Latvia during the Crusades- an short survey


German Crusaders

In this post we will discuss the basics of the Crusades in Latvian land and in the next posts the aspects of this matter will be discussed in more detail.

The Middle Ages in Latvia have been studied professionally with the help of brilliant historians. The Latvian historian in-exile Indriķis Šterns has released two volumes of Latvian Middle Age history which are still considered as the prime source for Latvian Middle Age history. In present day Latvia the study of Middle Age history is pursued by Prof. Ilgvars Misāns- an author of many books in Latvian and German. Significant efforts done in Latvian Middle Age history by authors of many publications Valdis Klišāns and Andris Levāns. There is much done for translation and publication of Middle Age historic sources. There is many more historians and efforts to mention which helps to understand rather complex Latvian Middle Age history.

The Crusades are one of the most popular aspects of the Middle Ages, the bloody capture of Jerusalem, the war between two gentleman’s -Richard I The Lionheart and Saladin and the secrets of the Order of the Templar’s. But there is much to say about the Crusades against Pagans in Baltic Region.

The causes of the Crusader movement are many. The Catholic Church had enormous power of every Middle Age man from the town beggar to the king. It was unquestionable that the will of God affects every man’s life. People were driven by fears from making a sin causing God’s anger. So it was a duty of every living soul to commit something honorable for every man has to stand before the trial of God after his death. The fear from the torments of Hell and the belief that the Day of Judgment could occur every moment made the religious fanaticism stronger than before. One of the holiest ways to serve God was making pilgrimage to the Holy Land where Jesus and his apostles once lived. The Holy Land located in today’s Palestine was under the occupation of Muslims in 638. The Christians believed that the Holy Sights of Palestine posses a magical power which heals the pilgrim from illnesses and evil. There were many who desired to be buried in the Holy Land, so they moved there at the end of their lives.

However at 11 century the political changes in the Middle East made harder for pilgrims to reach their desired destination. The Jerusalem and large parts of the Byzantine Empire was taken by Seljuk’s the nomadic tribe from Central Asia. Seljuk’s are ancestors of the present day Turkish nation. Seljuk’s converted to Islam and was more radical Muslims than Arabs and was known as very vicious and brutal fighters. Seljuk’s attacked the pilgrims and made significant danger for emperors of Constantinople.  The request for help from Byzantium emperors and the will to secure the Holy Land from the infidels known as Saracens was enough to start the Holy Wars. Despite the fact that the Ten Commandments prohibits man to kill another man the murder done for religious goals was enough to get forgiveness for the sins and entry to Paradise.

The Holy War was declared by Pope Urban II in 1095 at the council of Clevro. The call to liberate Jerusalem gathered thousands. First Crusade started at 1096 and ended successfully in 1099 by capturing Jerusalem.  Despite that the strong resistance of Muslims forced t0 start more Crusades to Holy Land. They  ended in bitter failure in 1270 when the last Crusader palace was taken by Muslims. The failures in Palestine made the Crusader movement to look for other routes for more successful battles. Spain was one which was half-controlled by Muslims. The war against Spanish Muslims known as Reqonqista lasted till 1492 which ended in Crusader victory. But there were other lands for Crusaders to attack which was inhabited by Paganic Slavic- Baltic tribes. These lands were valuable piece to get in the name of Christianity. When the Crusaders came to conquer the Latvian lands they wanted the land more than the gates of Paradise, the Crusades to Baltic Region was driven by more economical goals than religious. The main mission was to baptize the Pagans but the real goal was to conquer them.

The first victims were north- western Slavs who lived on the borders of the Holy German Empire of Rome. At the 12th century slowly the Slavs were conquered and assimilated and their lands became part of German Empire.  The same thing was done by Swedes who attacked the Finnic Pagans. Finland became a part of Sweden for many centuries.

The Latvian land was first visited by German merchants around 1160. Soon the first missionaries came to introduce Christianity to Pagans. It was done by Augustinian monk Meinard (who became a bishop later) and his comrade Theodoricus. They established the center of Crusader operations at Iķšķile were the first stone buildings were built on Latvian lands. The attempt of peaceful baptism was not successful. The Livonians rejected the new religion. Meinard decided to call the first Crusade against Livonians. But he died before the Crusade was made. The attack was carried by Bishop Berthold. His army was defeated and he was killed in battle near Riga. The leadership was now taken by Bishop Albert (1199-1229). In his time of rule the Crusaders using force and guile defeated the Latvian tribes. In 1202 The Order of the Brothers of Sword was established to fight Latvian tribes. The order was mostly made from German knights who looked for new adventure and lands. At 13th century the Danish King Valdemar II also wanted to take Baltic lands. The Danes defeated Estonians at the battle of Lindanise (near Tallin) and wanted more, but Valdemar was deposed in inner Danish fights and the Danish advance stopped.

At 13th century the Teutonic Order (also known as German Order) became the main Crusader force. The Order conquered the Baltic Prussian tribes and established their own state at today’s Kaliningrad which belongs to Russia now.  The Prussian nation was assimilated completely. The Teutonic Order managed to enclose the Order of The Brothers of Sword when it was destroyed in Battle of Saule in 1236. The Livonian Order was made which was dependent to the Teutonic Order.  The German Knights conquered the Estonian and Latvian lands. The attacks on Lithuania continued until the 14th century when the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was recognized as the rightful Christian state.

The Latvian and Estonian lands were joined in the Livonian Confederation for the next three centuries. The Crusades made Latvia as a part of the Western world and culture. The early Latvian land was never a part of Russia as today Russian nationalist historians argue. Certainly there was Russian presence, there was Orthodox Churches in Latgalia and the presence of Russian merchants, but it was not as significant as the Western. Never the Baltic Region was the part of Russia, because the numerous Russian Duchies were too small to conquer the Latvian land and the claims that Balts are actually a part of the  Slavs is nonsense. Latvia only became a Russian territory at 18 century when it was gained by Russian Empire. The Latvia is a part of Western World right from the beginning of the Crusades and even before because Balts came from today’s Germany. We can surely propose that much of cultural heritage in today’s Latvia comes from Germany and Latvia has more significant cultural relations with western mainly German culture rather than Eastern Russian although it’s a question wetter the Russia really is part of Eastern civilization or it’s another member of Western civilization.

Selected Sources

Šterns,Indriķis. (2002) Latvijas vēsture, 1180-1290: krustakari. Riga: Latvijas vēstures instūta apgāds.

Misāns, Ilgvars. (1999) Baznīca un krusta kari 12. un 13. gadsimtā : eksperimentāls mācību līdzeklis. Riga: Zvaignze ABC.

Baltijas valstu vēsture : mācību līdzeklis (2000). Riga. Zvaigzne ABC.

Biļķins, Vilis, (1973) Zemgaliešu brīvības cīņas. Minneapolis. Sēļzemnieka apgāds.


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