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  • Greg Leighton

Thoughts on light and crusading in the Baltic.

I recently was having a discussion about a forthcoming publication with a close friend and colleague of mine, Prof. Florin Curta (University of Florida). The topic of the piece concerns a fresco of St Christopher at the Teutonic Order castle of Lochstädt (Pawlowo, Kaliningrad oblast’). The relationship of saints to crusading is an immense one, specifically saints favoured by crusaders and knights in the military orders. Naturally, favourite saints for crusaders and members of the military orders were the military saints, men who served in the Roman army during the 4th century and were persecuted for their religion. St George, was a soldier and martyr for his religion, and was a popular figure for crusaders since the First Crusade. He was also an immensely popular figure in the Baltic during the fourteenth century, with altars dedicated to him throughout the city of Königsberg (Kaliningrad), one was established in 1336 by the great Marshal of the Teutonic Order, Heinrich Dusemer, and 'illustrious men, famous knights and other noblemen from parts foreign and remote...for the unanimous purpose of seeking the salvation of their souls.' It was a great honour for those knights on crusade in the Baltic to take his banner (vexillum sancti Georgii) into battle.


15th-century shield of a Teutonic Knight, Malbork. Photograph taken by Greg Leighton.

In the process of working on this project, Prof. Curta and I discussed the theory called hierotopy. Hierotopy (ἱερός – ‘sacred’ and τόπος – ‘space’), involves the creative process of sacred spaces through a variety of rituals: chants, lighting of incense, displaying of icons/relics, and the liturgy (Lidov, 2001, 2002, 2013, etc.) In the context of the St Christopher fresco, there is little to no other evidence to suggest his veneration in Prussia, and we got to talking about how sacred space comes to be. This is compounded by the location of the fresco we’re looking at. It’s in the castle commander’s private room, not in the castle chapel or refectory, where the monastic rituals undertaken by the brethren took place (which, in turn, sacralised the space).


I began to see the applicability of this theory to my own interests of crusading, pilgrimage, and the ideology of holy war in the Baltic. My doctoral work relied heavily on hierophany (ἱερός – ‘sacred’ and φαίνειν – ‘to reveal/bring to light’), namely the phenomenon of how sacred spaces come into being (proposed by Mircea Eliade in the 1950s). The chronicles and letters documenting the Baltic crusades have quite a bit to say about this phenomenon. Martyrdoms, miracles, and miraculous visions of saints are significant components to those texts that say a lot about the nature of crusading as a spiritual act, and a sacred experience through highlighting these acts. These acts played an important role in how people in the Baltic experienced the landscape around them, understood the relationship of their enterprise to their surroundings, and framed the cause of the crusade.


But back to hierotopy, and how this process applies to the Baltic region during the crusades. A main aspect of hierotopy is light itself. Light is something that was essential to bringing one into connection with the divine, thus sacralising the space. Candles were lit to display icons, or relics, and were often placed in churches as part of the commemoration of the dead. This was more than just physical illumination. In the Old Testament, light is foundational to the creation of the world (Genesis 1.3: And God said, let there be light, and there was light). It was also used to frame the message of the Gospel (John 8.12: Thus spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall live the light of life).[1] In the Christian tradition, God is equated with light, for example the statement in the Nicene Creed (325): God of God, Light from Light.[2] This was compounded in the experience of those who used the churches, for when they viewed the icons, venerated the relics, etc., it was in a space within which this concept was emphasised and contemplated upon (through the liturgy and mass).


Light played such an important role on the crusades in the Baltic that I often think it goes overlooked (or, at least, not really considered). The reason for this is because, as many know, war was waged at a time of year when there was little natural daylight to be had. The Teutonic Order often launched its campaigns on Marian feast days, namely the Feast of the Presentation (Candlemas), which traditionally takes place in early February. In Lithuania (or anywhere in the Baltic, really), the average day in February lasts eight hours, 52 minutes, with the sun rising around 8:00 and setting just before 5:00. Campaigns were often waged in December, when the amount of daylight is even shorter (seven hours, 30 minutes). This means that campaigns were often waged in a sort of twilight (assuming that, when the sun was up, it was shining), thus indicating that light was an important component to the warfare experience, in both a physical sense and in a spiritual one.


We see this in the many accounts of raids against the Prussians, Lithuanians, Livonians, and Estonians, from sources covering the thirteenth to the fifteenth century. Light (or lack of thereof) was obviously an issue that reached the ears of the pope, too. In 1344, Clement VI (d. 1352) issued a special permission to the Order, allowing them to hold masses before dawn, and use portable altars (altari portaliti). However, they were only to use this sparingly, for ‘because when the offering is made to the Lord Jesus Christ, who is a reflection of eternal light (Wisdom 7.26), it was not done in darkness of night, but in the light [of day].’[3]

Letters exchanged between the Grand Marshal of the Order (who was primarily responsible for leading the raids against the Lithuanians, and was based at Königsberg) provide insight into a different form of light, namely fire. An account of the Battle of the Streba River (Lithuania, 2 February, 1348), describes the burning (prennen) of land and settlements. An account from 1384, too, mentions burning (incendium), and a letter to Holy Roman Emperor, Wenceslaus IV (d. 1419), in 1400 records how the Order’s army and ‘many noble knights and guests’ (ettliche herren und geste) went through the lands of Lithuania ‘raiding and burning’ (heerende und bornende). Clearly, the light of fire was a distinctive element to the experience of crusading and holy war in the region from a practical point of view. It was essential for navigating the forested landscape, and making the most out of available daylight so that armies could participate in war.


Lidov’s theory of hierotopy focuses on light as part of the ritual of mass and worship. The lighting of candles sacralised the space, in addition to illuminating the holy icons and relics. How does this apply to a theatre such as the Baltic? We have some records that involve light in the church rituals that took place in important cities founded by the Order. Thorn (Toruń, Poland), Marienburg (Malbork, Poland), Kulmsee (Chełmża, Poland), and Königsberg (Kaliningrad, Russia) all had commemorative flames in their churches. William IV of Holland, in 1344, made an offering to a lamp in the church at Thorn to commemorate John II, Count of Namur, who died in 1335 ‘on the Prussian journey’ (mortuus in itineragio Prussie). Clearly these lamps had a sacral element: they were commemorative, and reflect the complex nature of the holy war experience on the Prussian frontier.


This was not just something done by patrons of the crusades, members of the Teutonic Order commemorated their dead with lamps, too. Kulmsee cathedral had lamps to commemorate the fallen brethren of the Order who were buried there since the 1260s. In 1335, at the death of Grand Master Luder von Braunschweig, a lamp was set up at his effigy in the great cathedral of Königsberg. The burials of the brothers in Marienwerder (Kwidzyn, Poland), were commemorated by ‘our Grand Master’s light’ (unserz hochmeisters licht). Their death was seen as a sacral one, indicated in the Marienburger Tresslerbuch (1399-1409). Money was set aside for the wax used to make these candles, commemorating the graves of Masters ‘by grace of God’ (steyne Wachs zu unsers homeisters beygraft, dem gote gnade). Conrad von Jungingen, who died in the defeat of the Order at Tannenberg (Grunwald, Zalgris) in 1410, had a ‘perpetual lamp’ (ewige lichte) in Kulmsee to commemorate his death, but also the struggle of the many other fallen brethren as a sacral war. The ‘Annales expeditialis Prussici’, a 14th century chronicle of the history of Prussia, commemorated him as an ‘athlete of Christ’ (hic atleta Christi gloriose occubuit). Light appears to have held a symbolic meaning to commemorate martyrdoms, too. Peter von Dusburg records that, after the Battle of Löbau (1263, near Lubawa, Poland]), at which many brothers were killed, a hermit in the region saw ‘many glowing candles’ (plures candelas ardentes) on the battlefield. Indeed, the many masters who died in battle and were buried in the main Prussian churches were commemorated with lights, highlighting the connection between light’s spiritual meaning and the physical act of commemoration.


The lighting of these flames and their maintenance by the churches provides a solid example that light had more meaning than just the experience on the battlefield. The light of the churches in Prussia was meant not only to commemorate the individuals who lay buried, but to encourage those who used the space to remember the struggle that the Order was engaged in against paganism and the perceived enemies of the faith. Often studied because of their brutality, or framed as proto-colonial (!) projects, a close reading of the sources for crusading in the Baltic reveals that, like many other things in the Middle Ages, we run the risk of putting (modern) words into the mouths of contemporaries and ascribing modern explanations for their actions.

[1] Quotations are taken from the King James Bible.


[2] Deum de Deo, lumen de lumine, Deum verum de Deo vero, genitum, non factum, consubstantialem Patri: per quem omnia facta sunt. Also: φῶς ἐκ φωτός, Θεὸν ἀληθινὸν ἐκ Θεοῦ ἀληθινοῦ, γεννηθέντα οὐ ποιηθέντα, ὁμοούσιον τῷ Πατρί, δι' οὗ τὰ πάντα ἐγένετο.


[3] Proviso quod ipsi Magister et capitaneus parce huiusmodi concessione utantur, quia cum in altaris officio immoletur dominus noster dei filius Jesus christus qui candor est lucis eterne congruit hoc non in noctis tenebris fieri sed in luce.

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