by Jeffrey Sullebarger
Department of History, Fordham University
The medieval crusading military order formally called the Order of the House of Saint Mary of the Germans in Jerusalem (Ordo domus Sanctæ Mariæ Theutonicorum Hierosolymitanorum) and more commonly known as the Teutonic Order or the Teutonic Knights was founded in 1190 at the siege of Acre, by a small group of crusaders from Bremen and Lübeck. It began as a field hospital, which provided medical care to the numerous sick and wounded at the siege. Evidently their services were well appreciated, as the Order quickly gained the support of numerous German-speaking nobles of the Western Empire, including the Emperor, as well as many rank-and-file crusaders and local authorities in the Latin East. These supporters in turn granted the order properties in and around the northeast of Acre, loosely grouped around the strongholds of Montfort and Castellum Regis, which the Order also acquired in the early thirteenth century. In the 1250’s and 60’s they would acquire another cluster of properties to the north, near Sidon and the fortress at the Cave of Tyron, as well as many urban properties throughout the Levant. The documents recording many of these acquisitions were written in French, and are accordingly indexed here on the French of Outremer website.
In the wake of the Third Crusade, the Order was militarized, although chroniclers suggest that in the early stages this change was primarily nominal, and that the Order remained for the most part a collection of hospitals until the time of Grand Master Hermann von Salza (r.1210-1239). Fourteenth century Teutonic chronicler Peter von Dusburg, for instance, writes that at the time of Hermann’s election, the Order could field no more than ten knights. However, within the first ten years of his election to the Order’s highest office, Hermann, a skilled diplomat and administrator, transformed the Teutonic Order from an organization primarily focused on tending to the sick into an armed force to rival that of any military order.
In the records of the Fifth Crusade, particularly the Egyptian campaign, Hermann’s presence is noted at several important councils. Chroniclers recorded his opinions on various dilemmas facing the crusaders, suggesting that he had become an important figure in crusading politics. His name can also be found alongside those of the masters of the Templar and Hospitaller Orders on the list of hostages provided to the Ayubbid sultan following the surrender of the crusading army in the summer of 1221. From that point onward, medieval writers began to refer to the Teutonic Order with equivalent terminology to the Templars and Hospitallers, often grouping them together as the ‘three houses’ or ‘three masters’.
Hermann’s politicking indubitably helped the Order make the transition from a minor house to one of the three great military Orders of the Latin East, but it also dragged the Order into the convoluted world of Papal-Imperial relations, particularly with regard to the Crusade of Frederick II in 1227-8. Herman was intimately involved in the recruitment and organization of that expedition, and was therefore put in an awkward position when Gregory IX excommunicated the Emperor, a situation the Grand Master learned of shortly after the arrival of the crusading army. The general consensus among historians is that Hermann took the side of the Emperor, his most important patron. Hermann, however, also worked as peacemaker and conciliator in the context of this conflict. In his letters to the Pope, Hermann took great care to emphasize that he was acting independently of the Emperor, for the good of Christendom. This balancing act ultimately proved impossible, and Gregory briefly stripped the Teutonic Order of its independent charter in 1228. Hermann, however, continued to act as a mediator between Gregory and Frederick, thereby regaining the charter within a year of its rescission, and was an instrumental figure in the realization of the Treaty of San Germano, an eventual accord between Pope and Emperor concluded in 1230.
Another of Hermann’s accomplishments during his rule was the expansion of the Order’s mission to areas beyond the Holy Land. After a temporary involvement in Hungary against the Cumans, from 1211 to 1224, for example, the Teutonic Order took possession of an area at that time called Prussia, but which now comprises Northeastern Poland (primarily the current Warmian-Masurian Voivodeship), Southwestern Lithuania, and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad Oblast. Although Prussia eventually became an independent Order-State, the acquisition of this territory, as was the case with many of Hermann’s political forays presented marked drawbacks for the Order as well. The Order was now responsible for the defense of its Baltic territories, which expanded drastically with its 1236 absorption of the Sword Brothers and their Livonian territory, and which continued to grow even after the death of Grandmaster Hermann in 1239. This activity placed great financial and logistical strain on the Order at a time when it was also suffering through a serious of disastrous defeats across Europe. First, a Prussian army was destroyed in a Mongol invasion of Poland in 1241, and the year after, the armies of the Livonian branch of the Order suffered heavy casualties against a Russian force led by Alexander Nevsky, Prince of Novgorod at the Battle of Lake Peipus. In the wake of these defeats, the recently subjugated Prussian tribes rose in rebellion against the Order. Finally, there were only three surviving brothers from the Teutonic contingent at the disastrous battle of La Forbie in 1244, in which the combined might of the Latin East was destroyed by the forces of Sultan as-Salih Ayyub.
The following years were marked by an identity crisis of sorts for the Order, which frequently alternated its political stance by offering support first to the Pope and then to the Emperor, alienating both parties in the process. Internal factions along regional and political lines developed within the Order, so much so that in the early 1250s, two different men claimed the title of Grand Master. Following La Forbie, the Order was able to rebuild its fighting force in time to participate in the Seventh Crusade, but was again defeated at the battle of al Mansurah in 1250. It was only after the election of Master Anno von Sangershausen, (r. 1256-1273) who greatly expanded the Order’s holdings in the Levant, that some semblance of normalcy and stability was restored. This period of increased acquisition of Levantine properties gave rise to the French-language documents mentioned above. Despite this deliberate effort to increase the Order’s presence in the Holy Land, Master Anno was forced to divert resources, from the Order’s holdings to combat another Prussian uprising which dragged on from 1260-74, and often found it necessary to leave the Levant to oversee those efforts personally. By the time that conflict was resolved and Prussia was pacified, the Latin East was again under assault, much of it having already fallen to the forces of Sultan Baibars, a situation which ultimately led to the fall of Acre in 1291. From that time on, the Order maintained a minimal presence in the Mediterranean, relocatingits headquarters first to Venice, and then in 1309to Marienburg, Prussia.
This move to the North spelled a definitive end to Teutonic Order involvement in the Mediterranean wars, and further solidifed their identity as a German Order. Despite their intimate association with German culture, including close ties to German nobles and a requirement in their charter that prospective members be of German heritage, the French-language documents referenced here stand as evidence that they too participated in the community of French-language writers and readers active in Outremer in the years before 1291.
Arnold, Udo “Der Deutsche Ordern zwischen Kaiser und Papst im 13. Jahrhundert.” in Die Ritterorden zwischen geistlicher und weltlicher Macht im Mittelalter. ed. Zenon Hubert Nowak. 57-70. Thorn: Nicolaus Copernicus University, 1990.
Kluger, Helmuth. Hochmeister Hermann von Salza und Kaiser Friedrich II: Ein Beitrag zur Frühgeschichte des Deutschen Ordens. Marburg: N. G. Elwert, 1987.
Militzer, Klaus. “From the Holy Land to Prussia: The Teutonic Knights between Emperors and Popes and their Policies until 1309.” in Mendicants, Military Orders and Regionalism in Medieval Europe. ed. Jürgen Sarnowsky. 71-81. Aldershot: Hants, 1999.
Morton, Nicholas Edward. The Teutonic Knights in the Holy Land, 1190-1291. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2009.
Urban, William. The Teutonic Knights: A Military History. London: Greenhill & Mechanicsburg: Stackpole, 2003.
Wojtecki, Dieter. “Der Deutschen Orden unter Friedrich II.” in Probleme um Friedrich II. ed. Josef Fleckenstein, 187-224. Sigmaringen: J. Thorbecke, 1974.
Nicholson, Helen. Templars, Hospitallers and Teutonic Knights: Images of the Military Orders, 1128-1291. Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1993.