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Gregory Leighton: Ideology and Holy Landscape in the Baltic Crusades. War and Conflict in Premodern Societies, Leeds: Arc Humanities Press 2022, VIII + 212 S., ISBN 978-1-6418-9454-8, EUR 132,00
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Rezension von:
William L. Urban
Monmouth College, Monmouth, IL
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Ralf L├╝tzelschwab
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William L. Urban: Rezension von: Gregory Leighton: Ideology and Holy Landscape in the Baltic Crusades. War and Conflict in Premodern Societies, Leeds: Arc Humanities Press 2022, in: sehepunkte 23 (2023), Nr. 4 [15.04.2023], URL: http://www.sehepunkte.de
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Gregory Leighton: Ideology and Holy Landscape in the Baltic Crusades

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The concept of sacral landscapes is not new, but its prominence is. The central idea in Leighton's slim but well-documented book is that when medieval Christians first entered Prussia and Livonia, they found dark forests inhabited by fierce pagans; after defeating these enemies in long and grueling wars, they created a Christian landscape of prosperous farms, villages, and towns, with churches, monasteries, and cathedrals.

The regional chronicles all contain passages that reflect this thesis, but there are also passages that support other narratives, most importantly, those which emphasize politics and war, personalities, and the fickleness of fate. The first narrative was how the followers of Christ defeated those of the pagan gods (with the capitalization of the victorious deity emphasizing the defeat of the non-capitalized vanquished). Later, nationalists triumphed their successes, only to be supplanted by their once subjected peoples. Marxist narratives arose, only to recede with the overthrow of the Soviet system.

Leighton follows an overview of the crusading movement in the Baltic region with a definition of what he means by a "sacred landscape", then describes how this justification of the conquest became more prominent after the Teutonic Order seized Danzig (Gdańsk). This is widely agreed to be the crucial moment in the early crusade, but by not describing it more fully, Leighton simplified a complex political crisis into raw aggression, thereby aligning his narrative with one beloved of Polish historians for seven centuries now. The dispute that followed not only deprived the crusaders of the help of a powerful neighbor, but the very act lent itself to accusations that the Teutonic Knights were renegades who hampered the peaceful conversion of the pagans. To counter this, the military order created a narrative that employed Biblical imagery to justify their wars against God's enemies, then called their military expeditions pilgrimages (Reisen), and erected impressive churches and monasteries that were visually impressive both in their architecture and decoration, and where the relics of saints and martyrs could be venerated. In doing this, they created a mental image of Prussia and Livonia as holy lands that needed crusaders to aid in their defense.

While we cannot ask the pilgrims themselves what their experiences were, we can reconstruct the process that created sacred spaces. This, Leighton says, will allow us to better understand the experiences of the pilgrims and to reflect on the process of Christianization. Leighton argues that sacred spaces were created through the rituals of prayer, alms giving, and sermons, and that by constant reflection on martyrdoms and hierophany (manifestations of the sacred), these spaces became sacred landscapes. Prominent martyrs were Saints Albert and Bruno, lesser ones included crusaders who fell in battle; these reminded crusaders praying at their shrines that they, too, might be numbered among their ranks. Although this theme was less emphasized after 1260, perhaps because the task of preaching the crusade was passed to the mendicant orders or because the new settlements were no longer threatened with destruction, nevertheless, sites associated with martyrdoms multiplied, sites that were often at or near mercantile centers. Battlegrounds were less easily visited, except by crusaders on their way to fight dangerous Lithuanians, but accounts of the battles could at any time be effortlessly associated with well-known battles in the Old Testament, where smaller armies in the Lord's service defeated the proud arrays of powerful gentile kings. Later, after the wars were won, the images often represented peace and bounty, most importantly depictions of the vineyard of the Lord. Although there was no wine industry in Prussia or Livonia (or fig trees), this was an effective means of decorating church portals and columns while reminding pilgrims of Biblical references to a restored holy land where men could prosper and enjoy peace. The cult of the Virgin, popular everywhere, was emphasized by reminders that these lands had been dedicated to her, as for example, in the grandmasters' great castle at Marienburg (Malbork).

Leighton next turned to "the iconography of landscape in the visual culture", especially the veneration of relics and participation in processions. Fragments of the True Cross were displayed in several of the order's castle chapels, but the St Lawrence chapel in Marienburg stood out for the number and size of its pieces. While normally this chapel was restricted to the brethren of the order, it is highly likely that favored crusaders were permitted to worship there. This helped to create memories that visitors could pass on to friends and relatives who might be considering joining a crusade.

Leighton's history of castles and churches rightly concentrates on Prussia, partly because there are more surviving structures there than in Livonia, but mostly because the contest with Poland required the greater emphasis on crusading piety. Here he could have cited Stephen Turnbull's two "Crusader Castles of the Teutonic Knights" (2003-4,) even though these were directed at a popular audience.

Königsberg was significant, for it was there that crusaders gathered before their march into the wilderness. There they would see the heraldic displays of former crusaders and the famous Table of Honor, where squires and knights would be celebrated for their feats of arms against the pagans.

Most castles housed a convent of twelve knights who defended the region and carried out the religious services specified by the order's rules. Each castle contained a church or chapel, which the rituals of prayer, alms giving, and sermons made into a sacred space. The very names of these castles reenforced the Christian message (Christburg, Georgenburg, Kreuzburg) and the importance of the Virgin (Frauenburg, Marienwerder, Marienburg). Surviving frescoes at Lochstedt (near Königsberg) show us what has been lost to neglect and war.

Leighton demonstrates the spiritual connections between the Old Testament, the Holy Land, and Prussia and Livonia, and asserts that previous descriptions of the Baltic crusades as "religiously-glossed ethnic cleansing" need to be reassessed. Indeed, we should follow his suggestion to look again at the complex and contradictory war at the end of the fourteenth century, where historians are most easily tempted to emphasize the worldly nature of the conflict at the expense of the spiritual aspects.

There is no denying the effect of the landscape on people. I grew up on the Great Plains of North America, an area only lightly populated then and undergoing depopulation now. We would roll our eyes when visitors complained about how boring the landscape was. We, in contrast, loved the beauty of the rolling prairie and the drama of the sky; few could be on horseback there and remain an atheist. We were proud of how our ancestors had made a barren land into productive farms and towns. When we visited the monuments that told new generations of those struggles, we remembered how this made us who we were.

I also remember attending a conference in 1983 on Benedict Anderson's "Imagined Communities", where I saw a hundred or more scholars instantly persuaded that history would never be taught the same again. Leighton's thesis seems to owe much to Anderson's ideas, though not directly. Also, his attractively presented thesis will probably likewise only change our thinking at the margins. It is a fine piece of work that adds needed nuance to our understanding of the past, but nuances are difficult to convert into entertaining story lines.

William L. Urban