Why I write about the Teutonic Knights

 William Urban

             I’ve been asked often how I came to work on the Teutonic Knights. People often assume that there is some family connection, since my name is common across East Central Europe. But it was pure accident, followed by an awareness that I had stumbled upon a gold mine. The Baltic crusades had been avoided by medievalists because of the difficulties with modern languages and travel, because they were little known, because many scholars incorrectly identified the military order with the Third Reich, and because more popular specialties could be worked into an academic program much easier.

            The Teutonic Knights were about as far from my upbringing as one could imagine. People in small towns in Kansas and Oklahoma rarely talk about the crusades, much less about military orders. Nor did my ancestry have any connection with the Baltic, Prussia or even Poland. I’m not even Roman Catholic. I’m a Quaker.

            My introduction to the Teutonic Knights came when I was a student at the University of Texas. One of the most gifted medievalists of recent decades, Archibald Ross Lewis (d. 1990), persuaded me to work on the crusade to Livonia. That was an unusual topic even in the early 1960s, but not for Lewis, who had come west with the customary prejudices of east coast academics only to meet some very exciting and persuasive colleagues who talked continually about the frontier thesis. This was the idea originally advanced by Fredrick Jackson Turner that as Americans moved into the wilderness, they outran government institutions and therefore had to learn how to organize their political, religious and cultural lives on their own; on the way they shed much of what remained of their European habits and became Americans.

There were powerful criticisms of the frontier theory such as noting that democratic ideas and practices appeared in the eastern cities more than in rural areas of the West; moreover, Americans who settled the Great Plains had a significantly different experience than those who had earlier settled the eastern woodlands. The best response to these criticisms came from the University of Texas, where Walter Prescott Webb quietly wrote his immensely popular books. In The Great Frontier Webb applied his concepts to maritime frontiers to suggest reasons why Great Britain had risen to world leadership while land-locked nations stagnated. Archie Lewis applied Webb’s ideas to medieval frontiers in a series of well-received books and articles.

            Lewis did not have many graduate students during his career, most of which he spent at the University of Massachusetts. My guess is that most students were attracted to more fashionable topics, and most probably understood that many search committees would not offer a frontier scholar an interview: while Marxism emphasizes the class struggle, the frontier thesis rests on the breakdown of classes and the reorganization of society on the principles of cooperation and individualism (ideas which are supposed to be contradictory, but which are complementary on the frontier─which perhaps explains why many intellectuals [both European and American] are unable to understand Americans). I, in contrast, understood the frontier thesis before I knew what it was called—it was simply the explanation of why the people I grew up with were different than those who had stayed where life was safer and more comfortable.

            Lewis told me to look at the frontier region between Christendom, paganism and Orthodoxy. In the end I found that Jackson’s frontier theory did not apply in my studies, partly because the Teutonic Knights never relinquished control over their subjects, partly because the pagans were able to kill anyone who dared to move into the wilderness. The Webb thesis did fit nicely with the rise of the Hanseatic League, but that had little to do with my interests. Recently David Bartlett has applied both concepts elegantly in The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change, 950-1350.

In 1964 I obtained a scholarship, a Fulbright travel grant and a bicycle and went to Germany to study at the university in Hamburg. There I discovered that using original sources first, then modifying my draft text, was the best way to me to write. In 1975 the dissertation became a book, after which the Fulbright Commission awarded me a senior research grant to work at the Johann Gottfried Herder Institut in Marburg/Lahn. Henceforth, every stay in Germany, every National Endowment for the Humanities seminar, led to another book or long article. The most frustrating aspect of these years was the inability to visits sites associated with the Teutonic Knights.

In short, serendipity guided my career. To mix up proverbs, one might say that ignorance is the mother of adventure. Because adventure it has been, leading me to live in Italy, Yugoslavia and the Czech Republic. Moreover, I have found much more to military history than what John Keegan calls the “pornography of violence”. The image of the Teutonic Knights had been subject to political manipulation throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Most of these stereotypes were at best half true, and I found that correcting these brought me into contact with German and Polish scholars who also realized that nationalist versions of medieval history were fostering mistrust, whereas a more balanced narrative could bring people together.

My goal was to use military history in a positive way to understand the past, undermining the myths and undergirding the common experience that each people experienced. I came to realize that my natural audience was the general public, not my academic peers. Thus, my work had to be an easily-read narrative.

This was not the way to academic prominence, certainly not to a well-paid position in a prestigious university. But I learned that I liked teaching at a small liberal arts college in a small Midwestern town, and that I could learn more from teaching a variety of courses than I could from concentrating on my specialty. (I have never taught a course on the Teutonic Order or on Baltic history, but my course on the American West is very popular.) I was also able to provide my family lengthy experiences abroad. Quality of life surely should count for something.

            To summarize: take the path less traveled to see places others miss, to meet people you want as life-long friends, and to avoid the petty academic disputes of mainstream scholarship.