Not Conspiracies but Mistakes
A new popular account cuts through some popular misconceptions to provide 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
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
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
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 III's August 1198 crusading call. The young pope envisioned that this crusading expedition would retake
The first significant response was in November 1199, at a tournament in
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
A committee of six envoys — one of them being Geoffrey of Villehardouin, who later wrote a famous chronicle of this crusade — was entrusted with the task of contracting transportation to
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
Phillips thoroughly debunks these legends and faulty theories concerning the Venetians. He points out that Dandolo's blindness did not occur until after 1176, so that it could not have occurred during his trip to
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
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
Many people today are unaware that the Fourth Crusade initially went to
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
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
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 Crusade's leaders. He also points out that Pope Innocent III forbade the crusaders to attack Zara and then
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 literally — for 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 Champagne — who died before the crusade ever departed
As Phillips notes in his conclusion, "The legacy of the sack of
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 Church's advance down the long road to reunion.
Vincent Ryan. "Not Conspiracies but Mistakes." Catholic World Report (February, 2005).
This article is reprinted with permission from Catholic World Report.
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Vincent Ryan, a doctoral candidate in medieval history at