Volume 22, No.4 - Winter 1976
Editors of this issue: J.A. Raèkauskas
Copyright © 1976 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.


Monmouth College

Martin's earliest memory was of his pregnant sister being slit open and disemboweled because she could not keep up with the gang of prisoners being herded away by their pagan captors. Martin would have been slain, too, had he been a little younger or a little older, because that was the custom of the fierce Prussians who raided Poland for slaves and booty; only those suitable for resale to eastern merchants or for agricultural or domestic work in the noble households were spared, the rest being brutally slaughtered; a few were sacrificed to the gods. The first prisoner taken on an incursion was often shot with an arrow so that the spurting of his blood would predict the chances of success; St. Sebastian, the arrow-filled martyr so popular in medieval Europe, was an appropriate saint for the Christian communities bordering Prussia and Lithuania.1

It was 1244, and the German knights of the Teutonic Order had just suffered an annihilating defeat that left the settlers they had brought into Culm over the past decade at the mercy of the enemy. The pagan warriors had swept in, hanged the priests, put the men, the aged, and the very young to the sword, and drove the women and children away into slavery or concubinage. Martin was lucky; he was not sold to slave traders or slain in an ancient religious festival. Five years later a crusade from Germany crushed the tribe that had captured him and set him free.

Martin must have been a teenager by the time he was liberated. And he had decided upon his life's work— he was going to kill pagans. Although German scholars assume that Martin was of German descent, of pioneer stock that had settled in Golin in Pomerania a generation or two earlier, there is no evidence that he was German. The chances are equally good that he was Slavic, son of a Pomeranian knight who had accepted the offer of free land on the frontier. Germans, Poles, and Pomeranians were living in this region, bound together by fear of a powerful and unrelenting enemy. Racism had no place in this society yet.2

The Prussians and the Lithuanians represented the last pagans in Europe. They lived in their deep northern forests, protected by swamps and bitterly cold winters, and practiced a simple life of agriculture, hunting, and raiding into Christian lands. The slaves, the women, and the poor did the hard work of primitive agriculture, raising rye, wheat, honey, and cattle. The nobles devoted themselves to hunting and war. The hunting provided meat and fur; the warfare brought in gold, silver, new weapons, and many slaves. The leading warriors became the chiefs in their clans, had many wives, and spent their evenings drinking the honey-mead or the powerful fermented mare's milk. It was considered impolite to drink less than necessary to pass out, and many feasts were marked by fierce quarrels and bloodshed, because the Prussians were rash and impulsive. In warfare they exhibited that Viking berserk madness that caused them to throw themselves armed only with a sword upon the throngs of enemies and slash about until they were killed or the enemy fled in terror.

The pagan religion supported this barbaric way of life. The war parties, in particular, made frequent sacrifices. At every sign from heaven, such as the sudden flight of birds, they would stop to cast their oracle sticks, to inquire of their gods whether to proceed or turn back. After returning from an expedition, they would deliver one-third of the booty to the priests, to be burned and sent to heaven. They cast the oracle sticks to select those knightly prisoners who would be burned alive upon their horses. After running the horses back and forth until too exhausted to resist their fate, they would tie the victim upon the beast, pile wood around him, and set the pyre ablaze.

The Prussian outrages had so incensed their Polish and Pomeranian victims that massive retaliatory attacks had been made, with great armies penetrating into Prussia to revenge their suffering. But, in the greatest of these crusades a large Polish army had been destroyed in a forest battle, and the more recent efforts to turn back the Prussian raiders had also failed. In vain were Templars, Hospitallers, and even the Spanish order of Calatrava settled on the frontier.

The popes had tried peaceful missions to the Prussians, but over the space of a century the only result had been addition of more martyrs to the church calendar. In the early thirteenth century another mission failed, another crusade was repulsed, and the temporary Christian domination of Culm was lost.

The constant discouragement had caused the Polish duke of Masovia to call upon a German crusading order in 1226. The Teutonic Knights were monks of noble ancestry, trained as knights and dedicated to fighting the enemies of the Church. The fact tht they were Germans was unimportant to the Polish duke — he knew lots of Germans and his relatives had even married a few. In many ways the Teutonic Order was like the Foreign Legion: the members had left their homes, their families; they served without regard for money, or fame, or comfort; and they had no earthly future to look forward to. Their goal was to enter heaven and to achieve that by doing their duty here on earth.3

In 1230 the Teutonic Knights advanced into Culm for the first time and defeated the Prussians there. Their techniques were as primitive as their warfare was sophisticated: they gave the natives the choice of becoming Christians, thereby saving their lands and class privileges in return for military service, or of fighting to the death. Armed with complete armor, sword, shield, spear, riding a heavy warhorse, and clad in a striking white mantle with a black cross, the Teutonic Knights were not unlike a panzer corps on the prowl. Individually they were a match for any number of Prussians — whose equipment was often no more than a club and hide-covered shield. The Prussian nobles were almost their equals, being well-armed and also big, strong men; and in the forest, where their lighter equipment was more suitable, they were superior to the Germans.


Whenever the Prussians assembled their forces, the Teutonic Knights could only retreat into their castles and keep the besiegers away by shooting down their leaders with deadly crossbow bolts. The crossbow, the catapult, and the siege tower were Christian monopolies like the the mill, the beer brewery, and the sailing ship.

Better technology and superior military techniques and equipment gave the German knights a significant advantage over the pagans, but such was the numerical disparity that they had to rely upon armies of crusaders for their periodic offensives. At first these armies were Polish; later, when the Polish dukes were distracted by civil war, the armies were German, Austrian, and Czech. To provide food for the knights, the Teutonic Knights brought in farmers and merchants, giving them lands in Culm that had once belonged to pagans, and they offered fiefs to knights who would serve in their armies. These immigrants were predominantly German because the Holy Roman Empire had a surplus population, but they included many Poles and Pomeranians. Martin of Golin's family had been among the first to accept this invitation.

In 1242 the tribes to the east — the Nattangians, Warmians, and Bartians — revolted and destroyed all the castles in their regions, killing the garrisons and the settlers. Then in 1244 they raided Culm and persuaded the natives there and in Pomerania and Pogesania to join them. That was the attack that brought misfortune to the Golin family and made young Martin into a passionate enemy of the pagan way of life.

Martin was a mountain of a man — extraordinarily strong, lithe, skilful in the use of weapons and marvelous horseman, fluent in Prussian and probably in Polish, too. And he was intelligent. The John Wayne of his era, the Daniel Boone, Davey Crockett, and Jim Bowie, he became a legend early in life and lived up to his reputation. He was a frontiersman to the core. One chronicler called him a "Hero," another a "bold thief." 4 Both were right. He was a frontier scout for the Teutonic Knights, serving as a "half-brother"' who had a contract for a particular time and was excused from the eight masses a day the monkish knights were expected to hear. Not unlike Buffalo Bill, his duties were not merely military; he served as an intermediary between the crusaders and the natives, explaining the customs and traditions of the Prussians in such a way that the crusaders came to understand and value the local ways. That bore fruit later, after the Prussian revolt had been crushed and numerous Prussian nobles came to serve in the crusader armies as scouts, light cavalry, and infantry.

Through the decade of the 50's nothing is heard of Martin of Golin. Presumably he was learning his military trade, serving in the crusader armies that conquered the Samlanders, the proudest of all the Prussian tribes, and built the great castle at Königsberg to hold them in subjection. There is every reason to think that he participated in the crusade of 1255, in which the King of Bohemia brought a huge army over the ice to Samland. As the first unit of crusaders came into view, the king asked a converted Prussian if that army would be big enough to conquer Samland. He answered no. When the second unit appeared, the question was repeated, and the answer was still no. As the third force appeared, the Prussian said it seemed sufficient; and when finally all the formations were in sight, stretched along the ice from horizon to horizon and "covering the ice like grasshoppers cover the land," the Prussian said that the army was great enough to do anything it wished.5

At the end of the decade Martin was living in Culm, assigned to scout for the garrison at Rehden, which protected the frontier against raiders who came down the slot in Galindia between the forts in Nattangia and those in Masovia. This post became very dangerous in 1260 after the Prussians rebelled a second time. Although the Teutonic Knights were better prepared than before and more Prussian nobles remained loyal to their new religion, the situation deteriorated as the eastern garrisons were starved out one by one. The native hero, Henry Monte, who had been reared as a hostage in Germany, gave his countrymen the same advantage in knowledge of the enemy that men like Martin of Golin were giving the crusaders.6

During this period Martin went on patrol with an experienced brother of the Teutonic Knights. They avoided the main paths where they were likely to encounter the enemy scouts who could prevent them from learning anything important, and, at last, wandering deeper and deeper into the wilderness, they lost their way completely. Finally, running onto a path, they decided to follow it in the hope that it would lead them to safety. Suddenly and unexpectedly, they encountered three Prussians. There was a brief fight, in which Martin and his companion killed two of the pagans and captured the other. Martin asked him about the road and promised to free him if he would lead them back to Rehden. The Prussian agreed, but instead of taking them to their friends, he led them straight to his own camp. When Martin saw the trick, he cut the prisoner down and fled away, pursued by five noble Prussians. The horses were unequal to the task, having been exhausted by the previous travel, so Martin and his companion let them go and tried to escape by foot through the underbrush. But the ruse was not successful the five Prussians caught up, wounded both men, overpowered them, and tied them up. Then, leaving two of their number to watch the prisoners, the rest went after the runaway horses.

The two Prussians talked over the situation and decided to revenge themselves on Martin right away, without waiting for the others to return. They fetched the sword and pulled Martin into a position suitable for decapitation. At that moment he said, "This isn't very smart. You know that blood ruins good clothes. Once it gets into the fabric, it can't be washed out." The two Prussians thought about that for a while and agreed that he was right. Thanking him jokingly, they said that they would take off his shirt first and unbound his arms. At the instant he felt himself free, Martin struck the one holding the sword and smashed his throat with a huge fist, then he grabbed the weapon and hacked both men to death.

The danger was far from over: Martin could see the other Prussians returning with the horses; and he and his companion were weak from exhaustion, loss of blood, and the constriction of the tight bonds. But in a long fight they killed their three opponents, stripped them of their weapons, armor, and ornaments to carry back home, and made their way to Rehden.7

Not long afterward a report came that twenty Prussians had been raiding in Poland. The commander sent Martin with seventeen men out to find them. His men were sergeants, Germans and natives who were members of the Teutonic Order but whose common birth excluded them from full membership in the order — hence the term "half-brother" — unless an act of extraordinary valor won them an honorary promotion. These were the support troops, the men who did most of the fighting but received little of the credit; generally they were lightly armed and fought in the Prussian manner. Late at night Martin and his men came upon the Prussian camp. Seeing that the two guards were asleep, Martin sent his men to capture them. One resisted and was killed; the other was brought in for interrogation. On the promise that his life would be spared, he told the crusaders where the camp was and how many men were there. Martin then bound him to a tree and led his men to the attack. The fight that followed was terrific — apparently the pagans had been awakened and were waiting in arms, equal in numbers and equipment to their foe. One of Martin's followers, driven into a river, escaped by stripping off his armor and clothes and swimming away; he returned as soon as he saw it was safe, picked up a fallen sword and shield and re-entered the battle nude. Soon his flesh was slashed and cut, the steel weapons rebounding from the chain armor, until his skin hung in bloody strips and he fell. At last exhaustion took its toll of the remaining warriors until only the hardiest were left. The bodies piled on top of one another, German and Prussian, Christian and pagan, until only Martin of Golin was left alive.

The watchman had meanwhile escaped from his bonds and come running to the camp to join in the fray. He found Martin calming undressing the dead and loading their gear onto the sleds of booty brought out of Poland. Martin caught him and obliged him to help collect the weapons, clothes, and horses, and to drive them back to Rehden.8

Seventeen years passed before the chroniclers mentioned Martin of Golin again. In that period the Teutonic Knights had conquered the last of the Prussians and begun a war with a new pagan enemy, the Lithuanians. Martin was again on the frontier, scouting the border wilderness that lay between Prussia and Lithuania. He had collected a group of Prussian followers who were almost as well-known to contemporaries as Martin himself. They were native nobles, Christians, and half— brothers in the Teutonic Order. Some had families and ancestral estates, but most lived with Martin at his castle Conowedit just west of Königsberg in Samland. Conrad the Devil was a Samlander, Kudar a Sudovian, and Nakaim was from Pogesania; Stovemel's origin was a mystery. Robin Hood scarcely had a more colorful group of merry men, and the stories that revolved around these irregular troops were hardly less well known (although most have been forgotten today).9

About 1279 Martin was operating in Sudovia, an interior province that bordered on Prussia, Lithuania, Masovia, and Volhynian Russia, where the Poles and the Teutonic Knights were slowly beating the pagan natives into submission despite the chivalrous resistance of their own legendary chieftain, Scumand. On this occasion Martin had four Germans and eleven Prussians with him to attack a small village. At first everything went as planned: they found the pagans unprepared, killed the men, rounded up the prisoners and cattle and drove them toward Nattangia and Bartia, and did not rest until they reached what they believed to be a safe place; then they threw off their armor, some to prepare a meal and the others to rest. Suddenly the Sudovians burst out of the woods and overwhelmed the four Germans who stood to fight. Martin and the Prussians, however, had bolted into the wood and fled for their lives, thankful that the four inexperienced men had delayed pursuit for a few vital moments. The Sudovian pagans allowed the fugitives to run, believing it unlikely that they could catch any of them, and turned their energies to collecting the weapons and booty; then they sat down to eat the crusaders' meal; and, toward evening, exhausted from their formidable efforts, they lay down to sleep.

Martin circled in the forest and assembled his scattered men. Seeing that they were without weapons, he slipped past the guards to steal swords, shields, and spears, then distributed them among his men, who, in turn, stealthily sneaked into the camp and murdered the pagans in their sleep. Only one managed to arm himself and flee; and as he came running down the path, Martin was waiting for him. Martin was pleased to take home the additional weapons and armor that the Sudovians had brought with them, because the booty was divided among the participants.10

Another time Martin and a few men fell on a large village, killing most of the warriors at supper and gathering up the horses, cattle, women, and children. Almost at the end of the raid Martin found ten men in a sauna bath, unaware of what was going on. He walked into the bathhouse with his sword and swung it among the naked bodies until he was sick with the sight of blood.11

Seven years later, in 1286, as Martin was about fifty years of age, he made his greatest coup, A young Lithuanian noble had come to the commander of Königsberg, Albert of Meissen, and asked for his help in obtaining revenge on a kinsman who had robbed him of his inheritance. Albert was renowned as a pious man, but he was intelligent and too good a warrior to think that an army would help much in this situation. Instead, he sent for Martin of Golin and his friends, Conrad the Devil and Stovemel.

The young noble explained that his kinsman would celebrate a wedding in a few days, a festival that would provide an opportunity to attack him unawares. The bridegroom already had several wives and a numerous family, of course, and we may suspect that the bride also figured in the young man's anger.

Martin took twenty experienced men. The Lithuanian guided this small party past the border watch posts without their being detected, and they arrived safely underneath the walls of the castle just as the celebration was in full progress. Seventy nobles were there, all dead-drunk; and their wives and warriors were equally incapable of defending themselves. Martin and his men did not dare take the nobles prisoner — they could never get so many men back to Prussia — and so they slew them right and left, then rounded up the women and children. At the very last they found the bridegroom and bride, asleep in one another's arms. The monkish chronicle remarked that if it had been up to him, he would have left them sleeping, but it wasn't; Martin woke them with a terrible cry, tied them fast, and led them away prisoner with the others. He also collected one hundred horseloads of costly presents that had been intended for the bridal pair — gold, silver, household objects, and other portable things.12

The old warrior did not retire to a graceful end of his days. Instead, his raids went ever deeper into enemy country. On the distant Bug River, in the heart of the hostile land, he once saw a Lithuanian barge proceeding up the river. He knew that this pagan Mike Finn was transporting a rich cargo that had been bought illegally from German or Polish "gunrunners." Therefore, he shadowed the vessel until the tired sailors pulled ashore for the night, then led his men to the place, killed the crew, and seized the barge; the freebooters sailed downstream past the merchants who had sold the goods and on to Thorn, where they sold the boat and cargo. Each man received twenty marks as his share of the profit — enough to establish them as rich men anywhere and equal to four years' income for the average knight.13

Martin died as he wanted, in battle. In 1295 there was an uprising in Samland. Martin, now sixty, sallied out to attack the rebels. On the return to his castle with the booty, he was ambushed. He and his three closest companions perished in the fight. To commemorate him, the master of the Teutonic Order erected a pillar with four faces engraved upon its sides. It became known as "the four brothers." As might be expected, rumor had it that Martin had escaped this battle also, and that he lived on to further adventures.14

Martin of Golin was not a typical frontiersman, but his life typified a group of men, both Christian and pagan, who fought in the border wars of this era. Animated by hatred and greed alike, they made these conflicts into terrible struggles that left a legacy of mutual animosity unto the present generation. Whatever their reasons for beginning their career, by the end they were hardly to be distinguished from their foes. But their's was not the simple hatred of those who were not directly involved and never came to know the enemy personally; theirs was a complex relationship that overcame national and class origins, that respected those of the enemy who joined them in the common struggle, and won the respect of friend and foe alike. For every Martin of Golin, there was a Henry Monte or Scumand; and for chivalrous Teutonic Knights, there were equally chivalrous Lithuanians and Prussians. And with the passing of time, each recognized the chivalry of the other. This was the first step toward the abolition of those terrible and brutal practices that had distinguished pagan warfare and the retaliation that Christians took for them. In this way Martin's reputation and the stories told about his almost supernatural feats were more important for the stamping out of paganism than were his deeds. And Martin and his companions did more toward bringing the Prussian nobles into the Christian community as knights and nobles than did any number of papal admonishments to treat the natives fairly.

There has been controversy about the role that native knights played in the crusader government and military activities. Much of this controversy stems from an irrational and now outdated nationalism. It is clear that men like Martin of Golin, Conrad the Devil, and Stovemel were important to the crusader state. Although Martin was not mentioned in any of the surviving documents, his companions were. Nothing differentiates them from the many other Prussian nobles who were confirmed in their pre-conquest lands and privileges and rewarded for their services.15 That these nobles did not come to exercise a dominant voice in Prussian affairs was due to the centralizing policy of the Teutonic Order, which took power from all petty nobles — whether of German, Pomeranian, Polish, Prussian, or Lithuanian ancestry — and concentrated it in the hands of its own officials. But they still had a voice, and they were important in all the wars of the following centuries. No frontier war can be fought without good scouts and a dependable militia. That the Teutonic Knights succeeded in their many campaigns against Samogithians and Lithuanians can be attributed to the class of men represented by Martin of Golin and his native friends.


1 Petri de Dusburg, "Cronica terre Prussie," and Nicholaus von Jeroschin, "Kronike von Pruzinlant," in Scriptores rerum Prussicarum (ed. Theodor Hirsch, Max Töppen, and Ernst Strehlke. Leipzig, 1861), I, 73-74, 385. All descriptions of pagan life and customs have been collected in Wilhelm Mannhardt's Letto-Preussische Götterlehre (Riga: Lettisch - Literärischen Gesellschaft, 1936) and are brought up-to-date by Marian Biskup in Historia, Pomorza (Poznan: Wydawnictwo Poznanskie, 1969).
2 Golin is mentioned twice in 13th century documents. Pommerelisches Urkundenbuch (ed. Max Perlbach. Danzig: Westpreussisches Geschichtsverein, 1882), pp. 149, 347. These are insufficient to establish the origin of the population. The other Golins, further south in Brandenburg proper, seem to have been settled later.
3 The interpretation of the motives impelling the Teutonic Knights to come to Prussia is currently under revision. German and Polish historians have agreed that each rewrite textbooks so as to discuss fairly the interpretations held by the other. See Deutschland, Polen, und der Deutsche Order (Sonderdruck der Deutschen UNESCO — Kommission. Bonn, 1974). In the case of the motives of 1230, it is irrelevant what the motives were in 1309 and afterward, when the crusader order became aggressive beyond previous experience.
4 Dusburg, p. 139, and Jeroschin, p. 499.
5 Dusburg, p. 91; Martin later held a fief in Samland.
6 Ibid., p. 128.
7 Ibid., pp. 124-125; Jeroschin, p. 470.
8 Dusburg, p. 125; Jeroschin, pp. 470-471.
9 Similar to these men were the Lithuanian scouts described in the Livländische Reimchronik (ed. Leo Meyer, reprint of 1876 edition. Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1963), p. 97: "scouts were given to the leaders. . . Lithuanians and fine heroes." At this time the native chieftains still had an important voice in all military decisions. This diminished after the battle of Durben (1260), which was lost because the majority of native nobles insisted upon dividing the booty in such a way as to alienate the Kurs so completely that they pulled out of the line of battle and fled home, leaving the rest to be destroyed.
10 Dusburg, p. 139; Jeroschin, p. 499.
11 Jeroschin, p. 500.
12 Ibid., pp. 519-520.
13 Ibid., p. 520.
14 Johannes Voigt, Geschichte Preussens (12 volumes. Königsberg: Bornträger, 1827-1839), IV, 112-113, 589-593.
15 Preussisches Urkundenbuch (ed. August Seraphim. Königsberg: Hartung, 1909), I, part 2. These "Witinge" can be identified easily and were even listed for the convenience of the officials who had to call upon them for service.