Environmental Crusading: The Teutonic Knight’s Impact After the Baltic Crusades

Malbork Zamek Krzyzacki. Wikicommons
Malbork Zamek Krzyzacki. Wikicommons
Malbork Zamek Krzyzacki. Wikicommons

Environmental Crusading: The Teutonic Knight’s Impact After the Baltic Crusades

I visited Poland a few years ago and trekked across the country visiting various medieval sites and cities. Two places that still stand out in my mind are the medieval city of Toruń and the Teutonic Castle of Malbork (Marienburg). These Teutonic strongholds remain my favourites in that month long trip to my family homeland.

Environmental archaeologist and Professor of Archeology at Reading, Dr. Aleks Pluskowski, examined Malbork and several other sites across Eastern and Northern Europe in his recent paper, The Ecology of Crusading: The Environmental Impact of Holy War, Colonisation, and Religious Conversion in the Medieval Baltic. Pluskowski is keenly interested in the impact the Teutonic Knights and Christian colonisation had on the region. His ambitious 4 year project on the ecological changes in this area recently came to a close at the end of 2014. This paper, given at the Institute of Historical Research is an overview of his findings. Pluskowski has contributed to a zooarchaeology project in Venice, castle excavations in in Transylvania and Poland, and numerous articles on ecology, crusading, and animals in the Middle Ages.

Saint Adalbert (Św. Wojciech) being martyred by the Prussians
Saint Adalbert (Św. Wojciech) being martyred by the Prussians

Life Before the Teutonic Knights

The Baltic region around 1200 consisted of various tribal, feuding, non-Christian groups, a true frontier region. Due to its scattered cultural groups, there was no unified response to the Crusades until it was too late. Pre-Crusade culture was booming during the Viking age. Pre-Christian cultures in this area worshipped nature, such as the earth Goddesses Laima and Kurko, a Wolf Goddess, and a Fire Goddess (Gabija). Tribes were often separated by noticeable spiritual boundaries. There was also a proliferation of horse cults which were unique to Baltic region. Horses were typically buried alive between the 10th-12th centuries in Northern Poland.

Renewed missionary activities in the High Middle Ages attempted to convert these Baltic Pagan tribes. Two famous martyrs in this region were: St. Adalbert (d.997 AD), and St. Bruno of Querfurt (d.1009 AD). Holy War used to justify crusading in this area with two Crusades: The Livonian Crusade (1198-1290), and The Prussian Crusade (1230-1283). The Livonian Crusade took 100 years to subjugate the tribal Pagans, and it took 53 years for the Prussian efforts to come to fruition. The two crusades were ‘framed as struggle between good and evil’.

The Teutonic Order Arrives: Here Come the Castles

The Teutonic Knights were famed builders. They built strongholds across the Baltic region in two phases:

Phase 1 – Timber strongholds during the Crusades (Elblag, Poland)

Phase 2 – Brick and stone castles built post crusading during a period of stability but more akin to ‘fortified monasteries’.

Planned towns also became a post Crusade feature – there were no planned towns prior to this period. Church building expanded, borrowing from “European Elements” during this post crusade expansion. The Teutonic Order found themselves often at odds with the Livonian bishops.

Malbork Castle in Poland. (Aug. 2010)
Malbork Castle in Poland. (Aug. 2010)

Landscape Changes: Physical and Conceptual

Pluskowski studied a dozen+ castles to try and understand the landscape changes after the Baltic Crusades. He looked at the Teutonic corporation using several approaches: paleobotony, geoarchaeology, zooarchaeology, and historical studies.

Unfortunately, finding medieval material in these castles proved difficult because they have been used up to the present day. Pluskowski employed ground penetrating radar to find medieval archaeological deposits. Pluskowski and his team were able to estimate medieval vegetation in the area; 1m of sediment = 1,000 years. He studied the peat core to look for pollen fluctuations in order to be able to reconstruct medieval vegetation. These detailed analyses uncovered some interesting things about region while it was inhabited by the Teutonic Knights:

Animal bones - basement of Riga Castle, Latvia. Aleks Pluskowski
Animal bones – basement of Riga Castle, Latvia. Aleks Pluskowski

Animal Bones
The most frequent find at these castles were animal bones. They gave an excellent indication of food the knight’s provisioning. The knights provisioned themselves within the castle walls and ate meat 3 times per week as stipulated by the Order’s rules of 1264. Meat processing was done using the same methods applied by the Roman Army – using steel tipped cleavers. Meat can be processed more quickly using these tools and was ‘a crusading signature’.

Wool Production
A local wool economy developed rapidly under the Teutonic Order. It was not the best wool, but it was sufficient for their purposes. Finer wool still had to be imported other regions.

Horn Working
Goat horns were used in crossbow production by the Teutonic Knights. This became a big industry because of the popularity of the crossbow in this region. The Order also dipped into Skin/Vellum, and candle production when demands grew as Churches were springing up rapidly after the Crusades.

Pack Horses
These were the animal of choice for the Teutonic Order. They used many horses at a time instead of a few wagons to transport goods because the land was too marshy and wagon wheels would get stuck in the mud. Animal dietary changes during this time were a direct result of the Teutonic Order’s husbandry.

The Teutonic Order was a well oiled, corporate manufacturing machine. Within a few years of the close of the Baltic Crusades, they already had a production surplus and were able to make extra income exporting items like grain.

Given their penchant for mass construction in the region, how did the forests survive the intense timber production? The Order made sure to cut down only specific timber species. They had a very careful, and according to Pluskowski, ‘very astute management of woodland’. In addition to the survival of woodland, many sacred Pagan sites survived this Teutonic incursion. They survived where the population lived further inland in spite of the Crusade expansion.

~Sandra Alvarez

For more information about Dr. Pluskowski’s facsinating project, please visit:

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