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The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople (2004)

by Jonathan Phillips

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564829,978 (3.77)7
In April 1204, the armies of Western Christendom wrote another bloodstained chapter in the history of holy war. Aflame with religious zeal, the Fourth Crusade had set out to free Jerusalem from the grip of Islam. But after a dramatic series of events, the crusaders turned against the Christian city of Constantinople, the heart of the Byzantine Empire and the greatest metropolis in the known world. The crusaders spared no one in their savagery: they murdered old and young, raped women and girls, desecrated churches and plundered treasuries, and much of the city was put to the torch. Some contemporaries felt God had approved this punishment of the effeminate, treacherous Greeks; others expressed shock and disgust. History has judged this as the crusade that went wrong, and even today its violence and brutality provokes deep ill-feeling towards the Catholic Church.--From publisher description.… (more)



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I made the crucial mistake, while reading this, of listening to the Radio 4 comedy, All The World's A Globe, with the result that every now and then I would discover that I was reading it in the voice of Desmond Olivier Dingle, rendering this epic, tragic tale of the strangest left-turn in history, utterly hilarious.
It does boggle the mind, somewhat, that a holy crusade whose primary intention is to go kill Muslims in the Holy Land ends up off killing Orthodox Christians in Constantinople, but Philips lays it all out for the reader and traces the logic of how an untimely death here, a bit of uneven preaching there, some over-inflated numbers, a massive economic hole that threatens to founder both the crusade and an entire city-state, and a deposed Prince turning up at just the right time with just the right offer, all lead inexorably to the catastrophic downfall of one of the most amazing cities of the medieval world, and an entire empire falls with it.
My dimly remembered knowledge of this particular military foray recalls that most of the blame for the wayward expedition was lain at the feet of the wily Venetians, who built the fleet that was to carry the crusaders to the Levant. Phillips lucidly argues that the only truly naked act of greed and cynicism that the Venetians can be fairly blamed for is the siege of Zara. The leaders of the Crusade vastly overestimated the numbers and ordered ships accordingly, at a huge price. Venice literally stopped all other commercial activity for an entire year to produce the fleet, and when the numbers failed to materialise, were left very much in the same hole as the Crusaders. Even when settled on the shore of the great city, they had no intention of attacking the place: they fully expected the princes' extravagant promises to be honoured, whereupon it would have been hey-ho, off to Jerusalem we go. Circumstances, betrayals, mistrust, coups, murders, sneak attacks and outright hostility followed, and the rest is history.
Its a sad, fascinating story. One has to admire the drive, religious devotion, determination and sheer military skill of the Europeans, if not the use to which they are put. Phillips emphasises the importance of tournaments - wide ranging, sometimes lethal competitive brawls - in training the knights and soldiery of the west, as opposed to the neglected, poorly led and deteriorating Byzantine military forces. Even so, in the end, nothing much is achieved except a lot of dead people, tons of looted treasures, one burnt, wrecked and sacked city, and a lingering bitterness between the Catholic and orthodox churches
Basically. ( )
  Nigel_Quinlan | Oct 21, 2015 |
I got bored of this and ended up mostly skimming this book. There's no suspense when you know how it all ends. ( )
  atiara | Apr 20, 2010 |
A history of the Fourth Crusade - which sacked Constantinople. This must be one of
the most depressing tales in history. ( )
  cgodsil | Oct 17, 2009 |
The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople by Jonathan Phillips tells the story of what went wrong. The crusade began as an attempt to send large numbers of reinforcements to the crusader kingdoms in Palestine to try and recapture Jerusalem and ended up invading several Christian kingdoms culminating in the destruction of Constantinople, the most splendid city in the Christian world of its day. It takes many mistakes and many people for something to go so disastrously wrong, and it is to Mr. Phillips credit that he does such a good job explaining how the Fourth Crusade came about and then came to such a bad end.

The crusade started with an overreaching promise to send 30,000 men to defend the crusader kingdoms and a contract with Venice to build enough ships to carry them. Because England did not participate in this crusade and because several other groups decided to bypass the planned gathering in Venice and go straight to Palestine not enough forces gathered to cover the contracted cost of building the ships. To pay off the dept, the crusaders agreed to take the coastal city of Zara, which the doge of Venice had long wanted to control. Still not enough money was available to pay the debt for the ships, so the crusaders joined forces with Alexus IV, son of the deposed emperor of Byzantium in an attempt to dethrone Alexus III and take Constantinople. Afterwards, Alexus IV was not able raise enough taxes to pay his debt to the crusaders and was dethroned by his own people. In the end, because the political situation in Constantinople was so chaotic the Greeks were not able to adequately defend their city and it fell to the crusaders.

In the end, the venom intended for the Muslim population of the holy land was unleashed on the Christians of Constantinople. Churches and monasteries were raided. Relics were looted. Money and valuable objects were stolen. The silver leaf that decorated the Hagia Sophia was pealed away, chiseled off and melted down. Not even nuns in their convents were safe.

The crusaders then established a kingdom in Constantinople and tried to bring the rest of Byzantium under their control. They never made it to the holy land in the end, nor did their kingdom last very long. Within a century, the Greeks were back in control of Byzantium and Constantinople, though even they fell shortly afterwards to the Turks.

Mr. Phillips explains all of these events using eyewitness accounts from both sides of the story. He gives the reader the details needed to illuminate the events and to understand the motivations of the people involved. It's hard to find any heroes in the Fourth Crusade, everyone's motives are so compromised either at the start of the crusade or by its end. That the crusades targeted both Muslim and Jewish populations, most people know. The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople is a useful book because it details the extent to which the crusades targeted Christians and did so in the name of God. In the final analysis, there is not much to admire in the notion of a crusade, and we should be on our guard whenever we hear someone call for one. Fail to learn lessons of history at your own risk. ( )
2 vote CBJames | Mar 13, 2009 |
Very interesting ( )
  Harrod | Nov 30, 2008 |
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