This is probably the hardest misconception for me to write about. It is not so much that I am unsure about my leanings here, it is just that I have held to this misconception for so long. In fact, if I remember correctly, the unbalanced view that I am going to speak about here was one I presented as one of the main points in my recent Church History Boot Camp, so I have taught it very recently.
The basic idea is this: the fourth Crusade was an utter travesty, representing the greatest black eye of all Christian history. Christians from the West, who had been called upon to help Christians in the East, stabbed their brothers in the back. Not only did they not help the Eastern Christians, but they sacked the city of Constantinople, raping and murdering their fellow brothers and sisters along the way. This solidified the rift between the East and the West.
It is this basic understanding that has led many to apologize to Eastern Christians, including the Pope.
Now, I know I write this under grave risk of offending many of my Eastern brothers and sisters who believe that the apology was long overdue. But as it stands right now, the idea that the Fourth Crusade was such a display of human depravity is, to me, about as unbalanced as anything I have ever heard.
Let me give you a few reasons why I have been rethinking the Fourth Crusade:
1. It was not unprovoked
As anyone who has studied the history of the Crusades could tell you, the West (Europe) and the East (Constantinople) were certainly not on friendly terms. Yes, in 1095 Constantinople called on the West for help as the Seljuk Turkish Muslims were knocking at their door. Yes, the West sent help during the first Crusade. But the sense of betrayal that the Western world felt from the Eastern Emperor, Alexius I, was hardly uncalled for. An argument could be made that this was Alesius’ war, yet he left the western Crusaders high and dry every time they needed his help. Once they finally took Jerusalem and the other Crusader states, it is easy to see why they did not hand over the booty so easily.
The seeds of bitterness continued to spread as other Eastern emperors followed in the same vein, ever ready to make deals with the Muslims and hand their Western brothers and sisters over to the enemy. Andronicus I even made a treaty of friendship with Saladin (the great Muslim ruler) just before Jerusalem was retaken by the Muslims. Isaac II made a deal with Saladin to trip up any Crusaders coming through Constantinople.
There never was (and, as far as I know, never has been) a formal apology given for the countless betrayals of western Crusaders by the Byzantines. Who knows how many lives of Western Crusaders these betrayals cost. In fact, as one reads through the history of the Crusades, it is hard to believe that the sacking of Constantinople did not come earlier, in a more intentional way (although many called for such an event).
Of course the final straw was when Alexius Angelus took the Crusaders on a fool’s errand, contracting the Crusaders to place him on the Byzantine throne he claimed was his to begin with. At this point, I suppose that the Crusaders could be guilty of being naive, but as their conquest to Egypt and then to Jerusalem lay on the horizon, it was a good move strategically to finally have an Eastern Emperor who would not betray them to the Muslims. Of course this did not work out and Alexius Angelus and Isaac II refused to pay their debt to the Crusaders. It was only then that the Crusaders attacked Constantinople with the intention of sacking it. But even then, who would have ever thought that such a small army could have been expected to take one of the greatest cities in the world?
2. What happened was bad, but not as bad as it could have been
The sacking of Constantinople took three days. Most people talk about all the rape and murder that took place during these three days, giving all the gory details. However, we must put this in perspective. To begin with, there were only about two thousand people killed. While this might seem like a lot, we must consider that the city itself had hundreds of thousands of people. A very small percentage of those living in Constantinople were killed.
As well, there were many times when Latin Christians were killed by Eastern Christians. In 1182, in an event called “Massacre of the Latins,” Byzantine mobs, within the walls of Constantinople, were allowed by Andronicus to kill tens of thousands of Latin Christians. The rest they sold into slavery to the Muslims. In this event alone, drastically more were killed than during the whole of the Fourth Crusade. Is this something that needs to be apologized for by the East?
3. It was not Roman Catholicism against Eastern Orthodoxy
Many times we make it sound as if this was an ideological Crusade, where Western Catholics killed Eastern Orthodox due to religious motivations. But this is not the case. While the Crusade was called for by the Papacy, we cannot assume that religion was the primary issue, even in the crusades against the Muslims. For hundreds of years, both Byzantium and Europe were under constant threat from the jihad of the Muslims. Saladin made it clear that his goal was to continue his crusade to “far-off” lands, with a goal to “free the earth of anyone who does not believe in God.” Therefore, when the Western Christians arrived in Constantinople, their goal was to head to Egypt so that they could take what could possibly be the most important and militarily strategic city. When they were betrayed in Constantinople, they had little choice but to take the city.
4. It was not us who took Constantinople
One finds himself in a difficult position when he is pressured to own up to and apologize for the sins of those who are long dead. My first thoughts are always, “Why should we? It was not us.” We can recognize the wrong done, mourn for that wrong, learn from the mistakes, and even make restitution, but we cannot assume moral responsibility and apologize for others. So when people talk about apologizing for the travesty of the Fourth Crusade, we need be careful. We can no more make amends for other people’s wrong actions than we can take credit for their right ones.
In the end, some of the Crusaders did some very wrong things in Constantinople in 1204. As well, there were many who had less than noble intentions from the very beginning. This is simply the way it is in any war, just or unjust. However, considering the situation that the Western Crusaders found themselves in, and considering the bad blood between the East and West, I don’t think the sacking of Constantinople was wrong. It was about the only option they had.
A couple of really good works to read here:
The New Concise History of the Crusades by Thomas F. Madden (my favorite general history of the Crusades)
The Crusades: A History by Jonathan Riley-Smith (the most authoratative history I have found)
If you are looking for a really good course on the Crusades, Kenneth W. Harl’s The Era of the Crusades is the best I have seen. Very well done.