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Literature / The Knights of the Cross

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Jan Matejko — The Battle of Grunwald

The Knights of the Cross (Polish: Krzyżacy) is a 1900 historical novel written by Henryk Sienkiewicz, a Polish writer and Nobel laureate.

The novel was written in partitioned Poland, with most Poles living under the rule of the Russian Empire - one of Sienkiewicz's goals in writing The Knights of the Cross being to encourage and strengthen Polish national confidence against the occupying powers of Austria, Prussia, and Russia. To circumvent Russian censorship, Sienkiewicz placed the plot in medieval Prussia (region) and the State of the Teutonic Order. He used offences (well known to his readers from the newspapers) perpetrated in his own time by the Russians to fill in the details.

The actual, historical religious military order of The Teutonic Knights, which from the 13th to the 16th centuries controlled large parts of the Baltic Sea coast, and its defeat in the Battle of Grunwaldnote  by Poles and Lithuanians, serves as backdrop for the story, which also focuses extensively on medieval life and customs in both the cities and the rural part of medieval Poland.

The novel inspired a 1960 film adaptation which was one of the most popular Polish films up to that point.

The book and its adaptations contain examples of:

  • Battle Trophy: After Grunwald, the Polish warriors capture quite a lot of enemy banners, which are then displayed as a proof of victory.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Zbyszko prays for some Teutonic heads to smash. Sure enough, he gets one soon...
  • Big Badass Battle Sequence: The climax of both the book and the movie is the Battle of Grunwald.
  • Break the Cutie: Danusia ends up kidnapped by the Teutonic Knights, in an attempt to get her father to turn herself in, and dies during the rescue attempt.
  • Costume Porn: It's The Late Middle Ages, so everyone who can afford it dresses very colourfully and opulently.
  • Courtly Love: Zbyszko seems prone to it, at least at the beginning (he used to be in love with princess Ryngałła, now he falls for Danusia).
  • Driven to Suicide:
    • One of the villains responsible for Danusia's death and the blinding of Jurand is captured by the heroes and subsequently kills himself when Jurand orders him set free.
    • Also, while the army is marching towards Grunwald, the Lithuanian prince Witold learns that two of his soldiers have plundered a church on the way. He becomes so furious he orders them to build gallows and hang themselves: which they do in all haste, fearing he might get more creative if they keep him waiting.
  • Eyepatch of Power: Jurand starts the book as a fearsome warrior with one eye missing. The Teutonic Knights burn away the other one.
  • Janusz of Mazovia (though not a king, just a duke) is a fair ruler and seriously invested in looking after Danusia.
  • Greater-Scope Villain: While Ulrich von Jungingen is not a direct main villain of the book, he is the Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights and shows up for the final battle where he dies like he did in Real Life.
  • Guile Hero: While he is just as capable as Zbyszko in a fight, Maćko also seems to do the thinking for both of them. This is most evident when he tricks Jagienka's two hot-headed suitors into guarding her from each other while Zbyszko is away.
  • Happiness in Slavery: Hlava, Zbyszko's squire who was captured by Zych of Zgorzelice in the battle of Bolesławiec and later given by Jagienka to Zbyszko. He is completely devoted to the two of them and Zbyszko later makes him the administrator of Spychów.
  • The High Queen: The historically saintly (canonized in XX century) Hedwig. Who, legally speaking, was the king, but fit this trope a lot better.
  • Historical Domain Character: Lots! Most notably the king Władysław Jagiełło, who might have got a slight Historical Hero Upgrade. Kuno von Lichtenstein was also real.
  • Hope Spot: When Zbyszko is being tried for attacking Kuno Liechtenstein, the injured party says he forgives Zbyszko for attacking him... then, having fooled us all into thinking things might work out, he adds that attacking an envoy is an offense to God and must not be left unpunished.
  • Improbable Age: Eighteen is impossibly old for a squire like Zbyszko, though in Zbyszko's defence his home was burned in a random civil war, and he and his uncle served in various armies. While Sienkiewicz did plenty of research for the book, he did less research for character ages.
  • Lady-In-Waiting: Danusia is one to duchess Anna, like her mother before her (since she was best friends with the duchess, Anna took her daughter to foster when she died).
  • The Late Middle Ages: Their negative aspects are downplayed for the Poles (for whom this was start of a Golden Age), but played straight for The Teutonic Knights.
  • Leeroy Jenkins: Zbyszko attacks the first Teutonic Knight he sees, not bothering to stop and think that a Knight this far into Polish territory might be, for instance, an envoy...
  • My Own Private "I Do": Zbyszko and Danusia are married secretly with only duchess Anna and De Lorche for witnesses.
  • Parental Marriage Veto: Jurand opposes to Zbyszko and Danusia's marriage because he promised to God that the girl would be a nun. However, when the two are married in secret, he finally accepts Zbyszko as his son-in-law and they work together for a while to free her from the Teutonic Knights.
  • Parental Substitute: Maćko for Zbyszko and duchess Anna Danuta for Danusia.
  • Plunder: That's how knights make a living. The best clothes Zbyszko and Maćko have are plundered.
  • Perfectly Arranged Marriage: Downplayed perhaps, but duke Janusz of Mazowsze and his duchess Anna Danuta seem quite happy together.
  • Post-Rape Taunt: Danveld brags to Jurand, as a final act of humiliating him in Szczytno, about raping his 12 years old daughter. This is the last thing he does in his life.
  • Prophecies Are Always Right: Saint Bridget's prophecy of how The Teutonic Knights are going to fall. (If you're thinking of starting a historical discussion now, please refrain - we'd be here forever).
  • Second Love: For Zbyszko, Jagienka.
  • Snake Oil Salesman: Sanderus, a comedy relief friar who sells indulgences, along with some ridiculously fake religious relics (he can sell you some sweat of St. George, from his fight with the dragon! Really!)
  • Suddenly Significant Rule: A little known law says a young man can't be executed if a pure maiden claims him for marriage. Duchess Anna and Danusia make use of it to save Zbyszko after the unfortunate incident with Lichtenstein.
  • Ruling Couple: Queen Hedwig and king Władysław Jagiełło. Also, duchess Anna Danuta and duchess Aleksandra both seem to have quite a big influence on their respective husbands' politics.
  • 20 Bear Asses: In order to impress Danusia, Zbyszko vows to get three peacock plumes from the helmets of The Teutonic Knights he defeats. This almost gets him executed for (unwittingly) attacking an envoy.
  • Unskilled, but Strong: When asked to choose the weapons for the duel, Zbyszko chooses axes. The narrator states that it is a good choice since his opponent is much more experienced and would be at a serious advantage in a sword fight.
  • Unstoppable Rage: Jurand, when the captors of his daughter push him too far. Zbyszko during the duel.
  • Warrior Prince: Both Jagiełło and Witold.
  • Would Hurt a Child: The four Teutonic Knights who kidnapped Danusia. Also, the two who "inspired" them to do it - von Salzbach and Szomberg who supposedly killed prince Witold's children.
  • Wound That Will Not Heal: Maćko gets shot by a crossbow bolt, part of which breaks off and causes a realistic unhealing wound. It takes years to heal.