What we do not know about the Battle of Ice

Written by The Frontier Post

Oleg Nalisnik

Everyone heard about the Battle of the Ice, which took place in April 1242. However, as historians have found out, common ideas are wrong: there is little reliable information about the battle, but there are a huge number of myths. About the most famous – in the material of RIA Novosti.
History in hindsight
The plot, familiar from school: knights clad in armor with “buckets” on their heads. Over the armor are white canvases with a black cross. Even horses with such symbols. In the hands – shields, maces or huge swords.
The crusaders lined up in a pig – a blunt wedge. The calculation is simple: put to flight the heavy infantry of the Novgorodians, and then finish off the scattered flanks. But Alexander Nevsky decided to outwit the Germans: he placed archers and lightly armed fighters in the center, and cavalry on the sides.
In the middle of an icy pond, Russian troops lured the enemy into a “claw” and surrounded him. The knights fled, but the ice cracked under the weight of ammunition.
“And the Germans fell 500, and the Chuds (local allied tribes. – Approx. ed.) were countless. 50 best governors were taken prisoner and taken to Novgorod. The rest drowned in the lake, because it was spring,” these lines and today replicated in the classroom.
They are presented as a historical source. True, without specifying which one. Most likely, we are talking about the Pskov Third Chronicle, which describes the battle in some detail.
Everything would be fine, but it was compiled in the middle of the 16th century – four hundred years after the event. Moreover, historians have no doubt that the account of the battle is a compilation of earlier sources.
And in them, interestingly, much less information. The earliest records date back to 1250. After about 80 years, they were rewritten by the compilers of the Novgorod First Chronicle.
The battle was portrayed albeit succinctly, but vividly: “It was an unprecedented battle in terms of fierceness. The crack from breaking spears, the sounds of striking swords and axes filled the air.” The rumble was such, the narrator adds, “as if the ice had broken.”
“Only 20 Knights”
The chronicle lines impressed not only contemporaries, but also Soviet filmmakers. The famous film by Sergei Eisenstein has become a history textbook for several generations: recognizable images – primarily knights in horned helmets – come from there. The film caused a furor among some scientists: the official historiography called the Battle on the Ice “one of the largest battles of the Middle Ages.”
For many years, the version prevailed that almost 30 thousand people fought on Lake Peipsi. Of course, such a large number of warriors would leave behind a lot of artifacts. However, over 60 years of research on the battle site, nothing has been found.
Hence the doubts about the scale of the battle. They can be judged by the data left in the chronicles. Russian annals give the number of dead knights about 400 people, German – several dozen.
The main source of information about the battle through the eyes of the “enemy side” is the Livo-nian Rhymed Chronicle. It speaks of “20 brothers killed and six captured.”
“When critically assessing the number of knights killed during the Battle of the Ice, one must keep in mind that the chronicler is not talking about the losses of the crusader army in general, but only about the number of killed “knight brothers”, that is, about knights who are full members of the order,” historians say..
On the one hand, this is quite small for a large-scale battle. On the other hand, specialists pay attention, the medieval chronicler is silent about a detail that is quite understandable for his era: each knight had four assistants – bollards. They not only helped the master to put on armor, but also participated in the battle.
In addition, the Livonian Order was rather small. In the best years – a maximum of a thousand people. Therefore, the loss of even ten brothers is palpable. This is indicated by information about the battle near Siauliai in 1236, which the chronicler describes as “a major catastrophe.” Then 49 knights fell.
That is, the number of German troops, according to researchers, is somewhere around 700-750 people. Question: how many fighters did Nevsky have?
“The most detailed data on the size of the Russian army is contained precisely in the German annals, primarily in the Rhymed Chronicle. It says that there were sixty Russians per German knight. Scientists have always rejected this from the threshold, however, as it is easy to see, such figures upon closer examination, they turn out to be extremely accurate. The fact is that we are talking about dedicated knights, of which, as mentioned above, there were no more than seventy. Based on this, the total number of Russians turns out to be around four thousand – and this is more than realistic “, – explains the historian Alexander Shcherbakov.
However, other experts reject this version. The fact is that Alexander Nevsky was not yet the Grand Duke of all Russian lands: he received this title only 12 years later. Consequently, he could not attract such a large army by the standards of that time, where everyone should be well armed and equipped. Therefore, according to various estimates, from one to two thousand people fought on the side of the Novgorodians.
“We fought not on ice”
Perhaps the main image of the battle is knights falling through the ice. It is curious that this was first mentioned only in the 15th century. The Sofia First Chronicle says that the Russians pursued the Livonians for seven versts along the lake and they fell on sigovitsa – thin ice. “Drown a little water,” says the chronicle.
Modern researchers have many questions. Firstly, they doubt that the soldiers fought in the middle of the Chudskoye reservoir, this is indicated by the lines from the annals about the amb-ush regiment of the Novg-orodians – “on Uzmeni, near the Voronya stone.”
A few years ago, archaeologists found the base of a huge boulder that fits the description: it has protrusions that look like wings, the body and tail of a bird. And it is located very close to the coast.
“Water and ice recede even more in April, exposing the coastal bottom of the lake and coastal reeds,” Shcherbakov says. “It was on this site that Prince Alexander Yaroslavich deployed his regiments: the Russian battle formation was not seen from the lake, it was impossible to establish the location and number of troops”.
According to one version, they fought in general on the shore. The “Livonian Chronicle” says that the dead “fell on the grass.” However, some scholars consider this to be a German phraseological unit, similar to the Russian “fall on the damp earth.”
Another argument that debunks the myth of falling under the ice is equipment. The thing is that in fact the Livonians did not fight in armor and with “horned buckets” on their heads.
“The well-known armor from the films appeared no earlier than the 14th century. They were used only as tournament or ceremonial equipment. It is impossible to fight in real conditions: it is very difficult and uncomfortable. Therefore, the German knights wore chain mail. However, like ours,” says historian Vladimir Potresov.
That is, the sides were equal in weight: a complete set of equipment for both the Livonian and the Novgorodian was about 30 kilograms. In this case, it is logical to assume that the Russians also fell under the water. However, the German chronicles do not mention this.
However, despite the convincing arguments, experts are still arguing about the Battle of the Ice. It is not clear who was in the allies of the Novgo-rodians, the exact number of troops is unknown. And most importantly, it is not clear why such a large battle by the standards of the 13th century did not leave any artifacts.

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