Livonia and Pskov, 1240-42

In 1240 a military campaign was launched from Livonia against Pskov, resulting in the overthrow of the faction that supported the rule of Aleksandr Iaroslavich. Early in the spring of 1242 Aleksandr recaptured the city and on 5 April defeated the Livonian army in what has become known as the Battle of the Ice. The independent sources for these events include the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle, the First Novgorod Chronicle, the vita of Aleksandr Iaroslavich, the Laurentian Chronicle, and the Chronicle of Suzdal. It is doubtful to what extent the information found in the chronicles of Pskov can be regarded as original.

The Rhymed Chronicle records after the transfer of northern Estonia to the Danish king that Bishop Hermann of Dorpat had come into dispute with the Russians “at this time”. The Russians had turned against the bishop and done him much harm. The bishop asked the Teutonic Knights for help, and their master had also come to his aid. The “men of the king” (kuniges man)-a contingent from Danish territory-had also arrived to give help. The chronicler also writes that this army took Izborsk, where all Russians who defended themselves were killed. Russians from Pskov clashed in fighting with the Order, the men of the Danish king, and the army of Bishop Hermann, and were defeated at Izborsk. The Russians fled to the River Velikaya. A siege of Pskov then began, whereby “many knights and squires / deserved their right to a fief”. The city surrendered, weakened from the lost battle, its prince Gerpolt freely handed over the castle and good land to the knights so that the master of the Order would take care of them. The Order’s army then left Pskov, leaving behind two knights and a small contingent of Germans to guard the territory. When the prince of Novgorod heard of this, he came with his army to Pskov and drove away the two knights, who were acting as bailiffs: “if Pskov were held / it would be a great thing for Christendom / until the End of the World. / It is a misfortune / if somebody has conquered good lands / but failed to man it well: he may well complain at the damage”, writes the chronicler in conclusion. The prince of Novgorod returned to his city but then the prince of Suzdal Alexander arrived with a large army and advanced further on to Livonia. When the bishop of Dorpat learned of this, he prepared for an attack. The armies of the Order and Dorpat, even united, were too small and they were overwhelmed by the superior number of Russians. Twenty Teutonic Knights were killed and six were taken prisoner. Aleksandr returned to his land. After describing the battle, the chronicler adds that the Order’s master Herman Balke had been at war with both the Russians and the pagans for five and a half years and had then died. The capture of Izborsk in 1240 and the two knights with their small entourage are also mentioned in the chronicle of Hermann von Wartberge.

The Novgorod Chronicle has the following account. In 1240, after the Battle of the Neva, Izborsk castle was captured by the Germans, namely by the men from Odenpäh, Dorpat, and Fellin, acting together with Prince Iaroslav Vladimirovich. When news of this reached Pskov, an army left to fight the enemy and was defeated. The Germans proceeded to burn the outskirts of Pskov together with their churches and icons, books, and gospels. They destroyed a number of villages near Pskov, besieged the city for a week, and took the children of the venerable men hostage. Then the “treacherous” Pskovians, Tverdilo Ivankovich and others, let the Germans into the city and set themselves up together with them as rulers of Pskov, plundering the villages of the Novgorod Land as well. Some Pskovians fled with their women and children to Novgorod. When the Germans invaded Votia, the Novgorodians asked Iaroslav Vsevolodovich to send them a prince, but were not satisfied with whom they received, namely Andrei Iaroslavich, and asked for Aleksandr. He did indeed come in the spring of 1241, capturing Koporye together with the Novgorodians, the warriors from Ladoga, the Karelians, and the Ingrians. In March 1242 Aleksandr, with the Novgorodians and his brother, attacked the land of the Chuds and besieged Pskov, where he took the Germans and the Chuds prisoner and sent them “in chains” to Novgorod. He himself fought the Chuds and had his army destroy their lands. Following the crushing defeat of a Russian reconnaissance unit, the prince and his troops moved to the lake, where they were followed by the Germans and Estonians. In the battle “by the Raven’s Rock on the narrow [of Lake Peipus]” on 5 April the Germans were defeated and the Chuds took to flight. That same year a German embassy was sent to Novgorod or to the prince promising to return everything that had been conquered from the prince in his absence: “Votia, Luga, Pskov, Lettgallia”. The prisoners on both sides were released as were the hostages of Pskov.

Aleksandr’s vita narrates that in the third year after the Battle of the Neva Aleksandr had set out in the winter for the land of the Germans with a great army. The Germans had at that time already taken Pskov and installed their bailiffs there. Aleksandr killed some of the Germans, took others prisoner, and freed the city from its conquerors. He then went to the land of the Germans to destroy it. Aleksandr achieved a great victory in the battle, taking many prisoners, including those called the “knights of God”. In Pskov he was glorified by the priests for defeating the aliens. The prince nonetheless warned Pskov not to betray him during his lifetime nor that of his grandchildren. The chronicles of Pskov are the only source to add the date of the Battle of Izborsk as 16 September, but their other accounts may have been influenced by both the Novgorod chronicles and the vita of Aleksandr. The Laurentian Chronicle records that Andrei was sent by his father Iaroslav to the Novgorodians to help them and also refers to the battle on the lake and that many prisoners were taken.

The mention in the Novgorod Chronicle of Iaroslav Vladimirovich and the men from Odenpäh, Dorpat (i. e. the soldiers of the bishop of Dorpat), and Fellin (i. e. the Teutonic Knights) indicates a direct analogy with the events of the 1230s, when Izborsk was temporarily occupied by a Russian army allied with Dorpat. It is highly plausible that none other than Iaroslav Vladimirovich is called Gerpolt in the Rhymed Chronicle. The taking of hostages to guarantee the treaty indicates an analogy to 1228, when a Livonian contingent settled in Pskov and the agreement was likewise guaranteed through the handing over of hostages.

Although the accounts found in these independent sources are highly consistent with one another, it is hard to discern the significance of these events in the overall context of contemporary relations between Livonia and Rus’. A central role is clearly played by the bishop of Dorpat and Prince Iaroslav Vladimirovich, whereas the Rhymed Chronicle and the chronicle of Hermann von Wartberge, both chronicles of the Teutonic Order, concentrate on the actions of its members. Yet even the Rhymed Chronicle mentions that the bishop asked the Teutonic Knights for help, in other words that this was a catalyst for the campaign. The Rhymed Chronicle also mentions the Danish king’s vassals, but under the year 1240 rather than 1242. The bishop of Dorpat is acting throughout as territorial lord, not as missionary. Although these events are sometimes regarded as an attempt, instigated and countenanced by the papacy, to subjugate the territory and church of Rus’, this cannot be demonstrated by any of the sources in relation to the campaign against Pskov. The description in the Novgorod Chronicle of the burning of churches and holy scriptures in the vicinity of Pskov is not a sign of the heresy of the occupiers but simply of their criminal behaviour overall. The Novgorod Chronicle deals with the destructive campaigns that took place in Novgorod’s territory in 1240-41 separately: in relation to Pskov, the chronicler refers to the destruction of the villages in the Novgorod Land, but in relation to Koporye reference is made to localities on the Luga river. There is no basis in the sources for treating the campaigns as a combined attack on Novgorod from two sides.

The Rhymed Chronicle, and the tradition derived from it, appears to associate the campaign against Pskov and the Battle of the Ice with the first master of the Teutonic Order in Livonia, Hermann Balk. Balk had already left the country in 1238 and died in 1240. He was succeeded by Dietrich von Grüningen (1238/39-1246) and Andreas von Felben (1241, 1248-53). The Rhymed Chronicle mentions the master’s participation in the 1240 campaign against Pskov, but not, however, in 1242. The mention of the “men from Fellin” in the chronicle appears to point to the Order’s territory in Estonia. However, the expression in the context of the Order’s great castle that was nearest to Novgorod may have referred to the Order as such. On the other hand, Evgeniia Nazarova argues that the commander of Fellin played a key role in the occupation of Pskov. The fact that the Rhymed Chronicle refers principally to the Teutonic Knights does not necessarily mean, however, that the Teutonic Order played the most important role or that its master or his deputy, Andreas von Felben, personally led the campaign. It has long since been pointed out that the attack on Rus’ was not in the general interest of the Teutonic Order in Livonia. Its main opponents were in the south: in Curonia, Samogitia, and Lithuania, not to mention in Prussia. In 1241-1242 the Teutonic Order in Livonia, led by the Livonian provincial master, Dietrich von Grüningen, seized Curonia with mil itary support from the Danish vassals and the bishoprics of Riga and Ösel. According to Friedrich Benninghoven, the campaigns against Rus’ were informed by the attitudes and separate policy of the former Sword Brothers who had survived the Battle of Saule but could not come to terms with the transfer of northern Estonia to Denmark and thus tried to assert their authority by means these attacks. There is no evidence, however, that there was a confrontation between two different tendencies in the Order. After the merger of the two orders, the Teutonic Order pursued a determined policy of forcing the former Sword Brothers into the background. In support of the view that there were two opposing visions of conquest, or at least different political tendencies, recourse is made to the unproven assertion that the Order had indeed wanted to launch a campaign from Livonia to conquer Pskov or even Novgorod in 1240. Taking part in the campaign against Pskov and the attempt to capture Votia are not incompatible with the Order’s plans south of the Daugava.

At the centre of the campaign against Pskov was therefore the bishopric of Dorpat and its relationship with Prince Iaroslav Vladimirovich dating back to the 1230s and, by extension, to the Pskovian opposition to Aleksandr Iaroslavich, who sought Iaroslav Vladimirovich’s ascension to power in Pskov. Prince Iaroslav’s closest supporters were constantly in touch with Odenpäh, which explains why the “men of Odenpäh” come first in the list of the “Germans” in the chronicle. The fact that the “men from Fellin” come last in this list indicates the smaller role of the Teutonic Order in comparison. The start of the offensive may have been determined by a propitious moment in Pskov’s internal political situation. The “harm” (leit) mentioned in the Rhymed Chronicle inflicted by Rus’ on Bishop Hermann, who had to suffer it during a long time, and the danger for Christians are not a direct reference to the earlier military activity in the borderlands between Dorpat and Pskov c. 1239-40. There was a constant internal political opposition in Novgorod and Pskov which sought support from various external powers-the princes of Suzdal, Smolensk, and Chernigov among others. Trade relations with Livonia were crucial for all groups. We cannot say that one group had a particular interest in trade with Livonia. Rather, we are dealing with pretenders from the different political tendencies to the princely throne, with one of these being Iaroslav Vladimirovich.

Pskov’s surrender in the face of the oncoming Livonian army constituted a change of prince from the city’s point of view. The limits of the authority of the Order’s two bailiffs remain unknown. Iaroslav Vladimirovich’s relationship with the support army from Livonia was extremely complex, and his power in Pskov was secured by means of the hostages. The Novgorod Chronicle names Tverdilo Ivankovich “together with others” as the real ruler of Pskov. He had “made himself ruler in Pskov with the Germans”. Iaroslav’s position also depended on Tverdilo. There is no indication of who in Livonia was promised the hostages, whether the bishop of Dorpat or the Order. When describing Livonia’s peace embassy, however, the chronicle deals with the release of the hostages and other terms of peace affecting the Order more than the bishop of Dorpat. The Rhymed Chronicle also mentions the fiefs that the bravest knights had earned in the battle of Izborsk, although this may simply be part of the conventions typical of battle descriptions. If anyone did indeed receive a fief, this would have first meant confiscating estates from the supporters of Aleksandr Iaroslavich, for example. Such a course of action would have inevitably exacerbated the division among the burghers of Pskov.

A charter of 1248 provided for the division of the principality of Pskov between the bishopric of Dorpat and the Teutonic Order. It mentions that the principality “was donated by Prince Ghereslawus, its heir, to the mentioned church of Dorpat”. Albert Ammann has attempted to show that this donation originally dates to 1239 and would thus account for the planned attack on Pskov. This dating has been widely accepted. In the register of charters brought from Mitau to Stockholm in the mid-17th century, there is, moreover, the following entry: “1239 Dorpat. How the kingdom of Pskov was divided between the Order and the diocese of Dorpat.” However, this may simply be a misreading from a transumpt of 1299 regarding the charter of 1248. Despite the lack of a documentary basis, the promises of Prince Iaroslav Vladimirovich-or something that the bishopric could subsequently construe as promises-c. 1240 appear plausible. Any military aid had to be paid for, and the “donation” of a principality might have been the form the remuneration took. This donation can presumably be understood in terms of feudal law, as in the case of Vsevolod of Gerzike: perhaps Iaroslav had donated Pskov to the bishop of Dorpat and then received it back as a fief. The relevant passage in the Rhymed Chronicle states “that Gerpolt who was their prince / gave with his good will / the castle and the good lands / into the hands of the Teutonic Knights”. This might have referred to this donation, which had already been granted to the Order in 1240 as partial remuneration for taking part in the campaign against Pskov. Iaroslav’s right of inheritance was in itself obviously fictitious. Pskov was not a heritable principality; its princes were appointed and expelled, as was the case in Novgorod. Iaroslav’s hereditary lands would have been Toropets and Rzhev, but his-continual-presence in Livonia during the 1230s suggests that he was not able to establish himself there or that these possession did not satisfy his ambitions. Iaroslav Vladimirovich appears in the sources again in 1243, when his wife, who had been killed by her stepson in Odenpäh and buried in Pskov, is mentioned, and also in 1245, when he fought as leader of the warriors of Torzhok along with Aleksandr Iaroslavich against the Lithuanians’ campaign of destruction. He had probably died by 1248.

According to the Novgorod Chronicle, Aleksandr left Novgorod after the capture of Pskov and was not called back until after the invasion of Votia. This means Novgorod did not regard the change of power in Pskov as a threat despite the destruction of Novgorod villages by Tverdilo. For the 1242 campaign against Pskov, Andrei also came from Suzdal, again suggesting that Aleksandr, in reconquering Pskov, was acting more in his own sovereign interests rather than those of Novgorod. At the same time, the opposition to Aleksandr in Novgorod shows that there too there were people who sympathized with the change of power in Pskov.

The Rhymed Chronicle says that after the conquest of Pskov the army of Aleksandr and Andrei advanced further “into the lands of the [Teutonic] brothers” (in der bruder lant)169 in March and April of 1242, once the bishop of Dorpat had sent his men to help the Order. “The lands of the brothers” could indeed have served to describe the whole of Livonia, but the chronicler distinguishes quite clearly between the different dominions and by “the lands of the brothers” principally refers to the Order’s territory. The Russian army consequently must have advanced as far as Tolowa or Sackala; the campaign of destruction lasted long enough for the Livonians to be able to raise an army. Bearing in mind that the Order had an interest in having Pskov under its control, however, the issue of the Tolowa tribute is certainly another factor in this context. The destructive advance of Rus’ could have made its way there precisely because payment of the tribute had been refused. As the army of Rus’ made its way home, the troops of the Order and the bishop of Dorpat caught up with it. In the ensuing battle Aleksandr and Andrei were victorious. The dimensions of this battle have occasionally reached absurd proportions in the historiography Anatolii Kirpichnikov has calculated that the Livonian army really could amount to a maximum of 30-35 knights and over 300 sergeants and natives and the Russians would have had been slightly more, amounting to a total of about 1000 men for both sides together.

According to the account in the Russian chronicles, a peace was agreed in Novgorod in 1242, in which “Germans”-does this mean the Teutonic Order – ceded Votia, Pskov, the Luga, and Lettgallia to the prince and/or Novgorod. Thus the status quo was preserved in the peace. The Pskov and Votia campaigns were therefore not connected with one another until the peace with the Order. But a separate question is what was meant by Lettgallia in this context. Novgorod had no interest in Lettgallia, therefore the chronicle means here restoration to Pskov and Aleksandr. Since there are no reports of a temporary handover of Lettgallia during Aleksandr’s rule, it would appear plausible to assume that Pskov had relinquished the tribute from Tolowa during the war and that its right to collect tribute there was now being reinstated. If the Order shared in the seizure of power in Pskov, it may indeed have been recompensed with the tribute of Tolowa or the entire right of possession, but was forced to accept the restitution after the loss of Pskov. It is altogether feasible that Aleksandr also had interests in the Daugava, since he had just married a princess of Polotsk. Aleksandr and his father Iaroslav Vsevolodovich exercised considerable influence in the Smolensk-Polotsk region throughout the 1240s.

The place given to the Battle of the Ice as a significant event even in world history is based on purely ideological concerns and has little to do with the historical evidence. A distinction must be made between the great importance that the Battle of the Ice has undoubtedly had in the 20th century and its importance for contemporaries in the 13th century. In the debate about how much significance should be given to the battle, we must first define the frame of reference, i. e. whether viewed in terms of the family of the grand prince of Vladimir, Pskov, Novgorod, the bishopric of Dorpat, Rus’ or Europe. As far as the sources from Rus’ are concerned, this was a story about how Aleksandr lost control of Pskov only to win it back. The traitors in Votia and Pskov mentioned in the Novgorod Chronicle had betrayed the prince, not Rus’ or the Orthodox religion. The warfare of 1240-42 “most likely did not change at all the attitude of Novgorod and Pskov towards Livonia and Sweden. The West was not seen as much of a threat or less so following the defeat”. This judgement by Bernhard Dircks can be endorsed with the qualification that the very notions of East and West are themselves anachronistic. These events belong exclusively in the context of local struggles for power, and in the case of Pskov we are dealing with `internal political’ conflicts as much as with `external relations’. To the extent that the church and questions of religious confession played a role at all-which was in any case in the form of justification rather than cause-this was of such a marginal nature that it left no mark in the sources.

In a wider sense, however, Livonia’s attempts to gain control in Votia and Pskov during 1240-42 appear as significant. The political forces in Livonia were able to maintain a position east of Lake Peipus for some time. The event is lent an aura of exceptionality by the fact that we know in retrospective that Lake Peipus became a dividing line during the Middle Ages between the Orthodox and the Catholic worlds. In the contemporary context, this signified on the one hand the continuation of the mission among the Votian pagans and on the other a political intervention in Pskov, quite separate ideologically and geographically from the former. We are not dealing with a unique decision in history but with episodes from a policy practiced both before and after the Battle of the Ice. The fact that first a victory was achieved, which itself proved fleeting when Livonians came to face a stronger opponent in the shape of Aleksandr, depended on circumstances beyond Livonia as well as on arbitrary factors, principally internal political conditions in Novgorod and Pskov.

1 thought on “Livonia and Pskov, 1240-42

  1. Pingback: Livonia and Pskov, 1240-42 — Weapons and Warfare | Ups and Downs of Family History V2.0

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