Volume 24, No.4 - Winter 1978
Editor of this issue: Kęstutis Girnius
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 1978 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

A Teutonic Knight


Bowling Green State University

The 14th century Austrian poet Peter Suchenwirt is best known for his rhymed eulogies (G. Ehrenreden,MHG. reden). He spent much time in travel and whenever he heard of the death of a famous person, he would visit the home of the deceased on the first anniversary of his death, or sometimes already on the 30th day after death, and would deliver a speech in praise of the dead. He extolled the virtues of kings and noblemen, telling of their accomplishments in war and in tournaments. The eulogy would often end with a description of the coat of arms of the deceased, since Peter Suchenwirt was a specialist in heraldry and was familiar with coats of arms and their interpretation.

Suchenwirt's two most famous speeches are:

1. A eulogy about his contemporary, the prolific Austrian writer Heinrich der Teichner (ca. 1310 to ca. 1377), who wrote some 70,000 verses, and

2. A eulogy to Herzog Albrecht III of Austria, whom he accompanied on a progress through East Prussia in 1377 which culminated in an attack on Lithuania ("Von Herzog Albrechts Ritterschaft"). After Albrecht's death, Suchenwirt composed another eulogy which speaks again of that expedition ("Von Herzog Albrecht von Oesterreich. — selig—").

To the scholar in Baltic studies the detailed description of the attack on Lithuania given by an eye-witness exactly 600 years ago is of particular interest.

We find in Suchenwirt's report a unique account of events which were repeated throughout Baltic history: the Germanic "Drang nach Osten."

In my studies I used the 1827 edition 1 of Suchenwirt's writings which, as of now, is still the most complete, having been reprinted in 1961. Its editor, Alois Primisser, admits in his introduction 2 that he had rearranged the material and did not always follow the chronological sequence of the works. His edition was based on the Sinzendorf-Thurn manuscript collection in Vienna, dating from the 1400's, with a few additions which Primisser took from two other manuscripts 3. He explains the reason for his arbitrary arrangement of Suchenwirt's works in the following manner:

Die Reden selbst—so nennt Suchenwirt die meisten seiner Werke—sind nicht ihrem Inhalte gemaess geordnet, so dass die Lebensschilderungen der Helden mehrmals durch fremdartige, allegohsche und andere Reden unterbrochen werden. Dies schien fuer diese Ausgabe nicht zweckmaessig. In dieser wurden also die Heldengeschichten vorausgeshickt 4.

Thus, we find the account of Herzog Albrecht's Prussian expedition, which is the focal point of this investigation, not in Chapter 31 as recorded in the Sinzendorf-Thurn collection but in Chapter 4, although it is one of Suchenwirt's later works.

It is easy to date the events described because Suchenwirt states the year right at the outset: 1377. To obtain a better perspective of the time, 1377 was one year before the Great Schism began within the Catholic Church (1378-1417), one year before the death of Emperor Charles IV, founder of the University at Prague, and, you may recall, was also the very year that Algirdas, Grand Duke of Lithuania, died.

The young Herzog Albrecht III (1347-1395) of Austria, son of Albrecht II, wants to be knighted.

In dauchte wol, in tzem daz golt
Paz den daz silber, daz waz recht. (1. 10, 11)

These lines can be interpreted as follows. Although he was already of high nobility, knighthood acquired as a reward for heroic deeds was held in yet greater esteem. The former, noble birth, is compared to silver; the latter, earned knighthood, to gold.

With 50 noblemen, five counts among them, Albrecht starts out on his trek to Prussia. In a manner characteristic of Suchenwirt, who liked precision and detail, the counts are mentioned by name, including the poet, Hugo von Monfort (1357-1423). There is some uncertainty as to the participation in this trip of another poet, Oswald von Wolkenstein, who by his own admission took part in an expedition to Prussia at the age of ten. But when was he born? Most of the authoritative literary histories—Frenzel, Walshe, DeBoor—claim it was in 1377, which would make him less than one year old at the time of the expedition. Only Fritz Martini sets his birth in 1367. In any case, Suchenwirt sheds little light on this question since he mentions Oswald von Wolkenstein, of whatever age, not at all.

Although some of the forces had already gathered in Vienna, the main assembly point is the town of La, situated on the Tey River, to the north of the city. From La they proceed directly north to Prezzla, which was Breslau, now Worzlaw. Here Herzog Albrecht organizes the first festivity, inviting many elegant ladies who with wit, graceful dancing and laughter (l. 61) help the host to entertain his friends. The next stop is Thorn -Thorun-, where again there is a celebration with ladies present. Suchenwirt obviously enjoys describing the ladies and their attire, mentioning pearls, jewelry, wreaths, headgear, etc. (1. 74-79), but he never fails to point out that everything at these festivities is done "mit tzuchten und mit eren", in a proper courtly manner.

From Thorun the journey continues to Marienburg, where the illustrious Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights, Winrich von Kniprode (ca. 1310-VI.24. 1382), gives them a splendid reception. At the next rallying point, in Koenigsberg, it is Herzog Albrecht's turn to give a banquet and he tries to excel all previous ones. Trumpets and pipes announce each course of the meal and the best wines are served; and, to outdo all other hosts, Albrecht gives away presents of gold and silver.

This banquet is followed by a pause of ten days, during which final preparations are made for the actual advance into enemy territory. The marshal and the guides are in charge of everything, commandeering food and supplies for three weeks. The marshal had a position comparable to a minister of war, and the guides (MHG. weisen, G. Wegweiser), with their intelligence information, were indispensable in such undertakings. According to tradition, the Grand Master gave the farewell banquet in the Grand Hall at Koenigsberg. Usually such meals were served after a successful expedition, but sometimes, as in this case, before the onset of one. The mood is solemn, almost somber. After all, these people were going into war and danger is imminent. No mention of ladies here.

When everything is ready, the crusade in honor of Herzog Albrecht and the Virgin Mary begins. Through Insterburg (Lith. Įsrutis), they move to the river Šešupė (Suchenwirt: Suppen, 1. 180), across which four bridges are built. Suchenwirt observes that the water in the river is almost as deep as the length of a lance. (Nachen gantzer glefen tief, 1. 183). Despite the four lane traffic, there is great congestion on the bridges because everybody is in a hurry. Having crossed the Šešupė, the army now moves toward the next major obstacle, the Nemunas (Suchenwirt: Mimil, 1. 187), which is as wide as an arrow could reach when shot with a bow. (Das wazzer ist pogen schuzzes weit, 1. 188). Boatmen are ready waiting to transport troops, horses and the military equipment to the other bank, that is, from the south to the north bank of the Nemunas. It turns out to be a difficult task that lasts from noon till evening, but with only four casualties: three horses and a servant. I believe, however, that Suchenwirt's claim that over 30,000 people were transported on 610 boats is exaggerated.

The real hardship begins north of the Nemunas where the terrain makes progress difficult. The author sees one thousand-odd men wandering around in the wilderness trying to get through dense underbrush, over deep water and across swamps and complains that the roads here are even worse than in Hungary! The low branches of the trees scratch the necks of the soldiers. They must climb over huge tree trunks, which the wind has blown down, all to the accompaniment of much military griping critical of the Prussians and their land.

Like most writers of his time, Suchenwirt makes no distinction between Prussians, Russians, Lithuanians, or any other people of North Eastern Europe, calling them simply "pagans" or Prussians.

The horses, which must transport all food and drink, are especially hard pressed and exhausted to the point of faltering. As the day comes to an end, a decision is made to spend the night in a place where the animals finally have sufficient grass to graze on.

In the morning things begin to look somewhat better. The expedition can now proceed in formation, everyone ranked according to his importance following the standard of Saint George. Many banners float in the breeze. Even the hats are decorated with ostrich feathers, and the gold and silver ornaments, which the knights have received, are often adorned with pearls and jewels, all of which shine in the sun.

"Sameyt," Žemaitija (Samogitia) is attacked. Sixty men are killed. A village is burned. After this "victory" Count Till Hermann knights Herzog Albrecht with the proclamation: "Pezzer ritter wenne chnecht!—Better to be a knight than a servant!" Then Albrecht himself knights 74 other participants. The newly knighted warriors then roam about for awhile, killing anyone they meet. By nightfall their tents are pitched in a field and flaunt their colours in the setting sun. Raised banners help to identify the various rendezvous of the many different groups. At night the pagans attack the camp, stabbing, clubbing, shooting. They are repulsed only to come back, shouting with loud voices like wild animals. It is real guerilla warfare. The pagans have no regular army. They can attack only in small groups. Face to face with a well-organized and well-equipped force, they find it impossible to defend themselves and no direct confrontation occurs. The fact that the pagans are well acquainted with the terrain is to their advantage, as is also their realization that this is a life and death struggle which makes them fierce fighters. The only time they can venture to attack is under cover of night since the invaders are at a disadvantage in the dark. Their army is large and heterogeneous. Its members do not know each other, wear different clothing, speak different dialects. Repeated orders are given to keep the diverse groups separated, to make it possible to tell friend from foe. The crusading Christians have to content themselves with killing the native population and burning their homes. Suchenwirt claims that many fall victim to these attacks, while others, particularly women and children, are taken captive. There is a pathetic description of women carried into captivity on horseback, barefoot, often with two children tied to them, one in front and one in back. When men are captured alive, their hands are bound and they are led away like hunting dogs;

Die hend man in tzu samen pant;
So fuert man si gepunden
Gleich den iagunden hunden. (1. 340-2)

The local population is forced to provide the invading army with anything it fancies—geese, chickens, sheep, cows, horses and much of the honey of which the natives are so fond, while all else is put to the torch.

To protect themselves from the guerilla attacks, the Christians build a stockade around their camp and set guards, which at least enables everybody to sleep undisturbed.

On the third day the army comes to the land of Rusenia (1. 362), which, I believe, is the territory of Raseiniai, not to be confused with the similarly sounding name of Russia, which Suchenwirt calls Reuzzen (Rewzzen, Rewssen) or Rewssen-land. A little further in the text, Suchenwirt mentions three distinct lands:

Den haiden da tzu ungemach 
Daz her wuchst drew gantze lant, 
Die ich mit namen tue bechant; 
Sameyt, Russein, Aragal, (1. 424-429)

Which means, that "To the great distress of the pagans, the army devastated three entire lands, Sameyt, Russein, Aragal," that is Žemaitija, Raseiniai and Ariogala, all adjacent areas. Everywhere the invaders kill and burn. Then comes a cause for rejoicing. Konrad von Schweinwart kills a pagan leader (haubtman, 1. 369) by piercing him with his spear, but the spear remains fast in the body. Such a wonder calls for a celebration. Graf Hermann invites Herzog Albrecht and all the other newly knighted men, 82 in all, to a special banquet. In addition to choice wines, a delicacy is served: venison, from an animal killed some 200 miles away.

For eight days the devastation continues. At times the smoke from all the burning is so dense that it is difficult to see. Suddenly a change in the weather turns the fortune of the invaders. For three days and nights rain pours. Wind and hail add to the misery. The food begins to rot, the armour starts to rust. It is so cold that the horses tremble and refuse to eat. The crusaders break camp and return in haste to the Nemunas, which is difficult to cross even in good weather. Now many a knight prepares for the worst and says his prayers, hoping the Virgin Mary will help him reach the other bank. And, eventually, they all manage to do so. The Herzog and other notables leave on the first boat and go downstream to the disembarkation point for the overland journey to Koenigsberg. Those who embark later are not so fortunate. After traveling about a mile, they lose control of their boats and a strong east wind drives them down the Nemunas toward the Kurisches Haff (Kuršių Marios). The situation is so dangerous that they doubt they will survive, but somehow they are spared and the return trip can continue slowly. The roads then in East Prussia leading south and west appeared worse to Suchenwirt than anything he had ever seen. He must have been tired, too. The horses are either up to the saddle in swamps or struggling over the high ridges separating the fields, but after great difficulty all reach Koenigsberg and can finally rest. Herzog Albrecht presents gifts to a number of knights, especially to those who have joined the expedition from such distant places as Cologne, France or Scotland. The presents consist of golden goblets and silver bowls filled with gold. All concerned, both the crusaders and the local knights, have the greatest praise for Herzog Albrecht who so gallantly took part in the expedition without ever losing his temper, even when faced with every possible hardship. As the army moves homeward, the joyous news reaches Albrecht that his wife has given birth to a boy, his first born, named Albrecht after him.

In Schweidnitz (now Swidnica) near Breslau, Albrecht's cousin, Herzogin Agnet, receives everyone most cordially and entertains them as her guests for four days, showering them with valuable presents. Finally, the expedition returns to Austria through southern Poland and Moravia.

Even to the casual reader the motive behind the 1377 expedition is obvious: the personal ambition of Herzog Albrecht III who wishes to be knighted and therefore needs this triumph. The general tenor of the "Litauenreise" is aristocratic, complete with great pageantry and many festivities. Yet the hardships endured in enemy territory are real and the cruelty of the invaders merciless. The description of the terrain seems authentic and specific geographical locations are mentioned by name, e.g. Raseiniai, Ariogala. Finally, the essential futility of the entire enterprise becomes clear; the bloodshed and sufferings serve only Albrecht's selfish purpose. This was not the intent of Suchenwirt's literary endeavor, however, since he himself was a knight at heart and, although the times were changing, still celebrated the glory and splendor of medieval chivalry.

Suchenwirt is a keen observer, giving vivid and quite believable descriptions of what he sees. For example, he pays attention to the details of the ladies' attire, mentions the depth of the Šešupė and the width of the Nemunas and lists the wines that are served at the banquets. Still adhering to the tradition of medieval writers, he likes to use allegory to describe what He sees. When he speaks of the attack on Žemaitija, he compares it to a wild wedding feast at which he would not like to be the bridegroom because 60 people are killed, one sees nothing but smoke and fire, and his "bride", the enemy, surely would have driven him away.

In his poetic skills Suchenwirt surpasses the man whom he so admired and who so influenced his own writings: Heinrich der Teichner. But Teichner was a moralist who criticized his contemporaries and disapproved of many things in their lives—such as the behavior of the nobility toward the poor, the worldliness of the clergy and the fact that priests bore arms. As for those who went to fight the pagan Prussians, some of them, in his opinion, ought to be put to death themselves for the crimes they had committed at home. While Teichner, then, stands in marked opposition to the general attitude in Western Europe at a time when ambitious young noblemen, with the encouragement of the Holy Roman Emperor and the blessing of the Pope, rallied to subdue the pagan Prussians and Lithuanians; Suchenwirt, the enthusiastic young adventurer, follows and even furthers this prevailing public attitude rather than that of his mentor.

Suchenwirt's account of the attack on Lithuania is, of course, biased, written strictly from the point of view of the Christian crusaders. Even the smallest victory of the invaders is hailed as God-given and the fierce resistance of the natives is considered the devil's work. "Was in tet we, daz tet uns wol! What hurts them, makes us feel good," he writes (1. 289), and "Den christen gwin, den haiden fluest (1. 202)—Each gain of the Christians is the loss of the pagans. "This is "Christianity" at its worst. Throughout the narrative Suchenwirt keeps reminding the reader that everything is done for the glory of God and the Virgin Mary and that the ultimate goal is to spread the faith among the infidels. There is no need to point out how absurd it is to think that a missionary effort could be carried out in such a manner.

Yet authors like Karl Helm and Walther Ziesemer 5 exonerate the Teutonic Order from all, or almost all, wrong doing because, according to these critics, the misled adventurers who gave a bad name to the Order and undermined public confidence in it were outsiders from, as Suchenwirt tells us, such "non-Teutonic" foreign parts as France, Scotland, Austria and Cologne. Helm and Ziesemer even go so far as to blame them for the eventual downfall of the Order which received its final blow at Tannenberg (Žalgiris) in 1410. To quote the above authors:

Dem Grossfuersten Jagello fiel es unter diesen Um-staenden nicht schwer, dem Orden die Fuersten und Ritter Europas zu entfremden und ihm deren Hilfe zu entziehen. Es gelang ihm weiterhin, auch im Innern des Landės Misstrauen zu erwecken, sodass Orden, Landad-el und Volk nicht einheitlich geschlossen in den Kampf eintraten, waehrend die Gegner Zuzug aus anderen oestlichen Laendern erhielten 6.

Little is known about the personal life of Peter Suchenwirt, not even the exact dates of his birth and death. He called himself the "Knappe von den Wappen", a herald whose task it was to describe and to interpret noblemen's coats of arms, a skill called "Blasonierung" or "Visierung." Suchenwirt's predecessors in this genre of "Wappendichtung" were such famous writers as Wolfram von Eschenbach, Ulrich von Lichtenstein and Konrad von Wuerzburg. Suchenwirt himself had a direct influence on Hugo von Monfort.

There are numerous other places in Suchenwirt's works where we find references to the Germanic drive to the East.

In his very first eulogy, dedicated to King Ludwig of Hungary (1326-82), mention is made of the king's expeditions into northeastern territory, specifically Prussia and Lithuania. These expeditions were undertaken with other kings and noblemen:

Mit chuenig, mit grafen hochgeporn,
Vreyen, dinstman auzerchorn,
Mit ritter, chnechten, mutes reich. (I, 1. 115-117)

This could be the war of 1345 in which King John of Bohemia, the Margrave of Moravia and other notables also took part. Since Suchenwirt is praising Ludwig, it is he who captures the Lithuanian leader (chuenig) and makes him swear loyalty according to his own pagan custom. The oath is soon broken, however, and the fighting resumes.

Daz er der Litaow schaden mert,
Dem chuenig er dar ze laide fuer,
Und den bedwanch, daz er im swuer
Noch haydenischen siten.
Die treew die ward versniten,
Daz er an im geprochen hat. (I, 1. 106-111)

The Lithuanian leader here could have been Kęstutis, son of Gediminas, who was captured and escaped. Suchenwirt's account should not be confused with the captivity of Kėstutis in 1362 that lasted for half a year. Historically, the war of 1345 was a failure for the allied forces, but Suchenwirt conceals this  by omitting many details. Of interest is the fact that Ludwig of Hungary was twice in the Northeast:

In Rewzzen lant der mutes vruet
Fuer tzwir mit manigem helde wert. (!., 1. 104-105)

Yet it appears that Suchenwirt has placed the episode of the broken oath in the wrong war. In 1351 Ludwig was again at war on behalf of King Casimir of Poland against Lithuania. Kęstutis met Ludwig at the border with his own army, but, instead of combat, negotiations began in regard to Kęstutis's baptism. Kęstutis agreed to accept the Christian faith if Poland and Hungary would return to Lithuania the territories then held by the Teutonic Knights. An agreement was reached. Having given an oath in his pagan manner, Kęstutis disappeared and was not seen again. This incident in 1351 is generally considered to be historically true, having been recorded by contemporaries in two separate chronicles 7. While there is much speculation among historians as to why Kęstutis broke an agreement that would seem to have been very favorable to him and while the actual form of the oath— the killing of an ox and the smearing of fresh blood on himself and his followers—has occasioned many comments 8, it is evident that Suchenwirt at least heard of the breaking of the oath and was sufficiently impressed to mention it more than once. This second reference to the capture of the Lithuanian leader, found in Suchenwirt's IXth eulogy praising Ellerbach the Younger ("Von Herrn Puppli von Ellerbach dem Jungen") and his accomplishments on various expeditions fighting alongside his father whom he preceded in death in 1357, helps confirm the fact of the Kęstutis affair while shedding no further light on its meaning.

Peter Suchenwirt collected material for his historical accounts with painstaking effort, visiting the highly placed personalities concerned. He was always inquiring, investigating, searching for information which he then wrote down in rhymed couplets. All references in his work regarding Germanic expansion eastward therefore deserve our special attention.


Annalen der deutsclien Literatur. Edited by Heinz Otto Burger, Stuttgart, 1952. 
Spaetmittelalter, Humanismus, Reformation: Texte und Zeugnisse,
vol. I, Spaetmittelalter und Fruehhumanismus, Edited by Hedwig Heger, Muenchen, 1975. 
Golther, Wolfgang, Die deutsche Dichtung im Mittelalter, 800 bis 1500, Stuttgart, 1912. 
Helm, Karl and Ziesemer, Walther, Die Literatur des Deutschen Ritterordens. Giessen, 1951. 
Končius, Joseph B., Vytautas the Great, Grand Duke of Lithuania. Miami, Florida, 1964.
Kučinskas, Antanas, Kęstutis: Lietuvių Tautos Gynėjas. Marijampolė, 1938. 
Ivinskis, Zenonas, Lietuvos ir Apaštalų Sosto santykiai amžių bėgyje. Roma, 1961. 
Lietuvių Enciklopedija.
South Boston, 1968. 
Peter Suchenwirts' Werke aus dem 14. Jahrhunderte: Ein Beytrag zur Zeit-und Siltengeschichte.
Edited by Alois Primisser, Wien, 1827. 
Rupprich, Hans, Das Wiener Schrifttum des ausgehenden Mittetalters, in "Oesterreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften", Sitzungsberichte, 228, vol. 5, Wien, 1954. 
Rupprich, Hans, Die Deutsche Literatur vom spaelen Mittelalter bis zum Barock, vol. I, Das ausgehende Mittelalter, Humanismus und Renaissance 1370-1520, in Geschichie der deutschen Literatur van den Anfaengen bis zur Gegenwart by Helmut De Boor and Richard Newald, Muenchen, 1970.
Scriplores rerum prussicarum: Die Geschichtsquellen der preussischen Vorzeit bis zum Untergange der Ordensherrschaft. Edited by Theodor Hirsch, Max Toeppert Ernst Strehlke. Leipzig, 1861-74.
Walshe, M. O'C., Medieval German Literature, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1962. 
Wentzlaff-Eggebert, Friedrich-Wilhelm, Kreuzzugsdichtung des Mitteialters: Studien zu ihrer geschiclitlichen und dichterischen Wirklichkeit, Berlin, 1960.
Wentzlaff-Eggebert, Friedrich-Wilhelm, und Erika, Deutsche Literatur im spaeten Mittelalter 1250-1450, vol. I, Rittertum, Buergertum, Mit Lesestuecken, Reinbek bei Hamburg, 1971.


(1) Peier Suchenwirl's Werke aus dem vierzehnten Jahrhnnderte: Ein Beytrag zur Zeil- und Sittengeschichte, Hrsg. Alois Primisser, Wien, 1827.
(2) Ibid., p. XLV.
(3) Die Heidelberger Handschrift Nr. 4, 355 and 393; Eine Handschrift der k. k. Hofbibliothek zu Wien Nr. 2201 (2238).
(4) Peter Suchenwirt's Werke. p. XLV1.
(5) Karl Helm, Walther Ziesemer, Die Literatur des Deutschen Ritterordens, Giessen, 1951.
(6) Ibid., p. 18.
(7) The Hungarian Dubnic Chronicle of the 14th century and Heinrich Truchsess von Diessenhoffen's account in Scriptores Rerum prussicarum (vol. III, p. 420).
(8) Ant. Kučinskas, Kęstutis: Lietuvių Tautos Gynėjas, Marijampolė, 1938, p. 123.