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The official starting point for the Northern Crusades was Pope Celestine III's call in 1193, but the already Christian kingdoms of Germany and Scandinavia had started to move to subjugate their pagan neighbors earlier. The non-Christian peoples who were objects of the campaigns at various dates included
- the Wends and Rugians, of Rügen, Pomerania and Mecklenburg (in 1147 by the Danes, later also by Saxons and Poles),
- the peoples of (present-day) Finland in 1154 (Finland Proper; disputed), 1249? (Tavastia) and 1293 (Karelia) (by the Swedes, although christianization from Novgorod had started earlier),
- Estonians, Curonians, Livonians and Letts (by the Germans and Danes, 1193–1227),
- Lithuanians (by the Germans, early 13th century-1316),
- Old Prussians,
- Polabian Wends and Abotrites (between Elbe and Oder).
Armed conflict between the Balts and Slavs who dwelt by the Baltic shores and their Saxon and Danish neighbors to the west and south had been common for several centuries prior to the Crusade. The previous battles had largely been caused by attempts to control land and sea trade routes and gain economic advantage in the region, and the Crusade basically continued this pattern of conflict, albeit now inspired and prescribed by the pope and undertaken by papal knights and armed monks. The first campaigns were launched in parallel with the Second Crusade to the Holy Land in the mid-1100s, and continued irregularly right up until the 16th century.
The Northern Crusades provided the primary rationale for the growth and expansion of the Teutonic Order of German crusading knights, modelled on the Knights Templar who took part in the Holy Land Crusades. The Teutonic Order came to exercise political control over large territories in the Baltic region.
Christiansen, Eric. The Northern Crusades. New York: Penguin Books, 1997. ISBN 0140266534
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