The Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) is one of the most appalling events in history. To call it a crusade is actually a misnomer, since it turned away from its Muslim target and ended by attacking the eastern Christians — destroying (though redefining) Byzantium, resulting in centuries of estrangement between the Latin and Greek churches. How did the crusaders get sidetracked to Constantinople and drawn into warring on their fellow Christians?
The fiasco was engineered by the Venetian sailors initially hired by the crusaders for transport. When the crusaders couldn’t raise enough money, the Venetians began making their own rules: instead of cash, they demanded help in recovering an Italian city, and then (in collaboration with Philip of Swabia and Boniface of Montferrat) help in installing a new (puppet) emperor on the Byzantine throne. The crusaders agreed, and before long everyone was sailing to Constantinople. Innocent III was aghast at this turn of events — he had given orders that no Christian cities be attacked on a crusade — but despite his excommunication of the expedition, it continued, eventually resulting in the new eastern emperor, Alexius IV. When he turned out to be a nightmare, causing riots culminating in his murder, the crusaders and Venetians seized Constantinople for themselves in one of the most gross and bloody takeovers in world history.
Steven Runciman, admittedly not always the most trustworthy source, suffices with the following description:
“The sack of Constantinople is unparalleled in history… The Franks were filled with lust for destruction. They rushed in a howling mob down the streets and through the houses, snatching up everything that glittered and destroying whatever they could not carry, pausing only to murder or to rape, or to break open the wine cellars for their refreshment. Neither monasteries nor churches nor libraries were spared. In St Sophia itself drunken soldiers could be seen tearing down the silken hangings and pulling the great silver iconostasis to pieces, while sacred books and icons were trampled under foot. While they drank merrily from the altar-vessels a prostitute set herself on the Patriarch’s throne and began to sing a ribald French song. Nuns were ravished in their convents. Palaces and hovels alike were entered and wrecked. Wounded women and children lay dying in the streets. For three days the ghastly scenes of pillage and bloodshed continued, till the huge and beautiful city was in shambles. Even the Muslims would have been more merciful, cried the historian Nicetas, and with truth.” (A History of the Crusades, Vol III, p 123)
The takeover resulted in a 57-year period of Latin rule in the eastern empire (1204-1261), which Runciman infamously condemned as (1) the destruction of the most accomplished Christian civilization, and (2) the weakening of Christendom’s defense against the Turks. But is this accurate? Christopher Tyerman questions such an analysis, noting that while the crusaders destroyed Byzantium, they redefined it at the same time. Moreover:
“This does not necessarily establish the Fourth Crusade’s blame for the later woes of eastern Europe, the second of Runciman’s complaints. Runciman saw Byzantium so undermined by 1204 that it could ‘no longer guard Christendom against the Turk’. This ultimately handed ‘the innocent Christians of the Balkans’ to ‘persecution and slavery’. This is a view clouded by a crude religious and cultural analysis… However unpleasant, the Fourth Crusade did not precipitate the triumph of the Turk. The occupation of parts of the Greek empire by Latins and Venetians at least ensured some continuing western investment in resistance to the Ottomans that outlasted the Byzantine empire itself. More widely, the assumption that Ottoman rule was per se bad, ‘worse’ than Greek imperial rule or that of fractious and often vicious Christian groups in the Balkans, depends upon racial and religious stereotypes and prejudices. Not all fourteenth-century Greeks preferred Byzantium to Latin or Turkish rule.” (God’s War, p 560)
Point being that just because the Fourth Crusade was unforgivably appalling doesn’t mean it was responsible for later events, nor even the decline of eastern Christendom per se.
Of all crusading distortions, the Fourth Crusade was the most perverse — even worse, in my view, than the anti-Semitic pogroms of the First and Second Crusades — and again, it’s a misnomer: the actual crusade to the holy lands was abandoned soon after the Latin takeover of the eastern empire. Apologists had to rely on just war theories, rather than holy war theories, to justify the slaughter of the Greek Orthodox. One of the aims of crusading had been to improve relations with the eastern churches, and the crusaders and Venetians had destroyed those relations once and for all.
In the next post we’ll look at the Children’s Crusade.