Modern historians tend to overlook economic factors when investigating historical motivations. The first Northern Crusade (The Wendish Crusade), as commonly narrated, was a branch of the Second Crusade, undertaken on behalf of St. Bernard de Clairvaux’s furious pulpit outreach to retake the holy land.
Ideological motivation is difficult to overlook when analyzing historical empires: the majority of empires and religions are so closely intertwined that it is almost impossible to separate them. This is true of Roman Catholicism no less than for the Vedic seers who wrote the Rig Veda, the Achaemenids who patronized Zoroastrianism, and the cult of Quetzalcoatl in Aztec Mexico. Early Islam and Maccabean Judaism are virtually irreconcilable from their irredentist histories.
Another useful hermeneutic in investigating empire expansion in history could be to see the entirety of Eurasia as a network of trading points from Greenland to China.
It is one thing to view state formation as a means of “farming the farmers” in the form of tribute and taxation, but it is another to understand that the control of choke points along trade routes was a potent method of accumulating wealth, gathering reconnaissance information and learning foreign technological innovation.
It is at this point that we interject ourselves into the 12th Century, circa 1140 Latin Europe. Right now magnificent castles are being erected, the Gothic style of architecture is gaining popularity and monastic brotherhoods are spreading throughout Christendom. The mechanization of labor is making production resemble that of the clock, the moldboard plow with three-field rotation is revolutionizing agriculture, and engineering projects are creating a Europe that finally resembled a place of almost universal order for the first time in over 600 years.
Would it come as a surprise then that the per capita wealth of Latin Christendom was relatively poor compared to towns within a place known as “Scythia,” a scarcely inhabited forest region engulfed between Latin and Greek Christendom?
Primary sources and archeology tell us of trading emporiums on the Baltic of extreme wealth, and contrasted this to the relative poverty of the pious peasant in the Holy Roman Empire. Wolin, was a perfect example of these trading hubs. Although little remains today of such sites, due to the fact that the constructions were wooden instead of stone, we know that these areas were constant sources of irritation for Christendom. Not only because of their flagrant disregard for the conducts of civilized Christian warfare, but for their flaunting of untold wealth that Western Christendom did not possess.
Let us briefly mention a few salient facts of life up until this point: the Baltic region is connected to the entirety of the world through its deep-flowing river systems. This is why Egyptologists have found Baltic amber in the tombs of the Pharaohs. This is why statues of the Buddha can be found in Scandinavian silver hoards (written in Arabic), and it is also the reason why a band of pagan pirates today known as the Vikings were able to terrorize Christendom for hundreds of years prior, brandishing a flexible blade of pure steel, that’s ingots had their origin in Persia, not in Europe.
The might of Charlemagne’s Latin kingdoms were easily able to be bypassed. No empire in history has ever been established to ignore revenues, and the larger an empire gets, the more intricate and sophisticated its road system grows, largely as a means of imperial revenue collection. Persia had the first postal system, Rome the greatest road and aqueduct system, and the Vikings (and later Wends) had their boats and rivers. What did France and Germany have?
Fast forward from the Vikings (who are all now repentant and Christened) we move eastward to an area of men who still live in a similar fashion where plunder is praised, reminiscent of Homer’s Odysseus (the sacker of cities). In this world, rapine and commerce are two sides of the same coin and the ideas and customs of mercy and charity from the West are in all essence, untranslatable.
These people were called by the Germans, Wends. They were Slavic tribes of the Western Lechitic branch, similar to today’s Poles, Czechs and Slovaks. They also happened to hold the title as the most feared pirates in the North.
In border societies, despoliation is a more rational means of social mobility than agriculture and thrift. This is true of the historical Scotch-Irish no-man’s land as it was of the Limes Saxoniae: there is no purpose in tilling the field year round just to watch it be put to torch during a surprise raid by a neighboring tribe come harvest time.
Border societies tend to value bravado, skill in weaponry and an acceptance of death as an everyday fact of life. This was a time when the November frost would still cull the infirm and ill-prepared, just like during the days of Hesiod, and charitable cloisters for the unfortunate were yet to grow out of the pagan soil. It was, with all the horror that the word was imbued with, a heathen world of dark forests and evil spirits.
The Wends raided Christendom with as much fury as the Vikings. And for a longer period of time. They were less accepting of the Latin Rite then their counterparts in the North. They belonged to a competing ethnolinguistic group. It is therefore difficult for us to imagine them not being a target of the Crusader’s craft during such a time of mass hysteria as when the Second Crusade was being launched in the Holy Land and off the coasts of Portugal. For several hundred years the Wends had dipped their helmets in the Alster, as Hamburg’s denizens cowered behind stone walls, watching their meager winter supplements devoured by the voracious children of the devil.
The Crusader Creed brought together the promise of riches on earth as in heaven, and certainly the former tended to acquiesce more with certain elements of the strongmen of the West. Primary sources such as Helmold of Basau, tend to bemoan this tendency amongst his Saxon brethren, that the zeal for lucre tended to outweigh the zeal for souls.
After the Germanic Military Orders conquered the north, a three hundred year reign of Teutonic trading supremacy would begin in the Baltic in the name of the Hanseatic League. Monopoly markets were established in the commodities of amber, resins, cod, and timber. Lübeck, once a tiny Wendish outpost became the political epicenter of the league, and the pagan emporia of olden year became a thing of legend until the arrival of modern archeology.