14.09.18, Pluskowski, The Archaeology of the Prussian Crusade

Main Article Content

Barbara Bombi

The Medieval Review 14.09.18

Pluskowski, Aleksander. The Archaeology of the Prussian Crusade: Holy War and Colonisation. Abingdon, New York: Routledge, 2013. Pp. xix, 428. ISBN: 9780415691703 (hardback) 9780203079867 (ebook).

Reviewed by:
Barbara Bombi
University of Kent, Canterbury

Aleksander Pluskowski's study of the archaeology of the Prussian crusades fills an important gap in Anglophone historiography. Traditionally, the study of the northern crusade has been concerned only marginally with the material evidence, while recent studies of this evidence have mainly been published in languages that are not always easily accessible to Anglophone audiences. Pluskowski's book has to be praised for two main achievements. Firstly, it contextualizes the analysis of the material evidence within the debate on the creation of the Teutonic Order's State in Prussia between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. Notably it addresses the issues of crusading and colonization in this region on the basis of narrative and material sources and makes use of a number of local studies published in Polish, German, and other major Baltic languages as well as English. Secondly, it includes comprehensive accounts of the historical background along with analysis of the archaeological evidence, therefore providing a scholarly and interdisciplinary introduction to academics and students interested in the topic.

Interestingly, Pluskowski's work opens with a chapter concerning pre-Christian Prussia. The use of archaeological and material evidence allows the author to adopt an original approach to this topic and to challenge traditional narratives of pre-Christian religion and social structures in the region, mainly provided through the study of narrative sources written after the German conquest and conversion of Prussia to Christianity. In particular, Pluskowski touches here on castles and fortifications, trade, "militarism" and religion, concluding that, although our understanding of pre-Christian Prussia is very much still a "work-in-progress," Prussia was ruled before the German conquest by fragmented and heterogeneous military elites. Their wealth, he observes, was probably generated by slavery and trade, which occasionally took place on an international scale, such as in the case of the Sambians. Furthermore, Pluskowski extensively examines the different Pre-Christian religious practices in the region, stressing how religion was organized at a local level. This introductory chapter allows Pluskowski to take his argument beyond a traditional interpretation of the so-called Ostsiedlung and building of the German nation in north-eastern Europe; this has been mainly interpreted as "total war" in accordance with the account of Peter of Dusburg's fourteenth-century German chronicle.

In chapters 3-6 Pluskowski instead focuses on the "archaeology of colonization," namely the period between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when there is evidence of German settlements in Slavic lands. In particular the thirteenth-century archaeological evidence often presents challenges in terms of dating but suggests instances of re-use and assimilation of sites as part of the colonization of the region; this questions previous interpretations that had emphasized ethnic clashes and divisions. Accordingly, Pluskowski's analysis hints at the rapid development of towns in the mid-thirteenth century, which allowed the Teutonic Order to invest in the crusade and support the constant need to make its strongholds secure, being systematically fortified from the 1280s onwards. In chapter 4 Pluskowski addresses the social, economic and cultural identity of the so-called Teutonic Order's state (Ordensstaat) from the late thirteenth century, which comprised a loosely structured network of castles, settlements and towns in Prussia. The author uses a traditional approach to architectural evidence, based on the reconstruction of building phases of individual sites, along with mapping the landscape in order to understand how the change in settlement patterns can be related to the hierarchy of castles, strongholds and manors. Pluskowski emphasizes here the importance of the Teutonic Order's "conventual" castles, which encompassed the military, political and religious identity of the order and evidenced the Order's sophisticated administrative organization through their original design. Furthermore, addressing the structure and decoration of the chapels of these conventual castles, Pluskowski highlights the specific features of the Order's spirituality, based on the cult of the Virgin Mary and the practice of crusading pilgrimage (Reisen) into pagan lands, mirrored in the iconography of Christians and Prussian fighting, such as in the decoration of the Great Refectory in Marienburg.

The issue of colonization and crusading is further addressed in chapter 5, where Pluskowski deals with towns, especially focusing on the areas of the Kumerland and the lower Vistula and taking as case-studies Elbing, Torun and Danzig. The author here considers the material culture as evidence of a colonial society that benefitted from international Hanseatic trade and industrial production. He shows how towns initially developed from timber constructions to brick-built conurbations thanks to the settlement of German colonists and merchants and were fortified through the integrated presence of Teutonic Order's castles, while towns were planned on a regular chessboard pattern only at a later stage. The following chapter of Pluskowski's book (chapter 6) is dedicated to what the author calls "archaeology of conversion," namely the creation of episcopal sees and a parish system in the Teutonic Order's State. As Pluskowski put it, once more challenging Peter of Dusburg's emphasis on successful stories of conversion, the archaeological evidence most importantly illustrates both the institutionalization of ecclesiastical structures in Prussia as part of the Teutonic Order's mission and conversion of the local population and the survival of pre-Christian cults, burial practices and folkloric traditions. Indeed, while Pluskowski maintains that the sacred landscape of Prussia radically changed as a result of the crusades, he interestingly highlights how pre-Christian traditions were carried on in rural communities during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, especially in Kaliningrad Oblast, north-east Poland and in eastern Prussia, which, in Pluskowski's opinion, retained "multiple, parallel religious cultures."

Pluskowski further addresses the issue of the transformation of landscape in Prussia in chapter 7 thanks to the evidence provided by environmental archaeology, which allows him to outline diachronic multi-regional ecological changes after the crusade and to shed new light on micro-regional developments. The outcome of this analysis is mainly based on the research conducted by the author and his research team as part of the European Research Council funded project Ecology of Crusading: Colonisation and Religious Conversion in the Medieval Baltic. In Pluskowski's opinion, although the colonization of Prussia followed the patterns of western Christian colonization, it also met specific agendas of the Teutonic Order's State and the Prussian bishops, especially as far as the construction of fortified convents, the urbanization of the landscape, the organization of trade and provisioning and the long-lasting process of colonization are concerned. This resulted in the creation of new landscapes characterized by crop fields and the destruction of old ones in order to exploit the local timber reserves. The last chapter of Plukowski's work is dedicated to the reconstruction and adaptation of the Teutonic Order's castles in the modern period, when many of these structures were "reinvented" to fit into a mythical past, often making the work of present-day archaeologists challenging.

Overall, Pluskowski's book achieves original and interesting conclusions, redefining the traditional nationalistic idea of the "Germanization," colonization and conversion of Prussia through the creation of the Teutonic Order's State. Thanks to the use of material evidence and archaeological research, Pluskowski achieves a more nuanced and balanced picture, which takes into account regional and local variations of colonization, stressing the importance of re-use and assimilation in the context of the colonization and conversion of Prussia. Similarly, Pluskowski draws our attention to the importance of towns and trade within the development of the Ordenstaats as political and social units supporting the colonization of Prussia. Finally, Pluskowski highlights the long-lasting nature of colonization and conversion in the Baltic region, stressing the survival of local folkloric and pre-Christian cults until the end of the Middle Ages. Undoubtedly, the book has to be praised for these important conclusions, despite its occasional shortcomings, mainly comprising occasional inconsistences in dating historical events and some infelicities of expression.

Article Details

Author Biography

Barbara Bombi

University of Kent, Canterbury