The Baltic Crusades' Impact on the Environment

Ethan Lyne

The Crusades were more than just the religious wars waged between Christians and Muslims over the Holy Land in the Middle East from the 11th century to the 14th century. The Crusades also included the military campaigns by Christians from the 13th and 16th century into the last regions of Europe untouched by Christianity, like the Eastern Baltic region containing modern-day nations Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. During the High Middle Ages, these efforts transitioned from focusing on conversion of the indigenous populations to Christianity to focusing on transforming the region into a carbon copy of their homeland, the Holy Roman Empire. With the intentional colonization of the Baltic States by groups of Christians like the Teutonic Order, great changes were brought to the natural environment as castles and towns were constructed throughout the region from the ground up to establish a Christian presence. The creation of these new population centers caused extensive environmental changes as the entire region’s economy and land use were greatly changed. The military campaigns and resulting colonization of the Eastern Baltic region by Christians not only brought urbanization and a monotheistic religion, but also significant environmental degradation and destruction to the land, as shown by recent research that is dedicated to revisiting past histories for the sake of our future.

The Baltic Crusades, a commonly used moniker to describe the broad military efforts to spread Christianity to the upper ends of Europe in the Middle Ages, established the cultures, peoples, and land use we see today in the countries surrounding the Baltic Sea. The efforts of Christian missionaries in this region initially began as a peaceful effort to convert the “pagans” and fulfill a vision of an entirely Christian Europe, but soon turned towards colonizing the land to allow for the expansion of religion and economic interests (Urban 25). The specific military campaigns into Prussia and the Eastern Baltic region comprising modern-day Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania began in the 12th century and continued on to the 14th century. They were carried out by the orders of the Pope in several stints by many groups that varied in success, but the sum of their efforts was a fundamental societal and economic shift of the region (Mosher). The most significant and impactful force behind the Baltic Crusades was the Teutonic Order, a religious order of knights that has roots in the Holy Roman Empire and modern-day Germany (Brittanica). The Teutonic Order controlled much of the Eastern Baltic region and worked to change the landscape and culture to look like that of the Holy Roman Empire by constructing new towns and creating arable land.

The transformation of the built landscape of the Eastern Baltic region was integral in the success of the colonizing efforts by the Teutonic Order and other religious orders. The fundamental goal of the Baltic Crusades was the spread of Christianity to all reaches of Europe, and in order for this to be accomplished, the invading forces believed they had to change the way the entire land looked. Prior to the arrival of the missionary forces, the area largely contained “prehistoric societies” that were organized around the family unit and lived harmoniously with the surrounding environment (Science). The results of this colonization was the construction of new towns and enormous castle complexes like the castle in Malbork in modern-day Poland. The purpose of these new sites was to replicate the society and built environment that they had experienced as a part of the Holy Roman Empire among other purposes (Ibid). These castles served as hubs for local commerce, community safety, and military campaigns to further expand their religious and economic missions (Ibid). The construction of these central population hubs also brought intensive resource usage in the area to construct these new buildings and provide them with water and food. This new way of life was forced upon the indigenous population, resulting in either the death or migration of the previous peoples that inhabited the land (Ibid). The change in the built environment and increase in population density brought by the incursion of Christians into the Eastern Baltic region were critical parts that led to their success.

An important environmental effect of the Baltic Crusades by groups like the Teutonic Order is the change from a landscape made up largely of woodlands to an environment with vast agricultural fields. The pollen record provides evidence of this around Malbork Castle as it shows a decline in arboreal pollen that comes from forests and a steady rise in cereal pollen, an indicator of agriculture (Brown and Pluskowski). This rise in deforestation in the Eastern Baltic region for the sake of arable land to feed the growing population and to trade with other nations puts a heavy strain on the availability of necessary natural resources for future generations. There is also evidence of the export of Baltic timber from these forests to a variety of peoples in Western Europe for ship building and other uses, and this trade only increased as trading networks like the Hanseatic League utilized the forest as an economic good (Ibid). From just 1389 to 1415, the Teutonic Order had transported nearly one and a half million pieces of timber for trade from the Baltic Region to other reaches of Europe (Ibid). The Baltic Crusades were not only focused on bringing Christianity to all ends of Europe, but also using the land for their own economic gain in the European economy, resulting in vast changes to the landscape and decreases in the available natural resources.

A more focused effort on animal husbandry also accompanied the colonization that came with the Baltic Crusades, resulting in a large shift in diet and military methods. Written and archaeological records both demonstrate a shift in the types of animals present in castles from the meat eaten by the indigenous populations (Science). There was a clear decline in populations of wild animals like aurochs and bears that came as a result of the growing urbanization that was a result of the incursion of the Teutonic Order into the region (Makowiecki 441). They were replaced with herds of domesticated animals like cattle and goats that are a reflection of the shift towards a greater density that was implemented by the Baltic Crusades (Science). This shift from a dependency on wild animals to domesticated animals greatly alters the ecological landscape of the region and creating pressure on populations of native species. By 1627, aurochs, a species of wild cattle, had officially gone extinct as a result of the loss of habitat and intensive hunting in the Eastern Baltic region (Makowiecki 437).

The Baltic Crusades and the resulting exploitation of the native environment to serve the needs of the Christians establishes a historical arc of colonization that extends into regions that were not considered by many to be affected by colonization. The work done in recent years to revisit this time period and to understand the ramifications of the actions taken by Christian groups like the Teutonic Order is a part of a broader academic effort to revisit the way history has been written. The purpose of this effort reflects a desire to better understand our past to look forward and try to chart a path forward for humanity that does not repeat our previous mistakes. The recent work that has provided evidence of the incursion into the Eastern Baltic region by Christians allows for a richer understanding of the course of events at this time and why there are lessons we should take away from this history of environmental exploitation.

In summary, the Baltic Crusades were a time of economic, cultural, and environmental transition for the eastern Baltic region as the indigenous tribes were forced to become Christian and accept the new power structure or leave the land. The incursion of the Christian missionaries and a variety of other groups placed new strain on the natural resources and allowed for the region to be used for their own economic benefit as well. Much of this work has been done in the last fifteen years, reflecting a desire to revisit past histories in an effort to look for possible solutions for current or future environmental problems.



Brown, Alex and Aleks Pluskowski. “Detecting the environmental impact of the Baltic Crusades on a late-medieval (13th–15th century) frontier landscape: palynological analysis from Malbork Castle and hinterland, Northern Poland.” Journal of Archaeological Evidence Vol.38 Issue 8 (August 2011)

Curry, Andrew. “Crusader Crisis: How Conquest Transformed Northern Europe.” Science Vol. 338 Issue 6111 (30 Nov 2012).
Makowiecki, Daniel. “Animals in the Landscape of the Medieval Countryside and Urban Agglomerations of the Baltic Sea Countries.” Città e campagana nei secoli altomedievali, Spoleto.
Mosher, Annie. “Northern Crusades.” Russia’s Periphery: William and Mary
“Teutonic Order.” Encyclopedia Brittanica.
Urban, William. The Baltic Crusades. Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1975.


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