Medieval settler colonising: Meehan, Patrick, A Promised Wilderness: Colonial Encounters and Landscape in the Late Medieval Baltic, doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, 2021


Abstract: This dissertation explores the German colonization of northeastern Europe between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, taking the Baltic region of Prussia as a case study. It focuses primarily on the Teutonic Order, a state-like crusading institution that extended its lordship over the region by the early fourteenth century. Historians have long framed the conquest and settlement of the medieval Baltic as an early attestation of European colonialism. Prussia’s medieval archives were used through the end of the Second World War to furnish evidence for politically charged questions about race, settlement, and territoriality. Today, however, the Baltic is an understudied region among medievalists, let alone scholars of colonialism. I draw on interpretive frameworks from postcolonial studies, anthropology, and geography in order to approach this material in new ways. The result is a study at the intersection of colonial history, Indigenous history, and environmental history.
In its historical narratives and documentary records, the Teutonic Order articulated a distinctive version of a commonly held myth among settler societies: namely, that the colonization of Prussia’s “wild” landscape and the violent subjection of its Indigenous population together constituted a scripturally sanctioned mandate to settle a new Christian Promised Land. I have summarized this myth as the idea of the “Promised Wilderness,” which shapes the structure of the dissertation. Chapter two draws on three major historical chronicles of Prussia’s conquest and colonization to argue that members of the Order internalized this discourse, imagining themselves—and the settlers under their lordship—as God’s chosen people. The remaining chapters turn from narrative texts to the archival record in order to explore how discourse informed the practices of administration and rule. Chapters three and four first consider survey procedures and the negotiation of property boundaries in the context of fourteenth-century settlement and land reform. Chapters five and six then move to the eastern “wilderness” frontier region that was contested by the Teutonic Order and its Lithuanian neighbors, focusing on a collection of navigational texts that Teutonic officials produced in collaboration with Indigenous Baltic and Slavic guides. Both within Prussia and at its peripheries, new forms of knowledge and power precipitated from the encounters among colonizers, settlers, Indigenous people, and the Baltic landscape itself.
As a whole, this dissertation offers a new approach to studying the epistemological and material structures of colonialism in a medieval society. It demonstrates how these medieval European structures can be understood not as points of origin for their modern counterparts, but as analogous forms that enrich and broaden our understanding of deeper patterns in the global history of colonialism.

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