How do the Crusades play into the stream of events that led to the massive break in Christianity known as the Protestant Reformation? It is a complex question and one about which there is considerable room for argument. There are several points which are hard to dispute: (1) the span between the First Crusade (1095) and the Fourth (1202) illustrates a shift in popular religious piety in much of Europe; (2) the Crusades demonstrate the strengths and limitations of papal power; (3) the Crusades in many ways sanctioned the concept of “holy war” in the Christian consciousness; and (4) the Crusades eliminated any chance of reunion between Eastern and Western Christendom, specifically the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204).
I posted last week on this stream that Pope Innocent III (r. 1198-1216) is probably the most powerful pope in history if one combines spiritual and secular power (using Pope Gelasius’ fifth century theory of the “two swords”) and it is not surprising to find him in the crusading venture. Elected at a young age (37) he began his pontificate with enthusiasm, and his preaching advocacy appears to be part of his reform agenda along with the suppression of heresy and discipline of free-floating religious movements. His enthusiasm for Crusade IV is even more surprising given that only one previous effort, Crusade I, had successfully captured Jerusalem, and that with staggering loss of life and effort.
Innocent did not have the perspective of history we enjoy today. Perhaps the most accessible history of Crusade IV, The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople (2004) by Jonathan Phillips, [see my review] makes the case that the “military art of crusading” had advanced considerably over the twelfth century; moreover, the growing regional and national impulses were slowly replacing a sense of “Christendom” as a single geopolitical entity. This latter change would pose new challenges in recruiting and financing. But the revolution in military strategy was the first domino to fall.
By 1198 the idea of marching an army clear around the Mediterranean from France and other European ports to Jerusalem was outdated; the new strategy would involve a streamlined force of expert knights with horses transported by ship to Egypt, below Jerusalem, saving time and energy while positioning the force for an accessible reclamation of Jerusalem. The strategic question became: who could construct a fleet of ships for this venture?
I mentioned earlier that Crusades in general—and particularly the Fourth—demonstrate the limits of papal power. Crusade IV was ruled by committee, though history remembers two members of this council, Baldwin of Flanders, a distinguished knight, and Geoffrey of Villehardouin, the greatest chronicler of this era who sat in on all councils of war, of which there were many. Geoffrey and a council within the council negotiated an intriguing contract with the city-state Venice, the only entity capable of producing enough ships for a crusade. Led by its remarkable 90-year-old blind leader Dandolo, Venice put its economy on hold for one year to produce the ships on the understanding that the crusade would deliver 35,000 knights and a massive cash payment.
In every Crusade there comes a moment when control of events passes from Rome, and the crusaders’ contract with Dandolo effectively terminated Innocent’s control of events in Crusade IV. For the various wings of the crusade could not deliver on the deal: only 13,000 knights reported to Venice for sail, and less than 30% of the funds had been raised. Dandolo, who effectively contained the crusade with his own troops, offered Crusade IV the opportunity to work off its debt by joining forces to destroy the trading city of Zara, a competitor of Venice, one with loyalties to the Church of Rome. Innocent III, when he learned of this aggression, was incensed, and excommunicated the entire crusade, but the war council hid this fact from the force and sent ambassadors to talk him down, so to speak.
During this hiatus the crusade and the Venetians were approached surreptitiously by a member of the Eastern Roman Empire’s royal family from Constantinople. A second deal was struck whereby the crusade and the Venetians would sail to Constantinople and restore the legitimate emperor. In turn, the restored emperor would join forces in a campaign to free Jerusalem, and would swear allegiance to the Church of Rome. And thus, with a combined force of about 20,000, Crusade IV and its Venetian partners sailed north. Upon arrival the Crusade discovered that inhabitants of Constantinople and its vicinity desired neither union with Rome nor, for that matter, restoration of the emperor, and declared war upon the western visitors.
In one of history’s most remarkable achievements, Crusade IV overcame an impregnable defense of a city of a half-million. Baldwin was crowned emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire and notified Innocent. The victory was marred by an awesome desecration and looting of the city. Wikipedia summarizes it well: “The sack of Constantinople is a major turning point in medieval history. The Crusaders' decision to attack the world's largest Christian city was unprecedented and immediately controversial, even among contemporaries. Reports of Crusader looting and brutality scandalized and horrified the Orthodox world; relations between the Catholic and Orthodox churches were catastrophically wounded for many centuries afterwards, and would not be substantially repaired until modern times.”
Crusade IV, sated with the spoils of war, returned home without any southerly movement toward Jerusalem. Innocent expressed joy at the victory and sent congratulations to Baldwin. He may not have been aware of the destruction at the time, and Jonathan Phillips (see above, p. 298-303) believes that Innocent naively assumed that the Crusade was continuing to the Holy Land. [In 1215, Innocent called for a fifth Crusade, shortly before his death.] It was not until 2001 that the Roman Catholic Church, in the person of Pope John Paul II, apologized to Eastern Orthodox Christianity for the atrocities against Constantinople [modern day Istanbul.]
The legacy of Crusade IV is doleful. The military and economic strength of Constantinople was so crippled by this campaign that Constantinople eventually fell to Islamic Turks in 1453. The acquiescence of military action against fellow Christians set an unfortunate precedent; over 50,000,000 would die in the “Religious Wars” of Europe between 1524 and 1648. All hope of a faith reunion between East and West was destroyed in 1204, and Christians on both sides came to accept that religious division was an unpleasant fact. If churches could divide, they could divide again, and the seeds of new arrangements were sown and watered in these troubled days.