The Monastic War Machine, 1225–1309

The Teutonic Order

Between 1225 and 1229 the Teutonic Order was pulled in two directions. The emperor wanted to use it for the crusade to Palestine, and a Polish duke, Conrad of Mazovia, wanted it to defend his duchy against the heathens of Prussia. Duke Conrad had taken part in the unsuccessful crusade against the Prussians of 1222–3, but his main aim was to subjugate other Polish dukes with a view to becoming possessor of Cracow and senior prince of the Polish realm. By intimidating his Northern neighbours, the Order would leave him free to pursue this aim. By entrusting the task to a military Order, he merely followed the example of other East European rulers: the Templars and Hospitallers were already established east of the Oder, and even the Spanish Order of Calatrava held lands near Danzig by this date. However, these Orders were reluctant to fight outside Palestine or Spain; Hermann of Salza’s knights may have appeared more biddable, since they had already done notable service for the king of Hungary.

But the Hungarian episode had made Hermann wary. From 1211 to 1225 his men had defended the eastern frontier of Transylvania against the Cumans on the invitation of King Andrew; they had built five forts, and pacified the region known as the Burzenland. But, as soon as they had served their turn, the king accused them of disobeying both him and his bishops, and turned them out. Honorius III had protested, but to no avail. Therefore Hermann decided not to commit the Order to fighting the Prussians until he was guaranteed autonomy; while Conrad waited, he led his men to Palestine with the emperor, and only sent a detachment to the Vistula in 1229, after he had received full authorizations from Frederick and Conrad to hold the province of Chelmno and future conquests as lordships of the Order. He made no decision to abandon one type of crusade for another, the Prussian venture was training for further Jerusalem crusades as cubbing is for fox-hunting.

Thus the Teutonic Knights had several advantages which their precursors had lacked. First, they entered Prussia with a free hand. The Bull issued at Rimini by Frederick II, the charter sealed on the bridge at Kruszwica by the duke of Mazovia, and the Bulls of Gregory IX were agreed that the Order’s main field of activity, fighting the heathen, was to lie outside the scope of any other authority, although the mission was to remain under Bishop Christian. But in 1233 the bishop was captured by Prussian raiders, and he was not released until 1239; he was not there to interfere with the first conquests, and it was not until 1243 that the Order had to share what it had won with other mission-bishops.

Secondly, they were allotted a bigger share of crusading recruitment. This was vital, because without secular crusaders they could attempt no big offensives. Gregory IX put official crusade-preaching for Prussia in the hands of the Dominicans, an Order expanding rapidly throughout Germany in the 1230s, and in 1245 Innocent IV granted full indulgences to all who went to Prussia, whether in response to a papal appeal or the Order’s; this was extended to all who stayed at home and merely contributed money in the 1260s. In addition, the whole clergy of Northern and Central Europe was repeatedly instructed to preach for the Prussian war, and the Order was allowed to remit sins on its own account. Whereas Bishop Albert of Riga had been obliged to search out reinforcements for Livonia, the Teutonic Order was overwhelmed with assistance. The first contingent, in 1232, included seven Polish dukes, and in 1233 Margrave Henry of Meissen arrived with 500 knights. The margraves of Brandenburg, the dukes of Austria, and King Ottokar of Bohemia came later. They came because they were already connected with the Order as donors and allies, and because they were Easterners – Prussia was much nearer than Palestine, and full redemption of the crusading vow could be earned in a few weeks. On at least five occasions the opportune arrival of such princes saved the Order from disaster, but the master and marshal of Prussia always had a papal warrant to use the reinforcements as he wished. The moment they ceased to be of use, after the submission of the central Prussians in 1273, they were no longer sent for. There were to be no Bohemunds coming out as crusaders and setting up states of their own.

Moreover, the Order’s liaison with the papacy was much better than that of the Sword-Brothers. While the master was fighting in Prussia, the grand-master kept a close watch on the Curia. When the Prussian Brothers deviated from papal policy, there was usually someone at Rome to deny awkward rumours, correct misunderstandings, and put in a word at the right moment. In the course of the thirteenth century, only Alexander IV and the eccentric Celestine V publicly reproved the Order for its misdeeds; exposure such as the Knights in Livonia had faced in 1235–6 was deferred until the early fourteenth century. Papal legates were not so easy to appease, but even they could not be in two places at once, and the Order was.

And, finally, the Teutonic Knights were to acquire a vast network of estates outside the Baltic region. Loss of territory and manpower at the front had no serious economic consequences. By 1250 there were already twelve bailiwicks or complexes of lands, revenues and rights within Germany, and the total of commanders who assembled at the general-chapter was over a hundred. There were also bailiwicks all over the Mediterranean, but it was from Germany that the knight- and priest-brothers were recruited, particularly from Westphalia, the Middle Rhineland, Franconia and Thuringia, and, although the Holy Land acted as a counter-attraction to Prussia, it was a diminishing one. Where the knight-brothers held land, they reaped recruits; between 1210 and 1230 the total of recorded donations trebled, and the total of 1230 had doubled by 1290. There were no overall totals of manpower for the medieval period, but it seems likely that in the fourteenth century there were some 2000 knight-brothers and 3000 priests, nuns and sergeants at any given time.

Such were the Order’s assets. It remains to ask who joined it, and why.

In 1216 Honorius III had insisted that entrants should be ‘military persons’ – that is, anyone capable of exercising the profession of arms; but that was a vague category. At the time, it embraced both the rich and the poor, both the territorial prince and the landless mercenary. Of the first fifteen grand-masters, four appear to have been the sons of minsteriales, men whose status came from their administrative office in the service of a ruler; five were the sons of knightly landowners, whose rank came from inherited fiefs; one was the son of a burgher; one was a territorial prince; and four have origins that cannot be traced. Roughly the same proportions seem to have prevailed during the thirteenth century, but, since German society was far from homogeneous at this period, it is difficult to draw general conclusions about the class, status and rank of recruits as a whole. Most were from ‘ministerial’ (service) families; but, as time went on, and the line between noble and non-noble was drawn more firmly, recruits came from above, if not far above, that line. However, it was not until the 1340s that the grand-master insisted that all postulants must be wolgeboren, unless specially exempted. At all times, geography and family tradition were the chief determinants of who became a knight-brother. Thus, between 1250 and 1450, fifteen of the senior officers serving in Prussia came from five noble families owning land in the proximity of Wurzburg, and throughout the period 1200 to 1525 enlistment in the Wurzburg-Nuremberg region was heavy. Hessians and Rhinelanders only rose to prominence in Prussia from 1300 onwards, and Bavarians after 1400; Westphalians and Lower-Rhinelanders always tended to make for Livonia. When factions developed within the Order, they went by ‘tongue’ or dialect rather than by social origin. When it came to class, the thirteenth-century Brothers were a mixed bag, although none could have been peasants by birth; but they were nearly all Germans.

The Sword-Brothers

The national exclusiveness was not insisted on from the beginning. The Sword-Brothers, Knights of Dobzryn and Teutonic Knights just happened to be three among many small bands of superfluous German warriors looking for employment outside Germany, like the Saxons who served the kings of Denmark, Hungary and Bohemia, and the Polish and Pomeranian dukes. The patrons of the Teutonic Order hoped to use it as a means of attracting such warriors further afield, to Palestine, Italy and Armenia; they were more interested in stimulating than in restricting recruitment. As a result, some Poles, Swedes and Franks were admitted.

No similar groups developed in Scandinavia, because in fighting the Northern pagans Scandinavian warriors were enlisted by their kings, and could not embark on independent state-building. Those who were attracted to military monasticism were provided with an outlet by the Hospitallers, who were already established in Denmark and Sweden before the Teutonic Order went to the North.

The Spanish and Portuguese military Orders which developed out of earlier fraternities of knights, priests and townsmen in the period 1150–1220, were similar to the Teutonic Order in being committed to a local crusade against the infidel, and in their nationally biased recruitment, but very different in other ways. They were founded because Spanish kingdoms and churches were already irretrievably committed to a Holy War; the Teutonic Order was developed because most German princes were not. Thus the Spanish Orders served their kings and bishops; the Teutonic Knights attempted to make rulers and prelates serve the crusade. Their original purpose was to use Germans to extend Christendom, not to expand Germany.

The Rule laid down that candidates for admission as knight-brothers should be able to give satisfactory answers to the same five questions that were asked of postulant Templars. Do you belong to any other Order? Are you married? Have you any hidden physical infirmity? Are you in debt? Are you a serf? Five noes, and then the candidate had to give five yeses. Are you prepared to fight in Palestine? Or elsewhere? To care for the sick? To practise any craft you know as ordered? To obey the Rule? Then he made his profession:

I, Cuno von Hattenstein, do profess and promise chastity, renunciation of property, and obedience, to God and to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and to you, Brother Anno, Master of the Teutonic Order, and to your successors, according to the Rules and Institutions of the Order, and I will be obedient to you, and to your successors, even unto death.

He was then admitted, and subjected to a regime that was intended to ensure that at all times he played two roles, that of monk and that of knight, with equal efficiency. His life was governed by the Rule (approved by the legate, Cardinal William of Sabina, before 1245), by the Institutions, and by the Consuetudines maiores, sets of regulations inspired by the Rules of the Templars, Hospitallers, the Order of the Holy Spirit and the Dominicans. Further ordinances were added by the grand-masters, so that the whole collection formed a sizeable law-book; copies had to be kept in every commandery, read out in full three times a year, and sections expounded every Sunday.

These texts insisted on a full routine of religious observances. The knight-brother was expected to recite the offices throughout the day, both inside the convent and on active service, using the somewhat streamlined form of liturgy which the Dominicans had adopted, to give them more time for their ministry. It seems that this practice was rigidly enforced. In 1344, Grand-Master König got the pope’s permission to begin the first mass just before dawn, while on campaign, because the days were so short in winter that the knight-brothers had to be ready to move while it was still dark. Nevertheless, the hallowing of the sacrament had to be timed so as to coincide with the first rays of the rising sun. In camp, the master’s or the marshal’s tent became the church of the army, and the full cycle of hours had to be performed within hearing of the guards, at a portable field-altar. Whereas the Templars had been made to receive the sacrament only three times a year, the Teutonic Knights had to communicate seven times, and the incidence of their fasts was painfully heavy. There was Lent, and a further meatless season lasting for most of November and December; nor could meat be eaten on any Monday, Wednesday, Friday or Saturday, or any one of twenty other stated fast-days. Eggs, milk, porridge and water formed their staple diet.

Military and monastic discipline went together. They were expected to perform all the duties of knighthood, and allowed few of the privileges. Their equipment and armour were uniform, each man being issued with a pair of shirts, a pair of breeches, two pairs of boots (neither loose nor tight), one surcoat, one sleeping-bag, one blanket, one breviary and one knife. He could have two or four mounts as ordered, but they were not his own; they belonged to the convent. He was not allowed to consort with laymen, and his fur-coat had to be cheap: goatskin or sheepskin. He had to sleep in his shirt, breeches and boots, and was not allowed to put a lock or fastening on his box. He had to remain silent at meals and in dormitory, on the march and in the latrine; his only lawful amusement was the solitary one of wood-carving. All the courtesy and conviviality of secular knighthood was forbidden. He could not display his own coat of arms, if he had one: argent, a cross sable, was good enough for all. He was not allowed to joust, or to hunt most forms of game; he could kill only wolves and bears, but without the assistance of hounds. He could let his beard grow, but his hair had to be short and neat.

The only objective was efficiency, to get the squadron of knight-brothers acting as one man under the absolute authority of the marshal. Therefore the marshal could use his club on the Brothers in battle, and his rod in camp. Mobilization, parades, route-marches, pitching camp, guard-duty, and conduct in the field were all regulated by an undeviating routine, and carried out in silence. As there could be no individual shares of booty, no individual cuts of ransom money, and, as a knight-brother could own neither his horse nor his sword, he was not like his secular counterpart. Although he had no property, he was allowed and encouraged to trade for the profit of his house, at a time when this was not considered a proper occupation for worldly warriors.

Nevertheless, he was expected to kill, intimidate and govern. Since he believed that he was advancing Christianity thereby, he could reconcile these activities with his religious vocation; whether they could be reconciled with religious conduct is another matter. As for chastity, the knight-brother was exposed to strong temptations, because war and power continually put women at his mercy. They were booty, and the expectation of raping them was what kept his native auxiliaries up to the mark. Some Brothers must have joined in, as witness the partisan but not unbelievable evidence of Polish deponents describing incidents in the war of 1329–32. A knight testified that the Brothers of the Order had raped more women than had their Old Prussian underlings, and a burgher had watched the women being dragged to their tents. The temptations of active service must often have proved irresistible, but it does not follow that the vow of chastity was ignored or taken lightly. It may well have been taken all the more seriously. The chronicler Peter of Dusburg quoted with approval the example of the commander of Königsberg, Berchtold Bruhave (1289–1302), who went through the reverse of a trial marriage before joining the Order. He chose the prettiest girl he could find, and slept with her for a year without touching her. ‘Ecce, mira res et stupenda’, wrote Dusburg. Those who lacked Bruhave’s strength of mind had to use pain as an antidote, wearing their mail-shirts next to the skin until the raw flesh rusted the metal. Some were said to have been helped by miracles. The terrible Johann von Gilberstedt of Halle had been so vigorous in secular life that even after receiving the last rites he had been moved to rape his nurse. However, devils had then picked him up and thrown him into a distant marsh, from which he had crawled into the Order as a humbled penitent. It seems that in the minds of most Brothers sexual passion and the cult of chastity fought a continual war, which neither could win; but it is worth noting that Commander Albert of Meissen composed a special prayer to avert incontinence: ‘O highest joy, give us a true love of thee, and a pure life, give us a clean conscience, and protect us from lust.’

The spiritual motive of the Teutonic Knights, and of all crusaders, was the desire for atonement through service. The method chosen may seem bizarre, especially when contrasted with the ministry of love carried on by the Franciscans for the same purpose, but the Teutonic Knights and the friars worked together, and had this in common: they were both trying to achieve redemption and holiness without cutting themselves off from the practical world. Their Orders expanded most vigorously at the same time, between 1220 and 1250, and were seen as complementary; they shared a monastic dedication to an unmonastic way of life. And, as long as most Latin Christians accepted the fight against the heathen as a laudable and holy enterprise, it made as much sense to become a knight-brother as to become a Friar.

While the knight-brothers were the dominant caste within the Order, they were not the only members. The task of running their parishes and hospitals was left to Priest-Brothers, Half-Brothers, and sisters, so that the ministries of charity, education and preaching were affiliated to the war machine. By 1400 the order ran one hospital at Elbing, where the duty of attending – but not treating – the indigent sick was performed in accordance with the regulations established by the Order of St John, which required hospitallers to treat the inmates as ‘our lords, the poor’. This meant providing alms, asylum and masses, rather than medicine, and in towns, hospitals were run by burghers, not Brothers. The success of this ministry may be judged by the fact that in 1229 the Order’s Rule was adopted by the English hospital of St Thomas of Canterbury at Acre, at the request of the bishop of Winchester.

Just as the Teutonic Order was able to exploit and adapt various strains of religious feeling, so its Northern crusade was greatly assisted by Germans who were drawn to the same region for purely secular reasons. The Gotland association of German merchants engaged in the Russia trade had led the way in the later twelfth century, and Bishop Albert of Livonia had made use of German emigrants to reinforce his see at Riga with a new borough, and to help hold down the country by accepting rural fiefs. This pattern of town-building and enfeoffment was followed by the Teutonic Knights from the beginning; each newly gained Prussian district was given a settlement of burghers and a sprinkling of knightly vassals, to act as a source of income and military service for the Order.

As early as 1233, in the charter issued for the settlements at Chelmno (Kulm) and Torun (Thorn) – the Kulmischer Handfest – Hermann of Salza laid down what he considered the right political conditions for his burghers. This charter granted a measure of independence to the townsmen, but reserved for the Order a share of the profits of justice, an annual rent, the right of coining money, military service, and ownership of the territory round the town. This ‘law’ – derived from the town-law of Magdeburg, and conceded by all colonizing princes – was less favourable to the townsmen than the Lübisches Recht granted to the coastal cities of Riga, Reval, and Elbing, which allowed them control of their own districts and an independent militia, and it was not until 1255 that the Order was strong enough to insist on Kulm Law for all future incorporations; but thereafter it provided an acceptable arrangement for co-operation between the Order and its towns, and encouraged further immigration. The alliance was crucial, because it linked the conquests of the Order to the most powerful social catalyst in the east Baltic region: the German borough. The wealth, industry and ingenuity of these new settlements made them the taches d’huile of Prussia and Livonia, from which trade, culture and technology seeped out into the forest and marsh and transformed the tribal societies round them more effectively than conquest and baptism.

Sword-Brothers The Order was decimated in the Battle of Schaulen (Saule) in 1236 against Lithuanians and Semigallians. This disaster led the surviving Brothers to become incorporated into the Order of Teutonic Knights in the following year, and from that point on they became known as the Livonian Order. They continued, however, to function in all respects (rule, clothing and policy) as an autonomous branch of the Teutonic Order, headed by their own Master (himself de jure subject to the Teutonic Order’s Grand Master).

During the conquest, both the Sword-Brothers and the Teutonic Knights had the advantage of innovations made available to them largely as a result of their close contact with the merchants, colonists and craftsmen of Germany. These men had been entering the Baltic world in increasing numbers since the chartering of Lübeck in 1158, and the destruction of Wendish sea-power by the Danes gave them free and profitable access to the Novgorod trade route in their own ships. The most important of these innovations was the bigger ship, whether the enlarged Scandinavian byrthing, quadrupled in capacity and fitted with inboard rudder and decks, or the well-rounded high-sided kogge. ‘Cog’ had originally been the name given to any ship with a straight stem and stern, set at an angle to the keel, but towards the end of the twelfth century the Germans appear to have discovered a way of using this shape for a pre-eminently capacious vessel, steered by a true rudder rather than a starboard oar. A cog could carry 500 passengers, or a town’s supplies for a whole winter; it could be used as a fighting ship, and outmatch the raiding-craft of the Balts and, in time, compete with the long-ship. It was the perfect transport for carrying reinforcements through pirate-infested waters, and the essential economic link between new merchant communities and well-established markets. In combination with the river-boat – the bolskip and other forms of lighter – it gave the knights a great logistical advantage, even if they had no cogs of their own until later.

Another innovation was the stone tower. The Teutonic Knights were experienced castle-builders in Palestine, but in the North they had to begin without labour, without local skills and with few deposits of workable stone; they had to make do with wooden blockhouses ringed by pallisades. Valdemar I had proved how effective brick towers could be as coastal defences, but the art of brickmaking was not yet widely known in the North outside Denmark, and, in any case, it needed manpower and settled conditions not available in the east Baltic. The alternative was masonry, a skill well established among the Saxons since counts began putting up stone castles in the early twelfth century; and it appears to have been emigrant masons from Germany who enabled the Knights to replace their first blockhouses with towers, and thus escape their enemies’ most dangerous weapon, fire. There were probably no more than five such towers in Prussia by the 1250s, and perhaps ten in Livonia, but their importance was crucial: they kept small garrisons alive when they would otherwise have been overwhelmed. In the fourteenth century brick would succeed stone as a cheaper and more readily available material.

And, finally, there was artillery – especially the crossbow, which had become a favourite weapon of the German merchant-venturer by 1200, and an indispensable arm of city militias. It was not a knightly instrument, and it was not the Sword-Brothers or Teutonic Knights who brought it to the North, but without it they would not have won their early struggle for survival; its accuracy and penetrating power shortened the odds considerably in the battle between many and few. Magnified into the ballista, or giant catapult, and mounted on a tower or wall, it became a weapon that could fell groups of men in close-packed assault, and deter attackers from otherwise flimsy defences.

These three examples are chosen for their immediate usefulness in the waging of war, but there were other innovations, in the fields of building, tool-making, ironwork, pottery, husbandry, fishery and carpentry, which gave material substance to the claim of the armed knights that they were making new societies out of barbarian lands. These changes did not come out of mass-books, or from Rules that bound their observers to lives of material austerity; they came from a necessary partnership with secular Germans obsessive in the pursuit of profit, land and lordship, and infectiously ingenious at getting what they wanted. North-East Europe was about to succumb to a combination of religious and economic forces which its home-grown civilizations had few means of resisting, but to which they adapted with variable success. By 1300, Low German, the language of Lübeck but not of the Prussian Knights, had become the common language of business throughout the region, from the North Sea to Novgorod, and all the peoples round the Baltic were competing for shares in the increasing wealth of the North. In this scramble, Teutonic Knights, crusaders, colonists and natives were competitors, unequally matched.

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