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Madmen Raging Against the Sacred

The Fourth Crusade veered from its original aim, the reconquest Jerusalem, and ended in the sack of Constantinople; earning for itself the ignominious title of the crusade against fellow-Christians.

First, let me thank you for the wonderful comments I have received, asking how I have been and why I have not written something for what seems like a long while…

It has been an unpardonably long silence since I last wrote an article for this blog, but it has been writing, I am very happy to say, which has kept me from this labor of love.

University is back in full swing and I have worked on nothing else, in the lamentably few moments of time away from the coal face I can claim each week. This semester is a look into the middle ages. My first short essay was written on Papal involvement in the Crusades.

So, while I appreciate I may sound like a crashing bore and the worst kind of pseudo-intellectual twazzock, alienating the few readers I have, here is that essay. And I do promise to write something else soon.

Madmen Raging Against the Sacred

Since its instigation by Pope Urban II in 1095, crusading had become the sword with which the Christian church would smite its adversaries and maintain the sacred boundaries of Christendom; enlarging them when the ‘salvation’ of infidels was necessary. Being penitential in nature, the crusades differed from other acts of war. Knights could now achieve both secular and spiritual booty in the crucible of battle. A contemporary observer, Gilbert of Nogent wrote:

In our time God instituted holy warfare, so that the arms-bearers and the wandering populace… should find a new way of attaining salvation; so that they might not be obliged to abandon the world completely, as used to the be case, by adopting the monastic way of life… but might obtains God’s grace to some extent while enjoying their accustomed freedom and dress, and in a way consistent with their own station.

That the crowds attendant in 1095 shouted ‘deus le volt!’ (God wills it!), at Pope Urban’s call for the first crusade, presages this outlook. Tens of thousands thronged to the appeal, allowing a great army to march on the Holy Land; to reclaim ‘the venerable places which the Savior had deigned to sanctify and make glorious with His bodily presence.’

Into this context crashed the Fourth Crusade. In an age of violence this shocked an unshockable world. One eye-witness wrote of these crusaders:

Madmen raging against the sacred… these forerunners of the Antichrist, chief agents and harbingers of his anticipated ungodly deeds, seized as plunder the precious chalices and patens;… Christ was now disrobed and mocked… although his side was not pierced by the lance, yet once more streams of Divine Blood poured to the earth.

The Fourth Crusade is an exemplification of violence in the name of God, swinging, as a pendulum do, from piety to the most egregious acts of barbarism and cruelty.

The judgment of history on this most vicious crusade has indeed been harsh. Edward Gibbon, in the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, mourned that crusading had ‘checked rather than forwarded the maturity of Europe’. Steven Runciman went further in decrying that ‘the Holy War itself was nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God, which is the sin against the Holy Ghost’. Runciman went on to write that ‘the harm done by the crusades to Islam was small in comparison with that done by them to Eastern Christendom’.

The Fourth Crusade made flesh all that was, and is, wrong with the crusading spirit. Far from uniting Christendom, it rent the church into schisms, destroyed the last vestiges of the Eastern Roman Empire and reinforced an adversarial status quo between the Christian West and Islam which continues unto the present day. All this is scarcely conceivable, but for the role of the Papacy.

The First Crusade had been largely unchallenged and met with great success; mostly because the various Muslim potentates were too distracted by internecine strife to make a concerted effort at combating this new-found wave of religious colonization. Subsequent crusades would not receive the same reception. Fighting back through the means of jihad, Muslim leaders frustrated Christian goals. Christendom responded by forming more crusader armies, many of which petered out as their leaders quarreled or died of natural causes. Into this atmosphere was elected Pope Innocent III, a man who would become the greatest Pope of the medieval period.

In the midst of [all his] affairs, he [Innocent III] quiet fervently longed for the relief and recovery of the Holy Land and anxiously mulled over how he could achieve this more effectively.

Since Pope Urban II invocation in 1095, crusading had been both a spiritual and secular struggle. Under the pontificate of Innocent III this took on a more muscular and intensely personal meaning for both the Pope and the leaders of Christendom. The Vicar of Christ saw a definitive link between a successful crusade to the Holy Land and the moral reformation of what he believed to be a degenerate society. Success in the Levant represented the imprimatur of God on the spiritual restoration of His people. Innocent’s interest in a Holy War is embodied in his call for the Fourth Crusade, a call that reverberated with ardent puritanical zeal.

Following the pitiable collapse of the territory of Jerusalem, following the lamentable massacre of the Christian people… it cried out and wailed to such a degree that due to incessant crying out, its throat was made horse, and from incessant weeping, its eyes almost failed… still the Apostolic See cries out, and like a trumpet it raises its voice, eager to arouse the Christian peoples to fight Christ’s battle and to avenge the injury done to the Crucified One…

Firebrand rhetoric of this nature hit its mark, in an age when honor and oath were life and death. Having suitably motivated the spiritual, Innocent turned his astonishing administrative abilities to the secular. ‘All towns, as well as counts and barons, should provide crusaders for two years at their own expense’. The omission of Kings from this list cuts to the heart of Papal involvement in the Fourth Crusade. Innocent III, ‘acutely conscious of his responsibility as the head of Christendom, intended to reassume papal leadership of the holy war.’ But pragmatic reasons played their measure in this decision. The two leading regal lights of Europe, Richard I of England and Phillip II of France, were locked in mortal combat. Their pride and enmity had caused the Third Crusade to fail and more recent events would deprive the Pope of their swords. Richard succumbed to a crossbow bolt and Phillip’s licentious nature meant he would not, and could not, take the cross again and lead a crusade.

Deeply aware that many in Western Europe had criticized the church for not providing sufficient financial support in previous crusades, Innocent issued an edict that the clergy should outfit and finance the expedition as well as preach its importance. This was accomplished through an unprecedented papal tax; the Pope and cardinals would pay one tenth of their incomes while other clergy would pay one fortieth. In this way the Pope hoped to forge the course of events through both his words and his purse.

It should not be thought that spiritual conscious was the soul, let alone sole, motivator for the pontiff. Ecclesiastical support was a necessary response, primed to motivate a recalcitrant laity. It was also the only means by which a moratorium on knightly debts and the protection of estates at home for landed crusaders aboard could be achieved.

Regardless of these protections and the money raised by the Church, crusading remained a dangerous and costly business; even before the sword had left its sheath.

I am quite anxious about my lands and my loans because, if I return (God willing), I will return burdened with many debts, and it is in my interest that they will be paid off from my lands.

It has been estimated that it cost a knight four times his annual income to fund a crusade, forcing men to mortgage or sell their lands and property rights. In such cases they usually turned to the church, the only institution with the resources to buy deeds and lend money. Yet such backing was still not enough and in many cases knights were forced to turn to wealthy nobles for patronage or live off the spoils of war to survive in the East. Without these supports destitution loomed and many magnates were broken on the wheel of crusade.

With the possible destruction of a family dynasty in the offing, it is not surprising that many were slow to set out for the Holy Land. Yet set out they did. A noble’s position in society and chivalric code urged him to the crusade. If this were not enough, it was certain that no measure of success in the lists could win the same level of admiration as that of taking the cross. There was also the sheer joy of battle and the chance of winning lands and enhanced political power. So a rich and complex mix of motives drove men to the hurl their resources and physical power into a violent struggle in a distant land.

Once unleashed, such a multifaceted combination of power, personalities and beliefs proved an unwieldy leviathan. The Fourth Crusade veered from its original aim, the reconquest Jerusalem, and ended in the sack of Constantinople; earning for itself the ignominious title of the crusade against fellow-Christians. Having lost control of the situation, Innocent III was forced to admit:

Oh, the depth of the riches of God’s wisdom and knowledge! How incomprehensible are His judgments and beyond understanding His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord or who has been His counselor?

An admission, if ever there was, that even the Pope does not have a direct line to God.

Conquest of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204 is licensed under Public Domain.

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