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The Teutonic Knights by William Urban

The Teutonic Knights (2003)

by William Urban

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The Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem - the Teutonic Knights - represent a subject that still resonates powerfully in central and eastern Europe. Their story is practically forgotten in the English speaking world. William Urban's narrative history of the Knights is a thorough description of much of their activity from foundation in 1192 in the Holy Land. For much of the Order's existance, the main preoccupation was with military activity in the Baltic and rightly this is the main focus of Urban's work.

Urban has constructed a readable history of the Baltic campaigns which pays due attention to the various factions, interests, and conflicts. It is not the most exciting of narrative histories and for much of the tome and was clearly written by an academic. As a narrative history, it does not contain the depth of specialist referenciing and fine detail that a more analytic essay produces which does make it suitable for the mainstream audience. It is not though an especially lively account of what seems likely to have been a fascinating and exciting part of European history.

The lack of sensationalism may be deliberate. Urban inserts his own opinions on the opinions of others at times. In particular, Urban explicitly calls for the Teutonic Knights to be given an impartial treatment given the history of nationalism in 20th century Europe for which the Order had a particular meaning. The English speaking world may not be overly familiar with the nationalist undertones but it is easy to see Prussian militarism in the 19th and 20th century as having roots in the State that the Knights built.

The early State built in Prussia came in a relatively soft spot on European borders. Urban describes the efforts of the Teutonic Knights to support the Papal Crusades in the Holy Land in defence of Christian lands against mainly Turkish incursion. Those efforts were not especially succesful and the description of the way in which Grand Masters gradually transferred their focus further north makes up the early patr of Urban's book. The brief time in Transylvania is a small stop en route to the main area of activity in the Baltic.

Prussia itself appears to have been germanised really quite easily. The rest of the Baltic fought the Teutonic Knights for centuries. Lithuania in particular has a fascinating story to tell in this respect and much of Urban's work covers this subject. The incursions by successive generations of Knights into and back out of Lithuanian territory is the main military effort. The imposition of Christianity on the Baltic tribes is a hard fought struggle which contemporaries must surely have found to be a surprise given the swift transition to Christianity of the similarly Pagan peoples of Scandinavia.

The details of religious belief are well covered. Inevitably, much more will be known of the Christian traditions than the Pagan ones but both are given a decent exposition. The Christianity of the Knights is most clearly present in the early centuries after foundation with a strict adherence to a devout and somewhat aesthetic form of Catholicism. The later splits within Christianity are a major determinator in the eventual fall of the Order though the tale here is told more through the personalities of those involved rather than the major trends. The splits within Catholicism where occasional factions at the Vatican and more regular divides between the Vatican and the various powers within the Holy Roman Empire play a recurring if not always completely significant role in the affairs of the Order. Ultimately though the rise of Protestantism has a crippling effect in denying the Order its natural recruitment base.

Urban's coverage of the Pagans is inevitably less detailed. Paganism is primarily identified by Urban as having a link to independence. Resisting the imposition of religious thought is the same as resisting the imposition of physical control. Urban accords some of the leaders of the Balts the respect they are due. As skilled tactitians and fierce leaders, they gave the Knights a significant challenge in the difficult terrain of Lithuania.

That challenge was met by a range of nobles from across Europe. There must have been some reason for the continued arrival of rich foreigners to fight briefly on behalf of the Knights. Urban provides two main reasons for this phenomenon - spirituality and chivalry. The desire of medieval Christians to fight for their religion is a mindset that is hard for a modern reader to fully understand but clearly played a major role in the religious military orders of the time. Chivalry though seems a little underplayed. Urban rightly devotes some time to the chivalric aspects of crusade participation though the romantic period does not play a huge part in Urban's tale.

It is the battles between the Knights and Poland that have held the greatest significance into the present day. The Battle of Tannenberg in 1410 was a huge defeat for the Order. Urban argues that the battle was important but was one step in a gradual decline. Major defeat for the Order was inevitable according to Urban, it just happened that it was Tannenberg where that defeat happened.

Part of the underlying cause of decline was economics. This is almost always the case. Most historians are not economists and Urban does not make any pretence to have that background. He does though cite the rise in power of the Prussian merchant class as being part of the problem for a religious order in their producing a rival power base. Eventually though, the Knights run out of money and elimination is merely a matter of time.

A lack of analysis of the peoples under the control of the Teutonic Knights makes it a little hard to follow why this economic collapse happened. There is reasonable coverage of the military and administrative leaders and ventures of the Order but it was also a State. Urban provides very limited coverage of the State under administration except the occasional rebellions. Equally, the Livonian branch of the Knights is given pretty short shrift in Urban's coverage. The Swordbrothers feature early on as a rival faction but their story is not told here with the exception of occasional appearances in battles against Russians.

The eventual collapse of the Teutonic Order is well analysed. With more famous religious military orders having long since been disbanded, the Order sustained battle for much longer than might have been expected. Their time passed. It might have been useful to have some brief coverage of legacy beyond that of propoganda and the specific legacy of the organisation on itself. The later rise of Prussia cannot be completely de-coupled from the Knights. The society of what were Baltic people that were germanised and led by a military order for centuries became a breathtakingly successful industrial and then military endeavour. Coincedence does not seem to be the likely explanation.

Urban's work is the best available discussion of the Teutonic Knights. It is a reasonable coverage of what must have been fascinating times. It is not the most exciting of narrative history works but in the English speaking world, this is a part of European history greatly in need of further exposure. Urban has opened up much of their times and for anyone with even a passing interest, it is a tale well worth knowing. For those, like this reviewer, who have had the opportunity to stand in the remarkably humble Deutschordenskirche, it is a history that needs to be known. ( )
1 vote Malarchy | Apr 26, 2011 |
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