Post-classical history

Teutonic Order: Literature

The literature of the Teutonic Order (Ger. Deutschordens- literatur) is a term used by scholars to describe works written in German that were produced in or associated with the order.

Modern scholarship has largely refuted the once held belief that there was a calculated and programmatic attempt by the leadership to produce a body of literature specifically for the use and education of the order. However, there is no doubt that the order did commission some writing and that other works became widely disseminated throughout its commanderies and were closely associated with it. The order was an obvious focus for the development of vernacular translations of scriptural and devotional texts: its lay members were not literate in the traditional sense, in that they could probably not read Latin, but many undoubtedly fell into the growing category of educated laymen who could read German and who were increasingly demanding access to scriptures in the vernacular. In addition, the order needed suitable texts that could be read aloud during mealtimes, as required by its statutes, and that would be accessible to its lay members and would contribute toward strengthening its ethos.

The body of work usually regarded as belonging to the literature of the Teutonic Order falls into three main categories: Bible translations, devotional literature, and chronicles and accounts of the order’s history. The majority of the most significant works were written during the final years of the thirteenth century and the first decades of the fourteenth, a period that coincides with the order’s relocation to Prussia after the fall of Acre (mod. ‘Akko, Israel) in the Holy Land in 1291. This chronology has led many scholars to accept that the nurturing of literature did form a conscious part, albeit not to quite the extent that early commentators suggested, of the order’s attempts to revive morale, to set the interpretation of the early campaigns in Prussia securely within the context of the early crusading tradition, and to reestablish itself as a legitimate vehicle for crusading activity during the pivotal years after the loss of the Holy Land.

Bible Translations

The earliest works associated with the order are translations of the Bible, of which the earliest dates from 1254 and the latest from around 1345. The writing of Bible translations in the late thirteenth and particularly the fourteenth century corresponds to a general increase in demand by lay people for accessible scriptural texts, and it can be assumed that this demand was particularly acute in the Teutonic Order, given the nature of its membership. The beginning of the fourteenth century saw a marked increase in the number of biblical texts that were translated into the vernacular and used in the order, to the extent that it has been suggested that the order planned a complete translation of the Bible by the time of Grand Master Luder von Braunschweig (1330-1335). This view is no longer tenable, but there is no doubt that the order acted as patron in commissioning some translations and popularizing and disseminating others, within the context of a desire to give knight brethren access to the scriptures.

The earliest Bible translation linked with the order is the vernacular translation of the Book of Judith, written in 1254.

The author of Judith is anonymous, and is unlikely to have been a member of the order. His stated priority is to make the scripture available to illiterati (those who could not understand Latin), and the vernacular text has obvious thematic relevance for the order. It begins with an exhortation, based on Joseph’s rejection of Pharoah’s wife (Gen. 39:7), to reject secular love in favor of spiritual values. The allegorical tale of Judith’s killing of Holofernes held the interest of the order throughout the Middle Ages, and a prose translation was written in 1479 by the knight brother Jorg Stuler. Hester, completed shortly after Judith, around 1255-1260, is attributed by Karl Helm and Walther Ziesemer to a priest in the order, although there is no direct evidence for this. The link lies more in the evident relevance for the order of a vernacular translation of inspirational scriptural texts of this nature. Like Judith, the heroine of Hester also saves her people from their persecutors. At the end of the poem, the author compares Hester with the Virgin Mary and her husband with Christ, and their struggle is presented as a model for the wars of the order.

The first named author of biblical translations who is associated with the order is Heinrich von Hesler, who wrote the Evangelium Nicodemi (1304-1305), the Apokalypse (1309), and the Erlosung. Evidence for linking him with the order is based on the content of his work and its dissemination through the order’s libraries, but there is no direct evidence to suggest either that he was a member or that the order was his patron. The Evangelium Nicodemi is an account of events related in the Gospels and the legends of Veronica, Tiberius, and Vespasian. Erlosung survives only in fragments and is an account of God’s dealings with the devil and his mercy to man. Hesler’s longest work is the Apokalypse, a translation and interpretation of the Revelation of St. John according to the traditional medieval commentaries.

Das Buch der Makkabaer, a translation of the Books of the Maccabees by an unidentified author writing around 1330, has been attributed to Luder von Braunschweig; in the sole surviving manuscript (MS Stuttgart, Württembergische Landesbibliothek, HB.XIII poet.germ.11), his coat of arms immediately precedes the poet’s introduction. Although authorship cannot be definitely established, and there are no references in the text linking it with the order, this connection with a grand master reflects the importance of the typological exploitation of the Maccabees for the legitimization of the order. The Maccabees are used repeatedly as models in the two chronicles written during the same period, those of Peter von Dusburg and Nicolaus von Jeroschin, and it is not implausible to suggest that this, at least, did form part of an explicit strategy of self-justification through the use of biblical typology.

The translation of the Book of Daniel, completed around 1331 at the request of Luder von Braunschweig by an unknown cleric and dedicated to the Teutonic Knights, is one of three Bible translations that can be directly attributed to the order. Daniel’s trials at the hands of the infidel are a popular motif in crusading literature and particularly relevant for the order. The author of Daniel also touches on contemporary issues: the translatio imperii (the Holy Roman Empire’s claim to be the divinely ordained successor to the Roman Empire, with its implicit challenge to the papacy) and criticism of worldliness within the church.

The other translations that can be directly linked with the order are Von den siben Ingesigeln by Tilo von Kulm and Hiob. Like Daniel, Von den siben Ingesigeln was written in 1331 in honor of Luder von Braunschweig. It is an account of God’s dealings with man from the Creation to the Last Judgment, but also a critique of contemporary corruption in the church and a treatise on the nature of secular and spiritual authority. Hiob, a paraphrase of the Book of Job completed in 1338, was primarily a devotional tool for the knight brethren, but it also eulogizes Grand Master Dietrich von Altenburg (1335-1341) as a perfect model for the brethren and Christian warriors. Finally, the Historien der alden E, by an unknown author, is a digest of Old Testament stories completed between 1338 and 1345 and is also commonly associated with the order. However, it contains no direct reference to the order, nor was its author apparently aware of the earlier translations, in spite of the shared subject matter; in this case assumed links with the order are based on language and dissemination.

Devotional Works

The second group of works associated with the order is devotional in nature. The earliest extant work is Der Sünden Widerstreit, a spiritual, allegorical poem about the struggle between virtue and evil. It was written in 1275 by an unidentified priest, for a lay audience whom he describes in the text as being not particularly enthusiastic about religion. The theme is moral renewal, and the author contrasts the secular values of the lay knight with those of the militia Christi (knighthood of Christ). He does not identify the order in the text, but the poem has always been linked with it because of its subject matter and distribution.

The next surviving work in this genre is the Legende der heiligen Martina, completed in 1293 by Hugo von Langen- stein, a priest of the order, who may have been commissioned to write this poem as part of his duties. The story of the aristocratic St. Martina’s war against the heathen, involving her capture, torture, and execution, is presented as a prefiguration of the militia Christi and is calculated to engage the sympathy of the lay crusaders who fought alongside the order; the text was extracted from a Latin source with the purpose of interesting a new audience.

The poem Marienleben was written during the first decade of the fourteenth century by the Carthusian monk Philip, and was dedicated by him to the order in recognition of its particular veneration of the Virgin Mary. Thereafter it appears to have been disseminated widely through the order’s libraries. It had the widest distribution and greatest impact of any medieval German poem. The Virgin was regarded as the patron of the order, and her cult also features prominently in the chronicle of Nicolaus von Jeroschin as a counterbalance to the secular knight’s pursuit of minne (secular courtly love).

The order played a similar role in the dissemination of two collections of lives of the saints, the Passional and the Vaterbuch. The Vaterbuch is a translation of the lives of the Fathers of the Church, written in the final third of the thirteenth century by a priest whose identity and patron are not known. He praises the Marienritter (Knights of Mary) in the text and, like the author of Der Sünden Widerstreit, contrasts the worldly values of profane knighthood with the spiritual values of the true Christian knight. The author of the Vaterbuch also wrote the Passional, a rhymed account of the lives of the saints, intended for the edification of a lay audience. This work was also widely distributed by the order over a short period of time; over 80 percent of the extant manuscripts were completed before the middle of the fourteenth century. Marked similarities between the manuscripts lend weight to the theory that many were reproduced under the supervision of, and for the use of the order. Two further works, a life of St. Barbara attributed to Luder von Braunschweig and a life of St. Adalbert attributed to Nicolaus von Jeroschin, have not survived.


The final and most significant group of works comprises the historical accounts of the order’s wars and campaigns. Chronicles were written throughout the course of the Baltic Crusades. The earliest, dating from shortly after 1290, is the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle (Ger. Livlündische Reimchronik), which is generally accepted as having been written by an anonymous knight brother. It deals with the crusade in Livonia from the end of the twelfth century until the conquest of Semgallia in 1290. The next work, the Latin Chronicon Terrae Prussiae of Peter von Dusburg, was written at the instigation of Grand Master Werner von Orseln (1324-1330); it deals with the history of the order from its origins until 1330 and is the main source for its early history. In contrast to the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle, which focuses primarily on warfare, Dusburg uses the concept of the militia Christi of earlier crusading chronicles and sermons to interpret and shape his account of the events of the previous 100 years in Prussia. His chronicle was translated into the vernacular within a few years by Nicolaus von Jeroschin, at the request of Luder von Braunschweig, and this version was evidently popular and widely used. Its purpose, like that of the spiritual literature discussed above, was to place the order’s historical mission and ethos firmly within the context of crusading ideology and to make this interpretation accessible to the lay members of the order. It too was designed to be read aloud at mealtimes. Its appeal to lay members of the order was undoubtedly heightened by Jeroschin’s striking use of everyday motifs and language and his appropriation and reworking of imagery and themes from secular crusading literature.

The next substantial chronicle produced in the order, and the final one during the period of the Baltic Crusades, is that of the herald Wigand von Marburg. It deals with the history of the order from 1293 until 1394, but survives only in fragments and in Latin translation. Its preoccupation with secular values and the physical tools of warfare suggest that the order’s identification with the values of the militia Christi, expounded in the spiritual literature and by Dusburg and Jeroschin, had become diluted and compromised.

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