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De Re Militari | Book Reviews

David Lindholm and David Nicolle

The Scandinavian and Baltic Crusades 1100-1500

Illustrated by Angus McBride (obit.); edited by Martin Windrow, Osprey Men-at-Arms Series 436, New York: Osprey Publishing, 2007.

SUMMARY

For the general reader just beginning to discover there is more to the Crusades than Kingdom of Heaven, this book provides a useful introduction. However, medievalists and Crusades historians, especially those interested in Northern European and Early Crusades, may find themselves impatient with this work. This reviewer had approached this work with enthusiasm - it does provide some previously untranslated material in English - but quickly became disappointed in the work overall due to significant omissions and a choppy editorial style.

The first item that speaks to a disconnect between the editor and the work is its marketing flyer. For example, Osprey's flyer advertises that this book "Reveals the history of the Teutonic knights, the secret society of knights that dominated Europe." Putting aside the modern conspiracy-theorist tone of the flyer, the book's opening paragraph communicates the authors' intention to shift the Baltic Crusades focus away from the Germanic knights and onto "the Scandinavian peoples who played such a vital role."

This was prelude to the consideration of a troubling chapter overall, yet as the first chapter of the work, it is the chapter which ought to be most helpful yet succinct:

THE INTRODUCTION

The introduction (first chapter) of this book poses several problems which really dampened this reviewer's enthusiasm for spending time with this work. David Nicolle is a well-respected name in medieval arms and armour studies, and the late Angus McBride is a long-time Osprey illustrator, but the lead author, David Lindholm, seems new to the Crusades field and this perhaps resulted in certain omissions which this Crusades historian noticed immediately.

(Normally Mr Lindholm specializes in late-medieval Scandinavian combat writing, such as Sigmund Ringeck's Knightly Arts of Combat: Sword-And-Buckler Fighting, Wrestling, and Fighting in Armor, a fifteenth-century manual of arms; and an earlier Osprey offering, Medieval Scandinavian Armies (2): 1300-1500; and another book entitled Art of the Quarterstaff (which its publisher has listed under Sports). His books seem enormously popular on Amazon.com, which speaks to his skill in reaching a wide audience.)

In fact, this reviewer was quite surprised that the writing team and the editor did not address these issues before releasing a book which is the first popular work to address this unique Crusades manifestation, and thus which should expect to serve as a guide to generalist and student readers. For example: Non parum animus noster, the Papal Bull of 1171-1172 granting the indulgence to the Baltic Crusaders, receives no mention in the text nor in the bibliography, appearing only in the Timeline section of this chapter as "Alexander III authorizes crusades...". One wonders how this Bull, which one would think a student or generalist would find helpful, has slipped past the writing team and its editor, even in the Bibliography?

Next, on page 5, the text refers to "the German Empire" which caused this reviewer to wonder how the text jumped from the Middle Ages to 1871 within a single sentence. This was an unfortunate way to express equivalency for the Holy Roman Empire, whose political struggles were key to Baltic Crusading, and the student googling "German Empire" shall go straight to the Wikipedia page for the 1871 Kaiserreich (yes, this reviewer tried it).

One finds a moment of clarity when the text dismisses the "landless sons" argument that the general reader or student may have encountered elsewhere; contrasts the Baltic to the Mediterranean situation of the era; and raises the issue of political power; all of which statements are helpful to the reader.

Unfortunately, the introductory chapter focuses upon the the piety of Crusaders while failing to acknowledge economic motivations aside from asset protection - economic considerations such as plunder, lucrative trade routes with the Rus, tithes, and so forth - although one finds this information in later chapters. In this, the authors follow closely Dr William Urban's paper, "Victims of the Baltic Crusades", especially in arguing the idea of the Baltic Crusade as primarily a religious phenomenon; this reviewer finds Dr Urban's paper by turns helpful and problematic despite his award-winning work, and doubts that any generalist or student reader would realize that the authors' emphasis on piety represents a hypothesis rather than an accepted fact. This reviewer asserts that the authors have done no favors to the audience by failing to reveal their "spin" on events - even by listing this paper in the bibliography - instead of encouraging the traditional portrayal of the Crusades as primarily a pious endeavour, an interpretation which this reviewer finds limited and imprecise at best. (For reference, Dr Urban's essay is available online freely here)

Furthermore, the professional reader would seriously question the validity of the book's argument which argues that by 1107 the Crusades were not yet developed beyond an "armed pilgrimage" (an indirect argument, one can do the math using the final paragraph of Page 7). Yet inexplicably the authors have neglected to mention the Scandinavian origins of the Second Crusaders, which Crusade coincides with the first "Northern Crusade" given as starting 1147 on the timeline in this chapter. This reviewer's interest is the Third Crusade and thus was disappointed that the Danish contingent was overlooked in this Scandinavian survey, despite the ready availability of specific works like the De Profectione Danorum in Hierosolymam which may illuminate this book's discussions.

Finally, also on Page 7 there is a statement which seems to invite hair-splitting among Crusades historians and English historians. The authors argue that Eric I of Denmark became the first "crowned ruler" to visit the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1103. Technically, Edgar the Aetheling (Edgar II) was the first ruler present in Outremer, as he belonged to the Byzantine Varangian Guard by 1098 and brought his naval expertise to bear in conquering Antioch; although, strictly speaking, he was proclaimed rather than crowned king at that time.

CONTINUING THROUGH THE TEXT

After the first chapter, this reviewer finds that the text enters an era in which the authors seem most knowledgeable, and the professional reader should find it much more agreeable to spend time on this book, yet some significant lacunae remain:

Overall the discussion of armor centers almost lovingly on mail. Yet the text neglects cuir boulli armour entirely, and particularly the use of vambraces (to use the later medieval term for this Roman item) as a possible protective augmentation for the short-sleeved hauberk. Concentrating largely on archaeological finds, perhaps the authors found no examples of organic material helpful to their survey? The authors rightly assert that Scandinavia was not a complete backwater; however, their observation that the armor of 150 years prior was considered sufficient does obviate their fairly frequent reference to the "outdated" armour in use in the Baltic Crusades.

On Page 15, the authors assert that the first documented use of the crossbow is by Danish archers in Estonia in 1170. This statement merely repeats other historians (e.g. Christiansen, page 67). The authors make no mention of the crossbow, used in the first quarter of the twelfth century, by no less a figure than King Magnus in the Orkneyinga Saga:

King Magnus shot with a crossbow, and another man from Helgeland by his side. Hugh the proud fought most sturdily; he was so clad and byrnied that there was no bare spot on him save the eyes. King Magnus bade the man from Helgeland that they should both shoot at him at once, and so they did, and one arrow struck him on his nose-guard, but the other went in at the eye, and flew afterwards through the head. That shot was reckoned to the king." (The Orkneyingers Saga 3:44) (The Dasent translation is available freely here)

While not strictly an historical document, nevertheless, if the authors are prepared to accept pagan statuettes in evidence then one could make the argument for a including a Saga relevant to this weapon and this era. Happily, the authors devote some discussion to the question of whether art represents reality, so hopefully this omission was an oversight given the strict confines upon presenting sources in a general survey work.

This reviewer found two minor differences in the artefacts presented in this book, which Dr. Nicolle had previously presented in his book, Arms and Armour of the Crusading Era, 1050-1350: Western Europe and the Crusader States, Revised Edition (Greenhill Books, London UK, 1999) which work strangely does not appear in the bibliography of this book. For example:

  1. Nicolle (Item 962) states that a certain sword may be Gotlandish or Finnish, and that it dates from the thirteenth century; whereas the same sword in this book (Item 14A) appears as a Finnsh sword of the twelfth or thirteenth centuries.
  2. Nicolle (Item 961) presents a war-axe from Finnland in the Danish style, dating it to the thirteenth century; whereas the same war-axe in this book (Item 14D) appears as a Finnish axe dating from the tenth to thirteenth centuries.

Additionally, this reviewer had a few minor quibbles with terminology: It would have helped the generalist or student to relate the term snäcke to its variants, lensecca and snekker; likewise the ledung and its spellings; the concept of the "sea king" might have been related better to a modern captain of a merchant vessel. De Re Militari members may like to consider the chevauchée concept applied to the Baltic Crusades in the Strategy & Tactics section (Page 34).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Ultimately, the bibliography may present some difficulties to the non-specialist reader. This reviewer is keen on primary sources and finds none in the bibliography, although it is quite easy to obtain fairly good, free, English-language editions online for at least two sources (Orkneyinga Saga and De Profectione Danorum, cited above). Christiansen's book is very helpful and contains numerous primary sources, but herein it is listed as dating from 1980 despite its 1998 second edition which is very inexpensive (about $11 US) and readily available. (Interested readers may find it here)

As to secondary sources, no fewer than 25 works listed are more than 20 years old. A significant number of sources are in foreign-language editions which are likely to prove inaccessible to the generalist or student, whereas a helpful English-language illustrated compendium written by Dr. Nicolle (cited above) is not listed at all.

This reviewer finds that the illustrations live up to Osprey's series mission statement "...books in the Osprey Men-at-Arms series are a valuable reference tool for model makers, war gamers, re-enactors and military history enthusiasts," although the text itself seems to take its subject once-over-lightly even within the goal of the series. (The Osprey statement appears here)

This reviewer must say that she is biased toward Dr Christiansen's book specifically and Dr. Nicolle's military artefact work generally for her own studies, and that she writes Crusades history at the specialist level herself, which may explain her adverse reaction to this book in particular. Any critical reader motivated by knowledge more than mere enthusiasm -- that is, the student, the re-enactor, and certainly the professional historian -- is advised to follow up this book's information elsewhere.

OVERALL RATING

A good jump-start. Save your money and read it at the library where you can follow up this book's information with other books and media.

Dana Cushing

University of Toronto <dana@antimony.biz>

Page Added: December 2007