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  • Writer's pictureGreg Leighton

Crusading and Religious Geography (ies?)

Ever since I began studying the crusades in the Baltic region as an undergraduate, I was captivated by their immediate differences to the Holy Land expeditions. At first, I couldn't believe that there would be campaigns and wars in the frozen swamps of Lithuania, or frozen lakes in Estonia. 'What must that have been like?' I asked myself constantly. I then noticed other things that, again, might appear to be more superficial. The red-brick architecture of the medieval Baltic region is an absolutely amazing treasure that, indeed, is very different from the worked stone of the Eastern Mediterranean, and this captivated me for some time. I even wrote an undergraduate thesis on the castles of the Order at the University of Florida. When I read about Marienburg (below), 'Mary's Castle' (castrum sancte Marie), I found myself wondering how such a magnificent castle was perceived, and how it related to the conversion-led missions of the Order in the Baltic. How did a type of war so closely connected to the Holy Land and the defense of the holy places find itself in a region that had neither of these things?

Malbork Castle (formerly Marienburg or 'Mary's Castle'), Poland. Photograph taken by G Leighton.

This question formed the central theme of my doctoral thesis, and I spent four years answering it. In the course of my research I found myself fascinated with the relationship between people, warfare, and landscape in other regions of crusading, particularly Spain. I am currently investigating the potential for comparing holy war in the later middle ages in the Baltic and Spain, where a holy war (la reconquista) lasted until 1492. I immediately found myself noting the importance of the Virgin Mary (la Virgen) to religious life in medieval Spain, probably because I was so deep into that aspect of the Teutonic Order's identity in the Baltic. In what ways was medieval Spain a sort of 'land of the Virgin Mary' (terra sanctae Mariae), something which the medieval Baltic had been referred to since the 1220s (Henry of Livonia's Chronicle (1227) mentioned this in his report of the Fourth Lateran Council)? The Virgin Mary was a powerful figure associated with holy wars going on in both regions. We can see this at Leon Cathedral (below), the building of which is associated with Ordono II of Leon. He his palace for the foundation of the cathedral, for he was victorious through the help of the Virgin at the Battle of San Esteban de Gormaz (917). The cathedral is one of the three most important stops along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, thus linking holy war with pilgrimage.

Portal of Leon Cathedral. Photograph taken by G Leighton.

I'm very intrigued by this and am currently working on developing a post-doctoral research project proposal. I'm currently collecting research for an article that would outline these interests, and would be a first publication of the project. There are some clear parallels both regions that, if investigated further, would provide new insight and information concerning a variety of aspects of war in the middle ages, especially the crusades. For example, what does the role of the Virgin in both areas as a patron of holy war say about femininity, masculinity, and the relationship of both to the concept of monastic knighthood? For example, the Virgin was a popular figure on battle standards and a saint for crusaders, taking the example from the Cantigas de santa Maria (c. 1270) below and the image from the pilgrimage church at Juditten (Mendeleyevo, Kalningrad Oblast, image from c.1390). I am interested in how these parallels can be expanded upon to understand better the relationship of holy wars and the respective landscapes in which they take place.

Cantigas de Santa Maria 181. Codex Rico, Ms TI1. Biblioteca de El Escorial (Madrid). Image courtesy of:

A knight kneels before the Virgin and Child, Juditten (c. 1390, now destroyed). Photograph courtesy of Bildarchiv Foto Marburg.

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