The Baltics: Last Bastion of Pagan Civilization in Europe

Today’s topic was suggested to me by a modern Baltic tribesman. Kristaps Andrejsons, Latvian native, and the host of The Eastern Border and co-host of The Lesser Bonaparte’s podcasts. Be sure to check those podcasts out for more great history content.

The Baltics are the areas to the Southeast of the Baltic Sea in Eastern Europe and the many tribes living in those area’s are were known as the Balts. This area is covered with forests, swamps, bogs, marshes, rivers, and lakes making it rather difficult to traverse. This terrain has kept the area mostly isolated from the rest of Europe throughout history.

The first evidence of human activity shows up in the area around 10,000 BCE. These early settlers were reindeer hunters following herds North after the thawing of the ice age. Upon reaching the Baltic region these hunter tribes found a land milder in climate and rich with wild game to hunt. They began to settle the area in a more permanent manner. Aside from having many reindeer the area also had a good population of elk and boars to hunt. These early tribesmen also began fishing the rivers and lakes as another source of food.

Around the year 3000 BCE waves of proto-indo-european (PIE) tribes began to migrate into the Baltics region. These PIE tribes were coming from the area of Southern Russia / Eastern Ukraine. The PIE tribes introduced pottery to the region. These two peoples eventually began to mix and mingle becoming what we know now as the Baltic tribes or Balts. Some of the more prominent Baltic tribes were the: Galindians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Curonians, Prussians, Semigallians, Selonians, and Yotvingian, but these distinct regional identities wouldn’t develop fully until 400 – 800 CE during the iron age.

Baltic Tribes
Baltic Tribes

We find evidence of farming beginning to show up in the Baltics around 1500 BCE. We see activities such as growing wheat, raising cattle, and the production of cloth begin to emerge around this time. Balts used predominantly stone and wooden tools during this time. Metal was uncommon in the area but was later traded from neighboring regions.  

The Balts are noted by the Roman historian Tacitus in the 1st century CE. Tacitus referred to the Balts as “Aesti” which translates as “Easterners”. He noted the Balts as being a peace-loving people and as being industrious farmers. Why was Tacitus and Rome interested in the Baltics at all, though? Amber. Amber was a precious luxury in Rome and Greece. Amber was more valuable than gold to the Romans which was puzzling to the Balts who had no practical use for it and merely collected it from the seashore. The amber trade was very lucrative for the Balts and they traded vast quantities of it to Rome in exchange for roman coins, jewelry, iron weapons and iron tools.

Over the next several centuries while Rome was busy conquering most of Europe and later Christianizing them the Baltic region was left mostly untouched due to its inhospitable terrain. After the collapse of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Byzantine Empire the Balts would carry on as usual. This cycle would continue undisturbed until the year 1202 CE. This was due in part to the Christian loss of Jerusalem during the Crusades to the Sultan Saladin in the year 1187 CE.

The loss of Jerusalem caused crusaders to flee back to Europe. With a lack of Muslim lands to raid, and pillage the crusaders began to raid and pillage the European countryside over the next several years. Due to all the internal conflict and strife caused by these marauding holy warriors the Pope desperately needed to bring them back under control. In an effort to stop the pillaging Pope Celestine III, and several Pope’s thereafter, declared a new crusade on the baltic tribes in 1195 CE.

Since the Balts were at this point in history the last pagan peoples left in Europe they became a perfect target that Roman Catholic Church could exploit to unify their crusaders. Aside from the righteous act of bringing the word of God the pagan Balts the crusaders also enjoyed several other motivational rewards of a less moral variety. Aside from all the loot, and plunder you could carry the Roman Catholic Church would also grant their crusaders ⅓ of the land they conquered with another ⅓ going to the church itself. Papal perks for crusading bro’s were all the rage back then, it’s cool, God told the Pope it was ok. Right? Welcome to the Northern Crusades.

This brings us back to 1202 CE, the year the first crusaders begin to show up in the Baltics. Crusaders known as Brothers of the Sword sailed to the Baltics in this year via the Baltic Sea and landed in what is now the country Latvia. They set up shop in a well-established port town, what is now the capital city of Latvia, Riga. They built a castle, fortifications, and assumed control of the area using it as a base of operations for their raids further into Baltic territory. The Brotherhood was eventually defeated in the year 1236 CE by the Samogitian and Semigallion tribes.

The remaining Brothers joined up with another major crusader group located in Poland, the Teutonic Order. The Teutonic Order had shown up in the Baltics around 1230 CE at the request of the King of Poland who wanted some help Christianizing the neighboring Prussian Balts. The bloody conquest of Prussia would last over 50 years before the Teutonic Order would finally prevail. After this time the Teutonic Order along with other more minor crusader group would begin slowing subjugating and Christianizing most every other major Baltic tribe including the Curonians in 1267 CE and the Semigallians in 1290 CE.

Teutonic Knight left Brother of the Sword right
Teutonic Knight left and Brother of the Sword right

The powerful Lithuanian tribe was able to hold out against the crusaders for several more decades becoming the last truly pagan state in Europe. The Lithuanians would eventually suffer a severe loss to the Teutonic Order in the year 1348 CE. The Lithuanians were unable to recover from this loss and were finally defeated outright in 1370 CE after more than 200 years of violence and bloodshed.

Though defeated the Lithuanians were not Christianized until several years later. In 1386 Lithuanian Grand Duke Jogaila was offered the throne of Poland under the condition that he and his people convert to Christianity. He accepted the offer and promptly converted, however the Western part of Lithuania, Samogitia, refused to convert. Samogitia was finally Christianized in 1413 thus marking the year of the complete control of Christianity over Europe and loss of Paganism on the continent

Officially, paganism had been wiped out. Unofficially these Baltic states were host to countless peasant revolts over the years as the population at large kept to practicing their pagan traditions in secret. Anyone found participating in any non-Christian activity were dealt with harshly. This, in turn, led to the ever present, peasant revolts. These secret pagan practices continued on into the 17th and even 18th centuries in some parts of the Baltics.

You can see the feelings the Balts had towards their new Christian lifestyles in some of the sculptures they made of Jesus. Several sculptures depict Jesus sitting down appearing sad and defeated, mirroring the Balts feelings toward their new state mandated religion. I don’t think I would react much differently to having someone else’s beliefs forcibly inserted into my life either. I’m sure everyone can agree with that.

I’m ending the story of the Balts here, but if you would like to know what happens to the Balts on into the 20th century go ahead and check out Kristaps podcast, The Eastern Border, for more info. He also covers the Northern Crusades in a much more complete fashion, so if you are itching for more, The Eastern Border is the place to go!

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