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on October 3, 2012
The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople is a wonderfully written historical narrative by Jonathan Phillips, a notable medieval historian from England. Phillips is definitely qualified to write on the subject: he is the author of a number of crusade books and articles, he frequently speaks on television programs about the crusades, and he is a senior lecturer in medieval history at Royal Holloway, University of London. Phillips believes that contemporary accounts of the Fourth Crusade are the most valuable and vivid way to explore it (xv). Additionally, he mentions that contemporary letters, troubadour songs, official documentary material, and visual objects such as buildings aid in understanding and explaining the Fourth Crusade (xvi). He approaches the Fourth Crusade from a Western perspective (xiii). In his view, many modern accounts of the Fourth Crusade have been written by Byzantine scholars that concentrate too heavily on the crusade's effect on the Greek Orthodox world, and therefore miss the overall picture (xiii). He makes it clear that his account of the Fourth Crusade does not follow in the footsteps of the anti-western accounts written by Steven Runciman or John Julius Norwich (both Runciman and Norwich specialized on Byzantium).
Phillips begins his account of the Fourth Crusade by giving a very brief account of the Third Crusade, followed by a detailed description of Pope Innocent III, and then a lengthy analysis of crusading up to the pontificate of Innocent III (3). The large amount of discussion of crusading in the eleventh and twelfth centuries helps prepare the general reader for the events to come. In late 1199 the papacy made serious efforts to raise support for the Fourth Crusade. Phillips argues that Abbot Martin's crusade sermon in May of 1200 (26) and the tournament held at Ecry by Count Thibaut and Count Louis of Blois were major early events that garnered support for the endeavor (39). Phillips stresses that Thibaut's taking of the cross was an enormous step for the crusade. Thibaut's family tree was very prestigious, and his lands were some of the largest and richest in Western Europe (47). The ability to attract such an authoritative figure ignited recruitment for the Fourth Crusade (48). Since Thibaut's agreement to join the enterprise was of such pivotal importance, Phillips sees Thibaut's death as a tremendous setback (81). He argues that Thibaut's leadership and resources could have convinced other nobles to join and given the expedition the amount of men it really needed (312).
According to Phillips, the lack of men and money was the primary weakness of the crusade, and Phillips sees this weakness as the main cause for the crusade's eventual conquest of Constantinople. Once the Fourth Crusade had received support, French envoys traveled to Venice to acquire Venice's maritime services (58). Phillips argues that the Treaty with Venice in 1201, when combined with the crusade's lack of men and money, largely directed the course of the crusade from that point on (66). When the crusaders were unable to fulfill the terms of the contract, the Venetians offered to delay their payment if the crusaders would help them take Zara. The crusades that were in Venice wanted to fulfill their vows, therefore most accepted the diversion to Zara. Some also hoped that the plunder taken after the capture of Zara would yield enough money for the crusaders to fulfill their end of the contract, but this was not the case. Had there been enough men and money on the crusade in the first place, such a diversion would have been unnecessary.
While wintering in Zara, the lucrative offer given by Prince Alexius was impossible to refuse. Again, Phillips points out that the lack of men and money, coupled with the treaty between the crusaders and the Venetians, led to the acceptance of Prince Alexius's offer (325). The crusade leaders were committed to making the crusade succeed, and if Prince Alexius fulfilled his end of the deal, they believed the crusade's chance for success would greatly increase. The last thing they wanted was a disgraceful return home after accomplishing nothing--like the Second Crusade. They saw Zara and Constantinople as stepping-stones to the campaign in Egypt (314). Once at Constantinople, Prince Alexius was not welcomed as warmly as hoped. Nevertheless, Alexius III--the Emperor at the time--fled the city one night, and this allowed Prince Alexius and his blind father Issac II to be crowned co-Emperors. Alexius IV was unable to fulfill the terms of his treaty with the crusaders however, and an uneasy peace persisted as the crusaders waited at Constantinople for payment. As they waited, anti-Latin sentiment rose within the city. A vehemently anti-Latin Byzantine named Murtzuphlus murdered Alexius IV and became Emperor. Phillips argues that it is at this point, and not before, that conquering Constantinople became the aim of the expedition (315).
Phillips denies any planning on the part of the Venetians or the crusaders to divert the crusade to Constantinople from the beginning. He gives the impression that the events of the Fourth Crusade were spontaneous. Some people look upon the Venetians and their role in the Fourth Crusade with disdain. In Phillips' account, the Venetians are practical people who fulfilled their end of the bargain with the construction of the massive navy for the crusade. They wanted payment in full for their hard work, and Phillips does not condemn them for this--as some historians have.
Phillips provides many excerpts from primary documents within his account, and within his bibliography, one can see he uses a good deal of secondary source material as well. Phillips relies on three primary sources most heavily within his account. The first is Geoffrey of Villehardouin, an official who was aware of the politics at the highest decision-making level during the crusade. The second source often referenced is from Robert of Clari, an ordinary knight who, unlike Geoffrey of Villehardouin, was not aware of all the events going on within the crusader hierarchy (51). The last source often referenced is from Niketas Choniates, a Byzantine politician whose position makes his writing a nice complement to Geoffrey of Villehardouin's work. The reliance on these three distinctive sources gives Phillips's account a sense of balance and neutrality. Phillips provides plenty of excerpts from other sources during his account as well.
Phillips is not afraid to criticize the characters in his story. When the French envoys and Venetians reached an agreement with the Treaty of Venice, Phillips criticizes the envoys and their reliance on the prospect that many men would be taking the cross in the future when they swore to bring 33,500 men to Venice by April of 1202 (67). When only around 12,000 of the 33,500 gathered, Villehardouin blamed the breach of the contract on those who had gone to other ports instead of the overestimation of the crusaders' numbers (109). Phillips criticizes Villehardouin and his refusal to "acknowledge his own responsibility in the original estimate of the numbers" (109).
The evidence Phillips provides to support his claims are solid, well organized, and clear. As Prince Alexius submitted his offer to the crusaders, Phillips assembles a convincing analysis to explain why the offer was accepted. The 200,000 promised silver marks would remove all financial difficulties, and the promised 10,000 men would help alleviate the initial shortfall at Venice and those who had slipped away at Zara (129). As a good historian, Phillips also considers how part of the deal would affect events that did not immediately concern the crusaders. Alexius's promise of providing a fully financed and permanent garrison of 500 men in the Levant would greatly strengthen the small Christian army there, and the Greek Church's submission to Rome would appease the papacy--who had opposed the crusade's diversion to Zara and would almost certainly oppose a diversion to Constantinople (129).
Likewise, the explanation given as to why war was not a certainty until Murtzuphlus was in charge and Alexius IV was dead is convincing. Phillips explains that the crusaders had become completely dependent on Alexius IV. Alexius was the one who was to fulfill the contract between him and the crusaders, and Alexius totally owed his position to the crusaders (235). Murtzuphlus made it clear that he had no intention of fulfilling Alexius IV's contract, and with Alexius IV dead, there was no reasonable hope for a change in this attitude (235). Additionally, before the ascension of Murtzuphlus, there had been escalations of violence between the two sides, but they had always been followed by efforts to make peace (235). Now efforts to make peace seemed like a distant possibility: the city was hostile to the crusaders and the crusaders were trapped thousands of miles from home without much food or supplies (235). Phillips concludes that the crusaders did not have the resources to mount a campaign to the Holy Land or Egypt as originally planned, and a return home without accomplishing anything would be a disgrace (235). Somehow explaining why they attacked the schismatic Greek Empire seemed like a better alternative (236).
Aside from the solid historical value of The Fourth Crusade And The Sack Of Constantinople, it is also a very entertaining book to read. Phillips is telling a story: "The purpose of this book is to tell the remarkable story of the Fourth Crusade" (xiii). The prose flows freely and Phillips describes events in such a manner so as to stimulate visual images. Whenever possible, Phillips tries to describe the personalities of the people involved: he wants the reader to fully understand the characters, but he also wants the reader to feel some sort of connection with them. Since the target audience of this book is general readers, Phillips wants to convince the reader that the Fourth Crusade and the world it occurred in is relevant today. Therefore, Phillips occasionally compares events in the medieval world with the modern world--something that usually would be discouraged in historical writing. Such comparisons were, at times, annoying. For instance, while describing the broad concept of crusading, Phillips remarks: "As people have discovered following recent episodes such as the Vietnam War and the 1991 Gulf conflict, it is easy to overlook the mixture of emotions generated in the aftermath of a crusade" (21). Referencing the Vietnam War and Gulf War right in the middle of several pages that had been talking exclusively about the Middle Ages was odd. At other times, Phillips's comments pertaining to the current world are helpful however. During the chapter that discussed the Tournament at Ecry, Phillips commented that: "At the time of the Fourth Crusade, however, tournaments were very different from the familiar images provided by television and film" (39).
The amount of information packed into this book is staggering, and the best part about it is that the reader does not need to have any prior knowledge of medieval Europe. Phillips often explains to the reader how the event relates to broader medieval European culture. To give a specific example, when Phillips mentions the True Cross, he explains its role in medieval life: "The True Cross was probably the most important single relic of the age and was believed to be part of the cross upon which Christ was crucified" (34). Had this book been targeted at professional historians, Phillips would not have taken the time to explain the role of such an important and well-known item within the field of medieval history. Professional historians may not learn as much from this book, but the history within the book is scholarly.
The Fourth Crusade And The Sack Of Constantinople can contribute greatly to anyone's understanding of the Fourth Crusade and the culture of medieval Europe in general. Even if one knows the basic outline of events that occurred during the Fourth Crusade before reading this book, the detail expressed in it makes it nearly impossible to not learn a great deal of new material. The book is quite long, therefore Phillips is able to insert many interesting tidbits, and he can dedicate pages to interesting events that may not be very important to the Fourth Crusade overall. For instance, once Murtzuphlus claimed the title of Emperor, the masses acclaimed their own favorite as Emperor: Nicholas Kannavos (225). Murtzuphlus had to briefly deal with him, and the insertion of this small, but interesting incident enhances the reading experience. Another example: when Phillips introduces Enrico Dandolo, the old, blind doge of Venice, Phillips mentions a rumor as to how he acquired his blindness. The rumor says that the Byzantine Emperor Manuel Komnenos bound him and had him blinded by using glass to reflect the sun's rays into his eyes (58). It is an interesting story, but Phillips is quick to point out that this story cannot be sustained (58).
Anyone who wants to learn about the Fourth Crusade or anyone who simply wants to be entertained should read this book. Phillips wants to convince the reader to his view of why the Fourth Crusade occurred, but he also wants the reader to be convinced that the Fourth Crusade is important from a broader historical view, and he incorporates this mini-argument within the book. The writing style allows the story to freely unfold, and the insertion of several primary sources within the tale results in a balanced and contemporary account. It was a tough book to put down, and it should be an easy book for anyone to enjoy.