in their armies, they had to put some limits on their exploitation of the free farmers and the warrior class. This self-imposed limitation was all the more important because there was no way the Masters of the Order could face Russian and Lithuanian armies if they had to worry constantly about the loyalty of the militia units nor could they effectively conduct offensive operations without the native knights' enthusiastic help in scouting and foraging. Surprising perhaps, modern critics who are outraged by the crusaders' interference with native customs and ancient religions fail to note that the medieval critics often accused the Teutonic Knights of having done too little to change the traditional way of life and thought; modern popular critics tend to repeat old accusations.(34) Perhaps this is one more example of the lag between scholarship and common knowledge; on the other hand, this might simply be resistance to unpleasant facts which run contrary to currently fashionable stereotypes.(35)

    The unpleasant truth is that peasants were oppressed everywhere; and with a callousness that transcended linguistic and ethnic boundaries. The German oppression of Estonians, Livs, Letts, and Kurs did not, in the eyes of most contemporaries, seem to have been particularly onerous.(36) The major exceptions to this view come from political enemies, whose self-serving motivations were so transparent to contemporaries, and from Franciscans, whose tendencies to dabble in heresy and to oppose the traditions of the established Church made their testimony questionable at the time.(37) Doubtless, there were great injustices--indeed, we can cite many specific examples of misdeeds only because the Christian society of that era was outraged by real and perceived criminal behavior, and because Christian society had built-in means of seeking redress of grievances: contemporaries reported the misdeeds in hope of having them corrected. On the other hand, the new society of immigrants and converts was more complex than we usually think, and it seemed to work better than might have been expected.(38)

The Conquerors

    The conquerors did not transplant unchanged the customs and habits of their homeland. Right from the beginning, they had to learn new languages, which brought them into close contact with the cultures of their new homeland. The myth that newcomers refuse to learn the minimum necessary for communication defies common sense and everyday experience; moreover, in the case of the Baltic it is contradicted by the historical evidence.(39) In many ways the immigrants left behind the parochialism of the homeland and adopted new customs reflecting a pan-European noble culture. Wherever one went on the peripheries of Europe one met with similar names, a common coinage, a universal method of writing charters, similar methods and goals of education, and a practically interchangeable knighthood, commercial class, and clergy. Bartlett calls this "the Europeanization of Europe." In short, diversity gave way to universalism and uniformity.(40) In the long-run this was to the benefit of everyone, but it was not universally a benefit, and those who dominated the Baltic lands tended to have more opportunities to adapt and felt less sense of loss in making the adaptations necessary to flourish in the future. The descendants of the victors came to believe that victory had given them the right to oppress those their ancestors had defeated.(41)

    The "knightly-clerical-mercantile consortium" that was responsible for the outward expansion of Europe from the eleventh century onward established patterns and created techniques for conquest, colonization, and Christianization that made possible European expansion after 1492.(42) That consortium made Latvia and Estonia a part of the West; it contributed to the westernization of Lithuania. This may not always have been a gain, but it was not always a loss. Even in the short-run, there were natives who considered themselves winners; and in the long-run, there are relatively few Balts who today would prefer that their culture had been Russified.(43)

    The question through the centuries, for Balts and other numerically small peoples, was not how to avoid being a victim, but how to make the best of a bad situation. This raises more questions than can be answered here, questions such as the price of accommodation and assimilation: Are the benefits worth sacrificing one's language and culture, one's accustomed ways of earning a living, and leaving farm and family for an uncertain future in the city? Will those who benefit from the status quo, being the most respected members of a farming community, even an oppressed one, gain more than they lose in the process of change? Will the dominant group let members of the oppressed peoples in? These philosophical points remain tremendously important for much of the world population. But they are not the same as using the memory of past oppression to obtain political advantages today. Historical victimization is not a dispassionate look at the past. It is not using the past to explain the present. (As if the wrongs of the 13th century explain much about the late 20th century.) It is a political statement that distracts from the present.


    The first goal of the Baltic Crusade had been to protect missionaries and merchants. The second was to protect the converts. These goals had been largely achieved by 1230, certainly by 1300. Although the tribes which had been dominant before the crusaders arrived were not pleased with their new status as subjects of foreign rulers, tribesmen who had been their traditional victims had benefitted. A third goal, to extirpate or drive underground practices which contemporary Christians considered primitive and barbaric--piracy, polygamy, the exposure of infants, human sacrifice, the worship of idols and the honoring of the spirits of the dead--had been accomplished, at least as far as open, public practice was concerned. Whether or not some of these practices had even existed outside the imagination of propagandists, whether or not the rituals had been misunderstood by western observers, was less important to thirteenth-century men and women than the perceived need to bring all peoples into the Church, into the culture of Christendom, where their immortal souls would benefit from the Salvation offered to all believers and defenders of the true faith.(44)

    In the end, we find the victims of the Baltic Crusade to be more numerous and disparate than we once believed: pirates, highway robbers, slave-catchers and cattle thieves; pagan priests whose saw their monopoly threatened, true believers who feared for the future of their tribe and their culture; competing imperialists and ambitious dynasties; peoples who were seeking to maintain a tenuous independence by using outside assistance against whatever enemy seeming to be most dangerous at the moment; oppressed peoples who saw in the crusaders a means of revenging themselves upon ancient enemies and acquiring wealth and status; and some who just got in the way of the sweeping change in the balance of power in the Baltic.

    Victimization in history is real. There were winners and losers, and even the winners suffered losses. Victimization as a modern political strategy is also real. It is the foundation for all demagoguery; and some groups have had sufficient success in publicizing their suffering that other groups have felt obliged to match them. This comparative victimization is not healthy. It has a negative influence on individual and group attitudes; it threatens to revive aspects of nationalism and racism better buried away and forgotten; and it dulls the public mind to more recent and correctable injustices. One does not want to forget the past, but one should not want to relive it either. The way out of victim status is to rise above it, not to wallow in it. The way forward is forward, not backward.


1. The Baltic Crusade (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1975. [Much to be preferred is the] Second edition, revised and enlarged. Chicago: Lithuanian Research and Studies Center, 1994). [Also note much enlarged and revised editions of The Livonian Crusade (2004) and The Samogitian Crusade (2006), also published by the Lithuanian Research and Studies Center. Both have been translated into Lithuanian.]

2. There is a short-hand process which makes each of us notice certain phrases and miss others; and in the age of victimization, the word victim is the one we see, a word which, moreover, implies moral superiority. Somewhat akin to Rousseau's noble savage confronting corrupt civilization. Given the current fashionableness of victimization today, perhaps the word victim is carrying too much freight to be applied to the crusading movement in any way other than to inform the already ideologically committed how they should respond to the subject. That way they could be spared the effort of careful reading and reflection. But it is a word worth studying in the context of real situations.

3. Robert Bartlett, Making of Europe. Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change, 950-1350 (Princeton, 1993), 101; these ideas are implied in Eric Christiansen, The Northern Crusades: The Baltic and the Catholic Frontier 1100-1525 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1980).

4. Friedrich Benninghoven, Der Orden der Schwertbrüder (Cologne-Graz: Böhlau, 1965); Bartlett, Making of Europe, 91-92, 194-196, 266-268.

5. Bartlett, Making of Europe, 72-76.

6. Bartlett, Making of Europe, 24, 44-47, 192-193, 233-234.

7. Magnus Mörner, "The Baltic Republics--Some Comparative Historical Perspectives," and Ilgvars Misans, "National and International Tradition in the Writing of Latvia's Medieval History," Towards a New History in the Baltic Republics (ed. Magnus and Aare R. Mörner. Gothenburg, 1993), 9-44, 59-75.

8. S.C. Rowell, Lithuania Ascending. A pagan empire within east-central Europe, 1295-1345 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), for the Lithuanians' creative response to the western challenges and eastern opportunities; also ft. 5.

9. Henry of Livonia (translated James Brundage. Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1961), XII, 2; Michał Giedroyć notes in "The Arrival of Christianity in Lithuania: Early Contacts (Thirteenth Century)," Oxford Slavonic Papers, 18 (1985) [New Series, XVIII], 7, that the Lithuanians under Ringaudas were potentially capable of challenging the Germans but were not yet aware of their own strength. Henryk Paszkiewicz, The Origin of Russia (London: Allen & Unwin, 1954), 185-187, 192, for the Lithuanians' evil reputation in this era; Bartlett, Making of Europe, 303-304.

10. Henry, VII, 1; note also, Henry, X, 15: "The Wends, indeed, were humble and poor at that time, because they had been driven out from the Windau, a river of Kurland."

11. In 1961, Brundage wrote, 20-21: "The ultimate importance of Henry's chronicle lies not merely in its significance for German and general European history, but in the fact that it demonstrates clearly the mistakes and misfortunes which attended this medieval effort to impose the 'blessings' of a technologically more advanced and superior culture upon a 'backward' people."

12. The Livonian Rhymed Chronicle (trans. Jerry C. Smith and William Urban. Bloomington: Indiana University, 1977 [Uralic and Altaic series, 128]), p. 61: "If we manage to hold the field and checkmate the Brothers, we will burn fine armor and horses for our gods.... We will bring sorrow to those proud Kurs, and the wives and children, horses and cattle, maids and servants, shall all be ours. We will divide the wealth which they have hoarded these many years among all who participate in the raid, both young and old." [A much improved translation has been printed by the Lithuanian Research and Studies Center in Chicago, 2000]

13. Henry, XXX, 6.

14. Urban, "The Military Occupation of Semgallia," Baltic History (Columbus: Ohio State, 1974), 21-34.

15. Bartlett, The Making of Europe, 5, 304-305.

16. Bartlett, The Making of Europe, 85-105, does not shrink from the words "conquest" and "conqueror". He has here an especially insightful section on The Literature of Conquest which mentions Livonia often.

17. Henry, IX, 4: The Semgallians, after helping slaughter 1200 Lithuanians, came upon the Lithuanian commander sitting in a cart, wounded; they "cut off his head and put it on one of their wagons which they loaded only with the heads of Lithuanians, and went into Semgallia. They killed a great many of the Esthonian captives with the sword, since they too were enemies."

18. Henry, XII, 6.

19. Bartlett, Making of Europe, 301: "Not all native leaders were hostile. In many cases outsiders were invited in and encouraged by local aristocrats eager to gain an edge in their own competitive arena;" Johnson, "The German Crusade on the Baltic," A History of the Crusades, vol. 3 The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries (Madison: Wisconsin, 1975), 561, notes: "The piecemeal nature of the conquest and occupation made impossible effective coordinated resistance."

20. For an overview of the medieval economy, Juhan Kahk and Enn Tarvel, An Economic History of the Baltic Countries (Stockholm: Almquist & Wiksell, 1997), 26-36.

21. The origins of the crusade here are to be found in Polish expansionism. When the Polish monarch found that his feudal levies could overrun areas of Prussia, but were unable to hold them, he looked around for knights who were willing to stay in the occupied territories permanently; by inviting in crusading orders and founding new ones, he and the Bishop of Prussia hoped to resolving the twin problems of warding off Prussian attacks into Poland and conquering that land for themselves and Christianity. Christiansen, The Northern Crusades,100-101; Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades. A Short History (New Haven and London: Yale, 1987), 161-163; Alan Forey, The Military Orders from the twelfth to the early fourteenth centuries (Toronto and Buffalo: Toronto, 1992), 32-37.

22. Complaints of neglecting the religious education were more than matched by accusations of unjustly forcing Christianity on unreceptive peoples.

23. See essays in La cristianizzazaione della Lituania (ed. Paul Rabikauskas. Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1989); Bartlett, The Making of Europe, 312, on the Lithuanian response to the crusader challenge, forming a centralized state while reemphasizing the traditional pagan religion: "Its gods were old, but its guns were new."

24. Textbook writers remain unimpressed. For example, an American western civilization text with very good coverage of east-central Europe, Stanley Chodorow et all, The Mainstream of Civilization (1994), 342.

25. Hermanni de Warteberge, "Chronicon Livoniae," Scriptores rerum Prussicarum (6 vols. Leipzig: Hirzel, 1861-1874), II, 72; Peter Rebane, "The Jüriöö Mäss (St. George's Night Rebellion) of 1343," Baltic History, 40.

26. Landed nobility possessed sufficient property or income-producing activities to support itself. Service nobility earned its income by performing governmental duties and being ready to fight in a lord's cause--the duties of the Vogt (advocate) was to be the judge in civil and criminal cases, oversee the bailiffs in the villages, collect taxes and rents, train the militia, and fight as heavy cavalry. In Germany these duties were customarily performed not by true nobles, but by ministeriales. In the 13th century this knightly class, of peasant and middle-class ancestry, was pushing its way into the ranks of the lower nobility. Latvians and Estonians, even those raised in the families of seniores, had few opportunities to learn the skills that Germans acquired almost effortlessly from parents and male relatives, and too little income to equip themselves with horse and armor and to train to fight as a knight.

27. Bartlett, Making of Europe, 55-56, 197 discusses marriage between newcomers and former elites in several frontier areas; Muldoon, Popes, Lawyers, and Infidels. The Church and the Non-Christian World, 1250-1550 (Philadephia: Pennsylvania, 1979), 159-160, has a note on the irrelevance of modern ideas of racism for understanding the medieval world; see also Anatol Lieven, The Baltic Revolution: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Path to Independence (New Haven and London: Yale, 1993) for intermarriage of German and Liv nobles.

28. Ritterbrüder im livländischen Zweig des Deutschen Ordens (Köln, Weimar, Wien: Böhlau, 1993), 744; one might note the provocative statement by Bartlett, Making of Europe, 297: "One paradoxical result of this difference in Christian policy regarding paganism and Islam [extirpation of the former, tolerance of the latter] was the fact that the native inhabitants in the Mediterranean area were much more clearly recognizable as a subordinate and colonial population than many of those in the north and east. In pagan eastern Europe the choice was a sharp one between resistance and conversion, and many shrewd native dynasties and élites chose the later."

29. The accusations raised against the Teutonic Order at hearings presided over by papal legates went deliberately unanswered: the grandmasters had learned not to debate their actions, but to challenge the authority of the inquisition. Consequently, the hearings presented only one side of the story, included statements which were false or misleading, but have been relied upon by generations of nationalist or anti-Catholic historians as a true and accurate recounting of events.

30. Évalds Mūgurevi?ćs, "Wechselbeziehungen der Deutschen und Ostbaltischen Kulturen im Lettland des 13. bis 16. Jahrhunderts," Lübecker Schriften zur Archäologie und Kulturgeschichte, 12(1986), 229-39, and "The Culture of Inhabitants of Medieval Settlements in Latvia in Livonian Period (the End of the 12th--the [first] half of the 16th Century," Fasciculi Archeologiae Historicae, 2(1987), 57-70.

31. Determining what happened to the prisoners-of-war is one of the more frustrating questions facing historians. We assume many were sold into slavery, but mention of the slave trade in actual documents is rarer than we would expect. See Piotr Górecky, Economy, Society, and Lordship in Medieval Poland, 1100-1250 (New York and London: Holmes and Meier, 1992), 59-60.

32. Kahk and Tarvel, An Economic History of the Baltic Countries, 38-39.

33. Sven Ekdahl, "The Treatment of Prisoners of War during the Fighting between the Teutonic Order and Lithuania," The Military Orders. Fighting for the Faith and Caring for the Sick (ed. Malcolm Barber. Cambridge: Variorum, 1994), 263-269; Bartlett, The Making of Europe, 298-300, for the complexities introduced into peasant life by the immigration of new peoples, the wars of religion, and the opening of new lands. It was not all retrograde, nor was it all progress.

34. For medieval critics, see Helen Nicholson, Templars, Hospitallers and Teutonic Knights. Images of the Military Orders, 1128-1291 (Leicester: St. Martin, 1993), 68-79. Alas, her book was so oriented toward the Holy Land that she missed the principal criticism of the Teutonic Knights, which began in 1296 and continued without abatement for two and a quarter centuries. Also, Alan Forey, The Military Orders from the Twelfth to the Early Fourteenth Centuries (Toronto: University of Toronto, 1992), 211-213, in which he remarks, "Critics were, in fact, often ill-informed or had only a limited understanding of the orders' situation."

35. Scepticism is a good quality. It is probably the origin of most learned articles, in that a scholar reads a statement which does not square with personal experience in the sources and therefore looks into the topic more deeply. However, scholarship is filled with obsolete beliefs and interpretations, each of which fitted the perceptions of the time. In our era, scholars have reflected our times--with the result that we learn less about the Middle Ages than about nationalism, Nazism and Stalinism.

36. Compare the peasant risings, the pogroms, described by Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium (New York: Harper, 1961), 87-98; by the fifteenth century, this attitude had changed. See Muldoon, Popes, Lawyers, and Infidels, 107-119.

37. William Urban, "Roger Bacon and the Teutonic Knights," Journal of Baltic Studies, 19/4(1988), 331-338; and "The Teutonic Order at the Council of Constance," Estudios de Historia de la Iglesia y de las Instituciones Eclesiasticas en Europa (Barcelona, 1989), XIV, 3043-63.

38. Oswald Backus, "The Impact of the Baltic and Finnic Peoples Upon Russian History," Baltic History, 4, calls aspects of this attitude "snobbery;" Michael Burleigh, "The German Knights, Making of a Modern Myth," History Today, 35(1985), 24-29; Edgar Johnson, "The German Crusade on the Baltic," A History of the Crusades, III (ed. Harry Hazard. Madison: Wisconsin, 1975), 546-49; William Urban, "Der Deutsche Orden in amerikanischen Schulbüchern," Beiträge zur Geschichte des Deutschen Ordens (ed. Udo Arnold. Marburg: Elwert, 1986), 111-22, and "Baltic Chivalry," The Historian, 56/3 (Spring, 1994), 519-530; Adomas Butrimas, "Die Darstellung der deutsch-litauischen Beziehungen im litauischen Geschichtslehrbüchern," Nordost-Archiv, Neue Folge, 2/2 (1993), 415-440, especially 439-40.

39. David Kirby, Northern Europe in the Early Modern Period. The Baltic World 1492-1772 (London and New York: Longman, 1990), 25-26; also Bartlett, The Making of Europe, 199-202, with a following discursion on efforts to achieve language unity wherever that was possible.

40. Bartlett, The Making of Europe, 269-291, 300, 311.

41. Bartlett, The Making of Europe, 312-313, for the process of cultural homogenization; 326-242 for the growth of racial feeling and racism; Kirby, Northern Europe in the Early Modern Period, 26-41. Kirby extends his analysis to all the shores of the Baltic, demonstrating that the cruel social system was everywhere more or less the same.

42. Bartlett, The Making of Europe, 313-314; see also Archibald Ross Lewis, Nomads and Crusaders, A.D. 1000-1368 (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1988), who believed that Europe's rise to supremacy owed as much to the failure of other great civilizations as to its own achievements--when the Mongols retreated, the great civilizations concentrated on reestablishing the familiar patterns of the past, sacrificing thereby the potential of the future. [Note William Urban, "The Frontier Thesis and the Baltic Crusade" in Crusade and Conversion on the Baltic Frontier 1150-1500. ed. Alan V. Murray. Ashgate, 2001]

43. They had that opportunity numerous times, twice in this century, earlier with Ivan the Great and Ivan the Terrible, and each time rejected it. Remaining aloof from outside pressures and influence was not an option. At least, no other native people in East Central Europe managed to do it.

44. Christiansen comments, The Northern Crusades, 250: "To present these wars as false--either as matters of interest disguised as matters of conscience, or simply as misnamed events--is too easy. This type of judgement is itself fraudulent. It avoids the unavoidable question of why men who were never reluctant to wage war for profit, fame, vengeance or merely to pass the time, without any disguise or pretext, nevertheless chose to claim that certain wars were fought for God's honour and the redemption of mankind."