Horst F. E. Dequin, Herkunft und Werdegang von Hermann Balk, dem ersten Landmeister des Deutschen Ordens in Preußen. Eine genealogisch-personengeschichtliche Untersuchung and Hermann Balk, der erste Preuße. Eine Würdigung des Lebenswerk des ersten Landmeisters des Deutschen Ritterordens 1229/30 bis 1239 in Preußen und Livland (Westerholm in Holstein, 1995.Both private publications by author: Gärnerstr. 52, 25364 Westerholm, Germany)
Balk is among that small number of high officers in the Teutonic Order during its early years who have frustrated scholars in their efforts to locate their family origins. (See Ritterbrüder im livländischen Zweig des Deutschen Ordens. Ed. Lutz Fenske and Klaus Militzer. Bonn: Böhlau, 1993. 97-98, for a confession of total bewilderment.) Although the Teutonic Order offered opportunities to earn promotion based on talent, in practice the higher one's rank at the time of joining the order, the better the opportunities were. In short, a situation not unlike that of the amateur scholar competing with professionals. Dr. Dequin's career has been with international organizations in the Third World, then for sixteen years in Rome. He is now an independent journalist living near Hamburg.
Early in the first volume Dequin explains the reason for previous failures to locate the Balk family: the name first appears in the records in 1227. That it appears at the end of the list of witnesses to the release of King Waldemar at Dannenberg indicates both the family's relative low importance and gives a reason for Hermann Balk being assigned to the Order's northern operationsChe was presumably acquainted with many of the nobles and clerics who could provide help toward the defeat of the warlike pagans in the forests and swamps of Prussia. Dequin's difficulty was to establish a connection between this minor Altmark family and the highly placed officer of the Teutonic Order.
He begins with the counts of Poppenburg in 1188. Vassals of Henry the Lion, then of the counts of Schwerin and of Dannenberg, they were deeply involved in events surrounding the kidnapping of the Danish king. Presumably this connection caused Friedrich II to chose Hermann Balk as his representative to negotiate Waldemar's release on terms favorable to the emperor. As one might expect, in the five family trees that Dequin offers are many dotted lines. It is almost a leap of faith as much as an educated guess that he identifies a young acolyte in the chapter of Bishop Adelog of Hildesheim as Hermann Balk; this individual first appears as a witness to documents in 1183, last in 1210. Dequin believes him to be a son of the second count of Poppenburg, born about 1170. Most of the book is given to a reconstruction of the Poppenburg roots and family connections, including a list of their possessions and a map locating them.
A second connection is to the Depenau family, one later active in both Prussia and Livonia. The connection seems to be friendship rather than blood, but it is nevertheless crucial to the author's speculations. (See summary, 112-113). Dequin also speculates (70-71) whether or not Hermann accompanied his presumed father on the Third Crusade. More likely, Dequin says, he was part of the Hildesheim contingent sent on crusade in 1211/1212; there he met Hermann von Salza and joined the Teutonic Order.
If the author's speculations are correct, much is explained about the process of recruiting crusaders to serve in Prussia and Livonia in the 1230's and the granting of lands to nobles willing to take up fiefs near the frontier. Although the most prominent immigrants were Ministeriale, others were Edelfrei and some simply Frei. Dequin feels that this study, if extended, might cast some light upon the formation of the knightly class in the Baltic.
The second volume is a solid history of the Teutonic Order in the 1220's and 1230's organized around Balk's presumed activities. Carefully researched and clearly written (as is appropriate for a journalist), this is a good summary of Balk's career but has little of prosopographical interest.