Death, Plunder & Propaganda: Poland's First English Tourists
#travel in poland
default, 'Bitwa Litwinów z Krzyżakami' (Battle between Lithuanians & Crusaders) by Henryk Pillati, late 19th century, photo: Piotr Ligier / National Museum, center, bitwa_litwinow_z_krzyzakami_mnw.jpg
Were the Baltic Crusades a religious mission or just violent tourism? Novelist Wojciech Zembaty explores the dark history of the first English visitors to Poland, in turn examining how the bloodlust of knights has evolved over the centuries and even asking why we like red meat so much.
The idea to visit Eastern Europe for a short, yet intense trip full of drinking, meeting the locals and having fun was born earlier than you think. The first English tourists to visit Poland were young knights from the 14th century. They were looking for adventure, chivalry, and the opportunity to butcher heathens at a reasonable price. The first major – and pretty violent – encounters between the English and Poles took place during the Northern Crusades in Prussia and Lithuania.
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Initially, the Crusades were military expeditions by European knights that were aimed at restoring the Holy Land and Jesus Christ’s grave in Jerusalem. Supported and initiated by Pope Urban II, the participants of the First Crusade were promised they’d have their sins washed away, so participation was also a form of penance. In his famous speech at Clermont, Pope Urban II expressed his concept for this crusading movement:
Hence it is that you murder one another, that you wage war, and that frequently you perish by mutual wounds. Let therefore hatred depart from among you, let your quarrels end, let wars cease, and let all dissensions and controversies slumber. Enter upon the road to the Holy Sepulcher; wrest that land from the wicked race, and subject it to yourselves.
Pope Urban II, 27 Nov 1095, according to Fulcher of Chatres’s ‘A History of the Expedition to Jerusalem, 1095-1127’
Later, these expeditions against enemies of the Catholic Church branched out: Muslims from the Middle East and Spain were targeted, Turks, Baltic pagans, even Christian heretics from Bosnia and southern France all received official blessings from various Popes to receive more than a mere stern talking to. But the Crusades had many other aspects other than their famed violence, including political, religious and economical ones. In fact, one of the main reasons they kept happening was that the clergy saw them as a way of keeping things in order back at home.
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Apart from managing a land estate, their fief, the only honourable occupation for a nobleman was war. Since only the eldest son would inherit the land, any siblings lost out. It meant there were increasing numbers of ‘unemployed’ bored knights without land, and they often ended up being a menace to society. Sending them all away on a mass pilgrimage, combined with a holy war, seemed a brilliant idea. Perhaps the real purpose of the Crusades was preventing boredom.
Of course, it wouldn’t have worked without an economic purpose. In the 12th century, Europe’s population was growing. Italian traders and bankers were especially interested in providing transport – at a price – and establishing trade roads. What they needed was people to purge the way and make these links available. It seems the Crusaders were the first wave of European colonialism. Younger sons could finally get rich and get their own land, and, last but not least, get their sins washed away with the blood of pagans.
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Although Poland had been Christian since its inception a couple of centuries earlier, Polish knights didn’t participate much in the Crusades to the Holy Land, with few exceptions. There is a famous anecdote about a lord who really wanted to join, but refused when he heard that you can’t get any beer in the Middle East. ‘Don’t ask me to do impossible things,’ he apparently said. But Poles didn’t miss much, especially since the Crusades soon came to them.
Theoretically, the Northern Crusades, sometimes called the Baltic Crusades, were aimed at pagans. And there were plenty of them in the region. In the 12th and 13th century, the Kingdom of Denmark attacked Finland and Pomerania. German knightly orders conquered Prussia, Livonia and fought long bloody wars against Lithuania. And after Lithuania had become an ally of Poland, Poles were also involved in those conflicts. And they would end up putting a stop to them too.
On the Christian side
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The strongest players in the region were the German Order of the Teutonic Knights. They started in the Holy Land, but as Muslim resistance grew stronger, the knights started looking for easier pickings. In 1112, they moved to Hungary to provide aid against the nomadic tribe of Cumans. But the Hungarian king forced them to leave after they tried to start carving out their own independent state.
Then one day in 1226, there came an invitation from a polish duke, one Konrad I of Mazovia (called Konrad I Mazowiecki in Polish). Konrad was struggling against Baltic tribes known as the Old Prussians, who lived on his eastern and northern border, and he felt that inviting the Teutonic Knights to aide him would finally rid him of a pest that affected everybody he knew.
In the 13th century, Mazovia was one of many petty dukedoms in the fragmented territories of the Kingdom of Poland, which was now hopelessly divided and warring with itself. Poor and backward, this region was a border land, and the lack of cohesion meant all of the dukedoms were prone to pillaging raids from pagan Lithuania and the lands of the Old Prussians and Yotvingians.
For nearby nations, these Baltic pagans were troublesome neighbours. The Poles tried to convert them to Christianity for a long time, especially since the patron saint of Poland, Saint Wojciech, had become a martyr after such an attempt. But the Old Prussian and Lithuanian tribes liked to raid and collect slaves, then retreat to their forests and marshes. Some of their raids were devastating. Archaeologists claim that these pagans were taller and healthier than peasants from the Christian lands, so combined with their behaviour you have to imagine them coming across like some sort of land Viking. One particularly eventful year, a Lithuanian warband sacked the Mazovian town of Jazdów, now part of Warsaw and remembered in the name of one of its main streets, Aleje Ujazdowskie. The pagans attacked while people were praying in church. They took their loot and slaves and fled. A local duke followed them, but got ambushed in a night attack, losing both his army and his life.
Now, with Konrad calling in the heavies from Germany, these last pagans of Europe were to become the victims of the Northern Crusades. But they weren’t going to go down easy.
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There were three main groups of Baltic tribes dwelling near Polish borders: the Lithuanians, the Old Prussians, and the Yotvingians. Being forest people, the Baltic tribes relied on guerilla tactics, with designs such as secret bridges hidden in their swamps. They preferred spears, which could easily stab between branches. The Lithuanians, the strongest and best organised among the Baltic tribes, had been expanding east since the 13th century, conquering and confederating various Russian city-states threatened by the Mongols. Meanwhile, the Old Prussians were politically divided, but their lands were relatively rich, with good soil and developing trade. Famously, they were also pirates, reaching waters as far as Spain.
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The Yotvingians were perhaps the most exotic and ‘barbaric’ among the tribes. Living in small family clans, they captured slaves from Poland and Russia. They were masters of survival in the harsh northern climate, feeding on seemingly inedible delicacies such as flour made from couch grass and young pine fruits fried with honey. According to legend, they knew herbs that could freeze food. When one of them died, his entire wealth was gathered. His farm animals and supplies were eaten by the community during a feast and the rest was ritually burned. This wilful destruction of inheritance meant the Yotvingians as a clan didn’t develop capital nor grow richer. Their way of living calls to mind that of modern survivalists. Each settlement was fully independent. They even dug their own iron. The downside of this way of living was constant violence. They were locked in endless clan feuds, usually unable to unite against outside enemies.
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As you might expect given the interest of the invading Crusaders, these tribes weren’t Christian, but their religion is hard to reconstruct, as the only reliable sources come from their enemies. It was possibly a form of animism, with ancestor spirits living in animals and trees, especially older ones with twisted shapes. Because every tree could contain an ancestor, Old Prussians avoided cutting them down and always kept their trunks and roots, even on their farmlands. Old Prussian land had been inhabited since the 4th century BC, and yet, at the time of the Crusades a millennia and a half later, 95% of it was still covered with primaeval forests.
They kept some of their land as holy enclaves, in which nobody was allowed to hunt. One important ritual involved prophecies. A priest would observe a holy stallion and predict the future from its walk, such as the order of hooves touching the ground and so on. The whole idea was a bit similar to the I- Ching, or forecasting fate from a bird’s flight or the shape of animal guts. Meanwhile, snakes were considered to be vessels for their ancestors and often received milk. They also believed that spirits reincarnated many times, until they were able to purify and reach some sort of paradise. Meanwhile, the Old Prussians were famous for not fearing death, which they also perceived as the start of another life. When defeated, they often committed suicide.
Polish lords launched many wars on them, but to no avail. The tribes fiercely resisted converting to Christianity. In fact, the very opposite was much more likely. Many Polish villagers, tired of their feudal duties, settled in forests and aspired to become Yotvingians or Old Prussians.
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'Potyczka Litwinów z Krzyżakami' (Clash between Lithuanians & Crusaders) by Michał Elwiro Andriolli, 1883, press illustration taken from 'Tygodnik Powszechny', 1884, photo: National Museum in Warsaw
The Teutonic Order took on their challenge from Konrad of Mazovia slowly. With a long history of being Crusaders, their strong point was discipline and persistence, and the beginnings in this new mission were quite humble. In 1230, a few knights established their first stronghold, called Bird’s Song, in the canopy of a giant oak tree. There they survived Prussian attacks and waited for reinforcement.
Soon, they conquered their first Prussian tribe. Its leader, Pipin, converted to Christianity, but later continued to resist the invaders. He was treated to an old Germanic punishment, mentioned in Tacitus’s Germania. The knights split his belly, spiked his entrails to a tree and flogged him. He apparently ran around it, wrapping his guts around the tree.
Pragmatic and efficient, the Crusaders understood the rules of psychological warfare. Being outnumbered, they had to scare their opponents to death. For example, during First Crusade, one of it’s leaders, a Frank called Beomund, would roast the bodies of Turks in their camp fires, the intention being to make Turks hiding nearby think that the Franks are cannibals. Massacres of civilians were common. In his chronicle of the First Crusade, Fulcher from Chartres mentions that the Crusaders captured a camp full of women, but did them no harm... other than pierce all their bellies with their spears.
Old Prussia was conquered step by step. First, the Crusaders would launch a reiza, or reise, a pillaging war party. This was when guests from western Europe, including England, would join in, small-scale operations being seemingly manageable even when bringing in often inexperienced fighters. After the pillaging, they would build a fort, later a stone castle, using local people as slaves. After surviving counter-attacks, they would capture new lands the following year.
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'Zamek Krzyżacki w Toruniu' (Teutonic Castle in Toruń) by Julian Fałat, 1920, photo: Piotr Ligier / National Museum in Warsaw
Mediaeval wars were usually fought in summer, when armies could forage and feed on the crops of the conquered. But during the Baltic Crusades, the preferred season was winter, when the swamps were frozen and leafless trees provided no cover to the savages. Year after year, the wars were bloody and ruthless on both sides. The Chronicle of the Prussian Land by Peter of Dusberg mentions multiple betrayals and atrocities. Crusaders poisoned tribal leaders after inviting them to feast and peace talks. Prussians killed unarmed prisoners after a truce and burned captured knights in their armours, sacrificing them to their gods.
In the 13th century, the Old Prussians and Yotzvingians were brought to extinction or serfdom, except for those who fled Lithuania and Poland. Their tribal nobles was often corrupted by land gains and gifts, while women were kept in the Teutonic Order’s brothels. But the Lithuanians were a tougher nut to crack. Their lands already expanded toward modern Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, taking advantage of the turmoil after the Mongol invasions. The city states of Rus were hiring Lithuanians as mercenaries, as a result losing their independence to their wild protectors. In the 14th century, Lithuanian-controlled lands reached from the Baltic to the Black Sea, in the east bordering the merchant republic of Novogrod and the petty yet ambitious dukedom of Muscovy.
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Meanwhile, after all these years and two tribes defeated, the Teutonic Knights had moved on from just fighting with pagans – they had expanded into Poland, capturing the city of Gdańsk and much more besides, building fortresses like the ones in Malbork and Toruń. With his former aides now attacking his countrymen, it seemed that the late Konrad I of Mazovia had bitten off more than he could chew.
In the 14th century, Poland forged an alliance with its former enemy Lithuania when the Lithuanian king Jagiełło took the Polish queen Jadwiga as his bride. From that point on, Lithuania officially converted to Christianity and the Teutonic Knights, with their mission of spreading Christianity east, became redundant.
But the Teutonic Knights had no interest in leaving. In order to keep receiving support and soldiers from western Europe, the knights launched an aggressive propaganda campaign. Fake news was the key, as the West had to believe that the Baltic tribes were still pagan.
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'The Baptism of Lithuania' by Jan Matejko, from the series 'The History of Civilisation in Poland', 1888, photo: National Museum in Warsaw
The Baltic Crusades were a fairly popular endeavour for Western Europeans. They are even mentioned in The Canterbury Tales and the poetry of the era. A few people, like the English monk Roger Bacon, dared to criticise the very idea of such journeys. But by then, becoming a Baltic Crusader had already become a form of initiation for the well-to-do.
There have always been these kinds of society rituals for the English middle and upper classes. In the 19th century, young gentlemen would travel to Italy to adore the arts. Nowadays, gap year backpackers might travel to Thailand to enjoy surfing, snorkelling and other more controversial activities. In the 14th century, young knights dreamt about joining a Crusade and killing some infidels.
Famous English crusaders in Lithuania included Thomas Beauchamp (11th Earl of Warwick), Henry Percy of Northumberland (also known as ‘Harry Hotspur’), and the future king Henry IV. The ceasefires during the Hundred Years War often resulted in English and French visits to Prussia so that they could make themselves feel useful.
Taking part in the Crusades gave prestige, reputation and important contacts, together with wealth from looting and the absolution of your sins. They were considered a moral duty for knights. French chronicler Jean Froissart wrote about the more accomplished ones, whose Crusader trips included Prussia, Hungary, Turkey, Rhodes and Cyprus. It sounded like everybody should try it, at least once.
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Let’s imagine a typical conversation in an English noble family from the 14th century.
Young George is looking for a chance to prove his knightly mettle. What should he do? He could go to France, join the Black Prince and do some decent pillaging, but it’s just not the same experience, not a real organic Crusade. After all, those perfidious French are, unfortunately, Christian. There’s Scotland, of course, but it’s rocky and full of haggises and sharp pointed pikes. Ever since the days of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, Scotland has been considered a hardcore holiday option, one for the true backpackers. And the original Crusade destination, the Holy Land, has already been recaptured by Saracens. ‘In my day, Iberia was pretty fun,’ sighs George’s papa. ‘I thought I could move there, after I retire.’ But George can’t really acquire riches in Spain. In the middle of the 14th century, the Reconquista seems pretty much over, with only Granada left in the hands of infidels. So perhaps a budget option. Well, have you heard about Eastern Europe? They’ve got pagans there, real pagans next door! And the girls are blonde.
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Visitors from England were welcomed in the port city of Königsberg (Kaliningrad today). The Teutonic Knights did their best to satisfy visitors. They had minstrels and jesters entertain newcomers. They even had their own Round Table, so young George could really feel like Lancelot or Galahad entering the realm of chivalry and chansons de geste. And just like modern tourists from the West who seek encounters with Bedouin, Masai or mountain people, they travelled into the wilds to meet the exotic locals, these strange people from Lithuania and Poland. And kill them.
The goal of the raids they were taken on was to scare the locals and cause maximum damage. Just like the Old Prussians before they were conquered, the Lithuanians avoided major battles with better armoured Europeans. Brutality of those wars was unparalleled. In most Mediaeval conflicts, the local populations were spared. Human resources were too precious to waste. But in Prussia, butchering significant numbers of the civilian population was the only way to win a war against guerrillas since they would be hidden among them. And as pagans, they didn’t deserve Christian mercy. Due to all these endless fights, the vast lands between Lithuania and the State of the Teutonic Order were turned into a barren wasteland. The Teutonic Knights were more than happy though, since this was their way of securing their borders.
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In 1331, Sir Thomas Ufford, together with a hundred other English knights, joined the Teutonic attack against the Polish land of Greater Poland. Whether they knew that their Crusade was against fellow Christians is unclear. The Teutonic Knights used the visitors against their enemy without going into details. We do know what this particular reise achieved, because the detailed account was used later in a Papal court trial between Poland and the Teutonic Order. The Crusaders looted the towns of Łęczyca and Sieradz, including their churches. In one of them, the local priest tried to confront the invaders, holding a cross and addressing the foreign despoilers in Latin. ‘I don’t understand,’ answered one of the Teutonic Knights… in Old Prussian.
Supposedly, Thomas Ufford never burned any churches in England. Even in France, he would, perhaps, hesitate to do that, since both sides of the conflict were somehow connected by ties of neighbourhood, marriages and the like. Religious arson there could cause troubles and stains on his reputation. But in Lithuania or Poland, the Lands of Nowhere, people like Thomas could feel anonymous and almighty. He probably didn’t think they were actual churches. It was like visiting the amusement park form the HBO series Westworld, but much better. You could butcher and rape real people, not just robots, and the Pope officially claimed it would wash your sins.
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Jeremy Irons as Henry IV in the TV show 'The Hollow Crown', photo: British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) / NBC Universal Television
The biggest Mediaeval clash between Poles and the English happened in 1391, during the siege of the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius. Teutonic forces were supported by 300 English longbowmen and knights led by Henry of Derby, who would later become England’s future king Henry IV. Poles fought at the side of the Lithuanians and managed to take two English knights, John Cliffton and Thomas Remston as prisoners.
At the end of the 14th century, the number of foreign visitors to Prussia diminished. It could be due to successful PR campaigns by Poland – by the Adam Mickiewicz Institutes of the era – and the kingdom’s growth of prestige and recognition. Another reason is likely a general change in trends, with Crusades slowly going out of fashion.
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'Bitwa pod Grunwaldem' (Battle of Grunwald) by Jan Matejko, 1878, oil on canvasa, photo: Piotr Ligier / National Museum in Warsaw
Then came the famed Battle of Grunwald in 1410. Before it commenced, the Teutonic Knights had received some aid from western Europe, but it was smaller than expected. It is unclear whether any English knights took part in the battle. It was a truly ‘global’ confrontation of nations and faiths, including Germans and other Western Europeans, versus the local alliance of Poland and Lithuania, supported by contingents from Orthodox Rus and Muslim Tartars. Even the future Hussite leader Jan Žižka fought there on the Polish side. Grunwald saw the Teutonic Knights decisively defeated, finally ridding the region of its most persistent invader of all.
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To conclude, I’d like to add something like an anthropological and psychological appendix. What was the real purpose of this Mediaeval tourism? Why did the ‘visitors’ enjoy their atrocities so much? Religion, politics and greed certainly contributed, but there is one factor which must be considered, the major difference between us and our Mediaeval counterparts: these knights were addicted to bloodshed.
In his great classical study, Norbert Elias shows how the civilisation and sophistication of modern society was achieved by learning how to restrain instincts and sublimating our earlier brutality. It was a long process. If you read about someone like Benvenuto Cellini – a famous example of the earliest artistic autobiography – you will see rivers of blood. Cellini, a dandy gay artist and goldsmith, what you could call a 16th-century noble-born hipster, killed people on a regular basis, be it his artistic or sexual rival, or some accidental offender, a ruffian on the road. In his era, everybody had to be ready to use arms at any occasion, just to defend himself from others. The famous playwright Christopher Marlowe took part in many pub brawls and was even stabbed to death during a fight over a bill. And these two examples are artistic ‘snowflakes’ living in sheltered conditions. If creatives were so accustomed to murder, then what about professional killers?
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Nobles often descended from foreign invaders, like the Normans in England or the Franks in France. The bondage and harassment of peasantry was their traditional activity and social function. Even the aristocrat diet stood out from the rest of the population’s. They ate much more meat than everybody else, especially since peasants were forbidden from hunting (perhaps that's why mushrooms became so popular). For example, from the records of their dishes, we can see Polish noblemen often devoured three pounds of red meat a day. These carnivorous eating habits went hand-in-hand with their violent behaviour.
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Eventually, due to this association, red meat would become imprinted in our brains as a symbol of status and wealth. According to some studies, the modern love for rare steak is driven by a craving for status, just as much as any urge from our stomach. You’d be hard-pressed to find many rich people in history who were vegan. On top of this, most water was considered dangerous and unclean. Brewing alcohol was the commonest way of making something safe to drink. Ale, mead or wine were the only drink options, and rich men always had better booze.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, former knights become land owners and courtiers. They started to enjoy more subtle power games, such as political intrigues or running artistic salons. They were supporting knowledge and adoring the arts, increasingly more than they used to support and adore slaughter. Eventually, they started to call themselves ‘gentle’. But still, the very roots of the caste are seeded in its former ability to kill. Even in times of peace, a favourite pastime for nobles was hunting down and slaughtering wild animals.
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'Taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, 15th July 1099' by Émile Signol, 1847, Giraudon / The Bridgeman Art Library, photo: Palace of Versailles
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In today’s culture, violence is banned or at least severely restrained. Even those few ‘specialists’ who kill in the name of the state, like special forces soldiers, use various euphemisms to somehow mask this very act, to hide its true meaning. They speak about ‘eliminating targets’, ‘securing the objective’, ‘restoring peace’ and the like. They express touching stories about friendship and love toward their comrades at arms. They never speak about the joy of the kill.
Mediaeval knights were much more passionate, in both daily life and war. And they loved fighting to the death. Some of them even wrote confession poetry – see The Song of Roland or the poems of Bertran de Born – about brains coming out of skulls and the beautiful trampled escaping civilians and war refugees dying under the hooves of their stallions.
Most likely, Crusaders never felt guilt about killing some heathen tribesmen, never mind such modern concepts as war trauma or PTSD. In modern fantasies about Mediaeval settings, such as Game of Thrones, grizzled veterans, such as Jamie Lannister or even Clegane the Hound, share bitter confessions about the burden of violence, about the faces of their victims tormenting them for years. But it’s all anachronistic nonsense put there to make us, the modern audience, sympathise with the show’s characters. Never mind the dragons which we at least are aware aren’t supposed to be realistic.
In 1099, at the climax of the First Crusade, the crusaders finally captured the mosque of Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem. With their holy task accomplished, the 10,000 civilians, including women and children, who had sought refuge in the temple, were killed. According to eye witness chronicles, men of God waded in the blood of innocents, the red rivers reaching their hips. It was considered a day of triumph, which few in Europe dared to despise or question. And this is the true mental border between us and them. At least most of us. Hopefully, the Crusaders and their mindset will forever remain alien.
Written by Wojciech Zembaty, Dec 2018
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