Sunday, February 2, 2014

Constantinople in the fourth crusade

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 onslaughts as the Avars, Persians and Arabs had tried to assail its defences over the centuries. Yet always ‘the queen of cities’, as 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 unwarlike, 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 I 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.

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