Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
4 June 2013
Review by David S. Bachrach, The University of New Hampshire
The Archaeology of the Prussian Crusade: Holy War and Colonisation
By Aleksander Pluskowski
New York: Routledge, 2013. Pp. xix, 428. ISBN 978–0–415–69171–0.
Descriptors: Volume 2013, Middle Ages, Crusades Print Version

Founded in the aftermath of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa's disastrous campaign during the Third Crusade (1189–90), the Order of the Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem, better known as the German Order or Teutonic Knights, had as its original purpose the defense of the Holy Land against the Muslims. However, in the early thirteenth century, the Teutonic Knights gained property and responsibilities along the eastern frontier of the German kingdom. With considerable support from Emperor Frederick II (1216–50), Barbarossa's grandson, the Knights began a decades-long series of campaigns in Prussia, which ostensibly carried on crusades launched along the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea during the twelfth century.

Although the Teutonic Knights never formally gave up their initial duty to protect the Holy Land, most of their energies in the thirteenth century were directed toward the conquest, Christianization, and colonization of Prussia. During the fourteenth century, the Knights shifted their attention to defending their state in Prussia and to expanding eastwards at the expense of Lithuania, which remained stubbornly pagan until the conversion of Grand Duke Jogaila in 1386. The conversion of the Lithuanians led to a crisis of identity for the Teutonic Knights, whose raison d'être as a crusading order was now eliminated. Following a number of defeats at the hands of the powerful Lithuanian-Polish state, including the devastating loss at Tannenberg (Grunwald) in 1410, the Knights' Prussian state gradually declined, ultimately becoming a dependency of the king of Poland.

Historical inquiry regarding the Teutonic Knights has suffered from the impinging claims of nationalist ideologies, German, Polish, and Lithuanian, dating back to the eighteenth century. German historians tended to view the Knights' activities as elements in the process of bringing civilization to the benighted East. By contrast, Polish and Lithuanian historians have tended to see the Knights as yet another example of German aggressors against eastern neighbors. Such views were reinforced among Polish and Lithuanian historians by the events of the Second World War, while German historians abandoned the civilizing model and adopted a much more critical attitude toward the Teutonic Knights. The period following Communist rule in the East, however, has seen a fundamental revision of historiographical traditions and broad and deep cooperation among German, Polish, and Lithuanian scholars, including both historians and archaeologists, which has focused on treating the Knights in the setting of their own time. Among the heuristic tactics of contemporary scholars has been a stress on the interplay between the Knights and their pagan adversaries within the context of frontier studies. The present excellent study by Aleksander Pluskowski (Univ. of Reading), a specialist in medieval archaeology, synthesizes over two decades of research in this new scholarly tradition.

Concentrating on the creation, consolidation, and ultimate decline of the Teutonic Knights' state in Prussia from the early thirteenth through the mid-fifteenth century, Pluskowski draws on an enormous range of sources, including both narrative texts and the vast archives of the Knights themselves. However, as the book's title indicates, Pluskowski's primary body of evidence consists of the material remains excavated at hundreds of sites, evaluated using an exceptionally broad array of analytic techniques. Consequently, besides telling the story of the Knights' state, as it now is known, Pluskowski provides an excellent model of how to integrate archaeological and written sources to broaden, deepen, and challenge the account given primarily by literary material.

The book has nine chapters, each divided into many sections. The first chapter, "Historical Framework and Sources," introduces the historiographical traditions for the Teutonic Knights and their Prussian state. Pluskowski also discusses in detail the sources available to the historian of this region, emphasizing the vital role that archaeology should play in historical analysis. Chapter 2, "Pre-Christian Prussia," examines the ethnic groups that inhabited the region, their social and economic structures, and their religion. Pluskowski points out the effect of earlier crusading efforts, as well as more innocuous trading relationships, on the development of local institutions before 1200. Most of the information here derives from the archaeological record, which also informs his treatment of later periods, for which more documentary material survives.

Chapters 3, "The Ravages of Holy War," and 4, "A Land of Red Castles," are organized chronologically and trace the development of the Teutonic Knights' state in Prussia during the thirteenth century and their grinding wars against Lithuania in the fourteenth. In chapter 3, Pluskowski highlights a distinctive feature of the wars against the Prussians—the Knights' effort to blend crusade with colonization. The drive to colonize left clear marks in Prussia, where excavations have revealed telling differences in material culture between Christian settlers and indigenous pagans. After summarizing the crusade against the Prussians, Pluskowski offers instructive case studies of different regions of Prussia, as they were affected by the double force of conversion and colonization. However, he warns that matching the evidence of archaeological and written materials is not always possible for the thirteenth century. By contrast, for the fourteenth century, a vast increase in documentary evidence, combined with much better dendrochronological data, has made possible much finer conclusions about settlement patterns and the effect of colonization on both culture and landscape.

In the fourth chapter, Pluskowski turns to a meticulous consideration of the consolidation of the Knights' state in Prussia during the fourteenth century. After an overview of the structure and organization of the state, he turns to the efforts to bring large numbers of Christian settlers from both Poland and Germany to settle in Prussia. Most of the chapter, however, treats the castles that the Knights built (most famously of red brick) throughout Prussia—their architectural features, their finances, the organization of their garrisons, and their part in subjugating and converting local populations.

Chapter 5, "From Colonisation to Urbanisation," examines the economic development of fourteenth-century Prussia, as it moved from an agrarian to an urban economy integrated into an international trade system that linked it to all of northern Europe along the Baltic and North Seas. The chapter begins by outlining the problems of understanding urbanization, given the largely archaeological evidence available to trace the development of towns. Pluskowski again uses case studies, this time of the most important urban centers, particularly Danzig, to show how the general pattern played out in specific places.

Chapter 6, "Converting Prussia," turns to the thorny issue of the conversion of the indigenous population to Christianity. Again synthesizing written and material sources, the author explains the Teutonic Knights' attempts to establish a regular church structure throughout Prussia. He uses documentary evidence to identify the foundation dates of many parish churches, usually associated with castles. The physical structure of these churches is often apparent in excavations. Throughout the chapter, Pluskowski emphasizes that the Knights saw crusade and Christianization as inextricably bound together and devoted enormous resources to converting the native populations. Thirteenth- and fourteenth-century narrative sources attest to their success. However, these positive reports are contradicted, Pluskowski shows, by the persistence of pagan cult activities, as detected through archaeological research.

Chapter 7, "From Forest to Field," shifts to the environmental impact of the Teutonic Knights' conquest of Prussia. Pluskowski carefully reviews a wide array of archaeological techniques that illuminate patterns of human settlement, changing uses of the land, and the long-term impact of those changes on the ecology of a region. The most significant changes—ascertained particularly by analysis of pollen sequences—were substantial deforestation and the replacement of woodlands with fields for cereal production.

In chapter 8, "The End of Holy War," Pluskowski resumes his chronological narrative, sketching the history of the Knights' state from its apogee in the late fourteenth century through its decline in the first half of the fifteenth and its ultimate memorialization in the historical narratives of the twentieth century. The unification of Lithuania and Poland under a Christian ruler was decisive in the relegation of the Teutonic Knights from leading European power to rump dependency of the Polish king. Not only did the Knights lose their crusading purpose, they now faced a powerful Christian enemy with superior resources. After treating the shadowy existence of the Teutonic Knights through the early modern period, and their historical memory in the last century, Pluskowski ties together the main threads of his history of the Knights' state in chapter 9, "Holy War and Colonization," which serves as a brief conclusion.

The book's comprehensive bibliography of both primary sources and modern scholarly works makes it clear that most work on the Teutonic Knights has appeared in German and Polish, which renders this synthesis in English that much more valuable.[1] The text is rounded out with a section on terminology, an associated glossary, an index, and an astounding seventy images, illustrations, maps, and figures clarifying the geography of regions where the Teutonic Knights operated, the construction of their fortresses, and the material culture of indigenous populations.

This is an excellent study of the development, consolidation, and eventual destruction of the Teutonic Knights' Prussian state. Pluskowski deserves praise not only for making his subject accessible to Anglophone audiences, but also for demonstrating the critical role of archaeology in ensuring a fuller understanding of medieval history. It is no small accomplishment to have synthesized such a massive volume of archaeological research and brought it to bear in a coherent way on important historical questions. This is not, however, an easy book to read. Its dense detail, exotic places, and unfamilar names will overwhelm undergraduates. But The Archaeology of the Prussian Crusade is now an essential study for specialists and will be useful in graduate courses, particularly those designed to show students what good interdisciplinary research should look like.

[1] Pluskowski’s (or Routledge’s) decision to forgo footnotes or even endnotes in favor of in-text parenthetical citations, presumably to save space, is disappointing. Lost is an opportunity to provide additional contextualization of many interesting points made in the text.

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