When one hears or reads of a reference to the Crusades, one generally thinks of the efforts by medieval Christian knights to conquer the "Holy Land" from the Muslims during the 11th through the 13th centuries. What most Americans do not realize is that during the 13th century there was also a series of crusades against the pagan tribes of the Baltic lands in northern Europe. These campaigns are known as the Northern or Baltic Crusades.
The Baltic lands at the time were seemingly an unattractive place to conquer. The region consisted of primeval forests, numerous lakes and bogs inhabited by hostile natives. It was truly Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness transported to northeastern Europe.
Though inhospitable, the Baltic region had much to offer in resources that were attractive to traders from the West, such as fur, fish, timber, honey, beeswax, and amber.
The Baltic Crusades got their start through the efforts of one Albert of Buxtehude, a German cleric invested as bishop of Livonia. Mindful of the death of his predecessor at the hands of the pagan Livonians, he was able to get a papal bull which declared that any Christian who took up arms to fight in Livonia would get the same automatic remission of sins as those who fought the Saracens in the Holy Land. (As an aside, I always found it appalling that leaders of a supposedly moral institution as the Catholic Church would tell their followers that going to faraway lands to murder strangers would guarantee their entry into a paradise in the afterlife.)
Touring northern Germany, Bishop Albert recruited a sufficient force with which to undertake his submission of the Livonians, including the creation of a new military order that came to be known as the Sword Brothers. Like other religious military orders, the Sword Brothers were bound by monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
Over the course of the first decade of the 13th century, Bishop Albert and his Sword Brothers brutally subdued the Livonians. Next they set their sights on the Estonians. Allying with the Danes, another series of bloody campaigns ensued that spanned the better part of two decades. In a foretaste of things to come, the Crusaders also came into armed conflict with the Russians, who were also trying to gain control of Estonia. To the Catholics, the Russians were just as bad, if not worse than the pagans, because the Russians were followers of the Eastern Orthodox church and they did not recognize the supremacy of the papacy.
Skipping ahead a few years to 1236, the fortunes of the Sword Brothers took a turn for the worst when they suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of the still pagan Lithuanians. The remaining Sword Brothers merged into another crusading military order, the Teutonic Knights. Established in 1198, the Teutonic Knights were originally based in Acre in the Levant. As time went by, they would be invited to serve in turn the Hungarians and the Poles. The latter employed the Teutonic Knights against their hostile pagan neighbors, the Prussians.
The Teutonic Knights had especially strict disciplinary requirements. A Teutonic Knight could not own property. He had to remain silent at meals. All forms of vanity were forbidden and the knights had to sleep in their shirts, breeches, and boots. On Fridays, the knights would flagellate themselves until they drew blood. Some knights, in order to suppress their carnal desires, would wear their chain mail underneath their clothing.
After conquering the Prussians, the Teutonic Knights set their sights on the principalities of northern Russia. This conflict would become immortalized by the Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein in his 1938 masterpiece "Alexander Nevsky". Below is a clip from the film, which portrays the Teutonic Knights as a sinister force bent on the cruel subjugation of the Russian people. With the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany in the 1930's, "Alexander Nevsky" was more than just a historical epic, it was a piece of Soviet propaganda meant to rouse the Soviet people against the anti-Bolshevik Hitler.
The Teutonic Knights suffered a terrible defeat at the hands of Alexander Nevsky in what is popularly known as the "Battle of the Ice" at Lake Peipus in 1242. This defeat effectively ended any serious attempts by the Baltic crusaders to subjugate the Russians. The Teutonic Knights continued on with their campaigns against the pagan Lithuanians. But in 1386, the Grand Duke of Lithuania converted to Catholicism, and by marriage to the Queen of Poland, he became ruler of a united Poland-Lithuania. With the last pagan state joining the Catholic fold, the Teutonic Knights had outlived their usefulness, and in 1410, a combined Polish and Lithuanian army inflicted a devastating defeat on the Teutonic Knights, and the era of the Baltic Crusades was at an end.
On another note, in the clip above from "Alexander Nevsky", the scene where some of the Teutonic Knights remove their ostentatious helmets reminded me of the scene below from the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie "Conan the Barbarian". I wonder if director John Milius had seen "Alexander Nevsky" and if the Pskov sequence had an influence on this scene. Check it out and let me know if you agree.