How did the Baltic Crusades shape European society as we know it today?

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 A new University of Reading led study aims to investigate the environmental and cultural impact of the Baltic Crusades and its role in shaping modern Europe. Whilst the Crusades are famously associated with European attempts to recover the Holy Land, they were also a key feature of the expansion of European society in other frontier regions.

Using a range of state-of-the-art techniques in scientific archaeology and historical studies, researchers aim to discover to what extent were new forms of agriculture, animal husbandry, hunting techniques and resource exploitation strategies, part of the ‘cultural package’ introduced as a result of the Crusades.

Vegetation, animal bones, buried soils and other sources will be examined at castles and other archaeological sites, alongside a diverse range of written archives, in Poland, Latvia and Estonia during the four-year 1.2 million Euro, funded by the European Research Council.

In the 13th century, crusading armies unleashed a relentless holy war against ‘pagan’ societies in the Eastern Baltic region. Tribal territories were replaced with new Christian states run by the Teutonic Order and individual bishops, virtually unique in Europe. They constructed castles, encouraged colonists, developed towns and introduced Christianity so their impact on the local environment, especially plants and animals, would have been profound.

Principal Investigator, Dr Aleksander Pluskowski from the University of Reading’s Department of Archaeology said, “Trends in animal and plant exploitation associated with colonisation in the Baltic during this period could help explain cultural changes not only here but elsewhere in Europe, and indeed the world. How did the environment change? Is it the key to understanding why the societies forged in the fires of holy war increasingly prospered and developed, at a time when the rest of Europe was in the grip of famine, disease pandemics and social crises?

“Since many aspects of the natural world were sacred to the Baltic tribes, this impact would be synonymous with the cultural changes that created a new world, a European world, at this frontier of Christendom. By comparing similar strongholds in Lithuania, which retained its independence as a pagan state throughout this period, we hope to discover the extent to which this crusading movement represented a force of ecological transformation.”

The Crusades also occur during a time of climatic deterioration, known as The Little Ice Age, during which populations in the crusader states prospered, whilst Western European societies experienced settlement abandonment and contraction. By collaborating with researchers in the University’s School of Human and Environmental Sciences, the project will also investigate the impact of and potential adaptation to climate change by the medieval populations in the Baltic.

Many of the sites to be examined have vanished or lie ruined and abandoned within forests, whilst others have been restored and preserved as some of the most spectacular historical monuments in the world. These castles are presented today as individual structures, separated from their immediate landscape, but eight centuries ago they were centres for reorganising indigenous tribal territories. Along with towns, they formed the backbone of the new Christian states.

The project led by the Department of Archaeology at the University of Reading consists of a core team of eight research associates, and collaborators from the Universities of Tartu (Estonia), Toruń and Białystok (Poland), as well as the castle museums at Malbork (Poland) and Cēsis (Latvia). It will be advised by an international steering panel and will involve students from all participating institutions. For more information about the project please visit www.ecologyofcrusading.com

The Environmental Impact of Conquest, Colonisation and Religious Conversion in the Medieval Baltic, a multi-disciplinary research programme running from October 2010-2014, funded by the European Research Council.

Source: University of Reading

Sharan Newman