Medieval Geopolitics: The High Phase of Northern Crusading

By Andrew Latham

The crusades that took place during the high phase of Baltic crusading – specifically, the Prussian Crusades (1230-83), the Lithuanian Crusades (1280-1435), and the Novgorod Crusades (1243-16th century) – all shared the same basic structural character as the indirect missionary wars against the Livonians discussed in my last column, but were differentiated from them in significant ways.

First, from the earliest decades of the 13th century on, the Baltic wars were distinguished from earlier expeditions by their elevation from “penitential wars” to full-blown “crusades”.  As crusades historian Iben Fonnesberg-Schmidt has convincingly demonstrated, crusading in the Baltic prior to 1230 involved piecemeal applications of crusading ideas and practices developed primarily in the context of the Church’s crusade experience in the Holy Land. As a result, it acquired the character of what she calls “penitential war” – a form of ecclesiastical war conferring fewer spiritual rewards and less prestige than the crusades to the East.


Under Pope Honorius III (1216-27), however, papal policy changed in this respect: largely due to growing papal involvement in the missionary project, during his pontificate the ecclesiastical wars in the Baltic region were decisively elevated to full crusade status with all the same indulgences, privileges and protections as those to the Holy Land.  Prior to the pontificate of Innocent III (Honorius’ predecessor), missions had effectively fallen within the purview of the frontier bishops, kings and princes. During the pontificates of Innocent and Honorius, however, the papacy arrogated to itself greater responsibility for initiating and directing large-scale missions among both heretics and pagans – largely as a result of the post-Gregorian papacy’s intensified interest in preaching and evangelization. Not surprisingly, as the missions became an increasingly important papal priority so too did their defence against those groups that would violently oppose their evangelizing work.

In practical terms, this had the effect creating two new models for Baltic crusading.  During the earlier phases discussed in my last two columns, expeditions were initiated by local bishops or princes who sought and received papal authorization, but essentially retained control over planning, preaching, financing and other practical matters. As Fonnesberg-Schmidt demonstrates, while this pattern continued throughout the later Middle Ages, it was supplemented from the early 13th century onward by two new forms of Northern Crusade. The first of these involved a partnership between the Dominicans and the Teutonic Order in which the former preached and recruited for the crusade and the latter financed and conducted it.  The Teutonic Order had been introduced to the region in the 1220s and had subsequently secured from Pope Innocent IV the right to launch expeditions and issue indulgences to those fighting in its ranks without additional papal authorization. In effect, this created a permanent crusade under the leadership of the knights who proceeded to conquer Prussia and Lithuania and establish the Order State of the Teutonic Knights.


The second new model involved a more active leadership role for the papal curia.  In this type, the initiative for the crusade came from the pope, while its preaching and direction was made the responsibility of a papal legate.  The crusade in Livonia proclaimed by Pope Gregory in his 1236 encyclical Ne Terra Vastae is a prime example of this sort of expedition. In both cases, the rationale remained the defence of the missions and their newly converted flocks; the “liberation” of Christians from pagan oppression and pagans from ignorance; and the vindication of injuries done to Christ and His Church. From the early 13th century onward, however, the way in which the Church mobilized its martial resources became more differentiated.

It used to be believed that the Northern Crusades were simply an unremarkable element of the broader historical process of conquest and colonization that has come to be known as the Ostsiedlung. On this view, the ecclesiastical wars in the Baltic region were little more than a series of essentially mundane campaigns to acquire fish, fur, and land – campaigns cloaked in a thin religious veil to be sure, but ultimately reducible to the all-too-worldly pursuit of wealth and power.

As crusades historian Norman Housley points out, however, recent research has begun to move in a somewhat different direction. Rather than focusing narrowly on the socio-political determinants of these crusades, researchers have now begun to explore more fully the religious causes and character of these wars. The emerging consensus is that the causes and character of the crusades around the Baltic were informed by the convergence of political and religious factors.  On the one hand, there is little doubt that many Christian marcher lords were powerfully motivated to wage war on their pagan neighbours for reasons that had little to do with religion – specifically, the desire to acquire productive land and peasants through a process of violent territorial expansion.

Similarly, there can be little doubt that the dynamics of state-building were also at play in many of these expeditions. On the other, it is increasingly clear that the key Church officials behind the Northern Crusades were motivated primarily by religious concerns and interests, including most importantly the perceived need to create a political context conducive to the peaceful expansion of Christendom through missionary work.  It is also clear that many Christian warriors were motivated to wage war not on the basis of worldly concerns, but as a result of their deeply held religious convictions.


Andrew Latham is a professor of political science at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is the author, most recently, of The Idea of Sovereignty At the Turn of the 14th Century. You can visit Andrew’s website at or follow Andrew on Twitter @aalatham 

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Top Image: Map of the monastic state of the Teutonic Knights in 1466. Image by S. Bollmann / Wikimedia Commons