Medieval Geopolitics: The Northern Crusades as a “Penitential War”

By Andrew Latham

In my last column, I explored the initial introduction of the crusading ideal to the Baltic region.  In this column, I look at the next phase in history of the Northern Crusades: that of “penitential war.”

When Pope Alexander III issued his new crusading bull (Non parum animus noster) in 1171 he not only re-introduced the institution of the crusade – or at least a diluted version of it in the form of “penitential war” – to Northern Christendom; in a marked departure from past practice, he also outlined a papal vision for the evangelization of the entire Eastern Baltic region.


This vision had two key elements.  First, it entailed a commitment to the armed defence of the Christian Church and its missions in the region.  Alexander had received troubling reports that the mission in Estonia was subject to repeated pagan attacks – attacks that he viewed as both unjust (contrary to the ius gentium) and a serious threat to the Church’s core mission of evangelization.  Accordingly, he authorized the use of armed force in the defence of the Estonian mission and granted limited indulgences to those fighting in this just cause.

Second, Alexander envisioned a significant expansion of the northern frontiers of Latin Christendom to include, at a minimum, Estonia and Livonia.  This latter part of the vision, Alexander argued, was to be accomplished through peaceful missionary work if at all possible, but through the use of armed force if necessary.  By combining the goals of both defensio and dilatio, Alexander’s 1171 bull established the basic approach to crusading in the North: what the historian Carl Erdmann’s called “indirect missionary war”.  In the future, peaceful missions would be established in pagan territory; when these incurred local hostility, they and their activities would be defended by penitential warriors; and finally, when circumstances seemed propitious, the pagan “problem” in that particular region would be resolved by forcibly incorporating the catchment area of the endangered mission into Latin Christendom through crusade.

Pope Alexander III seated in centre; Emperor Frederick “Barbarossa” and his wife on either side. Oxford, Bodleian Lib., MS. Laud Misc. 587 fol. 059r

The mission of Bishop Meinhard to the pagan Livonians starkly illustrates this expansionary dynamic.  With the support of both the Archbishop of the missionary see of Hamburg-Bremen and the papacy, Meinhard established a mission in the Dvina River basin around 1180.  Sensing an opportunity for large-scale conversion, Meinhard offered the Livonians a bargain: in return for their agreement to undergo baptism he would build two fortifications on islands in Dvina River (Üxküll and Holm) to protect them from their enemies among the other pagan peoples of the region.  According to the chronicler Henry of Livonia, the Livonians freely accepted this offer. When they realized that all those who converted were also going to be held financially responsible for the upkeep of these fortifications, however, the Livonians balked: few among them actually accepted baptism or placed themselves under the authority of the bishop.


Viewed from Meinhard’s perspective, this constituted a grave breach of the Livonians’ promise to convert.  It also presented him with a serious problem. Not only was he not attracting many converts, but those few Livonians whom he did baptise (the only people Meinhard actually had any authority over) simply did not constitute a tax-base capable of supporting the mission’s castles and their garrisons.  Meinhard realized that if he could not maintain these forces he would not be able to provide the protection he had promised, fatally undermining his entire strategy for evangelizing the region. The Bishop’s problem was compounded by the fact that the relatively high taxes he was forced to levy on his small flock of converts actually provided a strong financial incentive to apostasy – he was losing souls faster than he was gaining them.  Meinhard’s solution: expand the tax base by compelling the Livonian people to keep what he believed to be their promise to convert. When persuasion and threats failed to compel the Livonians to come in, the bishop appealed to Rome for the military forces needed to implement this strategy.

A map of the Baltic Tribes, about 1200 AD. The Eastern Balts are shown in brown hues while the Western Balts are shown in green. The boundaries are approximate. Image by MapMaster / Wikimedia Commons

Gravely concerned by the Livonians’ apostasy and their collective failure to honour the terms of their agreement with Meinhard, in 1195 Pope Celestine III responded positively to the Bishop’s appeal, granting limited remission of sins to those agreeing to take the cross to fight in Livonia.  An expedition was subsequently launched under the leadership of the Duke of Sweden, but failed to achieve much before Duke returned home with the majority of the crusader army. Following Meinhard’s death in 1196, his successor – the Cistercian Bishop Berthold – led another expedition against the Livonians, explicitly justifying the campaign in terms of restoring the apostates to the faith. When Berthold was killed in 1198, Pope Innocent III authorized yet another Livonian crusade, this one led by the newly elected Bishop Albert of Buxhövden.

This and subsequent crusades – all explicitly justified in terms of defending the Church from pagan harassment, restoring apostates to the faith, and/or creating conditions propitious for evangelization – were far more successful, ultimately resulting in the destruction of the Livonians’ war-making capacity and with it their ability to resist incorporation into Latin Christendom.  By the time of Albert’s death in 1229, Livonia been made an imperial fief and most Livonians had been converted to Latin Christianity. Thus ended the early phase of Northern crusading.


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: A warrior from a late-twelfth-century German manuscript – Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. Bodmer 127, f. 98r 


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