The Medieval Review 16.06.12

Selart, Anti. Livonia, Rus’ and the Baltic Crusades in the Thirteenth Century. East Central and Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages, 450-1450, 29. Boston: Brill, 2015. pp. xi, 385. $181.00 (hardback). ISBN: 9789004284746 (hardback) 9789004284753 (paperback).

Reviewed by:

Christian Raffensperger
Wittenberg University

Anti Selart begins this translated (and updated) version of his 2007 book (from Böhlau, in German) with the scene setting statement that, "Relations between the northern crusaders, the peoples of the Baltic, and the population of Rus' in the 13th century have impinged to a greater or lesser extent on the history of all the nationalities now living in the Baltic region" (1). From here, Selart lays out his contention that the history of this incredibly interwoven borderland of East, West, and North is relevant not just to medieval historians but has become a battleground for polemics between nationalists for centuries. He then wades bravely into that morass of conflicting nationalisms and throughout the course of the book not only presents a cogent, readable narrative of the events of the period but also a determined refutation of the various nationalist interpretations of those same events.

Selart structures his study of the "long 13th century" from the 1180s to the 1320s chronologically but then creates additional markers within that chronology to delineate specific events, individuals, and debates which are then broken out for a fuller discussion. Instead of a traditional recapitulation of the material in the book, I will focus on three of the main themes that Selart deals with and talk about those across the various chapters of the book. These three themes really stand out as important contributions to the discourse on the region and these events.

The first of the major themes is historiography. Selart is telling a story of the Baltic Crusades, with deep reference to primary sources; indeed much of this volume could be used as a narrative of these events. Yet, into this narrative, Selart injects a deep understanding of two centuries of historiography and then an almost complete refutation of the national bias within that same historiography. He begins by noting that the historiographical divide between East and West began to be broken down in the 1980s (7-8), but that there are strong vestiges still remaining. This can be seen in the historiography of the Battle on the Ice (referenced below) but also for the main source that is used by most scholars of the Baltic crusades, the Chronicle of Henry of Livonia (179-183). This source has been presented as anti-Russian in many publications. (In fact, when I read this source with my class, I always point out Henry's characterization of the Rusian Church as a "barren mother." [Though Selart uses "Russian," I prefer "Rusian" as descriptive of the people and features of Rus'.]). However, Selart stands that characterization on its head and points out that the genre of a missionary chronicle is a particular one, and thus needs to be read in that regard. Further, Henry also negatively characterizes the Danes and Swedes and points out their lack of conversion efforts in the Baltic. Calling out all of the historians who have noted the anti-Russian, and thus presumably pro-papal or pro-Latin, bias of Henry of Livonia, Selart clearly states that, for Henry "the Danes, Russians, and the pagans are again cited together as enemies of the Livonian church" (182). This rebuttal of generations of scholarship is an essential corrective for the scholarship on this region.

The second major theme of the work is a focus on individual actors. What this means in practice is that Selart deals with individuals as decision makers and explicitly does not conclude that all Livonians act in one way, all Rusians in another way. One of the best, of very many, examples of this is that of Vladimir Mstislavich (108-113, 116-122, and elsewhere). Vladimir Mstislavich was the ruler of Pskov, a city in Rus', in the early thirteenth century. However, he is kicked out of Pskov due to internal conflicts and flees to Bishop Albert's court in Riga where he gains a position as bailiff. Vladimir's daughter is married to Albert's brother and the two families are tied together across what has been seen as a strict ecclesiastical, or even national, divide. But the story does not end there, as Vladimir Mstislavich goes back to Pskov and regains his rule, subsequently invading a portion of Livonian territory. Even later in life, he and Albert collaborate again, this time against the Sword Brothers, a Latin crusading order. This life of just one individual contains a host of boundary crossing instances. In most secondary sources, Vladimir Mstislavich would appear in a Russian or Ukrainian focused history as an actor who occasionally leaves the stage to go elsewhere, and might not even appear in something focused solely on the Baltic. But for Selart, he is one among many of the actors who cross and recross our ephemeral borders of polity, confession, and even language to participate in their known world.

The third theme I would focus on is a deep reliance on the primary sources. Selart demonstrates here an amazing bibliography with primary sources in Latin, Greek, and Old East Slavic, among many other secondary source languages. But beyond merely citing those sources, Selart continually goes back to the primary sources again and again to check the claims that are being made in the scholarship and what he finds is that the original documents do not provide the basis for the claims that have been extrapolated from them. One of the most well-known examples he deals with is Alexander Nevsky's conflicts with the Swedes and the Sword Brothers leading to the Battle on the Ice (142-159). These battles have been portrayed, especially in Russian historiography, as part of an anti-Rusian crusade by the Latin Church. However, returning to the primary sources, Selart casts doubt on this broad claim. He demonstrates that each of these campaigns, which are often conflated, was in fact organized by different groups with different aims, and that "None of the known papal letters relating to Livonia or Finland c. 1240 mention schismatics or Russians" (146). Thus he comes to a conclusion indicative of the complex analysis and reconceptualization that defines this book, "On the basis of the sources, therefore, at the most we can speculate that the different autonomous powers acting independently from one another were able to take advantage of a propitious moment in time" (147).

The additional materials accentuate this book's utility. Not only is Selart's bibliography tremendous, but he has provided two good maps, genealogies, lists of leaders of various organizations/polities, and most helpfully a place name concordance (318-323). One of the more confusing aspects of doing medieval history, especially in historically contested areas, is attempting to find correspondences between medieval and modern place names. Selart has provided here a list of the various places named in the book in modern English, Medieval Latin or Middle Low German, Old Russian, Estonian, Latvian and "other languages." This table, simply at a glance, further demonstrates the breadth of the work done by Dr. Selart.

This volume is another excellent find by Florin Curta for his series and both he and Brill are to be commended. In an era where American university presses are deciding that medieval eastern Europe is not popular enough to publish books on, it is left to Brill and only a few others to do so and academics should be thankful that they exist.

In the final analysis, Selart does two things which make this book an incredible success. First, he problematizes modern nationality rather than simply reading it back into the past; noting that, "The ethnonyms used in this work, such as 'Estonians,' 'Germans,' 'Russians,' etc., do not designate the modern nations, but ethnic and political groups, just as they do in the sources, and for that reason they are inevitably just as vague and generalizing" (14). Second, he acknowledges the agency of individuals and the resulting complexity of doing so. This means that he dispenses with grand plans of "the papacy" or "the crusaders" or "the church," which is one of the main ways he rejects much of the existing historiography on these subjects and returns to the primary sources. These two tactics result in a complex discussion of the medieval world. But that is a good thing. The medieval world, as our own, is complex, and our scholarship should acknowledge and reflect that and not just reify existing ideas but challenge them.

Copyright (c) 2016 Christian Raffensperger

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