You are on page 1of 9

This article was downloaded by: [Instituto De Ciencias Matematicas]

On: 09 December 2011, At: 05:27


Publisher: Routledge
Informa Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954
Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH,
UK

Journal of Baltic Studies


Publication details, including instructions for
authors and subscription information:
http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rbal20

Roger Bacon and the Teutonic


Knights
a
William Urban
a
Monmouth College, Illinois

Available online: 28 Feb 2007

To cite this article: William Urban (1988): Roger Bacon and the Teutonic Knights,
Journal of Baltic Studies, 19:4, 363-370

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01629778800000251

PLEASE SCROLL DOWN FOR ARTICLE

Full terms and conditions of use: http://www.tandfonline.com/page/terms-


and-conditions

This article may be used for research, teaching, and private study purposes.
Any substantial or systematic reproduction, redistribution, reselling, loan,
sub-licensing, systematic supply, or distribution in any form to anyone is
expressly forbidden.

The publisher does not give any warranty express or implied or make any
representation that the contents will be complete or accurate or up to
date. The accuracy of any instructions, formulae, and drug doses should be
independently verified with primary sources. The publisher shall not be liable
for any loss, actions, claims, proceedings, demand, or costs or damages
whatsoever or howsoever caused arising directly or indirectly in connection
with or arising out of the use of this material.
ROGER BACON AND THE TEUTONIC KNIGHTS
Downloaded by [Instituto De Ciencias Matematicas] at 05:27 09 December 2011

William Urban, Monmouth College, Illinois

Historians have often cited Roger Bacon's condemnation of the Teutonic


Order in 1268 as proof that contemporaries disapproved of the crusade in Prussia,
specifically citing the following statement:

When Christians discuss matters with pagans like the Prussians and
other adjoining nations, the latter are easily won over, and perceive they
are in error.... they would become Christians very gladly if the Church
were willing to permit them to retain their liberty and enjoy their
possessions in peace. But the Christian princes who labour for their
conversion, and especially the brothers of the Teutonic Order, desire to
reduce them to slavery, as the Dominicans and Franciscans and other
good men throughout all Germany are aware.... 1

Not everyone agreed with Roger Bacon's assessment of the situation. For
example, in 1264, his good friend, Pope Urban IV, had supported Grandmaster
Anno's efforts to induce Brandenburg and Bohemia's rulers to go on crusade to
Prussia and assist in suppressing the revolt of the Old Prussians and bring an
end to the war with the Duke of Pomerellia. 2 The Pope understood that the
Teutonic Knights were hated and envied by some neighboring rulers and were
admired and assisted by others. The matter was very complex, more so than
political propaganda of the era indicated.
Similarly, the reason that Roger Bacon's opinion is so often cited today,
rather than the views of more numerous contemporaries who approved of the
crusade, is largely because his statement fits the needs of modern anti-war and
anti-German propaganda. This came about because 19th and 20th century
German historians had employed the Teutonic Knights (Der Deutsche Orden, lit-
erally "the German Order") as a symbol of national unity; their name served to
justify programs of colonization, militarization, and Germanization. Historians
with extremist views, most notably Heinrich yon Treitschke, identified the Teu-

JBS, Vol. XIX, No. 4 (Winter 1988) 363


364 William Urban

tonic Knights with the Drang nach Osten, with "Christianization" and settle-
ment, and with the defense of Western civilization. Although moderate histori-
ans were more cautious about comparing the goals of a Roman Catholic
military-religious order with those of Protestant Prussia, the Second Empire, and
the Third Reich, the popular press and politicians found it easy to use that
analogy as a means of whipping up public feeling in support of policies directed
against perceived national enemies, especially the Polish minority. They did
this partly by drawing upon episodes from medieval history connected with the
Teutonic Knights, especially the Battle of Tannenberg. The Poles, who resented
Downloaded by [Instituto De Ciencias Matematicas] at 05:27 09 December 2011

the loss of their national independence, went beyond resisting specific discrimin-
atory policies to using the name of the Teutonic Knights as a suitable negative
symbol for all things German. Shortly after the turn of the nineteenth century,
Britons and Frenchmen, too, saw everything German as evil and twisted. How-
ever, it was impossible for their propagandists to make from Mozart, Goethe,
and the insurrectionists of 1848 anything approximating a believable national
enemy; therefore, they made a caricature of the Prussian junkers who supposedly
led the imperial armed forces, associated them with the Teutonic Knights, and
offered this as proof that Germany was fundamentally a racist, militaristic, ex-
pansionistic, creed-bound culture which had to be resisted by freedom-loving
people everywhere. In this context, the short condemnation of the Teutonic
Knights by Roger Bacon, a thirteenth century philosopher of science, was an es-
pecially effective indictment of the policies of Germany, because everyone ack-
nowledged that Germany then led the world in science and philosophy?
This study investigates what Roger Bacon's views really were and whether
they are at all applicable to the very real problems of the modern era. It is im-
portant to remember that the goal of the disputants was not to discover whether
Roger Bacon was correct or not in his statements about thirteenth century crusa-
ders, but to influence public opinion about current politics. The polemicists
were concerned only about the political implications of Bacon's statement and
therefore made no effort to understand the system of philosophy on which it was
based. As a result, Bacon was fundamentally misunderstood. As will be demon-
strated, Bacon had only a slight interest in Baltic pagans. When he wrote the
statement in question, he was attempting to prove that religious choice was de-
termined by astrology and, therefore, could be predicted by mathematical calcula-
tions. His belief in astrology was shared by almost all his contemporaries.
Roger Bacon was born around 1213/14 and died about 1293. A professor at
the University of Pads from 1239 to 1247, he aroused controversy by lecturing
on Aristotle's forbidden books. About 1252 he donned the robes of a Franciscan
friar, probably as much in hope of escaping censure as from pious feelings.
However, he did not change his contentious ways; in 1257, he was exiled from
Oxford and returned to Pads. There, again, his unorthodox opinions aroused
fierce opposition.
The disputes were not all Roger Bacon's fault. There was a general crisis in
intellectual life which divided scholars (and the Franciscan Order in particular)
into two antagonistic parties. As readers of The Name of the Rose4 will remem-
ber, the Church encouraged believers to expect the end of the world at any
moment. Then, as today, the results of this encouragement could not be easily
contained within the bounds of orthodoxy. Radical groups were persuaded that
Roger Bacon and the Teutonic Knights 365

they could accurately interpret Biblical references to the Second Coming, even to
a prediction of the day it would happen. The Joachites (followers of Joachim of
Fiori) and the Spiritual Franciscans (who wanted to purify the Church of its
corruption through a return to Apostolic Poverty) became so widely popular that
eventually the Inquisition moved to stamp them out. Roger Bacon's views were
sufficiently close to the Joachites and Spirituals that in 1266, Pope Clement IV
ordered him to explain them. Bacon's defense was the Opus majus, an exhaus-
tive overview of thirteenth-century science, which had contemporary importance
for its encouragement of the study of Hebrew and Arabic and its support for
Downloaded by [Instituto De Ciencias Matematicas] at 05:27 09 December 2011

mathematics and experimental science. The Opus Majus became a major source
of modern knowledge of medieval scientific shortcomings and achievements. It
shows as well how far Bacon was from being a modern man. ~
Bacon was interested in religious theory, not in eastern European religion
and politics. He cited two sources for his knowledge of Tatars: John of Piano
Carpini and William of Rubruck, who journeyed to the Mongol khans in the
1240s and wrote memoirs which were widely disseminated in the decades to
follow.6 He did not say how he obtained his scanty but accurate information
about Baltic pagans, but there were only a few possibilities.
First, there was the infamous conflict between the Teutonic Knights and
Bishops Christian of Prussia (1215-1245) and Albert Suerbeer of Riga (1229-31,
1246-1269) over the leadership of the crusades in northeastern Europe. The
peaceful missionary efforts begun in Livonia in 1186 and Prussia in 1210 had
each failed within a decade of their inception, largely because potential converts
refused to pay taxes and tithes. The missionaries called Scandinavian, German,
and Polish crusaders to their aid. However, after the crusaders had defeated the
militia armies of the Livonians and Old Prussians, they went home, leaving the
churchmen at the mercy of their "converts." The bishops called crusading orders
(the Swordbrothers in Livonia and the Teutonic Knights in Prussia) into their
lands only to discover that those crusading friars had ideas of their own as to who
should direct the crusading movement. Pope Innocent IV gave an Italian
Cardinal (known best by his name in German, Wilhelm yon Modena) the task of
resolving the conflicts. No intellectual living in France in the 1240s could have
been completely unaware of the issues and personalities involved. Albert
Suerbeer was the former Archbishop of Armagh and had been active in the
English Church and Church councils in France; he made his concerns known to
the Pope and those churchmen who had taken refuge in France from Emperor
Frederick II (who was known to support the Teutonic Knights). The Domini-
cans supported the Teutonic Knights and the crusade; the Franciscans tended to
oppose both. Ultimately, Robert Grosstete was ordered to investigate the many
mutual allegations. In the summer of 1250, he presented his findings to a papal
consistory. There were further hearings in Lyons which lasted into the next year
and resulted in the Pope cont-trming the status quo. This was a victory for the
Teutonic Knights, who received two-thirds of the disputed lands in Prussia and
Kurland; the authority of their episcopal enemies was divided among newly-
appointed prelates beholden to the grandmaster. 7
In addition, Bacon may have heard stories told by Irish Franciscans who had
been to Lithuania in 1253 for the coronation of the recent pagan convert,
Mindaugas of Lithuania, as a Christian monarch. They had journeyed in the
366 William Urban

company of Archbishop Albert Suerbeer. (In view of his Irish connection, they
might even have been invited by him.) Subsequently, the friars journeyed to
Rome to report on the event and obtain a papal confirmation of the Teutonic
Order's actions. Then they returned home, probably telling stories to brethren in
France and England which might have come to the ears of Roger Bacon. 8
Past historians who followed the story to this point then concluded that
Bacon was well-informed on Baltic affairs. However, by failing to look into his
philosophical theories, they too easily agreed with him that a peaceful conver-
sion of the Baltic pagans would have been possible if only the Teutonic Knights
Downloaded by [Instituto De Ciencias Matematicas] at 05:27 09 December 2011

had suspended the crusade? There are reasons to think that this chain of reason-
ing is invalid.
Roger Bacon believed that mathematics and astrology held the keys to
understanding human conduct. He asserted that there were only six possible
categories of religious belief: Saracens, Tatars, pagans, idolaters, Jews, and
Christians. Each religion corresponded to one of the planets as it related to
Jupiter, the occupant of the 9th house which controlled religion. The six planets
were Saturn, Mars, the Sun, Venus, Mercury, and the Moon. Hence, Bacon
said, "there cannot be more than the six sects; and at times the followers of one
sect incline to another, owing to the strong influence of the constellation, and
sometimes they change their own sect entirely, or in great part, or modify it
with the tenets of another sect in accordance with the occurrence of the several
constellations. "to
Bacon's arguments were typically medieval. For example, Mercury was in
the house of the Virgin (Virgo); hence it represented Christianity. The pagans
were under the influence of Mars, the Saracens under Venus, and so forth. Bacon
believed that each group of unbelievers had to be brought to the Christian faith
by means appropriate to its astrological position and at a time when the Zodiac
predicted a likelihood of success.
Bacon was no proponent of toleration. He believed that Christianity was
the only true religion and that everyone must be converted to it. Conversion,
however, was not an easy task, and his contemporaries were making but little
headway. Bacon argued that the missionaries were making a fundamental error in
their approach to the various non-Christian peoples. The Jews and Saracens, on
one hand, had well-developed and subtle systems of philosophy which made
them difficult to convert. The Baltic pagans, on the other hand, were conditioned
by the worship of multiple gods to be both open to hearing about new gods and
to be naturally skeptical about the power of their present deities. Bacon argued
that the pagans' desire for life after death was proven by their sacrificing objects
of importance in funeral rites for the future happiness of the deceased; further.
more, that this desire was so strong that they would eagerly choose salvation
over eternal damnation. Surely, he said, skilled missionaries could easily per-
suade such simple and naive peoples of their error and bring them over to the
Christian faith,n However, because a holy war had been declared against them,
they were not permitting missionaries to come among them and make converts.
Bacon believed that if the crusade was stopped, missionary activity could begin
immediately.
As a corollary to this statement, Bacon declared that the crusade---far from
being a war to protect converts and missions, as the Teutonic Knights argued---
Roger Bacon and the Teutonic Knights 367

was nothing more than a means of subjecting pagans to slavery. Old Prussians
and Lithuanians were neither harassing Christians nor refusing missionaries the
freedom to preach the gospel--they were "resisting oppression, not the arguments
of a superior religion. "x2 Was this really true? It is a most difficult question to
answer, because the crusades in the Baltic had multiple origins and a very diverse
history. Without attempting to make a generalization valid everywhere at every
time, we must concentrate on the episode most likely to have come to Bacon's
attention, because that is what most likely influenced his opinion.
In 1257, the Teutonic Knights had granted the last remaining Lithuanian-
Downloaded by [Instituto De Ciencias Matematicas] at 05:27 09 December 2011

speaking pagans, the Samogitians, a two-year truce. Mindaugas, who had never
been able to persuade or force the Samogitians to acknowledge him as ruler, had
already given those "rebels and disturbers of the peace" to the crusaders. During
those two years, missionaries preached the Christian message throughout
Samogitia. When the truce expired, the Teutonic Knights proposed extending it.
However, pagan priests roused the warriors to defend their ancient religion; in
1259 and 1260 they beat the crusader armies so badly that revolts broke out in
Livonia and Prussia. When Samogitian armies plundered as far north as the
Estonian islands, Mindaugas' subjects began to murmur against their monarch's
Christian alliance. Mindaugas, who saw his throne in danger, then abandoned
Christianity and returned to paganism. He did this, not to resist oppression, but
out of fear that his Samogitian rivals would defeat the Christian armies, then
overthrow him. Only by putting himself at the head of the pagan forces could
he retain his popularity among his warriors; moreover, with luck he might
conquer Livonia. 13 That was a false hope. Mindaugas and two of his sons were
murdered by rivals in 1263. Although another son, Vaisvilkas (Woischelg),
came out of his cloister to fight for the crown and Christianity, he was defeated.
Thenceforth, a pagan dynasty ruled over Lithuania. The crusaders took advantage
of the turmoil in Lithuania and Samogitia to restore their position in Livonia.
Although the Lithuanians had not intervened in Prussia, the crusaders were
unable to end the insurrection there quickly because Duke Mestwin of Pomerellia
declared war on the Teutonic Knights. He did this partly to obtain revenge on
the crusaders for having deprived him of land along the Vistula River and partly
in the hope that the Old Prussians would become his subjects. In the year Bacon
wrote, 1268, King Ottokar of Bohemia took a large army into Pomerellia and
forced Duke Mestwin to make peace. However, thin ice prevented him from
advancing on the Old Prussian strongholds and putting an end to the war. Bacon
was surely aware of this. His unsympathetic response to the crusaders' appeals
for help after their armies had been routed by pagan forces was to recommend a
missionary approach. Pope Clement may have agreed with him in principle but
did not find the advice practical in dealing with the immediate situation.
The Pope understood what Bacon did not--pagans were not noble savages,
living lives of freedom and equality in a distant Garden of Eden; moreover, the
Teutonic Knights were complex human beings who could not be portrayed as
completely good or hopelessly evil. The Pope knew that the crusaders' critics
were not always disinterested parties. Moreover, he knew that some critics of
the Teutonic Knights modified Bacon's accusation in an essential point: The
crusaders were treating the pagans too well--they were selling them trade goods,
even weapons, and allowing conquered subjects to continue pagan practices. 14 In
368 William Urban

short, the Pope and most churchmen considered pagans dangerous enemies who
responded only to superior force. Pagan war gods would lose their appeal when
they were beaten on the battlefield by Christ's legions, just as the heathen gods
in the Old Testament lost their attraction after they were beaten by Saul and
David.
Right or wrong, this was the attitude of the medieval Church. Bacon may
well have been morally right in his assessment of Baltic affairs but he was out
of step with most of his contemporaries. Only slowly did his suggestion gain
popularity. The failure to win the expected military victory caused Christians to
Downloaded by [Instituto De Ciencias Matematicas] at 05:27 09 December 2011

look for another tactic.


The issue was put to the test in 1323, after letters supposedly sent by Grand
Duke Gediminas of Lithuania reached Rome with the message that he would
gladly convert to Christianity if the holy war against his people were halted.
Against the advice of the Teutonic Knights, the Pope ordered a truce made so
that his emissaries could visit Vilnius. The result was embarrassing: Gediminas
explained that he had no intention of converting to the Roman faith and that the
misunderstanding was the fault of his Franciscan advisors, who had exceeded
their authority when they put into Latin his message asking for mutual
forbearance, toleration, and friendship. He had no desire to become a convert to
Roman Christianity. Some of Gediminas' courtiers even mocked the visitors. ~5
Gediminas was tolerant in religious matters, but his tolerance was for
groups, not for individuals. He allowed western merchants to live in Vilnius and
worship at a Franciscan church; he permitted the Russian Orthodox Church to
regulate religious life among his many Russian subjects--and he permitted his
relatives living among Russians to become converts; but he expected his
subjects in Lithuania to defer to his wishes in religious matters. This was a
matter of state. First of all, he understood that converts might be manipulated
by foreigners. Secondly, he knew how deeply his Russian subjects disliked
Roman doctrine and practice; and he did not wish to alienate them. Lastly, he
was a devout pagan. His gods had given him victories in war, prosperity in
peace, and many sons. He was not ready to abandon them--certainly not with the
example of Mindaugas still fresh in mind. Gediminas was not the naive pagan
of Bacon's philosophy.TM
In sum, Roger Bacon was a medieval scholar whose views of the world
cannot be understood in modern terms. He was not speaking from experience or
as a practical politician. His arguments were based on a belief in astrology and
on the views of radical Franciscans. We may agree with him or not, but we
cannot portray him as a dispassionate scholar speaking about matters he
understood well. 17 Moreover, whether Bacon's views about medieval crusading
were right or wrong, they have little to do with modern political propaganda
which has enlisted his statement in its service.
Roger Bacon and the Teutonic Knights 369

NOTES
Downloaded by [Instituto De Ciencias Matematicas] at 05:27 09 December 2011

1 Quoted in Eric Christiansen, The Northern Crusades, the Baltic and the
Catholic Frontier 1100-1525 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1980)
123-4, 130; see also Terry Jones, Chaucer's Knight: the Portrait of a medieval
Mercenary (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1980) 35, 37, 49-59.
2 Old Prussians were a Baltic people, not Slavs (as is commonly believed, even
by prominent historians) and not Germans. William Urban, The Prussian
Crusade (Washington: University Press of America, 1980) 276-85, and "Baltic
Countries/Baits," Dictionary of the Middle Ages, II (New York: Scribner's,
1983) 61-68; James Thayer Addison, The Medieval Missionary, a Study of the
Conversion of Northern Europe, A.D. 500-1300 (New York and London:
International Missionary Council, 1936) 137-139.
3 Wolfgang Wippermann, Der Ordensstaat als ldeologie: Das BUd des Deutschen
Ordens in der deutschen Geschichtsschreibung und Publizistik (Berlin:
Colloquium, 1979) [Historische Kommission zu Berlin, 24], and William
Urban, "Der Deutsche Orden in amerikanischen Schulbtichern," Beitriige zur
Geschichte des Deutschen Ordens, ed. Udo Arnold (Marburg: Elwert, 1986)
[Quellen und Studien zur Geschichte des Deutschen Ordens] I, 111-22.
4 Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich,
1983).
5 David Lindberg, "Science as Handmaiden: Roger Bacon and the Patristic
Tradition," ISIS, 78 (Dec. 1987) 518-36; Stewart Easton, Roger Bacon and
His Search for a Universal Science (Oxford: Blackwell, 1952) 130-9; Jeremiah
HackeR, "Roger Bacon," Dictionary of the Middle Ages, II, 35-42.
6 The Mongol Mission, Narratives of the Franciscan Missionaries in Mongolia
and China in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, ed. Christopher
Dawson, (New York, Sheen and Ward, 1955).
7 Manfred Hellmann, Das Lettenland im Mittelalter (Mtlnster-K~ln, 1954) 155-
90; Gustav Donner, Bischof Wilhelm von Modena (Helsingfors, 1927-29, in
Commentationes Humanarum Litterarum, II [Societas Scientiarum Fennica]),
especially pp. 399-404; Urban, Prussian Crusade, 162-70, and The Baltic
Crusade (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1975) 179-91; Karol
G6rski, "Problemy chrystianizacji w Prusach, Infantach i na Litwie,"
Komunikaty Mazursko-Warminskie, 157 (1982) No. 3, 151-60; P. Victor
Gid~iunas, De Fratribus Minoribus in Lituania (Rome: Fausto Failli, 1950).
8 Marvin Coker, "America Rediscovered in the Thirteenth Century," Speculum,
45 (1979) 722-26.
9 Erich Heck, Roger Bacon, ein mittelalterlicher Versuch einer historischen und
systematischen Religionswissenschaft (Bonn, 1957) [Abhandlungen zur
Philosophie, Psychologie und P~idagogik, 13] 75-89.
370 William Urban

10 The Opus Majus of Roger Bacon, trans. Robert Belle Burke (New York:
Russell and Russell, 1962) II, 791; Lindberg recommends the John Henry
Bridges translation, The Opus Majus of Roger Bacon (3 vols. London, 1900),
but it is not commonly found in American libraries.
11 Opus Majus, H, 789, 792, 806.
12 Opus Majus, H, 797.
13 The Livonian Rhymed Chronicle, trans. Jerry C. Smith and William Urban
(Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Publications, 1979) [Uralic and Altaic
Series, 128] 59f; Liv-, Est-, und Kurliindisches Urkundenbuch (rpt. Aalen:
Scientia, 1967) I, 436-9.
Downloaded by [Instituto De Ciencias Matematicas] at 05:27 09 December 2011

14 Das Zeugenverhi~r des Franciscus de Moliano (1312), ed. August Seraphim.


(K6nigsberg, 1912) 26-7, 99.
15 The correspondence is in Gedimino laigkai, ed. V. Pa~uta and I. Stal. (Viinius:
Mintis, 1966); Kurt Forstreuter, "Die Bekehrung Gedimins und der Deutsche
Orden," Altpreussische Forschung, 5(1928) 239-61, and "Die Bekehrung des
Litanerk6nigs Gedimin. Eine Streitfrage," Jahrbuch des Albertus Universitiit
zu K6nigsberg/Pr., 6 (1955) 142-58; James Muldoon, Popes, Lawyers, and
Infidels (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1979) 86-8.
16 After Gediminas' death, the pagans seem to have wiped out the Franciscans in
Viinius. At least, they do not appear in the records again until forty years
pass. De Fratribus Minoribus, 31, 39.
17 Lindberg 535.