Medieval Politics Are Byzantine

Conquest of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204 AD

Conquest of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204 AD

It’s 1204 AD and Constantinople is burning.  This is not the first time, and sadly it will not be the last, but matters are somewhat graver than most.  They’re up there on the battlements whirling a singed banner; they’re down there in the Hagia Sophia performing obscene acts of rape and murder against the body of the church and its sacred constituents; they’ve got a tear-streaked whore seated in the emperor’s throne singing raucous songs before an assembly of disembodied heads including that of monks, scholars, bishops, and generals.  The Seljuk Turks have finally overthrown the walls of Constantinople, you might think.  No, not exactly, not at all, but the consequences immediately grave will only worsen in the hundreds of years to come.  You see, it’s the Fourth Crusade, and the streets are literally red with the massacre of the population of the of the capitol of the Eastern Roman Empire, sacked by the crusaders not just once but twice–and much worse the second time.  This doesn’t seem the mission of a crusade, does it?  How, in spite of the threat of excommunication by the pope could military and religious leaders attendant the crusader army not only allow but plan this to happen?  Medieval politics are Byzantine, and that’s just not something you can tolerate in an army.

I should interject that the crusades achieved generally very little of the aims of Christendom.  Indeed, for some time, Christian travelers making pilgrimage were protected from rape, murder, and enslavement by Turkic and Syrian Muslims thanks to the creation of a collection of crusader states.  But aside from the transmission of Eastern knowledge, including the fruits of both Indian and Greek philosophy, which would propel Europe forward in the centuries to come, very little was achieved.  Anyways, consider the rant herein concluded.

Victorian Interpretation of Norman Twelfth Century Dress

Victorian Interpretation of Norman Twelfth Century Dress

This turned out to be the last time a papal authority called for a crusade, no surprise.  He that called for the Fourth Crusade, a Pope Innocent III–who strictly prohibited attacks against Christian entities, threatening excommunication–was to have 33,500 soldiers, an assembly of knights, squires, and footsoldiers derived predominantly from France, the HRE, and Norman England transported in an as-yet unconstructed fleet of Venetian ships to land in Muslim Egypt, the de-facto core of the caliphate, and burn out the very heart of them.  Had they pulled it off, it would have been quite the feat.  But diversity, money, and frankly a criminal lack of assent and coordination threw the wrench and the monkey into the engine, and everything went to shit.

I would also like the interject that, while the bishops attendant the many body of the army were certainly guilty as sin, the pope repeatedly made demands that the crusaders halt their behavior, because they were running about like a bunch of bloodthirsty lunatics looking for more shit to steal.  He’s largely innocent–heh–in the entire affair, but what’s telling is how little authority he actually had.

Capture of Constantinople in 1204 by Tintoretto, note the ships used

Capture of Constantinople in 1204 by Tintoretto, note the ships used

Only about half of the anticipated crusaders arrived in Venice.  The rest had apparently found their own means of transport, as was their right.  The latter of these didn’t participate in the Fourth Crusade proper, largely arriving at the crusader states to reinforce crusader positions.  But for the former, the Venetians demanded to be paid for the fleet they had impoverished themselves building at the pope’s direction, and the crusader army impoverished themselves trying to pay it, but they proved barely able to pay half.  But like all good Italians–and this is going to be a theme–they were good merchants and they had a plan.  First they said, “Well, there’s a few Greek strongholds on the Balkan side of the Adriatic we’d like you to do in for us.  Won’t be difficult and you’ll make a bit of money, and so will we.”  After that was completed, and after the pope made another plea to stop raiding Christian settlements, they said, “Tell you what, we’ve got this guy calls himself Alexios IV, and he wants to sit on the Byzantine throne, as is–so he tells us–his right.  Says he wants us to knock a few heads in, threaten a few people, and the deed’s as good as done.  Says he’ll pay us and you for the effort.  Deal?”  It was agreed, but some of the more moral commanders took their companies and left.

Anyways, they get there and do their business and put Alexios IV on the throne as a co-Emperor, but he wasn’t able to pay them the compensation required, as the treasury wasn’t exactly overfull, and so he stole from the residents of Constantinople to make this happen.  Even this wasn’t enough.  They continued to campaign as mercenaries for the emperor until his death, and when his replacement wouldn’t honor the terms of his predecessor’s agreement with them, they besieged the city a second time.  Enraged, the locals killed all the Latins–their term for western Catholics–living within the boundaries of the city, and when the crusaders succeeded in breaching their defenses, they effected an ethnic cleansing rivaled by precious few battles indeed.

I could go on, describe the details of the battles, how they were prosecuted, but they’re generally unremarkable.  Attacks were made from land and sea simultaneously, and the fighting in the city generally proceeded district by district, which were well segregated.  In the first siege, the Varangian guard of approximately five thousand soldiers made a good demonstration of themselves, defending the northern square of the city altogether from crusader acquisition.

Aerial View of Constantinople

Aerial View of Constantinople

Anyways, what happened is pretty deplorable, and it did the opposite of advance the cause of Christendom, that is the opposite of the intent of a crusade, the very opposite.  So how came this?  Was the mercenary life merely too much for your rising crusader, or was it something else?

It certainly didn’t help that the bishops attendant the army more or less equated the Greek with the spawn of Satan himself, a very dangerous accusation in a time in which The Song of Roland was making its rounds.  But in reality, Constantinople had long been a pretty cosmopolitan city.  It attracted traders from all over the Mediterranean.  Some of these were Latins, particularly Italians from states like Venice, Genoa, and Pisa.  They were generally segregated into their own districts–easier to administer and easier to protect.  The Italians were always having riots where they were trying to kill each other, thanks to the various disagreements of the balkanized city-states of Italy.  The Emperor at the time, Manuel I, was having none of it and expelled many of them temporarily.  This sort of shit went on for some time, with the Italians getting drunk and rioting and the emperor having to give them a good paddling.

Varangian Guardsmen

Varangian Guardsmen

Anyways, after his death, his widow ruled as regent for her infant son, showing great preference to the Latin traders, which incensed the local Greeks.  When she was eventually deposed, during the celebrations the Greeks in xenophobic furor went to the Latin quarter and killed everyone, save for those who could escape by sea.  This includes women and children.  This includes people in hospitable beds.  This includes the Latin cardinal.

Sort of explains why the crusaders had no particular love of the Greeks, whom they seemed to perceive as having justified their own manslaughter.

The unfortunate consequence of all this madness, of which there were very many but I will mention one, is that the Greeks determined it would be preferable to live under the yoke of Seljuk Turks than the Latins.  The Schism between the Eastern and Western Churches by this were completed.  Where does the responsibility lie?  There’s no doubt that there were many on both sides that hadn’t behaved as good Christians, nothing of the sort certainly.  I sense it would take a history to rival Herodotus to work out the labyrinthine underpinnings.