The Medieval Review 11.09.08

Fischer, Mary. The Chronicle of Prussia by Nicolaus von Jeroschin: A History of the Teutonic Knights in Prussia 1190-1331. Crusade Texts in Translation. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2010. Pp. 306. $114.95. ISBN 978-0-7546-5309-7. . .

Reviewed by:

John T. Eldevik
Hamilton College

Although English-language literature in the field is growing, the history of the Teutonic Knights and the Baltic Crusades of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries remain something of a footnote to the much more widely studied Crusade expeditions in the Mediterranean. The limited number of sources in translation tends to constrain the ways the Baltic Crusades can be presented in undergraduate survey courses and studied by those not fluent in German or Latin. James Brundage's Chronicle of Henry of Livonia is one of the few entry points into this seminal episode in medieval history, but relates to only one relatively early stage in what would become a major campaign of conquest and expansion into the Baltic region by Catholic Europe. Jerry Smith and William Urban's translations of the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle and other Baltic sources are unfortunately out of print or available only in hard-to-find and/or expensive reprints. The foundational sources for the history of the conquest of Prussia by the Teutonic Knights and their crusader allies remain the fourteenth-century Latin chronicle by Peter of Dusberg and the Middle High German verse translation of it by Nicholaus of Jeroschin--both chaplains of the German Order in Prussia. While some extracts of Nicholaus's chronicle in English can be found in an old, mid-century anthology of medieval sources (reprinted in the more recent volume of Crusade texts in the Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures series from Toronto), scholars and teachers alike will be grateful for Mary Fischer's new translation of Nicholaus's chronicle in Ashgate's Crusade Texts in Translation, which makes available for the first time in English the complete work of this important, if little-known, historiographer.

Initially it may seem that Nicholaus's exemplar text, Peter of Dusberg's Chronicon Terre Prussie (completed in 1326) would have been a more suitable candidate for translation. However, Fischer observes that Nicholaus's German version, executed sometime between 1331 and 1335, enjoyed a far wider reception in the later Middle Ages--as far as can be inferred from the extensive manuscript tradition. Moreover, Nicholaus's work was not an exact translation of Peter's chronicle; it reordered some material and expanded on other details about the Order's activities. Most notably, Nicholaus takes the fourth book of Peter's chronicle--a conspectus of European history outside the Baltics during the formative years of the Order's history--and weaves them into the three sections of his own work as occasional "digressions." He also replaces Peter's introductory dedication with an invocation of the Holy Trinity. Fischer provides a concise and informative introduction, along with a set of basic maps, which elucidates these points and others and places the work and its author in their historical context. The footnotes and bibliography capture most of the relevant literature, including what (relatively little) is available on the topic in English from historians like Eric Christiansen, Alan V. Murray and William Urban.

The main feature of Nicholaus's text that Fischer's translation does not reproduce is the versification. Fischer's prose rendering is highly readable, and most scholars, aside from a few literary pros like the late Robert Fagles, should probably not attempt verse-to-verse translations in any case. It still would have been helpful to provide a bit more discussion in the introduction about the implications of this, however. Nicholaus produced a prose-to-verse chronicle at a time when the opposite was in far greater vogue in courtly circles. The need for a vernacular history for an audience of non-Latin readers seems clear, but Fischer touches only very briefly on the affinities between Nicholaus's translation and the German romance tradition, for example. The questions this raises could broaden students' understanding of the text's reception and meaning. It would have been worth exploring how shifting from Latin prose to romance-tinged German verse may have shaped a new way of understanding the exploits of the Teutonic Knights in the eyes of contemporaries--something brought into sharper relief when the modern translator has effected something of the opposite by rendering a verse account into prose. Those distinctions do not have the same resonances with modern audiences, of course, which makes drawing attention to them all the more important. The same might be said for other changes, such as the new prologue styled as a prayer in praise of the Holy Trinity. This may be more than just pious boilerplate. As Brett Whalen has recently shown, imagining the Trinity as an interpretive framework of history goes back to the twelfth century, and to apocalyptic thought in particular. The connection between crusading and apocalyptic theology has been well studied, and while Nicholaus's prologue is not overtly apocalyptic in tone, it does certainly use Trinitarian theology as a metaphor of progression: all things are created by the Father and the Son and brought to perfection or completion by the Spirit. Thus Nicholaus invokes the Holy Spirit in particular, begging for the purification of mind necessary to undertake such a task as the one before him. It provides a nice mis-en-scne for the subsequent sections of the work that illustrate the influence of the Holy Spirit in the fortunes of the knights (e.g. 120-122 where Konrad of Thuringia, the second master general of the Order, experiences something akin to a second Pentecost during his consecration).

The Prussian Crusades were savage wars of attrition that cost thousands of lives on both sides and raged for decades. The seemingly endless cycle of conversions (forced or feigned), rebellion and reprisals that defined the campaign to subdue the Prussians and other local Baltic tribes continues to bemuse modern students and readers. One wonders, however, to what extent some medieval observers were any less skeptical of the project. Though many nobles from across Europe responded eagerly to the opportunity to gain glory and fame fighting for the church in Prussia, throughout much of Nicholaus's text, he goes to great rhetorical lengths to assure his audience that what they are hearing is not the tale of a hopeless quagmire, but a heroic epic where temporary setbacks foreshadow an even more glorious victory for those who persevere. Doth he protest too much? Though the Teutonic Order had finally consolidated its control over Prussia and Livonia by the early fourteenth century, it had been Peter of Dusberg's task to justify the order's mission and continuing efforts to pacify the region and defend their lands from the Lithuanians and Poles, particularly in light of the loss of the last crusader outposts in the Levant and the infamous dissolution of the Templar Order in 1312. Nicholaus certainly refines and amplifies this agenda with his translation, emphasizing the miraculous nature of the Order's accomplishments, the sanctity and piety of individual knights, and the true martyrdoms of those who fall victim to the perfidious Prussians--complete with confirmed visions of the slain brothers' souls being born to heaven by choirs of angels (177).

Though I can claim no special expertise in Middle High German language or poetics, in the few randomly-selected portions I checked against the critical edition, Fischer's translation appears to be a faithful rendition of Nicholaus's text. The individual chapters of each of the three books are helpfully cross-referenced to the lines of the original German edition of the poem, as well as to the corresponding portion of Dusberg's chronicle. Hopefully the publisher will be able to issue a paperback edition; I, for one, would look forward to teaching it.