The Baltic Crusades and European paganism’s last stand against Christianity

INTRO

When there is a talk about the Crusades, people usually think only of the wars against the Muslims in the Holy Land in the 11th through 13th centuries. But there were another Crusades going on in same time in North Eastern Europe – the Baltic Crusades.

The topic about Crusades against Baltic people is still very poorly presented by the European history. Probably because the real meaning of Crusades was forced expansion and subsequent occupation of Baltic lands and not the “bringing of light and culture” to the pagan “low lifes”. This occupation was performed by so called ”bigger and richer”‘ European nations and they were never keen to speak about such shameful things on pages of history books, especially some time ago. No big heroic deeds were accomplished here, nor legendary battles fought in name of freedom and honour and better future by invading crusaders.
For many centuries there was given explanation of what happened in Baltic region – that purpose of Crusades was to bring a culture to degenerated pagan tribes of Balts, who lived almost like animals and were finished down only for their own good.
If our two Baltic nations (Latvians and Lithuanians) had not a power to survive through the centuries, it’s possible that topic of Baltic crusades would not be examined and talked at all, or it would be presented then in a different view, far from historical truth.

My personal opinion is that when the European nations swapped their pagan traditions for Christianity and were forced to baptize by power–hungry leaders, they also lost and destroyed much of their own traditional cultures. The result of it was Roman-Judaic-European hybrid culture, in remains of which we still live today.

The Baltic lands were the last citadel of this old European culture, where it remained untouched for so long due to the regions’ natural isolation. The Baltic people had been traditionally very conservative in their beliefs and practices, and it was difficult to make them change simply because the new religion of Christianity was spreading around so rapidly.

It was the Crusades against the Baltic region which put an end to this way of life, its traditions and legacy of ancient wisdom through a baptism of fire and sword from the Catholic Church.

BEGINNING

Following the public obsession of the Holy Wars and Crusades in Central Europe, along with a few failed missions in the Far East, the Catholic Church and ruling military forces soon discovered that there were still unchristianized Pagan lands. What’s more, these countries were nowhere else but in North Eastern Europe, close to their own borders!

Europe were flooded with soldiers, mercenaries and simple fortune seekers, who were ready to fight wherever the luck and money could be found. Also there were military factions like the Teutonic Order, who had not achieved much success in the Holy Land as compared to the Templars or Hospitallers, and now they were looking for an opportunity to get a new place of establishment.

This entire time Baltic pagan tribes were separated from the rest of Europe behind thick forests and swamps and still lived  by their own old ways handed over from generation to generation. Though armed conflicts and invasions did often occur, they had no any significant impact on culture and life in general.

During many decades Vikings tried to conquer and establish their control over the Baltic shores. However, their endeavours had not much of success as they were soon either overthrown and driven away, or stayed on to mix in with the local tribes.

Other outsiders who had their sights set onto the North Eastern lands were the Russian Orthodox Church which attempted to christianize the Baltic pagans and convert them to Orthodoxy, though this mission ended poorly.  There were also some Russian warlords who wished to subjugate pagan Balts to collect more tax money, but this too had failed.

Also there were the Polish dukes, who made attacks against the Old Prussians in order to expand their lands, adding some feeble attempts to convert pagan Prussians to Catholicism at the same time.

All in all, battles and conflicts between the Baltic people and invaders were ongoing long before the Crusades against them had begun. Local tribes were also fighting each other in raids to plunder wealth and slaves. They even went as far as to aggravate surrounding countries: reports exist of Estonian and Curonian pirates launching assaults on lands like Denmark and Sweden, not only to attack merchant ships but also taking part in local Scandinavian wars for power. The Old Prussians too would constantly strike counter-raids against the Poles, while Lithuanian and Latvian tribes plundered Russian borders.

This was to change however, when in 1193 Pope Celestine III called out for a new crusade against pagan Balts and Baltic Finns.

CRUSADE AGAINST LATVIA

The first Catholic preachers arrived in present-day Latvia in 1180, accompanied by German merchants who followed old Viking trading routes along the river Daugava (Duna). Immediately, they started their missions of preaching and performing baptisms among the local Livonian people, where they began to establish their communities and building first churches.

Initially, these “Holy” men behaved in a friendly manner which led them to be met with warm welcomes from the pagan tribes. However, when the Livonians refused to convert to the new religion, the priests revealed their true colours and called up armed forces to aid their goals.

In 1199, Albert of Buxhoeveden was then appointed by the Archbishop Hartwig II of Bremen to Christianize the Baltic countries. He gathered crusaders in Germany and arrived with the clear purpose of conquer these lands. To support his plans, a new military faction,  Brothers of the Sword, was founded in 1202.
It was around the start of the 14th century, following many countless, bloodied battles, that the lands of present-day Latvia and Estonia were captured by German forces and officially converted over to Catholicism. For the next few centuries, they were known under the name “Livonia”.

Yet despite this official status, the locals continued to follow their ancient traditions almost up until the beginning of the 20th century! Since Christianity wasn’t fully introduced to the Baltic tribes, they were able to persist with practicing their pagan customs and beliefs. Though they were baptized by force, very little was actually done by the priests to explain the basic teachings and values of this foreign religion to them; all of the Holy texts and ministrations that were essential to the cause were written and spoken in Latin, the official language of the Church, rather than the local tongue of the Latvian peasants.

A lot of Semigallian, Curonian and Sellonian people, who didn’t gave up their pagan religion, moved to the yet unconquered neighbouring Lithuanian land and from there continued their resistance fights against Christian invaders.

CRUSADE AGAINST OLD PRUSSIA

In 1226, after Old Prussians destroyed Polish Order of Dobrin which were formed with a purpose to subdue the Prussians, Polish duke Konrad asked for help to German Teutonic Order and offered them some of his lands as foothold for expansion to Prussia.

The conquest of Prussia was accomplished in course of more than 50 years of continuous bloodshed. During this time native Prussians who remained unbaptized were subjugated, killed or exiled. Fights between the Knights and the Prussians were ferocious; some lands were totally exterminated to such extent that there were no people left at all!

Similarly as Latvian and Estonian tribes, Prussians were not easy giving up their religion and lifestyle – in many cases they rather choose to die than surrender.

Those of Prussians, who still tried to resist, again went off to newly established pagan Kingdom of Lithuania and continued to fight invaders among Lithuanians.

The empty Prussian lands were soon inhabited by German settlers and remaining Old Prussians were turned into peasants or slowly assimilated with Germans and thus vanished from the pages of history. Later German settlers started to name themselves as Prussians and formed Kingdom of Prussia which was completely eliminated after World War II.

CRUSADE AGAINST LITHUANIA

In a meantime, while Latvian, Estonian and Prussian tribes in bloody battles stood against Crusaders, neighboring Lithuanians had a chance to form their own pagan kingdom. Soon it emerged as a great power and serious opponent to the European invaders.

After many armed conflicts with Teutonic and Livonian Orders, some of the Lithuanian Grand dukes allowed to baptize themselves into Catholicism in a hope to cease bloodshed. Nevertheless the attacks didn’t stop! Now Lithuanians realized how hypocritical were Christian promises and what they really wanted were their lands, not saving their souls!

Grand dukes like Mindaugas and Gedeminas in disgust threw away new religion and turned back to paganism.

The Teutonic Knights failed to subdue pagan Lithuania, which officially converted to (Catholic) Christianity in 1386 as Grand Duke Jogaila married the 11-year-old Queen Jadwiga of Poland.

Lithuanians formed alliance with Poland and finally defeated Teutonic Order at the Battle of Grunwald (also known as Battle of Žalgiris or Battle of Tannenberg) in 1410, thus putting an end to Crusades against Baltic people.

P.S.

The failure of Baltic people to stand against Crusaders were not because they were weak, poorly armed or disorganized, but because they had limited manpower while Crusaders always got constant supply of fresh forces from all over Europe joining their ranks.

Lithuania as the last pagan bastion foresaw same fate as Prussians or Latvians had nearby and therefore converted to Christianity to save its people and land.

36 thoughts on “The Baltic Crusades and European paganism’s last stand against Christianity

  1. Once again, this is both entertaining and informative, I thank you for sharing your knowledge!

    In taking history classes in school, obviously there is a limited amount of time, so EVERY subject cannot be covered in detail. But, it is convenient that the subjects that are cut out for reasons of time constraints, are often also those which do not portray certain (western) cultures in a positive way!

  2. Interesting subject historians are not so reliable when it comes to it at all.
    Many thinks scandinavia was the last pagan community . Making research on Baltic history makes people realise things they dont know about ancient Europe.
    In these days of technology and multiculturalism people dont care about their heritage and history.

    • And there are so many articles on the subject that are only too eager to point out how uneducated and “hoping for someone come and save Balts from their own bloody fights among the tribes” that makes the invaders almost the saviors. STILL!! awful.

  3. There are so many instances of history being written by the victors that it is difficult to rely on official histories. I wonder if the Baltic people themselves have suffered a sort of cultural Stockholm syndrome where the ‘hostage’ starts to support and defend the values of the oppressor. This may to some extent explain the Lithuanian Catholic church’s strong opposition to Romuva being officially recognized as a heritage religion, and for the church to cut off access to the old sacred pagan sites on which many churches were built. Who is performing the sacrilege, those who built the churches, or those who want to recognize the site’s historic purpose. If these pagan sites are so sacrilegious, why build churches on them? Lets face it, the true history can be a very inconvenient truth to modern churchmen.

    • Yea, there are lots and lots of things they would have gladly wanted to erase from memories and history pages, so none could speak about them anymore. And hypocritical society still pretend as if they know nothing about it, about how and what happened in our past.

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  5. As a Jewish Atheist, and one who is SICKENED by Christ-ianity in general, I love a good read about Christ-ianity’s past blunders. THANK YOU!!!

  6. Thank you for the history lesson. . Thank you so much for your blog and for your music. I almost cried when I heard it..it was familiar..and METAL. Anyway good to know that I am not alone in my understanding that our pagan heritage is remarkable and ancient. Thanks for posting photos…nice to see other latvians without having to fake it at the latvian lutheran church socials. Regards.

  7. Great story, you should check out the book Illustrated History of the Freemasons, the part pertaining to the history of Germania, i think you would enjoy it as it lays out 600 b.c. till where most other sources kick in, and would probably inspire you to write quite a bite more,

  8. It was really nice to read. To bad that here in Estonia there are not much books about the history of ancient Latvia and Lithuania. Luckily we have the “Old Rime Chronic” translated into Estonian and i can read about the battles between Lithuanians and Teutonic knights.

    Is the old “Chronic of Prussia” translated into Latvian language? Unfortunately it hasnt been translated into estonian so I cant read it. Although I found a digital copy of the chronic, but it is in latin.

    • Yea same here – they (various Prussian chronicles) aren’t translated officially in Latvian for people to buy in a book, but there is excerptions or even full texts in some special books or PDFs which I found, translated by enthusiasts or some historians for their own usage.
      Well, at least something…
      As well here in Latvia there is no official books of Estonian or Lithuanian history – this always makes me wonder how it can be that we live in neighborhood, share almost same history and there is no way to learn or read about it for ordinary people!
      Everything I know about Estonia’s history comes from Livonan Chronicles and Rhyme Chronicles.

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  10. This is such a garbage and a true culural- Marxism inspired propaganda version of ,,history” it is just shameful to read. Everything is twisted and just laughable lies and total ignorance of the real history. Please, tread some real history book.

  11. The Christianization of Prussia is absent in general history books for the same reason that the Islamization of Albania is absent in general history books. That is, it is perceived to be periphery and secondary developments, unimportant in the grand scheme of things, not deserving of proper treatment in limited space. One may convincingly argue that Prussia’s Christianization is more important than most historians think it is, but it is absurd to suggest, as you do, that it remains an obscure topic because the powers that be are somehow embarrassed by it and want it to remain hidden.

    • I never said something like “”historians or some political forces tries to hide that there were any Crusades against Baltic people”‘. What I say is that this topic is very unknown in context of whole Crusades as well as history of Balts and Baltic region. There is still this syndrome of big and small nations around as it was in olden times.

      I remember when I watched Discovery program about Amber trade road, Balts wasn’t even mentioned there! They just said: there were some people, who lived by the Baltic sea and gathered amber and that’s all! Who was they it is not important even in today’s history.

      • Forgive me if I’ve misunderstood you. But in the introductory section of your post, you did not simply note that the event is unknown, but expressed you view on why it is unknown. This is what you said :

        – The topic about Crusades against Baltic people is still very poorly presented by the European history. Probably because the real meaning of Crusades was forced expansion and subsequent occupation of Baltic lands and not the “bringing of light and culture” to the pagan “low lifes”. –

        As far as I can tell, you’re quite clearly claiming that the Northern Crusades are underrepresented in European historiography, not because of the low historical importance historians give them, but the embarrassment their unethical character causes to moderns. Likewise, when you say :

        – This occupation was performed by so called ”bigger and richer”‘ European nations and they were never keen to speak about such shameful things on pages of history books, especially some time ago. –

        … you’re implying that the primary reason why the event is unknown is that historiographical establishments in powerful European nations wanted ( and still want?) the event to remain obscure and excluded from history books.

        • Sorry for late answer – I was little busy around.
          I think you picking on words. I also said “”probably”” and “”especially some time ago””.
          I doubt that you can show me any “”casual”” history book from 19th century or beginning of 20th century, where this topic is clearly discussed. Common people, not high grade historians, knew nothing about it.
          Probably – as I said, politic of state had some reasons why not to tell about it in history lessons or simply considered this topic as “”not important””.
          For example in Soviet times we were taught in school that Great Russian nation came and saved us from evil German crusaders and thanx to them now we live happy and free!

  12. Your information is intresting , its also the same song sung by any people who lost a war 700 years ago . As far as being kept a secret by powerful forces in darkened halls, you managed to dig it up . Ever occur to you that cultures obey evolution , like most everything else . No doubt the Roman Church did all kinds of things their not to proud of at some point what happened good or bad is your culture I am Irish and I say that …. talk about screwed by the Church

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  14. I don’t understand why Christans these days don’t fess up to this! I’m sincerely disapointed and justifiably angered that so much history was lost! I want to learn more about their beliefs and practices, but how can i when there is so little evidence that they even existed in the first place? And now, the same thing has happened to the Cherokees…run off their homelands, exiled, murdered en masse, and now they are losing their traditions in the hopes of not being so poor, in being “up to date”, and now their beliefs are dying, too. How long before all of the peaceful earth-worshipping religions are wiped off the face of the earth, anhilated and forgotten from the present and in history? Granted, not all the earth-worshipping religions is or were peaceful. And that is something i would like to study in more detail, too!

  15. I think that what you have written in the post scriptum about Lithuania could have be true to Poland in tenth century – I learnt that Mieszko I baptism cut the ground from under Germans’ feet, they lost tle legitimate reason to attack Polans (not that they really needed it).
    Generally speaking it was very interesting article, but I would like to stress the fact that Jadwiga of Poland was a king of Poland before she married Jagiełło (she was crowned in 1384). Władysław II Jagiełło was Iure uxoris king of Poland since 4th of March 1386 till 17th July 1399 (it was after Jadwiga’s death when he became king of Poland).

    • Hmm I mentioned that she was a queen – I never heard that female rulers were called kings, were they?

      • There were cases – for example her sister Mary was crowned “King of Hungary” on the demand of her mother in 1382. In Jadwiga’s case she was crowned as King of Poland on demand of her father, Louis the Great, King of Hungary and Poland (he had no sons). Jadwiga became a king after her father made some set of concessions for Polish nobility in 1374 (Privilege of Koszyce). Maybe there were another cases when woman became a king (I do not include here ancient history – for example Hatshepsut) but I do not know about them.

  16. Where can I learn more about the Baltic Crusades and about Baltic pagan traditions in general? Are there any good books on the topic?

    • There is a lot of books, but they are mostly in Latvian, Lithuanian or Russian language, I really don’t know if there is any in English.
      For starters you can read M. Gimbutas book The Balts – it is translated in english and it can give you common picture who was/is Balts. I can send it to you as PDF and other stuff I have in English if you like, just give me your mail.

  17. I was interested to read your very informative writing about the Baltic crusades.
    I had gone onto the Internet as a result of watching a television programme about a knight who had been exhumed in the 1970s in an almost perfect state of preservation, somewhere in Yorkshire ,Northern England during excavations at an old church,at the time I seem to recall that it was thought he died of injuries sustained in a tournament.
    His corpse had been encased in lead and when the casing was opened he was remarkably preserved, his features were clearly visible even down to the pupils in his eyes. The corpse was taken to a modern hospital for an autopsy to establish his cause of death which proved to be battle wounds and eventual death due to some crushing of the chest cavity breaking ribs .
    Recent research has been carried out which provided some quite unexpected results. It seems that this knight died in the 1360s on crusade and unusually his body was sent home to be buried. Further research into written archives helped solve the mystery of who he was and the story of his life and death. It is thought that he had also fought earlier in his life against the Scots in the more or less continual wars of Scottish Independence ,this is where my main interest in history lies.
    I had heard of the Teutonic Knights when I was younger and seem to remember something about Alexander Nevsky beating them and driving them back…was there a battle fought on a frozen lake somewhere? As a child I was captivated by stories about the Crusades,but had never really appreciated the politics behind them….sadly the world is currently perhaps suffering the prolonged aftershocks of what happened?
    I am keen to find out more about the subject, such as what was the nature of the pagan religion followed? Was it similar to the Norrse gods with Odin and Thor, or was it similar to the pre Christian religion led by Druids that existed in Britain?
    If you are interested I will try and find some details of the TV programme I watched last week for you, as it was fascinating in it’s own right.

    • Hi Douglas!
      yeah, I would like to see that TV programme.
      About Baltic religion, it was quite close and had many similarities with Norse and Slavic paganism. Regarding Alexander Nevsky and battle on lake Peipus, it’s Soviet/Russian propaganda made myth, while in some German chronicles it was mentioned as unimportant local fight.

  18. I am als on Facebook if anyone else would like to correspond with me regarding the topic .Douglas Kearney, Scotland

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