The best books on medieval Baltic history

William L. Urban Author Of Teutonic Knights: A Military History
By William L. Urban

Who am I?

I became enthusiastic about the history of the Baltics when my dissertation advisor persuaded me to use my language training in German and Russian to test the American Frontier Theory in the Baltic region. None of the various theories were applicable, but I earned a Ph.D. anyway. Later I taught in Italy, Yugoslavia, Estonia, and the Czech Republic. I've written a number of books and won a Fulbright Hays grant, the Dr. Arthur Puksow Foundation prize, the Vitols Prize, and others. I retired in 2017 after fifty-one years of university and college teaching, but I would still be teaching if my hearing had not deteriorated to the point that I could not make out what shy students were saying. 

I wrote...

Teutonic Knights: A Military History

By William L. Urban,

Book cover of Teutonic Knights: A Military History

What is my book about?

This has proven far more successful than I expected. It was a History Book Club selection in 2003, then translated into Polish, Lithuanian, Russian, Swedish, Hungarian, Italian, Portuguese, and Chinese. Its central story is the crusade from Prussia and Livonia against Lithuanian paganism and Russian Orthodox rivals. Stories from contemporary chronicles are enhanced by wide reading of documents, articles, and modern histories.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Northern Crusades, the Baltic and the Catholic Frontier, 1100-1525

Why did I love this book?

This wide-ranging, erudite, and witty account remains the most enjoyable survey of the era. His explanations of complex ideas and events cut through many of the difficulties involved in understanding a very different time and different places than our own. I especiallly liked the way he could  tie the crusades in the Baltic to what was happening elsewhere in Europe and in the Holy Land, and to show how contemporaries wrestled with difficult, even contradictory, ideas.

Book cover of God's Playground: A History of Poland: The Origins to 1795, Vol. 1

Why did I love this book?

This is a provocative book. Its very title suggests how difficult it is to understand Polish history than other that a divine joke. Yet his scholarship is excellent and his insights enlightening.

This is especially true for the first volume, which deals with the emergence of the Polish kingdom from rude barbarism to a political and cultural force so powerful that, after its union with Lithuania, dominated East Central Europe for generations. The total collapse of the kingdom in the 18th century—largely to defects in the constitution that allowed foreign interference in the election of the king—has blinded us to what Poland achieved in those forgotten centuries.

By Norman Davies,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked God's Playground as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The most comprehensive survey of Polish history available in English, God's Playground demonstrates Poland's importance in European history from medieval times to the present. Abandoning the traditional nationalist approach to Polish history, Norman Davies instead stresses the country's rich multinational heritage and places the development of the Jewish German, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian communities firmly within the Polish context. Davies emphasizes the cultural history of Poland through a presentation of extensive poetical, literary, and documentary texts in English translation. In each volume, chronological chapters of political narrative are interspersed with essays on religious, social, economic, constitutional, philosophical, and diplomatic themes. This…

Book cover of The Rise of the Polish Monarchy: Piast Poland in East Central Europe, 1320-1370

Why did I love this book?

The history of the Baltic Crusade cannot be understood in isolation from the Polish kingdom. This is the era when Poland recovers from the disasters begun by the Mongol invasions of the 1240s and begins its own eastward expansion.

As the title indicates, this is really the story of Casimir III, whose father arranged a Lithuanian marriage that brought peace on the eastern frontiers and later allowed him to expand toward Rus’ (especially Ukraine) when the minor states there collapsed. Casimir succeeded in everything except siring a legitimate male heir, even though that was the one task expected of every monarch in this era. He did leave behind a flourishing state, a powerful church, and a national goal of driving back those Germans (especially the Teutonic Knights) who had made great inroads into areas claimed as the national patrimony.

Book cover of The Archaeology of the Prussian Crusade: Holy War and Colonisation

Why did I love this book?

The Germans and Poles moved into a land inhabited by flourishing native tribes that have previously been understood only through the observations of German and Polish chroniclers.

Pluskowski shows that the native peoples had a sophisticated local economy that was hardly changed by the German conquerors. That is, wherever the Teutonic Order and its associated bishops and abbots brought in German or Dutch colonists, the farming practices reflected those of the immigrants’ homelands; however, the three-field system required farmers to work together, while the original inhabitants preferred to retain individual farms worked on the two-field system. The three-field system produced more food, but the Native Prussians valued their freedom more.

This is a very detailed study, with abundant information on what people ate, how they lived, and how they were buried.

By Aleksander Pluskowski,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Archaeology of the Prussian Crusade as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Archaeology of the Prussian Crusade explores the archaeology and material culture of the crusade against the Prussian tribes in the 13th century, and the subsequent society created by the Teutonic Order which lasted into the 16th century. It provides the first synthesis of the material culture of a unique crusading society created in the south-eastern Baltic region over the course of the 13th century. It encompasses the full range of archaeological data, from standing buildings through to artefacts and ecofacts, integrated with written and artistic sources. The work is sub-divided into broadly chronological themes, beginning with a historical outline,…

Book cover of Lithuania Ascending: A Pagan Empire Within East-Central Europe, 1295-1345

Why did I love this book?

This is a look at the evolving Lithuanian state at a key moment in its efforts to fight off western crusaders, expand to the east against Russians and south against Mongols, and accommodate its society and religious practices to its allies and subject peoples.

This was the era when the modern states of Belarus and Ukraine were forming under Lithuanian rule or protection. The cities of those regions, as well as the princes, were all Orthodox Christians, but they preferred being governed by tolerant pagans who lived among them than being heavily taxed by Muslim nomads who despised them.

In the decades to follow, Lithuanians would be deeply influenced by Polish culture and religious thought, so the conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1387 came as no surprise.

By S. C. Rowell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Lithuania Ascending as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From 1250 to 1795 Lithuania covered a vast area of eastern and central Europe. Until 1387 the country was pagan. How this huge state came to expand, defend itself against western European crusaders and play a conspicuous part in European life are the main subjects of this book. Chapters are devoted to the types of sources used, to the religion of the ancient Balts (and the discovery of a pagan temple in Vilnius in the late 1980s), and to Lithuanian relations and wars with Poland and the Germans. Under Grand Duke Gediminas, Lithuania came to control more of Russia than…

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