The Crusaders Who Missed the Holy Land by a Couple Thousand Miles
Every other Friday in D-List Saints, Luke T. Harrington explores one of the many less-than-impressive moments in Christian history.
The Crusades are something of a cultural lightning rod these days, and I do understand why. With the seemingly endless war happening between the West and the Middle East right now, no one really wants to talk about That Time When Christians Raped and Murdered Muslims. So let’s not. Instead, I’d like to talk about the time we raped and murdered other Christians!
In other words, the Fourth Crusade.
Let’s start with a quick crash course. The (Christian) Roman Empire broke up in A.D. 476, but the eastern half of it, which changed its name to “Byzantine” and started buying its clothes at the Hot Topic, continued on for another millennium; meanwhile the state church broke up into what we now know as the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions in A.D. 1054. In the late 11th century, though, the (Muslim) Turkish Empire had begun encroaching on the Byzantines, and the Byzantine Emperor asked the Pope for some reinforcement troops. This would prove to be the medieval equivalent of drunk-texting an ex, because the response from the West was something like, “OMG HE WANTS TO GET BACK TOGETHER AND EVERYTHING WILL BE LIKE OLD TIMES AND WE’LL EVEN RECONQUER THE HOLY LAND!!!”
What followed was a series of ill-advised campaigns to put Jerusalem back under Christian rule and, if there was time, also defend the Byzantine Empire, a little, we guess, if we have to. The First Crusade was technically successful at this, but because the Turks kept taking Jerusalem back, there was a never-ending series of sequels, spin-offs, and gritty reboots, like the Second Crusade, the Third Crusade, the Shepherds’ Crusade, and the Cool Ranch Crusade.Pope Innocent III proved unable to live up to his name, and that’s how “Christendom” basically ate itself alive.
In any case, Pope Innocent III ascended to the throne in A.D. 1198 and immediately started preaching, “Hey guys, remember that time we conquered Jerusalem? That was pretty cool. Let’s do it again.” Thousands heeded the call. The original idea was to assemble an army in France, march it to Venice, sail from there to Egypt, and then march to the Holy Land, but they almost immediately hit a snag. They had contracted with Venice to build ships for 40,000 troops, but when only 12,000 showed up, they realized they were all on the hook for a huge fleet they couldn’t afford. Fortunately, the Venetians said, “Don’t sweat it, guys—just loot some other cities, and pay us back!”
Which, they did.
The rampage culminated in an attack on the Croatian city of Zara, which was not only Christian but Catholic, but it was also a longtime economic rival of Venice, so, eh ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Pope Innocent, who only heard about the raid after the fact, immediately excommunicated the crusaders over it, but the leaders of the campaign ensured that wasn’t a problem by simply not telling the soldiers about it.
In any case, the looting of Zara still hadn’t netted enough money to pay for the ships the crusaders were already using, so they needed a new scheme. Enter Alexios IV Angelos, exiled pretender to the Byzantine throne. His uncle, Alexios III, had forcibly deposed his father, so he offered the crusaders a deal: if they would attack Constantinople, the Byzantine capital, and put him on the throne, he would not only pay off their debt, but he would also give them 100,000 silver marks, hook them up with reinforcement troops, and return the Eastern Orthodox Church to papal authority. He didn’t have the capability to deliver on any of those promises, even if they put him on the throne, but, eh ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
So the crusaders diverted from Jerusalem and instead attacked the capital of the empire they were ostensibly fighting to protect. At first, things went pretty well: they mounted the siege, and Alexios III fled for his life. Unfortunately, the royal court’s response to this was simply to put Alexios IV’s father, Isaac II (who was blinded, but very much alive), back on the throne. This put the crusaders in an awkward position, since they had achieved their official goal of restoring hereditary legitimacy to the Byzantine throne, but had failed in their actual goal of, y’know, getting paid.
Their response was to refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of Isaac II unless Alexios IV was named “co-emperor,” which they were pretty sure was totally a thing. Isaac complied, but that still didn’t solve the problem of the Byzantine government just straight-up not having the resources to deliver on Alexios IV’s promises. Alexios, apparently thinking, “Sacrliege got me into this mess, so . . .” solved this problem by sending his army throughout the city to seize people’s priceless icons and melt them down into cash money. Doing so made him about as popular as you’d expect, and he soon found himself deposed, imprisoned, and strangled to death.
Meanwhile, the crusaders were sick of waiting around to get paid and decided to set Constantinople on fire and loot it bare for three months straight, stealing anything that wasn’t nailed down and raping anything that moved. Not even the monasteries, convents, or churches were safe, including the basilica, Hagia Sophia, which, according to at least one historian, the crusaders invaded and “seated upon the patriarchal throne a whore who sang coarse songs as they drank wine from the Church’s holy vessels.” (Reached for comment, St. John the Divine remarked, “Seriously? It was a metaphor. For something bad. Not a how-to. Geez.”) When Pope Innocent heard what was going on, his response was, “Cut it out, for real this time, you guys, or you’re double-extra-super excommunicated,” but then someone gave him some of the loot, and he was like, eh ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
Oh, and pretty much zero of the crusaders ever actually made it to Jerusalem. Obviously.
And anyway, that’s the story of how “Christendom” basically ate itself alive. It kinda reminds me of something Jesus (remember that guy?) once said about how those who live by the sword tend to perish by the sword. I don’t know if every attempt at marrying Christianity to government is inherently doomed, but there’s an unavoidable contradiction when the sacrifice of the cross is hitched to the sword of conquest (though it might be nice if those who lived by the sword would leave the rest of the world out of their crusade business). It’s sobering, and it should give us all pause when considering how to engage in the political sphere.
But, then again, it happened a long time ago, so, eh ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.