The Wendish Crusade

            The people of Northern Germany known as the Wends were not one homogenous people but rather organized themselves in a tribal structure.   The tribes from the Saxon border west were the Wagrians, Polabians, Abotrites, Rugians, Liutizians, and Pomeranians.[1]  These tribes were loosely organized under local princes and there was no overall king or authority figure.   The Wends were polytheistic nature worshipers who had many shrines and temples throughout their lands.   The priestly class was the most influential next to the secular lords and the Wends were deeply superstitious even going so far as to avoid battle if the auguries were unfavorable.

            The Wendish Crusades were Crusades in name only, the Danes and Saxons used the Crusading name to mask a naked grab of the territory of the pagan Wends.   The Danes and Saxons had been encroaching on Wendish territory prior to the start of the Wendish crusades in 1147, but their gains had only been short-lived and limited to forcing some of the Wendish nobility to pay tribute.[2]  The Danes and Saxons who had only come to Christianity in the eighth and ninth centuries took wholeheartedly to the message preached by St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) to fight the pagans “until such a time as, by God’s help, they be either converted or deleted.”[3]

            The Crusade of 1147 was launched simultaneously and as a result of St. Bernard’s preaching in support of the Second Crusade.   In March of 1147, St. Bernard attended a Reichstag at Frankfurt in which the Saxon nobility wanted to know why they should go to the Holy Land when there were pagans next door to them in Germany.   St. Bernard wrote Pope Eugenius III (p.1145-1153) who replied with the Papal Bull Divina Dispensatione on 13 April 1147.[4]  This Papal Bull granted identical crusading indulgences to the Saxons and Danes attacking the Pagan wends as to those who went on Crusade to the Holy Land.

            This set off a wave of invasion from 1147 until 1185 when the Wends were finally subdued and forcibly converted.   Attempts had been made to convert the Wends since the eleventh century and several tribes had converted falsely in the 1120’s when Bishop Otto of Bamberg undertook a mission in the Wendenland.[5]  The Crusade of 1147 and thereafter were different from previous attempts to Christianize the pagans in that both military and clerical efforts were combined.

            The campaign of 1147 was largely a failure in a military sense.   Two Danish fleets attacked the Abotrites and was itself attacked and defeated in turn by a fleet of Rugians.   Simultaneously with the fleet actions, a combined force of Danes and Saxons marched on and besieged the Wendish fortress-town of Dobin.   A Danish contingent was defeated outside the town before the entire army retreated to home territory having accomplished little.

A Saxon army led by the Papal Legate Anselm of Havelburg, and the bishops of Mainz, Halberstadt, Muenster, Brandenburg, and Olmutz marched on Demmin.[6]  Enroute this army succeeded in destroying a temple at Malchow before being diverted by two land hungry Saxon barons Conrad and Albert the bear into laying siege to Christian Stettin.   This army then also turned and returned home after baptizing some of the pagans, conversions that turned out to be false.

            Militarily, the conquest of Wendish territory proceeded on a worldly basis after 1147 for purely secular reasons.   The Saxon Duke Henry III “The Lion” (1129-1195) and Danish king Valdemar I “The Great” (1131-1182) were the two ruler that did the most to prosecute the wars against the Wends.   They did so, for purely selfish reasons, Valdemar wanted to protect Danish shipping for the threat of piracy and Henry sought to increase the amount of territory under his control.   Naturally, the clergy immediately moved into areas that these rulers had recently conquered in order to convert the inhabitants.

            After 1147, the monastic movement gained strength in Germany and usually monastic houses were built within a few years after territory was captured from the Wends.   Once monasteries and parish churches appeared the conversion of the population followed not long after.   Another way in which the Wends were converted was when the pagan nobility accepted conversion to keep their position and brought their retainers with them to Christianity.

            By 1185, the Christianization of the Wendish territory on the southern Baltic coast was essentially complete, even though some pagan practices would persist for centuries.   All the nobility had converted and some of the Slavic princes that retained their holdings after conversion such as the princes of Rugen and Mecklenburg even took part in the Estonian Crusades of the thirteenth century.[7]

[1] Ibid. p. xxi

[2] Christiansen, Eric. The Northern Crusades. pp.51-52

[3] Ibid. p. 53

[4] Ibid

[5] Knox, E.L. Skip. “The Conversion and Destruction of the Wends”

[6] Christiansen. P. 55

[7] Ibid. pp. 71-72

3 thoughts on “The Wendish Crusade”

  1. It didn’t end there. The Wends were pushed by force of numbers back to the Swamps of the Spreewald in Germany, By Saxon, German Imperial, Danish and Polish forces. They never really surrendered and to this day there is no King of the Wends, although both the King of Denmark and Sweden up until the 1970 had the term King of the Wends in their title. There in communities like Cottbus and Germany they still speak Wendish. Many, served in the Army of Frederick the Great and later when Germany started to discriminate against the immigrated to Serbin,Texas (1845 I believe, the trip over on the Ship Ben Nevis is considered the Mayflower event of modern Texas) and Australia, where they remain today. They built St. Paul’s church in Serbin (and brought a bell from Germany that is the centerpiece of Concordia University in Austin.

    The earliest writings about the Wends are the Jomsburg Sagas as told by the Viking Icelandic Bards. Google Texas Wendish Heritage Society or Domina for computer sites on the Wendish people and there is a festival in Serbin every September.

    • I did not know there was a Wendish community in Texas. I knew that many Germans had immigrated there and I loved that I could get authentic German food while I lived in Texas. Thanks for the additional information about the Wendish people.

  2. The Crusaders were strange in my opinion. In principle, religion preached in the Holy Land and wanted to get. Midezt so that the Bible “Thou shalt not kill!” contradict the commandments said. They were like the terrorists today, only with swords and horses. In addition, there was very humble and heroic. You should now be much more interesting history. Besides, it also made a very good encyclopedia.

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