The Expansion of Christendom: Crusading in Northern Europe, 1147 – 1415
By Matt Firth
Published Online (2015)
Abstract: Between 1147 and 1415 holy wars raged in the lands on the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea in Northern Europe. Here Latin Christendom had declared the pagan polities of the Baltic anathema, and opened the northern frontiers of Christendom to crusade. This paper seeks to explore the evolution of the Northern Crusades from the first declaration of a crusade in the Baltic in 1147, to the Council of Constance in 1415 in which the legitimacy of the crusades would be called into account. Through the full period of the Northern Crusades, a pervasive tension between secular and religious motivation would shape how the campaigns and politics of the Baltic evolved.
In examining the four theatres of crusading: the Wends, Estonia and Livonia, Prussia, and Lithuania, consideration will be given to policies of conversion, colonisation and economic expansion. As each new theatre of crusading opened, power would begin to pass from secular and ecclesiastical lords and merchants to the military orders, in which political and religious authority were combined. As the crusaders attempted to claim lands and souls for Christendom, they would inevitably begin drawing the disparate motives behind the early crusades together into a single crusading polity.
On the sixth day, the Germans asked: ‘Do you still resist and refuse to acknowledge our creator?’
To this they replied: ‘We acknowledge your God to be greater than our gods. By overcoming us, He has inclined our hearts to worship Him. We beg, therefore, that you spare us and mercifully impose the yoke of Christianity upon us.’ ~ The Estonians, Siege of Fellin, 1210
On 13 April 1147 Pope Eugenius III (r. 1145–1153) issued a papal decree declaring a crusade against the pagan Wendish Slavs of North-Eastern Europe. This crusade was unique: in Northern Europe, Latin Christendom was not in conflict with the powers of Islam, and was not reclaiming previously Christian lands from Muslim overlords. Here Christendom was aggressively expanding its political and ecclesiastical borders. The campaign against the Wends that resulted from Eugenius’ declaration of holy war would open the northern frontier of Christendom to the crusading ideal and legitimise the incursions of Christian states into the neighbouring pagan polities. The Northern Crusades covered an extensive swathe of North-Eastern Europe, bringing Latin Christian Scandinavia and the northern states of the Holy Roman Empire into conflict with the pagan lands around the Baltic Sea. Here the Crusaders of the Latin Church had not only to contend with the native pagan Slavs, but also the Orthodox Russian state of Novgorod, which was also seeking to extend its borders. In the campaigns in the states of the Eastern Baltic it is possible to identify four correlative theatres of crusading, extending from 1147 to 1415. After the subjugation of the Wends, the Latin Christians would first seek to conquer the pagan tribes of Livonia and Estonia, and then in turn enter conflicts in Prussia and Lithuania. The crusading rhetoric that accompanied the Wendish Crusade could not disguise the overtly political aspects of the campaign. The tension between religious and political ideal would shape the evolution of the Northern Crusades. As three-hundred years of crusading unfolded in the north, the crusading ideal as expounded by Eugenius transformed and took on new aspects of coercive conversion, Christian colonisation and economic expansion.