The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople
By Jonathan Phillips
(In 2005 I read and reviewed this book while on vacation in the New Hampshire mountains. If you think Church history books are dull and drowsy...well, here was my reaction.)
If there be those who look at the Fourth Crusade as simply the next installment in an ongoing Christian jihad, let them look again. The story of this Crusade--from its conception in the mind of Pope Innocent III to its unlikeliest of outcomes--is so dissimilar from the others that one wonders if we are looking at another species of war altogether.
By 1198 the term “crusading” had become a mentality, the use of armed force to dislodge infidels and unbelievers for spiritual gain, in a sense rather similar to the present day Islamic concept of jihad--with the unspoken assumption [by the troops, at any rate] that a crusader, under the right set of circumstances, could become quite rich should he survive the battle field. In the century since the First Crusade, a considerable body of expertise and tradition had developed on the subject. Crusading was becoming a family tradition and targets were becoming more numerous. By 1198 there had been three major and several minor crusades to recover the Holy Land, but other campaigns had targeted the Moors in Spain, for example. And, as Phillips observes, the custom of tournaments and jousts was fine-tuning the effectiveness of cavalry and foot soldiers alike.
Innocent’s global intent was a renewal of the European Church, of which recovery of the Holy Land, lost again in 1187, would rejuvenate and validate. What he did not understand fully was how the Third Crusade had disrupted western European politics. Monarchs who might have helped him before were too preoccupied solidifying their own positions. Innocent by default had to settle for second-tier leadership, so to speak, but this body would include a remarkable nobleman, Baldwin, and one Geoffrey of Villehardouin who would leave behind an insider’s journal of inestimable historiographical worth.
One major mistake made by this team was its first official act, and it would set in motion an unforeseen chain of events. Calculating that at least 35,500 troops would be necessary for the Crusade, and having learned from experience that sea passage was easier on fighting men, and that the destruction of Alexandria would be a necessary first step in the campaign, the leaders contracted with the only entity capable of producing that quantity of ships, Venice, and its remarkable 90 year-old Doge [leader] Dandolo. Venice in essence put its economy on hold for a year to build ships, in return for a commensurate payment from the crusade [85,000 marks] when it was ready to depart Venice. To their dismay, Baldwin and his team would discover that only 12,000 men had been recruited and very little of the funding. In short, Venetian interest in recovering its debt would now have to be factored into the military plan.
It was this set of circumstances that led Dandolo to recommend that Crusaders and Venetians combine military operations against Zara, a Christian city but a longtime Venetian competitor. The Crusaders and the Venetians successfully sacked the city, but still found themselves considerably short of funds. Wintering in Zara [1202-1203], the Crusaders learned that Innocent was so outraged that he threatened to excommunicate the entire lot, a move which would have effectively disbanded an army marching on the promise of a plenary indulgence.
While a delegation from the Crusade went to Rome to soothe troubled waters, Prince Alexius of Constantinople approached the Crusade at Zara with a remarkable offer: if the Crusaders and Venetians [now one effective force] would divert to Constantinople and restore his father to the throne of the Eastern Empire, the Empire in turn would fund the Crusade to the Levant and submit to the Roman Church. Baldwin and Dandolo decided to take the chance. Baldwin, a layman, felt that the reunification of the two Christendoms would more than appease the pope for the shame of Zara. Dandolo, on the other hand, saw immense economic opportunities for Venice.
And so it came to be that a Crusade once headed to Alexandria and Jerusalem proceeded in a diametrically opposite direction, north to the cradle of the Eastern Roman Empire. One can only imagine the persuasive powers of the Crusade’s leaders in explaining all this to the soldiers, let alone the pope. Phillips observes, however, that in every crusade there comes a moment when a pope in essence loses control of events, and indeed the armada proceeding to the Golden Horn was such a moment for Innocent.
Not surprisingly, the Crusade discovered upon its arrival at Constantinople that Alexius could not deliver what he promised. Quite the opposite. The Crusade, at maximum 20,000 men, found itself at war with a city of 500,000 surrounded by perhaps the best fortifications in the world. Phillips’ account of the battle for Constantinople is insightful and gripping. A combination of factors--the advanced naval techniques of the Venetian navy and the improved armor and technique of western knights, favorable weather, psychological stratagems, incredibly weak military and political will on the part of the Empire itself--led to one of history’s most stunning military upsets.
But no one, not even the author, comfortably uses the word “victory” to describe this achievement by the Fourth Crusade. The slaughter and mayhem that followed should have been predictable; the First Crusade had established a pattern for that. What adds gall to this army’s conduct was the desecration of perhaps the greatest collection of art and sacred relics in the civilized world at that time. Far from being exhilarated, Innocent was incensed not only by the carnage of the innocent but by the political repercussions.
The Roman West was now holding the seat of the entire Eastern Empire. The Fourth Crusade did not formally end. It morphed into a sixty year effort by successive western occupiers of the throne of Constantinople [Baldwin being the first] to subjugate both the Greek and the Asian ends of the Eastern Empire. That effort formally collapsed in 1261, but not before draining European resources to the point that there would be no fifth crusade.
To prepare my blog entries each day I do a significant amount of internet searching for research and documentation purposes. Along the way I come to a number of “crash and burn” blog sites, established out of great enthusiasm but whose entries stopped without notice in 2014, or 2011, or even 2008. So undertaking your own blog site entails more challenges than one might think, but for some of you it may be a source of considerable professional satisfaction and ministerial meaning.
First of all, is it costly? My wife and I have a saying when evaluating the cost of a household item or a rare dinner out: “it’s no more expensive than a day of golf.” The same can be said for operating a blog site. I did not know much about the business end of blogs in November last year; I can’t tell you how I settled on the Weebly platform, although it was well reviewed across the net for cost and features. As I recall, the cost of a one-year contract was $25. However, Weebly markets multiple tiers, and I went to a second tier for another $25 annual fee, which allows me to look at the stats of the site. I should add, though, that hidden costs include theology books and subscriptions to Catholic professional journals, but if you are a paid minister, these are usually tax deductible.
It is critical to understand the amount of time and researching that goes into a blog. I recommend against “stream of consciousness” blogging which often degenerates into elongated Face Book posts. I felt from the first that the Café should offer something useful, or inspiring, or funny. This is where time is of the essence: you want to make sure the data is accurate, balanced, and networked to other reliable sources. My guess is that the site takes me about three hours per day to write. Currently I post every day. I felt it was important to get potential visitors to trust that the site was always “alive.” But, I can see a time coming when we go to five or six days per week. One reason is the need to maintain professional competence; at some point you run out of what you know or have read, and the need is always there for professional advancement. But even on off days or study days, I think it is wise for a blogger to just check in and say hello, perhaps provide a link to a good news story, journal article, or essay.
It is important to have a mission statement in your head. Mine had been forming for years. I am on the road from time to time for my diocese providing courses for catechists, Catholic school teachers, parish staff, faith formation ministers, and any Catholic adult who is interested in understanding the Catholic tradition. I find in my courses that there those teaching religion who are struggling with the basic concepts. I have great respect for their efforts and support them as best I can. But I also encounter a number of highly skilled professionals (retired military officers, for example) who clearly have the aptitude and the religious zeal to go further than the limited slate of courses typically offered for “official certification.”
So, I guess the overarching goal of this blog is to encourage and sustain those who “want more,” and even to recruit the accomplished professional into the work of faith formation. I have tried to introduce books, diocesan on-line programs and even college programs for such Catholics. Thus the tectonic shift of the Café has been toward the adult catechist experience. I am not an expert in the teaching of the fall of Rome or the Great Flood to minors; rather, I find myself focusing on the teacher’s own understanding of the development of Church structure or the philosophical myths of early Genesis. A wise generation of theologically informed Catholics represents for me one of the key pillars of the growth of the Church. I would add that my current blog platform offers space for such things as a guided reading program for adults wishing to pursue theological development in a sequential way, as a college or seminary program would undertake. I hope to at least establish this during June.
Another key for a blogger is his or her identity vis-à-vis the Church. God is the ultimate judge, but in a bar fight I will go down swinging professing my Catholicism, broken bottle in hand. However, I am of that breed that believes the best loyalty is an honest take. I admit to admiration of Andrew Greeley, (whose blog site lives on after his 2013 death.) If Baptism does indeed infuse us with the life of God, there is an innate wisdom that comes with this grace. To love the Church is to serve the Church, and service includes honest feedback. There are times in this blog that I have highlighted lack of due process, inadequate academic underpinnings for Church moral interpretations, or just plain sloppy trends in everyday parish life. For someone of my years I have more freedom to talk about these problems. For younger church employees with young mouths to feed, it is harder to play the prophet. I hope I can continue to speak for them.
A final word for future bloggers: it takes years to “catch on” if you have a quality product. If your hope is to be a lively magnet for readers around the world, you will be disappointed. In my own case, I can’t remember the last time I posted on another blog, although I read a number. Remember that good blog sites have easy to use archives; if you encounter a new visitor who likes what you write, the freedom is there to go back and read your corpus of entries, which is why the sweat of each day is so important. Joe DiMaggio put it well; when asked why he continued to play so hard every day, he replied, “There might be a fan out there who has never seen me play.”
When you stop and think of it, the Middle Ages covers about 50% of what we call today the era of Christianity. It is that great expanse between the decline of the Roman Empire in Western Europe or the Age of St. Augustine (take your pick) and the Reformation of the sixteenth century when the identity of Christianity and Catholicism and the Church and the State crumbled spectacularly’ if erratically. I have just completed Kevin Madigan’s 2014 one-volume Medieval Christianity: A New History, and have come to discover that the last forty years have given us considerably new understandings trends and events of that time that not only explain Catholicism’s present day self-understanding but gives us an indication of how to approach the millennial challenges of the present day.
The computer age has been a boon to historians in general, providing access to scholars around the world and access to texts that previously would have required considerable travel to international libraries. Unlike the era of the early Church, much of the documentation of the Middle Ages has survived and is waiting for discovery in obscure collections or translation from Latin, Arabic, early French and English. In 1970 I minored in medieval history until a young medieval professor named Guy Lytle sat me down. What he told me, essentially, was that I didn’t have the aptitude (read: discipline) for the field. “I went to England, bought a bike, and peddled to every small town surviving English parish,” he explained. He was checking the credentials of parish pastors or curates in the 1200’s and determined that at least half were university educated, which scuttled the long standing belief that medieval clergy in England were dim witted and poor educators of their own flocks. (It makes you wonder why we don’t send our present day clergy to Harvard and Yale instead of small parochial regional seminaries.)
With his breadth of reading and research Madigan had access to sources that the Guy Lytles of the 1970’s did not, and his narrative is the richer for that. Of the many factors he discusses, I highlight a few that might entice you toward a second look.
The map of Europe throughout the Middle Ages looks nothing like it does today and it was in constant flux. The Medieval era was a time of incredible demographic shift. Nations for the most part were collections of tribes, duchies, and geographic centering. While I found this particularly frustrating in following the narrative, it is extremely helpful in understanding why a centralized Church might be an advantage to the various parties of the time.
The Middle Ages was a true roller-coaster era for the office of the papacy. Despite the early promise of Gregory I or St. Gregory the Great in the 500’s, the papacy began the era in low estate, rose to its greatest pinnacle of worldly power under Innocent III (d. 1216) and declined to a precarious moral and pastoral period during the time of Martin Luther.
A constant concern of Christians of the time was the need to reform the Church. As early as the 300’s St. Jerome and St. Augustine would support the move of devout souls from the corruption of the big cities to small collection of hermitages (Augustine would even write the first primitive rule.) Benedict in the 500’s, the monk Hildebrand or Pope Gregory VII (d. 1085), Francis of Assisi, Dominic, and Catherine of Siena (d. 1380) are just some of better known reformers of the era.
What is less appreciated is that for every religious movement of reform to appear in standard textbooks, there were countless anonymous fraternities, apparently of both sexes, some domestic and some wandering, generally bound by the compelling ideal of doing penance for sins. The key to their success was dependence upon action, such as common prayer, poverty, and caring for lepers, and less upon decrying corruption within the Church. Their influence and predominance is only gradually becoming known today. In addition, more attention has been paid to anchorites and anchoresses, literally walled into tomb-like structures within medieval cities, who devoted their lives to prayer and spiritual direction.
The medieval universities shaped Catholic thought through the twentieth century. Particularly after 1000 medieval cities established what we would recognize as the university structure. This was the age of Oxford, Cambridge, Paris, and Bologna--four of what would eventually be seventy medieval universities. The universities obtained copies of books from multiple sources, notably the Islamic world, which had preserved the writings of the ancient Greek world during periods of European chaos. St. Thomas Aquinas, the greatest saint of the university era, would use the pagan Aristotle’s rational ordering of the world as the structure for his famous Summa Theologica, the outline of Catholic philosophy and theology we still employ today in many respects.
The later Middle Ages saw the development of a new “democratized” mysticism. In 2012 Pope Benedict XVI named the German mystic Hildegard of Bingen a doctor of the Catholic Church. Little known today at the pastoral level of catechetics, Hildegard was one of the “Rhineland Mystics,” men and women of intense mystical passion, who include in their numbers Julian of Norwich, Meister Eckhart, Mechtild, Elizabeth of Schonau, Beatrice, Hadewijch, and Marguerite of Porete (who, alas, was burned at the stake.) Although all were loyal to the Church (even Marguerite was reinstated), their visionary piety represented a significant break from the structured, clerical bent of everyday Church prayer life.
The power of Purgatory would dominate late Medieval pastoral practice. Unlike Eastern Christendom, the Western Roman Church would focus more and more upon the crucified Christ and the need of each individual to do excessive penance to make reparation and, perhaps more pointedly, to avoid the pains of purgatory, preached at the time as a “hell with a future.” This led to the exponential interest in and devotion to indulgences, whereby time in Purgatory would be reduced or remitted altogether. This trend would lead to the crashing end of the Medieval era: a Church divided between those cultivating traffic in forgiveness (such as the sale of indulgences) and those who despaired of the whole enterprise, such as Martin Luther. And so another era, the Reformation, would begin.
I wrote for a considerable time today and decided that the product wasn't up to snuff. So I will start fresh tomorrow.
I did post the curriculum of the School of Theology and Religious Studies of the Catholic University of America, to give you a flavor of the scope of the study of Catholic theology, and the range of professional expertise we should all be striving for in our personal and professional understanding of the faith.
See you tomorrow.