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The Fourth Crusade

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In today’s tense international scene, the specter of the Crusades – events that took place nearly a thousand years in the past – still looms large. Many in the Islamic world regard the invasion of Iraq (and to some extent, Afghanistan as well) as the modern-day continuation of Christendom’s assault on the heathens who held the Holy Land hostage. There are many books out there that focus on the historical context of the Crusades and the long-standing tension between Christianity and Islam. Jonathan Phillips’ new book, however, is all about the Crusade that went wildly wrong.

In April of 1204, a massive Crusader army stood beneath the walls of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, the seat of Eastern Christianity, and one of the most opulent, sophisticated cities in the known world. This military force represented the culmination of two years of effort and religious zeal, as Western rulers and their knights responded to the call to free Jerusalem from the infidels. But in an amazing turn of events, the Crusaders did not free Jerusalem; they didn’t even try.

Instead, they turned their attention on Constantinople itself, unleashing devastation and destruction as they sacked the city and usurped the throne. The Pope who had issued the call for the Crusade denounced the assault as a perversion of the crusading ideal, while other contemporaries contended that God had vindicated the Catholic Church at the expense of the “treacherous Greeks.” It remains one of the fascinating and amazing episodes in the violent, bloody history of the Crusades, illustrating the myriad tensions associated with the mixture of martial might and religious faith.

Phillips’ book is a wonderfully detailed, comprehensive examination of the Crusade and its surrounding context. He documents how religious zeal merged, often uncomfortably, with the lust for the treasures to be found in the mysterious East. He describes the religious culture of medieval Europe and carefully explores the mindset of the principal players in this drama, be it Baldwin, the Count of Flanders who ended up Emperor of Constantinople, Pope Innocent III, the dynamic religious figure who issued the call for the crusade, or the aged, blind doge of Venice who, at the age of ninety, exerted considerable influence on the course of the crusade. He also discusses the numerous challenges (such as Richard the Lionhearted’s untimely demise even as the Pope was asking for his return to the Holy Land, the overestimation of the number of warriors who would actually take the cross, and much more).

Here’s how Phillips’ introduction describes it:

16 May 1204 marked a defining moment in medieval history – a seismic change in the accepted world order. For more than eight centuries successive Byzantine emperors had dominated an enormous and sophisticated empire, but this had been swept aside by the armies of the Fourth Crusade – the holy warriors of the Catholic Church. Now a northern European sat on a throne in the great cathedral of the Hagia Sophia, acclaimed by a packed congregation of western knights and traders; the Greeks were far away from their mother city, fleeing from the horrors inflicted by the ruthless warriors who had so brutally sacked their great metropolis. To the westerners, however, God had approved of their fight and now they sought His blessing. Under the soaring dome of the Hagia Sophia, the closing words of the Catholic mass faded away to end the coronation ceremony of Baldwin of Flanders, the first crusader emperor of Constantinople.

From Phillips’ careful description of the importance of the church to medieval culture to the intricacies of the Crusaders’ negotiations with the doge of Venice for transportation East and the conditions of sea travel, I found the book a rewarding and fascinating experience. Yes, I’m a history buff, but I really like a book that repeatedly offers me insight into a such a compelling historical event. It was bloody and violent, and much like the sack of Jerusalem that accompanied the First Crusade, it brings to mind the question of how an event supposedly accompanied by such religious fervor could end up seeming so sacrilegious. Anyone interested in the history of the Crusades will undoubtedly find The Fourth Crusade to be an excellent, compelling narrative history.

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About Bill Wallo

  • http://paperfrigate.blogspot.com DrPat

    Sounds like you enjoyed the book, for its historical sweep and detail. I have to admit that I’ve picked this book up twice now, and “just barely” decided not to buy it.

    I think now, having read your review, that I will get a copy as soon as it moves to a mass-market edition.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    Great review, Bill. I’m surprised we don’t hear more about the Crusades nowadays what with the tumult about the “clash of civilizations and so forth.” My own sense of history tells me that the West got a taste of their own shortly after the Fourth Crusade with the Mongol’s within-a-hair’s-breath takeover of all of Europe.

    This book review has been selected for Advance.net. You’ll be able to find this and other Blog Critics reviews at such places at Cleveland.com’s Book Reviews column.

  • Marvin Shapiro

    At the same time, I’ve been reading both your excellent The Fourth Crusade and Fibonacci’s Liber Abaci. Leonardo Pisano (1170-1240) lived at the time of the Fourth Crusade, only, instead of taking part in the murderous destruction of one of the leading cities of the time, he was bringing the decimal system and the mathematics of the Arabs to the West.
    It’s nice to know there were a few good and sane people living at that time, just as, I hope, there are few now.

    Best,

    Marvin Shapiro