The Catholic Historical Review 90.3 (2004) 536-537
For more than three decades, Urban has devoted himself to the study of Baltic history, publishing, among other volumes, studies of the medieval crusade in the Baltic, in Prussia, in Livonia, and in Samogitia. This book is conceived as a sequel to these and focuses upon the major states and personalities in the region during the decades from the late fourteenth through the early sixteenth century. While the peoples and leaders of Poland and Lithuania are important in his story, it is the Knights of the Teutonic Order who figure most prominently (and are the focus of a more recent book by him). Readers familiar with Urban's previous scholarship will recognize his approach, which stands firmly in the camp of traditional narrative political history. As such, it represents a welcome treatment, rich with detail and vivid images, of a region and period not well studied in anglophone scholarship.
Following a brief introduction to set the late fourteenth-century context, Urban treats the rivalry between the cousins Grand Duke Vytautas of Lithuania and King Wladyslaw Jagiello of Poland, the Teutonic Order's crusade against piracy in the Baltic, and the revolt in Samogitia that eventually brought Poland, Lithuania, and the Teutonic Knights to the eve of war. That conflict, including the battle of Tannenberg, and the subsequent inconclusive campaign are the subjects of the next two chapters. Urban then shifts his focus to the Council of Constance, where the conflict between the three Baltic parties was played out, then returns to relations between Vytautas and Jagiello. A chapter on the Hussite problem and how it affected Polish relations with the Order and vice versa leads into a relatively brief treatment of the Thirteen Years' War from 1454 to 1466 and the effective solution to relations between the Teutonic Order and Poland-Lithuania. The penultimate chapter examines the decades thereafter, during which the Order sought unsuccessfully to reform itself and to avoid at almost any cost formalizing its subjection to Poland. Unable to accomplish either of these goals, a new Grand Master of the Order converted to Protestantism, secularized the lands of the Order, and in 1525, as Duke of Prussia, became a vassal of the Polish crown. The career of the Order in the Baltic was at an end. Urban's summary conclusion evaluates the short-and-long term significance of these developments for each of the parties, though the theme of a search for immortality stated in the book's subtitle does not, to me, seem to be systematically developed and analyzed.
Throughout, Urban's research is soundly based in deep familiarity with the original sources and an impressive command of the secondary literature in German, Polish, and Lithuanian. But on balance, it is not a scholarly audience that he addresses. The tone of his writing is colloquial and even conversational, and it is marked by numerous general asides not directly germane to the historical matters at hand. Some that are particularly interesting are related to issues of modern nationalism and to insights regarding general matters of war and peace in history. Others were, to me, less so. This is a book that is likely to appeal most to a general audience seeking basic information about this region. The volume was written over an extended period of time, and this may account for a number of relatively minor factual slips, some citations that are confused, and abbreviations and short titles that are not always consistent. But these matters are counterbalanced by intelligently chosen illustrations and generally helpful maps. Readers of this journal will be particularly interested in Urban's treatment of the religious dimensions of the Teutonic Order and the way it wrestled with the question, after Jagiello's conversion and the conversion of Samogitia, of whether its mission was indeed ended and what it should therefore do.
Paul W. Knoll