Well-crafted tale of “brutality and determination, depravity and avarice, political intrigue and religious zeal”—and even worse.
Eight hundred years ago, the armies of the Fourth Crusade, mingling knights, squires, and foot soldiers from all over Europe, made a vow to retake Jerusalem from the infidel Muslims. For manifold reasons they did not succeed, but on the way to the Holy Land they turned toward Constantinople, the capital of Eastern Christianity, and looted and burned it instead. The episode has long been explained as a tragic mistake, and, in 2001, Pope John Paul II issued a formal apology to the Greek Orthodox Church expressing sorrow that Latin Christians had “turned against their brothers in the faith.” The truth, writes British historian Phillips (Univ. of London), is more complex, for the Fourth Crusade blended faith and commerce: “. . . if the Fourth Crusade did succeed in retaking the Holy Land,” he notes, “then there would have been quite genuine possibilities to secure lands and wealth.” The Greeks of Constantinople controlled territories and monopolies in the eastern Mediterranean that Venice was avid to secure, and Venice was the Halliburton of its day: Venetian entrepreneurs saw to it that the Venetian merchant fleet would transport the Crusade to the Holy Land, the effect being much like “a major international airline ceasing flights for a year to prepare its planes for one particular client, and then to serve that client exclusively for a further period afterwards.” Quid pro quo: but, it being the Middle Ages, the intrigues were ever much more complex, involving massacres, espionage, diplomatic missions between pope and Greek emperor, the murder of said emperor by his own troops, and, eventually, the sack of Constantinople as “the crusaders spread into the city like a deadly virus running through the veins of a weak old man.”
Events too little remembered today, and well worth hearing about: Phillips does a good job of rendering this complex, even timely story intelligibly.