The Crusaders’ A Series of Unfortunate Events
Following a series of unfortunate events in the spring of 1204, the army of the Fourth Crusade sacked the most significant Christian city: Constantinople. Although it was launched as a holy war by Pope Innocent III, some historians argue that the Fourth Crusade didn’t end as one. The following is an exploration of that historiographical debate. Byzantine apologist Sir Steven Runciman, along with Alexander Vasiliev, tend to blame the Venetians. Donald Queller and Thomas Madden come together to defend them. Jonathan Phillips builds on this work and lends credence to the idea that the outcome was determined by larger historical forces. Their debates revolve around one, central question: was the Fourth Crusade a series of unavoidable events, or were those events directed by opportunists?
To understand the crusaders’ diversion to Constantinople, we must first examine the missteps during the beginning of the crusade. It was agreed that the Venetians would transport a large crusading force to Egypt in exchange for 85,000 marks. Doge Enrico Dandolo of Venice is a key figure in the Fourth Crusade; some historians argue that he was the instigator of this diversion. Unfortunately, the crusaders were unable to make the payment of 85,000 marks. Thus, before they had embarked for Egypt, Dandolo was afforded an opportunity to steer the forces to the Venetians’ advantage — capturing Zara instead. There were two fundamental issues with this: first, Zara was a Christian city and second, it was under the control of King Emico of Hungary, a man who had taken a crusading vow. To attack Zara was to attack a city that was under the protection of the Church; an indulgence awarded to crusaders by papal authority. This was the first of many diversions, foreshadowing the later, convoluted conquering of Constantinople.
Thomas Madden discusses Dandolo’s vehement hatred of Byzantium. This attribute has often been used to explain, or embellish, the role of the Venetian leaders in the diversion. Madden states that while he is often ‘described as shrewd, intelligent, crafty and willy . . . in an attempt to explain the conquest of Constantinople 1204, Dandolo is often described in much darker terms.’ For Alexander A. Vasiliev, in the mind of the ‘discerning and clever Dandolo, a plan was ripening to conquer Byzantium.’ Michael Angold, however, takes Dandolo’s previous dealings with the Byzantines, before his dogeship, and extrapolates that he ‘was less than interested in a diversion to Constantinople.’ In 1198 Dandolo was able to secure a treaty with the Byzantine emperor, in which Venice would enjoy its previous privileges. Angold proceeds to argue that the Doge needed ‘considerable persuading’ to sack Constantinople. By the time of the Fourth Crusade, Dandolo had learned that a vast trading port, peace and a well-worked treaty with Byzantium served Venice much better.
Runciman remains sympathetic towards the Byzantines and obfuscates any self-inflicted wounds related to the diversion. He instead writes that the crusaders’ “barbarity left a memory that would never be forgiven them.’ He places the blame squarely on the crusaders and continues to allude to Byzantine superiority. By taking such a stance, while acknowledging them, he underestimates the magnitude of Byzantium’s own contributions; the young prince Alexius was pivotal in the diversion to Constantinople. When Alexius III deposed his brother Isaac II in 1195 it left Alexius without an inheritance. Thus came his flight to Europe where he met with Pope Innocent III, but instead found an ally in his brother in law, Phillip of Swabia — who was, at that time, embroiled in a war for the Imperial Crown of Germany. As a result, envoys were dispatched in 1202, with an offer to the crusaders from the young prince Alexius; amongst other things this would ensure complete payment to Venice and allow the crusade to continue. Is it all that surprising, then, that the crusaders took the carefully considered decision to enthrone Alexius as emperor at Constantinople?
As a contrast, Runciman questions the morality of the crusaders in attacking what he regarded as ‘the guardian of Europe.’ With the benefit of hindsight, Runciman’s scrutiny is conventionally acceptable; after the capture of Byzantium, the situation quickly deteriorated. Within a historical and chronological context of events, however, the decision to sack Constantinople and Zara was motivated by a need to continue the crusade. As Jonathan Phillips argues, these two cities were merely ‘stepping-stones to the campaign in Egypt.’
Consulting Angold’s The Fourth Crusade reveals that the appeal to help a young Alexius fitted within a convoluted perspective that informed the crusaders’ understanding. This image that Angold describes is one of a troubled empire — an empire without consistent line of emperors in the immediate years preceding the Third and Fourth Crusades. During 1183 and the start of the Fourth Crusade, Constantinople had no less than two successful coups and three emperors. Once the crusade reached its conclusion, there had been five coups and six emperors. Angold acknowledges those ‘assumptions and prejudices’ of the crusaders, but determines that the conclusion of the crusade was made more devastating ‘because of Byzantine disarray and sheer pusillanimity.’ In Angold’s work, the Byzantines no longer possess that aura of preeminence offered to them by Runciman. Instead, they are a troubled empire which, again and again, fails to reassemble its former itself. Jonathan Phillips corroborates this by stating that the reason why the crusaders were successful in taking Constantinople is because of the ‘chronic instability […] at the heart of the Byzantine politics.’
Another prominent figure worthy of study is Philip of Swabia. One strand of scholarly debate concerns the ulterior motives of a group consisting of Boniface of Montferrat, Philip of Swabia and Prince Alexios and that they had always looked to divert the crusade towards Constantinople for a multitude of reasons. Philip had ties with the royal family of Byzantium through his marriage to Irene, sister to the young prince. Of opportuneness was that Boniface, elected leader of the crusade, was cousin to Philip. In their ‘The Fourth Crusade: The Conquest of Constantinople’, Donald Queller and Thomas Madden argue that a move to install Alexios as emperor had indeed been discussed by Boniface, Philip and Alexios but that it was not premeditated before the crusade. There is no doubt that Philip of Swabia was willing to help Alexios — and perhaps he would have travelled east to do so, had he not been embroiled in a war with Otto for the imperial crown of Germany.
The most commonly accepted theory is Queller and Madden’s, that ‘difficult decisions, improbable events, and morally ambiguous situations’ had directed the Westerners to Constantinople. It is one that has been further developed by Jonathan Phillips who supports this theory, arguing that the ‘death of Thibaut of Champagne, the lack of men arriving at Venice, [and] the decision to attack Zara’ all encouraged the Constantinople diversion. This theory neglects one aspect of the historiography, however: the death of Thibaut of Champagne. Losing the leader of the expedition before setting out would have caused setbacks and weakened the assembled forces’ manpower. Jonathan Phillips addresses this effectively by stating that the loss of Thibaut shortly after the treaty with Venice, was detrimental to the crusade, in that his ‘leadership and resources’ might have facilitated the recruitment process. It is possible that had Thibaut survived that the sufficient number of men and financial resources would have congregated at Venice, alleviated the need to sack Zara.
After centuries of historical discourse between historians this debate is still a staple of crusading, byzantine and ecclesial histories. Returning to that initial question then, was the Fourth Crusade a series of unavoidable unfortunate events, or were those events directed by opportunists? Though Byzantium apologists are quick to blame Venetian conspirators, in recent years and in works of Donald Queller and Thomas Madden, these theories have been largely debunked. Runciman argues that ‘never [was there] a greater crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusade.’ The outcome of the Fourth Crusade was in contrast with its original aim: to regain Jerusalem via Egypt. A debate will always surround this troubled crusade but the core question remains, why did the crusade end with the conquest of Constantinople?