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Mistakes, Yes. Conspiracies, No. | Getting at the true story of the Fourth
Crusade | by Vince Ryan
This article from the February 2005 issue of Catholic
World Report takes a look at a new popular account that cuts through
some popular misconceptions and provides an accurate accounting for the
disasters of the Fourth Crusade.
Recently, in a course I taught on the Crusades, one of my students was an
elderly nun whose ministry was centered on working with Byzantine Catholics
and Orthodox Christians. She explained that she had signed up for the class
in large part due to the amount of animosity these Eastern Christians exuded
when discussing the Crusades; she wanted to become better acquainted with
the topic so that she could understand the source of their anger.
This story is just one illustration of how in the 21st century the events
of the Fourth Crusade still loom large over Catholic-Orthodox relations.
In their June 2004 meeting in Rome, Pope John Paul II and Bartholomew I,
the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, both alluded to the 1204 sack
of Constantinople. Reflecting upon this infamous event, the Pope commented,
"In particular we cannot forget what happened in the month of April
1204. How can we not share, at a distance of eight centuries, the pain and
Many theories have been spun and conspiracies claimed to explain the outcome
of the Fourth Crusade. Originally intending to attack the center of Muslim
power in Egypt, the crusade was ultimately derailed, and transformed into
a successful attack on Constantinople. In a new book on the Fourth Crusade,
The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople (Viking, 2004),
Jonathan Phillips, a historian at the University of London, provides a lively
narrative of the origins, evolution, and culmination of this controversial
campaign. Phillips focuses especially on why the crusade followed the path
it did, identifying some of the underlying causes for the diversion of the
effort from its original intended course.
There are three main schools of thought concerning the Fourth Crusade. The
"clash of civilizations" theory posits that 1204 was the inevitable
outcome of hostility between East and West, which had been growing since
the schism of 1054. A second interpretation, the conspiracy school, offers
a variety of scenarios worthy of Oliver Stone in order to explain the derailment
of the crusade. For example, some analysts hold that Pope Innocent III was
behind the diversion, arguing that the pontiff planned the attack as a way
of reasserting papal hegemony over Byzantine Christians. Others, more numerous,
claim that the 1204 sack was the work of the Venetians, who used the crusade
as a means to expand their own commercial clout and to repay the Byzantines
for past injustices. Whatever the alleged conspiracy might be, proponents
of this second school generally agree that the attack on Constantinople
was the result of early premeditation.
The final and most recent of the interpretative schools is the "accident"
theory, which argues that the diversion of the Fourth Crusade was due to
a series of missteps that ultimately led the crusaders to attack the Byzantine
capital. This interpretation is generally accepted by historians who have
studied the crusades, but has not entirely penetrated the popular consciousness.
Phillips book aims to do just that.
The Fourth Crusade was the outgrowth of Pope Innocent IIIs August
1198 crusading call. The young pope envisioned that this crusading expedition
would retake Jerusalem and perhaps provide the opportunity for improving
relations between Rome and Byzantium. The initial reaction to Innocents
proclamation was rather muted as various European rulers were either immersed
in efforts to beat back their own domestic foes or busy warring on each
The first significant response was in November 1199, at a tournament in
France, where Count Thibaut of Champagne, Count Louis of Blois, and many
other participants vowed to go on crusade. Phillips notes how chivalric
enthusiasm probably contributed significantly to this sudden outburst of
THE VENETIAN ROLE
As more and more people took the cross, the leaders met to discuss the preparations
for the forthcoming enterprise. During the Third Crusade, the kings of England
and France had utilized the royal treasury to underwrite campaign costs
and used their respective navies to ferry their armies to the Holy Land.
The lack of royal involvement in the Fourth Crusade, however, was to have
a critical effect on the planning of the venture, as the crusade leaders
lacked the manpower, money, and machinery to which a medieval king had access.
The crusaders needed to seek assistance from an outside party.
A committee of six envoysone of them being Geoffrey of Villehardouin,
who later wrote a famous chronicle of this crusadewas entrusted with
the task of contracting transportation to Egypt. To provide this service
the envoys chose Venice, which was famed for its seafaring might. In April
1201 the crusaders and Venetian rulers agreed to a contract providing for
passage to Egypt for the following summer. The terms were specific: transportation
would be furnished for 4,500 knights and horses, 20,000 foot-soldiers, and
9,000 squires, in return for 85,000 marks. The Venetians themselves committed
50 additional ships for the crusade, on the condition that they and the
crusaders would split all the spoils.
Historical analysis of the Venetian role in the Fourth Crusade is particularly
contentious. As previously noted, many writers maintain that the Venetians
commandeered the crusade in order to settle a score with the Byzantine Empire
and to extend their trading power. Enrico Dandolo, the 90-year-old Doge
of Venice, is usually singled out as a central figure in the diversion of
the crusade, because he supposedly harbored a longstanding vendetta against
the Byzantines. One legend claims that during an 1172 embassy to Constantinople,
the Byzantine emperor had blinded the Doge. According to the story, Dandolo
subsequently swore vengeance on the Greeks: an oath that he was finally
able to fulfill through this crusade. Other writers argue that the Venetians
rerouted the crusade from Egypt to Constantinople because they wanted to
increase their commercial presence there.
Phillips thoroughly debunks these legends and faulty theories concerning
the Venetians. He points out that Dandolos blindness did not occur
until after 1176, so that it could not have occurred during his trip to
Constantinople four years earlier. He notes that Venice already enjoyed
a substantial market in Constantinople, but none in Egypt, so any commercial
motivation would have led them to retain the original objective. Concerning
Venetian motivations as a whole, Phillips strikes a good balance, observing
that while mercantile interests were certainly a factor in their planning,
it was the spiritual appeal of the crusade that moved Venetian leaders to
participate in this venture.
Venetian spiritual and commercial interests collided, however, in the summer
of 1202 when the crusaders fell well short of the number of participants
they had envisioned, and were unable to raise the money they had promised
for transportation. The envoys had been too ambitious in their estimates.
(In his defense of his own diplomatic effort, Villehardouin later argued
that many of the European nobles who had promised to take part in the crusade
reneged on their vows, or departed from other ports.) Whatever the reason
for the shortfall, the two parties were at a stalemate.
TURNED AGAINST CHRISTIAN FOES
Having invested heavily in the construction of the massive fleet required
to satisfy the crusaders stated requirements, the Venetians were now
loath to give up on the project. So they offered a new proposal: they would
still ship the army to Egypt, provided that the crusaders first helped them
to reassert Venetian authority over the city of Zara on the Dalmatian coast.
Knowing that the very existence of the crusade was at stake, the leaders
agreed to this diversion.
Thus began the first step in the diversion from the original crusading plan.
At Zara a momentous precedent was set: turning the crusade aside from its
goal in the Holy Land, and using the crusader army to fight against Christians.
Many crusaders objected to the attack and left the army at that stage.
Many people today are unaware that the Fourth Crusade initially went to
Constantinople to restore Prince Alexius Angelus and his imprisoned father
to the Byzantine throne. After the diversion to Zara, representatives of
Alexius met up with the crusaders, informing them that he would pay their
remaining debt to the Venetians and assist them in attacking Egypt if they
would help him regain his rightful position. Thus a second diversion, and
a second battle against Christian foes, was proposed.
Considering their precarious position, the benefits of assisting the prince,
and the legitimacy of his claim, the crusaders accepted the proposal. In
July 1203 they succeeded in driving Alexius foes from Constantinople,
enabling the young prince to become co-emperor with his newly freed father.
The crusaders kept waiting for Alexius to fulfill his many promises, but
only a small portion of the money was paid. As they waited, a political
rival in Constantinople murdered Alexius and his father, setting himself
up as emperor. When the new Byzantine ruler refused to pay the crusaders
the sum they were still owed, they decided to attack Constantinople once
again. Against great odds they defeated the Byzantines, capturing the seemingly
impregnable city, and sacking it for three days. Phillips vividly relates
many of the egregious events that occurred during these 72 hours of pillaging,
making evident "the pain and the disgust" which they prompted
from John Paul II. As a conciliatory gesture, Pope John Paul recently returned
to Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople the bones of St. John Chrysostom,
relics that were seized during the sack of 1204. (See "No
Insurmountable Obstacles," Catholic World Report, January
A LASTING LEGACY
The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople is a first-rate study
of this remarkable campaign, whose infamous outcome still has ramifications
today. Although there is little new historical scholarship in the book,
Phillips succeeds in transmitting the major research on the Fourth Crusade
to a non-academic audience in a lively and accessible manner, wading through
the conspiracy theories and superheated rhetoric so common in the field.
This is no small feat.
Along the way Phillips makes some very important points. He underlines the
complexity of motivations for participating in a crusade, and the importance
of the chivalric background of the Fourth Crusades leaders. He also
points out that Pope Innocent III forbade the crusaders to attack Zara and
then Constantinople, but lacked the ability to enforce this prohibition.
Some readers might be annoyed by the occasional diversions Phillips makes
from the main narrative, to discuss special points of interest such as how
tournaments were conducted or how siege engines worked. I would argue that
although he has a good command of his sources, at times he uses them too
literallyfor instance, in a chapter discussing a crusading sermon
purportedly preached by Martin of Paris. I would also dispute the emphasis
Phillips places throughout the text on the death of Thibaut of Champagnewho
died before the crusade ever departed Europeas a major setback for
the crusade. Thibauts role as leader was merely titular, much like
that of Stephen of Blois in the First Crusade. Moreover, even if Thibaut
had lived, it is extremely unlikely that he would have been able to offset
the shortages in manpower and money that hampered the crusade from its outset
and caused the initial diversion to Zara. These minor shortcomings do little
to detract from an excellent book.
As Phillips notes in his conclusion, "The legacy of the sack of Constantinople
is most acute in the Greek Orthodox Church where a deep-rooted bitterness
at the perceived betrayal of Christian fraternity has long lingered."
A good illustration of this point is John Paul IIs 2001 visit to Greece,
during which some hostile protestors condemned the Pope as the anti-Christ,
while even the Orthodox Archbishop Christodoulos highlighted the 1204 sack
during his joint public appearance with the Pontiff. While addressing an
audience of the Greek Orthodox hierarchy, the Pope specifically lamented
this event: "It is tragic that the assailants, who set out to secure
free access for Christians to the Holy Land, turned against their brothers
in the faith. That they were Latin Christians fills Catholics with deep
Ironically, when Pope Urban II called the First Crusade in 1095, it was
partially envisioned as a way to repair the recent rift between Eastern
and Western Christians. In recent years, apologizing for the events of the
Fourth Crusade has become a central feature of the same quest: the Churchs
advance down the long road to reunion.
Vincent Ryan, a doctoral candidate in medieval history at Saint Louis
University, has presented papers on various aspects of the Fourth Crusade
at the International Medieval Congress and the Midwest Medieval History
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