Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Fourth Crusade

Fig.1: "Why did I come in here again?"
You know when you walk into a room and forget why you got up in the first place? So then you decide to smash the nice china cabinet with a baseball bat for no good reason? That's sort of like what the Fourth Crusade was like. Like the previous crusades, its propose was to make the pilgrimage to the Holy Land and wrest control of it from the Muslims. The Third Crusade did this pretty well, except that Christians failed to recover the super holy city of Jerusalem (having the Holy Land without Jerusalem was like eating fried chicken without the skin...or the guilt). Luckily for them, a Fourth Crusade was called in 1198 for this exact purpose. Unfortunately, it got a little distracted and spent all of its time attacking Christian cities, most notably the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. While the Catholics did manage to absorb territory that had been out of their fold for centuries, they essentially weakened the position of Christianity in Eastern Europe, and allowed Islam to dominate the region within the next two hundred years. But at least they got lots of loot out of it in the short run! (Sadly, the crusaders never took Macroeconomics 101.)

As soon as the young Innocent III became pope in 1198 (named so because he still believed Europeans were good at getting along), he set out plans for a crusade to end all crusades (which is good for me, since Crusades Month here at the blog is nearly over). Unfortunately, the kings of Europe had their ear plugs in. England and France were duking it out over territory on the continent, with the valiant Richard the Lionheart too distracted (and after 1199, too dead) to take up the call. In Germany, two rival claimants were fighting over who would be the next Holy Roman Emperor, and both of them even argued with the papacy about how Holy and Roman they really were. The King of Hungary promised to take the cross, but come on, who really gave a crap about Hungary? (Eat your goulash somewhere else!) Luckily, the core of the leadership eventually formed during a jousting tournament in France, with the competing nobles deciding to take the fun of spearing people off their horses into the battlefield (who knew those skills would transfer over?). Like the First Crusade, this one would be led by the nobility rather than royal monarchs. So let's give them their due and check out the major players:

Theobald of Champagne, as the host of the tournament and a brother to King Henry of Jerusalem, was the obvious choice to lead the Fourth Crusade. That is until he fell ill and died in 1201 before it got underway. So yeah, super awk. At least he's featured on the nickel!

The next choice was Boniface of Montferrat (35th from the left), brother of Conrad of Montferrat, who was King of Jerusalem for a day during the Third Crusade. A veteran of warfare and chivalry, his exploits in rescuing young maidens from power-hungry nobles and returning them to their true loves was famous throughout Western Europe and to anyone who reads Medieval-period Harlequin novels. (Judging.)

Not to be outdone, Baldwin of Flanders was the great-grandson of King Fulk of Jerusalem, and whose family was notorious for crusading ever since the first one. Baldwin had a lot to live up to, and planned to make his ancestors proud. Only then could he get that long-sought-after hug of approval from his father.

The Crusaders wanted to sail straight to their destination without having to do all that annoying marching, but none of the noblemen had their own fleet. That's where Enrico Dandolo, the ruling Doge of Venice, came in. The Most Serene Republic of Venice (as it was sillily called) dominated the Eastern Mediterranean in those days, and so they were contracted to build a fleet for the Crusaders at a decent price. Dandolo, while over ninety-years-old and completely blind, did cartwheels over the honor of helping out with a crusade.

The Fourth Crusade was perfectly planned out: Over 30,000 soldiers, mostly of French and German origin, were to meet up in Venice, where 500 ships would be constructed. Instead of sailing straight for the Holy Land, they would initially attack the city of Cairo in Egypt, the capital of the Muslim Ayyubid Dynasty that ruled over Jerusalem. From there, they would have they would have a great base for supplies and reinforcements as they march over to the holy city and take it with ease. And then, if everyone behaved themselves, they would stop on the way home for Happy Meals. Of course, nothing ever went as planned when it came to crusades. Only about 12,000 able-bodied men showed up in Venice by May 1202, a result  of overestimating how many would take up the cross, the nobles who decided to hire their own transport to the Holy Land, and the people who thought about crusading but stayed home because Game of Thrones was on. This meant that the Crusaders were unable to pay the promised amount to the Venetians, which was unacceptable to Dandolo, who had convinced his countrymen to hold off on the trading and plundering they normally did in order to focus on shipbuilding. Until they found a way to come up with the money, the Fourth Crusade was stuck in Venice, their credit score sinking in its canals.

Fig.2: Even bloody sieges are made happier with Legos!
Check out Marko Velic's entirely Lego-built narrative of
the Siege of Zara to have your mind blown!
Dandolo soon hatched an idea. The trading city of Zara on the Adriatic coast (in present-day Croatia) rebelled against Venetian domination in 1183, and was now under the protection of the King of Hungary. If the Crusaders helped bring Zara back under their control, Venice would accept any loot taken from the city as payment. The Crusaders had many scruples about this plan, especially since Zara was a Catholic city. Weren't Crusaders supposed to be attacking, you know, people who weren't of exactly the same faith? Wouldn't that make Jesus scratch his divine, dandruff-free head just a little? While some pious barons left in disgust, the leadership decided they had no choice if they wished to get out of debt (other than street performing, but no man should have to sink so low). Thus in November 1202, Dandolo and the Crusaders sailed to Zara and took the city after a short siege (fig.2). Pope Innocent, after being informed of this pit stop, was so angry that he excommunicated every soul on the crusade, as well as his dog whom he caught peeing on the papal rug that same day. He would eventually recant his decision and give them another chance, which might have been a mistake seeing what the Crusaders did next.

While the sack of Zara did bring in lots of dolla dolla bills y'all, it wasn't enough to pay off the Crusaders' debt to the Venetians. That's when an opportunity seemingly fell in their laps. Of course I need to introduce the Byzantine players to the game. Yes, I'll include pictures. Always so needy!

Isaac II Angelos had been the Byzantine Emperor in Constantinople since 1185 (my astute, loving fans will observe that he was the jerk who impeded Frederick Barbarossa's march to the Holy Land during the Third Crusade). However, he was overthrown in 1195 during a palace coup orchestrated by his brother...

...Alexios III Angelos, who then became Emperor. He had Isaac blinded and imprisoned (cause that's just what siblings do), and exiled the former emperor's son...

...Alexios IV Angelos, who escaped to Germany. But one day in 1203, he bumped into Boniface of Montferrat at bar, and they started chatting over a few drinks. Eventually, Alexios drunkenly promised the Crusaders to pay off their debt and then some, as well as give Byzantine allegiance to the pope, if they helped take Constantinople and recover the throne for him. He then made it weird by saying, "I love you, man," over and over again.

While skeptical about the validity of the offer (Byzantines were well known for screwing people over), it was just too good for the Crusaders to pass up. The Venetians didn't mind the additional diversion, as many of their citizens were killed or exiled during a riot in Constantinople back in 1182, and this looked like the perfect chance for revenge. Once again, Pope Innocent warned them about attacking another Christian city, but the Byzantines were Orthodox Christians that denied his infallibility and dared to leaven their communion bread (those monsters), so he was not as forthright in his admonitions. So in June 1203, the Crusaders arrived outside Constantinople. The city was by far the largest and most splendid in the Christian world at the time, making Paris look like a backwoods Hooterville in comparison. In addition, it was one of the hardest places to attack: with its narrow strait defended by a large chain that could rip wooden ships to shreds, to its high walls continuously reinforced since antiquity, to the city's imperial defenders of Viking stock known as the Vargarians, not to mention all the annoying puzzles that need to be solved once inside in order to obtain the Big Key and fight the boss.

Fig.3: "Do you accept expired 
credit cards?"
Luckily for the Crusaders, Alexios III Angelos was a big fat scardy-pants, and secretly fled the city after a mild week-long siege. Once in the city, the Crusaders expected to be treated as liberators returning their beloved Alexios IV home; however, the Byzantines actually heckled the prince upon his arrival (people from Constantinople were even worse than your average Manchester United fan). Nevertheless, Isaac II blindly staggered back onto the throne, and son Alexios IV was made co-emperor. Soon they checked the imperial wallet (fig.3) and found Alexios III left behind nothing in which they could pay the Crusaders! In desperation, the emperor ordered for anything made out of gold or silver, such as jewelry, religious idols, and the two best Pokemon games, to be melted and given to the Crusaders, which certainly didn't adhere him any more to his disloyal fan base. Once Isaac II died of oldness in January 1204, a popular Byzantine nobleman named Alexios Doukas had Alexios IV strangled, and he was proclaimed emperor as Alexios V (jeez, Byzantines, come up with some more original names!). Those easy payments of $19.95 to the Crusaders suddenly halted, convincing them that another siege was in order. Deja vu, much?

The second attack began in earnest in April 1204. A favorable wind, claimed by the Crusaders to be the Hand of God (I say the Belch of God) allowed the Venetians to line their ships up against Constantinople's walls as the French and Germans slowly climbed their way up. The Byzantines acted real cool as they chucked rocks and dumped boiling pitch from above, but once a small contingent made it above the walls, they ran like Hulu users from television spoilers, and allowed the Crusaders to open the gates for the rest of the army. After the standard fleeing by Alexios V on April 13, 1204, the citizens of Constantinople were ready to surrender and make one of the Crusade leaders their emperor if that meant the fighting would stop. Unfortunately, the Crusaders had something else in mind: they wanted to pick the Byzantine capital clean.

Fig.4: I haven't seen this much looting since Vancouver's Stanley Cup loss.
Catholic soldiers broke into homes and stole anything of value. They violated women and killed the men who tried to stop them. They desecrated Orthodox churches, even turning the famous Hagia Sophia into a drinking hall. They placed a French prostitute on the throne of the patriarch (the holy leader of the Orthodox church), who tended to know more drinking songs than drinking psalms. Worst of all, they hijacked all the Greek food trucks and turned them into escargot stands (blech!). While accepted military practice of the day allowed for a three-day sack of a captured city, the conduct of these "soldiers of Christ" was the lowest of the low in Constantinople. Pope Innocent issued a statement rebuking the conduct of the Crusaders against a Christian city, but secretly fist pumped about Constantinople finally coming under his control, and accepted any religious relics that found their way to Rome (not so Innocent now, is he?).

The Byzantine Empire now became the Latin Empire, and Baldwin of Flanders was made the first Latin Emperor. Boniface of Montferrat, upset about being passed over, went to Greece and started his own kingdom, with thrones and banners and everything! This typical Catholic in-fighting meant that the Latin Empire was weak from the beginning, and never gained acceptance from their citizens, neighbors, or the Better Business Bureau. The idea that a Catholic base in Constantinople would help the Crusader states backfired, as more resources now went to defend this Latin Empire than to help the Kingdom of Jerusalem actually rule Jerusalem. The Byzantine court would continue to survive in Turkey, and would eventually kick the Latins out of Constantinople in 1261, but it would never be the same. The city's splendor and property value would decrease significantly, leading to its fall to the Islamic Ottomans in 1453. In the end, the real victors of the Fourth Crusade (without throwing a single punch) were the Muslims, as they would eventually take advantage of the Catholic-Orthodox rivalry to extend their reach all the way into Eastern Europe! Can you say, "Ooops!"?

That's thankfully the end of Crusades Month! Tune in next June for more Holy Land hijinks!

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