A medieval German term (pl. reysen) that came to acquire the specialist meaning of a crusading campaign fought by the Teutonic Order and its Western allies in the Baltic region.
The Middle High German word written as reyse, reysa, reise, reze, and variants (mod. German Reise) covered a range of meanings, including “journey,” “war,” and “campaign.” In the context of the crusades, it was used for the campaigns fought on a regular basis by the Teutonic Order in Prussia and Livonia against its pagan (and, in some cases, Russian Orthodox) enemies during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. As a result of international participation in the reysen, the term was also taken up by authors writing in languages other than German, such as Jean Froissart and Geoffrey Chaucer, and it also figures in some of the Latin writings of the order.
After the subjugation of Prussia and Livonia (by around 1290), the Teutonic Order concentrated on the struggle against the pagan Lithuanians. From 1304 onward, crusaders from the Western countries traveled to Prussia to take part in these campaigns, after over two decades that had seen very few “guests,” as the order called the visiting knights. Whereas the earlier wars of the order had been supported only by nobles from north and central Europe (primarily Scandinavia and Germany), the campaigns of the fourteenth century witnessed an ever growing influx of guests from western and southern Europe (England, Scotland, the Low Countries, France, Spain, and Italy), in addition to the traditional areas. In 1328 John of Luxembourg, king of Bohemia (1311-1346), came to Prussia for the first time and inspired others by his example. In the same year, the first knights from the Low Countries and England visited Prussia, followed by Frenchmen (1335 at the latest) and Scots (from 1356). From 1343 there is occasional evidence for Italian knights in Prussia, and some Spanish guests arrived during the second half of the fourteenth century. Participation in a reyse became fashionable, with many guests going twice or sometimes even more. Several families, such as the Beauchamp family (earls of Warwick), established a tradition of going on a reyse. The rush diminished after the Crusade of Nikopolis (1396), but some knightly guests were still coming to Prussia until 1422/1423.
Reysen took place on an annual basis, in both winter and summer. They usually started around feast days of the Virgin Mary, the order’s patroness. The winter-reyse began on the Feast of the Purification of Mary (2 February); the som- mer-reyse began either on the Feast of the Assumption (15 August) or the Nativity of the Virgin (8 September). The winter campaign enjoyed great popularity for those seeking experience of warfare because during that season fighting was rare elsewhere in Europe. Reysen were announced by the grand master, but the command on campaign often lay with the order’s marshal or minor commanders acting on the marshal’s behalf. The guests chose their own subcommander. Crusader armies also included native Prussians and other christianized peoples acting as auxiliaries and scouts.
In character, the reyse was usually a raiding expedition that aimed at the devastation of the enemy’s lands and the seizure of livestock and prisoners, but there were also sieges and campaigns to construct or reinforce castles, or conversely to destroy enemy strongholds. Pitched battles were an exception. The extent of the wilderness areas that lay between the territory of the order and its enemies meant that armies might have to journey over 160 kilometers (100 mi.) in order to reach worthwhile targets; for the same reason, they would carry up to a month’s supplies with them.
The reysen proved to be highly attractive for the western European nobility. Combatants were often knighted on campaign, and their participation increased their knightly honor and fame. In the cathedral of Konigsberg (mod. Kaliningrad, Russia), heraldic wall paintings attested the visits of many a knight. From the middle of the fourteenth century, the order added luster to the chivalrous character of the war by establishing its Ehrentisch (“table of honor”) as a means of honoring those knights who had distinguished themselves in wars against the infidel.
The reyse showed distinct characteristics of a crusade. The war was described as a godly enterprise; participants came in fulfillment of vows, they were regarded as “pilgrims” (Lat. peregrini), and they received a plenary indulgence. This indulgence was derived from various crusade indulgences issued by the popes in favor of the order during the thirteenth century. There were, however, no additional papal crusade bulls in the fourteenth century. For this reason it has been argued that these campaigns “represented something new in crusading history...: a sort of ‘ongoing’ crusade” [Housley, The Later Crusades, p. 341]. Rather than having started because of a papal appeal, the reyse was entirely organized by the Teutonic Order, making use of a treasury of ancient crusade privileges.