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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