The Teutonic Knights and Baltic Chivalry

By Urban, William | The Historian, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview
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The Teutonic Knights and Baltic Chivalry


Urban, William, The Historian


The knight was the central figure of medieval warfare, evolving from a simple mounted warrior in the tenth century to a member of a hereditary landed class. Knighthood was much like a guild: members were required to possess the proper ancestry, to demonstrate competence in their craft, and to go through an induction ceremony that contained many elements of religious sanction. Charged with keeping peace locally, defending the Church, and promoting a new standard of civilized behavior, knights came to dominate not only warfare, but high culture as well. They celebrated their activities through poetry, music, art, and the elaboration of new social codes. They also established chivalric orders intended to strengthen the interlocking relationship between Church, warfare, and manners; and these chivalric orders sometimes left an indelible impression on the secular society of their regions. This was true in northeastern Europe, where knights of the Teutonic Order established the standards of Baltic chivalry that endured there through many centuries.(1)

The Teutonic Order, or the German Order (Deutsche Orden), arose during the Crusades. It was founded in 1190 at the siege of Acre, to care for German knights whose needs were being ignored by the knights Templar and knights Hospitalers, who were predominantly French and English. In 1197 it was reorganized into a religious-military order, the Order of Saint Mary of the Germans in Jerusalem. Its members promised to defend the Church and took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Although the order maintained many convents, hospitals, and churches, its special calling was warfare in defense of Christendom. The order did not grow rapidly at first, since the most important locations in the Holy Land were already being defended by older orders, and the knights' attempt to defend Transylvania against steppe tribes ended in failure. Successes began to multiply, however, when the order helped the Polish duke of Mazuria defend his provinces against the attacks of Prussian pagans. The duke gave the knights title to the first small territory they conquered. In 1238 the order sent knights farther northeast to the aid of a fellow order in Livonia that had been all but annihilated in battle with pagan Lithuanians. With the help of converted native warriors, Polish princes, and crusaders from the Holy Roman Empire and Scandinavia, the Teutonic Knights conquered all the pagans of the eastern Baltic coastlands by the end of the century. They then made war on the pagans living further inland in Lithuania.(2)

The Teutonic Knights had several advantages over the Lithuanians. With convents scattered across much of Europe and an eye on developments in the Muslim world, the knights possessed more advanced military technology. More important was their superior organization: they had a unified leadership, supervised their subjects closely, and regulated trade and taxation efficiently. Nevertheless, the Lithuanians had a well-deserved military reputation, and their homeland was far from Prussia and Livonia, protected by forests and swamps. Knights knew that important prisoners of war were occasionally sacrificed on flaming grills during pagan ceremonies. The risks of holy war were rewarded, however, by the liberation of captives taken from Poland, Prussia, and Livonia, the destruction of sacred groves dedicated to ancient gods, and the spread of Christianity to the east.(3)

The Lithuanians, of course, did not see the crusades in this light. They were not the "sons of Satan" described by friars who preached the crusade against them. They made war the same way that the knights did: in an era when castles were difficult to attack, their offensive operations were directed against the civilian population, just as crusader raids were aimed at villages and farmsteads. Warfare was both manhood ritual, sport, training for future emergencies, revenue enhancement, and occasionally, serious politics.

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