Blog

Four Misconceptions About the Crusades: #3 The Travesty of the Fourth Crusade

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.

 

 

8 Responses to “Four Misconceptions About the Crusades: #3 The Travesty of the Fourth Crusade”

  1. Michael, you can debate the moral gravity of these events. The biggest problem is the historical gravity that it weakened the Eastern empire, arguably eventually leading to its downfall to the muslims. Apologies are rather pointless at this date, but historically it was a disaster of magnitude that exceeds these other things.

  2. I will see if others respond but I will make a few comments at this stage. The barbaric westerners saw the wealth of Constantinople… and they took it. The greatest and richest city in Christendom was pillaged and robbed and butchered. Venice was enriched beyond measure but countless riches of learning and art were destroyed. The crusaders melted down wonderful works of art to sell for thier metal value. The empire and city already weakened by the loss of anatolia after Manzikert (1071) would never rtecover after 1204. The end when it came in 1453 was almost inevitable. The conquest by the Turks of the Balkans and the eventual Ottoman threats to vienna were a direct result of 1204.

    • John, have you ever read any histories of the Crusades? If so, which ones? The reason I ask is that you comments sound a lot like the pop interpretation of the Crusades, lacking the bigger picture.

      Certainly some terrible things were done, but what would you have done different if you were a general leading the West to Egypt carried by the promises of an emperor who decided not to pay? Go home? Certainly Vienna had some to gain, but they had been close to war with Constantinople for years. The same for the Norms. There were a lot of people who gained, half of them wanted restitution and the other half revenge. And many just wanted Constantinople in different hands anyway. Relics or not, Constantinople was, from the perspective of many, at fault for hundreds of thousands of deaths during the Crusades.

      The booty was simply a motivating factor. What they did with the booty may have been a travesty, but it was their only option to take it considering their situation.

      Speaking to the weakening of Constantinople…how did Constantinople fall to such a small force anyway? They were ripe to fall. They were already weak. The Crusaders did not catch them by surprise. They had been preparing for an invasion from the West for years. It was only a matter of time before it fell to someone. It is impossible to know whether Constantinople would have returned to its former strength had not the Crusaders come in 1204. In fact, it might have fallen to the Muslims earlier.

  3. Indeed we cannot re-do history! And sadly it appears we are often doomed to repeat it, but then there in no longer a Judeo-Christian world view. And today is both modernism and postmodernism, and thus fully postmodernity!

  4. Michael,
    Another good book on this is Rodney Stark’s book, “God’s Battalions.” It was not as though the crusaders simply saw an opportunity to make money and took it. Contracts had been made with Venice for the transport of the crusaders to Palestine. When the crusaders showed up, there was only about 1/3 of the expected number. The contract was based on the expected number and the Venetians had built ships to accommodate them. The offer by Alexus Angelus was seen as an opportunity to fulfill the agreement the crusaders had made with Venice. Alexus tried to keep his word but was killed for it. This was not treasure grab.

    • Stark’s work is very good. He has a lot of courage to write the way he did. One thing that I am often surprised to see is that just about every scholar on the crusades these days rebuts the revisionist stuff that goes on in pop-culture and media. I was surprised to see the Pope apologize for the fourth Crusade, but I was not surprised to see Clinton apologize for the first!

      Reading history sure does put a damper on so much historical liberalism.

  5. Like I said Michael, I won’t debate with you the moral details of what happened. BUT Constantinople of that period was perhaps the most Christianized society in history, and these events led to its downfall, and the downfall of Christianity over a big part of the world. That’s why it’s significant. Not (necessarily) because it was the worst thing morally to ever happen.

  6. “I don’t think the sacking of Constantinople was wrong. It was about the only option they had.”

    Depends on what is meant by “wrong”. It was at least morally wrong to kill and murder, and especially wrong to kill fellow members of Christ’s body, regardless of provocation.

    In addition, the availability of “options” depends on one’s goals. A shift in goals changes the options available. The fact that other options would not have achieved their immoral goals is not really relevant.

Leave a Reply