04 October 2011

Challenge to the Ordenstaat: An Irregular Warfare Interpretation of the Prussian Uprisings of the Thirteenth Century

By the end of the year 1283, the chroniclers of the Teutonic Knights could boast that “there was not a single man found in all Prussia who was not a Christian or who was opposed to the [Latin Christian] faith.”[1]  Over the course of fifty-three years, the Teutonic Knights struggled to subjugate the Baltic peoples of Prussia (and to a greater extent, Livonia).  According to Desmond Seward, throughout this struggle between colonial conqueror and subjugated peoples, “no quarter was given.” [2] 
The Prussian uprisings were unique amongst wars of the age,[3] not only in the large scale employment of guerilla tactics against the Teutonic Knights but also in the nature of the conflicts themselves, “as near to total war as medieval men could get.”[4]  Initial conquest of the area from 1230-31 was followed by successive rebellions by the local tribes in1242, 1260, and 1275.[5]  Armed in the beginning with technologically superior gear (such as the crossbow) over the Prussians, by the close of the conquest in 1283 the Teutonic Knights found themselves more or less matched militarily as the Prussians adopted these same technologies for their own or neutralized technological advantage with new tactics. [6] 
Fighting against peoples whose way of warfare was characterized by ambushes, raids, and surprise attacks over pitched battles, the Teutonic Knights found themselves more often confined to the defense of their castle outposts than the offensive.[7]  Even aided by the powerful support of the Lithuanians in the east, the Prussians were able to score several prominent victories against the Knights.[8]  Nonetheless, the Prussians were still subjugated under Teutonic rule.  Why then, if the Prussians were so successful militarily against the Teutonic Order, were the Teutonic Knights ultimately victorious?  The answer rests less with the Knights and more with their enemies.  The Prussians were unable to expel the Teutonic Knights because they could not create or maintain a united political front.  By exploiting the tribal divisions of Prussian political life, the Order was able to peel tribes off from one another, reducing the scope of the rebellions until Prussia was firmly under the Order’s control. 

Initial Conquest
             The Teutonic Knights first established a presence in Prussia in 1231, when an expedition by one of their commanders, Hermann Balke, moved down the Vistula River and built an outpost at Thurn.[9]  Malke’s basic strategy of the initial conquest was to establish a string of outposts along the rivers from which the Order could launch attacks to force the Prussian tribes to submit to the Order’s rule.[10]  Once a tribe had accepted their rule, the Teutonic Knights then forced them to fight against those tribes which were still independent.[11]  This use of indigenous forces enabled the Teutonic Order- with the aid of foreign Crusading contingents from the West- to subdue the region with only a few of its members.[12]  With little exception, this remained the essential strategy of the Teutonic Knights throughout their conquest in Prussia.[13] 

Figure 1: Map of the locations of various Prussian tribes and the movement of the initial conquest by the Teutonic Knights.  The direction of the Prussian emigrations is into Lithuania.[14]
            Technology has been conclusively argued to have advantaged the Teutonic Knights in their initial conquest of Prussia,[15] but did not provide the Teutonic Knights with marked advantages throughout the rebellions of the thirteenth century.  Western technologies like the construction of stone or mortar fortresses, the cog, the crossbow, and heavy war horses provided the Knights with advantages that in many cases proved only temporary.[16]  The advantages of these and other technologies possessed by the Teutonic Order were either learnt and adopted by the Prussians or effectively neutralized through tactical innovations.  For example, the crossbow, initially feared by Prussians,[17] was later used to large scale effect against the Teutonic Knights at the siege of Terweten in 1279.[18]  Siege machinery and the art of castle building were both adopted by the Prussian peoples in their uprisings.[19]  The besieged stronghold at Christburg was nearly evacuated when the Prussians directed their attacks at the cogs provisioning the stronghold on the River Sorge.[20]  Technology favored the Order only at the onset; in any case the Baltic area in which the Teutonic Knights operated was well acquainted with Western arms and the Western way of warfare.[21]  By the end of the rebellions both sides were employing similar technology and technological skills.       

Political Organization
The key determinant in the outcome of the protracted struggle lay in the political organization of the opposing sides.  The Teutonic Knights not only lacked internal divisions but also external disputes with the other Latin Christian powers.  Granted the right to conquer and rule Prussia by the Holy Roman Emperor (a right later acknowledged by the Papacy), the Teutonic Knights had little trouble asserting their rule in conquered Prussian lands among their Latin Christian neighbors.[22]  Acquiring the lands of the defunct Sword Brethren with their absorption into the Teutonic Order in the 1230’s reinforced the Knights’ standing as the preeminent Latin power in the Baltic. [23]  Divisions within the Order tended to be between individual commanders.  The structure of the Teutonic Order though, with a defined organizational hierarchy of members that was reinforced through strict discipline, presented a single, unified political entity which could coordinate the whole of its government both inside and out of Prussia to respond to threats.[24]   
The Prussians, however, were never consolidated under a single, unified polity but organized politically along their eleven distinct tribes.[25]  Each tribe was composed of familial clans who acted in their own self interest.[26]  Violence was the primary form of political expression among the Prussian peoples, who lived according to a “flourishing military culture.”[27]  Prussian tribes competing against each other and seeking to “take revenge on their [tribal] enemies” rarely achieved unity against the Teutonic Order.[28]  Even as they attempted to expel the foreign Teutonic Order from their lands, Prussian tribes attempted to use the rebellion to also impose their rule over one another.  In 1273, the Sudovians, acknowledged as the strongest of the Prussian tribes, launched attacks against the weaker Nattagians and Bartians. “By terrorizing the Nattagians and Bartians, however, the Sudovians drove those tribes, willy-nilly, into the arms of the Teutonic Order.”[29]  Intertribal warfare remained endemic throughout the Prussian uprisings, retarding coordinating efforts against the Teutonic Order. 
Overcoming intertribal divisions and sustaining focus for the revolts required the concurrent leadership of charismatic warlords in each tribe.[30]  The introduction of Latin Christianity into the region meant that religion formed another layer of division amongst the Prussian peoples, however.[31]  Charismatic leadership, when it existed, did not always guarantee the loyal following of the full tribe, as Christian converts tended to stay loyal to the Teutonic Order.[32]  Splintering along religious grounds was evident at the intertribal level as well.  The Pomesanian tribe refrained from joining in the rebellions.  This decision perhaps reflected hostility between itself and the other Prussian tribes, and certainly a level of political opportunism, as the Pomesanians stood more to lose than gain from rebellion.[33] 
Political cohesion for the rebellion and against the Knights was easier to achieve when the Teutonic Order appeared to be particularly weak, as when the Order suffered spectacular, decisive defeats.  Both the rebellion of 1242 and 1260 were preceded by Teutonic defeats at the Battles of Lake Peipus and Dorben.[34]  In the aftermath of such defeats, rebellion might appear less dangerous for the smaller tribes, when it seemed that joining with larger tribes would give them strength on par with that of the Teutonic Order.  But once the Teutonic Order had weathered the loss of all but its strongest fortified posts and received fresh recruits from Western Europe, it retaliated fiercely, uprooting the “bases of [rebellious tribes with]…systematic ravaging.”[35]  When these retaliations managed to kill the charismatic leader of a tribe, the resultant pressure and lack of internal cohesion could quickly force a tribe to submit.[36]  Amid such counter-offensives, the smaller tribes were often the first to be marginalized into submission.  

Political Objectives
            A key underlying weakness in the rebellions stemmed from the lack of an overall political objective to counter the rule of the Teutonic Order.  While the Teutonic Knights fought for a concretely defined political goal- the subjugation of Prussian tribes under the Order’s rule- the Prussians fought for a far vaguer notion of political independence.  “[I]f the Brothers [of the Teutonic Order] lose their lives in battle, and if their allies are defeated, we will be without overlords.”[37]  But there was no compelling vision of political life in Prussian lands beyond the immediate cause of throwing off the foreign rule of the Teutonic Knights.  What there was, though, was the status quo of tribal warfare- a political state that would permit the Knights to continue operating.[38]  Unable to close this opening for the Knights in their political culture, the Prussians were sustaining the very conditions that were essential for expelling the Knights- replacing the political vacuum inside Prussia with a coherent political organization.  Discounting problems in organizing military operations among tribes with competing priorities and no overarching leadership, this absence of political organization in the rebellion may have been the key enabling factor in the Prussians’ ultimate defeat. Once the Teutonic Order began its offensive efforts, the success of the rebellions would depend not on the survival of the Prussian tribes but on wiping out the Teutonic Order from Prussian lands.[39]
            Even when the Prussians experienced military success against the Teutonic Order, they were unable to consolidate tactical victories into a victorious strategy.  Military leaders such as Henry Monte, who used his prior experience fighting with the Teutonic Order’s way of warfare to develop effective ambushes and raids that destroyed Teutonic garrisons and even whole field armies, could not resolve the larger problem of consolidating rebel lands into a state.[40]  Although they conducted a general campaign of terror against Christians who moved into the area with the Teutonic Knights and executed captured Teutonic Knights in pagan sacrifices, the Prussians could not break the will of the Teutonic Order to prosecute the struggle.[41]  Instead, such tactics had stiffened Teutonic resolve, since the Order fought not simply for the defense of its rule in the Baltic but for the defense of the Latin Christian religion in the region.  “Who fights the Order fights Jesus Christ,” may well have been a popular slogan amid the Order’s members in the campaigns.[42]   
Foreign support, which was crucial to the military efforts of both sides in the conflict, appears not to have contributed to the development of the underlying political aspects of the war.  For the Teutonic Order, Crusader contingents from Western Europe provided more troops for the extension and prosecution of its basic strongholds strategy.[43]  Among the Prussians, Polish and Lithuanian aid provided key military support and extended the theatre of operations against the Knights, broadening the conflict into a regional war.[44]  But foreign support did not contribute to resolving the political issues present among the Prussian tribes; Lithuanian intervention may have actually retarded efforts to coordinate and unify Prussian tribes.[45]  Foreign aid, moreover, could also serve to deepen the political fissures among the Prussian peoples, for which there was already a precedent in the region.  The Semgallians, a pagan tribe which had initially resisted Latin Christians in Livonia, effectively ceased their opposition because of Lithuanian involvement, against whom the Semgallians were “still mindful of the wars and hardships…inflicted” on their tribe.[46] 

            Hans Delbruck noted that “the Prussians were not really defeated but were outwaited…even though they had caused so much damage…they were still unable to drive the enemy out of their territory.”[47]  But a better assessment of the Prussian rebellions of the thirteenth century might be that the Prussians were unable to drive out the Teutonic Knights because their own tribal tendencies accommodated the presence of a foreign power- even a hostile one.  Once introduced into the region the Teutonic Knights, themselves present “more or less on their own” as the sole Latin Christian power in the region, could prosecute their conquest of Prussia by exploiting the inherent political divisions in Prussian society.[48]  To say that the Teutonic Order “profited from the failure of the Prussian tribes to combine against them” would nearly be an understatement.[49]  Precisely because the Prussians were inchoate in their relations towards each other and towards the Teutonic Order, lacking a clear, unifying political vision for the region beyond expelling foreign rule, every tribe had reason to be wary of the intentions of others in their resistance to Teutonic rule.  While some may have wanted a return to the way things were before the Teutonic conquest, others may have been hoping to replace the Teutonic Order as the new hegemonic power in the region.  Within such instability the Teutonic Knights, focused on their own objectives, proved themselves ultimately victorious.[50]

[1] Nicholas von Jeroschin, The Chronicle of Prussia by Nicholas von Jeroschin: A History of the Teutonic Knights in Prussia, 1190-1311.  Translated by Mary Fischer, (Burlington: Ashgate Publishing, 2010), 208.
[2] Desmond Seward.  The Monks of War: The Military Religious Orders, (London: Penguin Books, 1995), 107. 
[3] The author could find few other conflicts of the thirteenth century which can compare with the Prussian uprisings: only Welsh resistance to Norman incursion, perhaps, contained conditions comparable to those encountered in the Prussian uprisings.  More recent irregular warfare conflicts may be useful for comparison; however, the limits in making such generalized comparisons are obvious. 
[4] John France, Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades: 1000-1300, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999), 203.  For the purposes of this paper, the author considers Professor France’s use of “total war” to mean the extent to which the civilian population is considered a legitimate military target.   
[5] Hans Delbrück.  History of the Art of War: Within the Framework of Political History, Volume III: The Middle Ages.  Translated by Walter J. Renfroe Jr, (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1982), 378-380. 
[6] Eric Christiansen.  The Northern Crusades, (New York: Penguin Books, 1997), 107. 
[7] Delbrück, 379. 
[8] Jeroschin, 131-133.  The Battle of Dorben stands out as the single greatest victory of the Prussians and Lithuanians over the Teutonic Knights. 
[9] Ibid., 67. 
[10] Ibid., 63; 75.  Interestingly, the Teutonic Order did not always demand religious conversion from the Prussians, only political subservience. 
[11] Ibid., 78-79. 
[12] Ibid., 83-85. 
[13] Seward 101. 
[14] Christensen, xiii. 
[15] Sven Ekdahl, “Horses and Crossbows: Two Important Warfare Advantages of the Teutonic Order in Prussia,” The Military Orders, Volume 2: Welfare and Warfare.  Ed. by Helen Nicholson, (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 1998).
[16] Christiansen, 90-91. 
[17] Jeroschin, 144.  This anecdote of a Sambian shooting himself through the neck with a crossbow because he did not know how to use it is emblematic of arguments made for the decisiveness of technological advantages possessed by the Teutonic Order in the Prussian uprisings. 
[18] The Livonian Rhymed Chronicle.  Translated by Jerry C. Smith and William Urban, (Chicago: Lithuanian Research and Studies Center, 2001), 105-106. The siege of Terweten was conducted by the Semgallians, a tribe that had been under Teutonic rule in Livonia (north of Prussia) but rebelled along with the tribes in Prussia in 1260.  Note that the Semgallians used crossbows captured by the Teutonic Knights, and not ones produced on their own.  
[19] Ibid., 101.  Jeroschin, 138. 
[20] Jeroschin, 165. 
[21] Henricus Lettus.  The Chronicle of Henry of Livonia.  Translated by James A. Brundage, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 210.  Lettus’ Chronicle records the history of the early Latin settlement in the Baltic, and ends in the year 1225, before the events of this paper.  However, the account is still useful as it provides a straightforward presentation of the experiences of the Baltic peoples of the thirteenth century, of whom the Prussians were a part. 
[22] Jeroschin, 85. 
[23] Hartmann von Heldrungen.  “Appendix One: Hartman von Heldrungen’s Account,” The Livonian Rhymed Chronicle.  Translated by Jerry C. Smith and William Urban, (Chicago: Lithuanian Research and Studies Center, 2001), 148.    
[24] William Urban.  The Teutonic Knights: A Military History, (London: Greenhill Books, 2003), 18. 
[25] Jeroschin, 68-9. 
[26] William Urban.  “Henry Monte and the Prussia Rising of 1260,” Lithuanian Quarterly Journal of Arts and Sciences, Vol. 24, No. 2. (Summer 1978), 1.  Jeroschin, 68-69.  Each tribe acted as its own governing unit, and each clan within a tribe provided for its immediate defense with wooden castles to which families could take cover in during a raid by enemies.  
[27] Urban, The Teutonic Knights, 50. 
[28] Lettus, Henry of Livonia, 60.  Lettus’ chronicle refers to Semgal aggression against the Lithuanians in 1206; however this same characteristic of enmity amongst traditional tribal enemies existed amongst the Prussians. 
[29] Urban, Teutonic Knights.  62.  Jeroschin, 190-204.  The Sudovians were possibly the most intractable enemies of the Teutonic Order.  Attacking both the Order and the tribes under its protection, the Sudovians were eventually driven from their traditional tribal lands, which was made left unsettled afterwards to act as a buffer zone.   
[30] Peter of Dusburg.  “Chronik des Preussenlandes: Petri de Dusburg Chronica terre Prussie,” The Crusades.  Translated by Helen Nicholson, (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2004), 155.  Jeroschin, 135. 
[31] Jeroschin, 141. 
[32] Ibid., 147.  Religious affiliation could act as a particularly divisive issue, as when it drove a wedge between the family of the Barthian convert Girdau and the rest of his tribal members; eventually he and his family fled to the Teutonic Order’s stronghold at Köngisberg. 
[33] Jeroschin, 190; Seward, 105; Delbrück, 380.  The Pomesanians were also converted to Christianity and among the first of the tribes to submit to the Order’s rule.
[34] Rhymed Chronicle, 32; 71.  Jeroschin, 132.  Decisive battles were not always a precondition to rebellion, however, as the rebellion of 1275-1283 occurred without one.  See Jeroschin, 189-190.  It appears that the battles at Lake Peipus and Dorben, although exacting a noticeable military defeat on the Order, had a far more important political impact- both among the Prussian tribes and the Order’s ability to organize foreign support in Western Europe.  In open battle the Teutonic Knights were usually victorious; at Lake Peipus the Order was overcome by a field army from Novgorod, while at Dorben the Order was defeated when its Curonian allies reversed sides and fought with the enemy Lithuanians.  
[35] Christiansen, 108. 
[36]Jeroschin, 159-160.   Already pressed by the Teutonic Order, the death of Henry Monte, leader of the Nattagians, and Glappo, leader of the Warmians, proved too much for these tribes to endure.  These tribes soon submitted to Teutonic rule shortly after their leaders’ executions. 
[37] Rhymed Chronicle, 71. 
[38] Lettus, Henry of Livonia, 79.  Jeroschin.  153-155.   After suffering a rare defeat in open battle at Löbau, the Teutonic Knights were reduced to holding onto their great fortresses in Kulmerland.  The Prussians were unable to prevent the Knights from returning, and by 1265, the Order’s control over the region was reestablished with the support of large crusading contingents. 
[39] Jeroschin, 171.  Jeroschin records that “However often and however many Christians the heathens [Prussians] killed, they always thought it was too few.  They wanted to destroy the faith [Teutonic Order] at its roots and silence it completely all over Prussia.” 
[40]Urban, “Henry Monte.”  7. 
[41] Dusburg, 157; Jeroschin, 137.  Both chronicles relate that a knight captured by the Prussians was set atop his warhorse in full armor and burned alive. 
[42] Seward, 107.
[43] Ibid., 106.  Jeroschin, 115; 118-119; 125-129; 136-140; 154; 157-159; 162.
[44] Rhymed Chronicle, 82; Jeroschin 195-196.  The Prussian revolts coincided with revolts by the Semgallians, a tribe under Teutonic rule in Livonia.  In both Livonia and Prussia, the Lithuanians sent large contingents of men and material to fight against the Teutonic Order, in addition to providing the Livonian and Prussian tribes with a secure base of operations in Lithuania. 
[45] Jeroschin, 191-205.  The Sudovians may have believed that an alliance with the very powerful Lithuanians would give them the strength necessary to eject the Teutonic Order from Prussia.   However, on this expedition to Kulmerland  in 1277 it appears the joint Lithuanian-Sudovian force targeted anyone who supported the Order in any way, including indigenous Prussians.  Following the Order’s reprisals for this devastation, the Sudovians seem to have been alienate by the other Prussian tribes and regarded as being proxies of the Lithuania, where the Sudovians fled to following the end of the third rebellion in 1283. 
[46] Lettus, Henry of Livonia, 40-41; 79.  In 1201 the Semgals’ were a prominent pagan tribe noted for its resistance to the Latin Christians of Riga.  By 1208, the Semgal leader Viesthard was asking the Christians of Riga to ally with them to attack Lithuania.  
[47] Delbrück, 381-382.   One could call the Order’s strategy in the Prussian rebellions a strategy of exhaustion, although the Order’s response to the uprisings varied dependant on individual commanders and the strength of the Order in the different regions of Prussia. 
[48] Urban, Teutonic Knights.  60. 
[49] France, 202. 
[50] Jeroschin, 208.  So confident was the Teutonic Order in its conquest of Prussia that in 1283 it began a new, offensive war against the Lithuanians. 


Christiansen, Eric.  The Northern Crusades.  New York: Penguin Books, 1997. 

Delbrück, Hans.  History of the Art of War: Within the Framework of Political History, Volume     III: The Middle Ages.  Translated by Walter J. Renfroe Jr.  Westport: Greenwood Press,     1982. 

Dusburg, Peter of.  “Chronik des Preussenlandes: Petri de Dusburg Chronica terre Prussie,” The   Crusades.  Translated by Helen Nicholson.  Westport: Greenwood Press, 2004. 

Ekdahl, Sven. “Horses and Crossbows: Two Important Warfare Advantages of the Teutonic        Order in Prussia,” The Military Orders, Volume 2: Welfare and Warfare.  Ed. by Helen           Nicholson.  Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 1998.

France, John.  Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades 1000-1300.    Ithaca: Cornell    University Press, 1999.   

Heldrungen, Hartmann von.  “Appendix One: Hartman von Heldrungen’s Account,” The             Livonian Rhymed Chronicle.  Translated by Jerry C. Smith and William Urban.           Chicago: Lithuanian Research and Studies Center, 2001. 

Jeroschin, Nicholas von.   The Chronicle of Prussia by Nicholas von Jeroschin: A History of the      Teutonic Knights in Prussia, 1190-1311.  Translated by Mary Fischer.  Burlington: Ashgate         Publishing, 2010.

Lettus, Henricus.  The Chronicle of Henry of Livonia.  Translated by James A. Brundage.  New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. 

Seward, Desmond.  The Monks of War: The Military Religious Orders.  London: Penguin Books,             1995. 

The Livonian Rhymed Chronicle.  Translated by Jerry C. Smith and William Urban.  Chicago:       Lithuanian Research and Studies Center, 2001.   

Urban, William.  “Henry Monte and the Prussia Rising of 1260,” Lithuanian Quarterly Journal     of Arts and Sciences, Vol. 24, No. 2. (Summer 1978). 1-8. 

Urban, William.  The Teutonic Knights: A Military History.  London: Greenhill Books, 2003. 

Submitted by: CDT Colin Bennett, USA

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