Baltic Crusades: Lithuania

Lithuanian Infantry

Lithuanian Infantry

The best known history of the Baltic Crusades has to be the century long war which existed against the Lithuanians, which ended in 1410 with the defeat of the Teutonic Order at Tannenburg, considered by many, as the ending of the Baltic Crusades.

Latvian, Estonian and Prussian tribes stood their ground in bloody battles against the invading Crusaders.  Whilst neighbouring Lithuanians, formed their own pagan kingdom, to become a great power and serious military opponent in the eyes of the European Crusaders.

Following many an armed conflict with Teutonic and Livonian Orders, the Lithuanian city of Klaipeda was captured in 1252.  Duke Mindaugas of Lithuania surrounded by Knights had no choice but to bow down and accept Christianity in 1253.  Then most of Lithuania became part of the Christian realm, with the exception of Samogita who refused to accept Mindaugas as their leader.  A number of the Lithuanian Grand Dukes opted to be baptized into Catholicism as a way to bring bloodshed to an end.  However, the fighting didn’t end!

In 1263, Mindaugas was assassinated, and cheated Lithuanians reverted back to their pagan beliefs, for they wanted land not the saving of their souls.  The Order of the Teutonic Knights defeated Prussia in 1284, and it was assimilated into Polish, German and Lithuanian societies.  The title Prussia was appropriated by German conquerors for themselves.

14th century Crusaders continued their hold on Baltic lands, strengthening their power on Estonia in 1343, a result of the peasant uprising against Danish rule, and the sale of northern Estonia to the Teutonic Order for 10,000 marks.  Grand Duke Gediminas of Lithuania expanded his territory to the south and east, preventing Crusader incursions into his land.  However, in 1382 Lithuania lost Samogitia and for the next 30 years, came under the rule of Teutonic Knights.

Grand Duke Jogaila of Lithuania sought to preserve his country, and so it was in 1386, he married Queen Jadwiga of Poland.  This marriage saw the creation of the “Union of Kreva” a powerful Lithuanian/Polish state.  This union cemented the Christian character of Lithuania.

In 1410, the Lithuanians formed a coalition consisting of Russians, Poles, Tatars and Czechs who took on the might of the Teutonic Knights at the “Battle of Zalgiris” at Tannenberg, bringing an end to the Baltic Crusades.

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Baltic Crusades: Definitions

Baltic Crusades1

The Baltic Crusades were religious wars which took place between the 12th and 13th century.  Undertaken by Christian military orders, against those who lived on the shores of the Baltic Sea.  The result of many battles, led to the conversion and baptism to Christianity.

The Baltic/Northern Crusades date back to 1195 when Pope Celestine III called for these crusades against its pagan people.  Christian Kingdoms of Poland, Scandinavia and the Holy Roman Empire had moved its forces into position, ready to conquer its pagan neighbours.

The Wendish Crusade took place in 1147, and the campaigns were against the Polabian Slavs also knows as the Wends, of northern and eastern Germany.  The Wendish Crusade took place alongside the Second Crusade by the Catholic Church against Islam.

The Swedish Crusades took place in 1150 and 1293, and were carried out against the Tavastians, Karelins and Finns.

The Danish Crusades took place between the years of 1191 and 1202, and was spearheaded by Anders Sunesen a Danish Archbishop of Lund, together with his brother.

During the 12th century, the people of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia formed a non-Christian wedge against their enemies; the Catholic Church in the west and the Orthodox Church in the east.  Two Christian denominations, with two different creeds, failed to convert the people.

(Image) Baltic Crusade: mmdtkw.org

Teutonic Knights: Ice Battle

Baltic Crusade Knights

The campaigns of the Baltic Crusades were fought in difficult terrain and often in snowy weather conditions that could hardly have been more different from the blazing heat of the Holy Land Crusades.

One historical Teutonic Knights campaign took place on the 5th April 1242 as they clashed with Russians under the command of Alexander Nevsky at Lake Peipus in Eastern Estonia.

Some 30 mounted knights and sergeants along with 250 Estonian foot soldiers, clashed with 300 Russians.

Dressed in distinctive white mantles emblazoned with a black cross, the knights were well equipped with helmets, mail coats, swords and spears.  They were confident they had superior armoury and weaponry, so they charged at the Russian ranks, only to be encircled and forced back.  These warriors were forced onto the frozen lake where most of them were slaughtered.

Baltic Crusade Conversions

Baltic Crusade Knights

With the public obsession with the Holy Wars and Crusades in the Far East.  It wasn’t long before the Catholic Church and its ruling military forces discovered that unchristian Pagan lands still existed.

Europe was flooded with soldiers, mercenaries and fortune hunters, ready to sell their sword to the highest bidder.  There were military factions like the “Teutonic Order” who had achieved little success in the Holy Land, compared with the Templar’s or Hospitaller’s.  Now they sought out an opportunity to claim their place, in the annals of history.

Baltic pagan tribes separated from European lands, hidden behind forests and swamps, living the old ways as their ancestors had, from generation to generation.  Many an armed conflict took place, but made little impact on culture and life.

For many a decade, Vikings attempted to overthrow, establishing control over Baltic shores.  Their endeavours had little success and were either overthrown, driven away and chose to mix with local tribes.

Many an outsider set their sights on the Russian Orthodox Church, they who had attempted to Christianize the Baltic converts with conversion to Orthodoxy.  Russian warlords wanted to subjugate pagan Balts and collect more taxes…

Polish Dukes made attacks against Old Prussians in expansion of their lands.  They attempted conversion of Pagan Prussians to Catholicism.

Old Prussian Crusade

Prussian Crusade

In the year 1226, after the Old Prussians had destroyed the Polish Order of Dobrin which had been formed with the express purpose to subdue the Prussians.  The Polish Duke Konrad appealed for help from the German Teutonic Order, and offered them in return for their assistance some of his lands, which they could use as a foothold for expansion into Prussia.

The conquest of Prussia took some 50 years of continuous bloodshed to complete.  During which time native Prussians who remained un-baptized were subjugated, killed or exiled.  Many battles between knights and Prussians were ferocious; in some lands the people were exterminated, leaving a barren land… no human life remained.

Similarly as Latvian and Estonian tribes, Prussians were not prepared to give up their religion, their lifestyle.  In many cases they chose to die rather than surrender.

Those Prussians who tried to resist, went off to newly established pagan Kingdom of Lithuania, and continued their fight against these invaders, amongst the Lithuanians.

It wasn’t long before empty Prussian lands soon became inhabited by German settlers, and any remaining Old Prussians became peasants or were assimilated with the Germans, and vanished from the pages of history.  Later German settlers started calling themselves Prussians, and so the Kingdom of Prussia was so formed.

Teutonic Knights: Battle for Christianity

The Teutonic Knights

Teutonic Knights

The Teutonic Knights were founded on the 19th November 1190, during the Third Crusade to the Holy Land.

On the 6th February 1191, they were legalised by Pope Clement III, receiving the protection of Pope Celestine III in 1196.  This knightly Order; The Teutonic Knights consisted of forty knights an order of German Knights.

The Teutonic Knights played their part in the Holy Land, but their main object was to bring Christianity to the pagan inhabitants of the Baltic’s.

In 1197, the Cistercian Abbot, Berthold of Loccum, was posted to Livonia (Latvia) in the eastern Baltics.  The pagan inhabitants of Livonia did not take to the Abbot, and attempted to drown this man of God, and then they set fire to the church as he preached his words.

Abbot Berthold, returned to Germany, where he raised a Crusader army, to put down these pagan’s of Livonia.

On the 24th July 1198, Berthold was wounded in battle by a Livonia lance, and then murdered by these pagan people.  The death of their leader, and man of God, enraged these Crusader’s so much, that they mounted a campaign of terror against them, and forcibly baptised 150 of them.

These German crusader’s returned home, as the Livonia’s renounced their new faith, washing off their baptisms in the River Dvina.  Any remaining priests were driven from their lands, for they were not prepared to accept Christianity on their lands.

The Crusader’s faced an uphill battle, bringing Christianity to this pagan race of people, and the eastern Baltic.  From Finland in the north, to Prussia in the south, would take nearly a century, before it came under Christian rule.

When the 13th century began, the eastern boundary of Baltic Latin Christendom ran from Danzig in Poland to Gotland on the Swedish coast.

Located between the Vistula and Dvina rivers to the north and east, lay an almost impregnable barrier of forest and lakes, stretching from the Baltic shoreline to Russia.

Prussians, Lithunians and Letts, collectively referred to, as the Balts.  These individual tribes, lived in this remote wilderness, and each would mark out their own boundaries.  They lived along the coastline, and in the valleys of Vistula, Neman and Dvina rivers.  They survived by farming, cattle breeding, harvesting of furs, honey and wax, sourced from the forests.

The country to the north covered an area between Dvina and the Gulf of Finland, consisting of open land areas and mountain ranges.  With forests of oak, elm and ash in the main.

This was home to the Livs, located on the Baltic coast, with Estonians living on the southern coastline and offshore islands.  Groups of Letts were located between the Livs and Russians in the east.

Territorial divisions did nothing to change the view of Western Christendom, that they were devoted to paganism.  They worshipped the Sun, Moon and Stars, whose festivals often involved acts of human sacrifice.

Homes were constructed of earth and timber, decorated with animal skulls to ward off evil.

One German Chronicler of the 1230’s sent out a warning, if Christian’s fell into the hands of these evil heathens, they would be relieved of life and property.

The lands of the eastern Baltic were dangerous, but also enticing, with large supplies of natural treasures.

Western traders wanted a share of their natural treasures: Fur – fish – timber – honey – beeswax and amber.

Western traders faced tough competition from the Russians, who had control over several Baltic tribes.  An alarmed Catholic Church feared the response, from the Church of Rome.  For Russians, their true church was the Eastern Orthodox Church, and in the eyes of Rome they needed salvation.  Russian missionaries carried out large numbers of baptisms, to the detriment of the Catholic faith.

By the start of the 14th century, and countless, bloodied battles, German forces captured the lands of Latvia and Estonia, and forced the acceptance of Catholicism upon its inhabitants.

Many Baltic tribes did not convert to Catholicism, allowing the practice of pagan customs and beliefs to continue…

The Cistercian Order

Cistercian Monks

Cistercian Monks

The Order of Cistercians also known as Trappists, is a Roman Catholic religious order, which consists of monasteries of monks and nuns.  It is part of the larger Cistercian family which can trace its origin back to 1098.  Cistercians follow the rule of St.Benedict, and are part of the Benedictine family as well.  Cistercians dedicate their lives, to seek union with God, through Jesus Christ, within a community of brothers or sisters.

Saint Robert of Molesme-art

Saint Robert of Molesme – Artists Impression

On the 21st March 1098, St.Robert of Molesme, Abbot of the Benedictine Abbey of Molesme, felt compelled to lead twenty-one of his monks to Citeaux, and establish a new monastery.  This new abbey was dedicated to the restoration of Benedictine Rule in its most primitive form.  A life devoted to prayer and poverty.

Tension rose amongst his followers, and the relationship between the new monastery at Citeaux, and the Benedictine Abbey of Molesme, they had left behind.  The monks of Molesme, grieved by the loss of their holy leader, and it wasn’t long before they obtained a papal decree, forcing St.Robert to return to Molesme, and take up his position once again as their Abbot.

Abbey of Citeaux

Abbey of Citeaux

The Abbey of Citeaux, continued after the loss of St.Robert’s return to Molesme, by a small number of monks who chose to remain and carry on the order.  The new Abbot was St.Alberic, who was later succeeded by St.Stephen Harding.

St.Robert, St.Alberic and St.Stephen Harding, each Abbots in their own right, are celebrated as founders of the Cistercian Order.

With the guidance of St.Alberic, the small community of monks, built their first church, and settled down to their new way of life.  St.Stephen Harding, an Englishman from Dorset, was one of the founding Abbots, of the Abbey of Citeaux.

St.Bernard was born in 1090, to parents Tescelin de Fontaine, Lord of Fontaine – les – Dijon and Alethe de Montbard of high French nobility in the Burgundy region.  In 1109, his mother died, and his life was to undertake a dramatic change.

For the next three years, Bernard a nobleman from Fontaine – les – Dijon, went on a spiritual journey.  Then in 1112, the twenty-two-year-old felt he had his calling from God, and knocked at the doors of the Abbey of Citeaux, fourteen miles to the south of Dijon, with thirty of his relatives.

Stephen quickly sensed Bernard’s talents, and so it was, after three years as a monk, St.Bernard was sent to Vallee d’Absinthe in the Diocese of Langres, where he founded the Abbey of Clairvaux.  St.Bernard was accompanied by four of Stephen’s own brothers, uncle and two cousins, alongside an architect and two other monks.

The land, upon which the Abbey of Clairvaux was to be built upon, was a gift from Hugh, Count of Champagne, who would eventually become a member of the Knights Templar.

Abbey of Clairvaux

Abbey of Clairvaux

The project they were faced with, was to build a new abbey from the ground upwards.  This new abbey would be built by their own hands, stone by stone, in the name of their God, and Bernard would become the Abbot of the Abbey of Clairvaux.

It didn’t take long, for the news to filter through, as disciples and monks flocked to St.Bernard, wishing to follow in the steps of the renowned Abbot; St.Bernard of Clairvaux.

During St.Stephen’s tenure, four daughter-houses were created; La Ferte, Pontigny, Clairvaux and Morimond, between 1113 and 1115.  This monastic life led by the Abbey of Citeaux, saw an ever-growing network of monasteries rise up through medieval Europe.  Which led to the Carta Caritatis (Charter of Charity) being drawn up, designed to harmonize a sense of unity in its monasteries.

Almost in unison with the Templars, the Cistercians grew in wealth.  Like the Knights Templar, the Cistercian order was exempt from taxes and tithes.  They were expert in farming, industry and commerce.  The lead used on their Abbey roofs, was sourced from their own mines and smelted in their own works.

The construction of their Abbey’s were well thought out, and water was a major concern in any build.  Abbey’s would be situated by a secluded river or stream.  Monks would create a dam, designed to carry water to all parts of the Abbey; flowing through kitchens, washing facilities and indoor plumbing.

The Cistercian Order opted for plain cloths on their altars, with a plain wooden cross, whilst their Benedictine rivals had altars, crosses and candle holders made of gold.

The very rule of the Templar order, held this monastic institution with the highest regard, and many a co-operative venture would be undertaken by the two.

It is said, if a knight was expelled from the Knights Templar, he was not free to join secular life.  The said knight would seek shelter in a Cistercian monastery, in the hope that he would be rehabilitated.

In 1128, St.Bernard and Pope Honorius II attended the Council of Troyes, to settle conflicts within the French Church.  He offended Cardinal’s by his words, and was denounced by these men, yet his words, led to a strong bond with the Pope.

saint-bernard-of-clairvaux

St. Bernard of Clairvaux

St.Bernard, man of God became a renowned churchman in Christendom, known for correcting abuses within the faith.  He went out on a limb, defending church rights against the monarchy, who sought control of its resources, and chose their own bishops.

With news from the Holy Land, that the Crusader state of Edessa had fallen to Turkish forces.  Fear rang out, for Antioch and Jerusalem, which could see them fall into Islam control once again.

St.Bernard of Clairvaux was the man who called, who promoted the founding of the Knights Templar, and created the monastic rules of life they would follow.

St.Bernard called for a new crusade to the Holy Land, asking knights to arm themselves and wear the cross upon their chest, showing to all, they be God’s warriors.  He even used part of his own habit, fashioning crosses for many a warrior.

On the 21st August 1153, St.Bernard of Clairvaux died at the Abbey of Clairvaux in France.  At the time of his death, some 343 Cistercian monasteries had been established .  Sixty-five by him, and the remainder by fellow monks of the order.  In 1174 St.Bernard was canonized by Pope Alexander III.

The Cistercian Order continued to expand, and by the year 1200, there were in excess of 500 houses, and at the time of the reformation the number had risen to 742.

In 1664 Pope Alexander VII recognized within the Cistercian Order two observances; the Common and the Strict.  Among these arose Armand Jean de Rance, an Abbot who underwent conversion in his Abbey of Notre Dame de la Grande Trappe.  A renewal in the practice of monastic enclosure, silence and manual labour, expressing a spirit of apartness from all worldliness and a dedication to prayer and penance.  His was one community, lucky enough to have escaped destruction at the hands of the French Revolution.

During the French Revolution, Augustine de Lestrange travels led to the creation of Cistercian Orders in England, Belgium, Spain, Italy, and America.

In 1892 Pope Leo attempted to create a single Cistercian house under one order… but this proved impossible, for it now consisted of many national congregations.  This resulted with the Pope recognizing two Cistercian Orders: Order of Citeaux and Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance, also known as the Trappists.

In 1120, the Benedictine nunnery of Tart, adopted Cistercian Order rules, and sought an ever closer alliance with the monks of the order.  In modern times, the Strict Observance order, has sixty monasteries of Nuns, serving with Monks of the order in Rome.

According to the Modern Catholic Encyclopedia, the Cistercian Order have given to the Church many spiritual masters:

Bernard of Clairvaux
William of Saint Thierry
Alfred of Rievaulx
Guerric of Igny
Isaac of Stella
Gilbert of Hoyland
Adam of Perseigne

Cistercian Nunnery of Helfta in Saxony
Saint Gertrude the Great
Saint Mechtild of Magdeburg

12th Century Spiritual Masters
Thomas Merton
Thomas Keating

(Images) Abbey of Clairvaux and Citeaux: Wikipedia
(Image) Cistercian Monks: Wikipedia
(Image) Saint Robert of Molesme: Pininterest