The military ethics of the Teutonic Knights.

Despite the fact that Northern Crusades are quite often overlooked in Western historiography, it is hard to deny that they have played a significant role in the formation of Eastern Europe and the history of crusading.

Holy war on the shores of the Baltic Sea facilitated the creation of the most powerful monastic state in medieval history and its subsequent century-long struggle with neighbouring kingdoms (Kasecamp, 2010). It is in the Northern Crusdades that the Teutonic Knights grew in power and influence: they were unique in their autonomy, military power and ambition when compared with other Christian militant orders, even if their organisation was a lot more recent than those of their main rivals – the Templars and Hospitallers. What is even more interesting is that unlike other crusading Orders, they reached heights of their power in the later medieval period, when the Holy Land was already lost and the original concept of crusades as a militant pilgrim to reconquer Jerusalem was no longer relevant. However, the dualistic nature of their mission put them into a very unstable position where they were supposed to act both as warrior monks and secular rulers who had to protect interests of their earthly state: their wars in the Baltic, while popular amongst Western European knights nonetheless raise many ethical issues for the military ethicist – here we witness several troublesome issues particularly involving the clashes and overlap between the jus ad bellum and the jus in bello traditions of the justice of the war and they justice of soldiers’ actions within war.

While war(and especially holy war) is never clear-cut, the Knights’ activities in the Baltic lands were controversial even in their time. Both contemporaries and modern historians have questioned the morality of their conduct during the Northern Crusades. Under the guise of a just war against the pagan, many atrocities were committed breaching the accepted rules of jus in bello, and right down to the twentieth century, the struggle between the Teutonic knights and the eastern Lithuanians and their allies remained a subject manipulated for propaganda purposes.

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    This article covers three main aspects of their struggle – their implementation of ideological-military mission of converting pagans to Christianity, their methods and regulations regarding warfare, and their instutionalisation of perpetual Baltic crusade. For the purpose of easier narrative the peroid covers the time between the fall of Acre in 1291 and the battle of Tanneberg /Grunwaldin 1410 which saw the defeat of the Order an era roughly encompassing the period of Teutonic prominence in the Baltic and international scene; it will examine the conduct of war by the Order and scrutinise the Order’s military ethics in the context of the later middle ages.

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    The Teutonic Order was originally founded to safeguard and provide medical treatment for pilgrims in the Holy Land. However, as the crusades lost their momentum and the end of Outremer (the Crusader states) was already on the horizon, the Teutonic Knights started looking for other opportunities to expand and ensure their continued existence. Very soon they had branches all over Europe and one of those was in Prussia, where they have been invited by Konrad I, Duke of Masovia, to help him fight pagan Prussian tribes.
    However, despite the Duke’s intentions to use the Order as means to increase his domain, the Teutonic Knights soon established themselves as an autonomous polity reforming as political force. For a time their focus remained on the Holy Land, but once Acre fell in 1291, the Knights realised that the Baltic area was their only choice if they wanted to keep their independence safe from the meddling of secular rulers.

    The Baltic area was a poor, wild land with bad climate; there were no Christian holy places, nor pilgrims to protect: these new conditions meant that Order had to redefine itself. Here they were to use the facade of a just cause – a holy war in the name of the Christian church – against the pagan powers.

    The concept of the new identity for the Order was formed on the basis of their military tradition. While many Prussians had already been conquered and for the most part converted, there was a recently formed pagan state to the east – the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The Teutonic Order took it upon themselves to convert it and immediately assumed this mission as their new identity and justification of their existence (Urban, 1994). However, a peaceful conversion, such as that of the Polish people in 10th century, was not considered: from their experience with Prussians, the Knights had seen that they had a significant military advantage against the less advanced Baltic tribes and that they could use this advantage to add new lands to their growing state and to accumulate even more wealth.

    This self-serving approach was immediatley criticised by some contemporary theologians, such as the influential English philosopher, Roger Bacon in his Opus Maius of 1266:

    ... the brothers of the Teutonic order much disturb the conversion of infidels because of the wars which they are always starting, and because of the fact that they wish to dominate them absolutely. ... The pagan race has many times been ready to receive the faith in peace after preaching, but those of the Teutonic order do not wish to allow this, because they wish to subjugate them and reduce them to slavery. (Bridges, 1964)

    While this excerpt cannot be taken as representation of general opinion in Europe (especially having in mind that Bacon was considered to be a radical and was sitting in prison at the time of writing this) (Nicholson, 1999), it touches the issue of hypocrisy by Teutonic Knights and a devious deployment of a crusading war for ostensibly personal gain. The Knights claimed that they were waging a just war to convert Baltic pagans for their own good; yet their obvious purpose was in fact to enslave them. For a sharp mind as Bacon’s, their intention was immoral – the justice of their cause was a mere facade for self seving interests. A just war requires a just intention.

    It could be argued that taking of the slaves, which was common on both sides, (Urban, 2005 p.48) was used as a means to support the growing economy of the Teutonic Order; as a pragmatic move, this had its costs. Germans had limited manpower supply and were forced to rely on local populations of Old Prussians, Curonians, Latgalians and others to work their land, maintain castles and to serve as infantry in their forces. However, they needed to be paid in order to keep them from rebelling and for this reason using forced labour that could be regularly replenished through continuous raids probably was an important economic incentive.

    Some scholars estimate that hundreds of thousands were enslaved during the Northern Crusades (Nicolle, 2007 p. 53). The repercussions were evident though: Lithuanians, who historically had a bad record of interacting with Christians (Lithuania was first mentioned when a missionary St. Brunon was martyred while attempting to convert one of the Lithuanian tribes in 1009)(Baranauskas, 2009) became even more hostile to the idea of accepting Christianity as they saw it as a veil for their enslavement. As the warfare intensified, regional dukes rallied around the flag of the pagan pantheon, even if some of them had earlier been courting ideas of conversion. (Urban, 1973)

    While war against the heathens attracted general, rather than academic, approbation, the Teutonic Knights were also involved in a war with the Christian city of Riga. This rich Hanseatic city was clearly a tempting target for the Order to claim and control; however and perhaps unsurprisingly, the townspeople, who were under protection of Archbishop of Livonia, resisted. This resulted in a war that lasted between 1297 and 1330 until the city finally fell to the Order. What is remarkable about the war is the fact that between 1298 and 1313 Riga was in such a bad situation that they made a treaty with Lithuanian Grand Duke Vytenis to allow Lithuanian troops to garrison the city in order to protect them from the Knights. (McKitterick, 1995 p. 706 & Klavinš, 2006 p. 261) This was something that never happened before – while occasional intra-Christian violence was relatively common during the crusades for various reasons, never before had a militant order or anyone claiming to be a crusader, engaged in a prolonged war against fellow Roman Catholics. The Crusaders themselves did not offer any coherent explanation for the war: Nicolaus von Jeroschi, the contemporary chronicler of the Teutonic Knights, claimed in his Di Kronike von Pruzinlant that:

    ... the devil’s cunning inflamed a great hatred, a deadly feud and a vicious war between the townspeople of Riga and the brothers of the German house. ... brothers had to fight them nine times in the space of 18 months and could find no way of avoiding this. (Fischer, 2010 p. 233)

    While we cannot rule out the possibility that it was indeed townspeople of Riga who for some reason attacked Order, lack of detail in Jeroschin‘s chronicle suggests that in-depth examination of the issue would not have been useful to the Order(we can make this assumption because other events where Teutonic knights have been wronged or suffered an injury of some sort (such as Vytenis’ breaking of truce in 1294), Jeroschin always gives detailed description of events in order to win readers favour).

    Another primary source illustrating the situation is letter from 1323 from the council of Riga to Lithuanian Grand Duke Gediminas:
    ... may your royal munificence know that the brothers disturb us seriously and in many ways, even in a time of truce they do not fear to cruelly kill our fellow citizens equally in our city as outside it; therefore we do not know if or when they will want to hostilely attack us and to invade our city. ... we ask that you do not make any peace with the said brothers where we would not be, like they, participants in the same treaty of peace. (Klimas & Skrupskelis, 1969)

    This plea not to make peace with Order, indicated that the townspeople of Riga had more confidence in their neighbouring pagan Lithuanians than in Christian brothers; it also uncovered an abuse of power by the Order against civilian population. The same Grand Duke Gediminas in a letter to the Pope John XXII writing about the many grievances committed against Lithuanians, also mentioned that the crusaders had burned a Franciscan church, which distinctly broke the rules of jus in bello, the guidelines concerning how wars were to be fought.

    (Letters of Gediminas to Pope are a good indicator that by the beginning of 14th century there have already been friars serving at the Lithuanian court as scribes and advisors, they probably were invited more for diplomatic than spiritual reasons. Klimas & Skrupskelis, 1969).

    If the comment was not propaganda, it does gives us a challenging perspective on Teutonic priorities in war.

    The Knights’ existence was dependent on the presence of heathens to conquer. While we cannot say for sure what was the Hochmeisters’ long term strategy, they probably had planned to conquer Lithuania and then use its territory as a base for a new crusade either against schismatic Russian duchies or against the muslim Tatar khanates. But if they or anyone else would convert the Lithuanians, the Order would be bottled up among the Christian nations and their existence would lose its meaning. The Knights had already learned from the Templar’s example what happened to ambitious orders who lost political protection.

    The Teutonic Knights had also been accused of heresy in front of the Papal Curia by the Archbishop of Riga in 1305 in the same year that first accusations against Templars appeared (Kļaviņš, 2006). When mass arrests of the Templar knights began in 1307, the Order became worried and by 1309 had relocated their headquarters from Venice to Prussia, far away from Papal and secular reach. The Papal legate, Francis of Moliano, in 1312 finished his investigation and found the Teutonic Knights guilty on multiple counts of heresy; interestingly, his findings never materialised into any further consequences against the Order. While Archbishop of Riga certainly had political motives to accuse them of heresy, there were other sources that provided evidence that the Teutonic Knights apparently had adopted pagan practices in the north such us cremation, the euthanasia of wounded brothers, divination before battle, and even sacrificing(Kļaviņš, 2006). The evidence seriously compromises the traditional image of Teutonic knight as a stalwart defender of Catholic faith.

    Military practice of Teutonic Knights was also different from that which was seen across the Europe at the time. Geographical conditions in the Baltic shaped different patterns of war than was commonly seen by European knights. Medieval Lithuania was very hard to penetrate due to its extensive forests, network of hard to cross rivers, lakes, bogs and wetlands (Price, 1900, Ch. XIV). This meant that most of the raiding, unlike in western Europe, occured during winter (winter-reyse) or sometimes during dry summers, when the river levels would go down (sommer-reyse)(Murray, 2010). Raids (reysen) themselves from the first glance can be compared to chevauchees that were at the same time happening in France, however while both of these raiding tactics were a form of attrition warfare, reysen were a lot deadlier due to the fact the there were no moral constraints on either side and the main aim was depopulation instead of destruction or pillage of property. Jeroschin‘s account shows that atrocities were considered to be acceptable and even commendable:

    In their simplicity the inhabitants of Aukštaitija considered the village to be sacred. The commander silently put the village in order, wreaking great destruction there, consecrating the natives under the banners of his own chaplains. This ritual of the laying on of hands was sharp against their necks and whoever encountered it was killed, regardless of how sacred they were. But enough of this mockery: he killed or captured everyone there and then returned home. He lost one brother on this campaign and he conducted many campaigns, harrying Aukštaitija and plaguing them with violence and destruction. (Fischer, 2010 p. 228)

    Chronicles, such as that of Jeroschin‘s, provide evidence that raids were regular, and that they remained a constant feature of Northern Crusades until the Teutonic Knights lost their ability to project their military power after the battle of Tannenberg / Grunwald (1410).
    A century of raiding two times a year (and it‘s safe to assume that sometimes more than one raiding party would be sent out) left the border region between Prussia and Lithuania completely devastated and wild. In his The Travels of John Mandeville, the author (there is controversy as to who John Mandeville was) claimed that it took three days to go from Christian lands to Lithuania (Price, 1900, Ch. XIV), but what is also interesting in the explorer’s account is that he uses word “Saracens“ for Lithuanians, showing that in the mindset of western nobility there was little difference between non-Christians, whether pagans or muslims. This could explain why crusaders and members of the fighting Orders never gave quarter even for women or children. But there’s plenty of occasions where chroniclers specified that they killed or enslaved these social groups (Fischer, 2010 p. 227; p. 250; p. 257). In their minds, those who did not convert were not worthy of life. Another example of the approving and even joyful European attitude to the atrocities committed in the Baltic is an excerpt from the poem written in 1337 by an Austrian herald, Peter von Suchenwirt, who witnessed Teutonic raids firsthand:

    Women and children were taken captive;
    What a jolly medley could be seen:
    The heathens were made to suffer:
    They were led off, all tied up - Just like hunting dogs

    (Ekdahl, 1994 pp. 263-269)

    Indeed, these activities soon became an attraction for western knights to come to wage war against Lithuanians. As crusading opportunities significantly declined after the fall of Acre, but the martial crusading spirit still remained strong, there was a significant demand for chance to fight “for the faith.” The Teutonic Order was quick to fill this niche, by summoning knights from all over Europe to support them in a perpetual war against Lithuania. It was also a tempting offer to European knights because the Baltic was a lot closer than the Holy land and the Pope gave the same spiritual guarantees to those who fight in Prussia as if they were fighting at the walls of Jerusalem. There were many motives to go crusading in Prussia, but, for the knights, chivalric glory, adventure or spiritual reasons were the most important (Urban, 1994).

    Moreover, while plunder remained an important economic aspect of most European wars, knights who chose to go to the Baltic were arguably less motivated by material gain because the lands were poor in comparison with the Middle East and the most they could expect was to cover expenses of their travel to Prussia(Guard, 2013 p. 88). In some cases Order even offered subsidies to knights who would come to fight for them, blurring the distinctions between crusaders and mercenaries (Urban, 1994).

    The Teutonic Knights, who were in great need of support in their war against Lithuania, slowly established the Baltic in the minds of European nobility as a substitute for the Holy Land. They institutionalised continuous war in the Baltic as a normal feature of of European political landscape right up to 15th century. Yet the Order also started targeting another important part of medieval life : the chivalric ethos, which reflected the jus in bello principles of waging war in a just and Christian manner. It created structures where you could get whole crusading experience in what the historian Riley-Smith calls “packaged crusading“ (Riley-Smith, 2005 p. 253).

    By incorporating various elements into their activities that were traditionally associated with the chivalric myth, the Knights managed to associate themselves in the minds of European nobles with the legends of King Arthur and true knightly adventure. Eventually, crusading in Prussia became quintessential for the image of the perfect knight. Even Geoffrey Chaucer mentioned that his Knight “In Lettow hadde he reysed and in Ruce.“ (In Lithuania he had raided and in Russia) (Skeat, 1900, Prologue, line 44).
    When we examine the history of foreign “guest crusaders” visiting Teutonic Order, we soon notice that numerous notable figures fought in the frontier land of the Baltic. For example,the famous French Marshall Boucicaut (Jean Le Maingre) first visited Baltic when he was just 18 years old and fought with the Teutonic Order numerous times in his life. The English king Henry IV also reysed in the Baltic (Housley, 2003).

    There are recorded names of about 200 knights, mostly from the higher nobility who were active during the Northern Crusades. However only the most important guests received the honour of being mentioned by name in the chronicles. As for more common knights, we know that for example during the reign of the English King Edward III around sixty English knights, about a hundred from Holland and Belgian Hainault areas, and more than a hundred from France crusaded in the Baltic(Barber, 2013).

    Such international brotherhood of knights was bringing great prestige to the Order, but there were problems too. Even during periods of truce, the English and French knights fighting together were sensitive of the fact that their nations were fighting what we now call the Hundred Years War. Similarly, English and Scottish knights also had various feuds, in one of which the gallant William Douglas of Nithsdale, who had won the hand of a Scottish princess Egidia over that of the French King, was killed in Danzig. However despite foreign help being instrumental in the rise of Teutonic Knights, after their crushing defeat in 1410 at the battle of Tannenberg / Grunwald, the Knights attracted less and less support(Jensen, 2007).

    The fifteenth century saw a decline in the Crusading spirit which meant that they no longer had the support they enjoyed for the last two centuries and they were never able to properly rebuild their former strength.

    It is not easy to summarise something as broad as the military history of the Teutonic order, however it is clear that while they were waging war,the crusaders were constantly torn between the principles of their official mission as warriors of God and their earthly interests.

    Throughout whole 14th century there was an obvious need to form a balance between crusading and accumulating wealth, but overall it is safe to conclude that they were more interested in material gain and power than actually promoting Christianity. Even though the Baltic areas did not provide the riches of the Middle East to plunder, they offered the Knights a secular fighting ground to prove their mettle and gain martial reputation. Accordingly, their military ethics were very pragmatic and harsh and some similarities can be found with modern German term realpolitik in which the means were bent to ulterior ends.

    Their primary target was Lithuania, but they had no issues with waging war against Christian Poland or City of Riga further undermining any attempt at securing the justice of warfare according to the jus ad bellum codes. Such behaviour demonstrates that Teutonic Knights cared about defending Christians only as long as it suited them, for when they saw a chance to gain something from attacking fellow Christians, they exploited the opportunity. Moreoever, while maintaining the image of chivalric knights fighting a religious just war, they were never bound by chivalric restrictions against their enemies, because their enemies were pagans. As a result the Teutonic Order generally waged unrestricted warfare, systematically enslaving and exterminating Baltic people. For this purpose they utilised all means at their disposal, the greatest of which was directing the last breath of the crusading movement at the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

    Arguably, compared with an average knight of their day , the Teutonic knights were a lot more calculating and “professional“ about their duties as crusaders, because of this their military ethics favoured efficiency and profit.

    Primary sources
    1. Bridges, John Henry Ed. (1964) The Opus Majus of Roger Bacon Oxford, 1877-1900, repr. Frankfurt, 1964 vol. 3, p. 121-2, part 3, ch. 13. (translated by Helen J. Nicholson). (Accessed on 17/12/13 at De Re Militari
    2. Fischer, Mary Ed. (2010) Chronicle of Prussia by Nicolaus von Jeroschin: A history of the Teutonic Knights in Prussia, 1190– 1331 Ashgate Publishing Group
    3. Klimas, Antanas & Skrupskelis, Ignas K. Eds. (1969) Letters of Gediminas in Lituanus: Lithuanian Quarterly Journal of Arts and Sciences, Volume 15, No.4 - Winter 1969
    4. Price, David Ed. (1900)The Travels of Sir John Mandeville Macmillan and Co. Edition (Accessed on 18/12/13 at Project Gutenberg )
    5. SKEAT, WALTER W. Ed. (1900)THE COMPLETE WORKS OF GEOFFREY CHAUCER EDITED, FROM NUMEROUS MANUSCRIPTS - THE CANTERBURY TALES Clarendon Press, Oxford Second Edition (Accessed on 18/12/13 at Project Gutenberg )

    Secondary sources

    1. Baranauskas, Tomas (2009) On the Origin of the Name of Lithuania in Lituanus: Lithuanian Quarterly Journal of Arts and Sciences Volume 55, No.3 - Fall 2009, ed. Gražina Slavėnas
    2. Barber, Richard (2013) Edward III and the Triumph of England: The Battle of Crécy and the Company of the Garter Penguin UK
    3. Ekdahl, Sven (1994)The Treatment of Prisoners of War during the Fighting between the Teutonic Order and Lithuania, in the Middle Ages, ed. Malcolm Barber, pp. 263-269.
    4. Guard, Timothy (2013) Chivalry, Kingship and Crusade: The English Experience in the Fourteenth Century Boydell Press
    5. Housley, Norman (2003) One man and his wars: the depiction of warfare by Marshal Boucicaut’s biographer in Journal of Medieval History, Volume 29, Issue 1m pp. 27-40
    6. Kasekamp, Andres (2010) A History of the Baltic States Palgrave Macmillan
    7. Jensen, Janus Møller(2007) Denmark and the Crusades: 1400 - 1650 BRILL
    8. Kļaviņš, Kaspars (2006) The Ideology of Christianity and Pagan Practice among the Teutonic Knights: The Case of the Baltic Region, Journal of Baltic Studies, 37:3, pp. 260-276
    9. McKitterick, Rosamond (1995) The new Cambridge medieval history Vol. 6 Cambridge University Press
    10. Murray , Alan V. (2010) The Saracens of the Baltic: Pagan and Christian Lithuanians in the Perception of English and French Crusaders to Late Medieval Prussia in Journal of Baltic Studies Volume 41, Issue 4, pp. 413-429
    11. Nicholson, Helen (1999) Knights of Christ? The Templars, Hospitallers and other military orders in the eyes of their contemporaries, 1128-1291 Online article for the Orb (Accessed on 17/12/13 at the Orb
    12. Nicolle, David (2007) Teutonic Knight: 1190-1561 Osprey Publishing
    13. Riley-Smith, Jonathan S. C. (2005) The Crusades: A History Continuum
    14. Urban, William (1973)Religion in the Medieval Baltic in Lituanus: Lithuanian Quarterly Journal of Arts and Sciences, Volume 19, No.1 - Spring 1973, Eds. Antanas Klimas, Thomas Remeikis
    15. Urban, William (1994) The Teutonic knights and Baltic Chivalry, in The Historian; Vol 56, #3, pp. 519-530.
    16. Urban, William(2005)The Teutonic Knights. A Military History(London: Greenhill Books)

    Article by Dainius Tomas Balcytis
    Added Sat, 15 Feb 2014 23:44

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