Introduction to 2006 edition

 This volume is the sequel to The Prussian Crusade.[1] That book was the story of the thirteenth century crusade of Poles and Germans against pagan Prussians, an action which was at least partly designed to protect the northern Polish duchies from the rampages of raiders seeking slaves, booty, and revenge. The reason for revenge is the other part, since Poland had been expansive but without taking the necessary steps to establish full control over the conquered regions.

The Prussian Crusade came to a close either at 1283, a date named by a chronicler of the Teutonic Order, or c1310, when the Teutonic Order took Pomerellia (known to Germans as West Preußen and to Poles as Pomorze), thereby alienating the Poles, who then ceased to cooperate in the holy war. The Poles’ place was taken by Germans and Czechs, but that was a poor substitute—they were too distant and their own interests were not threatened. The Samogitian Crusade, in contrast, was intended not only to force recalcitrant pagans to become Christians, but also to conquer a strategic territory that lay between the Teutonic Knights’ lands in Prussia and Livonia, thus ensuring safe overland travel at all seasons. While it was not solely a German operation (it involved crusaders from many other lands), some historians later identified this crusade as a prime case of medieval German imperialism, a military aspect of that eastward migration known as the Drang nach Osten.[2]

For those who do not speak German, it is easy to mistake Drang (push or pressure) for military conquest. Similarly, for those fixated on the 19th and 20th centuries, it is easy to misunderstand this aspect of the Middle Ages in East Central Europe. There was more going on in the Baltic than military operations. There were profound shifts in technologies, economics, social status and political organizations.

Nils Blomkvist can help us here.[3] He equates aspects of the medieval westernization process in the Baltic with modern globalization. He sees the Christianization-colonial process as replacing diverse, technologically-backward and eastward-looking societies by a self-confident and technologically-advanced culture he calls the Catholic World-System. Sometimes people accept new systems willingly, sometimes they adapt to them, but sometimes they resist—actively if they can, passively if they cannot. The peoples of the Baltic intensely disliked the new commercial-centered, hierarchical system imposed by the West and adapted a variety of survival strategies. One of these was to form what Blomkvist called regimes of plunder and warfare. In short, they organized themselves for war and attacked their Christian neighbors. When that happened in Prussia and Livonia, a combination of ecclesiastical and mercantile interests called upon crusaders to intervene.

The westerners were not without fault in this matter, if one considers desiring to buy and sell products evil, or the desire to farm land that was largely empty, or having a concern with other people’s salvation. But that was exactly the way the natives in Prussia, Livonia, Estonia, Kurland, Samogitia and Lithuania saw it. While they often wanted items that could only be obtained by trade (iron, cloth, salt), they saw commerce as a threat to their orderly traditional societies; and pagan priests saw the merchants’ enthusiastic missionaries as a challenge to their religious monopoly. As for the empty lands, those were the homes of animals they hunted and the haunts of their ancestral gods. They did not want Polish or German immigrants moving in on them.

 To complicate this story more, the crusades in the Baltic, which were first called to protect frontier settlements in Poland and merchants in Livonia, could not be conducted without employing a military order, and even a military order needed money to buy food, clothing, weapons and labor services. The Teutonic Knights, encouraged by the belief that military means were proper to the spread of Christianity, trade, and political power, had no interest in a purely defensive war. To conduct holy war successfully, they had to spread Christian culture among the subdued peoples, and to protect these converts from attack, they had to create for themselves a territorial state. To populate the underdeveloped regions they had conquered (in some cases replacing native tribes which had fled or been forcibly relocated), they brought peasants, burghers, and knights from Germany, Pomerellia and Poland as settlers. The Samogitian Crusade, which had begun as a means of securing the communications route between Prussia and Livonia, evolved into an effort to force the highland Lithuanians to accept Christianity. The question of the Teutonic Knights’ territorial aspirations will perhaps always provoke a lively debate.[4]

The ferocity of such debates is often inversely proportional to the amount of knowledge possessed by the opposing advocates (though learned scholars involve themselves in them, too). In the English speaking world, information about the crusades in the Baltic is often either completely lacking or incorrect.[5] Happily, this is changing rapidly—at least for those willing to read a bit—though it is unlikely that American or British popular culture will ever do better than American or British scholarly presses that send books on Balkan history to the Journal of Baltic History for review.

Nor is it necessary any longer to study languages rarely taught in public schools in order to read the fine historians of Central and Eastern Europe. The internet—with its mix of excellent, good and terrible—almost daily brings us new materials to ponder over; and libraries can provide materials even from far distant places.[6] However, such sources are insufficient to answer every reader’s needs. There is an audience for narrative history, and one communicates ideas more effectively in a narrative than by condensing them into a few well-chosen words or expanding them into many long sentences. Moreover, the issues raised in the Samogitian Crusade have implications for today.

 Although the Samogitian Crusade came to an end (as I shall argue) in 1399, its effects lasted for centuries. As important as were the changes in culture, language, and the economy in Prussia during the late Middle Ages, even more important today are the ways that Germans, Poles, and Lithuanians think about this terrible episode in their common history. After nationalism became important, historians on all sides exaggerated and distorted facts that were both glorious and cruel enough in the bare telling. Germans made the eastward migration and the exploits of heroic crusaders into folk myths that were later used to justify the arrogant cultural politics of the Second Empire and the war crimes of the Third Reich. The peoples they had subjected or threatened to subject turned those scholarly and popular arguments around, developing thereby part of the justification for the post-war settlements of 1919 and 1945. Thus, Brest-Litovsk and Mein Kampf were preliminary to Versailles and Potsdam. It is necessary to remember these facts (and their impact on political ideology) in order to understand why historians have interpreted these crusades as they have.[7]

 Historical controversies which reflect modern politics are not very productive. The medieval period has to be approached on its own terms, to be understood as best possible within its own limits. As far as the Drang nach Osten went, the evidence is contradictory. The documents show that the Teutonic Knights encouraged immigration only where the native population was insufficiently numerous to till the fields, and that they did not restrict opportunities to Germans alone. The fact was that German immigrants were simply more available than were Polish or Pomeranian ones. As far as holy wars went, all medieval Europeans believed in them. How else was one to defend justice and punish evil? The Church believed in efforts to end wars, protect the innocent, and give comfort to the suffering. Then as today, Christians asked seriously whether they could best serve their God and their conscience with the sword or by other means; then as today, the usual answer was to serve with every means at one’s disposal, with weapons if necessary, without if possible. Moreover, few doubted the seriousness of the threat posed by armed pagans and Saracens on the borders of Christendom.

 It was not until the fifteenth century, when the Polish scholar Paulus Vladimiri objected to using crusaders against pagans, that anyone questioned the theoretical basis of the Samogitian Crusade. Vladimiri was ignored by most of his contemporaries, but not so long ago Polish and German historians were still advancing the same arguments Vladimiri and his foes did, disputing whether to justify or to condemn acts committed in the name of the Church.[8]

 Now that the conflicting claims to territory have been largely resolved by the formation of the European Union, historians no longer feel obliged to represent national interests; there are problems still to work out, but no one sees any potential for a territorial war in this region now. For my own part, I can only hope that my narrative will satisfy a wide range of scholarly opinion. I believe that informed opinion should be of two minds about war. First, because ordinary people behave badly in wartime circumstances and, therefore, one should avoid putting them (and especially that minority of humans who enjoy killing, stealing, and raping) in arms. On the other hand, non-resistance to evil has not worked effectively either in the medieval or modern worlds.

In the case of the crusades in the Baltic, there has long been a tendency to equate the crusaders with western civilization and the native peoples with Rousseau’s noble savages.[9] I think we should hesitate to attribute too much virtue to people who do not share Christian views about the purpose of human existence, but glorify war, slavery, brutality, and arrogance. Nor should we expect too much of Christian armies. One cannot always arrange for saints alone to fight in even the best of causes; and it is not always clear that the crusades were the best causes. Ultimately, armies tend to imitate their enemies’ behavior.

 This is not always bad. Not only did crusaders become more like pagans, but pagans came to resemble their Christian foes in attitudes and technologies. The remarkable developments we see in fourteenth century Lithuania occurred partly because of their complicated relationship with their German and Polish neighbors. More important, perhaps, was their relationship with their Russian subjects, because in order to reconcile those peoples to an alien rule, the Lithuanians had to put aside their primitive habits in favor of more social and sophisticated ones. Peaceful skills had to be acquired as well as military ones. It was through governing their lands, not through conquering them, that the Lithuanians became a great people. Moreover, they saw a larger world beyond the forests of their gods. As the Lithuanians concluded alliances with Russians and Poles, acquired modern weapons, and came to understand the mentality of their foreign enemies, they unwittingly undermined the foundations of their rural paganism. That their ultimate fate was to become Roman Christians associated with the Polish kingdom was not foreordained, but that process cannot be understood without reference to the Samogitian Crusade.

A few definitions may be in order to understand my views on subjects that will appear in the book:

 PAGANISM. Most inhabitants of the Roman Empire had been pagans. That is, they had believed in a complex system of nature gods and natural forces, each of which could be influenced by special prayers, sacrifices or rituals.

Early Christian churchmen and rulers attempted to suppress these practices as best they could, but usually found it easier to encourage believers to pray to specific saints, to the Virgin Mary or to Jesus. They had once discouraged Germans from eating horsemeat because that was associated with pagan feasts; consequently, today the French eat horsemeat, but not Germans, Britons or Americans. They forbade Baltic natives from cremating the dead, because of its association with ancient beliefs, and from bringing flowers and food to the graves. But they were unable to suppress many popular practices, even in Germany and England, such as knocking on wood, despite its ancient connection to holy trees and groves where minor deities were believed to dwell.

INFIDELS. Christians recognized that Moslems and Jews represented a special problem for the creation of a universal Christian society. The Jews were more a challenge than a threat, in that all Christians agreed that Christ had been raised as a Jew and that many Christian practices can be understood only in the context of Jewish life and tradition; even so, they often agreed that extreme measures were necessary to persuade them to become Christians.

The Islamic world could not be dealt with so lightly. Moslems were numerous, warlike, occasionally expansionistic, and often wealthier and more educated than Europeans. They could not be converted by argument or coercion, at least, not until they had been beaten on the battlefield. Still, the Moslems were mainly a Byzantine problem until the 11th century, when the Turks poured out of Asia to overrun most of Byzantium, much of the Arab world (with its mixed Christian, Jewish and Moslem populations) and, of course, interrupted pilgrimages to Jerusalem and other holy sites. In this sense the First Crusade was an effort to retake holy places recently lost to Islam.[10]

Some Christian theologians regarded Islam not as a competing religion, but as a heresy. Common people, who were discouraged from discussing religious beliefs and practices, often did not know what pagans, heretics, Jews and Moslems really believed.

Nor, for that matter, did they know much about Russian Orthodox beliefs.

HERESY and SCHISMATICS Heresy is, as a witty philosopher once said, a minority position in a theological dispute. Heresies grew naturally out of efforts to explain or express Christian doctrine in ways suitable to local cultural practices, philosophical traditions or logic. In the early Church (before AD 300), for example, many believers found it difficult to understand the relationship of Christ to God the Father and both to the Holy Spirit. Thus, those who chose to see Christ as only a divinely inspired human being were condemned as heretics by churchmen who met in formal assemblies (councils) to debate the matter, and were then arrested or exiled by the state authorities. Obviously, such persecution was possible only after the state had become officially Christian.

Early Christians had much experience with persecution, having suffered it themselves, and they kept this memory alive through telling the lives of the saints. The problem was that until Constantine the Great (307-337) had made Christianity legal and later emperors had declared it the state religion, local churches had developed traditions which expressed values and ideas that were occasionally in conflict with one another. Efforts to reconcile these differences often failed. Language, culture, theological traditions and powerful personalities stood in the way. The Great Schism of 1054 divided the Roman and Greek churches until early 1966.[11] The Greek and Roman churches never completely overcame their mutual antagonism even when it was necessary to fight together against the enemies of the faith. As a result, western Christians tended to call Orthodox believers Schismatics, and even today westerners must resist the tendency to equate medieval Roman Catholicism with Christendom. Also, this sometimes leads us to imagine that the schism was as serious in the fourteenth century as it became later.

In 1453, Byzantium, after wavering between church union and separatist traditions, chose to fall to the Moslems rather than recognize the pope as the head of Christendom. Even today the successor churches in Moscow and Athens are uncomfortable with the claims of the pope in Rome to be the successor of Saint Peter and thus the head of the universal Church. This is not a problem that will be resolved soon.

Heresies sometimes grew out of efforts to correct corruption and abuses of power in the Church. Since reform movements usually met resistance, some reformers concluded that change could only take place outside the established Church. Consequently, some churchmen saw every proposed reform or innovation as a potential heresy. In general, one of two fates awaited every strong-minded reformer: becoming a saint or a heretic.

In the western tradition the popes and councils determined what was the true faith and what was a heresy, and also what steps were appropriate to protect believers from false beliefs that could imperil their immortal souls. In the fourteenth century Emperor Louis IV defied papal efforts to subvert the process of electing the Holy Roman emperor; he named an anti-pope and gave refuge to a variety of heretics, among them Marsiglio of Padua, who advocated a form of representative government in the church and the state. Other heretics were predicting the imminent end of the world. Two prominent heresies formed around the ideas of John Wycliffe and John Hus. Other reformers, increasingly desperate to end the Great Schism between the popes in Rome and Avignon, were placing their hopes in a council—this story is told in Tannenberg and After.

CHIVALRY. Many historians see an eleventh-century shift from the western church’s emphasis on pacifism and withdrawal from the world to engagement with society’s problems, a shift that was expressed in the attitude toward knighthood. Knights were henceforth identified as society’s protector against pagan and Moslems, an identification that became even stronger when the crusades began. The elaborate rituals associated with taking the cross and the crusade as pilgrimage were considered extraordinary even in an age that loved pageantry and display. It was easy for the western church to insert religious values into the secular concepts that are part of chivalry, hence to encourage knights to go on crusade.[12] 

Source materials from this era are largely western in origin. This reflects several facts. First, some diplomatic correspondence was conducted in medieval Russian, but most was in Latin, and some in German. Secondly, western chanceries saved more documents than Lithuanian and Russian chanceries did. Thirdly, because Samogitia was in northwest Lithuania, it was often mentioned in Prussian and Livonian documents. Thus, the nature of the source materials and my own personal interest in the Baltic crusades make it inevitable that this book has a western perspective. It is, nevertheless, my hope that this volume will serve well those who love Lithuania and its history.

No historian is without bias. That is, each of us grows up in a particular time and place or places, and each of us has individual experiences that affect the ways we make judgments about others. But that is no argument for saying that history is completely subjective, that we can say anything we want. History has its rules—the most basic are that the historian should attempt to be fair, and that the historian should be honest. The narrative has to be based on the facts as best we know them, and the historian should not deliberately ignore facts that contradict what he writes.[13] On this basis historians can discuss, disagree, correct and compromise on factual matters, no matter how much they disagree on what the story means.[14]

                                                                                                                                                                                                            William L. Urban

Lee L. Morgan Professor

                                 Monmouth College


[1] An enlarged second edition was published in Chicago in 1994 by the Lithuanian Research and Studies Center.

[2] Ignored was a contemporaneous Polish migration eastward, and an important movement of Jews to newly founded cities on the frontier. That would have complicated a story otherwise composed only of villains and victims.

[3] Nils Blomkvist, The Discovery of the Baltic. The Reception of a Catholic World-System in the European North (AD 1075-1225) Vol. 15 of The Northern World. North Europe and the Baltic c. 400-1700 AD. Peoples Economies and Cultures (Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2005), 711.

[4] Rolf-Dieter Kluge, “Darstellung und Bewertung des Deutschen Ordens in der deutschen und polnischen Literatur,” ZfO, 18(1969), 15-53; Wolfgang Wippermann, Der Ordensstaat als Ideologie: Das Bild des Deutschen Ordens in der deutschen Geschichtsschreibung und Publizstik (Berlin: Colloquim, 1979); Klaus Zernack, “Die Geschichte Preussens und das Problem der deutsch-polnischen Beziehungen,” Jahrbuch für Geschichte Osteuropas, 31(1983), 28-49

[5] A textbook I used (proof that I consider the authors generally competent) had a summary of the history of the Teutonic Order about six lines long. Every sentence contained a factual error. This is not unusual.

[6] A summary of this book can be found in the paper I delivered at the Colloquio Internazionale di Storia Ecclesiastica in Occasione del VI Centenario della Lituania Cristiana in Rome in June of 1987: William Urban, “The Teutonic Order and the Christianization of Lithuania,” La Cristianizzazione della Lituania, 105-135.

[7] An excellent article is Keith Haines, “Attitudes and Impediments to Pacificism in Medieval Europe,” Journal of Medieval History, 7(1981), 369-88; highly recommended is Juozas Jakštas, “Das Baltikum in der Kreuzzugsbewegung des 14. Jhr; 141-83; Karl Brunner and Falko Daim, Ritter, Knappen, Eldelfrauen. Ideologie und Realität des Rittertums im Mittelalter (Wien-Köln-Graz: Böhlau, 1981), 14-24, 84; also Sven Ekdahl, “Crusades and Colonisation in the Baltic: a historiographical analysis”, XIX Rocznik Insitytutu Polsko-Skandynawskiego 2003/2004 (Copenhaven, 2004), 1-42.

[8] Michael Howard, The Causes of Wars and other essays (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard, 1984), 13, 152-154, argues that Christendom was a warrior society in which “Ecclesiastical organizations and doctrine was subordinated to the needs of the warrior ruling class.” While there is a kernel of truth to this, we must remember that medieval churchmen were practical (someone has to enforce the peace), loyal to their relatives (who appointed them and needed their help), and unable to avoid involvement in political affairs (monasteries were for those who wanted to live isolated from the world). The Teutonic Knights combined both military and religious organization and doctrine; we must also remember that one essential role of holy war was to defend the frontiers of Christendom. The extent to which Christendom supported these wars can be seen in the privileges extended to crusaders. James Brundage, Medieval Canon Law and the Crusader (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969), 134-92; James Aho, Religious Mythology and the Art of War. Comparative Religious Symbolism of Military Violence (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1981) is a reflective and provocative study.

[9] Blomkvist’s The Discovery of the Baltic is an interesting combination of the methods of the Annales school, post-colonialism, Marxism and independent thinking. But he is not the first to note how quickly the regions most deeply impacted by the crusades made economic, social and political progress after liberating themselves from first tsarist, then Soviet bureaucracies.

[10] Thomas Madden, A Concise History of the Crusades (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999); also his articles at and other websites.

 [11] I was teaching a very large class at the University of Kansas in early 1966 and had just reached the Schism of 1054. So I asked rhetorically, “Does anyone know when this ended?” No one did. It was, after all, a very early morning class. “Today,” I said.

[12] Chivalry, 44-63.

[13] That is one function of footnotes.

[14] It is not unusual for scholars to pass around a short text, asking others what the best translation is or what it means. Was there a medieval error in the transcription? Did the author even understand what he was writing (in those days, it was always he). If it contradicts another text, which should we believe? It is nice to imagine that every scholar is in full command of all materials, but there are such gaps in our knowledge and nuances to situations that some humility is necessary in the scholars and some understanding and compassion in the readers.



Chapter One


Part I. Prussia and its people

In the year of Our Lord 1309 the land of Prussia was at peace. Peace was needed. Most of the previous century had been filled with terrible wars. In the course of those wars, Christendom, reacting to a Prussian militarism that was sustaining itself on booty and prisoners from Poland, had crushed paganism and begun the process of rooting out heathen customs.

Yet, the Prussians ( often called Old Prussians to distinguish them from the German-speaking inhabitants of a later era) had not been known as an aggressive people until monarchs of the Piast dynasty in Poland tried to occupy their lands in the late twelfth century. It was the royal effort to impose Christianity and collect taxes that had aroused fierce resistance among the pagan inhabitants. Victorious, the Prussians were not satisfied with repelling the invaders: they struck back at the nearest provinces of Poland. Later, the Polish kingdom was divided among the feuding brothers, so that the country would be more accurately described as a collection of duchies: Masovia, Kujavia, Great Poland, Sandomir, Little Poland, and several in Silesia. With the dukes fighting for control of the capital, Cracow, and the crown, the Prussians were able to enrich themselves at the expense of the Poles living in northern Masovia and Kujavia. Moreover, their priests mocked, then martyred the occasional Christian missionary who dared to preach to them. In the course of time the Prussian culture became increasingly militaristic and aggressive, and Poland and Pomerellia, both relatively more advanced and wealthier regions, were the victims of choice.

Enter the Teutonic Order

 Early in the thirteenth century, the Duke of Masovia was able to halt the attacks on his lands by occupying Culm, a strategic district in a bend of the Vistula River. He encouraged missionaries to preach to the inhabitants and cultivated friendships with the nobles. Unhappily for him, the clergymen responsible for the conversion of the pagans were discouraged by their inability to persuade them to undergo baptism and pay tithes. During those years the Church seemed to believe that declaring a crusade was the proper answer to every challenge it faced, whether it was in the Holy Land, Byzantium, Spain, or southern France. Force was also appropriately used to reprove disobedient Christian monarchs such as the rulers of England, France, and the Holy Roman Empire. As a consequence, it was not difficult for Polish churchmen to persuade Pope Honorius III to summon Christians to join their holy war against the Prussians. However, the military expedition proved unsuccessful. Once again, angry Prussians swept over the border into Masovia, Kujavia, and Pomerellia.

In the 1220's the duke attempted a new tactic: he invited western military orders to defend his frontier. Among those approached was that Deutscher Orden (literally, the German Order) which in English is called either the Teutonic Order or the Teutonic Knights. It was understood that those monk-knights would fight the Prussians on his behalf, their reward being heaven in the afterlife and, in this existence, a share of whatever lands and booty they could take from the pagans.

It was in such a manner that this religious-military order of knights came to the Baltic. Founded at Acre, in the Holy Land, at the end of the twelfth century to assist distressed German crusaders, by the 1220's they had attracted recruits and donations of property from burghers and nobles in the Holy Roman Empire. The Teutonic Knights seemed to personify the ideals and glory of past generations of Germans. Contemporaries who were witnessing the disintegration of imperial authority and societal values could see in them the possibility of recovering a sense of national purpose and hope for moral regeneration.

The Teutonic Knights flourished in Prussia to a degree probably surprising even to themselves, since they had to divide their resources between crusades in the Holy Land, Prussia, and a more northerly possession called Livonia. They were also perplexed by divided loyalties during the conflicts between Emperor Frederick II and the popes....


The year 1399 saw the end of the Samogitian Crusade. Historians have traditionally preferred the year 1410, because the Battle of Tannenberg (Grunwald in Polish) was a memorable year they could use to mark the end of an era. However, that implies that Tannenberg was the culmination of Polish and Lithuanian resistance to German aggression and that everything which took place previously was an unimportant prelude to Jagiello's and Vytautas' victory. Hopefully, this book has corrected such a simplified version of events. Moreover, this interpretation seriously distorts the significance of the decade 1399-1410, when Vytautas and Jagiello were testing one another, sometimes working together, sometimes not, while bishops and priests made steady progress introducing Christianity into Lithuania. During that period the Teutonic Order was attempting to understand its role in the changed situation. How could it justify its existence in either Prussia or Livonia now that the Lithuanians were Christians?… From 1399 on, the Teutonic Knights wrestled with a problem we would call existential: what is their reason for being?…

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