Monday, August 20, 2012

The Baltic Crusades

When discussing the Crusades, those of the Levant that took place  between 1095 and 1272 are  undoubtedly the most famous. Yet, we must recall that the famous expeditions to the Holy Land were only one aspect of a larger crusading movement that was going on in Europe  from the late 11th to the late 14th centuries. The Spanish  Reconquista, which went on from the 11th century until 1492 is  typically lumped in with the crusades, as it involved the reconquest of formerly Christian lands from the Muslims.

This post concerns itself with the least known yet perhaps most  successful of all the crusading ventures, the so-called Northern or Baltic Crusades, which went on intermittently from 1147 to 1316 and  concerned the attempts of the Teutonic Order and the nobility of northeastern Germany to bring the pagan Baltic tribes under their control and convert them to Catholicism. 

The Northern Crusades are different from the Crusades to the Holy Land in several important aspects:

1) The Northern Crusades were primarily led by the military orders from beginning to end; the military orders did not play such a large role in the Holy Land crusades.

2) Unlike the Crusades the the Holy Land, the Northern Crusades were ultimately successful.

3) The Northern Crusades had as their end not only the conquest of land but the mass conversion of the populations. Mass conversions were not an aim in crusades to the Holy Land; in Spain, the Reconquista aimed only at expelling the Muslims, not ultimately converting them. It was one of the rare instances in the Church's history where the faith truly was spread by the sword.

4) The Northern Crusade was not designated as a Crusade properly speaking. In 1147, Pope Eugenius III issued the papal bull Divina dispensatione, which, while not declaring the Northern Crusades to be legitimate crusades in the strict sense, nevertheless made the same indulgences available to the Northern crusaders as had been made available to the others. Even though the Northern Crusade was not called a crusade until the 19th century, there was no distinction in spiritual benefits between the two crusades.

5) Unlike the crusades and the Reconquista, the Northern Crusade cannot really be claimed to be defensive except in a very tenuous manner.

6)  There was no question of reclaiming previously Christian lands - this was simple conquest of pagan populations.

While Catholic apologists focus a lot of energy defending the legitimacy of the more famous crusades to the Holy Land, the Northern Crusades present more of a difficulty for the Catholic apologists. The grounds for the crusades were questionable, we have war for the sake of pure subjugation, with forcible conversion (something the Church has always condemned) and done with papal approval - even St. Bernard of Clairvaux was a supporter of the Northern Crusades. On the surface, it seems like we have a situation of the Church compromising her principles (just war, necessity of free assent to the faith) for the sake of conquest and plunder. Is this in fact the case?

However you look at it, the Church does not look at its best in the Northern Crusades. The war was savage, baptism was often forced upon conquered populations as a term of peace, and conquered populations forced into feudal servitude. Bishops were often at the head of the crusading armies.

Yet, I do think there are some things we could say to help us put this in better perspective.

It is important that Eugenius III did not specifically refer to the Baltic conquests as a crusade. He seemed hesitant to do so, and while he offered the Baltic Christian armies the same indulgences as the other crusaders, the fact that he refrained from labeling it a crusade is important. It suggests the pope himself did not believe this was really a crusade, or at the very least was uncertain. This would indicate that, while tentatively supported by the Pope, these expeditions did not as morally clear as the other Crusades. They were in a somewhat lower category. This means we have to be more careful about saying that they were "endorsed" by the Church in a formal sense.

Second, we must acknowledge, as a simple matter of history, that the principle of just war was applied much more loosely in the Middle Ages than today. Nowadays, with our extremely destructive forms of warfare and the spectre of two world wars still haunting us, the Church has been extremely hesitant in making any modern applications of Just War. Some have even suggested that a truly Just War is no longer possible in the modern world. I would not go this far, but these comments serve to point out that the application of the principle if much more restricted than it had been in the past. For example, the following were considered just some causes for Just War in the Middle Ages:

  • Lord breaking his oath to a vassal or vassal to a lord (this was seen as treachery and a form of aggression that required a defensive response; this was the justification William of Normandy gave when he conquered England).
  • Excommunication of one's lord (this made him an invalid ruler and thus a de facto usurper who needed to be removed, e.g., Emperor Henry IV during the Investiture Controversy)
  • An attack on the rights of the Church, even in secondary matters (when the Hohenstaufens of Sicily were attacking the political rights of the papacy, the Church called in Charles of Anjou to make war on them and drive them out of Sicily).
  • The presence of endemic heresy, as in the case of the Albigensian Crusade, although it should be mention that this was contested even in its day.
  • The spread of the Christian Faith (this was the justification behind most of Charlemagne's wars).
  • Consolidation of "rightfully owned" dynastic provinces - Edward I's wars in France were justified because Edward was attempting to take land that he had a dynastic claim to but that was lost during the reign of King John.

  • Self defense. This goes without saying, but it should be stressed that "self-defense" was understood differently then than now. The medievals believed in a preemptive pacification; that is, the mere presence of a hostile force on the frontier, even if they not actually invaded or made war, constituted a real threat that could be neutralized. Furthermore, almost any aggressive action on the part of one party could justify almost any response from the defender without regard to proportionality. The aggressor could do something as small as raid a few villages and the defender would respond with a full-scale invasion. This was seen as just under the principle of preemptive pacification.
None of these causi belli would pass muster by Catholic standards in the 21st century, yet we see them broadly applied in the Middle Ages. Just War is an accepted principle of the Church, but how Just War is applied has varied throughout the ages; ultimately it is up to the political authority to inform themselves on the Church's teaching and apply it appropriately. In the Middle Ages, these applications were very broad, and while we may not agree with them now, we must say that the Northern Crusades did fit the medieval requirements for a war to be just - it was undertaken to spread the Faith, defend the rights of the Church (the pagans of the Baltic had made incursions into Christian lands and attacked churches, though not very severely), and was, to some degree, in self-defense. Whether or not we agree with it, the wars at the time were considered just, though it was debated whether they were truly crusades.

Another problem was the Ottonian system in Germany. Most of the princes and ecclesiastics in charge of the Northern Crusades were Germanic; the Teutonic Order was the chief military order involved in the fighting. Ever since the time of Otto I (r. 936-973), the first Holy Roman Emperor, bishops had doubled as secular rulers in the Germanic dominions. Otto initially transformed ecclesiastical lords into temporal lords as a mean to strengthen his kingdom (see here for a previous post I did on the Ottonians), but it had the unintended effect of confounding the responsibilities of the bishops by involving them heavily in secular affairs. Thus, while the Holy Land Crusades and the Reconquista were in the hands of secular princes, the Northern Crusade was in the hands of men with mixed responsibilities. Military conquest and spiritual conquest were mingled together, and the establishment of an episcopal see also meant the establishment of a garrison. Lands conquered by the Teutonic Knights became hereditary holdings of the lords of that order.  Ecclesiastical and secular interests were muddled; this sullied the purity of the cause.

Another aspect to consider is this issue of forced conversions; several times during the Northern Crusades, conquered tribes were offered peace only if conversion followed. It could be argued that this violated the Church's teaching that conversion cannot be compulsory. If this is in fact true, it is a serious indictment of the Church's judgment in this matter, since many bishops took part in the campaign and it was supported by the pope.

There are two reasons, however, why what occurred in the Baltic Crusades was not compulsory acceptance of the faith. For one thing, as with Just War, the medieval Church interpreted "compulsion" differently than we do today. Today, if there was a situation where one group said "convert to Christianity or we will make war on you", the Church and the public at large would probably say this constituted compulsion.

Not so in the Middle Ages. During the period in question, compulsion had to be immediate and very direct (i.e., standing at the baptismal font with a sword saying, "Get baptized or I will kill you"). In other words, the compulsion must be immediate and the threat must be personal; "Become Christians or we will make war on your country" simply was not considered compulsive conversion.

That is simply from a canonical standpoint; many debated the merit of the concept from a policy standpoint. Many during the time of the Northern Crusades suggested that force of arms was not the best way to convince others of the truth of the Gospel. St. Boniface had found this out centuries earlier when working among Germans who were forcibly converted by the Frankish monarchy, and it again proved true in the Baltic. Adalbert, first Bishop of Pomerania, gained lands and his episcopal see through the crusade but later critiqued the use of arms in spreading the Faith.

We must point out that even though there has always been an understanding that people cannot be compelled to accept the Faith, there has been a precedent in Catholic history, at least theoretically, for the legitimacy of conquering non-Christian peoples for the purpose of introducing the Christian faith to them. We must be careful with distinctions, here; forcing individuals to accept the Faith was never a tenable concept in the Catholic Church; forcibly subjecting whole kingdoms to Catholic rulers for the purpose of later inducing them to accept the Faith voluntarily was an acceptable idea. We could cite, for example, Dum diversas of Nicholas V (1452), where the pope told the King of Portugal:

"We grant to you full and free power, through the Apostolic authority by this edict, to invade, conquer, fight, subjugate the Saracens and pagans, and other infidels and other enemies of Christ..."

We could also cite Romanus Pontifex, also of Nicholas V, that enunciates the same principle and it worth quoting at length:

"The Roman pontiff, successor of the key-bearer of the heavenly kingdom and vicar of Jesus Christ, contemplating with a father's mind all the several climes of the world and the characteristics of all the nations dwelling in them and seeking and desiring the salvation of all, wholesomely ordains and disposes upon careful deliberation those things which he sees will be agreeable to the Divine Majesty and by which he may bring the sheep entrusted to him by God into the single divine fold, and may acquire for them the reward of eternal felicity, and obtain pardon for their souls. This we believe will more certainly come to pass, through the aid of the Lord, if we bestow suitable favors and special graces on those Catholic kings and princes, who, like athletes and intrepid champions of the Christian faith, as we know by the evidence of facts, not only restrain the savage excesses of the Saracens and of other infidels, enemies of the Christian name, but also for the defense and increase of the faith vanquish them and their kingdoms and habitations, though situated in the remotest parts unknown to us, and subject them to their own temporal dominion, sparing no labor and expense, in order that those kings and princes, relieved of all obstacles, may be the more animated to the prosecution of so salutary and laudable a work.

We have lately heard, not without great joy and gratification, how our beloved son, the noble personage Henry, infante of Portugal...king of the kingdoms of Portugal and Algarve...has aspired from his early youth with his utmost might to cause the most glorious name of the said Creator to be published, extolled, and revered throughout the whole world, even in the most remote and undiscovered places, and also to bring into the bosom of his faith the perfidious enemies of him and of the life-giving Cross by which we have been redeemed, namely the Saracens and all other infidels whatsoever...Also by the laudable endeavor and industry of the said prince, very many inhabitants or dwellers in divers islands situated in the said sea, coming to the knowledge of the true God, have received holy baptism, to the praise and glory of God, the salvation of the souls of many, the propagation also of the orthodox faith, and the increase of divine worship."

Notice that the pope praises the conquests of Henry as leading to the conversion of the Saracens and pagans. He states that this is "agreeable to Divine Majesty" and says that the conversion (voluntary) of pagans and Saracens can be most effectively carried out if the Church aids Catholic princes in bringing these infidels (involuntarily) under the political rule of Catholic prince. An involuntary subjugation can lead to opportunities for voluntary conversions.

Was this the Church's teaching? Most these statements come in papal bulls that are confirming certain temporal rulers in their rights to land or trade. I would day these sorts of statements do not reflect Church teaching but are more of a kind of policy statement of the papacy at any given time in history. That is why I do not think the modern Church would use such statements, especially in an age where the Catholic kingdom has given way to the secular nation-state. So, while they are not Church teaching, these statements about the good of subjecting non-Christians to Catholic rule do reflect papal policy at the time.

To sum up, what can we say about the Northern Crusades?

First, that in the Northern Crusades we see the crusading movement at work with a bit more avarice and savagery than usual. The temporal and ecclesiastical goals of the war were intermingled, a policy of conversion backed by military force was adopted - though not without reservation - and thus the campaigns in the Baltic fell far short of the crusading ideal. Thought this is regrettable, Catholics need not be too alarmed by this, because the papal support given for these campaigns does not represent the unchanging teaching of the Church but the political policy of the papacy of the latter Middle Ages.


Sam Danziger said...

I recently read Henryk Sienkiewicz's "Knights of the Cross" which takes place in 14th century Poland. As a Polish nationalist, Sienkiewicz regarded the Tutonic knights as Christians in name only. Certainly not legitimate crusaders.

1987 said...

Lithuanian historiography, which has for most of the time been shaped by Catholic historians, sees the Baltic crusades as a negative phenomenon. They are seen as an attempt by a foreign - German - force to undermine the Lithuanian state, which was then the biggest - thoug certainly not best developed - country in Europe.

But the Church is not seen as responsible for those events - actually, there are some documents preserved which show pope Eugenius did not stand on the side of the "cusaders". He explicitly acknowledged the right of the Lithuanian rulers (pagan, but very tolerant to the Christians living in their lands) to rule the territory. He also condemned the use of force on the side of the "crusaders" and tried to persuade them to spread the Gospel by other means.

The problem is that spreading Gospel was rather a secondary issue for the Northern "crusaders". Many historians even say that if there had been no "crusaders", Lithuanians would have become Christians much sooner than they (we) astually did.

Just to remind, Lithuania was the last European nation to be baptised, and Samogitia - the North-Western tarritory of Lithuania - will celebrate the 600th anniversary of their baptism just next year - 2013!

Marco da Vinha said...

So would compulsory marriage be a bit more "losely defined", as in the case of compulsory baptism?

Boniface said...

I think so...using compulsion to encourage someone to freely contract marriage.

Marco da Vinha said...

So, to clarify:

"Back in the day" compulsory Baptism was only understood as you put it - compulsion "near" the baptismal font; so, compulsory Matrimony would be understood "near the altar"?