Film Review: Baltic Tribes

Baltic Tribes (Latvian title Baltu Ciltis) is a 2018 Latvian drama-documentary that follows the exploits of a hapless Danish merchant named Lars in the opening decades of the 13th century, as he ends up visiting all of the pagan peoples of the medieval Baltic. The film is partly narrated by Lars himself and partly by a second narrator who presents significant historic sites (accompanied by CGI reconstructions) and facts about Baltic history and religion. Lars begins his journey in the declining Prussian port of Truso, where he witnesses a Christian priest beheaded for accidentally gathering firewood in a sacred forest. He then travels into the land of the Galindians, where he trespasses on Galindian hospitality and is wounded. After journeying to the Lithuanian capital at Kernavė he heads into Latvia and encounters the Livonian Swordbrethren, arriving eventually at the city of Riga, but he is captured by Oselians in a raid and taken into slavery. Sold eventually to Samogitians, he ends up participating in the Battle of Saulė (1236) where he is killed.

Imagined Baltic gods © HighOctane Pictures

Baltic Tribes is a very well-produced film with excellent and creative cinematography and strong production values. The film’s second narrator is perhaps its most jarring feature (at least in the English-language version of the film), intruding on the narrative to impart historical and cultural information. The quality of that information, however, is generally impressive, and accompanied by wonderfully creative Terry Gilliamesque moving medieval illuminations that, among other things, imagine how the Baltic gods might have been depicted in a medieval manuscript. The film has an impressive array of historical and archaeological consultants, including Prof. Juris Urtāns, Prof. Marek Jagodziński (the leading authority on the medieval emporium of Truso), and Prof. Vykintas Vaitkevičius (the leading authority on the sacred sites of Lithuania).

The film makes a good attempt to portray Baltic religious rites in a way faithful to the surviving texts, even making clear when the depiction of a rite was based on the descriptions of medieval and early modern authors or on folklore and tradition. All texts describing the Baltic tribes are problematic on account of their Christian and generally hostile provenance, and they have to be treated with a great deal of caution. For instance, several texts claim that some Baltic tribes practised human sacrifice and no mention of this – probably false – claim is made in the film. On the other hand, the film does portray the Galindians as polygamous (another contentious claim), while the portrayal of licentious Midsummer rites is based on recent Lithuanian and Latvian folk traditions rather than any evidence we actually have for how the pagan Balts celebrated the Summer Solstice.

The film does a good job of portraying the complexity of the relationship between the Livonian Swordbrethren and the Latgalians, but there are times when Baltic Tribes ventures into highly speculative territory – such as the suggestion that Baltic earth and sea goddesses are of Finnic origin. The character of Lars experiences doubts about the relationship between Christianity and paganism and about his own Christian identity, although he never goes so far as to abandon Christianity. ‘Everything was permeated with the divine, and I wondered if I was truly the greatest being on earth, or merely a part of something greater’, Lars reflects after his experience of Midsummer Rituals in the Daugava River, presumably in an effort to convey the mentality of Baltic animism. Similarly, the narrator assures us at one point that Balts did not literally worship sacred trees, stones and lakes but that ‘Natural objects served as a material mediator through which perception was connected to revelation’. The fact is that we simply cannot know why and how these people worshipped what they did, as not a single source survives that is written from the pagan perspective.

Reconstruction of Kernave © HighOctane Pictures

Perhaps my main concern about the film is with its title and main premise – the idea that the Balts are best understood as a collection of tribes, who are portrayed in the film as living in a ‘state of nature’ where the imperative is to ‘kill or be killed’. On the one hand, the film’s focus on the tribes helpfully emphasises the diversity of the Balts in the period before the Northern Crusades really took hold, in contrast to the modern survival of only two Baltic languages. On the other hand, however, the approach to the Balts as ‘tribes’ reinforces an outdated historical perception of the Baltic region (derived originally from the Crusaders themselves) as inhabited by barbarians – which is what the film’s Balts essentially are, regardless of how sympathetically they are at times portrayed. While the testimony of the historical sources is mixed, later sources informed by humanist historiography tend to portray Baltic peoples as highly moral, with well-structured societies.

It is the political structure of Baltic societies that is the missing element of Baltic Tribes, which concentrates on anthropological, ritual and experiential details but does not, ultimately, do justice to the sophistication of Baltic political organisation. In part this is down to the period the film chooses to portray; we really know very little about the region in the early 13th century. Yet it is clear that great centres like Kernavė could not have existed without the sophisticated political organisation that later created King Mindaugas and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Baltic Tribes leaves the viewer wondering how these tribes could possibly have not only held off wave after wave of Crusaders but also (in the case of the Lithuanians) managed to establish the largest polity in medieval Europe.

Overall Baltic Tribes, while most impressive, does not altogether reflect how I would choose to tell the medieval religious history of the Baltic peoples, but it nevertheless makes a valuable contribution to enhancing well-informed public knowledge of Baltic religion inside and outside the Baltic states. The accuracy of the film’s portrayal of Baltic paganism contrast favourably, for example, with the paganism of the 2019 Latvian film The Pagan King, which mingles elements of Norse, Sámi and even megalithic religion but includes nothing that really resembles Baltic paganism – which is better historically attested than most other forms of Northern European pagan belief. I would thus recommend Baltic Tribes for those interested in Baltic paganism, as long as they are prepared to pay close attention to the film’s own caveats about the evidential value of some of our knowledge.


‘England’s Other Westminster Abbey’ for the Churches Conservation Trust

This afternoon I delivered the Churches Conservation Trust‘s weekly lunchtime lecture on the theme of ‘England’s Other Westminster Abbey: Bury St Edmunds and its Royal Shrine’. The talk examined the role of St Edmunds Abbey as the centre of a royal cult, comparing it with Westminster Abbey and the Abbey of St Denis near Paris, and addressing the question of why Westminster Abbey survived as a great royal church while Bury suffered dissolution and ruin.


St Edmund and the Baltic Crusade

St Edmund, king and martyr established an early reputation as a crusaders’ saint. In 1190 Richard I dedicated his crusading fleet to Edmund’s patronage, and in 1211 Richard de Argentyne founded a church dedicated to St Edmund at Damietta in Egypt. While St Edmund never rivalled St George as a crusading saint, he became particularly associated with crusading fleets because he was sometimes invoked as a protector of mariners. The crusades in the Levant were not, however, the only crusades in the medieval world, and throughout the 13th and 14th centuries nobles from throughout Christendom undertook a reyse (seasonal campaign) with the Teutonic Knights, the crusading order based in Prussia and Livonia (modern Latvia and Estonia). The aim of the Teutonic Knights was to conquer and convert the pagan Lithuanians who continued to resist Christendom, and whose tactics of guerrilla warfare made it impossible for the Knights to establish an occupation.

The dwindling of Levantine crusading opportunities in the late Middle Ages meant that reysen to the Baltic became increasingly popular with English and Scottish nobles who were keen to gain military experience. From the 1350s onwards it became fashionable for the wealthiest magnates to kit out crusading fleets and travel to Königsberg, the Prussian capital, before proceeding into the heathenesse of Lithuania. There has hitherto been no indication that the cult of St Edmund was in any way involved in the Baltic crusades, but there is one hint that a northern crusader did have St Edmund in mind as a patron.

While the best known of these reysen is that undertaken by Henry, earl of Derby (the future Henry IV) in 1390, the largest English reyse was in fact equipped by Thomas Woodstock, duke of Gloucester in 1391. By this time Lithuania was in fact a Christian country, but still at war with the Teutonic Knights, who made use of crusading as a spurious excuse to attract foreign support for their cause. There is no direct evidence that Gloucester’s crusade was placed under the patronage of St Edmund, but it is suggestive that the bishop of Winchester, William Wykeham, issued prayers in support of Gloucester from Esher on 20 November 1391 – St Edmund’s Day:

Almighty and merciful God, Lord of lords, who teaches the hands of the just for battle and their fingers for war, be pleased to accept the prayers of your devoted people; let him subject those he wishes to subject, and with those whom he wishes, give him victory.

Since, therefore, the renowned and illustrious prince, the Lord Thomas, duke of Gloucester, placing his hope in the Lord, is about to go on pilgrimage to foreign and distant parts to fight the enemies of the Cross of Christ, on account of devotion, we attentively beseech your devotion (and all the saints of God be had in devotion), since he has now absorbed heavy labours and expenses in his journey, that you have the aforesaid Lord Thomas, duke of Gloucester, in your masses and other prayers (exhorting you likewise in the Lord) as a pious proposal.

The bishop went on to offer an indulgence of 40 days to those who prayed for the duke. By the time the prayers and indulgence had been issued the duke had already departed (at the end of October), and as it happened he never reached his destination, being tossed about by storms on the North Sea for six weeks until landing in the north of Scotland. However, although St Edmund is not mentioned in Bishop Wykeham’s prayers, the date of the prayers’ issue may be an indication that Gloucester dedicated his crusading fleet to St Edmund. Wykeham did not issue the prayers to coincide with Gloucester’s departure, and unless the month it took the prayers to be issued was merely an administrative delay, the day chosen for their promulgation was surely significant. By 1391 St Edmund’s Day was one of the most significant in the calendar of the English church, and a holy day of obligation when everyone was required to attend mass. Furthermore, most of Gloucester’s followers came from East Anglia and the fleet departed from the Suffolk coast, making a dedication to the East Anglian saint most fitting.

So it seems that St Edmund never got the chance to be a patron of crusaders in the Baltic, although Thomas of Woodstock may well have wanted him to be…


Launch of English Catholicism 1558-1642

This evening Alan Dures and I launched our new book English Catholicism 1558-1642 at Culford School, where Alan Dures taught between 1977 and 2002, and where I was a pupil between 1992 and 1999. The event took place in Culford’s Old Hall and Workman Library and was attended by many former students and staff. Both I and Alan spoke to introduce the book, explaining the reasons for a second edition and highlighting some of the book’s main themes. Many of those who attended the launch purchased signed copies of the book.

I am grateful to Culford’s Headmaster Julian Johnson-Munday and to Samantha Salisbury and Sean Collier for organising and hosting the event.