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Crusading into the medieval Baltic: Stanford Humanities Center Q&A with Aleks Pluskowski


International Visitor Aleks Pluskowski, a scholar of late medieval Europe, is writing the history of the northern crusades for the general public.

Aleks Pluskowski is associate professor of archaeology at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom and an international fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center in 2016–17. A specialist in eastern Europe and the Baltic region, he has published widely on the ties between nature and culture in the Middle Ages.

Pluskowski’s recent research has taken him to the eastern shore of the Baltic, where he rummaged through archives and dig sites to reconstruct a material history of the so-called “northern crusades” from the twelfth through the end of the thirteenth century — the subject of his most recent book, The Archaeology of the Prussian Crusade: Holy War and Colonization (2013).

At the outset of the northern crusades, Christian monarchs across northern Europe commissioned forays into territories that comprise modern-day Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Russia. Pagans or eastern Orthodox Christians, the indigenous populations suffered forced baptisms and the ravages of military occupation. Spearheading, but by no means monopolizing these incursions, the ascendant Teutonic Order profited immensely from the crusades, as did German merchants who fanned out along trading routes traversing the Baltic frontier.

Pluskowski, who was nominated by the Stanford Archeology Center, is in the process of writing a history of the northern crusades for public readership. Here, he discusses a few of the intriguing aspects of his research.

The Crusades into the northeastern stretches of Europe have long been overlooked in European historiography. Yet the Hanseatic League and Teutonic Order remain major players in courses on medieval European history. What accounts for this disconnect? Why do conventional histories of the Crusades center almost exclusively on the Holy Land?

The Baltic Crusades were put on the map of crusader historiography by Jonathan Riley-Smith (who unfortunately passed away in September), who established the so-called “Pluralist School” in the 1980’s that recognized crusading was not confined to the Middle East. Discussions of crusading started to encompass a broader time frame and geographic area. Nonetheless, the Baltic Crusades have remained largely inaccessible to an international audience due to the limited dissemination and linguistic diversity of the regional scholarship, as well as the prevailing influence of national histories. Until the 1990s, there was very little available in English — Eric Christiansen’s Northern Crusades (1980) was the only synthetic text that was widely distributed. There was — and still is — a substantial body of scholarship in Polish, German, Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian, as well as some Russian. The most cutting-edge research on medieval Prussia has been produced by Polish historians and archaeologists.

However, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the expansion of EU membership enabled more scholarly mobility, interregional networking, and raised the visibility of eastern European scholarship. This not only facilitated the publication of several important studies on the Baltic Crusades in English, but also resulted in more interregional and comparative research; the “Culture, Clash and Compromise” project, led by Nils Blomkvist, brought together perspectives from across the Baltic Sea region in a series of conferences and influential publications. There was also an increase in foreign visitors to the eastern Baltic countries where the historic towns and monuments associated with the crusades, or the culture created by the crusades, became major tourist attractions.

The gradual effects of this international visibility are evident in recent general histories of the crusades, which all refer to the Baltic (and other crusading frontiers such as the Iberian Peninsula), such as Christopher Tyerman’s God’s War: A New History of the Crusades (2006) or Jonathan Phillips’ Holy Warriors: A Modern History of the Crusades (2009). But the lack of accessible synthetic works has limited the amount of information that can be included in such broader overviews. For example, my book, The Archaeology of the Prussian Crusade: Holy War and Colonization, was the first synthetic study of the material culture of medieval Prussia in any language and it’s already outdated.

The traditional emphasis on the Holy Land is not so surprising given this was the principal focus of the crusading movement until the end of the thirteenth century. And current events in the Middle East have prompted a revival in scholarship and public interest in the crusades. However, I think the visibility of the other regions affected by crusading will continue to increase in both academic and public domains.

History, we often say, is written by the victors. But what of the conquered without a tradition of literacy to record their own experience? What, if at all possible, can we make of the indigenous peoples in chronicles penned by Germanic knights and clerics who conquered the eastern Baltic?

The indigenous populations affected by the Baltic Crusades are largely given a voice through their material traces which have survived in the archaeological record. Critical reading of the written sources can also provide information on various aspects of indigenous life, including political and family structure, personal names, the ownership of property, religion and local customs. There are also later sources, such as Simon Grunau’s Preussische Chronik (c. early sixteenth century), that includes ethnographic observations of the indigenous population, although many scholars doubt its accuracy.

However, most of our knowledge of indigenous life comes from excavations of settlements and cemeteries, where traces of artifacts, buildings, and activities — such as manufacturing and food preparation — have been recovered, alongside the physical remains of indigenous people. We know that at the end of the twelfth century, political authority lay in the hands of families residing in strongholds, whose geopolitical influence varied across the eastern Baltic region. Associated settlements tended to be dispersed and based on extended family units.

We also know that sacred meaning was attached to lakes, rivers, trees, and stones, although many of these sites have ephemeral archaeological traces or have not been studied and are therefore difficult to date with precision. Cemeteries functioned as important sites of cult activity linked to ancestral memory, but also reinforced the political identity of the ruling warrior elite through ritual actions and the narratives associated with them. This was manifested most vividly in the sacrifice of horses at these sites, a ritual that endures amongst eastern Prussians and Lithuanians into the thirteenth century. Many native cemeteries continued to function after the crusades, where the indigenous elite who were vassals of the Christian regime buried their dead in a visibly distinctive way, with weapons and a richer assemblage of grave goods.

Cremation had been the preferred method of disposing of the dead before the crusades, although inhumation burials became increasingly popular from the eleventh century and would become the dominant rite. However, native cemeteries were regarded as potentially dangerous places by crusading institutions and in some areas, Christian authorities sought to end burial at these sites. The threat posed by cemeteries was clearly outlined in the 1249 Treaty of Christburg (between the Teutonic Order and the western Prussian nobility), which amongst other things, forbade the burial of horses and valuables and condemned the activities of ritual specialists at the graveside.

Our knowledge of indigenous rural settlements is perhaps the least developed, largely because of the lack of excavations of domestic spaces dating from the twelfth to sixteenth centuries. However, it is relatively clear that indigenous lifestyles — including religious beliefs — endured most of all within rural communities. There is also evidence for the persistence of indigenous identities in the newly founded towns, several of which grew into important Hanseatic centers.

In Riga, for example, recent excavations in the south-eastern part of the Old Town uncovered traces of an indigenous community (of Livs) identifiable by their distinctive architecture and material culture, suggesting native lifestyles and identity were either maintained deliberately or reflected low socioeconomic status. In all likelihood, these two mapped onto each and most (but not all) indigenous people living under the Christian regime were effectively disenfranchised, second class citizens. Elsewhere, such as in Prussian towns, there is virtually no material evidence for the maintenance of a distinct indigenous identity, although we know from written sources that native people were present in what may otherwise seem to be relatively homogeneous communities.

A symbol of German militarism, the black cross derives from the insignia emblazoned on the shields of the Teutonic Order. But what does the black cross actually signify? How and why has its original meaning evolved over the centuries? How does it factor into your current research project?

The Teutonic Order was modeled on the Templars, adopting their white tunics but marked with a black cross to differentiate them. The Order’s Rule specified the brethren’s insignia had to always remain visible as a clear visual identifier. The use of the cross as an emblem was commonly associated with crusading. The cult of the cross — with its clear link to Jerusalem — was important within the military orders; a relic of the true cross was transported to the chapel of the Teutonic Order’s convent at Elbing (today Elbląg in Poland), which functioned as the provincial headquarters of the conquered Prussian territories from the mid-thirteenth century, where it became the focus of a local pilgrimage cult. From the fourteenth century, the most popular motif on coins minted by the Order was a cross framed within a shield. Following the secularization of the Prussian branch of the Order in 1525 and its Livonian branch in 1561, the cross continued to be used by the Order where it retained its Catholic identity, especially in the territories of the Holy Roman Empire.

Within a growing climate of nationalism in the Kingdom of Prussia which drew inspiration from the former Teutonic Order’s state, the black cross was re-adopted as a military honor in 1813 and became a popular brand of Prussian identity. Its new form — the “iron cross” — was designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel (commissioned by the Prussian King Frederick William III), who would go on to design some of the earliest neo-Gothic buildings in Europe, inspired by the red brick medieval buildings of Prussia and parts of Germany. Whilst the cross underlined the medieval heritage of the ‘Iron Kingdom’, it no longer retained the religious significance associated with the Teutonic Order and the crusading movement. I’m using the motif of the black cross in a similar way, to connect the crusader states of Prussia and Livonia with the nationalist narratives of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but I’m emphasizing the differences between the two eras of its usage — medieval and modern.

Because of its popular use and proliferation during the Third Reich, the iron cross remains widely perceived as a symbol of German militaristic aggression into the present day (including within Germany), although it was quietly readopted by the reformed German army (the Budeswehr) in 1955. Increased knowledge of the history of northeastern Europe, especially the connections and disconnections between the medieval and modern periods, will slowly change more general perceptions of the symbol. The iron cross has been adopted by alternative groups such as rock bands and bikers with the intention of shocking, rather than promoting Nazi ideology, and despite its popularity amongst neo-Nazi groups, the Anti-Defamation League does not classify this as a hate symbol when used in isolation. Moreover, it is very clear that historical re-enactors who wear the black cross of the Teutonic Order (who are very popular today in Poland and even in the Russian Kaliningrad Oblast) do not connect this emblem to its later, more politically loaded iteration.

If the history of the northern crusades is limited to Germanic accounts and their recent historiography to anachronistic nationalism, how do you write a history that accounts for both while avoiding their mistakes?

There is now a substantial body of criticism on the written sources for the crusades and the society they created, and recent historiography has moved away from earlier nationalist narratives. This is not to say that nationalist narratives have vanished, but it is also striking that major museums in the eastern Baltic are increasingly telling a different story of the Middle Ages. The defining feature of earlier nationalist histories was the creation of a simplistic polarized opposition between “Germans,” “Slavs,” “Balts,” “Estonians,” etc., which framed an overarching narrative of an ethnic struggle that was traced back to the crusades.

For Prussian nationalists, the Teutonic Order and its colonists were regarded as introducing civilization to the primitive peoples of the East. For Baltic nationalists on the other hand, the German conquest was regarded as interrupting the natural development of indigenous culture. Comparisons with colonialism in Africa and the Americas resulted in the idea of “the discovery of the Baltic” by Germans in the twelfth century, and both sides of the nationalist spectrum regarded the crusades as an early form of German colonialism. Elements of this essentialism have survived in popular culture, such as the presentation of the Battle of Grunwald in Poland (also known as Tannenberg, where the Teutonic Order were dramatically defeated by a Polish-Lithuanian army in 1410), largely influenced by Henryk Sienkiewicz’s popular novel, Krzyżacy (The Teutonic Knights) (1900).

It is not difficult to challenge these ahistorical caricatures and replace them with a more complex understanding of the crusading period, and the variable relationship between the colonists and the colonized. It is important to draw on multiple strands of evidence to tell the story of the Baltic Crusades from different perspectives, and whilst there are elements of what we would call cultural apartheid in the societies forged from the military conquests, there is no evidence of a polarized ethnic struggle.

In the case of Livonia, for example, the crusades were facilitated by power struggles between different indigenous groups, and more broadly confronted the influence of neighboring Russian states. The Teutonic Order was promoted and perceived as the defender of Christendom in northeastern Europe against Eastern Orthodox Novgorod and pagan Lithuania, its motivations were concerned with maintaining security, rather than with an agenda of ethnic cleansing or enslavement. The resilience — not just resistance — of indigenous societies in the face of conquest and cultural change is one of the most important themes in this project. Indigenous culture was neither timeless before the crusades, nor was it unaffected by them.