Geoffrey of Villehardouin: “On the Conquest of Constantinople”
The conversation about the Crusades piqued my curiosity, so I read “The Conquest of Constantinople” by Geoffrey of Villehardouin, knight and historian of the Fourth Crusade. I’m certainly no expert on the subject, although I’ve read some other accounts. But my sense is that it’s not very easy to tease out the degrees to which piety, avarice, or the will to conquer drove the Crusaders. Neither the religious zealot nor the imperialist image works entirely well.
By Villehardouin’s account, demand for a fourth crusade came from below. Around the year 1197, a charismatic named Fulk of Neuilly began preaching the moral decadence of 12th century society in the regions around Paris, attracting support from the laity, as well as official accord from Pope Innocent who declared that anyone who would take up the cross and serve a year in the army would be freed of the sins they had committed. This deal, of course, was highly tempting. Before the existence of standing armies, Europe had a problem with young men of a certain age looking to prove themselves by fighting and killing and their energy was, at times, very destructive. It’s a problem that hasn’t exactly gone away: this pent-up energy still fuels wars, riots, and extremist political movements today, and there are still few healthy outlets for the tempers of young men. At any rate, the chance to win glory in combat, experience existentially-testing trials, and possibly gain absolution in the process is understandably very tempting, whether it’s a question of crusade or jihad.
Villehardouin lists the numerous barons, counts, dukes, and other nobility that signed on to conquer Jerusalem and “avenge Jesus Christ’s dishonor” and underscores what a massive obligation this meant. The Doge of Venice is asked to commit an entire fleet essentially, and the marks to pay for 4,500 horses, 9,000 squires, 4,500 knights and 20,000 foot soldiers, before signing up as a commander. I was reminded of the thousand ships launched for Troy as well as modern military coalitions, in which the cause is sold as unquestionably noble- the sort of thing a leader would want to be associated with- while the promise of material gain is evident but unspoken. It is a huge investment of men and materiel and one imagines that the various leaders did not give, nor commit to fight solely out of religious devotion.
In the winter of 1202-1203, the crusaders take Zara, an incident that upsets the abbots who would rather not take a Christian city and was, contrary to Villehardouin, not looked fondly upon by the pope. The rationale seems to have been that taking the city would rack up a victory and keep the army together. Fighting had broken out between the French and Venetians, which led to serious brawls in the streets and not winning the city might have given shame and led to further desertions. Numerous ships had already gone their separate ways.
But this seemingly set the template for the Fourth Crusade, which never reached the Holy Land and in which surprisingly little fighting actually involving the Turks. A great deal, in fact, took place between the Greeks and ‘Latins’ and the most serious rival to the ‘Franks’ seems to have been Johanista, king of Valchia (Walachia) and Bulgaria. In other words, most of the Fourth Crusade was (western) Christian on (eastern) Christian violence. Alliances shifted frequently. Emperor Alexius of Constantinople, whose brother had blinded and deposed him, attempted to win the support of the crusaders in taking Constantinople, but failed to win the support of his own people. He eventually lost the support of the Crusaders as well, after turning against them and having a rival blinded in turn- an action that leads Villehardouin to note that such people have no right to land, a line that made me laugh out loud.
The crusaders also often succumbed to their lower natures. A heated rivalry between the Emperor Baldwin and the marquis of Montferrat nearly became a secondary war, threatening “Christendom’s ruin”. After the second siege of Constantinople, several crusaders succumbed to “Greed, which is the root of all evil”, hoarding plundered loot that was intended, more piously, to be delivered to the pope. Another significant problem was frequent desertions, often of entire ships.
The seeming high point of the Fourth Crusade was when Henry of Hainaut was crowned Emperor in Constantinople in August, 1206. It was but a brief lull in the fighting, however. Villehardouin is a fairly good chronicler, but keeping straight all of the cities sacked and re-sacked and the alliances, betrayals and re-alliances is a battle in itself.
A few things become evident in the account. The first is just how hard it is to organize a crusade, keep a huge coalition of lords and young fighting men together, and pursue glory for self and kingdom, all while trying to stay on target with a mission from God (or the Pope). The attendant clergy tried, as best they could, to prevent the Crusaders from running amok, but the objectives seemed to change daily and there also seems to be a need, in war, to keep the soldiers moving forward and accomplishing small victories. Mutiny is always a danger. By the time the knights are fighting Greeks in Romania, however, it’s unclear if anyone is still thinking about Jerusalem.
All of this suggests to me that the question we’ve discussed here about how to understand the Crusades is not so easy to answer. Was this a war of conquest? Absolutely. Does that mean the Crusaders were motivated solely, or even primarily by greed or lust for power? No, absolutely not. But, in practice, war unleashes possibilities that civilized life doesn’t offer, easily blurring or erasing the lines of moral behavior. It clearly did not help things that the Pope was willing to absolve nearly any sins the Crusaders might commit along the way. There’s a difference, of course, between moral behavior and forgiven behavior. But it might have been better to save the absolution for after the Crusaders returned instead of offering it before they left.
Endnote: Naturally, I had planned to post on this text in the future, since I’m still reading and posting on texts from before the common era. But I couldn’t resist throwing in a few cents on this discussion. Consider this a “special edition” of canon blogging.