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This week in the past : Battle of St. Matthew’s Day

When we talk about the Crusades we generally mean those in the Middle East, but they weren’t the only religiously motivated long term hostilities. At the other end of Europe, in the 12th and 13th century the Northern Crusades saw battles which changed the religious life of most of the Baltic. Unlike the Middle Eastern Crusades which resulted in, an overall pretty comprehensive failure to convert the Islamic nations to Christianity, the Northern Crusades managed to convert the populations of countries ranging from Estonia to Finland. Through a comprehensive programme of brutal persuasion.


Persuasion Danish style…

The Scandinavian Christians (Denmark and Sweden) had begun exerting pressure on their pagan neighbours in the mid 1100s, but toward the end of the century Pope Celestine III, who took a particularly hard position against non Christians, called for more, ahem, active conversions.

Pope Celestine III

What are now Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were pagans in the 1100s. They were pagans in a very precarious position sitting squashed between the Orthodox Church to the East and the Roman Catholic Church to the West. Both sides had at various times attacked them (particularly poor Estonia, which suffered thirteen attacks from the Russians and further attacks from the Swedes and Danes), and some less violent efforts at conversion from the Bremen Archbishop.

Several of the battles later on in the conversion of Estonia, took place in Vijandi. A small hill fort town, which later became an important Northern trading town as part of the Hanseatic League.

On September 21 1217 Madisepäeva lahing, or the Battle of St. Matthew’s Day, was fought. The German order of the Sword Brothers (who had something of a branch arm agreement with the Teutonic Knights) and their recent converts attacked the Estonians. The Crusaders won, though they lost one of their “poster boys”  Caupo of Turaida, who was the first prominant Livonian to convert. However, the Estonians lost somewhere between a thousand and 1400 of their number, and many forced conversions took place following.

The Sword Brothers 

Incidentally you can recreate the battles of the Livonian Crusades should you so wish with these chaps, if you wish to read more here’s some of our book suggestions , and whilst you are reading or gaming you might like some appropriate music, personally (Lotte opinion not the boss’s!) I think you can do no more beautifully or appropriately than Wagner’s Tannhäuser (if nothing else the overture).