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Feb 25 Lithuania and the Teutonic Knights

Today we go back to the year 1336 and travel to Lithuania where the Teutonic Order had waged the decades-long Lithuanian Crusade against the pagan Grand Duchy of Lithuania in hopes of converting it to Christianity.

Officially called the Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem they were a religious order founded as a military order in the Kingdom of Jerusalem to aid Christians on their pilgrimages to the Holy Land and to establish hospitals. They were known as the Teutonic Knights, having a small voluntary and mercenary military membership, and were also protecting Christians in the Baltics during the Middle Ages.

After the fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1291, the knights moved their headquarters to Venice, and then Marienburg, so it could focus its efforts on the region of Prussia. The Teutonic Knights began to direct their campaigns against pagan Lithuania due to constant incursions into the Holy Roman Empire's territory by pagan raiding parties. Lithuania remained non-Christian until the end of the 14th century, much later than the rest of eastern Europe and many Knights from western European countries, such as England and France, journeyed to Prussia to participate in the seasonal campaigns against the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Warfare between the Order and the Lithuanians was especially brutal. It was common practice for Lithuanians to torture captured enemies and civilians, tying captured Knights to their horses and having both of them burned alive. Lithuanian pagan customs included ritualistic human sacrifice, the hanging of widows, and the burying of a warrior's horses and servants with him after his death. The conflict had much influence in the political situation of the region, and was the source of many rivalries between Lithuanians or Poles and Germans. In early 1336, the Order organized another large campaign into Lithuania.

Pilenai, a hill fort in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was attacked by large Teutonic forces, tried in vain to organize a defence against the larger and stronger invader. The large force attacked Pilenai, located where some 4,000 people from four different lands sought shelter from the invasion. Losing hope, the defenders decided a scorched earth policy, to burn their property and commit mass suicide to deprive the Order of prisoners and loot. The location of this unknown place and is subject to academic debates, but it is well known in the history of Lithuania due to its heroic defense against the Teutonic Order in 1336. Military Orders and the Crusades evolved at a time when the church seemed to have drifted far from the peaceful ethic espoused by Christ in the Gospels, although the historical context is always much more nuanced than we sometimes appreciate looking back from a modern position.

An order of chivalry, order of knighthood, chivalric order, or equestrian order were typically founded inspired by the original military orders of the Crusades and evolved combining medieval concepts of ideals of chivalry. Now mainly relics of a former time, the Secretariat of the State of the Holy See distinguishes orders in the following four categories. State orders: An order of a sovereign state, rewarding military or civil merits of citizens, legal based on the sovereignity of the conferring state Secondly equestrian orders, conferred by the Pope, thirdly there are Sovereign orders: with one left the Order of Malta, and finally Dynastic orders of a sovereign royal dynasty, either an active "dynastic state actor", otherwise a "non-national dynastic order", usually a formerly reigning royal house, typically approved by Papal After the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, the Teutonic Knights became tri-denominational, with Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed members. However, now it is a charitable organization and has established numerous clinics, as well as sponsoring excavation and tourism projects in Israel. In 2000, the German chapter of the Teutonic Order was declared bankrupt. The current Abbot General of the Order is Father Frank Bayard in the Austrian capital of Vienna. The Treasury and central archive is open to the public, there is also a museum dedicated to the Teutonic Knights.


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