on 21 June 2001
This is a very readable account of a subject largely inaccessible to the general reader. It covers the conquest and conversion of the pagan tribes of the Southern and Eastern Baltic Coasts from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, the extension of German civilisation north-eastwards and the collision, and ultimate uneasy equilibrium between Latin and Orthodox Christianity in the area. The surprise of the book, for this reader at least, is the fact that the Dark Ages endured in this corner of Europe well into Medieval times, and that Paganism was still a vibrant force there almost until the period of the Renaissance. A significant strength of the book is the introductory section, which provides a fascinating overview of the peoples and cultures of the area at the opening of the period covered, and this is built upon in greater detail, when necessary in more detailed accounts of specific campaigns. The linkage to the overall Crusading ideal is well handled and though the transformation of the Teutonic Knights from a warrior order in Frankish Palestine to a frontier force skilled in forest, river and marshland warfare is a dominant theme, the roles of the Danes, Swedes and Russians, not to mention a host of Baltic tribes, receive equal attention. The mechanics of the warfare of the period, including the particular constraints imposed by climate and terrain, are well handled. In summary - a splendidly informative work that cast light on an obscure period that bred baleful myths with dire consequences in more recent times.
on 5 February 2014
Its a bit of a tough one with this book. I found the book unevenly interesting and of variable quality.
The subject is fascinating and as pointed out in other reviews, very few materials exist on the Northern Crusades while thousands of books were written for the Holy Land Crusades. Most of it I did not know. The parts on the fight against Muscovite Russia, Novgorod, etc. was fascinating and really makes me want to read more.
The prose and text flow is laborious but the ideas and details the Author provide are full of potential. I think overall it may come from the translation. Perhaps a simple fact as well is that its one rare book written on the subject therefore a harder task for the author. From this point of view, we can probably salute the author for tackling this subject. Perhaps an easier task to write about Stalingrad 1942 with plenty of data.
Also perhaps too many details are given without connection or pause or reflection. Quite often I found myself reading entire page without really getting much or grasping what the author wanted to say.
It lacks summaries or perhaps a couple of paragraphs there and there to refocus the text or re-explain the reader concepts and ideas.
I am an enthusiastic reader and want to see the glass half full but this book was genuinely a tough read for me. I wish the author could reedit it simplifying things and streamlining most of it.
More positively, the author really made me want to know more about this dark era of the crusades. I will certainly keep buying books on the subject. Overall it’s thanks to the author
on 29 May 2011
Don't let the volume of this book mislead you. Of the many books on history I've read "The Northern Crusades" is among the top ones on useful and interesting information per square inch ratio. The narrative is very precise, direct and to the point.
Surely it's not a study of Teutonic warfare (although logistical challenges and the general logistical outlook of the region receive considerable attention). But Eric Christiansen does extremely well in presenting societies around the Baltic on the eve of crusades and their gradual transformation influenced by new ideas and social structures brought in by the church, the monastic knighthood and the colonists from the Northern and North-Western Europe.
Mr. Christiansen examines why the Danes and the Swedes were unable to claim the Eastern Baltic for themselves and why crusaders were needed. The narrative depicts distinct features of the three major colonized regions: Prussia, firmly subdued and Latinized; Livonia, so dependent on Novgorodian and Hanseatic trade for survival and thus having firm ground for the bishops/burghers/crusaders power struggle, and also so much more distant from grand-masters in Prussia than it might seem; and finally Finland with its extreme climate and nomadic natives. Both social (including forms of government and reasons for different sorts of power rulers had over their domains) and political (including the evolution of the crusading idea in Europe) factors are investigated as the story of the Teutonic Order is told.
Therefore I'm sure "The Northern Crusades" would be extremely useful to anyone new to the topic and interested in the story of the quest to baptize the last pagans of Europe.
on 2 August 2012
A very credible work by Christiansen which highlights the process by which north eastern Europe was Latinized. Whilst these crusades were overshadowed by the jaunts into Palestine, their impact was no less important on how Christianity was spread further afield.
Christiansen's work is a slim volume (260 pages approx.), but that does not detract from its impact. He basically argues that the crusades into north east Europe were fueled by religious fervor up to a point, with potential trade benefits, land, prestige and even fear being additional factors. Some interesting chapters on the Church's strategy as well as the formation of the religious orders which helped spread the word of God (!), such as the Teutonic Knights and the lesser known and less honorable Sword-Brothers.
The Roman Church was particularly fearful of the impact that Orthodox Christianity could have had on these areas in question. Despite prioritizing the Near East as the centre of crusading, they eventually realized the potential held by these north eastern lands. Ultimately it would also persuade those not interested in Palestine to venture further in the name of Christianity.
A confusing period in history is now not so confusing.
Since this book was first published, it has become one of the main references, if not THE reference on the Northern Crusades, at least in English. Given that there has already been a large numbers of reviews, I will merely limit myself to listing the numerous reasons underpinning the five star rating which this book richly deserves.
1) This is one of the first books in English on the Northern Crusades. There are a host of others, especially in German, but also in Polish or Swedish for instance.
2) It is also one of the only books which makes a conscious effort at looking at the whole period (mid 12th to the mid 16th century) and focuses on the Crusades in the North, as opposed to the military Orders (and the Teutonic Knights, in particular) which were only one of its components, even if one of the most important ones
3) Another merit of this book, and perhaps the main one in my view, is the author's efforts to remain objective and steer clear from all of the very sensitive and nationalistic issues that arose as a result of the Northern Crusades, and the domination of the German military Orders (and the Teutonic Order in particular). The latter are neither painted as "evil" nor as "paragons of virtue". Instead, the Crusader Ideology and the advantages of relying on what the author terms "the Monastic War-Machine" in the 13th century are carefully explained and laid out, with strong parallels - but also differences - being drawn with the situation in the Holy Lands.
4) A fourth merit of this book is to show that "the Baltic provinces" was seen by a powerful body of Catholic opinion "as a Christican frontier held by armies of the true faith against a hostile outer world of heathendom and schism", at least until the early 14th century (and beyond, but to a lesser extent) but also (and just as much) as wars being fought for the same reasons as all other ways: the capture of trade routes, the winning of "new" lands (wich typically meant subjugating or drivig away whoever might have occupied them prior to the newcomers), increasing revenues and reputations for princes and prelates or simply loot.
5) Another strongpoint is the book's ability to analyze both what made these conquests possible and successful and the reasons for what the author terms the "withering of the Crusade" from 1409 to 1525, and the decadence and extinction of the Teutonic Order in Prussia (in 1525, when the last grand-master turned protestant and secularized the Order's remaining possessions, and in Livonia where Ivan the Terrible put an end to the Livonian Knights in 1562 (which the Master becoming Duke of Courland and a vassal). One of the pillars of success was the steady influx of reinforcements, whether colonists or recuits for the Order, that came from Germany up to the 15th century. Another was the ability of the Order to rely on and use the burghers of the towns that it had created and settled and use as auxiliaries some of the local non-German populations (Prussians in particular).
6) Yet another strongpoint is to show that, while a considerable military disaster, the battle of Tannenberg (1410)was not necessarily the shattering event that it is portrayed to be. War continued. The Provinces held and the victors did not manage to conquer the Order's main fortresses. The author even shows that the Order had suffered military disasters at least five times period, had come close to extinction, but had managed to hold on and survive because of the reinforcements coming from the West, both financial and in manpower for the Order directly, or as Crusaders and colonists. It did not happen on the same scale after Tanenberg while the Order's ennemies were stronger than before and could not be divided (the alliance between the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania). So, as Christiansen shows so well, the Teutonic Order was both weakened and outmanoeuvered strategically and ideologically by this alliance. In Livonia, the Order was increasingly unable to stand its own under the increasingly powerfull Russians.
7) The last quality that this book has - or at least the last that I can think of - is its structure. It uses a simple chronological structure but also manages to insert specific chapters when the Northern Crusades, the Orders, the military efficiency of the Order and the government of the "Crusading States of Northern Europe" as the author terms them, are subject to careful analysis.
Finally, the author insists of what was the main ideological aim of the Northern Crusades - the bringing together of the inhabitants around the Baltic into "a common catholic civilization". This was achieved to the extent that "the Baltic was still a Catholic lake by 1500".
Highly recommended reading for anyting interested in either the Northern Crusades or the Teutonic Order.
on 3 August 2002
Northern Crusades is excellant. I really do reccomend this book. It is very easy to read for a laymen such as myself, the author has a very engaging style that fits very well into my reading pattern of train journey-break-lunch-break-train journey. I found it easy to pick up where I left off my reading. Above that though I apreciated the neutral ie non-partisan perspective of the book. The author takes good care not to force feed the reader his own opinions and does a good job of presenting all sides reasonably. The further reading list he included at the back of the book was also a nice touch that I appreciated! I wish more authors were this considerate!
on 3 January 2010
This book is a big disappointment as the writer promises much and offers glimpses on some fascinating aspects of the topic, but fails to deliver, mainly because he lacks the prose or narrative skills to bring the story and the subjects alive. The main actors must have been fascinating and terrifying figures, but in this dry presentation they remain two-dimensional. It's also an old book reprinted (1 Ed. 1980), but at over 300 pages this is too short to cover such a vast topic spanning five centuries and so it ends up as a disjointed narrative that is difficult and ultimately tedious to follow. It leaves the reader frustrated that there is so little in English on this topic and we are left with this dull specimen that does the subject no justice.
You're left speculating what one of the new generation of young military and social historians could do with this subject especially as, like the Middle East crusades, the legacy of the northern crusades still has a huge resonance today; all the region's ethnic, religious and political divisions and tensions can be traced back to this period. But, as the author says, unlike the crusades in the Holy Land, these crusades were ultimately successful in colonizing this region for Christianity even though the Teutonic order was effectively destroyed at the end. As a mass market publisher Penguin has been quite lazy in just reprinting and updated this work instead of commissioning a new one. The opening up of the Baltic states almost 20 years ago should have presented this opportunity to offer fresh perspectives on a fascinating and in the west still little known or understood subject.