German Crusades East

Late 12th Century Northern Cog

In the conquest of Livonia, Bishop Albert took an important decision when he moved the centre of all his operations to Riga, close to the mouth of the Dvina, which was strongly fortified. Castles were the keys to the land, and time and time again resisted pagan assault. In 1211, a large Estonian army supported by a fleet attacked Caupo’s great fort on the Aa, which was partly held by Christian Livonians; they were able to hold out until a relief force from Riga arrived.29 But not only were the forts of the Christians stronger – they had also developed the art of siege warfare much more highly.

The decisive technical factor which sustained the German conquest was not military at all, but a by-product of the economic expansion of Europe, the merchant cog or round-ship. These were large, solidly built craft up to 30m long and 9.5m wide – by the end of the thirteenth century, deadweights of 200 tons were possible. They were popular with merchants in the Baltic and elsewhere because they could carry an immense load, up to about 250 tons, with a crew of only about 18–20, and so they were available to the German crusaders. By contrast, their pagan enemies did not have the means to build such expensive vessels. The cog could carry 500 people – very useful for bringing in and supplying crusaders and their settlements. As fighting ships, they were helped by a high freeboard, which meant that they towered over anything else that could float, like a castle at sea: indeed, one was turned into a floating fort to guard the mouth of the Dvina against enemy attack. The cog was never fast or manoeuvrable, but it was very seaworthy, especially after the introduction of the stern-post rudder, and it could be towed up rivers. Henry the Lion came to recognize the need for seapower, as we have noted, but the increase in Baltic shipping brought a decisive advantage to the Germans. In 1215, two cogs were enough to scatter the Estonian fleet in the mouth of the Dvina, and a little later that year nine cogs bearing pilgrims returning to Germany were trapped by bad weather in Oesel, where large numbers of Estonian ships tried in vain to destroy them.

Lithuanian Expansion of the Teutonic Knights

In the mid-thirteenth century Teutonic Knights had brought about the conversion of a deadly enemy, Mindaugas, and crowned him as the first king of Lithuania. They did this in the traditional manner for the region, by persuading him that it was to his advantage to have the crusaders as allies rather than as enemies. With help from the Teutonic Knights – or, more to the point, perhaps, without the Teutonic Knights striking into his territories from the north and west – Mindaugas could expand his realm into Tatar-threatened Rus’ian lands in a wide arc from his north-east to his south-west.

For Mindaugas, the only unpleasant aspect to the reversal of religious orientation – other than having to explain his change of heart to his priests and boyars – was to have a few drops of water sprinkled on his head and having to listen to an occasional strange ritual with exotic music. Being already monogamous and not much impressed by any religious doctrine, pagan or Christian, he changed his behaviour and attitudes very little. This scepticism was not a good sign for the Teutonic Knights – conversions based solely on Realpolitik are rooted in sandy soil, and in the early 1260s Mindaugas began to see more disadvantages in being a Christian than advantages. Consequently he returned to paganism with about as much enthusiasm as he had embraced Catholicism – it seemed the best way to placate those nobles who admired the way the Samogitian pagans were crushing crusader armies. The change of heart saved Mindaugas only a short while, however, his enemies assassinating him anyway, but his rejection of Roman Catholicism altered the seemingly predetermined history of the Baltic region. His successors were to remain pagan for more than a century, largely because their important subjects believed that the native gods brought victories in battle, but also because their Rus’ian subjects were more willing to tolerate pagans ruling over them temporarily than to accept Roman Catholic help. Gediminas (b.1257, grand prince 1316 – 41) was an eminently practical ruler, and so were his many descendants; perhaps nowhere else in Europe did a dynasty exist which operated more consistently by the rules of self-interest than did these talented and resourceful men. They were not about to put their Rus’ian policies at risk by conversion to Roman Catholicism, but they were quite willing to allow Western Christians to believe what they wanted – that only the Teutonic Order’s aggressions stood between them and salvation.

The Lithuanian rulers were called grand princes, a term familiar to their Rus’ian subjects. But the theoretical title meant little. Most followers and retainers gave their loyalty to the Gediminid dynasty on the basis of family ties and the assurance of offices and rewards, not on the basis of ancient tradition or religion. Many Lithuanian nobles had undergone Orthodox baptism in order to placate the Rus’ians in the towns where they had been stationed as rulers and garrison commanders; many had married Christian women, Orthodox and Catholic alike. But others remained pagan. Without any doubt, paganism had some strong attractions, not the least of which was its assurance that Lithuania would continue to be ruled by a Lithuanian. Also, the adherence to paganism was the only way to guarantee that the independent-minded Samogitians would recognise a ruler from the central hill country of Lithuania – they would reject a weak Christian ruler as assuredly as they had rejected the powerful Mindaugas. Paganism was not a dying religion in Samogitia. To the contrary, it was held with all the fervour of uneducated and untravelled fundamentalists of any religion today.

When the pagans had returned to power they had burned the cathedral in Vilnius, covered its ruins with sand, and erected a shrine to Perkunas over it. This shrine to the thunder god probably had the same dramatic impact on the pagans as the Christian cathedral it replaced had made earlier. Traditionally, pagans conducted their ceremonies in the sacred forests, which perhaps explains why this masonry structure was left open to the sky with twelve steps leading up to a huge altar. There the priests may have placed a wooden statue of the god and maintained an eternal flame. This suggests an evolving paganism, a dynamic religion which adopted some of the more popular features of its competition.

The Gediminid princes prided themselves on being secular and tolerant for their day. They were superstitious, but they had no desire to force their paganism on others, or even to offer it to them. The grand princes allowed Franciscan friars to maintain a chapel in Vilnius for Roman Catholic merchants and emissaries, only once turning them into martyrs. Even more toleration was granted Orthodox churchmen – for the practical reason that many of their subjects were Orthodox. Some of their Tatar bodyguards were Moslems who lived in their own protected communities. The princes, therefore, followed a policy of nominal paganism that guaranteed extensive toleration of group traditions. This survived as late as World War Two in eastern and east central Europe, with governments negotiating with the leaders of minority groups who then enforced the laws and edicts issued from above.

This practicality should never mislead us into thinking that medieval group toleration is the same as modern tolerance for individual choices, or even that it is the same as Moslem toleration, which is too often only permission to live as second-class citizens. It was generous for its time, and that is surely praise enough.