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Briefly Reviewed: January-February 2020

The Last Years of the Teutonic Knights: Lithuania, Poland and the Teutonic Order

By William Urban

Publisher: Greenhill Books

Pages: 334

Price: $39.95

Review Author: Brian Welter

The fabled Teutonic Knights military order played a unique role in medieval Christendom’s expansion against pagans in the Baltics. This distinguishes them from the Templars and Hospitallers, who fought Muslims in Spain and the Levant. War, religion, and commerce would place enormous demands on the Teutonic Knights, and William Urban fits the waning of the order in the 14th and 15th centuries into wider transformations in Prussia, Poland, Lithuania, and Germany.

The order could not temper the growing assertiveness of the Polish monarchy and nation, or bring together Roman Catholics and Orthodox to fight the Tatar and Ottoman threats, due in part to an enfeebled papacy and Holy Roman Empire. The Council of Pisa “declared Gregory XII [at Rome] and Benedict XIII [at Avignon] deposed, then in June 1409 elected a new pope,” Alexander V, “a learned Franciscan of Greek ancestry, noted for his lack of corruption.” When Alexander V died shortly thereafter, another antipope, the corrupt John XXIII, was elected, which dissuaded the other two popes from resigning. Church-wide problems were exacerbated in the order by arrogance and short-term thinking, exemplified in the alienation of the Prussian and Polish peasantry through mistreatment. The Council of Constance (1414-1418) dealt with Czech proto-Protestant Jan Hus, whom the Council decided to burn at the stake. Over 400 Czech nobles “were willing to sign a defense of Hus and his theological position,” which revealed the possibility of religious revolt.

Jogaila (later known by the Polish “Jagiello”) and Vytautas were pagan cousins who fought over control of multi-ethnic Lithuania, “then the largest state in Europe” and claimed by both “on the basis of heredity and substantial support from the clans and boyars.” Jagiello converted to Christianity, married the Polish Queen Jadwiga, and became King of Poland. His cousin became Vytautas the Great, ruler of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Decades later, Vytautas’s baptism and proclamation of his lands as Christian would remove a main reason for the Teutonic Knights’ existence: conversion of the Baltic pagans.

The Battle of Grunwald, or First Battle of Tannenberg, was one of the largest battles in medieval Europe, fought on July 15, 1410, during the Polish-Lithuanian-Teutonic War between the alliance of the Kingdom of Poland (led by King Jagiello) and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (led by Grand Duke Vytautas) against the German-Prussian Teutonic Knights (led by Grand Master Ulrich von Jungingen) and with the assistance of Sigismund, then-king of Hungary and Croatia, who would one day become emperor. In covering the battle’s causes, military conditions, and strategies, Urban challenges traditional accounts and examines political, social, and religious outcomes. He notes that contemporary historians no longer rely on the anti-German, anti-Lithuanian Polish patriot Jan Dlugosz, who was not even an eyewitness. Urban criticizes other nationalistic interpretations of the battle and takes into account archeological findings from 2015-2017 that revealed actual battle lines.

Urban confirms the knights’ catastrophic casualties, but because the Poles and Lithuanians had also suffered tremendous losses, the victors were not able to take immediate advantage. When they did press on, “the Teutonic Knights who survived could not make sense of the situation,” given that their leadership had all been killed. Under Heinrich of Plauen, the knights were able to regroup and stem any further losses, though Urban never challenges the common viewpoint: “While later generations of historians would see the battle as an incurable wound from which the order would bleed to death, that was not apparent at the time.” The Teutonic Knights’ defeat at Grunwald would mark the beginning of their decline, and they never regained their former status. The balance of power shifted in central and eastern Europe as the Polish-Lithuanian union became the dominant political and military force.

Military affairs, the plight of the peasantry, commerce, politics, and religion all influenced each other. When war brought famine by destroying seed reserves, livestock, and land, the knights as well as their adversaries lacked necessary economic support for further military campaigns. The significance of winning or losing a battle was often surpassed by economic and religious ramifications. Repeatedly, the order’s leadership lacked the dynamism and creative long-term thinking that centuries earlier had led to its establishment and growth in the first place.

A shortcoming of The Last Years of the Teutonic Knights concerns the religious dimensions. More explanation of knighthood as a quasi-sacrament and why the Teutonic order retained its pull on German men even when the order was clearly declining would help readers better understand this religious era and the knights’ significance. How did religious transformations in society, exemplified by the Hussites, followers of Hus, weaken the order? Urban suggests the order had been too successful at reducing paganism to a mere collection of superstitious practices: “One might say that Christianity triumphed less than that paganism slowly died. The ancient religion had lived by war, and it could not survive peace.” As Urban shows, Christianity brought peace through its own superior war-making, farming, administration, and self-assurance.

The knights eventually came to face the same issues of luxury and excess as other successful ecclesiastical orders. Urban writes, “Contrary to the knights’ vow of poverty, they began to write testaments disposing of clothing, weapons, horses and even money, proving that those items were now considered personal possessions, not order property used by individuals during their lifetimes. The concern with wealth was shown in falsified accounts, worldly display and more frequent nepotism.”

Given this decadence and corruption, in 1525 the Protestant Reformation splintered the order in its various regions. The Livonian Knights, an associated order, “survived longer because they had the mission of protecting Livonia from the Russians.” They were dissolved in 1562. The “reduced Teutonic Order loyally served the Holy Roman Empire for almost another three centuries, fighting Turkish sultans, French kings and Protestant princes,” Urban writes. Today, the Teutonic Order’s mission is to provide German-speaking priests to non-German regions around the world.


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