Monday, September 07, 2009

Medieval pirates plundered the Baltic Sea, study finds

A new article reveals pirate activities in the Baltic Sea during the later middle ages, and finds them being used as privateers by various city-states and local powers during wars.

"Living on the Edge: Pirates and the Livonians in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries," was written by Juhan Kreem, vice-director of the Tallinn City Archives in Estonia. His article focuses on the medieval city of Tallinn, which was called Reval in the Middle Ages.

His research discovers many instances of pirate bands operating in the Baltic. In records of cities such as Reval, Lubeck and Gdansk one can find instances of pirate bands being hired by the cities, as well as laws and practices to defend against them.

Kreem compares these pirate groups to the "free companies", mercenary armies who became quite powerful in Italy and France during the Hundred Years War. The various port cities would hire out pirate bands, either to help protect their fleets or to attack their enemies during times of war.

One of the earliest references to pirates was in the late fourteenth century, when the dukes of Mecklenberg called upon "all those who want to damage to the Danes" to come to their aid. By 1389, a pirate band known as the 'Victual Brethren' was formed - for several years they served the counts of Mecklenburg, but also sailed in other parts of the Baltic and North Seas serving various lords.

In 1427, the city of Lubeck hired three pirate leaders, named Bartholomeus Voet, Kalus Glokenere, and Michael Rute, to fight against the Kalmar Union (Norway, Sweden and Denmark). The pirates had a fleet of two large ships, seven smaller ones, and a crew of 300 men. The pirates plundered the Norwegian town of Bergen in 1429. After peace was agreed between the Lubeck and the Kalmar Union, the pirate band moved on and were hired by the Grandmaster of the Teutonic Order.

City records also show many instances of efforts being made to protect against pirate attacks or hunt down pirate bands that had been roaming in their area. Merchant fleets would often split up the cargo of individual merchants into several vessels, so that if one ship was lost to pirates, the merchant would not lose everything.

Kreem's article can be found in The Edges of the Medieval World, which he edited along with Gerhard Jaritz, and published by Central European University Press. It has 11 articles on how people in the Middle Ages lived and viewed the edges of their civilizations. Click here to purchase this book from