Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantionople
2004 Penguin Book by Jonathon Phillips
Book Report and Review

     It was a dark and bloody time.  The High Middle Ages.  A century of crusading to the Levant, the eastern Mediterannean, had not resulted in a secure foothold on Jerusalem.  In 1187 it fell to Saladin.

     Pope Innocent III was a Pope who liked to send knights out on crusades.  Against heretics in France, against Muslims in Spain, against the Ottomans, and, naturally, for "the Holy Land" and relics.  Relics, like the True Cross, the Crown of Thorns, the Burial Shroud, the head of John the Baptist (and many others) make a surprisingly large appearance in this work.  Knights loved to carry parts of the True Cross into battle ahead of them.

     Knights liked to beat the shit out of people, and kill them.  They liked it so much that knights would come quite close to killing each other in huge tournaments, where 100s of knights of one faction would fight with 100s of knights of another, a huge rumble.  It was a good training ground for warriors, but the not particularly good for morals. Only one man in this story is noted to have stayed true to his wife, and for that he was highly commended.

     When the knights got Papal permission, they could go about killing and taking lands _morally_, and all was good.  When Jerusalem fell, many Knights decided to take up Innocent's crusade, and reconquer Jerusalem. 

     So, what do you need?  Lots of knights and knight leaders.  Too bad the #1 leader died before they set sail.  What else?  To get there, one has to admit, is much faster by boat.  The French, most of the party, didn't like sailing, but it would cut months off the trip.  The boats were really gross.  Horses were slung, so they wouldn't trip and break their legs, 30 to a boat. 

     Venice was the trading center of the European world, and the only place that could produce the required ships.  Venice basically stopped all other trading activities and worked on building these boats for a year.  For free?  Definitely not. 

     When the knights arrived to go, there was head count and they seemed about 1/3 of the strength they were hoping for.  This would mean that each knight would owe about three times as much to the Venetians for the overall fee.  The fee couldn't be met.

     The 90 year old, blind Doge of Venice, Enrico Dandolo, travelled with the Crusaders and said, you know what, if we attack the city of Zara (modern day Bosnia) we can get lots of cash, and then you won't owe me so much.  Many of the knights were not happy.  Zara was a Christian city, and the King there happened to be a crusader (not on crusade).  In truth, Dandolo knew that Ermico of Hungary was faking it.  He had only become a crusader to get the Pope's backing in his war with his brother.

     Zara was sacked.  Yet still the Venetians debts were not fully paid.

     I am going to have to briefly explain Byzantine politics here, but it is far simpler than it sounds.  The Byzantines had hindered the third crusade, and been working with the Ottomans.  Anyway, since that time, there had been a coup.  Alexius IV desposed the old ruler, Alexius III, who left a son, Alexius V, who eventually found the crusaders.

     Alexius V showed up at the crusader camp, having earlier been rebuffed by the Pope, saying "Help me take my rightful crown and I'll

  • give you more money than you need
  • I'll sent 1000s of people to join your crusade
  • I'll set up hundreds of Byzantine knights in the Holy Land to protect it from then on
  • I'll bring the Greek Orthodox Church back under the authority of the Papacy (split since 937?)
.  Answering the needs of cash, manpower, long term security for the Levant, and religious reunion, many knights were convinced and decided to install Alexius V on the Byzantine Throne.  Some knights left, though.

     They sail some more, sack another Chrisitan city for food, and when they get to Constantinople they decide to sail Alexius V up and down past the walls, to get a sense of the mood.  There did not appear a cheering throng to greet them.  There had been some hope he'd simply be swept back into power without a fight.

     A couple fierce battles and the Venetian ships were masters of the waters and the crusaders made camp across a small strait.   Alexius IV had not made serious preparations, his soldiers were very often to be found running away from battle.  At one point he banned attacking the Crusaders. 

     The Byzantine nobles gave up fairly quickly, having not won a battle, and freed Alexius III, and crowned him and his son co-Emperors. 

     But Alexius V didn't have the required money in the treasury to pay the crusaders, so he started melting down many of the great treasures of Constantinople to pay them, which made those who hated the Westerners even more furious.  It got as bad as some could take, and a Murtuphlus killed Alexius III, became Emperor, and began to resist the crusaders.

     Hundreds of acres of Constantinople were burnt to the ground, and the crusaders were succesful, and conquered Constantinople.  This time they put one of their own on the Throne, and Emperor Baldwin of Flanders began what is sometimes called the Latin Empire, which lasted for about 60 years.  The relics were carried away to the Churches of western Europe.  The in-fighting began almost immediately between top crusaders, and between those knights who seemed to want to sack Constantinople rather than join the big pile.  The knights ended up being paid very, very little, less than was asked at them in Venice, when they agreed to set sail for Jerusalem.

     It would be impossible not to notice parallels between Alexius V and Ahmad Chalabi.  The book was too long, and sometimes someone would be introduced, 80-90% of the way through the book, as a leading knight.  Where had they been the whole time?  There was a lot of battle detail, some of which was interesting, and there were some interesting details about the High Middle Ages (the age when the Latin Church ruled the Western World, and everyone slept around and killed each other).  I had already become partially familiar with the scope of crusading efforts, how Holy War was a non-stop affair for medieval Popes, and this was a lot of detail about one important crusade.

     Torquato Tasso's Jerusalem Redelivered was about the first crusade, and was, for centuries, considered one of the, or the greatest Italian epic poem, according to the linked web page.

No comments: