Feb 252019
 

On this date in 1336 4,000 defenders of the hill fort of Pilėnai in the grand duchy of Lithuania committed mass suicide rather than be taken captive by Teutonic Knights. The location of Pilėnai is now unknown and is the subject of academic debates, but it is well known in the history of Lithuania due to its heroic defense against the Teutonic Order in 1336. The fortress, commanded by duke Margiris, attacked by a large Teutonic force, tried in vain to organize a defense against the larger and stronger invader. Losing hope, the defenders decided to burn their property and commit mass suicide to deprive the Order of prisoners and loot.

The attack and the defense of Pilėnai were briefly mentioned in several contemporary chronicles, including Epitome gestorum Prussiae (Brief History of Prussia) by a Sambian canon, Der Chronist von Wolfenbüttel (Chronicler of Wolfenbüttel), Annalista Thorunensis (Annals of Thorn), and Kurze Reimchronik von Preussen (Short Rhymed Chronicle of Prussia). However, these sources recite the basic facts and do not provide enough information to reconstruct the events.

The only contemporary source that describes the events in greater detail is the chronicle of Wigand of Marburg. However, Wigand’s original German text has not survived. His work is known from a Latin translation commissioned by Jan Długosz in 1464. Several excerpts of the original German text were published by Caspar Schütz (died 1594) and Stanislaus Bornbach (died 1597). When Theodor Hirsch prepared Wigand’s chronicle for publication in Scriptores Rerum Prussicarum, he included these excerpts alongside the Latin translation. In particular, Hirsch believed that Schütz’s text on Pilėnai was more complete and accurate copy of Wigand than the Latin translation. This opinion has been widely accepted and historians used Schütz’s text, which paints a much more heroic and dramatic picture of Pilėnai, as Wigand’s original. This long-standing belief has been challenged by Lithuanian historian Darius Baronas. He has shown that Schütz’s text was an unreliable and embellished retelling of Wigand’s work. Therefore, the only reliable source is the Latin translation of Wigand’s chronicle.

The Teutonic Order waged a decades-long Crusade against the grand duchy of Lithuania in hopes of converting it to Christianity. In early 1336, the Order organized a major campaign into Lithuania. Their force included Louis, Margrave of Brandenburg, counts of Henneberg (most likely Johann I, Count of Henneberg) and Namur (most likely Guy II, Marquis of Namur), and other nobles from France and Austria. In total, according to Wigand of Marburg, there were 200 nobles. Another German chronicle, Der Chronist von Wolfenbüttel, counted a total of 6,000 soldiers.

Let’s pause for a minute here and take stock of what was happening. The Teutonic Order was created out of the general milieu of crusading at a time when Crusaders had suffered many defeats in Palestine. The Crusades were initiated to “free” Christian holy sites, such as Jerusalem and Bethlehem, from Muslim occupation so that Christians could go on pilgrimages – safely. Understandable in a way, although there were also Muslim holy sites in those regions also. The underlying issue was a simple head on collision of cultures – Islam vs Christianity. By the time of the Crusades this collision had been underway a very long time. With Palestine firmly in Muslim hands in the 14th century, the Teutonic Order turned its attention elsewhere, and found a suitable adversary in the non-Christian regions of the Baltic States. Their stated aim was to convert those regions to Christianity – supposedly for their own good – by whatever means necessary. Killing, raping, pillaging, and enslavement were all on the agenda – very Christian!!!

We do need to remember that Christians burned heretics alive at this time – for their own good. So they were being consistent – that is, consistently awful. We also need to remember that the Lithuanians were no teddy bears either. They routinely sacked and pillaged areas of the Holy Roman Empire and so needed to be contained in some way. They also had their own nasty habits when it came to their treatment of those captured in war that I won’t repeat here in case you have just eaten. Christianizing them, however, would only mean that they traded one hideous set of practices for another. I am not knocking Christianity, by the way, only what medieval holy orders believed Christianity was. “I am going to burn you alive to prove what a gentle and loving follower of Jesus I am” is not a message I approve of.

On the feast day of Saint Matthias (which was February 25th that year, because it is 6 days (inclusive) before the 1st of March and 1336 was a leap year), a large force of Teutonic Knights attacked Pilėnai, located in Trapėnai land, where around 4,000 people from four different lands sought shelter from the invasion. Wigand’s description of further events paints a chaotic and bloody scene. He claims that the people panicked as soon as they saw the Christian army and decided to burn their belongings and commit suicide. It was said that one old woman killed a hundred people with an ax before killing herself. Others managed to escape on horseback. Duke Margiris attempted to organize a defense, but soon was overwhelmed by the attackers who threw burning wood and stones into the fortress. Margiris then cut his wife with a sword, threw her body into the fire, and killed his loyal guards and followers. Thus, Pilėnai fell and the Order collected the remaining prisoners and loot. Kurze Reimchronik von Preussen mentioned that 5,000 people were killed and only a handful escaped.

That is all of the information available from contemporary sources. Later historians and authors added many heroic and dramatic details. For example, they added a large pyre and murder of children and women; the 4,000 people seeking shelter in the fortress became 4,000 armed soldiers; Lithuanians bravely and determinedly defended the fortress but chose death over converting to Christianity and becoming slaves of the Order; Margiris cut his wife in half and then killed himself; the Teutonic soldiers were moved by the terrible sight and noble sacrifice and returned to Prussia without loot. Possibly some of these details were inspired by similar events from the antiquity, including mass suicides in Astapa following the destruction of Illiturgis (206 BCE), to “death or victory” defense of Abydos (200 BCE), and mass suicide during the desperate Siege of Masada (c. 74 CE). It is difficult, if not impossible, to evaluate all the descriptions because our main source is a German chronicler who saw Lithuanians as heathens and enemies.

I have given quite a number of Lithuanian recipes in past posts, so you can take your pick of them, or follow this one for šaltibarščiai, cold beetroot soup made with kefir (fermented mare’s milk).

Nov 162018
 

Today is the feast of Saint Edmund of Abingdon (circa 1174 – 1240), a 13th-century archbishop of Canterbury. He became a respected lecturer in mathematics, dialectics and theology at the Universities of Paris and Oxford. Edmund was born around 1174, possibly on 20th November (the feast of St Edmund the Martyr), in Abingdon in Berkshire (now Oxfordshire). “Rich” was an epithet sometimes given to his wealthy merchant father. It was never applied to Edmund or his siblings in their lifetimes. Edmund may have been educated at the monastic school in Abingdon. His early studies were in England, but he completed his higher learning in France at the University of Paris. About 1195, in company with his brother Richard, he was sent to the schools of Paris. He studied at the universities of Oxford and Paris and became a teacher about 1200, or a little earlier. For six years he lectured on mathematics and dialectics, apparently dividing his time between Oxford and Paris, and helped introduce the study of Aristotle.

Edmund became one of Oxford’s first lecturers with a Master of Arts, but was not Oxford’s first Doctor of Divinity. Long hours at night spent in prayer had the result that he often nodded off during his lectures. There is a long-established tradition that he used his lecture fees to build the Lady Chapel of St Peter’s in the East at Oxford. The site where he lived and taught was formed into a medieval academic hall in his name and later incorporated as the college of St Edmund Hall. His mother influenced him towards self-denial and austerity, and this led to his taking up the study of theology.

Though for some time Edmund resisted the change, he finally entered upon his new career between 1205 and 1210. He was ordained, took a doctorate in divinity and soon became known as a lecturer on theology and as an extemporaneous preacher. Some time between 1219 and 1222 he was appointed vicar of the parish of Calne in Wiltshire, and treasurer of Salisbury Cathedral. He held this position for eleven years, during which time he also engaged in preaching. In 1227 he preached the sixth crusade through a large part of England. In 1233 he was appointed archbishop of Canterbury by Gregory IX. The chapter had already made three selections which the pope had declined to confirm. Edmund’s name had been proposed as a compromise by Gregory, perhaps on account of his work for the crusade. He was consecrated on 2nd April 1234.

Before his consecration Edmund became known for supporting ecclesiastical independence from Rome, maintenance of the Magna Carta and the exclusion of foreigners from civil and ecclesiastical office. He was reluctant to accept appointment as archbishop but was persuaded to accept when it was pointed out that if he refused, the pope might very well appoint a foreigner. He chose as his chancellor Richard of Wich, known to later ages as St Richard of Chichester.

In the name of his fellow bishops Edmund admonished Henry III of England at Westminster, on 2nd February 1234, to heed the example of his father, king John. A week after his consecration he again appeared before the king with the barons and bishops, this time threatening Henry with excommunication if he refused to dismiss his councilors, particularly Peter des Roches, Bishop of Winchester. Henry yielded, and the favorites were dismissed, Hubert de Burgh (whom they had imprisoned) was released and reconciled to the king and soon the archbishop was sent to Wales to negotiate peace with Llywelyn the Great. Edmund’s success, however, turned the king against him.

Edmund was valued by the local people for his teaching, preaching, study, and his prayer; but his uncompromising stand in favor of good discipline in both civil and ecclesial government, of strict observance in monastic life, and of justice in high quarters brought him into conflict with Henry III, with several monasteries, and with the priests of Canterbury cathedral. He claimed and exercised metropolitan rights of visitation, this was often challenged and he had to resort to litigation to maintain his authority, not the least with his own monastic chapter at Canterbury.

Although he was known for his gentleness and courtesy, Edmund firmly defended the rights of Church and State against the exactions and usurpations of Henry III. In December 1237 Edmund set out for Rome to plead his cause in person. From this futile mission he returned to England in August 1238 where his efforts to foster reform were frustrated. Edmund submitted to papal demands and, early in 1240 paid to the pope’s agents one fifth of his revenue, which had been levied for the pope’s war against Emperor Frederick II. Other English prelates followed his example.

The papacy then ordered that 300 English benefices should be assigned to Romans. In 1240 Edmund set out for Rome. At the Cistercian Pontigny Abbey in France he became sick, began traveling back to England, but died only 50 miles further north, on 16th November 1240, at the house of Augustinian Canons at Soisy-Bouy and was taken back to Pontigny.

In less than a year after Edmund’s death miracles were alleged to be wrought at his grave. He was canonized only 6 years after his death, in December 1246. A few years later the first chapel dedicated to him, St Edmund’s Chapel, was consecrated in Dover by his friend Richard of Chichester (making it the only chapel dedicated to one English saint by another). At Salisbury a collegiate church and an altar in the cathedral were dedicated to Saint Edmund. Today he is remembered in the name of St Edmund Hall, Oxford and St Edmund’s College, Cambridge.

Edmund’s body was never translated to Canterbury, because the Benedictine community there resented what they regarded as Edmund’s attacks on their independence. After his death he was taken back to Pontigny Abbey, where his main relics are now found in a baroque reliquary tomb dating to the 17th century. An arm is enshrined in the Chapel of Our Lady of the Assumption at St. Edmund’s Retreat on Enders Island off the coast of Mystic, Connecticut. The retreat is operated by the Society of the Fathers and Brothers of St. Edmund. In 1853, the fibula of the Edmund’s left leg was presented to St Edmund’s College, Ware, by Cardinal Wiseman. Many local cures of serious illnesses were attributed to the intercession of St Edmund; one of the earliest of these was of a student who nearly died after a fall in 1871. His complete healing led to the accomplishment of a vow to extend the beautiful Pugin chapel with a side chapel to honour the saint. The Islamic silk chasuble, with the main fabric probably made in Al-Andaluz, that Edmund had with him at his death remains in a local church, with a stole and maniple.

Here is a recipe from Libellus De Arte Coquinaria (The Little Book of Culinary Arts), a culinary manuscript containing thirty-five early Northern European recipes. The manuscript consists of recipes in Danish, Icelandic, and Low German with bits of Latin thrown in, dating from the early 13th century. I imagine this style of cooking was well known in England. The recipe looks like a cross between a quiche and a pot pie. Worth a shot. I’ve made a stab at a free translation from Old Danish, but you will have to fill in the gaps.

De cibo qui dicitur koken wan honer.

Man skal gøræ en grytæ af degh, oc skær et høns thær I alt I styki, oc latæ thær I spæk wæl skoren sum ærtær,pipær oc komiæn oc æggi blomæ, wæl slaghæn mæth safran; oc takæ thæn grytæ oc latæ bakæ I en ofn. Thæt hetær kokæn wan honer.

The dish that is called Chicken Pie.

Make a shell of dough, and put into it a hen, cut into pieces. Add bacon, diced the size of peas, pepper, cumin, and egg yolks well beaten with saffron. Then take the pastry shell and bake it in an oven. It is called Chicken Pie.

 

Apr 182017
 

Today is celebrated in Russia as the Victory of the Novgorod Republic over the Teutonic Knights in the Battle of the Ice (Ледовое побоище), fought on 5th April 1242, largely on the frozen Lake Peipus. I don’t often commemorate battles on this blog, but I am making an exception here because this battle illuminates a part of European history that tends to get underplayed, or plain ignored, in modern consciousness, namely the general understanding of what the so-called Crusades were all about. The popular image of the Crusades, very poorly understood, is of Western Christian armies fighting Muslims in the Near East for control of Jerusalem and the Holy Land, ostensibly to allow access by Christian pilgrims. This piece of the puzzle is only a very small part of the whole story. In a nutshell, with me being hopelessly simplistic as usual, the Crusades were an attempt by Western European powers to control Eastern Europe as well as the Near East using religion as their justification. In my cynical opinion the real motive was power and wealth. For me the only important question in history is WHY?  The answer is always the same – MONEY.

Although the Crusades are usually characterized in the Western mind as wars between Christians and Muslims, they were as much, if not more, wars between Catholic and Eastern Orthodox territories, as well as between Catholic forces and inhabitants of regions that are now, rather misleadingly, called “pagan” where pagan means not Jewish, not Christian, and not Muslim.  There was no pagan religion as such. The word is a catchall for numerous diverse religions outside those that are sometimes called the Religions of Abraham (because he is ancestral to all three) or Religions of the Book (i.e. the Torah which is common (sort of) to all three), that is, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The First Crusade arose after a call to arms in a 1095 sermon by Pope Urban II. Urban urged military support for the Byzantine Empire and its Emperor, Alexios I, who needed reinforcements for his conflict with westward migrating Turks who were colonizing Anatolia. One of Urban’s stated aims was to guarantee pilgrims access to the holy sites in the Eastern Mediterranean that were under Muslim control. Urban’s wider strategy may have been to unite the Eastern and Western branches of Christendom, which had been divided since their split in the East–West Schism of 1054, and establish himself as head of the unified Church. The response to Urban’s preaching by people of many different classes across Western Europe established the precedent for later Crusades, which, among other things, provided opportunities for economic and political gain.

The Crusaders’ behavior, under Papal sanction, was often deplorable. For example, Crusaders frequently pillaged as they travelled, while their leaders retained control of much captured territory rather than returning it to the Byzantines. During the People’s Crusade (1096) thousands of Jews were murdered in what is now called the Rhineland massacres. Constantinople was sacked during the Fourth Crusade (1202-04) rendering the reunification of Christendom impossible. Subsequently the Crusades actively attempted to capture regions that were under Eastern Orthodox control. The Battle on the Ice was part of this larger enterprise sometimes called the Northern Crusades.

The Northern Crusades or Baltic Crusades were religious wars primarily undertaken by Christian military orders and kingdoms against the Baltic, Finnic, and Slavic peoples around the southern and eastern shores of the Baltic Sea. The crusades took place mostly in the 12th and 13th centuries and resulted in the subjugation and forced baptism of indigenous peoples. The Teutonic Order’s attempts to conquer Orthodox Russia (particularly the Republics of Pskov and Novgorod), an enterprise endorsed by Pope Gregory IX, marked the tail end of the Northern Crusades. The Battle of the Ice in 1242 is usually considered to be the key turning point, although historians do not all agree concerning its importance.

Hoping to exploit Novgorod’s weakness in the wake of the Mongol and Swedish invasions, the Teutonic Knights attacked the neighboring Novgorod Republic and occupied Pskov, Izborsk, and Koporye in autumn 1240. When they approached Novgorod itself, the local citizens recalled 20-year-old Prince Alexander Nevsky to the city, whom they had banished to Pereslavl earlier that year. During the campaign of 1241, Alexander managed to retake Pskov and Koporye from the Crusaders.

In the spring of 1242, the Teutonic Knights defeated a detachment of Novgorodians about 20 km south of the fortress of Dorpat (Tartu). Led by Prince-Bishop Hermann of Dorpat, the knights and their auxiliary troops of local Ugaunian Estonians then met with Alexander’s forces by the narrow strait (Lake Lämmijärv or Teploe) that connects the north and south parts of Lake Peipus (Lake Peipus proper with Lake Pskovskoe).

On April 5, 1242. Alexander, intending to fight in a place of his own choosing, retreated in an attempt to draw the  over-confident Crusaders on to the frozen lake. The crusader forces likely numbered around 2,600, including 800 Danish and German knights, 100 Teutonic knights, 300 Danes, 400 Germans and 1,000 Estonian infantry. The Russians fielded around 5,000 men: Alexander and his brother Andrei’s bodyguards (druzhina), totaling around 1,000, plus 2000 militia of Novgorod, 1400 Finno-Ugrian tribesman and 600 horse archers.

The Teutonic knights and crusaders charged across the lake and reached the enemy, but were held up by the infantry of the Novgorod militia. This caused the momentum of the crusader attack to slow. The battle was fierce, with the allied Russians fighting the Teutonic and crusader troops on the frozen surface of the lake. After a little more than two hours of close quarters fighting, Alexander ordered the left and right wings of his army (including cavalry) to enter the battle. The Teutonic and crusader troops by that time were exhausted from the constant struggle on the slippery surface of the frozen lake. The Crusaders started to retreat in disarray deeper onto the ice, and the appearance of the fresh Novgorod cavalry made them retreat in panic.

It is commonly said that “the Teutonic knights and crusaders attempted to rally and regroup at the far side of the lake, however, the thin ice began to give way and cracked under the weight of their heavy armor, and many knights and crusaders drowned”; but Donald Ostrowski in Alexander Nevskii’s “Battle on the Ice”: The Creation of a Legend contends that the part about the ice breaking and people drowning was a relatively recent embellishment to the original historical story. He cites a large number of scholars who have written about the battle, none of whom mention the ice breaking up or anyone drowning when discussing the battle on the ice. After analyzing all the sources Ostrowski concludes that the part about ice breaking and drowning appeared first in the 1938 film Alexander Nevsky by Sergei Eisenstein. The day is particularly celebrated in Russia because it is commonly held, although disputed by historians, that the victory of Novgorod at the Battle on the Ice stopped further incursions into Russia by Crusaders.

There’s not much source material on uniquely Novgorod cooking of the Middle Ages. They ate cereals, such as oats, rye, wheat and barley as both bread and porridge primarily, with the addition of vegetables and meat on occasion, just as did all Slavs at the time. The common Russian word “kasha” which refers to buckwheat in the West, is just a general term for porridge in Russia, made from any cereal including rice.  I have already given a basic recipe for buckwheat kasha here – http://www.bookofdaystales.com/yuris-night/  Let’s try something a bit heartier. I suggest kholodets, a common Slavic cold dish of shredded meat in gelatin made by boiling down meaty bones. I figured a cold dish was suitable to commemorate a battle that took place on ice. You can choose what meats you want, including pork, veal, beef, or chicken. A mixture is common. I like beef and veal.

You’ll need to start with 2 pounds of beef bones and a mix of stewing beef and veal. Place them in a large stock pot with a scrubbed, unpeeled onion, cover with cold water, bring to a simmer, and cook, covered, for at least 5 hours, skimming the scum from the pot as necessary. Remove the bones and onion from the broth, add what vegetables you would like as a garnish – one or two peeled carrots will do – plus seasonings that you prefer, such as garlic, salt and pepper. Bring back to a simmer and cook for another 45 minutes. Remove the meat and vegetables, and strain the broth through fine muslin into a clean bowl. Shred the meat into small pieces and slice the vegetables.

You can use one big mould or several smaller ones for the finished dish. Lightly grease the moulds then lay some vegetable pieces at the bottom. Then add the shredded meat and fill up the moulds with the strained broth. Refrigerate overnight. In the morning the broth will have set up as a gelatin with some fat on top. Scrape off the fat, dip the moulds in hot water for a minute to release the jellied meat, place an inverted plate over each mould, turn it right side up and tap gently to release. If you have created enough gelatin from the bones they will come out clean.  Of course you can always cheat and add a little extra packaged gelatin during the final simmering to be on the safe side. I usually do. The onion skin will give the broth a brownish tinge. Some people use sliced boiled eggs rather than vegetables as the garnish. Your choice.