The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople: Jonathan Phillips Sees One of the Most Notorious Events in European History as a Typical 'Clash of Cultures'

By Phillips, Jonathan | History Today, May 2004 | Go to article overview

The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople: Jonathan Phillips Sees One of the Most Notorious Events in European History as a Typical 'Clash of Cultures'


Phillips, Jonathan, History Today


THE CAPTURE OF CONSTANTINOPLE by the armies of the Fourth Crusade was one of the most remarkable episodes in medieval history. One of their number wrote, 'No history could ever relate marvels greater than those as far as the fortunes of war are concerned'. On April 12th, 1204, an army of perhaps 20,000 men and a fleet of about 200 ships crewed by Venetian sailors and warriors, broke in and began to loot the greatest metropolis in the Christian world. Constantinople's mighty walls had resisted numerous ouslaughts as the Avars, Persians and Arabs had tried to assail its defences over the centuries. Yet always 'the queen of cities', us the Byzantines described their capital. had survived. What had brought the crusaders to attack their fellow Christians and how did they manage to succeed? The crusaders understood their success as a manifestation of God's will. One commented, 'There can be no doubt that the hand of the Lord guided all of these events'.

There was a history of difficulties between the two parties, dating from the 1054 Schism between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. This concerned matters of doctrine, religious practice and papal authority and gave an added sharpness to future disputes. The advent of the crusades in 1095 brought further tensions often created by large and sometimes ill-disciplined armies passing through the Byzantine Empire en route to the Holy Land. Greek purges of the Venetian (1171) and western (1182) communities in Constantinople added to this record of troubles.

Relations between Byzantium and the West at this time were often characterised as a clash of cultures. The Greeks viewed themselves as civilised superiors to the barbaric and violent westerners; the people of Europe regarded the Byzantines as unwar like, effeminate and duplicitous. In the fullest sense, of course, these stereotypes were inaccurate: the Latin West produced thinkers of the calibre of Anselm of Bec and St Bernard of Clairvaux; magnificent buildings such as the 531-feet long" abbey of Cluny testify to practical and artisitic qualities as well. Equally, brutality was not exclusive to the westerners; the Byzantines were capable of extraordinary unpleasantness. The death of" Emperor Andronicus Comnenus in 1185 bears witness to this. With one eye gouged out, his teeth pulled out and his right hand severed, he was paraded through the streets of Constantinople, pelted with excrement before being hung upside down, having his genitals hacked off and finally killed by sword thrusts into his mouth and between his buttocks.

Nonetheless, however unsubtle or partial these respective viewpoints were, they can cast some light on the events of 1203-4 because, though other issues were involved, one key factor was the contrast between the westerners' military power and the Greeks' lack of frighting ability.

By the start of the thirteenth century the chivalric culture gripped the knightly classes of northern Europe. the intensive internecine warfare of the early twelfth century had become subsumed under an all-encompassing code of conduct that fell trader the banner of chivalry. This included notions of honour and service, the patronage of chansons de geste, ideas of courtly love and, most pertinently to the crusades, the popularity of tournaments.

At the time of the Fourth Crusade, tournaments were not yet orderly contests between two individuals facing each other across the lists in front of ordered ranks of spectators. Rather, they were fast-moving, brutal struggles, sometimes involving hundreds of men. Contests ranged over many acres of lands with the 'arena' designated by particular fortresses or villages. Spectators were confined to the safety of castle walls to watch the fighting. On the herald's signal, two teams would charge each other; the thundering of hooves and the shouts of men were followed by a terrible impact as the combatants began with a lance charge. Then, hand-to-hand fighting broke out and victory was usually achieved by the side that preserved best order. …

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