Post-classical history

Chapter Forty

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From the Golden Bull to the Baltic Crusade

Between 1218 and 1233, the king of Hungary is forced to acknowledge the rights of his nobility, and the Teutonic Knights embark on the long conquest of Prussia

RETURNING HOME from his perfunctory visit to the Fifth Crusade, Andrew of Hungary found his country in a state of ferment.

It had been bubbling even before his departure for the Holy Land. Andrew, now in his thirteenth year as king, had started his rule under a shadow. Intended to serve as regent to the actual heir, the five-year-old son of his brother King Emeric, Andrew had instead seized the throne for himself. His sister-in-law had taken the child and fled to Austria, where the conflict was resolved when the boy died of illness the following year.

Three weeks later, Andrew had arranged for the Archbishop of Hungary to crown him as rightful king of Hungary. And, by way of shoring up his claim, he started to give away royal lands to his supporters with abandon. Villages, castle lands, fortresses: anything that fell under his authority as a royal domain was fair game.

Andrew himself called his gifts a “new institution”: the novae institutiones, the right of the monarch to be as free and generous as he pleased. But his generosity unsettled the country. The lands he gave away had no strings attached; if you were one of Andrew’s partisans and received the gift of a village in exchange for loyalty, you owed the king no further service in return, no tithe of crops or service, no taxes, no obligation to answer to anyone for the welfare of the villagers, who now were subject to your whims.

This was bad enough, but the gifts were also distributed in uneven clumps. Taxes and military service now fell unevenly onto the shoulders of the Hungarian dukes and counts who were not in the king’s inner circles. And Andrew hit a long-festering pocket of resentment by favoring, in vast numbers, German knights who had settled in Hungary.1

These had come at the time of his marriage to his first wife, Gertrude, daughter of the Count of Bavaria and direct descendant of Charlemagne himself. Andrew had made the match in 1205, as part of his effort to position himself for the Hungarian throne; and while connection to German nobility provided him with additional allies, it had also brought numerous aristocratic retainers and relatives from Germany into Hungary. In the early years of Andrew’s reign, these German knights became, in unpopular numbers, the lords of Hungarian castles and the lawmakers of Hungarian villages.

Another massive wave of German knights had arrived in Hungary in 1211. The Teutonic Knights, a military order made up of Germanic Crusaders, had been granted papal recognition around 1200. Their original purpose had been to protect the pilgrim hospital St. Mary’s of the Germans, in the city of Jerusalem; but the hospital had been destroyed by Saladin in 1187, and the Teutonic Knights had been set adrift from their purpose. Andrew invited them into Hungary to help protect his borders from the invasions of the Cumans, a wandering tribal alliance of Turkish, Mongol, and northern Chinese peoples who had migrated slowly farther and farther to the west. In exchange, he awarded them a home in the eastern reaches of Hungary, in a thickly wooded part of his kingdom known as Erdő-elve: “through the woods,” or, in Latin, Transylvania. There the Teutonic Knights were permitted to live, govern themselves, and crusade against the Cumans; they were expected to remain loyal to Andrew, but were exempt from both taxes and tribute.2

In 1219, the year after his return from the Fifth Crusade, Andrew announced that all lands gifted by the crown would remain permanently in the hands of their receivers, to be passed down as hereditary estates from father to son into eternity. This would have carved Hungary up into an unrecognizable set of principalities, many of them under German control, and it was one step too far for the Hungarian knights and counts. With the encouragement of Honorius III (who believed that Andrew was not zealous enough in promoting the interests of the Church within his realm), they drew up a charter protecting their own rights, as well as the rights of the Christian priests under Andrew II’s rule.

Threatened with a mass uprising, as well as by the possibility that his noblemen might decide to enthrone his teenaged son Béla in his place, Andrew was forced to yield. On Saint George’s Day, 1222, he agreed to sign the offered charter. Called the Golden Bull (after the golden seal that dangled from the scroll), the charter began with a pointed condemnation: “The liberties of the nobility, as well as others of these realms,” it announced, “. . . have suffered great detriment and curtailment by the violence of certain kings who are impelled by their own evil propensities [and] by the cravings of their insatiable cupidity.”3

The Golden Bull, like the Magna Carta, protected the rights of the wealthy and powerful; it was not a charter for the common man. The Hungarian nobility could not be taxed arbitrarily. The noblemen could not be forced to fight in foreign wars; nor could the king create new nobility by giving away his lands.

But the Golden Bull did carve out a space where even a peasant could safely stand. “No man shall be either accused or arrested, sentenced or punished for a crime,” the second statute read, “unless he receive a legal summons, and until a judicial inquiry into his case shall have taken place.” And, like the Magna Carta, the Golden Bull made very clear that the instrument itself was greater than the king. Should Andrew refuse to abide by it, “the bishops as well as the other barons and nobles of the realm, singularly and in common . . . [may] resist and speak against us and our successors without incurring the charge of high treason.”4

Two years after the signing of the Golden Bull, the Teutonic Knights—assuming, perhaps, that the Hungarian king had lost so much support that he was vulnerable—made a play to turn their Transylvanian territories into an independent state. They sent a petition to Honorius III, asking that they be put directly under the authority of Rome, answerable only to the pope—a request that would have exempted them from obedience to earthly kings.

Honorius happily granted the request, but the petition was a clear attempt to abscond with the granted Hungarian land and create an independent state. King Andrew was indignant. The Teutonic Knights, says one of his court chroniclers, had become “to the king like a fire in the breast, a mouse in the wallet and a viper in the bosom, which repay their hosts badly.” He assembled an army, marched into Transylvania, and drove the Teutonic Knights out.5

Deprived of their Hungarian roosting place, the Teutonic Knights were at loose ends. But their venture had confirmed a new purpose for the order: domestic crusade, fighting against pagans and infidels at home. Their renewed calling came at the right time. Honorius III, following in the footsteps of Innocent III, was proving to be more willing than any pope before him to recognize wars against non-Muslims as worthy of the designation (and rewards attached to) crusade.

North of the Hungarian border, west of the Rus’, lived a people who had as yet played almost no part in the larger power struggles of the surrounding nations. The Polans were a Western Slavic tribe who had, for two centuries, occupied the river-crossed lands between the Carpathian Mountains and the Baltic Sea. Their existence had first been chronicled in the anonymous Gesta Principum Polonorum, written around 1115; they were, says the Gesta, ruled by a dynasty called the Piast, who had converted to Christianity sometime in the tenth century. In 992, the Piast prince Boleslaw had crowned himself the first king of the Polans, but the title brought no unity. Cousins of the Piast fought with each other for the crown, and local tribal leaders resisted the victors. By the beginning of the thirteenth century, the Polans were divided into a series of dukedoms, discrete but fairly prosperous and orderly: Little Poland, Mazovia, Kujawy, Greater Poland, Silesia.6

The Polans duke Konrad of Mazovia, in the north, hoped to conquer the lands directly above him. These lands were occupied by another tribal people, known (from the language they spoke) as Lithuanians; and the Lithuanian-speakers themselves were divided into three groups, each of which spoke a different Lithuanian dialect. Farthest to the north were the Letts, bordered by the Rus’ on the east and just below the cold Baltic Sea. In the basin of the Vistula river lived a second group of Lithuanian-speakers, known, generally, as Prussians. Between them lay a larger group who simply claimed the name Lithuanian.7

To European eyes, all of the Lithunians dwelt at the very edge of civilization. According to Oliver of Paderborn, they “venerated the waters, trees, hills and caves . . . and worshipped all kinds of mythological creatures.” “They burned their dead, along with the horses and weapons and magnificent clothes,” offers the anonymous thirteenth-century chronicle Descriptiones Terrarum, “for they believed that they can use these and other burned items in the world to come.” These were markers of wild paganism, and Honorius III had already sent missionary bishops into Lithuanian lands to convert the tribes. The efforts had not yielded much success: the “evil, sinful wickedness” of the Prussians, writes the German historian Nicolaus von Jeroschin, “had made them so stubborn that no teaching or exhortation or blessing could move them from their error.”8

There was one good thing about the Prussians, Nicolaus von Jeroschin adds as an afterthought: they “lived at peace with the Christians who had settled alongside them.” This was soon to end.

The Polans, just a little ahead of the Lithuanian tribes in the evolution of their state, saw them as fair game. Konrad of Mazovia offered the Teutonic Knights another opportunity to crusade: they could come into his dukedom and fight against the enemies of Christ who lived around the Vistula. In exchange, he promised them a northern tract of land in his dukedom for their own “in perpetuity . . . and in addition the lands which they might conquer thereafter with the help of God.”9

For a relatively small payout, Konrad thus got a heavily armed, zealous, and experienced border guard. The Teutonic Knights gained a base of operations and the chance to conquer a kingdom, plus all the benefits of holy war: In 1226, Honorius III declared the fight against Lithuanian-speakers to be a new crusade, complete with full absolution of sin for those who took part.

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40.1 The Baltic Crusade

The Teutonic Knights took some time to organize and assemble themselves, but in 1233 the first invasion of Prussia, across the Vistula river, began. It was the beginning of a war that would last for decades. What began as the “Baltic Crusade” turned into an ugly, bloody, protracted struggle in which (as the historian Kenneth Setton puts it), “primitive tribes with no common political organization were obliged hopelessly to protect their lives, farms, tribal independence, and religion against the superior might of the west.” Before long, the fighting forked into a double war, one against the pagan Lithuanians, the other against nearby Christians who hoped to seize some of the land east of the Baltic for themselves.10

“It was completely joyless and full of hard fighting,” writes Nicolaus von Jeroschin of the new Crusade, “. . . a land of horrors and wilderness . . . [where] the knightly sword of Christianity greedily devoured the sinners’ flesh.” For the next fifty years, the Teutonic Knights would lay waste to the lands of the Lithuanians—fighting, perhaps, for Christ, but hoping to gain themselves a kingdom.11

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