Book Review: Jerusalem in the North: Denmark and the Baltic Crusades, 1100-1522 (Bysted, Jensen, Jensen, & Lind)—Review by Grant Schrama

Book Review: Jerusalem in the North: Denmark and the Baltic Crusades, 1100-1522. Edited by A. Bysted, K.V. Jensen, C.S. Jensen, J. Lind. Outremer: Studies in the Crusades and the Latin East 1. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2012. xiv+393 pp, 57 b/w ill, 156 x 234 mm. 75,00€. ISBN 13: 9782503523255.

Within the past sixty years or so, the historiography of the crusades has grown at an astounding rate. The crusading movements have gained both academic and popular interest within the past decade as modern conflicts between the West and Middle East have become more prominent. The focus of many crusading scholars has been on those clashes between Catholic Western Europe and the Near East, while a select group of academics have devoted works to those crusading movements which originated and occurred inside Europe’s borders. The Baltic Crusades fall within the latter, and have slowly begun to form an increasingly significant niche within crusading historiography. Such collected works as Crusade and Conversion on the Baltic Frontier 1150-1500 (2001) and The Clash of Cultures on the Medieval Baltic Frontier (2009) provide an array of detailed and specified essays on the Baltic crusading movement, while a number of monographs, most importantly Eric Christiansen’s The Northern Crusades (1980), have dealt with the history of the Crusades in Scandinavia in a broadly encompassing manner. The study Jerusalem in the North: Denmark and the Baltic Crusades, 1100-1522 is a worthy new addition to the expanding number of historical monographs on Scandinavia and its involvement in the crusading movement.

Coauthored by four leading Danish medievalists, this monograph was originally published in Danish in 2004, with a second edition and an Estonian translation being published in 2006 and 2007, respectively. Brepols has now released an English translation based on the Danish second edition. The two major questions posed by the authors in this study are whether Denmark participated in the crusading movement and for what reasons. In the introductory chapter, the authors trace the origins of the Danish crusading movement to the summer of 1097, when a large army of crusading knights from Denmark were attacked by a contingent of Turks near Ikonion. Led by Prince Sven of Denmark (c.1050-1097), all 1500 of the Danish knights perished in the ambush. According to the authors, the death of Prince Sven and his knights influenced other members of the Danish royal family to become involved in the crusading movement to the Holy Land. The authors conclude that Denmark was an active participant in the crusades, either through ventures to the Near East or the Baltic region, setting up the rest of the book as a history of the development of the Danish crusading movement against the Wends, Prussians, Lithuanians, Estonians, and to a certain extent the Finns, described in vivid detail and explained within the general context of the expansion of the crusading ideal. The authors argue that crusading ideology played an impact on Denmark’s involvement in the crusades, with various Danish leaders taking up the cross for different reasons. As well, this study investigates the involvement of the Pope and various religious preachers in the calling of the crusades against Denmark’s pagan neighbours in the Baltic and the spread of such crusade ideology throughout Scandinavia.

Chapters II and III focus on Denmark’s crusading actions against the pagan Wends, a Slavic people inhabiting the Wendland (Modern-day German-Polish border). The authors argue that the crusades against the pagan Wends were the conclusion to a long history of conflict and cooperation between the two groups dating back to the eleventh century, then describe the development of Denmark’s crusading ventures into Wendish territory, highlighting the major battles of the crusade, including the sack of Arkona in 1168. Relying primarily on the history of the crusade by Saxo (c. 1150-1220), the authors show that the Wendish Crusades were both a religious initiative to suppress and convert Denmark’s pagan enemies and a political contest of hegemony as various secular and ecclesiastical groups attempted to bring pagan groups and territories under their authority. The authors argue that the Wendish expeditions can be considered crusades and were a success, since after the conquests of the 1160s and 1180s, paganism ceased to be the foremost religion in the region.

In chapter IV, the focus turns to the actual Danish crusading institution and the logistics of the crusading movement. Included in this chapter is a discussion of crusade preaching throughout Denmark, with a focus on how bishops were asked by the papacy to recruit crusaders in their area and organize sermons there. Also examined in this chapter are the armour and weapons of the Danish crusading knights, including the sword, crossbow, and a detailed analysis of the use of horses within the Danish army. The authors look at how the Danish crusades were financed through various papal and royal taxes, and provide a brief general discussion of crusading ideology and indulgences.

From chapter V onward, the authors turn their focus towards the Danish crusades in the Eastern Baltic lands. In chapter VI they examine Denmark’s brief crusading venture into Finland, where they describe the history of the Dane’s crusading missions there within the context of Sweden’s long-standing subjugation and conversion of the pagan Finns. The origins of Denmark’s crusading policy in the region are discussed, including an examination of four papal bulls issued by Innocent III (r.1198-1216) in connection with the Finnish mission. In chapter VII, early crusading missions to Livonia become the subject of focus, including a history of the missionary efforts of Meinhard against the Livs in the 1180s, the crusading campaign of Theoderic in 1197, and the successful defeat and conversion of the Livonian pagans in the summer of 1198 under the Cistercian Bertold.

Chapters VIII and XIII detail Russian involvement in the Baltic Crusades. In the first decades of the crusading mission in the Baltic there were periods of cooperation and conflict between the newly-established political and ecclesiastical territories and their Russian neighbours in Polotsk, Novgorod, and Pskov. However, as crusading efforts near Russian-held territories continued into the thirteenth century, armed conflicts occurred between the local population and the crusader armies, despite the Papacy’s attempt to forge an alliance with the Russians against the invading Mongols. This alliance collapsed under the pressure of insufficient military power and the rift between Catholic and Orthodox Christianity, a prevalent theme throughout both chapters.

Crusading missions to Estonia are the focus of chapters IX and XIV. Campaigning against the Estonians began in 1208 when a large Livonian army attacked Ugaunia, resulting in the destruction of villages and the slaughter of countless pagan Estonians. Staunch pagans themselves, the Estonians retaliated with a series of attacks in rebellion against conversion. On December 29th 1215, Pope Innocent III issued a bull encouraging those in Denmark that were not on crusade to the Holy Land to march to Livonia and wage war against the Estonians there. This section of the book outlines the major conflicts of the Estonian crusading mission, including such battles as those at Sakkala on September 1217 and King Valdemar’s crusade in 1219, where the Estonians were barely defeated at the Battle of Lyndanise. At the battle, the Danish crusaders were saved by a Wendish contingent led by Prince Witzlaw I (c.1180-1250). The remainder of chapter IX and for a part of chapter XIV deals with the Christianization of Estonia, as well as the conflicts that arose between the Danish Church, the Livonian Church and Bishop Albert of Riga (c.1165-1229) surrounding who held authority over the newly-conquered Estonia territories.

Throughout chapters X and XI the authors discuss the complex history of Prussia and its ties to the crusading movement. The crusading mission to Prussia was headed by Christian, a monk from the Danish monasteries in Pomerania. However, conflicts arose over who was to lead the military conquest of the Prussian territories, as King Valdemar II of Denmark (r. 1202-1241) competed with the archbishopric of Gniezno and the prince of Greater Poland. Eventually King Valdemar II won, but his crusade in 1210 resulted in minimal missionary advancement over the Prussians, and details surrounding Danish crusading efforts in Prussia are scarce. However, as outlined in chapter XI of this study, the Teutonic Knights became heavily involved in conquering and converting the Prussians. For much of the chapter the authors describe the Knights’ crusading activity in Prussia and weigh in on the historiographic debate about whether the conquest of the Prussians was an actual religious mission, or more of a means to set up an independent Teutonic state.

The final chapters of the book involve the dissolution of Danish crusading activity and the final stages of the crusades in the Baltic areas. The authors present a sweeping history of the Danish crusading efforts after 1346 against the Turks, as well as brief examinations of the political situation and institutions of Danish secular and ecclesiastical lands in the newly-conquered Baltic region.

The book ends with a very brief chapter on crusading missions to Greenland and India. Although not at times purely focused on Denmark, this book provides a thorough history of Denmark’s involvement in the crusading movements and is an excellent supplement to Janus Møller Jensen’s Denmark and the Crusades, 1400-1650 (2007), which focuses primarily on the Danes’ involvement in the later crusades against the Ottomans and Hussites. The authors have not just succinctly presented a narrative history of Denmark’s crusading ventures, but have also incorporated a thorough analysis of such larger themes as crusading ideology and papal authority and structure, as well as the Christianization of the medieval Baltic, into their work. Prior to Jerusalem in the North, the early development and history of Denmark’s involvement in the Baltic crusades was relegated to chapters in larger monographs and individual essays in collected surveys of the Northern Crusades. Comprehensive and excellently organized, this book is poised to become a standard text for scholars and students interested in medieval Scandinavia and the Baltics, as well as for those studying the crusading movements.

Grant Schrama

Grant Schrama is a PhD candidate in History at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario. His main research interests include late Byzantine and Crusading history, with a particular focus on the immigration of western and northern Europeans to Constantinople from 1081 to 1453.

Cited works
Christiansen, Eric. The Northern Crusades: The Baltic and the Catholic Frontier, 1100-1525. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1980.

Jensen, Janus Møller. Denmark and the Crusades, 1400-1650. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2007.

Murray, Alan V., ed. The Clash of Cultures on the Medieval Baltic Frontier. Farnham, UK; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009.

Murray, Alan V., ed. Crusade and Conversion on the Baltic Frontier 1150-1500. Aldershot, UK; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2001.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.