Post-classical history

Wendish Crusade (1147)

The name traditionally given to the expeditions, that developed as part of the Second Crusade (1147-1149), mounted by German, Danish, and Polish armies against the pagan Slavic tribes (known as Wends in the Germanic languages), living between Poland and Saxony in the regions bounded by the rivers Oder and Elbe.

Antecedents and Origins

The Wendish Crusade was not the first attempt by neighboring Christian powers to convert and dominate the Wends. In fact some, although by no means all, of the Wendish tribes had already been Christianized after coming under the administration of the system of marches set up on the frontiers of the early German kingdom (the so-called Nordmark, the March of the Billungs, and other marches), but they had risen against German supremacy in 983 and resumed paganism. Later attempts to reintroduce Christianity, usually by indigenous Christian princes, met with new pagan insurrections in 1018 and 1066, leading to the abandonment of bishoprics that had been established at Oldenburg in Holstein, Havelberg, and Brandenburg. This in itself provided a perfect foundation for future crusades. In 1108 Adelgoz, archbishop of Magdeburg, had already thought of applying the idea of crusading against the Wends, calling upon the seasoned crusader Count Robert II of Flanders and other rulers to join the Danish and German kings.

Together they were to follow the example of those who had freed Jerusalem by freeing what the archbishop called “our Jerusalem” from defilation by local pagans. This would be an occasion to “save their souls” and, if they wished, “acquire the best land in which to live” [Urkundenbuch des Erzstifts Magdeburg, vol. 1, ed. Friedrich Israël and Walter Mollenberg (Magdeburg: Landesgeschichtliche Forschungsstelle für die Provinz Sachsen und für Anhalt, 1937), pp. 249-252]. It is worth noting that, in contrast to the Wendish Crusade of 1147, the archbishop did not envisage converting the Wends but contemplated only (in a similar fashion to the First Crusade) defending Christianity. This “crusade” probably did not come off, but the double promise of remission of sins and acquisition of land may well have been an important stimulus for those who in 1146-1147 advocated a Wendish crusade as an alternative to a crusade to the Holy Land.

Soon after the Magdeburg initiative, Boleslaw III of Poland (1102-1138) began to put the Wends under pressure from the east when he started a drawn-out conquest of Pomerania, culminating in the capture of Stettin (mod. Szczecin, Poland) in 1121. Although this campaign was described as a missionary war by the contemporary writer known as Gallus Anonymus, the Poles failed to convert the Pomeranians. Boleslaw therefore invited Bishop Otto of Bamberg, former chaplain at the Polish court, to undertake a mission to the region in 1124-1125. This led at least to the nominal conversion of the Pomeranians. At this point, however, Germany, under Lothar of Supplingenburg (first as duke of Saxony and from 1125 as king), began a more active policy toward the Wends. Lothar supported the Pomeranian prince Vartislav (who had been one of Otto’s earliest converts) in his attempt to regain independence from Poland, by enfeoffing him with the pagan lands west of Pomerania. With Lothar’s support Vartislav in 1127 invited Otto of Bamberg to undertake a second mission. This brought Vartislav, Otto, and indirectly Lothar into conflict not only with Boleslaw but also his ally, King Niels Svensen of Denmark, who laid claim to the pagan-inhabited island of Rügen. Lothar, however, managed to weaken Niels by installing Niels’s nephew Knud Lavard as prince of the pagan Abodrites. The murder of Knud in 1131 and the ensuing civil war in Denmark together with internal pressures on Lothar, however, gave paganism in the region a breathing space.

It was not only in the north that Lothar activated German policy toward the Wends. While still duke of Saxony, he had installed Albert the Bear, a nobleman of the Ascanian dynasty, in the march of Lusatia. However, on becoming king, Lothar wished to avoid having too powerful a vassal and refused to bestow the duchy of Saxony on Albert. Instead, he installed a member of the Welf dynasty, Henry the Proud of Bavaria, who was succeeded in 1143 by his son Henry the Lion. Supported in turn by the archbishops of Magdeburg and Hamburg-Bremen in their attempts to regain their former influence among the Wends, the Asca- nians and Welfs thereafter competed in seeking to extend their rule into the former Wendish marches, often in changing alliances with successive kings and emperors. In the 1130s Albert had already managed to establish himself beyond the Elbe in Havelland, where he began to settle colonists from the west, and by the 1140s he had taken the title margrave of Brandenburg, although the territory was as yet unconquered.

Preaching and Recruitment

This was the situation when Bernard, abbot of Clairvaux, began preaching in Germany in 1146, following the proclamation of the Second Crusade by Pope Eugenius III. King Conrad III and many German nobles decided to go to the Holy Land, but a number of aristocrats, primarily Saxons, and churchmen such as Bishop Anselm of Havelberg thought that a crusade nearer to home was called for: they argued that if many crusaders left for Outremer, Christianity at home would be exposed to attacks from pagan Wends east of the Elbe. Such a threat was scarcely real: when the chronicler Helmold of Bosau and the author of the Annales Palidenses described events from a distance of a generation, they were only able to point to some Wendish raids against the fairly distant Danes. Nevertheless, at a diet in Frankfurt am Main on 13 March 1147 Bernard accepted this view. He managed to construe the crusade as a war of defense by arguing that the devil, fearing the impending salvation of Israel, had incited the wicked pagans, who now “with evil intent lie in wait.” Therefore, in order to keep the “road to Jerusalem” open, the “enemies of the cross of Christ,” across the Elbe, had to be attacked [Bernardus abbas Claravallen- sis, “Epistolae,” in Patrologiae Cursus Completus: Series Latina, ed. Jacques-Paul Migne, 225 vols. (Paris: Migne, 1844-1865), 182, no. 457]. Consequently, Bernard promised those who took the cross against the Wends the same privileges as those who departed for the Holy Land.

A delegation from the diet, which included Anselm of Havelberg, was sent to Pope Eugenius, who responded on 11 April by issuing the bull Divini dispensatione. The pope officially proclaimed the crusade against the Wends and appointed Anselm as legate to it. Eugenius explicitly confirmed Bernard’s promised remission of sins but also made a point of threatening with excommunication those who agreed to take money or other benefits for allowing the Wends to remain infidels.

Bernard was even more outspoken in a letter he circulated soon after the diet to rulers in order to rally crusaders. There he forbade them in any circumstances to come to terms with the pagans, until “either the religion or the nation be wiped out (Lat. aut ritus ipse, aut natio deleatur)” [Bernardus abbas Claravallensis, “Epistolae,” no. 457]. This stipulation and other passages in the letter have been the subject of intense debate as to Bernard’s exact intentions. Did Bernard envisage the outright extermination of the pagan Wends unless they converted to Christianity, as argued by Hans-Dieter Kahl? Or was the choice, as Friedrich Lotter suggests, not between baptism or death but between voluntary baptism with preserved independence on the one hand and coerced destruction of communal bonds and traditions under foreign Christian rule on the other?

In any case, it does seem that Bernard changed his view on how to treat pagans during his preaching of the Second Crusade. In a letter from the autumn of 1146, touching on why Jews under Christian rule should not be destroyed, Bernard made a point of stating that “if the pagans were similarly subjugated to us then, in my opinion, we should wait for them [to convert] rather than seek them out with swords.” Then, however, as an afterthought, he continued, “but as they have now begun to attack us, it is necessary that those of us who do not carry a sword in vain repel them with force” [Bernardus abbas Claravallensis, “Epistolae,” no. 363]. This may suggest that Bernard thought the situation of the Christians on the Elbe to be desperate. At any rate, in connection with the Wendish Crusade, conversion of pagans came to play a role it had not done during earlier crusades. In that respect it seems that Bernard and the pope deliberately wished to widen the scope of crusading so that all pagans could be targeted.

Course of the Crusade

According to Bernard of Clairvaux, the crusaders were to muster on 29 June 1147 in Magdeburg. It took, however, another month before they were ready. By then the forthcoming crusade had already forced Count Adolf of Holstein to abandon the agreement with the Abodrite prince, Niklot, that had allowed him to reestablish the town of Lübeck, restore churches, and even establish a monastery. Not wishing to wait for the crusaders to strike, Niklot took the offensive by attacking Lübeck and ravaging the surrounding country.

When the crusaders were finally ready, at least four armies moved against the Wends: two from Saxony (a northern and a southern one), one from Poland, and one from Denmark. According to theAnnales Magdeburgenses, a Polish army also joined the Orthodox Russians in an attack on the pagan Prussians. Since the pope had targeted the crusade not only against Wends but also “other pagans” in the north, this campaign would qualify as the first crusade against the Prussians.

The northern Saxon army under Archbishop Adalbero of Bremen, Conrad of Zahringen, and Henry the Lion was the first to depart, moving against Niklot’s Abodrites. When they laid siege to his stronghold, Dobin, they were joined by the Danes, who had arrived by sea. A Wendish attack on the Danish fleet, however, forced it to retreat. The Saxons, disregarding the papal ban, then made peace, in return for a Wendish promise to convert. Soon afterward Count Adolf reestablished his pact with Niklot, who remained a pagan.

The southern Saxon army, led by Bishop Anselm of Havelberg and Albert the Bear, moved toward Pomerania, probably cooperating with the Poles. Part of the army laid siege to Demmin on the river Peene but gave up in September and returned home. Another part invested Stettin. The people of Stettin demonstrated their Christian faith by displaying crosses on the walls, and through their bishop, Adalbert, they rebuked the crusaders for wishing to conquer the land instead of strengthening the faith by preaching. Having lost many knights without taking the town, the crusaders finally decided to make peace with the Pomeranian prince, Ratibor, and return home. Next year Ratibor appeared in Havelberg in order to profess his Christian faith as he had received it from Otto of Bamberg. In choosing to target Stettin, Albert the Bear and the archbishopric of Magdeburg probably hoped to achieve precisely what they had failed to accomplish through Otto’s mission in 1128: to bring Pomerania under their influence.


The poor results of the Wendish Crusade (one pagan temple is recorded to have been destroyed) led to severe criticism from several quarters. Helmold of Bosau, with hindsight, explained the crusaders’ lame performance by their disinclination to devastate the land they saw as future possessions. Yet even if the crusade accomplished little, it did begin a kind of permanent crusade against the Wends throughout the remainder of the twelfth century, perhaps still based on the bull Divini dispensatione. Step by step, the Wends were converted and subjugated to foreign rule. In 1157 Albert the Bear finally managed to make good his title as margrave of Brandenburg by capturing the town of Brandenburg itself. Soon afterward Henry the Lion intensified his activity among the Wends, partly in collaboration and partly in competition with a rejuvenated Denmark under Valdemar I the Great. During the 1160s most of the Wends along the Baltic coast between the Oder and Elbe were brought under either Saxon or Danish rule, culminating in the Danish conquest of the important temple-fortress at Arkona. When Henry the Lion fell out with Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa in 1180, the Danes managed to take political control over most of the region as a basis for their further crusades into, and temporary domination of, the Baltic region.

The Saxon-Danish expansion was accompanied by colonization by peasants from northern Germany, Holland, and Frisia, similar to that which Albert the Bear had begun in his territory in the 1130s. This gave rise to a layer of indigenous Germanized princes, who managed to stay in power as vassals, while Wendish peasant villages managed to coexist with German settlements for several centuries. By the end of the twelfth century churches and monasteries had been established in all former pagan regions and linked to one or other of the surrounding archbishoprics. Only the Pomeranian church, now centered in Kammin (mod. Kamien Pomorski, Poland), managed to remain exempt.

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