Did the conquerors of the Baltic lands put colonisation before conversion?

This essay achieved a mid-2:1 in the second year of my undergraduate.

Did the conquerors of the Baltic lands put colonisation before conversion?

The Baltic was conquered in a series of brutally efficient campaigns, initially led by the local elite, and later by military orders, in a process with spanned over two centuries. The conquerors of the Baltic lands almost exclusively considered themselves –or claimed to be- crusaders. While the wording of the question might not suggest it, the definition of a Crusade is crucial in determining the motives and aims of the majority of the conquerors of the Baltic. There are several significant distinctions to be made before one approaches the issue of ‘colonisation versus conversion,’ such as those between crusaders and clergy, and crusaders and pilgrims, as different groups moved into the area for a variety of reasons, and not all took part in the conquest of the Baltic.[1] Before any of the questions over the motives of the conquerors can be assessed however, the legitimacy of the Baltic ‘Crusades’ should be questioned, as this would perhaps give a greater insight into the character of the participants, especially in a region where religious identity played such a role. At first evaluation, the more likely argument is that the conquerors did indeed place colonisation, and by extension their own material and temporal welfare, before conversion.

As has been explained, the definition of what exactly constituted a Crusade is important for the discussion of whether or not the expeditions in the Baltic were Crusades or not. Perhaps the best summary of the general debate has been set forward by Constable, who states that there are four schools of thought. Traditionalists, such as Mayer, argue that only campaigns which set Jerusalem as the ultimate goal can be considered Crusades, though this has been challenged by Pluralists, championed by Riley-Smith, who place greater emphasis on the initiation of the expeditions: on the vows and indulgences of the participants. These two schools have later been joined by the Populists such as Alphandéry and Delaruelle, who focus on the collective prophetic and eschatological elements of the campaign, and Generalists such as Hehl, who class any act of holy war as a Crusade, and is almost all-encompassing.[2] More specific to the Baltic, perhaps the most convincing argument is that initial expeditions were supported by specific papal Bulls, such as the 1147 Divina dispensatione and as such can be considered true Crusades.[3] By contrast, while the later ‘crusaders’ considered themselves so, they had corrupted the ideal. They may have seemed ‘official’ Crusades to spectators, but they were not worthy of the name.[4]

The obvious argument that conversion was just as important as colonisation if not more so, is that as Crusades, the campaigns had religion at their core, something shown most in the earlier Crusades against the Wends, the Livs and arguably the Prussians. Taylor in particular argues that Eugenius III’s actions in the lead up to 1147 were crucial. She argues that the remission of sins was only offered in exchange for conversion rather than subjugation, and that Eugenius put a lot of effort into promoting this idea.[5] Later, in the Livonian Crusade, Celestine III and later Innocent III granted indulgences to those who went on Crusade in defence of the Livonian church, which implies that, at least under that Pope, the campaigns were seen as defensive wars, and as such the focus was not at all on colonisation.[6] Maschke argues that the Prussian Crusade was one of the so-called ‘missionary Crusades,’ and had far more religious roots than the later war against the Lithuanians.[7] Ehlers argues along similar lines, but it should be stressed that it is only deemed a genuine Crusade by comparison with the later Lithuanian conflict, the nature of which many historians have cast aspersions on.[8] The strongly religious nature of the early campaigns would suggest that conversion was more of an aim than colonisation.

Many historians argue that all ventures in the region which had been legitimized by the papacy were to convert the population, something which has led to them being labelled ‘missionary crusades.’[9] Including the likes of Jakštas, Riley-Smith and Paravicini, these historians argue that colonisation was parallel to, or a product of conversion – a view which has been heavily criticised by some, addressed below.[10] The argument is supported by the idea that great numbers of the clergy participated in the movement east, and their main aim was in fact conversion, and also by the evidence of widespread church-building in the conquered regions.[11] As well as this, Ekdahl argues that Riga was founded as a base for missions rather than campaigns, and that it was to be a centre of cultural rather than military expansion, which shows that the intent was to convert the population, rather than subjugate them.[12] Preceding this, there is considerable debate over Bernard’s preaching of the Wendish Crusade, during which he seemed to advocate forced conversion, something prohibited in the Bible. This could be seen as an example of the lengths to which the westerners were willing to go to convert the local pagans.[13] The argument for conversion being more of a motive than colonisation would therefore seem to be a convincing one, but it has been widely challenged.

The direct challenge comes in the form of the argument that conversion attempts proved ineffectual. Kala makes the good point that the heathens stayed heathen until the 13th century, and Spence gives a possible reason for this as papal neglect.[14] On the other hand, Taylor goes so far as to say that in 1147, the entire venture was a complete failure, both in terms of colonisation and conversion.[15] While the latter evaluation is a little harsh, the former is stark evidence that conversion was probably not the main aim of the conquerors of the Baltic: they did manage to conquer the majority of the Baltic but as Kala argues, they failed for a long time to convert the newly-subjugated population. Tyerman has also argued along these lines that conversion attempts rested on the desire of the local nobles for land: if they wanted to expand, the target population would be left pagan, in an attempt to legitimise any warfare under the guise of a Crusade.[16]

Colonisation was important to the conquerors of the Baltic, potentially more so than the conversion of its inhabitants. Historians such as Phillips, Housley and Tyerman argue that the local nobility in particular were motivated by a desire for land, rather than religious zeal.[17] There is ample evidence for this, particularly in the 1147 campaign, but also throughout the period. Palmer has pointed out that campaigns to occupy territories had been taking place in the region much earlier, for example under Adolf II of Holstein in 1140, and that the ‘Crusades’ were such ventures with papal legitimization.[18] The siege of Stettin in 1147 is perhaps the most overt example, as it was a Christian city, and yet the crusaders still very nearly attacked it, for their own strategic benefit.[19] Taylor and Ekdahl consider the wider period, citing the Saxon colonialism and the sheer number of new settlements – in the period, Ekdahl claims 100 new cities and 1400 new villages were created.[20] While these examples do not show that colonisation was considered more important than conversion, they do show that colonisation was deemed significant.

In support of this argument for material motives over religious, trade is obviously cited as an important motive. The majority of historians including Blomqvist argue that this perhaps above all else shows that there was more concern with material wealth than spiritual reward.[21] Tyerman and Palmer also specify, citing some of the later campaigns, when the crusaders came into contact with Russian interests, and the rich trade in fur, fish, amber, wax and slaves.[22] Concern over trade was a motive elsewhere during the Crusades, most notably in Antioch during the First Crusade, so it is only reasonable to suppose that such factors were motivating other participants in the Baltic, and while not directly colonisation, the influx of traders would naturally have led to the establishment of colonies. As such trading considerations can be counted as in line with colonisation attempts.

Twentieth century historiography on the Baltic Crusades focused on the ideological aspect of the campaigns, and historians such as Maschke and Purcell have argued that the Crusade ideology was only used for the purpose of legitimisation.[23] This argument has been supported more recently by Tyerman and Spence, who have both expanded on it somewhat. Spence states that the newly-baptised were not treated as equals by the conquerors and this would suggest that they still considered them unsophisticated if not pagan.[24] Tyerman argues that the 1147 Wendish Crusade was ‘regional warfare under a new flag of convenience,’ and that later Danish colonising attempts only had formal Crusade Bulls attached sporadically.[25] Tyerman’s argument in particular would support the view that colonisation was of more concern than conversion, as it would suggest that the Crusades were simply a continuation of earlier internecine warfare. The fact as well that the colonisation attempts continued even without papal authorisation shows that the illusion of papal direction was thin at best.

Potentially the most convincing argument for colonisation over conversion however, is the challenge to the point above that colonisation was a result of conversion. Many historians argue in a variety of ways that the opposite was in fact true – that conversion was made possible only through colonisation.[26] Lotter’s argument is particularly interesting, as he states that Bernard’s call to convert the pagans or destroy them was somewhat metaphorical, and that he only meant a cultural destruction so as to facilitate conversion.[27] It is perhaps dangerous to read too much into Bernard’s words, but the theory is a plausible one, and offers an explanation as to why he preached such a direct contradiction to the Bible. Alongside this, Phillips argues that the fighting was not a brutal as it might have been, because the would-be conquerors had no desire to kill potential subjects.[28] While this makes sense, it contradicts other historians such as Herder, Baczko and Kotzebue, who state that the activity of colonisation involved the extermination of many of the inhabitants, and so cannot necessarily be considered as evidence that the crusaders’ priority was colonisation.[29] As well as this, one could argue that the reason the crusaders were not overly brutal was so that they could convert them. The more simple arguments however are more convincing, that colonisation was necessary for conversion to take place, and that contemporaries recognised this and acted accordingly.

Similar to this, there is the argument that the conversion was only made possible by colonisation.[30] Cited as evidence is the destruction of pagan religious sites, which could be considered part of a campaign of cultural destruction, as Lotter might suggest.[31] While it is possible to argue that this points to religious motives as being important, what seems more likely is that in fact religious sites were either more affluent targets. More cynically, one could argue that the crusaders wanted to maintain the appearance of the war being for religious purposes by attacking the centres of the Slavic religion. Overall then, conversion was perhaps considered difficult when independent of colonisation, which arguably contributed to its primacy as an aim among the conquerors of the Baltic lands.

The approach the crusaders took to the conquest of the Baltic would also point to colonisation being a primary objective. The focal point of this argument is the establishment of Riga and the use of it as a military base for expansion in the years after its foundation.[32] Plakans talks as well about the fact that some of the littoral peoples took the side of the crusaders at various points, despite the fact that they were pagans, and the fact that there was a lot of focus on strategic security rather than religion.[33] Other historians including the likes of Jensen and Tyerman point to the tactics of the crusaders, or more specifically their brutality. They argue that the brutality shown perhaps more by the later crusaders is indicative of a campaign for dominance rather than conversion, and Bacon has argued that such a operation in fact made the activity of conversion all the more difficult.[34] Since the aim of colonisation is to subjugate the inhabitants of the target area, it seems certain that these brutal campaigns of dominance were with colonisation in mind rather than conversion.

In short then, there was a great diversity of motives present in the Baltic littoral right from the outset of the legitimised Crusades.[35] Perhaps shown best in the disjunction between preaching and local aspirations, this makes it difficult to make a generalised answer to the question, as there were different factions on the Crusades, and even among the conquerors.[36] Assigning one motive to the whole movement would therefore mean dismissing many of these factions. In spite of this however, there were overarching themes to the period, and the general consensus is that the Crusades in the Baltic degenerated into a sham, and only served personal, local interests rather than converting the population.[37] What can be considered definitive evidence that the majority of crusaders in the Baltic did put colonisation before conversion are the circumstances surrounding the 1386-7 Christianisation of Lithuania. Taking place independently of the actions of the Teutonic Order, it shows that had the crusaders wanted only to convert the populace, it was entirely possible to do so, and the colonisation which took place only complicated the situation.[38] Insomuch as one can generalise then, the majority of the conquerors of the Baltic lands did indeed put their own, colonising interests before those of the clergy and the papacy.

Word Count : 2,950

[1] C. Tyerman, God’s War (London & New York, 2006), p.684, A. Ehlers, ‘The Crusade of the Teutonic Knights against Lithuania Reconsidered,’ in ed. A.V. Murray, Crusade and Conversion on the Baltic Frontier, 1150-1500 (Aldershot & Burlington, 2001), p.33.

[2] See C. Tyerman, The Debate on the Crusades (Manchester & New York), p.225.

[3] J. Phillips, Holy Warriors: A Modern History of the Crusades (London, 2009), p.85, P. Taylor, ‘Moral Agency in Crusade and Colonization: Anselm of Havelberg and the Wendish Crusade of 1147,’ The International History Review 22 (2000), p.758.

[4] Ehlers, ‘The Crusade,’ pp.21, 23-4, Tyerman, God’s War, p.712.

[5] Taylor, ‘Moral Agency,’ p.772.

[6] J. Riley-Smith, The Crusades: A Short History (New Haven & London, 1987), pp.130, 131, see also for the Prussian Crusade as a defensive war: L. Pósán, ‘Prussian Missions and the Invitation of the Teutonic Order into Kulmerland,’ in eds. Z Hunyadi and J. Laszlowsky, The Crusades and the Military Orders: Expanding the Frontiers of Medieval Latin Christianity (Budapest, 2001), pp.432-3, M. Starnawska, ‘Military Orders and the Beginning of Crusades in Prussia,’ in eds. Z Hunyadi and J. Laszlowsky, The Crusades and the Military Orders: Expanding the Frontiers of Medieval Latin Christianity (Budapest, 2001), pp.421-2.

[7] Ehlers, ‘The Crusade,’ p.23.

[8] Ehlers, ‘The Crusade,’ pp.36-7, 42.

[9] Taylor, ‘Moral Agency,’ p.759.

[10] S. Ekdahl, ‘Crusades and Colonization in the Baltic,’ in ed. H.J. Nicholson, Palgrave Advances in the Crusades (Basingstoke, 2005), p.172, Taylor, ‘Moral Agency,’ p.757, see also Ehlers, ‘The Crusade,’ p.24.

[11] For the clergy, see Phillips, Holy Warriors, p.99, R. Spence, ‘Pope Gregory IX and the Crusade on the Baltic,’ Catholic Historical Review 69 (1983), pp.7-9. For church-building, see Taylor, ‘Moral Agency,’ p.784, A. Palmer The Baltic: A New History of the Region and its People (Woodstock & New York, 2006), p.45, A. Plakans, A Concise History of the Baltic States (Cambridge, 2011), p.38.

[12] Ekdahl, ‘Crusades,’ p.174.

[13] J. Phillips, The Crusades, 1095-1197 (London, 2002), p.72, Holy Warriors, p.85, N. Housley, Contesting the Crusades (Oxford, 2006), p.110.

[14] T. Kala, ‘The Incorporation of the Northern Baltic Lands into the Western Christian World,’ in ed. A.V. Murray, Crusade and Conversion on the Baltic Frontier, 1150-1500 (Aldershot & Burlington, 2001), pp.19-20, Spence, ‘Pope Gregory,’ pp.2-3.

[15] Taylor, ‘Moral Agency,’ p.784.

[16] Tyerman, God’s War, p.679.

[17] Phillips, Holy Warriors, p.99, Ehlers, ‘The Crusade,’ p.23, Spence, ‘Pope Gregory,’ p.4, Tyerman, God’s War, p.676, Housley, Contesting, p.112.

[18] Palmer, The Baltic, p.38.

[19] Palmer, The Baltic, p.39, Phillips, Holy Warriors, p.100, The Second Crusade: Expanding the Frontiers of Christendom (New Haven & London, 2007), p.242.

[20] Taylor, ‘Moral Agency,’ p.784, Ekdahl, ‘Crusades,’ p.177.

[21] Palmer, The Baltic, p.43, Plakans, A Concise History, p.39, Ekdahl, ‘The Crusade,’ p.174, Kala, ‘Incorporation,’ p.20, Taylor, ‘Moral Agency,’ p.762, see also Phillips, The Second Crusade, p.241, J.W. Thompson, ‘Early Trade Relations between the Germans and the Slavs,’ Journal of Political Economy 30 (1922), p.550.

[22] Tyerman, God’s War, p.685, Palmer, The Baltic, p.48.

[23] See Ehlers, ‘The Crusade,’ p.23.

[24] Spence, ‘Pope Gregory,’ pp.13-14.

[25] Tyerman, God’s War, pp.680, 685.

[26] Plakans, A Concise History, pp.38, 39, Taylor, ‘Moral Agency,’ p.762, Tyerman, God’s War, p.683, Housley, Contesting, p.110.

[27] F. Lotter, ‘The crusading idea and the conquest of the region east of the Elbe,’ in eds. R. Bartlett and A. MacKay, Medieval Frontier Societies (Oxford, 1989), pp.289-90.

[28] Phillips, Holy Warriors, p.100, The Second Crusade, pp.241, 243.

[29] See Ekdahl, ‘Crusades,’ p.177.

[30] Thompson, J.W., ‘The German Church and the Conversion of the Baltic Slavs: Concluded,’ The American Journal of Theology 20 (1916), p.386.

[31] Tyerman, God’s War, p.678, Thompson, ‘German Church,’ p.388.

[32] Plakans, A Concise History, pp.36-7, Palmer, The Baltic, p.43.

[33] Plakans, A Concise History, p.40.

[34] See Tyerman, God’s War, p.688, K.V. Jensen, ‘Introduction,’ in ed. A.V. Murray, Crusade and Conversion on the Baltic Frontier, 1150-1500 (Aldershot & Burlington, 2001), p.xxii, Palmer, The Baltic, p.44.

[35] In general, see Ehlers, ‘The Crusade,’ p.22, Kala, ‘Incorporation,’ p.20, Taylor, ‘Moral Agency,’ p.761. For 1147, see Phillips, Holy Warriors, p.99, The Crusades, p.72, The Second Crusade, p.241, Thompson, ‘German Church,’ p.381. For 1200s, see Palmer, The Baltic, p.40, Spence, ‘Pope Gregory,’ p.6.

[36] Phillips, Holy Warriors, p.100, Taylor, ‘Moral Agency,’ p.774, Spence, ‘Pope Gregory,’ p.4.

[37] Tyerman, God’s War, p.712.

[38] Ekdahl, ‘Crusades,’ p.174, Tyerman, God’s War, p.688.

Bibliography

Ehlers, A., ‘The Crusade of the Teutonic Knights against Lithuania Reconsidered,’ in ed. A.V. Murray, Crusade and Conversion on the Baltic Frontier, 1150-1500 (Aldershot & Burlington, 2001), pp.21-44

Ekdahl, S., ‘Crusades and Colonization in the Baltic,’ in ed. H.J. Nicholson, Palgrave Advances in the Crusades (Basingstoke, 2005), pp.172-203

Housley, N., Contesting the Crusades (Oxford, 2006)

Jensen, K.V., ‘Introduction,’ in ed. A.V. Murray, Crusade and Conversion on the Baltic Frontier, 1150-1500 (Aldershot & Burlington, 2001), pp.xvii-xxv

Kahl, H-D., ‘Crusade Eschatology as seen by St. Bernard in the years 1146 to 1148,’ in ed. M. Gervers, The Second Crusade and the Cistercians (New York, 1992), pp.35-47

Kala, T., ‘The Incorporation of the Northern Baltic Lands into the Western Christian World,’ in ed. A.V. Murray, Crusade and Conversion on the Baltic Frontier, 1150-1500 (Aldershot & Burlington, 2001), pp.3-20

Kreem, J., ‘The Teutonic Order in Livonia: Diverging Historiographic Traditions,’ in eds. Z. Hunyadi and J. Laszlovsky, The Crusades and the Military Orders: Expanding the Frontiers of Medieval Latin Christianity (Budapest, 2001), pp.467-480

Lotter, F., ‘The crusading idea and the conquest of the region east of the Elbe,’ in eds. R. Bartlett and A. MacKay, Medieval Frontier Societies (Oxford, 1989), pp.267-306

Palmer, A., The Baltic: A New History of the Region and its People (Woodstock & New York, 2006)

Phillips, J., Holy Warriors: A Modern History of the Crusades (London, 2009)

Phillips, J., The Crusades, 1095-1197 (London, 2002)

Phillips, J., The Second Crusade: Expanding the Frontiers of Christendom (New Haven & London, 2007)

Plakans, A., A Concise History of the Baltic States (Cambridge, 2011)

Pósán, L., ‘Prussian Missions and the Invitation of the Teutonic Order into Kulmerland,’ in eds. Z. Hunyadi and J. Laszlovsky, The Crusades and the Military Orders: Expanding the Frontiers of Medieval Latin Christianity (Budapest, 2001), pp.429-448

Riley-Smith, J., The Crusades: A Short History (New Haven & London, 1987)

Spence, R., ‘Pope Gregory IX and the Crusade on the Baltic,’ Catholic Historical Review 69 (1983), pp.1-19

Starnawska, M., ‘Military Orders and the Beginning of Crusades in Prussia,’ in eds. Z. Hunyadi and J. Laszlovsky, The Crusades and the Military Orders: Expanding the Frontiers of Medieval Latin Christianity (Budapest, 2001), pp.417-428

Taylor, P., ‘Moral Agency in Crusade and Colonization: Anselm of Havelberg and the Wendish Crusade of 1147,’ The International History Review 22 (2000), pp.757-784

Thompson, J.W., ‘Early Trade Relations between the Germans and the Slavs,’ Journal of Political Economy 30 (1922), pp.543-558

Thompson, J.W., ‘The German Church and the Conversion of the Baltic Slavs: Concluded,’ The American Journal of Theology 20 (1916), pp.372-389

Throop, S.A., Crusading as an Act of Vengeance, 1095-1216 (Farnham & Burlington, 2011)

Tyerman, C., God’s War (London & New York, 2006)

Tyerman, C., The Debate on the Crusades (Manchester & New York, 2011)

Feedback:

65%

All the following feedback is rated on the following scale: Outstanding-Excellent-Good-Competent-Pass-Fail.

Breadth of Reading: Excellent-Good

Critical approach to historiography: Outstanding-Excellent

Focus on question: Excellent

Organization of the material: Good

Depth of understanding and insight: Good

Use of examples: Excellent-Good

Introduction and Conclusion: Good

Factual accuracy: Good

Comprehensiveness of coverage: Excellent

Fluent and correct English: Good

Accurate spelling/proof reading: Excellent

Sources cited correctly: Excellent

General Comments and Advice: This is a very well-informed and thoughtful essay, using an impressive range of secondary material and with good coverage geographically and chronologically.

It lacks something in terms of structure, with ideas being reiterated, and the distinction between different schools of thought not being well reflected.

Some conceptual issues in the introduction – who are the ‘local elite’ as distinct from conquerors? Sound conclusion, relating to the introduction – the clergy were part of the conquest. In future, progress to using primary sources. There are a couple of places where they could have been quoted.

 

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