Transformation: The Baltics

The Crusaders

The Baltic Crusades of 11th to 15th century formed the transformation of the Baltic region from pagan farming peasants paying tribute to which Lord prevailed to rule them, to the Christianized, market-oriental, foundation of modern Baltic society.

The rise and fall of the knighthood became indicative of the changes that occurred.  The knighthood institution represented Medieval European values, and the incursion of knightly orders into the Baltic countries, despite strong resistance from pagan people.  The Germans and Scandinavians who played their part in the Baltic Crusades, left critical political and social footprints, that affected historical Baltic events, that would evolve into the countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

The Baltic Crusades; part of the Catholic crusading movement comprised of five main Crusades that took place between 1096 and 1221.  The Crusades; armed pilgrimages called for and blessed by the Pope, its main aim to reclaim Jerusalem and surrounding territory.  The enemies of Crusaders in the Holy Land were primarily followers of Islam.  In the 12th century, the balance of power shifted, the Eastern Orthodox Church in Constantinople and the seat of the Christian Byzantine Empire attracted Crusader interest.  In the Baltic Crusades in Europe, motivation was more about acquisition of land and power rather than holiness.  An incentive put forward to these Crusaders by the Pope, was eternal salvation.

Crusader success in the conversion to Catholicism was much higher in the Baltic Crusades.  By the 13th century, all but the Lithuanians had converted to Catholicism.

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Crusades against Baltic People

Baltic Crusade Knights

When one thinks of the Crusades, we think of the 11th – 13th century Muslim wars in the Holy Land.  However, another Crusade was going on in Eastern Europe; The Baltic Crusades.

Crusades against the Baltic people, was the forced expansion and occupation of the Baltic lands.  This occupation was performed by European nations.  No heroic deeds took place, no legendary battles fought in the name of freedom and honour.

The purpose of the Baltic Crusades was to bring culture to degenerated pagan tribes of the Baltic’s.  A people who lived like animals.

Battles and conflicts existed between Baltic people and its invaders.  Local tribes fought each other, plundering wealth and slaves.  They even aggravated surrounding countries like Denmark and Sweden, attacking merchant ships and joining in Scandinavian wars for power.  Old Prussian forces would strike out at the Poles, whilst Lithuanian and Latvian tribes plundered Russian borders.

All this changed in 1193, when Pope Celestine III called for a Crusade against the Pagan Baltic’s.

Baltic Crusades: Holy Frontiers

Crucifixion - Giotto

The Catholic Church sensed an intrusion by the Russian Orthodox Church, making inroads into the Baltic lands, and in the conversion of its people.

Meinhard, an Augustinian monk from Holstein, travelled by way of the Dauvaga River in the latter part of the 12th century.  His mission was to convert the people of Livoniato, building the first church and creating a Christian community.  His successor, Bishop Berthold used crusaders in the conversion of its people by force.  1198 is considered the starting point of the Baltic Crusades.

Bishop Albert successor to Berthold established the Swordbrothers, a Crusading Order in 1202, who received papal blessing in 1204, and by 1208 had converted the Kur and Lett people to Christianity by forcible means.  Bishop Albert established the City of Riga, a city built upon by merchants and crusaders.  He became a strong leader and fended off the Danish forces, prior to his death in 1229.

Baltic Crusades: Latvia

Catholic Preachers of Baltic Crusades

In the year 1180, Catholic preachers arrived in Latvia with German merchants by way of old Viking trading routes along the Daugava River.  Upon arrival, they established communities, built churches, went forth preaching and performing baptisms among the Livonian people.

These “Holy” men were welcomed by the pagan tribes of this land.  However, things changed, when Livonian’s refused to convert to the new religion, only then did the Catholic preachers show their true colours, by calling upon armed forces to aid them in their goal.

In the early years of the 14th century, after countless and bloodied battles, that the lands of Latvia and Estonia were eventually captured by German forces, and converted to Catholicism.

The new religion; Christianity saw the people of Latvia and Estonia baptized by force.  As many parts of this new religion was not forced upon the Baltic tribes, thousand’s of its people continued to practice their pagan customs and beliefs.

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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.