Barry McNamara  |   Published December 13, 2018

Exploring the Frontier

Emeritus history professor William Urban’s latest work focuses on decline of Teutonic Knights.

MONMOUTH, Ill. – Monmouth College Emeritus Professor of History William Urban has written an account of 600-year-old European history that appeals to scholars and general readers.

WILLIAM URBAN: Latest book is part of the story of how Poland and Lithuania became the stat... WILLIAM URBAN: Latest book "is part of the story of how Poland and Lithuania became the states they are.”The Last Years of the Teutonic Knights: Lithuania, Poland and the Teutonic Order (Greenhill Books) joins a bookshelf full of other historical works by Urban, who taught at Monmouth for 50 years, many as the Lee L. Morgan Professor of History and International Studies.

The book has been praised for “the sheer breadth and depth of its research” and also for the compelling story it tells, featuring “bloody battles, fascinating characters, intrigue, betrayals, sex, unexpected twists of fate, religious heresy and a smattering of saints.”

“You put together sex, violence and intrigue – it’s hard not to do something with that topic,” said Urban.

Much of the book’s military action centers on the Battle of Grunwald, which was one of the largest battles in Medieval Europe and was the most important battle in the histories of Poland and Lithuania.

It was fought on July 15, 1410, during the Polish-Lithuania-Teutonic War between the alliance of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania against the German-Prussian Teutonic Knights, a crusading military order. The knights were defeated and most of their leaders were killed or taken prisoner, marking the beginning of their decline.

“It took another century and a fraction for the order to dissolve in the north,” said Urban.

Following the battle, the balance of power shifted in Central and Eastern Europe, ushering in the rise of the Polish-Lithuanian union as the dominant political and military force.

“The point of history is not to know the future, but to understand the present,” said Urban. “In other words, how did we get here, and this is part of the story of how Poland and Lithuania became the states they are.”

Urban had tackled the subject matter in one of his previous works, published nearly 20 years ago. But new scholarship and source material has become available since, making it the right time to revisit it.

“It was time for me to update it,” he said. “I knew I could write a much better book, and by eliminating all of the scholarly apparatus – footnotes especially – I could make it more accessible to the general audience.”

Inspired by the frontier

Originally from the frontier state of Kansas, Urban said he was first drawn to the Teutonic Knights while studying frontier theory at the University of Texas under the late medievalist Archibald Ross Lewis.

“He persuaded me to work on the crusade to Livonia,” said Urban. “That was an unusual topic, even in the early 1960s, but not for Lewis.”

A story with “bloody battles, fascinating characters, intrigue, betrayals, sex, unexpected twists of fate, religious heresy and a smattering of saints.”

Lewis had relocated to the west and become excited about the frontier thesis, originally advanced by Frederick Jackson Turner, that as Americans moved into the wilderness, they outran government institutions and therefore had to learn how to organize their political, religious and cultural lives on their own. On the way, they shed much of what remained of their European habits and became Americans.

“Lewis told me to look at the frontier region between Christendom, paganism and Orthodoxy,” said Urban. “In the end, I found that frontier theory did not apply in my studies, but to mix up proverbs, one might say that ignorance is the mother of adventure.”

Urban took that initial assignment and has never looked back, frequently traveling to Europe to conduct research and living there for months at a time on three occasions – in Italy, the former Yugoslavia and the Czech Republic.

Next up in Urban’s writings is putting the finishing touches on a prequel to The Last Years of the Teutonic Knights, which will focus on the 14th-century crusade.

“It was the period when the Teutonic Knights were rising to dominate local politics, and the Lithuanians were sort of back on their heels, and Poland was just trying to form itself into a viable state,” he said.

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