With the rise of the mendicant orders, Dominican and Franciscan at the same time as the expansion of the Teutonic Order's state along the southern Baltic coast, the question arises re the possibility of the region's conversion to Western Christianity by more peaceful means by the mendicant orders alone?
The first baptisms were usually of a local population en masse with little explanation of the Faith. This led to constant returns to paganism and subsequent resorts to violence by the military orders to reimpose Christianity. The earliest phases of the Northern Crusades are replete in recounts of bloodshed, massacre and retaliation by both the local population and the Orders and by outside involvement eg Denmark, especially in N Estonia.
The Cistercians were the first to establish a monastery in Daugavgriva, Livonia [Latvia] in 1205/07. Several key figures in Livonia’s Christianization, like the bishop of Livonia, Bertold, and Bishop Theoderich in Estonia, also belonged to the Cistercian order. Other older orders, e.g. the Benedictines, never reached there.
Throughout the Middle Ages, orders of mendicant friars, especially the Dominicans, played a significant part in Livonian religious life and reached Livonia only a dozen or so years after the founding of the order, largely due to the efforts of Guillelmus, bishop of Modena. He had met Saint Dominic, and was an especially ardent supporter of the Dominicans.
Both the Tallinn and Riga Dominican monasteries were founded in the late 1220s /early 1230s mainly on the bishop of Modena's initiative. Although these first monasteries did not survive, the order did not abandon its missionary activities in Livonia. Starting from the mid-13th century, the Dominican monasteries in both Tallinn and Riga were flourishing. Around 1300, Dominicans opened the first monastery in Tartu.
The aim of the Dominician Order was to convert pagans and heretics (thus the Order's official name — Ordo Fratur Praedicatorum — The Order of the Preaching Friars), The friars usually learned the local language and were busy preaching and administering the sacraments. The mendicant friars (both the Dominicans and later the Franciscans) were popular among the people also because of their principle of apostolic poverty. The Rule of St Augustine adpoted by the order in 1216 outlines the emphases on preaching, charity and care for the sick and education, which were for the most part absent in the military monasticism of the Teutonic Order.
Although centered in the towns now established or expanded by the military Order or the Baltic kingdoms [Denmark and Sweden in Finland], the friars went out into the countryside to preach and to minister.
Their commitment to preaching and poverty set them apart from the richer and more secularly vested interests and involvements of the Teutonic Order.
The work of the mendicant orders contined up to the eve of the Reformation with a planned Dominican house in Narva  and discussions for a Franciscan monastery in Tallinn.
The success of military moansticism was its establishment of a stable political and economic base upon with the medieval state could expand. This by the early 16thC also provided the base for its fall through dynastic involvement to events in Central Europe and trade routes as means of rapid communications of ideas into the towns, and in the 1520s, the ideas of church Reformation.
The pressure for reform was from the towns, while the religious orders and landed aristocracy favored the retention of the old.
Lutheran preachers started their regular activities in Tallinn and Tartu in 1523. Their agitation culminated in outbreaks of iconoclasm in the fall 1524 in Tallinn, and followed in Tartu in early 1525 where in addition to the parish churches and monasteries, the residences of the canons were also looted.
These cannot be regarded as a serious expression of religious dissatisfaction, rather they provided an emotional outlet for the masses and the younger, more zealous merchants who suported Church reform.
Overall the ideological basis for the Reformation in Livonia was weak and the main reasons for church changes, as in other states accepting the religious changes in the early 16thC were primarily of economic nature coupled with expansion of secular power in society which saw an independent Church as political rival and threat and source of wealth.
It is doubtful that a handful of mendicant friars landing a hostile environment that was the Baltic of the early 13thC could have made real progress in converting the indigenous population. This can be compared to the Swedish experience in medieval Finland where without the imposition of a vigorous military monasticism, the Christian monasteries and missions remained sparse, vulerable and remote.
Military monasticism has to be seen and understood in the context of its time, a time when the medieval Church was intertwined into the very expression of Western European civilization and culture. In our more pluralistic and secular age, we see militant religion as something less enlightened and cruelly fanatic bursting out of deserts and mountains in the MidEast or from sub-Saharan savannas. We forget that we have 'been there, seen that, and done it' ourselves. Perhaps by studying our own religious past, we may better understand other cultures' presents.
By Fr. Richard Sorfleet
The history and development of the Teutonic Order and its transformation into a state covering the southern Baltic litoral raises three questions; how a successful state firmly tied to the Roman Catholic Church could accept the Reformation so quickly , what the broader implications are for us in other ways to evangelize and convert other than at the point of a sword, and when is any war justifiable.
Given the highest ranks of State and Church in the medieval period were open only to the highest and most powerful families in society, the grand mastership of the Teutonic in the late 15thC was no exception.
Abert of the House of Hohenzollern [which would be the ruling house of the German Empire 1871 until the end of WWI] became Grand Master of the Order in 1510. With his family's dynastic ties across the Empire and with neighboring Poland and with no settlement to a war with Poland, the solution was to have him abandon the order, marry and establish himself as Duke of Prussia .
In the meantime Albert had met with leading members of the Lutheran Reform including Martin Luther himself. Even though he as grand master had assured the Pope [Adrian VI] of his intentions to reform the order and punish knights accepting Lutheran ideas, the main objective was securing a power-base and position for himself with his own dukedom [February 10th., 1525] and as a fief of the Polish Crown from his uncle Sigismund the Old.
The ducal capital at Koenigsberg [now Kaliningrad] became a center of learning and the expanding Lutheran Reform.
The Order remained but centered after the secularization of its Baltic holdings in Germany itself and after 1555 with the religious settlements accepted Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed members into its ranks.
The Teutonic Order had incorporated  a previous military monastic order already operating in the Baltic States [renamed the Livonian Order 1237] and with the secularization in 1525, reasserted its own independence in the Duchy of Livonia [until 1561] comprising present-day Latvia and Estonia. It was a patchwork of both religious and secular holdings with its capital at the oldest point of Christian entry  into the region at Riga
The primary source for the earliest Northern Crusades is Livonian Chronicle of Henry [of Latvia] covering 1180 to 1227 and recounts the events into which the Teutonic Order was called.
Thomas Hobbes' quote of 'continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short' [Leviathan 1651] summarizes life in the medieval world, and the association of monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience together with work and prayer to putting unbelievers to the sword with religious zeal and justification requires little leap in understanding.
Do not murder.
Ex 20: 13 CEV
Forms the basis of the Catholic view of war in teaching against the intentional destruction of human life and the call to avoid war.
It examines the strict parameters for legitimate defense which in part reflects St Bernard of Clairvaux's thesis in the call to establish an organized military monasticism in the 12thC.
Those being lasting damage by the aggressor, all other ways to avoid conflict have proven ineffective or impractical, serious prospects at success, and the end result not producing situations of even worse conditions and disorders.
In addition humane treatment and respect is to be given to civilians, the wounded and prisoners.
We are called to overcome the causes of war citing injustice, excessive economic and social inequality, envy, distrust and pride and build peace.
He will settle arguments
They will pound their swords
and their spears
into rakes and shovels;
they will never make war
or attack one another.
Isa 2: 4 CEV
The other medieval dynamic was the forgiveness of one's sins by taking up the crusader's cross as St Bernard of Clairvaux preached March 31st., 1146 at Vézalay south of Paris to whip up enthusiasm fior a second crusade to Palestine.
The din of arms, the danger, the labors, the fatigues of war, are the penances that God now imposes upon you. Hasten then to expiate your sins by victories over the Infidels, and let the deliverance of the holy places be the reward of your repentance....Cursed be he who does not stain his sword with blood. Dieu le veult.
To his credit, Bernard traveled to the Rhineland to prevent attacks on Jews who were targeted for not contributing to the cause and thereby preventing massacres as had been the case in the First Crusade, again justifying his call for a focused professional and organized monastic military instead of chivalrous efforts degenerating into predatory armed mobs eg Constantinople 1204 and débâcles in the desert. eg Egypt 1249
The whole premise of military monasticism studying St Bernard of Clairvaux's sermon in 1149 is based on a theology of works for the forgiveness of sin.
Does an individual waging war in what may be seen as just, however closely adhering to the parameters as expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, forgive sins?
Satisfaction for sins calls for, among others, prayer,offerings, works of mercy, service to one's neighbor, self-denial and accepting the cross we must bear. Forced conversions and holy wars are not on the list.
Go to the people of all nations and make them my disciples. Baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, 20 and teach them to do everything I have told you. I will be with you always, even until the end of the world.
Mt 28: 19- 20 CEV
Christ sent forth the apostles whom he had chosen, commissioning them [and now us] to proclaim the Gospel.
The issue we face is how and from the lessons learned from the past, how not.
by Fr. Richard Sorfleet
Sergei Eisenstein's climax to his epic 1938 film Alexander Nevsky is undoubtably the battle of frozen Lake Peipus on the Estonian/Russian border in 1242, foreshadowing the monumental horror to come between Nazi Germany and Stalin's Russia in 1941. The German knights are portrayed with an inherent evil that the black and white of the film even further serves to accentuate.
Military monasticism rises in the age of the crusades. The most well known is that of the Knights Templar which combined the monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to that of defending and protecting the Holy Places in recently retaken Palestine [post 1099] The second order was that of the Knights Hospitaller. The smaller Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem was founded in Acre in 1191 following the unsuccessful outcomes for two further crusades as a German-led organization by merchants from Luebeck and Bremen.
In the 1120s Saint Bernard of Clairvaux had already seen the usefulness of a small group of knights who combined monastic vows with the addition of labor to serve in the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem in his treatise De Laude Novae Militiae.
Violence and religion have had a long association and Christianity has not been immune. Saint Paul speaks about the good soldier in Christ
As a good soldier of Christ Jesus you must endure your share of suffering.
2 Tim 2: 3 CEV
Fighting for God and for the protection and expansion of Christianity in the feudal age can be exemplified in lines from Le Chanson de Roland 1040/1115
se vos murez, esterez seinz martirs, sieges avrez el greignor pareis. Franceis descendent a tere se sunt mis, e l'arcevesque de Deu les beneist
The orders' focus, discipline, and morale were key elements that the crusades for the most part completely lacked.
With land grants in Germany and elsewhere in part thanks to the Hohenstaufen emperors in particular Frederick II, and strong financial backing the smaller order survived. With the fall of the last Crusader city [Acre] in 1291, the Teutonic Order became involved in the expansion into Baltic coast between East Prussia, Latvia and Estonia.
The first 'crusades' against the pagan tribes of the area [Prussians, Latvians and Estonians] centered intially on Riga were disorganized raids, settlements and haphazard attempts at conversion.
What was required was a permanent, professional and organized presence. The Teutonic Knights were seen as the solution.
The Order's main recruitment remained German and its fundamentals kept their Templar roots.
Geoffery Chaucer writing 1384/1400 mentions the knight in his Canterbury Tales as having gone on crusade in the Baltic and combines the ideals of chivalry and war for the cross.
A knyght ther was, and that a worthy man, That fro the tyme that he first bigan To riden out, he loved chivalrie, Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie. Ful worthy was he in his lordes werre, And therto hadde he riden, no man ferre, As wel in cristendom as in hethenesse, And evere honoured for his worthynesse.....Aboven alle nacions in Pruce; In Lettow hadde he reysed, and in Ruce, No Cristen man so ofte of his degree....
Admission to the Order reflect these ideals in the five NO's:
member of another order?
any hidden physical infirmity?
And the five expected YES'es
prepared to fight in Palestine?
care for the sick?
practice your skill/trade when requested?
obey The Rule?
A copy of the The Rule was kept in every commandery and read in full three times a year, besides a section being expounded at each Sunday. Mass was celebrated in the ealry morning with the consecration timed with sunrise so the day's labors of work and warfare were freer of religious ceremonials.
Fasting in Lent and Advent, with no meat on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays as well as 20 other days meant the staple diet was based on eggs, milk, porridge and water. One assumes in addition to the basic medieval food: bread.
The knight was issued 2 shirts, 1 pair of breeches, 2 pairs of boots, 1 surcoat, 1 sleeping bag, 1 blanket, 1 breviary and 1 knife. His horse and sword remained the property of the Order. There was to be no lock on his chest. He was to observe silence, at meals, on the march, and as pastime wood-carving. His own crest was forbidden and all wore the Order's black cross on white emblem. Jousting was prohibited.
He could hunt bears and wolves but without hounds and his hair was to be kept short; however beards were allowed.
Daily life in the order was not the chivalric freedoms and courtly ideals of Chaucer's knight, but a hard life in the rigors of the medieval Baltic.
One wonders how much George RR Martin's Wall in Game of Thrones was influenced by the Teutonic Order
The members of the Order were expected to kill, intimidate and rule, reconciled with the belief they were spreading Christianity. They were aided in their endeavors by priest-brothers, and half-brothers and sisters who ran their hospitals, charities, educational facilities and in preaching.
Their military monasticism's skill at building castles in Palestine was transferred to the Baltic. Today their ruins are found everywhere throughout their former territories. With the castles came expansion in agriculture, crafts and industries, trade and cultural and commercial integration of the region into the Western medieval world. The working language was German and it remained the language of the landed and educated elite and cities until the 20thC.
The history of the Teutonic Order and the Northern Crusades is for historians to examine; the study of religious dynamics of military monasticism in the medieval period are for the Church to reflect upon today, in a time when once more religion and war are in confluence and conjoined in conflict.
And just how accurate Sergei Eisenstein's portrayal in and of black and white was.
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