The Baltic Frontier: Why were there no Norwegian crusades in the Baltic?
By Pål Berg Svenugnsen
Paper given at the 2014 International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds
Introduction: In the 12th and 13th century the area around the Baltic region was a frontier that marked the boundaries between Christianity and paganism in Europe. The northern and western corners of the Baltic Sea were dominated by the Christian powers of the emerging Scandinavian kingdoms and the Polish kingdom and German principalities further south. The eastern corner, however, was still dominated by tribes who had not yet been converted to Christianity, the areas of the so-called Wends and other Slav or Finno-Ugric tribes remained the “last stronghold of native European paganism.‟ These groups became the target for Christian missionaries, crusaders and secular lords with territorial ambitions.
In the resulting expansion of the crusade movement to the Baltic region the kingdom of Norway seems remarkably absent, which leads to the question asked in this paper: why were there no Norwegian crusades in the Baltic? The answer is perhaps too obvious – it’s the geography, stupid! Unlike the neighbouring kingdoms Norway did not share a direct geographical border to the Baltic. This neat conclusion – which would make this paper rather short – does on closer scrutiny not prove itself to be an entirely satisfactory answer.
In this paper I will focus on some of the reasons why Norwegian interests in the 12th and 13th century differed from that of the other Scandinavian and German ambitions in the Baltic region. I have narrowed it down to what I consider to be three key factors. These three, however, are not autonomous categories, but overlap. Two of these should be familiar to historians of medieval Norway, while the third is – at least to my knowledge – unexplored territory. The first and second factor is the geopolitical ambitions of Norwegian monarchs in the period and the limitations created by the modes of warfare and military technology. The third factor is the development of a Norwegian crusading tradition that separated itself from that of Sweden and Denmark.