By the middle of the 12th century, much of western Europe had settled into a tenuous, often interrupted peace, and many modern nation-states had begun to emerge. France, England, and Germany had each developed into roughly autonomous kingdoms with distinct cultures. In vast sections of eastern Europe, however, it was a different story.

The Holy Roman Empire, a loose organization of fiefdoms bound together in a shaky confederacy under a figurehead emperor, held titular sway over much of the countryside. East of this realm, along a rough line from the Baltic Sea to Hamburg, Germany, a wild Slavic people called the Wends consistently resisted incorporation into the empire. When much of the pan-European community became caught up in the frenzied call for a second crusade to Palestine in 1147, the Wends refused to rally under the Christian cross to fight against the Saracen infidels. For their demonstrated independence of mind, they would soon find themselves imperiled and beset by fanatical crusaders enflamed by feelings of religious and moral superiority.

The seeds of the Wendish Crusade of 1147 had been planted over a half century earlier. During the late 11th century, Byzantium, to the south and east of Wendish lands, was threatened repeatedly by the ever-aggressive Turks, who seized large portions of the empire after the Byzantine army’s catastrophic defeat at Manzikert, in eastern Asia Minor, in 1071. Ten years later, Emperor Alexius I Comnenus came to the throne in Constantinople and managed to hold off the Turks long enough to ask the pope in Rome for his assistance. Alexius had no idea what he had unleashed with a simple letter.

The pope who received this cry for help, Urban II, long had sought to bring all of Christendom under the authority of the papacy. He saw this plea as a divinely inspired means to achieve that aim. Instead of sending a limited force of 1,000 cavalrymen, as Alexius had requested, Urban II called for nothing less than a holy war, a crusade, to be waged against the Muslims in the Holy Land to free Jerusalem from the infidels (although technically the Muslims allowed Christians to worship freely in the city). Urban II proclaimed that any man who went to free the Holy Land would be absolved of all his sins on earth and guaranteed a heavenly reward in the afterlife. This was the basis for the First Crusade.

From 1096 to 1099, western European crusaders and Muslim forces fought savagely against each other without result, until Jerusalem finally fell into Christian hands in 1099. Soon afterward, a Christian military state was set up to protect the holy city. However, less than a half century later, in 1144, a new Islamic leader named Imad al Din Zangi unified the Arabic world long enough to launch successful attacks against the European strongholds in Palestine. When the first large crusader-held city, Edessa, fell to Zangi’s forces in 1146, panic spread across Europe that the new Muslim threat was deadly serious. A cry went up for a Second Crusade to destroy the infidels before Jerusalem was retaken. Unlike the First Crusade, which was ordained by the pope, the new call came from private individuals, including the fanatical Cistercian abbot, Bernard of Clairvaux, who tore up his own habit to make cloth crosses for the departing soldiers. It was in this environment of violent religious retribution that the idea of a separate Wendish crusade took root.

At the time, the Wends were living around the Baltic Sea in northern Europe, occupying parts of what would become Germany, Prussia, and Poland. During the Middle Ages, the Baltic was known as “the Barbarian Sea,” which indicates the prevailing attitude that western Europeans held toward the Wends at the time. The Wends practiced a pagan faith, and by the 12th century they found themselves trapped on a virtual island of supposed impiety, surrounded by a sea of fervent Christians. Most of western Europe had converted to Christianity centuries before, and the eastern lands of the Poles and Russians had also become Christianized. The Wends’ southern border abutted the remnants of the Byzantine Empire; to the north resided the recently converted Norsemen—the Swedes, Danes, and Norwegians.

The Wends’ unorthodox social behavior confused visiting monks, who reported that the Wends had a perplexing habit of kindness to strangers and a wealth of resources that they adamantly refused to exploit, believing as they did in the natural sanctity of the earth. While they used their abundant furs and agricultural goods to trade for woolen cloth, the Wends had little use for gold or silver. Despite their reputation for reflexive hospitality, the Wends did not like Christian missionaries coming into their lands uninvited, and they either drove out or killed the more determined priests who were foolish enough to ignore their threats.

The Wends violated the natural order of God, according to western Christian thought, by having no organized feudal government. Instead, the majority lived under a primitive form of democracy, with a sitting council of elders, including both men and women, that held court to rule on thorny issues. Military power was in the hands of local warlords who might loosely rule an area, but their power was weak at best, held together only by feats of arms. Internal fighting between the warlords kept the Wends divided and disjointed. Meanwhile, they were constantly under assault from European slave hunters and would disappear into the forests whenever they felt threatened. (The word “slave” is derived from “Slav,” so not all their evasion efforts were successful.)

Wendish slaves were much prized in both Muslim courts and Christianized Europe. The Wendish men were tall and muscular, the women pleasant to look at and physically endowed. Both sexes were noted for their ash-blond hair and piercing blue eyes, and both were taller than most other people of the time. It was not until the Wends were driven out of their lands by the Germans and Danes and began breeding with other cultures as they moved eastward that they eventually lost their characteristic physical appearance. The majority began taking on the darker skin, hair color, and eyes that much later would be used to “prove” that the Slavs were non-Aryan and therefore subhuman.

In the 6th century the Wends were conquered by the Avars, a people who, like themselves, came originally from the steppes of Russia. The Avars forced the Wends to herd and store fodder for their cattle, their main food supply and basic staple of economy. So great was the Avars’ dependence on their cattle herds that they even ordered the Wends to rebuild their villages in a giant circle so that the inner courtyards could be used as large pens for the cattle. Eventually, the Avars’ empire began to crumble, and the Wendish population conversely exploded near the end of the 7th century, spreading along the Baltic coast to the land west of the Elbe River and almost the entire Balkan peninsula to the south, and from the Danube River to Russia in the east.

The inability of the Wends to unite militarily proved to be their Achilles’ heel. No one doubted that they were formidable warriors. As excellent metalworkers, they far surpassed most Europeans in the production of fine weapons and armor. Their superb military skills and superior armament would have made them a force to contend with if they had ever managed to unite under one ruler. The Byzantines—no mean warriors themselves—openly feared the Wends, and the Germans, for all their vaunted skill at arms, would need centuries to conquer the Slavic region.

In the 12th century, there was still no monolithic German state. Each city and region had its own rulers and bishops, loosely under the control of the Holy Roman emperor, who theoretically protected the region against foreign invasion. However, the emperor at that time, Henry V, had been preoccupied for decades with the Rhineland, Italy, and southern Germany; most of the northern regions, such as Bremen and Magdeburg, were left to fend for themselves. None of the minor kingdoms, however, had forsworn their right as Christians to seize the territories to their east from the supposed heathens who inhabited the land. In 1108, the religious leaders of Magdeburg called on their fellow Christians to take such land from the Slavs. from 1110 to 1124 one noble named Lothair attempted to do just that. He formed alliances with local warlords and grabbed a large portion of eastern territory for himself. In 1125, Lothair became king of the Germans, but when he died in 1137 a dispute arose over his rightful successor, and the Slavic lands he had conquered were mostly neglected.

During the search for a new successor, many of the poor German landowners on the borderlands between the Slavs to the east and the Saxons to the west decided to increase their holdings by taking land from their Wendish neighbors. From 1140 to 1143, scores of Saxon families streamed into Wendish lands and set up wooden palisade forts, halls, and stone towers. Two of the larger and more powerful lords, Count Adolph II (who believed the Wends and Germans could live side by side) and his powerful rival, Henry of Badewide (who did not) advanced farther east and seized several towns that had been christianized years before and technically were not up for grabs. However, Henry quickly and conveniently made the missionary priest in one of the towns a bishop, and all political and theological quibbles were swept under the rug.

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