It is easy to conceive of the crusades as a conflict between Latin Christian West and the Muslim Middle East, forgetting that between these two geographic/
religious groupings was the Orthodox Christian Byzantine Empire. Yet the latter both triggered the crusades and became a victim of them. Today I conclude my four-part series on the complex role played by Byzantium in the era of the crusades by looking at the Fourth Crusade and its aftermath.
Ironically, while the first three crusades had never been aimed at the capture of Constantinople, persistent Byzantine suspicious that Constantinople was the “real” target of Western armies became a self-fulfilling prophecy at the start of the 13th century. From the perspective of the West, the first hundred years of crusading history had been littered with examples of Byzantine betrayal -- from the failure of the Byzantine Empire to come to the aid of the crusaders at Antioch to Isaac II’s treaty with Saladin at the moment of Jerusalem’s fall. With the notable exception of Manuel I — who contemporary Western chroniclers universally praised — the “Greeks” were seen as treacherous and cowardly. This had led to repeated calls for the seizure of Constantinople starting with Bohemond of Taranto in 1107. Throughout the 12th century, however, the voices calling for an attack on the "treacherous" and "heretical" "Greeks" had been firmly silenced by crusader leadership.
The start of the 13th century, however, saw a new constellation of factors. On the one hand, Jerusalem had been lost to the Sultan and a massive crusade to recapture it had ended in only partial success. This discouraged Western interest in a new crusade on the part of the land-owning, military class that needed to provide both the resources and the manpower for such an undertaking — although the tragic “Childrens’ Crusade” soon showed that popular sentiment still favored efforts to regain control of the Holy City. Meanwhile, in the Holy Land itself, the resources of Cyprus were beginning to bolster the local nobility and feed an economic recovery that laid the foundation for a partial recovery that would last a half-century. In short, at the start of the century, retrenchment was the order of the day.
Yet, Venice had neither forgotten the injuries done it by the Byzantines nor recovered from the commercial losses that resulted from their expulsion from Constantinople. When some overly optimistic noblemen failed to raise either the troops or the funds they anticipated for a new crusade, Venice took advantage of the assembly of fighting men on its doorstep to launch that has gone down in history as the "Fourth Crusade."
I have described the course of the so-called Fourth Crusade elsewhere. (See: https://defendingcrusaderkingdoms.blogspot.com/2019/02/the-hijacked-crusade.html) What I wish to highlight here is that the Fourth Crusade did not, in fact, either destroy the Byzantine Empire (it first fractured, with several competing successors jostling for the title of heir, they reconquered Constantinople in 1261 and survived nearly two-hundred years) — nor Byzantine ties to the West.
Chris Wright in his fascinating article “On the Margins of Christendom” even highlights the extent to which the fall of Constantinople to the crusaders in 1204 forced the Byzantines to face facts and recalibrate their policies in a more realistic manner. No longer were the great monarchs of Western Europe dismissed as “barbarians.” No longer were Western culture and politics dismissed as irrelevant. The arrogance that placed Constantinople at the center of the world was shattered. While rightly feeling outraged and unjustly attacked, Byzantine elites for the first time recognized that the earlier crusades had indeed been genuine efforts to liberate the Holy Land, rather than cynical plots to destroy the Byzantine Empire.
|Mystra - A Byzantine Outpost in the Frankish Peloponnese|
Now, defeated by the mercenaries of Venice, the spokesmen for the fragmented Byzantine empire skillfully evoked crusader rhetoric to condemn both what had happened and the Pope’s continued self-serving calls for new crusades to defend Latin control of Constantinople. With the papacy increasingly declaring “crusades” for its own political aims — against heretics in the Languedoc, against the Hohenstaufens in Italy and Sicily, against the successors of the Byzantine Empire — the concept of crusading for Jerusalem became a Byzantine rather than a Latin theme, a rod with which to beat the Latins with their own hypocrisy.
It was in no small measure the disgust of the lay population with the papal misuse of crusading rhetoric and privileges that led to a decline in crusading enthusiasm until St. Louis revived it through his own passionate commitment. Certainly, the repeated papal calls for “crusades” to defend Latin conquests in the former Byzantine Empire fell largely on deaf ears. By 1261 the embarrassment was over. Constantinople was back in Orthodox hands.
It was during the period of “exile” from Constantinople, however, that Byzantine intellectuals started to differentiate themselves from contemporary Rome (i.e. the Pope’s Rome) by focusing more on their Greek roots. For the first time, some of the Byzantine elites began to call themselves Greeks (Hellenes), rather than Romans -- although the majority of the population continued to identify themselves as Romans.
Furthermore, far from destroying all trust and cooperation between the Byzantine Empire and the Western “barbarians,” the interlude of Western control of the Eastern Roman Empire forced the restored Byzantine Emperors to recognize their fellow monarchs in the West as equals rather than inferiors. Furthermore, as the Turkish threat grew, the Byzantines were forced again to seek Western aid and support, with only partial success. Yet it is one of the ironies of history that one of the most harmonious periods in West European-Byzantine relations was when cooperation between the two power centers was already too late.
Sources and recommended reading:
Angold, Michael, “The Fall of Jerusalem (1187) as Viewed from Constantinople,” in The Crusader World, ed. Adrian Boas (London: Routledge, 2016), 289-309.
Chrissis, Nicolaos, “Byzantine Crusaders: Holy War and Crusade Rhetoric in Byzantine Contacts with the West (1095-1341),” in The Crusader World, ed. Adrian Boas (London: Routledge, 2016), 259-277.
Papayianni, Aphrodite, "Memory and Ideology: The Image of the Crusades in Byzantine Historiography, Eleventh - Thirteenth Centuries," in The Crusader World, ed. Adrian Boas (London: Routledge, 2016), 278-288.
Wright, Chris, "On the Margins of Christendom: The Impact of the Crusades on Byzantium," in ed. Conor Kostick (London: Routledge, 2011), 55-82.
Balian d'Ibelin married a Byzantine princess and their sons retained an exceptional appreciation of Byzantium's role in the Eastern Mediterranean.
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She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her current series describes the civil war in Outremer between Emperor Frederick andthe barons led by John d'Ibelin the Lord of Beirut. Dr. Schrader is also working on a non-fiction book describing the crusader kingdoms. You can find out more at: http://crusaderkingdoms.com