Title: The Fourth Crusade and the Sack
Editor: Jonathan Cape, London
Christians have perhaps become embarrassed about our sometimes difficult history. The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ as a message of universal peace and harmony among men has, to say the least, some unfortunate moments. A recent Muslim writer in a British newspaper pleaded for understanding among his non-Muslim fellow Britons that not everything done in the name of Islam was worthy of that claim. The Fourth Crusade, such a mess of politics and mixed motives, at times so dubious that Pope Innocent III at one point revoked its status as a crusade, is a worthy reminder to Christians that even when supposedly acting in defence of our faith and the holy city of Jerusalem we have been tempted in disastrous ways to act against our faith.
Phillips tells the story well. Beginning with the loss of Jerusalem from Christian hands to the Muslim leader Saladin in 1187, then the assembling of the crusaders and their arrival in Venice in the summer of 1202. It surprised me (as an Englishman) how many of the crusaders were from England. The Venetians had mixed views of the assembled warriors, perhaps less tolerant then of such a foreign multitude on their soil than they are now, and insisted the crusaders camp on the island of St. Nicholas, some 11 kilometres from St. Mark's Square. The motives of the Venetians were complex too, mixing pious with personal ambitions, persuading the crusaders first to sack the Christian city (and rival traders) of Zara. It was this diversion from their main task that first ignited the anger of Pope Innocent III, who threatened to excommunicate the crusaders if they attacked the city - a threat they ignored.
It was in the midst of these mixed and treacherous politics that there emerged the plan to attack, not Jerusalem (although a small force did separate itself from the main body to pursue this end) but Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) in pursuit of a dubious claim to the Eastern imperial crown. The crusaders laid siege to the city, from which the Emperor fled, and which then fell to them with little struggle. The subsequent spoliation and looting of Constantinople in April 1204 is perhaps one of the most shameful events in the history of the Christian West. After a brief and difficult period under Latin rule, the city fell back to the Greeks in 1261.
This is a fascinating, at times gripping, historical tale, well-told and without the foolish hyperbole that often accompanies discussion of the crusades. Pope John Paul II's apology for the Fourth Crusade, made in Athens in 2001 to the Orthodox Christians of the East, is a sign both of the need for, and the possibility of reconciliation, an epilogue to a fine historical account.