Albrecht Classen

title.none: Urban, The Teutonic Knights (Albrecht Classen)

identifier.other: baj9928.0701.001 07.01.01

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Albrecht Classen, University of Arizona, aclassen@u.arizona.ed

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Urban, William. The Teutonic Knights: A Military History. London and St. Paul, MN: Greehill Books, 2003. Pp. xiii, 290. ISBN: $19.95 (pb) ISBN 13:978-1-85367-667-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.01.01

Urban, William. The Teutonic Knights: A Military History. London and St. Paul, MN: Greehill Books, 2003. Pp. xiii, 290. ISBN: $19.95 (pb) ISBN 13:978-1-85367-667-3.

Reviewed by:

Albrecht Classen
University of Arizona

The history of the Teutonic Knights certainly deserves a fresh look and a new introduction, which William Urban, a prolific historian focusing on the history of Eastern Europe, here offers after having done intensive research particularly in the Herder Institute in Marburg, Germany. The Teutonic Knights is a straightforward historical account that takes the reader from the early history of this order during the time of the crusades to its flowering in Prussia and the neighboring regions, and then to its decline and end in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Urban begins his story with the foundation of the Teutonic Order during the Third Crusade (1189-1191), and offers detailed accounts of the relevant aspects, such as their laws and customs, officers, and religious life. From there he follows the historical development first under Hermann von Salza, then the Transylvanian experience, and finally the turn toward the north, to Prussia, where the Teutonic Knights found an ideal opportunity to fight against pagan Prussians. The subsequent chapters deal with the crusade in Livonia, the conflicts with Poland, with Lithuania, then the devastating battle of Tannenberg in 1410, and finally with the remaining years until the end of the sixteenth century.

The author brings to bear a wealth of information about the history of the entire Baltic region and pleasantly contextualizes the history of the Teutonic Order, regularly considering the contemporary events to the west and to the east. He also makes valiant attempts to incorporate cultural historical, literary, and art historical aspects, and never forgets to consider the economic basis that made the rise of the Order possible.

There is no question that this book fills a certain gap, but it remains unclear what audience Urban had in mind. He discusses much of the history of the Teutonic Knights in great detail, which is not easy to understand because of the many different peoples and tribes involved. Moreover, the author also casts light on the intricate political, religious, and economic conditions, relationships, and conflicts involving the Order. The general reader will certainly be impressed by the in-depth utilization of primary sources, but Urban has practically never identified these specifically and wrote his book with almost no footnotes. There is a bibliography, but it represents only a list of some of the most important sources in English translation, of the most significant critical studies, also in English translation, of books with good illustrations, original sources (with several misspellings of the German titles), and a very short list of secondary studies in Polish and German. It seems doubtful, however, whether Urban has really selected the most important titles, as any quick search in WorldCat or elsewhere can demonstrate. Anyway, these titles represent only suggestions, it seems, and the critical apparatus is missing entirely, making it impossible for us to gauge to what extent Urban made an effort to establish new ground or whether he simply repeated, or summarized, what many other historians before him have already observed. There is, for example, and quite revealingly, no Forschungsbericht, instead the author unequivocally tells us a story from his authoritative stance, whereas critical reflections are not allowed to enter the picture. Many times one wonders how Urban could have reached his conclusions about his protagonists' feelings, attitudes, and opinions. What would it mean to highlight the Teutonic Knights' "earthy sense of humour" (22), for instance? The entire book is riddled with such personal opinions about certain events, people, and objects, but there are no attempts to back them up with any references.

Nevertheless, as a historical overview and depiction, Urban's monograph deserves our respect. It might not be the ultimate and conclusive study on this Order, particularly if we think of scores of previous monographs published as early as in the late nineteenth century (e.g., Heinrich von Treitschke, Das deutsche Ordensland Preussen (1862; here not even mentioned). Overall, this book mostly fulfills its expectations, especially for the general reader. But in scholarly terms, one can only wonder about the naive, almost positivistic approach pursued here. An index at the end of the book allows for a quick identification of relevant names and events. A number of maps offer great help in locating specific sites or to gain an understanding of the entire east European world, but they are designed as if intended for a book aimed at young readers, implying mystery and remoteness. A handful of black-and-white photos provide good illustrations.