What defines a crusade? The first crusade was gathered by the pope Urbanus II. It was a carefully planned political action. It was publisized in Rome on the year of 1099. The pope had a sermon about how christian knights should take the cross and drive of the pagan invaders from the holy city of Jerusalem (this was not entirely honest, since western roman church had done nothing several hundred years before when muslims took Jerusalem from “skismatic” orthodox christians). After the sermon the knights present started yelling “Deus vult!” God wills it!

So, a crusade is a war sanctified by the highest celestial leadership and fits the militaristic culture of the historical period. After all we must bear in mind that medieval times are defined thoroughly by the fact that whole western society was ruled by the hereditary military elite. Even the priesthood was of that same stock, for you had to have the money to educate your self and who else exept the feodalistic and knightly elite had money for that. The ideals of this elite who ruled by right of birth and violence had little to do with the “turning of a nother cheek” or any teatchings of Jesus.

The knights wanted to fight and the pope provided them with an excuse, that also served his political aims.

The knightly culture had a problem of exess sons. One son would inherit his fathers fiefdom and land, second son would join the church to support the family in the eccelcial powerhouse. But a knight should have more sons, because if the firstones would die (of a plague, war or accident), there had to be someone to take their place. If the eldest sons survived, the younger ones would inherit nothing but their weapons, the skill to use them and their fathers attitudes toward the world. During the war in Palestine some knightly organisations were formed, mainly by these exess sons, who had nothing to return to in Europe. One of them was the Teutonic order, who were formed from the german speaking crusaders. They were actually asked by the king of Hungary to help in a war  against pagan cumans in Transilvania (whoo…). Since the war in the “holy land” was not going wery well they siezed the opportunity. But soon the Hungarian king regretted because the Teutonic knights were becoming more of a problem than a solution to a nother. The hungarian king had fight the Teutonic knights of his land, where they had started to claim land and power. The knights had a nother call for help from the polish who had trouble with their pagan prussian neighbours. And since the war with the hungarians was no going so well they moved yet again towards north in 1222.

In the meantime at Baltic sea the newly christend skandinavians had a series of wars against their pagan neighbours. The fight between christians and pagans had lasted generations in the skandinavian countries resulting in victory by the christians, who were both economically and militarily supported by the mighty kingdoms of Western Europe. These had an economical and a military gain to change the rulers in restless Skandinavian countries and to end the viking raids. The church aimed to gain foothold in nordic countries and common idea was that after their turning to christendom the Skandinavians would stop their violent assaults. This was not eventually so. Like with king Harald Hardra (brother of  king  Olaf the Holy) as despite his obvious christianity made an attempt to coquer england 1066.  For example the military efforts made by Olaf Tryggvasson and his great grandson Olaf the holy to turn Norvegians to christianity were not called crusades. They happened before the actual birth of the crusade ideal of gaining absolution of sins by killing pagans.

During the period of Palestinian crusades both the Danes and the Swedes were in war with their pagan neighbours. This was nothing new. What was new was the possibility to draw international support for their wars from the pan european organisation of papal church. The church had the power to actually organise a presence and new power structure in the conquered area. In pagan times the nordic kings had such a small force of standing army, that it could only be used as a bodyguard and to spearhed a battle. Now the christian king could assemble his peasant army for a campaing and after it he could leave a warbishop (a bishop whitout parish) to rule and control the new enclaive. In time the bishop would organise the pagans into christians, but in the meantime he would rule for the king.

The Danes conquered northern Prussia and Northern Estonia. The Swedes conquered Finland. This took several raids and generations. Some raids were more succesfull than others. The failures were soon forgotten, but towards end of the period the successes started to be called crusades. And why not? They had the papal official acception and were fought against pagans. Wether those pagans were actually nonchristian or just Orthodox christians did not matter in any way. They were people with different religion, beliefs, habits and languages, and they had riches to be “liberated”. The church was clever, and it had learned from the mistakes of the Palestinian crusades. A crusade would not be declared beforehand, for if the war went badly, it would deeply undermine the influence of the church. Instead after a succesfull campaing the church would issue a declaration of crusade, so that the crusader king (or usurper) would gain the “God is on my side” charter, and church would gain the “God is invincible” charter. 

The german bishops and knights followed closely by the Skandinavians making their war against the Eastern Baltic. Soon they joined it and started by conquering the economically and strategically important site of Riga in the mouth of river Daugava. They struck at an opportune moment, when the Latvian tribes were disrupted by assaults both from Estonian and Lithuanian tribes. The germans bought with them the new terrible weapon of war the Crossbow. A weapon, wich was actually banned by the pope from wars between christians (ofcourse the papal army used it against other christians) The priest Henriccus who wrote down the rapid fall of both Latvian and Estonian tribes often mentions that the battles were won by the grace of god and by the bolts of the crossbowmen. The german crusaders had formed their own knightly order – the blade brothers – but it was soon annexed by the Teutonic order that brought its military might to the fray just when the troops of Bishop of Riga were wavering. The Danes had established their power in an old abandoned hillfort at Tallin (Castle of the Dandes), but as it was quite far away from Denmark they sold it to the Teutonic order. After that Estonia and Latvia were ruled by the Bishop of Riga and the Teutonic knights.

All conquering wars that have resulted in a quick victory eventually lead to the counter reaction. This was the case of nordic crusades as well. In Skandinavia king Olaf became holy by being killed by pagan jarls, who had first just driven him into exile, but when he tried to return to power they gathered all their power against him. In Finland pagan chieftain Lalli killed the first crusading bishop Henry during the winter his crusading king Erik had returned to Sweden. In Estonia tribal warchief Lembitty rose to fight the Germans and fought them with success in several battles. But eventually the pagan societes had no power to resist the new feudal worldorder where professional mounted and armoured knights would rule.

For the Lithuanians was a nother kind of destiny preserved. Since they were well organised for a tribal society and in an ideal place they were not turned to christianity. The Teutonic knights kept them as pagans and enemies that gave them both “casus belli” and profit. As the crusade ideology gave no protection of law to pagans they were free prey for any kind of abuse. Their property could be stolen, their women raped and their lives taken. All this was actually favourable in the eyes of God. One way to profit from this was to sell sort of crusading holidays to the European nobility. Come visit Teutonic knights! Live in a luxurious castle! See the lovely white beaches of the Baltic sea! Have exelent feasts with comely local women! Kill some pagans to absolve yourself from all sins, you may have committed! Who could afford it, would not resist it. Surely this was more to a liking of a true knight than a booring pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela or even Rome barefoot and with diseased peasents.

The crusades to the Holy land died away because the islamic nations holding Jerusalem were simply too strong for anything exept joint efforts of the mightiest European rulers. These were far too occupied to fight each other and the pope to organise anything in such grand scale. Some kings had romantic ideas of liberating the holy garve, but these were snuffed by the realities of politics.

The Lithuanians broke free from their opressors by embracing christianity finally by the year 1410 and marrying their ruling house with one of the mighty European kingdoms – the Poles. Together the Lithuanians and Poles cut down the military might of the Teutonic order in one battle called the Zalgiris by Lithuanians, Grünwald by Poles and Tannenberg by the Germans. The Teutonic order did not disalppear in that battle, but that was effectively the last battle where they had international guest crusaders to fight for them.  The time of the crusades was turning towards its end even in the Baltic area.

In the north the Swedish kingdom had aquired a long border against Orthodox christian principality of Novgorod. The Baltic sea trade was slowly being consumed and monopolised by the german Hansa trade league. When it fitted the Swedish economical interrest a war was declared against Novgorod and eagerly called a crusade. These “crusades” took often place when Novgorod was having problems with the mongols of the Golden Horde who ruled over almost all of Russia. It was only after the rise of Moscow to drive the mongols from heartland Russia and conquer the other Russian principalities, when these Swedish crusades died out. But it was a totally new age in Europe and medieval times were also dying.