Enrico Dandolo

Geoffrey's Crusade 5: Boniface, Baldwin, and the Bulgarians

Baldwin I of Constantinople

As the crusading French, Venetians and others celebrated their great victory in Constantinople, a victory they could scarcely have imagined was possible, others were keeping their head down or leaving the city entirely. Niketas, our Byzantine source, at first enjoyed the protection of a Venetian born acquaintance, a merchant of the city who clad himself all in armour and pretended to be one of the conquerors himself. The Venetian laid claim to Niketas’ household, declared that he had reached it and its spoils first, and turned back any would-be plunderers.

But as the pillaging and violence in the city heated up, this man despaired of successfully defending his claim and his friends, and he urged them to leave. So on April 17th, 1204, they made their way with infants and possessions on their shoulders, their servants, understandably, having abandoned them. They went as the “captives” of friendly Venetian Constantinoplites, going as if they had been taken at spear-point, yet there was danger all the same. 

They inched along, exposed in the street, people they knew coming out to escort them on their way to the gates. Women and girls were in the centre, Niketas’ very pregnant wife included, and they rubbed their faces with mud to try and discourage unwanted attention. And passing soldiers, daggers at their belts and swords hanging by their horses, watched them closely. Some of these were loaded down with spoils already, while others would halt the party to see if there wasn’t a bit of fine cloth or silver hidden about them somewhere. Still, they made out. They made it out through the gates, where Niketas hurled himself to the ground and reproached the walls of his city. 

How could they alone be insensible to this disaster? “Neither shedding tears nor lying in ruins upon the earth. ‘If those things for whose protection [they] were erected no longer exist, being utterly destroyed by fire and war, for what purpose [did they] still stand?’” 

Niketas railed against those walls for a time, then turned aside, and he and his family went away weeping to the city of Selymbria, while behind them, the struggle for power and position within Constantinople was just beginning.

Hello, and welcome back. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus: Journeys in the Medieval World, following the stories of medieval travellers of one kind and another, and the histories that surround them. If you enjoy what you hear, then please do consider signing up to my Patreon. There, for as little as $1 a month, you can prevent this podcast falling apart like the Latin occupation of Constantinople. And you can do that at patreon.com/humancircus or via my website at humancircuspodcast.com.

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And now, back to the story.

With the Halloween special and the episode on sacred theft, it feels like a long while since we’ve been talking about Robert, Geoffrey, and the rest, but that’s what we’ll be doing today. We’ll be finishing up their story, and that of the Fourth Crusade. So far I’ve covered the spoils of the crusaders’ victory at Constantinople, at least in terms of movable wealth, religious and otherwise, but there was another kind of treasure at stake, that of titles, and of one title in particular.

As as is often the case in this story, Geoffrey gives us a pretty positive presentation of things, and maybe a sanitized one? He says that as had been previously set out, a council of twelve men was chosen, ecclesiastics and Venetians, to select the new emperor, and though there was no shortage of applicants for the job, there were only ever two real choices: Boniface of Montferrat and Baldwin of Flanders. 

In Geoffrey’s depiction, the leading lights of the crusade saw the situation clearly, and perceived equally well how it quickly it could all come apart, how severely an unhappy loser could harm them all were he to feel slighted enough to take his ball and go home. If the throne should go to Boniface, then what might Baldwin do out of bitter jealousy, and what if the reverse were true? And if the Venetians were to make the push for their own doge, if the Venetian Great Council should even allow it, then wouldn’t both men abandon them in anger? 

These were not idle questions, and those who asked had other examples from previous crusades to ponder, with Geoffrey mentioning the 11th-century falling-out between Godfrey de Bouillon and Raymond de Saint-Gilles in particular. The solution they hit upon was for it to be arranged ahead of time that the loser of the election would receive a kind of consolation prize, a great gift of land that would insure they remained supportive, content, and in the region. Once that was all arranged, and with the agreement of both leading candidates, the election went ahead.  

It was held in a rich chapel within a palace, the Boukoleon Palace according to Robert, and all around it, the crusading lords gathered, surrounded by their men, for all were eager to know the decision. They waited, and when the moment came, they watched the Bishop of Soissons emerge and speak the name of the new emperor: Baldwin of Flanders. 

He was a reasonable choice, widely respected and in command of more men, and, quote, “A cry of joy was raised in the palace, and they bore the count out of the palace, and the Marquis Boniface of Montferrat bore him on one side to the church, and showed him all the honour he could. So was the Count Baldwin of Flanders elected emperor, and a day appointed for his coronation, three weeks after Easter (16th May 1204). And you must know that many a rich robe was made for the coronation.”

So that was all extremely pleasant and nice, but was it so?

Robert didn’t think it was. And admittedly, he was not an insider in all of this like Geoffrey. Rather, he’s thought to give us the word that was going around on things, and in this case, that word didn’t sound so good. He speaks of fifteen days of infighting over the composition of the electoral council itself, with each important lord kept putting forward his own men as simply the best and most reliable when it came to making really important choices like picking a good emperor, like picking someone like them. And then when it came time to hear the announcement, he says, the larger part “greatly feared and suspected that the Marquis [de Montferrat] would be named.” And when he wasn’t, then all were “right glad of it,” except of course for those who were “sore displeased thereat.”

So that doesn’t sound quite as chummy as in Geoffrey’s depiction, and, as I feel like I’ve said many times already in this story, the Niketas version made it all look even less amicable. Why was Baldwin chosen? According to Niketas, it was because the Venetian doge said so.

Boniface had been the leader of the crusade, had married Isaac’s widow and moved into the Boukoleon Palace, and he was assumed by many among both conquered and conquerors to be all but certain for the throne, but he was also a little tainted by his past-affiliation with Alexius, and then there was the fact that Dandolo didn’t want to give power to someone like Boniface, among other things a powerful Lombard lord whose people might easily sweep south and into Venice, should it ever come to that. He wanted someone more compliant, someone less ambitious, less experienced in statecraft, and less well-situated to bring his power to bear against the doge’s city if things went wrong. And Dandolo got just what he wanted. 

The big day arrived, and all the abbots and barons on horseback brought the new emperor to the Hagia Sophia. There, he was dressed in robes and shoes set with precious stones, and a rich cloak with gems forming eagles “that shone so that it seemed as if the cloak were all alight.” He was taken before the altar, where the counts Louis and Saint-Pol carried banner and sword, and Boniface the crown. And the bishops came and blessed the crown, and they made the sign of the cross over it, and they placed it on his head. 

Emperor Baldwin waited sceptre in hand while mass was sung. Then, a white horse was brought to him, and with no foreboding tumbles on the way, he was taken back to the Boukoleon Palace. He was set on the imperial throne, and all did him reverence. Then they feasted, the emperor “and all the barons in the palace with him,” and “when they had eaten, then the barons departed and all went their ways to their habitations, but the emperor remained in his palace.” The palace, remember, where Boniface had recently lived. 

So what now? Baldwin had an empire in theory; the crusaders had all kinds of things, in theory, and Niketas writes of the Latin conquerors divvying up their world in a grab for territory. They had its most important city, so surely they had the whole thing, and could claim, trade, and tax, to their heart's’ content. From North Africa to Spain, to Persia, and to the northern regions, everything was apportioned. And Robert has something of the sort happening too, with Henry, the emperor’s brother, demanding one kingdom so that he might go off and conquer it, and Louis de Blois another, and Hugh of Saint-Pol a third, and so on. However, if anything was actually to be had from those kingdoms, then they were still going to need to go out and take them. 

Emperor Baldwin himself went touring the countryside, his brother Henry going before him, not so much on a military campaign as a triumph proceeding westwards towards Adrianople. Everywhere he went, the people surrendered and honoured him, and all seemed well. But all was not well. There were various threads starting to unravel, and some sooner, some later, they were going to threaten the Latin Empire, its unity, and its existence. 

One thread was that the conquerors would not be smoothly and seamlessly taking up the apparatus of the Byzantine rulers. Niketas wrote that Baldwin refused to receive leaders of the military and civil bureaucracy. He did not take them under his own rule, and he lost much potential support as well as valuable experience when he denied the local elite any way of finding a place in his new regime. He also offered no alternative employment to the kingdoms that were springing up everywhere within the old Byzantine territory, quote/unquote “empires” even, in the Greek successor states of Trebizond, Epirus, and Nicaea.

And while this was happening within that territory, there were equally important blunders to be made without. Potential Seljuk and Bulgarian alliances were going to be proudly rejected, and a basically inadequate military force was going to be exposed to hostility from too many sides. 

But that was a little ways in the future still. For now, concern may have centred around two men. On the one hand was Boniface, Marquis of Montferrat, and on the other a former emperor: Alexius Doukas, otherwise known as Mourtzouphlos.

The latter, you might be forgiven for having forgotten all about. Maybe you thought him dead, of betrayal, or plague, or public misadventure, or he just slipped your mind entirely, melting in among the other imperial also-rans of the early 13th-century. But he hadn’t gone anywhere, or at least, he hadn’t gone very far. 

In Geoffrey’s account, we find him fleeing before the advance of crusaders coming out of Constantinople. We find him taking refuge with another old familiar face. We find him want to join forces with Alexius Angelos, and if you’re having trouble keeping track of your Alexiuses, that would be the treacherous brother that had displaced Isaac back in 1195, the uncle of the Alexius that the crusaders had originally brought to Constantinople to put on the throne. He was the one who now welcomed Mourtzouphlos in, who invited him to solidify their alliance by marriage to his daughter, who had him round to share a meal, and to go to the baths, and who then had him held down on the floor, and his eyes plucked out. 

Geoffrey put the event to use, finding some propaganda value in the story. Look at this cruel brand of treachery, he said; can any people who were capable of such a thing ever have deserved to rule over the land? The justification of what he and his fellow crusaders had done was never far from his mind.

In Robert, the unfortunate Mourtzouphlos, who had after all only overthrown his ineffectual overlords and sought to defend his people - and seize supreme power along the way - hardly fared any better. There is no mention there of putting out the eyes, but there is mention that he was unlucky enough to come across Henry and his men in a narrow pass and so be taken prisoner. Emperor Baldwin conferred with his men, and some said the prisoner should be hung and others that he be drawn and quartered. But it was the doge who thought him too highly-born for hanging and suggested a more fitting end, and so Mourtzouphlos and his imperial ambitions were pushed from the top of the Column of Theodosius, and shattered on the ground below. “For a high man, high justice,” Dandolo is said to have joked.

The ex-emperor’s story was over, but there was plenty of ambition still to go around, and after this break, we’ll talk about some of that.

The other figure of immediate concern was of course Boniface. Geoffrey has him fully participating in Baldwin’s coronation, and with no sign of a grudge, but he also him pretty quickly maneuvering to better his situation. There was already a parcel of land allotted to him, but he pushed for a trade. Couldn’t he instead have the Kingdom of Thessalonica? It was closer to his wife’s brother, the King of Hungary, and besides, it was to have been his brother’s in 1180. And Baldwin agreed. Or according to Geoffrey he did. Robert has him refusing, saying he couldn’t give what wasn’t his but rather the Venetians’ and the Barons’, but still refusing. However it played out, at some point, things became less and less agreeable between the two.

They were on the move, heading west, Boniface generally a little behind as he was travelling with his wife, we read, and thus his household and all that goes with it. He was moving to install himself and his family in Thessalonica, while Baldwin was on his victory tour, accepting fealty and, as Geoffrey frames it, pursuing Alexius, the eye-gouger. At some point, Baldwin lingered, Boniface caught up and set his pavilions nearby, and tensions came out into the open. 

They were heading towards Thessalonica, and Boniface made his feelings very plain. If they went any closer, if the emperor entered into his land, into Boniface’s land that he had heard was waiting ready to give itself up to him, then Boniface would follow him no further. In Robert, it’s very much an ultimatum: the emperor would turn aside or Boniface would go back to Constantinople and do what he must for himself. In Geoffrey, it’s more of a request: don’t go to Thessalonica. Let me. Let me install myself and gather up all resources that you need, and then let us go together against the Bulgarian king. Do not ruin my land. Baldwin’s response is also framed slightly differently in the two sources, but it would come to the same thing in the end. 

In Robert, Boniface’s position is presented as being painfully unreasonable, an egotistical assault upon the crusaders’ cause, and it was responded to accordingly. Niketas on the other hand has Boniface dumbfounded at his comrade’s betrayal. And Geoffrey, who was back in Constantinople at the time, expressed bitterness towards both sides. Who had advised the emperor to deny Boniface’s request, and how ill-advised were they both? What ill-fortune had they brought upon themselves and upon Christendom itself? Whoever was the more ill-advised of the two, the Marquis de Montferrat was turning away in disgust and anger. Baldwin was going on to Thessalonica, and Boniface was going to go do as he’d said, and carve something out for himself.

Boniface and his people came first to a castle, very strong, and very rich, and called Demotica, and the people surrendered to him - because of treachery, Robert says; because they recognized his wife, the former empress, Geoffrey says. And then he went on to Adrianople, and this one wasn’t held by some local leader who’d had a series of emperors knocked from their perches above him and had little reason to hope that help would soon arrive. It wasn’t going to surrender immediately. This one was held by Eustace of Flanders. It was defended by the people who Emperor Baldwin had left there, and that was where Boniface was pitching his tents and pavilions and laying siege to his fellow crusaders, a sign of just how seriously things had gone awry. 

Eustace responded to his awkward predicament by dispatching messengers for Constantinople where the Venetian doge and the Count of Blois governed in the emperor’s absence. And they and the other barons were incensed. What idiocy was this, that threatened to corrode all they had won by their conquests and bring it to ruin. They agreed to send negotiators to attempt to undo this war before it really got going, and naturally, one of those negotiators would be Geoffrey, who was well known and liked by Boniface. 

The marquis received the envoys with good will. He heard them out, and he defended his actions as being provoked by the emperor’s obstinate refusal to give over what was his. But he agreed to turn his cause over to the care of the council in Constantinople. The siege was raised, and Boniface returned for now to his wife in Demotica, Geoffrey and the others went back to Constantinople, and messengers were sent out to inform Baldwin of what had happened. 

It was fortunate for the crusaders that they did, and that they reached Baldwin when they did, because they didn’t find him idle. He had taken Thessalonica and then received word of Boniface’s doings behind him, and as you’d expect, he was no happier to hear the news than Louis and Dandolo had been. He and his men had set out immediately to relieve Adrianople and cut Boniface and his men to pieces. Fortunately for both sides, the messengers reached him first.

They told him that the barons in Constantinople sent health and greeting to him as their lord, but also that they complained to him and to God of those whose council had brought discord between and he and Boniface, cleverly making it an issue of bad advice and not a bad emperor; they said that they would not suffer him to go to war and asked him to submit to their ruling on the matter just as Boniface had. The emperor told them he would need some time, and he took the matter to his council. 

Of course, this was the council that had in the first place advised him on the break with the marquis, and they were beyond angry at the challenge from Boniface and from the barons. And Robert has this anger extending well beyond the council. The outrage in the host was such that when they heard the arrangements that been made for peace, they voiced loudly that it would not matter; if they caught up to the marquis, they were still going to cut him up. And their mood was not at all improved when they heard from the very same messengers that in their absence from Constantinople, the remaining spoils had been divided. They were beside themselves then with righteous fury, on the cusp of killing the men who had brought the news in a violent mob action, and only the intervention of Baldwin and the others leaders managed to calm them slightly.  

In the end, the men agreed not to kill the messengers, and Baldwin and his council agreed that they and could not lose the friendship of the doge and the others in Constantinople, and Boniface agreed to return to the city to hear what they had to say, though he didn’t actually promise to abide by it.

As he and his men made their way home, Boniface was being informed of this and summoned to do as he’d promised and present himself, but that must have been a difficult choice in itself. He had made some enemies by that point and knew full well that Baldwin bore no great love for him, knew that many others also were now against him. But he went. He went, he stuck to his demands, and he received what he had asked for all along: the Kingdom of Thessalonica, which he departed for with his wife and all his people. But neither he nor his emperor were going to have very long to enjoy their winnings, for though I’ve been focusing here to a large extent on the dangers they presented to each other, there were other threats on the immediate horizon.

One of those threats gets a bit of foreshadowing in Robert’s telling. Back when Mourtzouphlos had been emperor, there had come to the crusaders a man named John, seeking their aid in his cause, and promising his own aid in return. What he had wanted was to be crowned by them as King of Wallachia. It was a land within the empire, and he promised to hold it for them, and to come to Constantinople with 100,000 men, and if this was clearly an exaggeration, then it at least should be acknowledged that this John did have the friendship and service of the Cumans, the Turkic horse people with whom he regularly raided Byzantine lands. So absolutely, he could have pressed a substantial amount of weight down on the crusaders’ side of the scales, but they hadn’t been interested. They’d answered that “neither with him nor with his help had they any concern; and let him know of a surety that they would trouble him and work him evil if they could,” and Robert noted that this was and would be a “shame and grevious pity.”

So keep that in mind, as we roll things forward again to Emperor Baldwin’s reign, and as we see Boniface heading for Thessalonica and Baldwin and the doge continuing to divide up the land and send out lords to lay claim to it. And as Geoffrey tells it, “the covetousness of this world, which has worked so great evil, suffered them not to be at peace, for each began to deal wickedly in his land, some more, and some less, and the [people] began to hate them and to nourish a bitter heart.”

Boniface tasted a little of that bitterness as he made to move into his new home. The governor Baldwin had left in Thessalonica had most inconveniently died, and in the space he left, a high-ranking Greek had sized a few cities and made war on the marquis, while another Greek, who Boniface believed to be his ally, left the host without warning, occupied his own city, and also made war. 

Meanwhile, Baldwin was having problems too. For one thing, his wife had died. She’d been pregnant when he’d left, so she hadn’t travelled with them, but since giving birth had left and made her way by sea to Acre. There she had heard that Baldwin had been made Emperor in Constantinople, but there too she took sick and passed away, one of many spouses who never saw their family again once they had departed. And in addition to this heavy personal blow, Baldwin was hearing that Adrianople was threatened once again, but this time not by his crusading rival. This time it was in revolt.

At times in this story, it’s been too easy to think of the protagonists of the Fourth Crusade as interacting with a kind of parade of NPCs, Alexius, Isaac, Alexius again, and Alexius again again, somehow wielding power over an all too vaguely conceived people, of a city, and of an empire. And, out of convenience, I’ve at times called those people Byzantine because that is what we tend to call them, but as you may already be aware, that’s not what they tended to call themselves. Rather, it’s a more modern term, derived from the pre-Constantine name of the city. “Greeks” came to be used at times, as the empire became more overwhelmingly, though never exclusively, Greek speaking, and that’s what Robert seems to call them but again, that’s not how they would self-identify. They knew themselves as Romans. 

And the Romans were fighting back against the invaders. Roman leaders were opposing Boniface, as I mentioned a moment ago; they were fighting with Baldwin’s brother Henri; they were fighting with Geoffrey’s nephew, also named Geoffrey. I want to make clear here that they were not passive observers in this, bowing to whichever lord rode their way. They were rising up at Demotica and Adrianople, and there they were either asking for or accepting help from the man we’ve recently met as John, the one who was once to have looked to the crusaders for help and friendship, but received neither. 

Now John the Wallach, as you might read of him in Robert’s telling, will also appear in history as Johanitsa, but if you go looking for him in your own research, you might do better to look for Kaloyan, the King of the Bulgarians. Having been rebuffed in his attempts to deal peacefully with his new neighbours, Kaloyan was now employing other means, and he was going to be there at Adrianople as Baldwin tried to take back the city from its rebellious Romans in the spring of 1205.

The crusader army that made to besiege Adrianople was not as large as it might have been, for there were many off fighting elsewhere at this point. When Baldwin and Louis de Blois departed from Constantinople, they went with the numbers they could pull together relatively quickly and joined the men that had mustered in the area. After them, came a force commanded by the old Venetian doge, even with his age and poor eyesight, his presence perhaps necessitated by the fact that there were few senior men left in the city. Most were away pursuing their prizes and carving out territories, and Count Hugh of Saint-Pol, who had remained, had died of gout. So Dandolo went himself.

They all gathered before Adrianople, in their pavilions outside of missile range, and prepared to besiege it. They first constructed siege engines, and then in the days that followed, they shot and were shot at. They dug beneath the walls, removing the soil as secretly as possible and shoring up the tunnels with dry timber. It was after a few weeks of this, that Kaloyan made his first move.

He started by sending out a Cuman raiding party, to attack the sheep and horse grazing around the edges of the besiegers’ camp, and in doing so to get a sense of his enemy’s organization and response. And the response to this probing attack was highly illustrative. 

At first sight of the approach Cumans, the crusaders took immediately to lance and horse and charged. The raiders wheeled about, firing arrows behind them as they went, and the crusaders followed. They had not yet learned not to eagerly follow bodies of horse archers, lightly armed and on swift horses, that went easily into retreat, and they received heavy casualties before giving up the chase. Recognizing their foolishness, the emperor and his council let it be known that if they were attacked again, they were to form up before the camp and they were not to go charging after anyone.

But the next day, April the 14th, Kaloyan repeated the maneuver, and having read his opponent’s response to his feint, this time the trap was well and truly set. His Cuman allies, a larger party this time, did as they had before, rushing in as if on an attempted raid and then withdrawing as the response came, fleeing before that response, leading the crusaders on. Their pursuers, quite against the arranged plans and apparently at the instigation of Count Louis de Blois’s angry rush, followed even further than they had before, far enough to exhaust their heavy horses in the extended charge, and far enough to be among the pits that had been dug for the purpose, and which men and mounts plunged into, and among Kaloyan’s troops that had been hidden in ravines and around the hilltops above. 

And I’ll read from Niketas here in describing what happened next. 

The Latins, exhausted from the exertion of the chase, with horses thoroughly spent, were ensnared by the unwearied Cuman troops, cut off, and encircled. Overpowered by the multitude of Cumans in hand to hand combat, they were thrown from their horses. One was surrounded by many; the throats of the stiff-necked were exposed to the scimitar or to the noose, and many of their horses were mutilated. As [their enemy] fell upon them like a never-ending black cloud, they could not disentangle themselves from the horses or find any means of escape. So fell the flower of the Latin host and those who were far-famed for their prowess with the lance.

Those who could, fled, making for the camp, and it was Geoffrey de Villehardouin coming to meet them with a body of men around which they could rally that stopped the route from rolling right through and into the camp. Now, lesson at last learned, they held their ground in the face of Kaloyan’s attacks, waiting, not chasing, until night came, and their enemy at last retired. In the darkness, torches were lit in large numbers, as if an army remained to offer battle. Then Geoffrey, Dandolo, and the rest, slipped away, leaving no men but all their tents behind them, and marched until dawn, with Geoffrey commanding the rear-guard, ever uneasy that Kaloyan’s pursuit, when it inevitably came, might find them and finish the job. 

It had been a disaster. Count Louis was dead, and many more with him, and Emperor Baldwin, well his fate was at first unknown. Robert reported that none ever knew what became of him, but as Niketas and Geoffrey noted, he was taken prisoner, and there are all sorts of stories of how he may have been abused, tortured, starved, or perhaps, depending on who you listen to, treated with perfect decency. Some would say his skull would become an ornamented drinking cup, and Niketas has Kaloyan ordering his limbs cut off at the knees and elbows before having him cast down into a ravine to live out a last three days in pain as food for the birds. What is certain is that Baldwin would die in captivity, one more emperor of Constantinople departing from our story. 

And we’ll continue that story in just a moment. But first, a quick break.

In the days that followed, Geoffrey and Dandolo and the rest of the survivors would continue their flight from Adrianople, wary of the pursuing army that might easily destroy them, if only it caught them. One party of knights would split off, making their own way more quickly back to Constantinople where they’d spread dismay over the uncertain fate of their colleagues, and then later face recriminations for having cowardly abandoned them. 

The rest of them were reinforced by groups that had been rushing to join the siege at Adrianople, the parties encountering each other with nervous aggression followed by relief, and then deep sadness. They made their way, day by fearful day, to Rodosto, a rich and strong port city whose Greek speaking Roman population did not, or could not, oppose the sudden arrival of this armed body of men. For now at least, the crusaders were safe. And they would be safe to watch bitterly as 5 ships of crusaders headed home from Constantinople arrived, refused their prayers to stay on, and then sailed away. Safe to curse the name of Peter of Frouville, who had abandoned all his people and belongings for a spot on one of those ships. Safe to call for Baldwin’s brother Henry to take his place. Safe, but not feeling terribly safe.

All about them on the land, Kaloyan’s forces went as they would. The crusaders had the worst of their encounters, but worse still was the lot of the Romans in the provinces where now-desperate crusaders plundered, and then Kaloyan’s men plundered again. As they marched from Rhaedestus to Constantinople, there was little the men of the fourth crusade controlled. They settled into strong points, few and far between, and they fought against a tide that rolled in against them, from the northwest, and from Roman leaders like Theodore Laskaris, first Emperor of Nicaea, from the southeast.  

Help was sent for, to aid the cause of the Latin Empire, sent to the pope and any and all that would listen, but it wasn’t coming. If anything, as those 5 ships passing Rhaedestus indicated, it was leaving, and other blows were in store for the crusaders. In May of that year, just over a month after the flight from Adrianople, Enrico Dandolo, the Venetian doge, died in intestinal agony. He’d lived a remarkable life and, no matter where you sit on the spectrum of Dandolo legends, had clearly been an astonishingly vigorous 90-something, but that final campaign had been too much for him. And the crusade lost another of its leaders.

If all of this sounds like it’s spiralling towards disaster, straight from its flawed beginnings to its inevitable demise, then that’s not far from the truth. The record of what follows is full of Kaloyan’s victories, of cities sacked and their occupants slaughtered, whether Crusaders or Romans. Henry, initially regent and later emperor in replacement of his brother, did not roll over and die, but there was death all around. His marriage to Boniface’s daughter, which would have shored up the bond between to two, now more crucial than ever, was short lived, as the new empress soon died, thought not so soon that he couldn’t tell the marquis she was pregnant when the two next met, so perhaps her death was caused by childbirth. His forces campaigned on both sides of the water, and had some successes, but dealing with both Kaloyan and Theodore Laskaris was burdensome, especially when the two actually started cooperating, and Geoffrey attests that the crusaders were scattered and everywhere “distracted and oppressed by war,” and that Emperor Henry was himself torn. He wanted to relieve Adrianople from its suffering under one siege, but he needed to rescue Peter of Bracieux, and Payen of Orléans from another besieged city, and then the people of Thierri of Loos at quite another, or else lose them. He could not be everywhere. 

But then, his luck seemed to turn. Theodore offered a truce, at a price, and he bought that truce, allowing him to finally, after a number of false starts in that direction, go and break up the siege of Adrianople, and even to briefly go on the offensive entering Kaloyan’s land and gather up many provisions. Finally, on his return to Adrianople, there was more good news. There was word from Boniface. 

The marquis had really been off in his own world, engaged in all kinds of trouble around Thessalonica while Henry was putting out fires from Constantinople, with enemies everywhere between, and the two had not seen each other in some time. Now, messengers arrived from Boniface, asking for Henry to meet him by a certain river, and Henry happily agreed. 

The two met in a fair field, and stayed there for two days, sharing news that the other would not have known. They said that “as God had granted that they should come together, so might they yet again defeat their enemies. And they made agreement to meet at the end of the summer, in the month of October, with all their forces, in the meadow before the city of Adrianople, and make war against [Kaloyan]. So they separated joyous and well content. The marquis went [west], and the Emperor Henry [east].”

They were never to make that appointment though. Not long after, Boniface’s rear guard would be ambushed as he travelled. He’d rush back and into the fight, but in the process he’d be wounded by an arrow beneath the shoulder, and he’d bleed and he’d bleed. His followers would try to keep him on his horse, but as he grew fainter, they lost hope, and abandoned him to his attackers and to his fate. 

The crusaders were one lord less, their one-time leader mourned by Geoffrey as “one of the best barons and most liberal, and one of the best knights in the world!” But Niketas would take a very different angle, writing that his death, quote, “came to the delight of all Romans - this surly man was fond of gold, pertinacious, opinionated, a monster who preyed on Romans. To the Thessalonians the arrow was the answer to a prayer and truly believed to be wrought, if not discharged, by the hand of the Almighty … he was an unbearable and unappeasable evil. Having received the gaping wound, he was sent on his way to Hades by the Romans with malignant glee.”

The head of Boniface of Montferrat would be cut from his body and would be presented to Kaloyan as a gift, but Kaloyan himself wouldn’t have long to enjoy his present. He’d besiege the city that had recently been Boniface’s, but he’d encounter trouble, and there are all kinds of stories as to what kind. 

My favourite is actually that of one of our sources here, Robert de Clari. He says that the trouble was inflicted by none other than St Demetrius, whose body lay in the city and was said not to allow the city to be taken by violence. Faced with this most recent threat, St Demetrius had appeared in the night, and in Kaloyan’ tent, and speared him where he slept. There were other versions, tellings that relied less on saints rising from the dead to distribute stabby justice in the darkness, more garden-variety betrayals and assassinations, but it all came to the same thing in the end. The Bulgarian menace that had haunted the crusaders and their Latin Empire was gone, but Baldwin, Dandolo, and Boniface too.

Emperor Henry wasn’t though, not quite yet. He survived Kaloyan’s challenge. Robert tells that he lived to marry the daughter of his successor, and to crown Boniface’s son in Thessalonica. But that was where he died, in 1216. His death, the same year as Pope Innocent III’s, ended what would turn out to be a unique period of relative calm in the rule of the Latin Empire, which would itself stagger on until 1261 when Constantinople was taken by the Nicaeans, some would say retaken by the Byzantines, and when our friends the brothers Polo would leave the city on a little business venture.

Even that wasn’t quite the conclusion of the story of the Fourth Crusade though. Of the crusader states that had sprung up during those years at the beginning of the 13th century, some would even be there to be absorbed into the Ottoman Empire when it came. That spiralling disaster I spoke of would go on spiralling on for a long time still, long after its initial protagonists had passed on from this world. 

As for our narrators, Niketas would live out the rest of his life at the court of Theodore Laskaris, in Nicaea, dying around the same time as Henry. And Robert de Clari and Geoffrey de Villehardouin, would of course survive those tumultuous years to record their versions of events. And how Robert would end his, is, I think, a good note for us to end on too. I’ll be back in a few weeks with something new and medieval. Thanks for listening, everyone. To quote Robert de Clari:

Now have ye heard the truth, in what manner Constantinople was conquered, and in what way Count Baldwin of Flanders became emperor thereof, and my Lord Henry his brother after him; for he who was there and who saw these things and who heard the testimony thereof, Robert of Clari, Knight, hath also caused the truth to be put down in writing, how the city was conquered; and albeit he may not have recounted the conquest in as fair a fashion as many a good chronicler would have recounted it, yet hath he at all times recounted the strict truth; and many true things hath he left untold, because, in sooth, he cannot remember them all.

Sources:  

  • Geoffrey de Villehardouin. Memoirs or Chronicle of The Fourth Crusade and The Conquest of Constantinople, translated by Frank T. Marzials. J.M. Dent, 1908.

  • Three Old French Chronicles Of The Crusades: The History Of The Holy War; The History Of Them That Took Constantinople; The Chronicle Of Reims, translated by Edward Noble Stone. University Of Washington Publications In The Social Sciences, 1939.

  • O City of Byzantium, Annals of Niketas Choniates, translated by Harry J. Magoulias. Wayne State University Press, 1984.

  • Madden, Thomas F. Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

  • Madden, Thomas F. Venice: A New History. Viking, 2012.

  • Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Decline and Fall. Viking, 1995.

  • Queller, Donald E. The Fourth Crusade: The Conquest of Constantinople, 1201-1204. Leicester University Press, 1978.


Geoffrey's Crusade 3: One Alexius After Another

Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople, 1204

Fair to say, that it’s often a good thing to keep one’s promises, maybe even more often than often. Perhaps usually, or mostly. It’s generally good to stick to agreements one has made, some would say necessary and always. If you have given your word or put your name down on paper, then you must see things through exactly as you had said you would. But this current series is not a great argument for that type of honesty, if that’s the right word.

The story of the Fourth Crusade has been presented in a variety of unflattering ways: as a kind of ultimate expression of the cynicism of the entire crusading project as being one of naked greed rather than religious enthusiasm, or as the work of a single nefarious power bending the course of events to their will. Was it the case that the Venetian doge, Enrico Dandolo, was the masterful manipulator, taking the crusaders for everything they had and more and steering violence away from his city’s trading interests in Egypt? Or was Philip of Swabia the smoking man in the back room? Was it his it his personal goals or, to a lesser extent, those of Boniface of Montferrat that had steered events from their original course? Was the pope himself to blame, for summoning up a crusade and then tapping its resources to other ends?

One theme that has struck me in putting together this series is the potentially dooming nature of a handshake, the way agreements made in this story seem cursed to develop a kind of horrifying momentum of their own, and to carry their participants along with them. The way the ominous music seems to pick up the moment terms are set and, without discounting human agency too much in all of this, the scales start to tip towards disaster, unless you were of the Ayyubid Sultanate that is.     

Hello, and welcome. I'm Devon, and this is Human Circus: Journeys in the Medieval World. A quick reminder before we get properly started: rating, reviewing, subscribing, and spreading the word is how we keep our walls intact and even our suburbs free of fire. And by signing up for the Human Circus Patreon, for as little as $1 a month, you ensure a sustainably defended city, no matter what mangonels or boating peoples may be brought against it. On that note, big thank-yous go out to new patrons Malte, Derrick, Aaron, and Neil. Thank you all very much for your support! And now, back to our story.

When last we spoke, Emperor Alexius was scuttling out the gates under cover of darkness, as July 17th of 1203 became July 18th. Inside Constantinople, the people of the palace awoke to their lack of emperor and were thrown into confusion. There were some who would have been bound to the now departed Alexius and would have feared what was to come.  Others would have seen opportunity in this power vacuum, an invitation to advance themselves, maybe even to the highest of steps. The rest would simply have worried, for their city and themselves, for what would happen now, with the Latins at their gates.

From Niketas, we know that the eunuch Constantine, minister of the imperial treasuries, was one to take matters in hand, that he measured support for what was to come, and we can imagine the whispered conferences in the gardens and corridors. Probably there were many such plans being made, many would-be-emperors flickering into being and then sputtering out, tantalizingly close to power.

Constantine solidified a faction within the palace. He assembled the ax-bearers of the Varangian guard and had the empress and all her relations seized. Then, when all was ready, he called for Isaac, the former emperor. He who had been blinded through his brother’s treachery was freed from imprisonment and dressed in magnificent clothes. He was led back to the imperial throne, and word was sent to his son.

In the camp, the news was met with joyous celebration, for the way which had seemed so hard now looked as if it had been made easy overnight. Robert speaks of “great rejoicing and much pomp,” but in Geoffrey it is tempered with something else, with the crusaders rushing to their arms and armour as the news first arrived, having little faith in its source and every reason to suspect it as but cover for another attack; then, as more messengers came out of the city, with the crusaders sending in envoys to let it be known that they would not be sending in Alexius until his father guaranteed that his promises would be honoured. And the promises were big, expensive ones, crushingly so, and like those the French lords had made with Venice, they were going to be impossible to keep.

But that was all for the future. For now, the mood was still celebratory. Envoys entered Constantinople, and of course, Geoffrey was among them. They dismounted before the gates and then walked in, unopposed but passing through a corridor of Varangian guard that flanked them all the way to the palace, and to the overwhelming spectacle of the Byzantine emperor and a great press of the city’s highest men and women in all their adornments. Once the pleasantries were out of the way, they spoke to the emperor in a more private setting and made known their demands and their agreement with his son. And what was that agreement, he asked. And they told him.

His son as emperor. Obedience to Rome. 200,000 silver marks. A year’s supply of food. 10,000 men for the cause. A standing force of 500 knights in the Holy Land. “Such is the covenant that your son made with us,” they said, “and it was confirmed by oath, and charters with seals appended, and by King Philip of Germany who has your daughter to wife. This covenant we desire you to confirm."

“Oh,” he might have replied, darkness slipping a little into even the brightness of a day which had begun with being given both his freedom and the imperial crown. It was an onerous agreement, he pointed out, and maybe he thought a little as Niketas would, that his son had been a, quote, “witless lad ignorant of affairs of state,” and had not “comprehended any of the issues at stake.” However, he reassured the envoys that what had been agreed would be respected, and he confirmed it with oaths and with sealed charters.

And all was wonderful, for a while. The lords of the crusading army rode in with Alexius and saw him seated on a golden throne alongside that of his father as co-emperor, and they joined the citizenry of the city in honouring both. “The joy,” in Geoffrey’s words, “was great inside Constantinople; and also without, among the host of the pilgrims, because of the honour and victory that God had given them.”

The joy was great. But the host would not be putting down roots inside the walls, according to Robert because they could in no way trust the traitors of the city. Maybe that was an assessment stained by what was to come though. Geoffrey has the request put in by the emperors themselves, that the crusaders camp across the straight and away from any quarrels that might kick off between the recent combatants.  

The host, well provisioned now, would visit the city by barge, and marvel at its astounding wealth, its many great palaces and grand churches, and its relics beyond count. Some of the barons were there with Alexius when he greeted with honour the King of Nubia, “a king,” Robert tells us, “whose flesh was all black, and [who] had a cross in the middle of his forehead, which had been made with hot iron ... burnt into the skin.” They heard him relate, through an interpreter, that his land was 100 days journey beyond Jerusalem, where he had gone on pilgrimage. 60 men had begun the trip, and, for reasons that are not given, only 10 had survived that 100 day journey, and only 2 were now left with him in Constantinople, where he stayed in a rich abbey. He still planned to journey on to Rome, he said, to Santiago de Compostela, and, if he still lived, back to Jerusalem, and there to die. The barons listened, and they looked with wonder. 

The crusaders also received a visit from a Sultan of Konya seeking aid against his brother who had taken what was his. This was actually the former Seljuk Sultan of Rum, Kaykhusraw I, who had lost out to his brother in 1196, and lived in Constantinople ever since. He would eventually regain the throne, but not with the help of these crusaders, who decided, upon consideration, that they were engaged enough already with the emperors. 

They had been fed and they had been paid, in part at least, and for now they were content, or some of them were. Others thought it was surely time for them to be moving along towards their real goal. This had not, after all, been sold to them as a Crusade on Constantinople when they first made to gather in Venice. Still, Alexius begged their patience, their continued presence, and their force of arms, promising to pay their costs and those of the Venetians if they would remain on through March. Alexius argued that he could not entirely fulfill their covenant right then and there, and besides, if they were to leave, all that they had done for him, substantial as it was, would be for nothing. He was hated by his people because of them, he said. As things stood, the moment they were gone he was sure to be killed and the land they had taken for him lost. That, as the crusader leadership well knew, would also mean the loss of his promised help and his submission to Rome. And they had, after all, agreed to help him win his throne. Could that task really be considered done?

Not all were at all happy about it, but the crusaders stayed to see things through. 

Some half of the men accompanied the young emperor as he moved against his uncle, the other Alexius. And Boniface, Hugh, Henry, and many other barons went with them. For months they campaigned, Robert tells us, conquering 20 cities and 40 castles, doing well for themselves, and helping to win Alexius control over elements of an empire without which he was never going to muster the resources to repay his debts. 

They returned on November the 11th, the crusaders received joyfully by their comrades, and Alexius given the triumphal treatment by his courtly followers, moderate though his victories had been. But things had not gone so well while they were away. There had been fighting in the city, and terrible fires too. 

On August the 19th, a mob had stormed into the quarters of the city that were home to Italians, often Italians who had grown up in the city and, in the case of the Pisans, had just recently been on the walls defending it against the crusaders. Rage and resentment against foreigners spilled over, harming even those who had made their city strong, and destroying churches, shops, homes, and people. 

Then, days later, had come the fire. Geoffrey hadn’t been sure who had done the malicious deed, but Niketas was not in any doubt. Pisans of the city had crossed the water and befriended their Venetian former-adversaries and, together with some of the French contingent, entered Constantinople at night by fishing boats. It was a kind of raid, or perhaps something less organized than that, on the Muslim quarter of the city, a target for those frustrated in their desire to fight Muslims in the Holy Land. There, they had stolen what they could and torched a mosque. They had fought with the locals, and with the Muslims’ neighbours who had rushed to their defence, not as many as should have, Niketas says, but it was enough to drive the attackers back. They’d done as the Venetians had done then, and deliberately used fire as a barricade to cover their retreat. And it had spread beyond all possible expectations. 

I’ll quote Niketas here in his description of what happened, and it is worth noting here that his house was also damaged in the fire. For him this was no abstract event.

He writes:

It was a novel sight, defying the power of description… the fires ignited at this time proved all the others to be but sparks. The flames divided, took many different directions and then came together again, meandering like a river of fire. Porticoes collapsed, the elegant structures of the agorae toppled, and huge columns went up in smoke like so much brushwood. Nothing could stand before those flames. Even more extraordinary was the fact that burning embers detached themselves from this roaring and raging fire and consumed buildings at a great distance. Shooting out at intervals, the embers darted through the sky, leaving a region untouched by the blaze, and then destroying it when they turned back and fell upon it.

… the fire, advancing gradually and leaping over the walls … ravaged the dwellings beyond, and flying embers burned a ship sailing by. The so called Porticoes of Domninos were also reduced to ashes… The Forum of Constantine and everything between the northern and southern extremities were similarly destroyed. Not even the Hippodrome was spared, but the whole section towards the Demes as well as everything leading down to the harbour of Sophia was engulfed in flames.

… Woe is me! How great was the loss of those magnificent, most beautiful palaces filled with every kind of delight, abounding in riches, and envied by all.

In a moment, we’ll follow events in the city after the fire. First though, a word from Noah who is the host of the excellent History of Vikings podcast, another Recorded History network show that I can happily recommend.

...

The Latins of the city, didn’t wait around to see where the blame for the fires would be laid. This place had been their home, but many of their homes had been levelled, and now “some fifteen thousand, small and great,” as Geoffrey has it, had taken their families and what possessions they could. 

And this was probably quite sensible of them. Tensions clearly had been on the rise. There had been the recent fighting and the fire, the bad feelings naturally brought about by invading forces involving themselves in imperial politics, the prospect of submitting to Rome, the unease at the emperors’ ongoing failure to entirely fulfil their end of the deal, and then there was what had been done to make those initial payments. 

Uncle Alexius had not left the treasury in good health when he’d fled in the night. Heavy taxes had been necessary to pay the crusaders, and then, as if that didn’t do enough to turn the populace against young Alexius, the next step surely would. With little ready money at hand, the churches were plundered. Niketas wrote of vessels seized and melted down for common coin, icons hacked at with axes, anything of value extracted by force, and then, even more bitter, the crusaders selling their gains or else spending them as but profane metals. It was enraging. Some in the city said the fire had been a punishment, for they had prized their own possessions but neglected God’s treasures, but what anger they did not reserve for themselves, they directed towards the Latins and their own rulers.

Niketas clearly loathed both emperors, spoke of them “pray[ing] for the end of all things, these firebrands of the country, flaming in visage, thus personifying the angel of evil,” and he gives us quite a picture of their days in power. Alexius took to spending his time in the camps of “the barbarians,” whiling away the days with drinking and with dice, his entourage jokingly replacing the “gold-inlaid and bejeweled diadem on his head” with a “shaggy woollen headdress.” Isaac, meanwhile, muttered darkly against the blunderings and excesses of his son. Angered at his authority and prestige slipping away in favour of Alexius, he spoke of his son’s lack of self-control, his ill-formed character, and his general uselessness. And he turned increasingly to oracles, divination, and astrology, swallowing all he heard, and believing himself destined to become ruler of a united east and west, a universal lord, a god-man, and with his sight restored. He was prey to streams of monks who drank from his banquet table and prophesied freely as to his returned strength. Or so Niketas tells us. 

The Byzantine chronicler also shows us the irredeemably greedy crusaders, laughing at the foolishness of their imperial host, and returning again and again to snatch yet more treasures, their gluttony for gold impossible to satisfy now they had a taste for it. But from Geoffrey it’s a distinctly different picture. The treasure came in but a trickle, always delayed, and never even approaching the amount promised, until at last the payments ceased, and not even the pleadings of Boniface, who had done so much for Alexius, could turn the tap back on. 

We should appreciate that Alexius found himself here in a difficult position, an untenable one really. Maybe his head genuinely had swollen while in office, and maybe his recent military successes had convinced him he no longer had need of his former friends. Or maybe his situation was impossible. His Latin allies wanted their money among other things, but even if he could juice his people sufficiently, they were very likely to kill him for the squeezing. Doing away with emperors was not so normatively out of the question as he would have liked, and there was besides a prevailing attitude that nothing at all should be given to the crusaders, even if they could. As for submitting to Rome, that was quite out of the question. In this light, it's easy to see how Alexius may felt unable to do more than placate those outside the city with pleas for time while trying to anticipate the plots of those inside its walls.

Outside, a parliament was held, of the crusading lords and the Venetian doge, and it was decided that one last effort would be made to see the agreement peacefully resolved. A few good envoys would be sent to present their case and deliver their ultimatum, to make clear that if the emperor would not willingly give what was theirs, then their allegiance to him was at an end and they would have it by other means. As was ever the case when important matters were to be discussed, Geoffrey was one of those good envoys. 

Three for the French host and three for the Venetians armed themselves, mounted up, and went into the city, in some fear for their lives. At the palace, they left their horses and were brought to a room where the two emperors sat on a pair of thrones, many of their nobility about them. It was not Geoffrey who then spoke, but another, who was chosen for wisdom and eloquence. This was what he said:

Sire, we have come to thee on the part of the barons of the host and of the Doge of Venice. They would put thee in mind of the great service they have done to thee-a service known to the people and manifest to all men. Thou hast sworn, thou and thy father, to fulfil the promised covenants, and they have your charters in hand. But you have not fulfilled those covenants well, as you should have done. Many times have they called upon you to do so, and now again we call upon you, in the presence of all your barons, to fulfil the covenants that are between you and them. Should you do so, it shall be well. If not, be it known to you that from this day forth they will not hold you as lord or friend, but will endeavour to obtain their due by all the means in their Power. And of this they now give you warning, seeing that they would not injure you, nor any one, without first defiance given; for never have they acted treacherously, nor in their land is it customary to do so. You have heard what we have said. It is for you to take counsel thereon according to your pleasure.

And did all of this enamour the envoys to their Byzantine hosts? Shockingly, it did not. All present were appalled. They were “amazed and outraged,” that these outsiders would speak to their emperors so, and in their own hall too. Dark were the looks they now gave Geoffrey and his companions in the clamour that erupted. But they did not attack. 

The envoys made their very uncomfortable way back to the safety of the encampment, feeling, I’m sure, the prickling sensation at their backs that might turn to swords or arrows at any moment, listening for the shouted orders that they be taken or killed on the spot, and looking warily at the angry locals who might as easily form a mob, no matter their leaders’ intentions. They passed through the gates with relief and then out of the range of the walls and to safety, where they informed the leadership of what had transpired. 

Robert tells us that after the emperors made this last refusal to pay what was owed, Dandolo made one last attempt to speak with Alexius. “What thinkest thou to do?” he asked of the young emperor. “Wilt thou not hold at all to our agreement, nor fulfill any more of them?” And when Alexius answer that he would not fulfil any more than he already had, the doge responded with anger. “Wilt not?” he snapped. “Naughty lad. We have raised thee off the dunghill, and on the dunghill will we cast thee back again!”  

The way forward now was clear, and the crusaders were, again, going to be attacking the city of Constantinople. But in whose interest was it for them to do such a thing? Not that of the people of the city. Nor, in large part, the crusaders. Only, it has been argued, in that of the Venetians whose doge, now hit on a much more ambitious goal than throwing in against the Ayyubids: a creature of the Venetians on the imperial throne. 

It's a point with some merit, but to accept this “Dandolo as puppet master” is to reduce the other powers involved to homogenous units each having but one mind and will. There would have been plenty of people within the city who would have been quite pleased with what this crisis was doing to the emperors - we’ll be meeting one soon now - and likewise there would have been many outside of those walls who started to think about carving out something here for themselves, just a little further north than they might have planned back in France. For the more ambitious on both sides, the imperial throne was in play, and renewed warfare a pretty attractive proposition. 

That winter, as 1203 turned to 1204, skirmishes between the two sides were frequent, with Geoffrey claiming that his side’s casualties were always the lesser and Niketas saying that the results were much more mixed. No longer supplied by the emperor, the attacking forces scoured the countryside for food, and pillaged and burned churches, homes, and palaces. Still, Robert tells us, there was a great shortage of supplies, that wine sold for 12-15 shillings, a hen 12, and an egg for 2. Only of biscuit was there no such lack. Of that they had enough for the season.

The most dramatic blow of the conflict never really landed. “A great treachery,” Robert called it, but one that could have done irreparable damage to the crusaders. The plan took darkness; it took the right wind; it took, by Geoffrey’s count, seven ships. Those ships were filled with the driest of wood and pieces of pig fat, set alight, and sent across the straight, the wind carrying them towards the Venetian fleet. And they’d do it again two weeks later, the beginning of January, this time with more ships and their prows chained together. Both nights, the alarm was raised in time.

Geoffrey describes the heroism of the Venetian sailors in dealing with the threat, which he specifically notes that he witnessed. How from galleys and smaller boats they hooked the flaming ships and laboured to steer them away. How those not busy on the water formed up on land, thinking themselves about to be attacked. How the people of the city had come down to the shore in numbers without end to watch the drama unfold, “their cries ... so great that it seemed as if the earth and sea would melt together.” And if the noise and heat, the chaos, were not enough to deal with, these spectators put to boats themselves and peppered the Venetians with arrows as they worked. Still, in all this confusion, the Venetians managed to maneuver the weaponized ships into the current, and the sun would rise over those burning wrecks being carried away without harm, save for one Pisan ship and those wounded by arrows.

This would seem to be a bit of last effort on the part of our emperors. If Niketas is to be believed, they had hardly involved themselves in the defence of they city at all anyways. Alexius in particular may not have wanted to act in violence against his former protectors, especially Boniface, who he had been closest to, or maybe the two had simply lost their grip on the levers of power. Either way, power was about to be wrenched away from them entirely, and in Byzantine politics, there were no easy retirements.

But first, a quick pause.

In the final days of January, 1204, opposition to the emperors came to a boil. Everyone knew that they had to go, but the question remained as to what was to be done. Senators, clergy, and other leading citizens came together in the Hagia Sophia. Niketas was there, and looked on, sickened by what he saw. All were of the same mind, but at a loss as to who they should nominate as their new leader. They knew full well, Niketas says, that whoever it was would quickly be killed. And he himself kept his silence; he knew the faults of men, he said, and allowed bitter tears to roll down in his face, for he foresaw that nothing good was to come for his people. 

The congregation cast about for someone to take up the leadership, apparently so desperate to do so that they tried to press it on anyone of nobility who would have it. But none would. One nominee even took on the costume of a monk to escape their attention, Finally, on the third day of this, the title was given to a young man named Nicholas, against his will. And you might be wondering what Alexius was doing during all of this. He was not so isolated that he had not heard of what was happening. He sent one last time for the help of Boniface, arranging, Niketas says, to have crusaders brought into the palace to secure his safety, but his chamberlain acted first. 

This man has been in and around the story for a while now, and his name, most inconveniently, was also Alexius. This was the new, new Alexius, but he’s often known by the name Mourtzouphlos, a reference to his heavy eyebrows which met in the middle. Mourtzouphlos was descended from the Komnenian emperors who had dominated the 12th century, and he had been imprisoned under the old, old Alexius and then freed by Isaac in what reads as one of the earliest acts in Isaac’s second go as emperor. He was credited with showing leadership and bravery in opposing the Latins over the winter of 1203-1204, and even by Niketas who pretty clearly had no love for the man that, though not part of this story, had him pushed him from office. And then, when an opening presented itself, Mourtzouphlos took it. 

He shook Alexius awake with news that his people had risen up; they were coming to kill him. And this wasn’t a rushed act of rashness on his part. He’d already set the table. He’d been the one to transmit Alexius’ request to Boniface, and he’d used it against his emperor. None of the nobility who he’d shared it with would defend Alexius now. He’d won over the eunuch in charge of the treasuries, a weak man fond of ill-gotten gains if Niketas is anything to go by, and he’d lined up the Varangian Guard too. So all was ready when he convinced a sleep-befuddled Alexius that everyone from blood-relations to the ax-wielders were at his doors, making a furious assault and wanting nothing more than to tear him to pieces with their hands. The emperor quickly agreed to be covered with a long robe, and led away “to safety” by a little-known side entrance.

A grateful Alexius is to have softly sung from the Book of Psalms, “For in the day of mine afflictions he hid me in his tabernacle; he sheltered me in the secret of his tabernacle.” But then, as the reality of his situation became clear, “His lips are deceitful in his heart, and evil has he spoken in his heart,” and then, his legs in chains, “To me spoke peaceably but imagined deceits in their anger.” 

He was poisoned, three times Geoffrey says, “but it did not please God that he should thus die, so he was then strangled,” the whole process an indication, I think, that Mourtzouphlos still had reason to care about appearances, that he didn’t feel able to simply throttle the emperor in his chamber and get away with it. And some writers have Alexius lingering on a little more, the strangling occurring only after other events had taken place, and the subtler attempts had failed. Geoffrey also notes that Isaac took ill from fear around this time, and of his illnesses died, but it’s very possible that he was poisoned too. Either way, they were out, and the new Alexius was in, and acclaimed as emperor in the palace while poor Nicholas, he who’d had the title forced upon him the church, was taken and his head cut off. The reign of Alexius V had begun. 

In him, the city now had a much more vigorous defender, and they were going to need it. Maybe their assailants didn’t require another reason to attack, but they could certainly feel they had the moral high ground now. They weren’t attacking a former ally. Now it was a treacherous usurper, a murderer who had unseated what they had put in place, no matter that they had intended to do much the same. During winter, they had been cut off from assistance, supplies, and the promise of help to come in the Holy Land, and the prospects for actually getting to that place were looking particularly bleak. The clergy, including those who spoke for the pope, made it known that “any one guilty of such a murder [as Alexius V was] had no right to hold lands, and that those who consented thereto were abettors of the murder; and beyond all this, that the [people of the city] had withdrawn themselves from obedience to Rome.” The war was just, and those involved would enjoy the indulgences of crusade. 

However, some of the crusaders were going to need to take action in order to keep themselves in it. Food was in short supply and large numbers of horses had already been sacrificed. Foraging and raiding were dangerous necessities. Robert tells us, for example, that Henry, brother to Count Baldwin of Flanders, found himself in need of resources and, with a small body of men, went at night to a nearby city. He seized animals, food, and clothing, and dispatched it all by boat before heading back, but Alexius was waiting for him.

This was not an emperor in the mould of the former Alexius or his father. He was not waiting in his palace. Alexius V had heard word of Henry’s little outing and had arranged to ambush him on the return trip, at the entrance to a wood. But in the skirmish that followed, it was not Henry and his men who broke; it was the emperor’s. A wounded Alexius fled for his life with the crusaders in hot pursuit, losing his standard and his cloak in process. Worse, his patriarch had been struck a heavy blow on the head and lost the icon of Mary which accompanied an emperor when going to battle, a sign, Robert thought, that he had not the right to carry it. With those rich prizes, the crusaders were content, and they would parade before the walls of Constantinople with these tokens of their dominance, effectively disproving the boasts of victory that Alexius had spouted upon his return.

And maybe it was this victory that filled them with such confidence. They gathered to make plans, maybe also on how to actually take Constantinople, but that’s not what Geoffrey and Robert emphasized. The bulk of the meeting seems to have been concerned with what they would do after they took it. This was how the loot was to be divided. That was who should rule what land. This was how emperor and patriarch ought to be selected. They concluded that all would stay to serve the new emperor until the spring of 1205, and they swore on all of this on holy relics. 

They had it all worked out, but they were actually going to need to take the city first. The initial large-scale attacks that Geoffrey and Robert mention, occurred in early April. They were “a marvellous sight,” and they were concentrated on the harbour walls where the Venetians had before had some success. But they didn’t work. The ships brought their sky bridges against the walls and towers, but the wind on that day made it difficult to bring them close enough. Stones and other missiles from  the walls shattered the attackers’ siege engines or caused those by them to flee. Geoffrey even admitted that they lost more on that day than did the defenders, who, to quote Robert, “began ... to hoot and to shout right lustily; and they went up upon the walls and let down their breeches and showed them their buttocks.”  

Alexius had not wasted his time since taking power. Reinforcements had been brought into the city. Ditches had been dug near the base of the walls, making it difficult to bring siege engines against them. The walls and towers had been strengthened and were better protected than before, with wooden towers projecting over and out from the stone ones, so that the Venetian sky bridges no longer enjoyed the advantage of height. Venetian prisoners had been tortured to death in sight of their comrades. From his hilltop command position, overlooking events, Alexius  had his silver trumpets sounded and spoke boastfully to his people of his great success. The crusaders needed to reconsider. 

Some would have been just as happy to let the waters carry them away to the sea. Some wanted to approach the city at a different point, further along the walls where the defences were less formidable, but as the Venetians pointed out, the currents there would make this difficult. Instead, the doge or one of his men suggested the attacking ships be lashed together in pairs, so that two should be able to reach each tower, for at a one-to-one ratio, the men in the towers had enjoyed the advantage. They would take the weekend to refit, repair, and rest, and on Monday they would attack again.

They were downcast after their failure, and that Sunday, sermons were spoken throughout the camp, reassuring one large gathering after another that their cause was righteous, that their enemies were faithless traitors who were disobedient to Rome and God and had murdered their lord. They were, in the unfortunate terms that Robert puts it, “worse than Jews.” To attack them then “was no sin, but rather was it a good work and of great merit.” The crusaders, in other words, could go happily to battle in the knowledge that they were on the side of the good, and would prevail. They made their confessions, drove out the sex workers from their encampment, and made ready for the next day.

Again, the ships were brought close to the towers, and arrows and Greek fire launched up, but the fire took no hold on the tower’s leather coverings. From the wall, stones came hurtling down, but the Venetians had prepared for this and their ships were well protected by shelters of timber and vine. It was a stalemate. And Robert tells us how it was broken. 

He says that one particular ship, that of the Bishop of Soissons, was brought by the waves against a tower, and from it a Venetian managed to pull himself inside. But it was, then as ever, not necessarily the best thing to be the first off the boat, and he was promptly cut to pieces by the swords and axes of those within. However, the second man in the tower was a different matter. He dragged himself in, and, as had just happened, they fell on him, chopping away, but, being a fully armoured knight, he did not succumb. He rose to his feet like some 13th-century terminator. He drew his sword. And the astonished defenders ran. They fled down to the story below, which caused the fighters there to turn and run themselves. They didn’t know it was one armoured man upstairs, only that their comrades were in panicked flight, and the tower emptied out even as more attackers managed to make their way in at the top. 

A second tower was taken, and then more, but the men who had taken the towers weren’t willing to leave them. Despite their successes, they were still surrounded by their enemies, on the walls and below, and they had nowhere to go. 

That was when Peter of Amiens had seen their predicament, had come to shore with his men, and had spied an opportunity. There was a disused side-door, no longer a door really, just the walled up space where it once had been. That was where he attacked. 

He and his men hacked away with sword and axe, timber, bar, and pick, others behind them holding up shields against the efforts of those on the walls above. It was “a miracle of God that they were not all destroyed,” Robert says, and it sounds like it too, what with the bolts and great stones hurled down upon them in such quantities that it threatened to bury them, not to mention the pots of boiling pitch and Greek fire. Amazingly, in all that chaos, they cut a way through, they peered in, they found so many people on the other side that it seemed as if the entire world was there assembled. And they did not want to go in. 

But Robert’s brother Aleaume did. He’d been at the forefront of much of the fighting, and this was no exception. Robert told him not to go in. He insisted. When his brother still got down on hands and feet, he actually grabbed at his feet to pull him back. None of this stopped Aleaume though. He went on through, drew his blade, and if his brother is to be believed here, rushed at the first people he saw, driving them from the opening before calling on his friends outside to join him. 

And the emperor was close, close enough make a great show of spurring his horse at them in “don’t hold me back”/”DO hold me back” sort way, and then fleeing to safety within the city. 

Niketas’ account of all of this is surprisingly similar, of a pair of knights first leaping into one of the towers and frightening off the auxiliaries within. And of Peter and his men cutting their way through a gate and then scattering the would-be defenders, but he doesn’t credit Robert’s brother with this feat; it was the terrifying sight of Peter, unusually tall and wearing a helm that was shaped like a fortified city. To quote Niketas, “The noblemen about the emperor and the rest of the troops were unable to gaze upon the front of the helm of a single knight so terrible in form and spectacular in size and took to their customary flight as the efficacious medicine of salvation.” The attackers would not turn and run. So their opponents did.

The crusaders were now inside. They’d made their way in at three separate gates. The walls had been abandoned, and Niketas tells us that they “ran everywhere and drew the sword against every age and sex.” Constantinople lay open before them, it’s people no longer organized against them, but rather scattered, seeing to their own families, their own possessions, some burying what was valuable to them, others simply fleeing the city, for their assailants had never even hoped to surround it. 

The attackers were weary from fighting though. The day had been long, and they had no wish to be ambushed in the narrow streets. Better, they thought, to wait until the morning, to assemble again, and to offer battle in the open squares. So that’s what they did, taking food, and then passing the night there, just inside the walls. Passing the night in a state of some nervous excitement, I imagine, with every expectation that the day ahead would be a hard one, for many perhaps a final one.

Those who did manage to get some sleep, woke to yet more flames in the morning. Around the quarters of Boniface, certain people - Geoffrey claims not to know who. Others have since pointed to the men of a certain German count - had set defensive fires between themselves and the threat of attack, and once more, for the third time since the arrival of the Crusaders, Constantinople was burning. It had lost more houses, Geoffrey says, “than there [were] houses in any three of the greatest cities in the kingdom of France.” The city had suffered much. And it’s emperor, not for the first time, had had enough. 

When the crusaders assembled that morning, they found that there was to be no further fight, for Alexius V was gone. He had made a big show of readying to attack them the night before, but had then ridden in fear straight on out the Golden Gate, or so Geoffrey tells us. Niketas gives us a slightly different picture though. The emperor had gone about the city, making every effort to rally his people, but to no avail. They were done. He saw no need to wait around for whatever fate the Latins would assign him, so he slipped away on a small fishing boat, taking various imperial family members with him. A successor had been found immediately, but his efforts to muster some defence had also failed. So, unopposed, the crusading lords picked their palaces. 

As Geoffrey tells us, “Every one took quarters where he pleased and of lodgings there was no stint ... and greatly did they rejoice and give thanks because of the victory God had vouchsafed to them-for those who before had been poor were now in wealth and luxury.” But Robert grumbles that the rich and powerful of the host, “straightway began ... to deal treacherously with the lowly folk and to show them bad faith and ill comradeship.” And Niketas, of course, has a rather darker view of the proceedings. 

The populace, he says, moved by the hope of propitiating [the attackers], had turned out to greet them with crosses and venerable icons of Christ as was customary during festivals of solemn processions. But [the crusaders’] disposition was not at all affected by what they saw, nor did their lips break into the slightest smile, nor did the unexpected spectacle transform their grim and frenzied glance and fury into a semblance of cheerfulness. Instead, they plundered with impunity and stripped their victims shamelessly, beginning with their carts. Not only did they rob them of their substance but also the articles consecrated to God; the rest fortified themselves all around with defensive weapons as their horses were roused at the sound of the war trumpet.

What then, Niketas continued, should I recount first and what last of those things dared at that time by these murderous men?

For us those things will have to wait. I’ll be back next episode with the story of the sack of Constantinople, the looting, and one particular story, a travel story of sorts, that emerged from it. Thanks for listening, everybody. I’ll talk to you then. 

Sources:  

  • Geoffrey de Villehardouin. Memoirs or Chronicle of TheFourth Crusade and The Conquest of Constantinople, translated by Frank T. Marzials. J.M. Dent, 1908.

  • Three Old French Chronicles Of The Crusades: TheHistory Of The Holy War; The History Of Them That TookConstantinople; The Chronicle Of Reims, translated by Edward Noble Stone. University Of Washington Publications In The Social Sciences, 1939.

  • O City of Byzantium, Annals of Niketas Choniates, translated by Harry J. Magoulias. Wayne State University Press, 1984.

  • Madden, Thomas F. Enrico Dandolo and the Rise ofVenice. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

  • Madden, Thomas F. Venice: A New History. Viking, 2012.

  • Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Decline and Fall. Viking, 1995.

  • Queller, Donald E. The Fourth Crusade: The Conquest of Constantinople, 1201-1204. Leicester University Press, 1978.


Geoffrey's Crusade 2: Imperial Virtues

The Fourth Crusade at Constantinople

In November of 1202, the people of Zara looked down and saw an army encamped at their walls and a fleet in their harbour, and they had no doubts as to their Venetian visitors intentions. So when the Zaran envoys sent down to the camp arrived at the doge’s pavilion, they came with a pretty clear grasp of the state of things. They came to submit themselves and their city to Venetian rule almost unconditionally; all they asked in return was that their people should not be killed. But even at such easy terms, the doge wouldn’t accept their surrender without consulting his allies first.

Dandolo left the Zarans, and in his absence, others came in to speak with them with words of encouragement. These were some of those who remained unhappy about the idea of attacking this city, and they assured the Zaran contingent that the crusading army was never going to do so, and that they had only the Venetians to worry about. If the Zarans could just resist them for a while still, then matters could be sorted out peacefully without their having to surrender. 

No doubt extremely heartened by this new information, the representatives of the city left immediately, so that when Dandolo came back to say that their submission would be accepted, he found them already gone. Geoffrey was probably there, in the pavilion, and our man in the room reports that in the confusion that followed, an abbot then stood, and he said, "Lords, I forbid you, on the part of the Pope of Rome, to attack this city; for those within it are Christians, and you are pilgrims." And the pope had forbade it too, on pain of excommunication, in a letter which may have just caught up to the crusaders. 

I like to imagine a pause here, a silence, a moment of processing and uncertainty, and then fury. Everyone shouting. The Venetians were enraged. They were about to physically attack the abbot, and maybe kill him, but the Count of Montfort stepped in their way. The doge meanwhile was yelling that he’d been betrayed. They’d stolen this city out from under him, and he demanded now that they honour their word. No threats of excommunication were keeping him and his people from what was theirs, and the crusaders had better do as they promised, especially after all those problems with paying their bills.

As had happened at every point of this story, there were some who would not go over this particular bridge. They were looking at trading a crusading indulgence for an excommunication, and then they were looking up at those walls and seeing the crucifixes which the Zarans had hung there like shields. It was just too much. They refused to take this city against the word of the pope. But there were too few of them, too few to carry the argument, and too few to justify Zaran confidence that all was as they'd been told: that these people would never attack them.

Because not many crusaders took themselves aside from what was to come. The Venetians were still there for what they believed was theirs, and the great bulk of the crusaders were also on board for this unpleasant but necessary action. 

Trenches were dug around and siege engines were put to work, while ladders were raised from the ships and sappers went in beneath the walls. The Zarans tried fighting back, and they tried appealing to papal authority to settle the argument. But they saw that neither were working and that their walls would not stand. After five days, on November 24th, they surrendered, and the city was taken, Venetians and crusades alike plundering and destroying with little sign of restraint. Some sources speak of relatively little loss of life while others are so full of bodies there were not enough left alive to bury them. 

The occupying force had a long winter ahead.

Hello, and welcome back. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus: Journeys in the Medieval World. As always, I at this time want to remind you that review and subscribing to Human Circus is how we stay out of debt with the Venetians, and that by your signing up to the Patreon for as little as $1 a month, we still get to keep all the goodly boats too. Now, back to the crusade.  

With Zara occupied, the crusaders and Venetians settled down to a no-doubt uncomfortable time. Indeed, both our sources speak of an ugly episode immediately following the taking of the city. 

The Venetians were to stay in the port, close to the ships, and the crusaders in another part of the city. But though he doesn’t say how it happened, Robert records that “a great contention arose betwixt the Venetians and the baser sort amongst the pilgrims, which lasted a full night and half a day,” and that it was difficult for the knights to separate them. Where they once managed to calm the fighting in one place, it would spark off again in another. Geoffrey called it a “a great misadventure in the host, at about the hour of vespers; … a fray, exceeding fell and fierce,” that raged in nearly every street, with “swords and lances and cross-bows and darts; and many people were killed and wounded.” One “high lord of Flanders ... was struck in the eye, and ... died ... and many another of whom less was spoken.” Eventually, peace was made, and the leaders on both sides worked to maintain it, and the soldiers of the Fourth Crusade relaxed into their Zaran winter.

The situation there had led to a flurry of communications with Rome. The king of Hungary had been enraged by the crusaders actions, but had still been willing to join them on their crusade if only they abandoned the city. When they had refused, citing their promise to the Venetians, he had called on the Pope to restore the city to his protection, and Innocent had responded in a most illustrative way. He had vigorously condemned the attack on the city, made against his explicit prohibition, and he had demanded that it  be returned immediately to its occupants and to the Hungarian king, but just as interesting was what he didn’t do. He did not act on his threats to nullify their indulgences or to apply excommunication. As angry as he was, he did not actually want them to go home.

So as letters were sent to Rome, seeking absolution, and Dandolo and the other leaders sorted out their next move, or, in other tellings, as Dandolo finessed the next step of his malevolent master plan into being, another storyline was starting to catch up to them. It had been building for some time in the background of all of this, but I didn’t mention it last episode, so let’s catch up on things now. 

For us, that means going back to April of 1195, to the Byzantine Emperor Isaac II, and to the treachery of his elder brother who had himself declared emperor while they were both hunting in the south of Thrace. Isaac was promptly blinded, a disfigurement which rendered one unfit for rule, but his son Alexius was not. Alexius and his blinded father seem to have been given a surprising amount of freedom by their power-seizing relative - maybe he felt a little bad about the whole thing - and they would put that freedom to use in getting Alexius out of there. By 1197, his sister Irene was in Germany and married to Philip of Swabia, contender for the crown of Germany, and Isaac and Alexius had a powerful ear in which to whisper for help. 

It was all arranged in secret, with the help of the young man’s tutor. They promised not to act against the emperor, but what were promises, made to a usurper? When the prearranged moment arrived in 1201, when Alexius was with the emperor in Thrace, he slipped away and onto a waiting Pisan merchant ship. His pursuers searched all the ships, his included, but they couldn't find him. He'd already changed his appearance, his hair and his clothes. He was mingling with the merchants, and, somewhat amazingly, there was nobody on hand who could identify him.

Alexius escaped, and he went to Germany with his tale of woe. He encountered Boniface of Montferrat, who you’ll remember from last episode as the leader of the crusade, and Boniface would have been very interested in what Alexius had to say. Boniface had his own family history where Constantinople was concerned. His youngest brother had died of Byzantine imperial politics, and his older brother had been caught up in it too, and come away from it feeling cheated, at least until his assassination in Tyre. There seems to have been no immediate offer of help from Boniface though, or from his lord and cousin, Philip of Swabia, and so Alexius moved on to Rome.

There, before Innocent III, the young Byzantine noble found even less assurance. The pope was not prepared to back him, or to believe too easily that the boy before him was universally beloved among his people. But despite these failures to win support or arms for his bid to return home, the cause of Alexius was soon to be that of the moment.

According to Robert de Clari, morale among the men was very low that winter. They’d gone against the pope to take this place, deeply resented their Venetian “allies,” and had already exhausted such money and supplies that they wondered how they could possibly carry on to Alexandria, or Syria, or anywhere really. As it was, what could they accomplish if they did? And the Venetians, meanwhile, were no happier. They’d sustained by far the higher losses in the recent brawling, and were still yet to be paid by their adversaries in that fight.  

Have hope, the Venetian doge had urged them all, in Robert’s telling; there was very rich and abundant country in Greece, and if they went there, they would restore themselves for wherever they wished to go next, if they could but “find a reasonable occasion for going thither.” Indeed, all they needed was a “reasonable occasion,” and that was the cue for Boniface, who had recently rejoined the party, to step up and to speak. He told of having been in Germany and having met a very intriguing young man, “brother to the wife of the Emperor of Germany, ... son of the Emperor Isaac of Constantinople, from whom one of his own brothers had taken away the empire by treachery.” Whoever had this young man with them, Boniface continued, would have their reasonable occasion. They would have great ease of passage into Constantinople and whatever supplies they should possibly want or require.

Robert has the eager host then sending two knights to Germany to ask after the young man in question, and he graciously accepting their proposal at his brother in law’s urging, but Robert was, as we talked about last episode, not always in on all that was going on. Geoffrey tells us that two envoys came from Philip of Swabia and Alexius and that they spoke to Dandolo and the other leaders in the Zaran palace where the doge was staying, and that they made the following proposal.

If the crusaders would reunite Alexius with his imperial inheritance, then he would pay them 200,000 silver marks and food for all; he would accompany them onwards on their crusade and provide 10,000 men for the purpose; he would submit to the rule of Rome, and he would establish a lifelong commitment of 500 knights for the defence of the Holy Land. It was a rich offer, but it was not met with immediate open arms.

It was argued vigorously over during a parliament the following day. A Cistercian Abbot, among others, would not have it; these men had not left their homes to fight Christians, and it was held that they ought instead to go to Syria and there do what they could. To this the other side replied that if they went straight to Syria then what they could do was precisely nothing; they need only look to what had become of those who had already left from other ports to see that. If the Holy Land was to be taken it could only be by way of Egypt or Constantinople. If they rejected Alexius’ offer, then their lot was to be shame to last for all time. 

Boniface, Robert says, was all for it, having his own reasons to want revenge on Constantinople and, the lord himself would later maintain, a realistic idea of the provisions the army needed. And Dandolo, he would have needed no encouragement. Maybe the chronicler Niketas was overdoing it by describing the doge as “a creature most treacherous and extremely jealous of the Romans [Byzantines], a sly cheat who called himself wiser than the wise,” but Dandolo knew very well how much a hostile Constantinople had hindered Venetian business, and just how much an emperor who owed them everything might help it flourish. And, like Boniface, he would have had some notion of the logistical requirements for moving forward, and also some desire for any plan that would see the crusaders able to pay their bill. 

The host was split though, laymen and clergy. Of the latter, Geoffrey says, some “prayed and besought the people, for pity's sake and the sake of God, to keep the host together, and agree to the proposed convention,” while others followed the Abbot of Vaux de Cernay in voicing their opposition. In the end, the deal was accepted, and a date set. Fifteen days after the coming Easter, they were to bring Alexius into Constantinople, but Geoffrey tells us that only 12 people of sufficient stature could be found willing to take the oath, among them Boniface, Baldwin, and Louis, and this did not bode well for the army which rested in Zara and waited on the spring. After this pause, we’ll hear what happened.

...

As Geoffrey puts it, “the hearts of the people were not at peace.” Knights left on embassy to Syria, swearing on relics to return, and never came back. Others slipped away on merchant ships, and 500 of these drowned from one ship. And then there was the fact that this was still an army engaged in hostile occupation, and if the crusaders felt that they had much greater affairs to see to in the future, the here and now of it all was still very much on the mind of the locals. One company that abandoned the host was reminded of this as they were ambushed attempting to leave overland; many were killed and the remainder forced to return. Others left more successfully. Simon of Montfort, Enguerrand of Boves, and the Abbot of Vaux de Cernay were all important figures who elected to fulfill their vows elsewhere.

It was not all bad though. They’d sent 4 envoys to see the pope about absolution - and one of those four had jumped ship himself - but the other three had done their job well. Word had arrived that Innocent understood entirely that it was only through the failure of others that the crusaders had been forced to such mischief. So they were scolded but absolved. However, you needed to repent in order to be excused and the Venetians were in no way repentant. They were excommunicated, but Innocent separately let it be known that the crusaders could, against normal rules, continue to accompany the severed-Venetians. What mattered now above all else, was to hold the thing together, and a series of “practical” compromises was being asked of all involved to do so.

Amazingly, an army did hold together through all this until the spring, when the time came to load up again on the ships. I suspect it came as a huge relief for the leadership to leave Zara behind and at last be moving forward, their view of the Venetians dismantling the city receding in the rear view mirror. For some, it was now closing in on a year since they’d first mustered in Venice, and the whole adventure had not yet lived up to its promise. 

The fleet’s first major port of call which the chronicles mention was the island of Corfu, off the coast of present-day Greece where it meets Albania. There they stayed for three weeks, and that was where most of the army had their first look at their imperial saviour. They heard of his coming, and they came down to greet him “with great joy and great honour,” and Robert reports that, understandably, “he was glad as no other man ever was.” Corfu also brought a reminder that this army was really not an army in the modern sense, with cohesion and clear command structure because on Corfu, again, it almost came apart, as a large body of men, perhaps even half, took themselves apart from the rest and planned to call for ships to carry them elsewhere after the rest had departed. Only the intervention of Boniface, Alexius, and the other leaders rescued the situation, the lords and abbots falling to their knees in a tearful appeal to the malcontents and refusing to move until they had rejoined the host. 

If many of the crusaders were unhappy with the plan, Corfu showed also just how unhappy the people of Constantinople were going to be with having this Alexius foisted upon them. This was no return of a beloved prince; on the contrary, the locals bombarded the Venetians ships in the harbour. 

The fleet finally left Corfu with all aboard on May 24th, a day when the sky was clear and the wind in their favour, and the sight of sails and ships covering the waters filled Geoffrey with happiness, and likely the hope that this was all going to work out after all. 

They passed ships going the other way bringing home knights that had not joined them in Venice, and Geoffrey bitterly noted that they would not show their faces, save for one sergeant who had himself brought over and inspired the thought that “even after following a thousand crooked ways a man may find his way right in the end.”

On they went, overrunning the island of Andros by force, and then coming to the city of Abydos, where Troy had once stood at the mouth of the Hellespont, and its people, Geoffrey said, “had no stomach to defend themselves.” But of course they had no real capability to defend themselves against such strength. They would not have seen the straight as Geoffrey did, “in flower with ships and galleys” and “a great marvel to behold.” They would have only seen another wave of armed men washing up on their shores. As it was, the city was placed under guard and lost nothing, Geoffrey claims, but the crusaders still helped themselves to the winter-wheat in the fields before they left. Ahead of them now, was Constantinople.

And waiting there was Alexius’ uncle, the Byzantine emperor who, I should now mention, was also named Alexius. Now Emperor Alexius is not very kindly portrayed in the chronicles, and I don’t just mean they said he was a usurper who had his brother’s eyes put out. There’s the story that after first appearing before the people of the city as emperor in the Hagia Sophia, he was then thrown from his horse, his newly placed crown breaking on the ground where it landed - hardly an auspicious start. And then there was the time that, without apparent cause, the floor before the emperor’s bed had given way and several had fallen and been hurt, and one eunuch had actually died. As the chronicler Niketas records, “God guides the steps of some or trips them up.”  

Early hopes that Emperor Alexius’ rule would prove strong had long since been dashed, as it seemed that for all the effort he had exerted in winning the throne he then gave himself over to “lavish luxury and pleasure,” once it was his. That was the man that the fleet of Boniface, Geoffrey, Robert, and the rest was bearing down on, and he knew they were coming. 

He knew, but there was little he could or would about it. Niketas wrote that the emperor had been kept informed of the movements of the crusaders all along, but that, quote, “his excessive slothfulness was equal to his stupidity in neglecting what was necessary for the common welfare,” and when proposals were put to him for the defence of the city, “it was as though his advisors were talking to a corpse.” He had eventually ordered the imperial fleet made ready, but what a joke that was, for such a thing scarcely existed anymore. Its once awesome might had been frittered away. And that had been a process of decades, not to be laid at his feet alone, but he’d done nothing to help matters. Even in 1171, already in decline, they’d put forth 150 galleys against Venice. Now, the man in charge was his empress’ brother in law, a man with a much greater gift for enriching himself and upending political opponents than for putting boats into the water, so that when the call came, far too late, to mobilize, only 20 ships were to be found, and those “rotting and worm eaten.” The emperor was just going to need to trust in those walls, which had held out so many for so long.

Our Robert was just approaching walls. The ships had been decked out to be as grand a sight as possible, and as it approached - with the transports out front propelled by oars and then the galleys under sail - the people of the city looked down on the fleet from walls and from rooftops, according to Geoffrey, “so many people ... that it seemed as if there could be no more people (in the world).”  They “looked upon it with wonder,” Robert says, but I’m sure there was more than a little trepidation too, for these people’s experience of their Latin Christian cousins had often been unpleasant. Below on the waters, the crusaders in turn gazed up at “the greatness of the city which was so long and so broad.” For many of the Venetians it was a familiar enough sight, but for others it would have been entirely overwhelming, and they perhaps wondered if they had made the right decision in coming there after all. From Geoffrey, we read:

Now you may know that those who had never before seen Constantinople looked upon it very earnestly, for they never thought there could be in all the world so rich a city; and they marked the high walls and strong towers that enclosed it round about, and the rich palaces, and mighty churches of which there were so many that no one would have believed it who had not seen it with his eyes-and the height and the length of that city which above all others was sovereign. And be it known to you, that no man there was of such hardihood but his flesh trembled: and it was no wonder, for never was so great an enterprise undertaken by any people since the creation of the world.

And with that modest assessment, they took harbour at Chalcedon, across the water.

In the days that followed, they settled in very comfortably, the counts and barons in an imperial palace, apparently “one of the most beautiful and delectable that ever eyes could see,” while others were about the houses of the city or, for the larger part, in tents. They watched at first as missiles launched at their ships fell short into the waters. They foraged - Geoffrey says that “those obtained supplies who needed them, and that was every one in the host,” so we can imagine life was pretty grim for the local inhabitants. They had a little skirmish, small but enough for those involved to bring back horses, tents, and other spoils, and to feel good about themselves. 

They received an envoy from the emperor, a native of Lombardy named Nicholas Rosso, who, on behalf of his lord, expressed surprise to find such worthy men there, on his land. What were they doing there? To this they replied that they were not on his land at all, as he had seized it wrongfully, that he could simply submit to the mercy of his nephew, who was among them, and that if Rosso was not returning with word that the usurper would do so, then he need not come again at all. And he didn’t.

Next, the crusaders decided to play the Alexius card. They were still certain that much of the city must want to welcome Alexius as their rightful emperor. Robert credits Dandolo with the suggestion. Take the young man on a ship, the doge is to have said; bring him close to the shore under truce, and “ask the folk of the city whether they will acknowledge the youth as their lord.” But people should not ask such questions, if they are not confident of the answer. 

The youth was loaded aboard and shipped out along the walls for all to admire, and the good people of Constantinople were invited to recognize their true emperor:

“Behold your natural lord;” Geoffrey has it said, “and be it known to you that we have not come to do you harm, but have come to guard and defend you, if it so be that you return to your duty. For he whom you now obey as your lord holds rule by wrong and wickedness, against God and reason. And you know full well that he has dealt treasonably with him who is your lord and his brother, that he has blinded his eyes and reft from him his empire by wrong and wickedness. Now behold the rightful heir. If you hold with him, you will be doing as you ought; and if not we will do to you the very worst that we can." 

Then, in a delightfully Pythonesque turn, the people actually refused to recognize the fellow being paraded before them; they claimed to know nothing at all of this young man on the boat and instead heaped abuse on he and his Latin companions. The crusaders were left with no other option than to go away and to prepare to do the very worst that they could. 

Masses were spoken. Wills were drawn up, many men taking what could be a last opportunity to make gifts that would tip the scales of judgement in their favour. They crossed the waters and landed on the shore, what opposition there was melting away at the lowering of lances. They looted the enemy’s abandoned pavilions, and they camped in the Jewish quarter with an eye making the tower of Galata their next step, for there, the north end of the great chain preventing entry into the harbour was fixed. Plans were made to take it the following day

Going by Geoffey’s depiction, there was a sortie made by the defenders of the tower, and supported by forces from the city on barges. He speaks of a certain James and his men taking the initial brunt of the attack and of James himself taking a lance to the face before the general alarm was raised and men rushed in from all directions, killing several, and driving the others back. Many of the tower chose in retreat to opt for the barges rather than getting back in the tower. Some drowned in the attempt, but others made it. Those rushing back for the tower found the attackers pressing in too close upon them to get close the gates. There was a “terrible fight,” Geoffrey says, before the tower was taken, its defenders killed or made prisoner. 

By his accounting it had been a heroic action, but then he was a heavily invested participant. By the reckoning of Niketas, it was, quote, “a sight to behold the defenders fleeing after a brief resistance,” and it must be said that though he is highly critical of the man at the top, the chronicler does find space for complementary words as to the efforts of the defenders themselves.

However fiercely the defenders had fought, the tower was lost, and with it that defensive chain, which was promptly broken. The Venetian ships swarmed into the harbour and quickly captured the vessels that lay within. Conquering Constantinople had proven impossible for nearly 900 years, but it seemed to be all going easily enough so far. After this pause, we’ll hear what happened next.

There’d been some discussion of how exactly the attack on the city might be done. The Venetian doge favoured an assault by sea with something like siege towers employed to go from boat to wall, but the French knights, understandably, were less enthusiastic about swaying about over the sea. They would feel much better to have their horses and solid ground beneath them. So a compromise was reached: they would have cake and pie. The Venetians would go by water, the French by land, and all was made ready.

On the boats, the siege ladders were prepared, the elevated bridges which could be raised and lowered by cables bound to the masts, and mangonels and petraries to bombard the walls, while on land they were laying out their own siege engines, palisades, and barricades, with one division on guard towards the gates at all times, and six or seven times a day all being required to rush to arms against raiders. They “could not sleep,” Geoffrey said, “nor rest, nor eat, save in arms.” 

The attackers were under pressure, and not only from what might come out of the gates. They had but a little flour and salted meat, and fresh meat only when a horse was killed; there was food enough, Geoffrey reckoned, for just three weeks. They were ill-prepared, astonishingly so for an army that was threatening Constantinople, and the clock was ticking. Food aside, how long would that half of their number who’d wanted to jump ship going to stick around? They’d wanted out on Corfu. Were they likely to stay for a grinding siege?

Perhaps accelerated by concerns such as these, on July 17th, the attack on the city properly began. Three of the French divisions held back to guard the camp, while four went forward against the walls, swarming around a battering ram and up ladders. They clashed with Pisans and the ax-wielding Varangian Guard. Fifteen or so set foot on the walls, fighting with sword and axe, but they were cast down or made prisoner. Others breached the wall and into a passageway, but were repulsed. It was, by Niketas’ words, a “horrendous battle … fraught with groaning on all sides,” and there were many wounds and broken bones. 

Meanwhile, their Venetian colleagues were also facing resistance. Their ships, covered with ox-hide against fire, formed up in a line where the walls met the shore, and the sky above them swarmed with projectiles. Arrows, crossbow-bolts and stones flitted between ship and wall. The line closed enough at times that those elevated bridges were brought within reach for lance or sword to cross, and there was “tumult and noise ... so great that it seemed as if the very earth and sea were melting together,” but the men of the ships were wary of going to close to shore. Until their doge made another intervention, the one for which he is perhaps most legendary. 

Sensing the timidity of his side’s attack, Dandolo, standing at the prow, clad in armour, and St Mark’s banner in hand, ordered his ship to advance to the fore as an example to the others. He shouted down the querulous objections of those around him and stood undeterred by the the arrows whistling around him. Then, as his ship reached shore, the blind 90-something year old lept nimbly down to solid ground, the first man on the beach, and planted his banner there in the sand. Seeing their doge so fearless, his men followed with enthusiasm. 

And this almost certainly is not how it happened, but it still gets repeated here and there. However, we can actually see the seeds of such a story in Geoffrey’s account, which is admittedly that of a man who was very busy elsewhere at the time. His version starts in a similar place, with the Venetians hesitant to advance, but Enrico doesn’t swim to shore in full armour and bearing a cross, or anything of the sort; what he does do is insist that his ship, with its very, very distinctive colour and appearance, rush to the shore; he does threaten “justice upon [his people’s] bodies with his hands” if they failed to comply; and he does stand at the prow with his banner as it surges forward and stirs the others to follow. Maybe this version of the story is still an embellishment, but it is rather more believable. 

Whatever brought them rushing to the walls, the Venetians quickly found success, and Geoffrey wasn’t sure exactly how it had happened. “A strange miracle,” he called it, that the defenders fled from the walls and abandoned them to the attack. From Niketas, we get a less miraculous explanation: they’d actually been able to shoot and strike down on the walls from those elevated bridges and made easy work of it from such superior positions. Soon, the Venetians were able to spread out and to take 25 towers. And for just a moment then, a pretty long moment, the city seemed as if it were theirs. 

They were atop the wall and looking out over it all, sending for the French knights to come quickly, and they ventured in, taking horses and other spoils, but they couldn’t go far into that vast city. They were too few, and would be lost and easily overcome in the streets, and they could see, among other things, the mass of fighters that were headed their way, too many for them to possibly hold back. Pulling back, they set a wall of flames among the buildings before them. Then they watched as the wind picked up from their backs and drove the fire before it, deeper in the city, so that they could no longer see their opponents through the smoke and the blaze, and a vast area was soon consumed by it.

For all this success, their allies on land would not be answering the call to join them, for the crusaders had now poked at the wasps’ nest with their stick long enough that an imperial army had come out to answer their challenge. Whether it was because of the damage to the palace from flying stones, the smoke wafting in from the Venetian-sparked fires, the scorn of his people, or some other reason, Emperor Alexius had finally shifted himself. He had left what Niketas described as the “apartments of the Empress of the Germans,” and he had come out into the world to get involved.

A “huge array,” Niketas called the army that went out with him, of “the flower of the city,” a sight to make his enemies shudder, and the testimony of Robert and Geoffrey does not dispute this. His army poured forth from multiple gates, making it “seem,” Geoffrey said, “as if the whole world were there assembled,” while Robert, getting a little carried away, saw one hundred thousand horsemen, and all the footmen of the city lined before the walls.

The crusaders for their part, formed up in three division before their camp, first archers and crossbowmen, then mounted knights, then sergeants and squires with a group of 200 hundred knights who went without horse. They formed up towards the emperor but didn’t advance, for to do so would have been to be enveloped and lost. The other four divisions were set to guard the camp, and, in an indication of how seriously the threat was taken, these were joined - guarding one side it seems - by every kitchen-knave and common fellow they could muster, wrapped in saddle cloths and armed with copper pots and pestles so that they were, apparently, horrible to look at..

At this point, Geoffrey describes a prolonged standoff, neither side too willing to close with the other, but Robert has a slightly different story. He was among the three divisions directed towards the emperor’s men, those of the Count Baldwin of Flanders, his brother Henry, and that of Count Hugh of Saint-Pol, where Robert’s lord Peter of Amiens was, and he gives us a look at the operation of this army in action. 

Baldwin’s division had the vanguard, and they began to ride towards the emperor, and Hugh’s and Henry’s divisions followed, all shining in “emblazoned trappings or with silken cloth,” and companies on foot behind each. They advanced, and the emperor’s people came forward to meet them, but as Baldwin had left the camp and its army a full two crossbow shots behind him, his advisors spoke up. Better to go no further, they pointed out. If they were to close with the enemy here, there would be no help for them. Much better to withdraw towards the palisades and let the enemy come to them if he was willing. 

Thinking the advice good, Baldwin and his division wheeled about, and his brother Henry’s did also, but that of Hugh of Saint-Pol, where Robert was, did not. He and his men remained in the field, as they were, and Hugh’s people shouted that Baldwin had surrendered the vanguard shamefully and that they ought to take it. Now Baldwin, seeing they hadn’t moved, sent a messenger, asking them to turn back with him, but Hugh would not. And Baldwin sent more messengers, asking for God’s sake that they not bring shame on him for doing as he was advised, but rather turn back and join him. But again, Hugh would do no such thing. Instead, a shout went up from the two leaders of his division that they should ride forward at full speed, and so they did.

Robert was among them as they charged, and he allowed himself in recording this moment, to slip into fantasy a little, and imagine that the ladies of the palace had gone up to the windows and looked down at he and his comrades and said to one another that they seemed as angels, “such goodly men were they.” 

Now Baldwin’s knights said to him that he was doing a most shameful thing by not immediately riding after Hugh, and that if he did not move himself immediately, then they could follow him no longer. So, of course Baldin did as they said. With Henry’s division following, he and his men gave chase, pulling even with Hugh and moving ever closer to the emperor’s men. The counsel had been for them to pull back, keep tight and together, and let the enemy come to them, but now, in their efforts to outdo one another, they had far outstripped any support and were close enough that crossbow shots began to be exchanged. 

As Baldwin and the others crested one last hillock, they halted, the enemy before them on the other side of a canal, also stopped in their tracks. What to do now? Discussions were had among the leaders. Their distance from the camp and any possible reinforcement was no more helpful now then it had been before, and having rushed all the way over there, actually attacking didn’t look like a good option. What were they to do? 

As they considered their options, the decision was taken out of their hands. The emperor, apparently without a blow being struck, was going to withdraw.

What bitterness it must have been to be looking out from Constantinople just then. Niketas wrote that “a work of deliverance would have been wrought had the emperor’s troops moved in one body against the enemy, but now the nagging idea of flight and the faintheartedness of those about him thwarted Alexius from what needed to be done. To the joy of the Romans [of Constantinople] he drew up the troops in battle array and moved out, ostensibly to oppose the Latins, but he returned in utter disgrace.”

According to Robert, there was a “great murmuring” in the city then that if this emperor of theirs would not take up arms on their behalf and protect them from the crusading army, then perhaps they would go and take another look at that young man, for maybe they’d rejected him too soon. And Emperor Alexius assured them that he would do as they asked. He would fight the invaders. He would fight them tomorrow. However, that’s not what he did. Instead, he made for the palace and made ready his escape. He gathered gold and gems and pearls. It’s possible that he really intended to use them to gather some reliable mercenaries, having no faith in his own troops beyond the Varangian guard and Pisans, who were too few in number to carry the day themselves. But he would not be returning. 

Outside the walls, the crusaders returned to their camp. They laid aside their arms and armour. They were “weary and overwrought.” First the combat at the wall and then the tension of the standoff against what all sources seem to indicate were overwhelming numbers, would have been exhausting. They joyfully exchanged news of the doings of the day with the Venetians, but they did not eat or drink much, for their stocks were now too scarce for that. 

They did not know that as they dreamed, that the emperor was abandoning his city. That he made off from the palace in the middle of the night, and that in the morning, the sun would rise on a very different world, where they were concerned, one in which the imperial throne would be vacant and Alexius gone.

As Niketas wrote, “it was as though he had laboured hard to make a miserable corpse of the city.” He was a “miserable wretch among men,” the chronicler continued, “neither softened by the affection of children nor constrained by his wife’s love, nor … moved by such a great city.” But Niketas had some surprisingly kind words for the now former emperor too. If he had been excessively concerned with comforts, he had not been such a bad sort in other ways. He was mild of temperament, and accessible to any who wished to speak to him, and “sometimes, one could contradict him without placing restrictions on oneself in speech.” He had little time for slanderers or flatterers, and he had been forever stricken by guilt for what he had done to his brother, and that had apparently affected him deeply. Niketas continues:

“If it be exceedingly difficult for emperors not to cut down the ears of corn which overtop the rest, and not to leap brutally upon those who have offended them, then one could see that Alexius was rich in such virtue. He did not drive a stake into the eyes to implant darkness or prune the limbs of the body as though they were grapevines, to become a butcher of men. As long as he wore the gloom-stained purple, no woman put on black. Neither did fire flash from his eyes like rays from gems, nor did he abuse others with insults so that teardrops the size of round pearls should fall.”

And that is where we’ll leave things for today. Next episode, we’ll meet the new emperor. Maybe even more than one, for Constantinople could be a tricky place to rule. Thanks for reading. 

Sources:

  • Geoffrey de Villehardouin. Memoirs or Chronicle of The Fourth Crusade and The Conquest of Constantinople, translated by Frank T. Marzials. J.M. Dent, 1908.

  • Three Old French Chronicles Of The Crusades: The History Of The Holy War; The History Of Them That Took Constantinople; The Chronicle Of Reims, translated by Edward Noble Stone. University Of Washington Publications In The Social Sciences, 1939.

  • O City of Byzantium, Annals of Niketas Choniates, translated by Harry J. Magoulias. Wayne State University Press, 1984.

  • Madden, Thomas F. Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

  • Madden, Thomas F. Venice: A New History. Viking, 2012.

  • Queller, Donald E. The Fourth Crusade: The Conquest of Constantinople, 1201-1204. Leicester University Press, 1978.


Geoffrey's Crusade 1: Venetian Appointments

Siege of Zara

In his 1978 book, The Fourth Crusade, Donald Queller opens with the following words of Francesco Guicciardini:

If you consider the matter carefully, you cannot deny that Fortune has great power over human affairs. We see these affairs constantly being affected by fortuitous circumstances that men could neither foresee nor avoid.

It’s an interesting way to start the history of a project that has generally been framed as an unmitigated disaster, a project that left the rails early and never returned to its station, but just kept ploughing along up to the point it ran out of momentum within the ruined walls of Constantinople. Was this all just the work of Fate? Had the human beings involved no control over the matter at all? 

Some observers, many even, have seen quite distinct human-agency at work, a nefarious hand steering the entire enterprise for self-serving purposes, to the misery of many. But the story seems less clearly one-sided to me. It seems more a tragic series of ongoing blunders, miscalculations, overconfident commitments, and yes, people using other people, until it all collapsed.   

Could they have foreseen it? Could they have avoided it? Surely, there was a time when they might have, but as we’ll see, the participants in our drama pursued their goals within a narrowing field of options, the cruel logic of the moment carrying them along towards an end which most involved would never have chosen.

Hello, and welcome back. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus: Journeys in the Medieval World. I remind you at this time that rating, reviewing, and, for as little as one dollar a month, signing on to the Patreon, is how we extricate ourselves from the khan’s drunken embrace; and that you can find the link to the Patreon, and all other things Human Circus, at humancircuspodcast.com. On that note, a special thank you to Mark, the newest member of the Human Circus patreon family. Your support is hugely appreciated. And now, back to the story.

As I’m sure you’ve realized, we’re onto something new with this episode. This isn’t Marco Polo, but it is a topic we briefly touched on at the beginning of the Marco Polo series, and it certainly does concern his birthplace. Today, I’ll be talking about the Fourth Crusade, a massive military misadventure by most measurements and an unpleasant confirmation of all the people of Constantinople had grown to suspect of their Latin Christian visitors. It would never reach its stated goal of Ayyubid Egypt, but it would have serious consequences, not the least of which was the hastened demise of the Byzantine Empire. 

I’m not going to be exhaustive about the crusade here. Instead, in keeping with how I usually do things, I’ll loosely be following the story of an individual, or in this case two. You’ll be getting the lead up to the Fourth Crusade from the perspectives of Robert de Clari and Geoffrey de Villehardouin, the former a common knight from Picardy, the latter the Marshal of Champagne, a leader, and fortunately for us, a chronicler who gives us access to events at the level of command. Together, they give us a bit of a picture of what it was to go on crusade at the dawn of the 13th century, and they take us up to the story I want to tell next. “Here,” to quote the report of Robert, “beginneth the history of them that took Constantinople, and presently we will tell you who they were and for what cause they went thither.”

But we need to take few steps back before any of that. We should know that at this point there were crusader states all along the Syrian coast. There was the Principality of Antioch, the County of Tripoli, and the Kingdom of Jerusalem, which held sway over Beirut, Tyre, Acre, Caesarea, and Jaffa, but crucially, not Jerusalem itself. That had been taken by Salahuddin in 1187, and had not been won back in the Third Crusade. 

We should know that in the city of Rome, on the 8th of January, 1198, Pope Celestine III had died. He was 92 years old and had been pope for the last 7 of them, having attempted to step down from his position just the year before. Into his place stepped Lotario dei Conti di Segni, better known now as Pope Innocent III. 

Innocent was in his 30s then, a distinctly youthful change from his predecessor, and he began his papal reign energetically. When he wrote to the Patriarch of Jerusalem with news of his elevation, he was already announcing his intent to take back the Holy City, and it wasn’t only empty words either. Soon he was acting on that promise. He declared a new crusade in August of that summer, and set a date of March, 1199 for the campaign to begin. He deliberately excluded the kings of Europe, who he did not want exerting too much control over the operation, and he called for all barons, counts, and towns to provide men and to supply them for two years. He extended the usual offers of indulgence for those who took the cross or contributed, and also protection for participants’ worldly goods while they were away. He named legates, and he imposed a tax upon the clergy. But the results of all these efforts were distinctly underwhelming. It maybe have been relatively easy time to assert papal authority, but it was a difficult one in which to raise an army. 

Europe was divided. Of course it was; always was. But here, France and England were at war with each other, as were Genoa and Pisa, and Germany was at war with itself, with Philip of Swabia and Otto of Brunswick struggling over the imperial throne. There are indications that the clergy resisted the taxation attempts, and neither blood nor treasure were pouring into the war chest as the Spring of 1199 deadline rushed up and was gone. Innocent was disappointed, but a light was flickering on in France which would turn things around.

On the outskirts of Paris, a preacher was making a name for himself. Fulk of Neuilly, as he was called, was filling the streets with his enthusiastic listeners, and a contemporary called him “another Paul.” He railed against usury, lechery, and the concubinage of the clergy, picking out offenders right there in the crowd. And he preached Innocent’s crusade.

With Innocent’s approval, Fulk went to work, extending his reach well beyond the suburbs of the city and enlisting men, some nobles, but mostly the poor, thousands of whom signed up at his urging. And then, at a late November tournament at Ecry, in Northern France, the host, Count Thibaut de Champagne, and his cousin, Count Louis de Blois, took the cross, and took the other attending knights along them. With those two grandsons of Louis VII and Eleanor of Aquitaine officially on board, the floodgates opened. Innocent’s crusade was behind schedule, but it was gaining momentum.    

Both of our chroniclers open their stories by listing some of those notables to take the cross: Thibaut and Louis, who we’ve already met, and also Count Baldwin of Flanders, with his brother, and Count Simon of Montfort with his; the bishops of Soissons and Troyes, a bishop from Germany, the future Bishop of Acre; and many more knights, abbots, and monks than could easily be mentioned; lords are named from Burgundy, Champagne, Beauvais, the Ile-de-France, Flanders, and elsewhere. Robert lists those who would be most notable for their deeds and prowess, the rich of course, but also, interestingly, the poor - Hugh of Beauvais, Robert of Ronsoi, and so on.

If it’s Robert de Clari, much closer in station to a commoner, who provides the more inclusive list of crusaders, it is Geoffrey who gives us the details of what would happen next. He was by far the more senior of the two and personally involved in much that Robert could only piece together after the fact. 

He tells us that when the lords met at Soissons to make plans, they at first could come to no agreement. Many felt they didn’t yet have enough men. And so, the year 1200 passed, with more meetings taken every two months, but no immediate moves toward departure, until it was agreed at least that envoys should be selected to make the arrangements. There were to be two each chosen  by Thibault, Louis, and Baldwin, and these six representatives would be provided with sealed charters from the barons guaranteeing their commitment to carry out whatever agreement the envoys entered into, “in all sea ports, and [wherever] else the envoys might fare.” It was an open ended assignment to see about getting them all to the Holy Land, and conveniently for us, our Geoffrey was going to be one of Thibault’s chosen two. 

The envoys’ first decision was where to take their business. Genoa, Pisa, and Venice were all good possibilities to find transportation for a crusading army, each twice a year carrying men and supplies to the Levant, but Genoa and Pisa had for the time exhausted themselves in their wars against one another and there had besides been many complaints over the Genoans’ handling of Philip Augustus during the Third Crusade. Venice then, was to be the envoys’ selection and Geoffrey’s destination.

In the first week of Lent, February 1201, they arrived in the city of Venice and were welcomed by its Doge, Enrico Dandolo. He was “very wise and very valiant,” Geoffrey wrote. He was in fact very old too, perhaps in his 90s, and also at least partially blind. Some would come to say that he had been blinded by Manuel Comnenus of Constantinople, but this detail was probably added for dramatic effect later on. Dandolo would really  become something of a legendary character, and not just when it came to avenging blindings. He’s given parts of unlikely heroism in some depictions, while in others, he’s the manipulative villain with only the prosperity of himself and his city on his mind, a kind of criminal mastermind almost.

The man Geoffrey and the others met, was not yet any of those things. What was it they might want of him, he wondered aloud, upon reviewing the letters of their lords, likely having a pretty strong idea already why the barons of France might call upon his sea-going city, and when the envoys asked to appear before his council, and let it be tomorrow, he invited them to return in four days and make their wishes known.

On the fourth day, the envoys presented themselves at the palace, “passing rich and beautiful,” and found the doge and his council within. What did they want? That Venice should, “take pity on the land overseas and the shame of Christ, and use diligence that [their] lords have ships for transport and battle.” And how were the Venetians to use diligence? “After all manners that [they] may advise and propose,” the envoys responded, just so long as it was within the means of their lords to cover the cost. That was of course going to turn out to be a real problem, but for now Dandolo asked for eight days in which to consider the proposal, and the envoys took their leave. 

If it seems that Dandolo was really stringing his visitors along here, four to eight days at a time, know that this was no small bit of business for the Venetians. This was an all-in affair that would replace all others until it was done, requiring the total commitment of the city and its resources to this one cause. They’d be emptying their other baskets entirely to do this, and, if Geoffrey’s account is to be believed, the entire operation was going to be left to the Venetians to plan out. This is where we want to go, the would-be crusaders had told them; now show us what you can do. And after this brief pause, we’ll hear what the Venetians came up with.

...

As it happened, the Venetians could do quite a bit. When Geoffrey and the others returned on the eighth day, their meeting concluded with this: the Venetians would construct transport ships for 4,500 horses and 9,000 squires, ships for 4,500 knights and 20,000 “sergeants of foot,” and they would provide nine months of food for horses and men, at a price of four marks for four-leggers, two marks for two. In addition, if the crusading army would cut them in on 50% of their loot while the Venetians were with them, then they could also count on 50 armed galleys to accompany the fleet.

It was a serious contract, and the envoys, after taking the night to think it over, not nearly long or hard enough it would seem, went in to tell the Doge that they found it agreeable. Now, he just had to see if his people found it agreeable. He took the matter to his great council of forty, and then on to one hundred of his citizens, then two hundred, and then a thousand, building consensus before his grand piece of public theatre: an assembly of 10,000 in the Church of St Mark.

There, in what Geoffrey called “the most beautiful church that there is,” mass was said. Then the envoys themselves were brought to the front of the church, and Dandolo had them address the people, and humbly asked for what they wanted. Geoffrey de Villehardouin, the Marshal of Champagne, stepped forward, and he began to speak:

Lords, the barons of France, most high and [powerful], have sent us to you; and they cry to you for mercy, that you take pity on Jerusalem, which is in bondage to the Turks, and that, for God's sake, you help to avenge the shame of Christ Jesus. And for this end they have elected to come to you, because they know full well that there is none other people having so great power on the seas, as you and your people. And they commanded us to fall at your feet, and not to rise till you consent to take pity on the Holy Land which is beyond the seas.

The envoys went to their knees, openly weeping, and the doge, whether calculating or authentically moved, maybe both, burst into tears too, as did the entire assembly in a great display of shared emotion. “We consent! We consent!” they shouted, their hands raised. The doge took the front again, and gave a speech, all “good and beautiful words,” and the people left, happy and united. 

The next day, Geoffrey and the other envoys again met with Dandolo. The treaties were officially signed; the following year was chosen for their departure, when the “barons and pilgrims were to be in Venice, and the ships ready against their coming;” and a destination was set too. Geoffrey tells us that the council was told those ships would be headed for Egypt, but to the general public it was to be the much vaguer “overseas,” something they would surely take to mean a straight line to Jerusalem. The arrangements were forwarded on to Rome for the pope’s ratification, and the envoys, having borrowed enough money for an initial deposit, left for France. 

They had been successful in their mission, and a deal had been secured, but at what a cost, some 85,000 marks. With all that was going to happen later on, people often portray this agreement as the first of a series of cunning Venetian maneuvers bent on achieving a private self-serving goal, but actually their price was close to standard, as such things went, close to recent prices set by the Genoans for example. The prices per knight, horse, and squire were actually all reasonable enough. The problem was with how many were supposed to be involved. This wasn’t a “bring who you will, and we’ll build a fleet to match”-type situation; the Venetians were putting all they had into being ready to shift some 35,000 people, and they expected to be paid for it, whether 35,000 people really showed up or not. This was the agreement Geoffrey and the other envoys had signed on behalf of their lords, and they have to be considered at least partly responsible for this wild optimism, as do their lords who they represented. 

There were no mixed feelings on Geoffrey’s return, no hint that he’d signed the French barons up for something undesirable, something that was going to set the whole thing horribly off course. Maybe he, quite understandably, presented his actions in the best possibly light when the moment came to write things down. Or maybe nobody yet saw the implications, too full with the glory of what they were embarking on to consider it would be anything less than a thing of wonder. 

In his account, we do actually get a little taste of what was going to make things difficult for the crusaders. On his way home from Venice, he meets with a Walter of Brienn. Walter was off to Apulia to conquer the lands of his wife, and Geoffrey identified some of the best of Champagne going with him, knights who had all taken the cross. They told Geoffrey that they would be ready to join him when the time came, but they wouldn’t. 

As Geoffrey reflected on Walter’s case, “events fall out as God wills, and never had they power to join the host,” but Walter and the many knights who accompanied him didn’t just happen to be busy at that moment. Pope Innocent had enlisted them in his struggles in southern Italy with the House of Staufen. So it was that when all those knights were to be needed to make up the numbers in Venice, Walter would be fighting in Apulia, and in June of 1205, when the events of the Fourth Crusade had all played out, he was still going to be there in Italy to be surprised and killed in his own camp, he and his many much needed knights never leaving Italian shores. 

Geoffrey travelled on from this encounter to Troyes, where he found his lord Thibaut still entirely on board. Unfortunately, Thibaut was also sick, very sick, bedridden and slipping away towards the end. Count Thibaut was briefly revived by Geoffrey’s arrival and his news. He rose from his bed, and for the first time in a long time, mounted and rode his horse, but that would be the last time. He soon died, and on his tomb, the following words were inscribed:

Intent upon making amends for the injuries of the Cross

and the land of the Crucified

He paved a way with expenses, an army, a fleet.

Seeking the terrestrial city, he finds the one celestial;

While he is obtaining his goal far away,

he finds it at home.

Behind him, Count Thibaut left money for his friends and followers that they should, upon receiving it, swear on holy relics to join the gathering in Venice, but there were many among them, Geoffrey says, who kept that oath badly. They took the money made their promises, but they did not hold to them. Like the passing of Walter of Brienn into Apulia, they were very much the smoke of a fire still to come.

The death of Thibaut also left the issue of leadership to be arranged, and it wasn’t so simple as handing things off to Louis or Baldwin, or at least that’s not what they did. The crusaders likely viewed this as an opportunity to pull someone in, to dangle the prospect of the glory of command, with support and resources already attached, and to land a powerful baron who had not yet taken the cross, and with him, his many men. From Robert and Geoffrey we get different perspectives on quite how this went. 

Robert will tell us that the Marquis de Montferrat in Lombardy was sent for, and that he agreed to take his place at their head. But Geoffrey lets us know that the Marquis was not the first to be asked. The job had been offered around a little before coming to him. Odo, Duke of Burgundy, had said no, and so had another count, before Geoffrey, who often - perhaps fairly - takes on the role of wise counselor in his own narrative, suggested that they might ask Boniface, the Marquis de Montferrat, and that he would not refuse them. Geoffrey does not mention it, but he’d quite likely visited Boniface on his way home from Venice, and knew the marquis would not say no. 

In Boniface, the crusaders were getting a leader that was acceptable to their different factions, and to the pope. They were getting the son of a crusading family, and an experienced campaigner, and they were getting his many followers too.

Boniface came to the assembly in Soissons, in the abbey’s orchard, and the crusaders prayed he accept the leadership; they threw themselves at his feet, crying, and he threw himself at theirs. Maybe Geoffrey was romanticizing the scene a little here, reaching for a moment more chivalric than factual, but it really was a very emotionally demonstrative time. Either way, the fourth crusade now had a leader, and it had a rapidly approaching appointment to keep in Venice.

After Easter, the crusaders began to make their journeys, and “at their departure many were the tears shed for pity and sorrow, by their own people and by their friends.” They would have been making preparations for a long and potentially life-ending journey. Money would have been raised for the trip and affairs put in order at home. Some would have put thought to the state of their soul, what grievances might still be held in the balance against them, that they might now correct before it was too late. Others would have had second thoughts about going at all. They had perhaps first taken the cross in an outpouring of public enthusiasm, and at the encouragements of a passionate preacher like Fulk, but now they were alone with their own thoughts, and the whole thing was more real, and more immediate. 

At eight centuries distance, we might think these knights with their religious convictions and their sense of heroic virtue would be immune to such misgivings, having already given their word, but we would be mistaken. Raimbaut, troubadour and friend to the Marquis de Montferrat himself, agonized over the thought of leaving his love, Beatrice, and wavered between staying with her and staying loyal to his friend. He pictured the banners and the battle cries, and the heavenly rewards of dying in such a cause, but he was not entirely convinced. In the end, he would go, but not until 1203.

Those who did leave on time, reached Venice in the spring of 1202. For many, it would not have been a direct journey. They were on an extended pilgrimage, even if one that would culminate in violence, and they would have stopped on the way at sites like Clairvaux and Citeaux, strengthening their resolve at the homes of sacred relics. Arriving in Venice, they, quote, “saw the goodly fleet that had been made ready, the goodly ships, the great ... transports for carrying the horses, and the galleys, greatly did they marvel at these and at the great riches that they found in the city.” By Robert’s view of things, it was all pretty great and goodly, and the new arrivals settled themselves in among tents on the Isle of Saint Nicholas. 

With Geoffrey, however, the picture was not nearly so rosy. He knew that all wasn’t proceeding as planned, that the multitudes who had taken the cross were not pouring into the city as projected. Many of them were taking other routes; they were departing from other ports. Some likely suspected there would be problems, and looked to the muster in Venice before committing themselves, and of course by doing so they made of their concerns a reality. Even Count Louis of Blois, one of the initial leaders, held back in this way at first. Envoys were sent out to try to lessen the damage and “by encouragements and prayers” to convince any waverers that Venice was the still the best option to leave from. Geoffrey was, again, among these envoys. He persuaded Louis, and some other crusaders do seem to have been talked into sticking with the plan, but not all, and, as we’ll see, not enough. 

Some knights didn’t just skip the communal travel option. They failed to present themselves entirely. Geoffrey saves his bitterest words for these, people like those on the fleet from Flanders, those who had sworn on holy relics they would bring the fleet to Venice, and its cargo of cloth, food, and men at arms with it. They had not kept to their promises, and their captains were listed off by Geoffrey: John of Nêle, Castellan of Bruges, Thierri, and the rest. And there were other disappointments too: bishops, counts, Walter of Saint-Denis’ brother Hugh. Some would prove of little worth where they were going. Others were causing mission-crippling difficulties simply by not going at all. There were too few knights , and they had too little money.

Pope Innocent saw the problems well enough, but this was no longer his crusade. He ordered some of the knights biding their time in Lombardy to join the host in Venice, but to no great effect. His legate meanwhile arrived only in late July, and then was not allowed by the Venetians to join as a legate, but only as a common preacher. There were many hands on the wheel now, and the pope’s were not the strongest. 

The Venetians had held their end of things up. There were all those goodly boats. Indeed, “the fleet they had got ready was so goodly and fine that never did Christian man see one goodlier or finer; as well galleys as transports, and sufficient for at least three times as many men as were in the host.” And that last part was really the issue. 

The doge’s people had thrown themselves into the project with everything they had; Robert even has all other projects forbade, all other trade curtailed, while the resources went into constructing, and provisioning, this one great fleet. But now the crusaders were assembled there on Lido, it was painfully obvious that there were not enough of them to necessitate such a grand fleet or to cover its costs. The knights on hand paid their quoted shares of the fee, but they were like the last of a very large party leaving the table. They were expected to pick up the entirety of the tab that remained. And they weren’t quite there. They were not quite halfway there, and the Venetians were not pleased.

Now the crusaders faced an interesting decision, and key to this was the fact that “the crusaders,” was not a homogenous mass, tidily calculating in all it did. It was messy collection of individuals, that might just as easily come apart. Some wanted to cut their losses in Venice. They’d paid for their portion, no great outlay for some of them, and if the Venetians were not then willing to take them, well, they could easily find someone else who would; they’d vowed to go on crusade to the Holy Land not to Venice. For others, this might have been an opportunity to just go home; they’d made the effort after all, and maybe it really would be for the best for all of this to be over. That’s not how everyone saw it though. For some, Geoffrey wrote, it was better that they gave “all that [they had] and go penniless with the host, than that the host should fall to pieces and fail; for God [would] doubtless repay [them] when it so please[d] Him.”

This side started scraping the bottom of the savings they had available to them. The Count of Flanders gave “all that he had and all that he could borrow,” and so did Count Louis, and others too. Up to the palace these nobles went, with silver and gold, in coinage and other forms until, when all was totalled up, they were still more than 30,000 marks short! Those who’d held back were gladdest of all now, for, the scheduled departure date of June 29th having long passed, they were certain the whole thing would at last fail, and at least they would have lost very little out of it themselves and would be free to pursue other possibilities, their conscience clear. Some did leave. It was inactive army tied by a shared goal rather than any kind of command structure, and they had nothing to do save for complain at the apparent greed of their abusive hosts. The season for sailing was winding down, and things looked bleak.

However, this was when Dandolo intervened, and where the narrative of the doge as a conniving manipulator starts to gather steam. They had squeezed all the money they were going to have from the agreement, he told his people, and though it was not everything they had been promised, if they held it without delivering on their end of the bargain, it was sure to attract blame and recriminations. Would it not be better to find some other way for the crusaders to pay their way? Surely, if they put their heads together they could come up with something. What about the city of Zara for example? Maybe their guests could help with that. Maybe they could all winter there together, it being now too late to sail for Egypt. Maybe he and his people could then see their way to forgiving “the debt of 34,000 marks ...,” or at least “until such time as it [should] please God to allow [them] to gain the moneys by conquest… ." After this short pause, we’ll hear about Zara, and why they went there.

...

Zara, or Zadar, was an old Roman and then Byzantine city, and a port across the Adriatic Sea. It was useful as a site of resupply on voyages to the east, and crucial as a gateway for Dalmation oak to reach the Venetain shipyards. And it was no longer in their hands. The city had achieved independence around 1180, fought off attempts at recapture, and sought protective friendships first with the Hungarian King, who had build them a fortress, and then with one of Venice’s aquatic rivals, the city of Pisa.

So this was where the Venetians wanted their guests to go with them, and the crusaders were in a bit of a bind. They could say no and hope that their hosts would fulfill their end of the contract despite not being paid in full, but then “they,” again, was not a homogenous entity. There were many who wanted this all to disintegrate, who did not see it as necessary for the fulfillment of their personal crusading vows, so the party that wanted to hold it all together, our friend Geoffrey among them, couldn’t let the momentum fall away. They felt bound to agree to this that would keep things on course, no matter how they may have felt about it, because there was always that greater good to consider at the end of it all, that shining goal that could supersede so much else.

And all of that was enough for many of the crusading knights. They were in, and that meant another of Enrico’s grand gestures, his wonderful public displays, was in store for them. Up he went before his people at the church of St Marks, with many of the crusaders there too. Before the mass was given, he stepped up before them. 

“You are associated with the most worthy people in the world,” he said, “and for the highest enterprise ever undertaken; and I am a man old and feeble, who should have need of rest, and I am sick in body; but I see that no one could command and lead you like myself, who am your lord. If you will consent that I take the sing of the cross to guard and direct you, and that my son remain in my place to guard the land, then shall I go to live or die with you and with the pilgrims.”

And they shouted their agreement; they cried; they wept. Geoffrey mused at Enrico’s “great heart,” and “how little like him were those who had gone to other ports to escape the danger.” The doge knelt before the altar, weeping, and they sewed the cross upon his hat for all to see, and his people and the armed pilgrims shared in the sight of his dedication. They were united in this, for now, and they were going to Zara together. 

Or at least most of them were. There were some who left at this stage, either because they had now exhausted their more meager funds or because they could not stomach this new revelation which must have been filtering down through the ranks, for all the leadership likely did to prevent it. If going to Egypt would have been off-putting, then think how much more so would be assaulting a Christian city, under the protection of a king who had taken the cross no less, and all on the behalf of the hosts that some now viewed as abusive and irredeemably greedy. The disaffected bled more numbers from the ailing army and then spread their unhappiness to those arriving late or waiting to see what transpired in Venice. The papal legate, denied official recognition, did what he could to keep too many from abandoning the crusade, and then left to consult with Innocent. He hadn’t wanted anyone to leave this army, but he also would have no part of storming Zara. And neither would the crusade’s official leader. He too chose this time to go and see the pope. For those that remained, their fleet put to sea in early October, 1202. 

This was not the monumental force that Geoffrey and his compatriots had once imagined, but it was still, in Geoffrey’s eyes and Robert’s, pretty grand. “...the shields were ranged round the bulwarks and castles of the ships, and the banners displayed, many and fair.” The priests all chanted. The Doge of Venice himself was aboard a vermillion coloured ship, a matching pavilion above him, and four silver trumpets before. In Robert’s words:

...it was the goodliest thing to behold that ever hath been since the beginning of the world. For there were full an hundred pair of trumpets, both silver and brass, which all sounded for the departure, and so many timbrels and tabours and other instruments that it was a fair marvel to hear. But when they were come forth upon the sea, and had spread their sails and hoisted their banners upon the castles of the ships, and their ensigns, then verily did it seem that the whole sea was all as warm, and that it was all ablaze with the ships that they were steering and the great rejoicing that they made.

The fleet gathered supplies and men at Venetian subject cities along the coast, and, on November 10th, they appeared before the fortified city of Zara. Looking up, they said to one another, “How could such a city be taken by force, save by the help of God himself?" But I suspect the people of the city looking down at more than 200 transports and galleys, saw very well how it might be done. The chain at the mouth of the harbour was quickly broken and men poured ashore, bringing horses and siege machinery with them. From the walls, the Zarans did not contest the landing, but watched as camp took shape below. Predictably, tragic twists were about unfold, but we’ll be getting to those next episode. 

We’ll witness the fate of Zara, and the unspooling of events that would lead Geoffrey, Robert, and the rest, to the doorstep of the Byzantine Empire. All that, and more, next time.

Sources:

  • Geoffrey de Villehardouin. Memoirs or Chronicle of The Fourth Crusade and The Conquest of Constantinople, translated by Frank T. Marzials. J.M. Dent, 1908.

  • Three Old French Chronicles Of The Crusades: The History Of The Holy War; The History Of Them That Took Constantinople; The Chronicle Of Reims, translated by Edward Noble Stone. University Of Washington Publications In The Social Sciences, 1939.

  • Madden, Thomas F. Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

  • Madden, Thomas F. Venice: A New History. Viking, 2012.

  • Queller, Donald E. The Fourth Crusade: The Conquest of Constantinople, 1201-1204. Leicester University Press, 1978.


Marco and the Polos 1: From Venice to the World

Polos Leave Constantinople

Certain historical figures are so steeped in layers of legend that they start to lose focus in our eyes, and we almost need to remind ourselves that yes, this was a real person. For me, and I suspect for many people, the character we’re getting into today is one of those figures, an almost fantastical being existing in the strange in-between of myth, history, and poetry, and this illusory element isn’t helped by his cultural appearances, his destination in Coleridge’s opiated dream, his tall tales of the empire in Italo Calvino’s novel, his adventures in a Netflix series, and so on. To one degree or another they swing wildly away from any attempt at historical accuracy, but they remain tethered to Kublai Khan and his Mongol Empire, giving our character’s life a surreal quality, that of a fable, but one grounded in this very real 13th century.

And if you are skeptical about his story, then your reaction is not unlike that of his contemporaries. There’s an anecdote of his death bed, where a friend brings him one of the manuscripts and urges him to set the record straight, to speak out against some of the book’s more incredible statements. However, far from offering any retraction, he’s supposed to have replied that on the contrary he had not told half of what he’d seen.

Of course, we’re talking about Marco Polo here, the 13th century Venetian traveller, merchant, ambassador, adventurer, administrator, and many other roles too, both more and less likely. And yes, he was indeed a real person. 

Hello and Welcome. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus. I should start out today with an apology for the lateness of this episode. As you can probably still hear in my voice, I’ve had a head cold which won’t go away. I’ve been waiting until its gone to record, but for now I’ve given up on the gone part, so we’ll see how this goes.

I also have an announcement to make, that I’ve found a new home since I last recorded. That’s a new hosting service, which shouldn’t affect you at all, but also a new podcast network. Human Circus is now part of the recordedhistory.net podcast network. It’s full of great shows, which I can happily recommend, and I’m very excited to be joining them all there. One change which you will notice is that ads will start to appear on the show. Sometimes that will be for the other podcasts on the network and sometimes for sponsors’ products. I realize that, given the choice, you’d probably opt for no-ads in your podcast listening, but these sponsors are going to help make the whole project more sustainable for me and also help me make improvements to the show, so I ask you to bear with them, and me. Now, announcements out of the way, let’s get to the story. 

If you look at the title of this episode, you’ll see I’m starting a new series, focusing on the travels of Marco Polo, but we’re not starting from scratch here. The previous run of 7 episodes, To See the Mongols, led up to this point, tracing exchanges between Mongols and Western Europeans and wrapping up by looking at the rise of Kublai Khan. So if you haven’t listened to those yet, they do give a lot of good background and context for this series and you may want to hear them first.

Today, we won’t be seeing much of Marco himself, just a glimpse of him at the end. Instead, we’re going to set the scene with a look at his city of Venice and its role in Mediterranean competition and Eurasian trade; and we’re going to look at the first Polos’ meeting with Kublai Khan, that of Niccolo and Maffeo. This is the prelude.

The story of the Polos could begin at many points. You could go with the origins of Venice as a 6th century safe haven for those escaping invasion in the lagoons, but that would be crazy. You could look at the centuries of allegiance to the Byzantine Empire culminating in the Golden Bull of 1082 which allowed special trading rights and exemptions, most importantly with regards to trade in Constantinople. You could follow the early crusades, and the Venetians response to them, slow, by some tellings, to sabotage their trading success in the eastern Mediterranean until they sensed the possibility of success, and then plunging in to earn privileges and advantages in the resultant crusader kingdoms. All of those would make sense, but not wanting to turn this into an extended history of Venice podcast, I’m going to start with the Latin Empire of Constantinople in the beginning of the 13th century.

Now, sometimes it’s easy to lose any sense of time in historical events. You hear a story, and it becomes a little bubble in your consciousness, adrift from any connection to all the other little bubbles bobbling about in there. So let’s try to raft some of those bubbles together. Today, we’re starting in 1204 and then jumping forward to the main storyline starting around 1260. What do those dates mean? What else is happening? What can we tie this particular bubble to?

Well, the first years of the 13th century gave us the rise of Genghis to become great khan of the Mongols, the founding of the Franciscan and Dominican orders, and also that of the University of Cambridge. And in 1215,  on the 15th of June, the Magna Carta was signed. In the second half of the century, when our story will be taking place, we get the University of Paris, the birth of Dante Alighieri, the work of Thomas Aquinas, King Edward’s struggles with Scotland and with William Wallace of Braveheart fame, and the beginnings of the Ottoman Empire. There’s more of course; there always is, but hopefully there’s something there for you to hang this story next to. Now, let’s get back to 1204.

In that year, Constantinople had fallen to the fourth crusade, with Venice taking a role that has been depicted as opportunistic, morally malleable to the moment one might say, even villainous some have said. Others have painted a more complex picture in which the Venetians and their doge appear less Machiavellian, and more just playing the cards they were dealt. It’s a great story in itself, and I’m going to put that aside as part of a near-future topic.

For now, know that Venetian involvement had secured the city a significant share of the spoils. That meant countless works of Byzantine art and treasure, the great bronze horses of the hippodrome, statues of the old Roman tetrarchs, and the 50,000 silver marks still owed for the fleet they had supplied, but it also meant a full 3/8s of the city and its empire. The Venetian leader, Enrico Dandolo, managed to arrange for right of conquest to a run of coastal territory and ports that connected his city to the Black Sea: the coast of western Greece, the Ionian islands, the Peloponnese, Naxos, Adrianople, Gallipoli, and control of key harbour districts of the imperial capital itself, to which he added the island of Crete, purchased for a thousand marks. He negotiated all of this and also the exclusion of Genoa and Pisa, their Italian rivals in trade and more fatal forms of competition. The exclusion was part of a long running, bitter back and forth, a sometimes bloody contest for the riches which the Mediterranean and its ports could provide. And this latest move placed Venice in an excellent position.

The lagoon city had problems certainly. It now had an empire of sorts to administer to, and Crete alone was going to cost it years of fighting with the Genoans. But it also had opportunities. Whether on through the Red Sea by way of its trading relationships in Egypt for which it had received a papal dispensation, from the Crusader Kingdoms and east to the Persian Gulf, or overland from Constantinople and the Black Sea ports, Venice was now admirably situated for business in the goods of the east, of Central Asia, China, and India. It’s the last of the three routes, the overland one, that we’re concerned with today, and that was deeply impacted by the rise of the Mongol Empire. 

Linking China and India with the Mediterranean was hardly a new invention; Seneca, the first century Roman, had bitterly complained of the popularity of Chinese silk in his time, and money and goods had flowed back the other way too. However, if you’ve listened to my last run of episodes, and you should, you’ve seen the degree to which western Europeans friars of the 13th century felt themselves to be entering a new and strange world, one which Alexander the Great had sealed away with walls of biblical proportions and which may or may not have contained dog-headed men. At least one Roman embassy is said to have actually visited China, yet a millennium later, we have these Franciscans taking their plunge into total darkness. What had happened?

The short answer is that Western Europe had largely retracted from the broader Eurasian trade system. And this is not to say that “the Silk Road,” as these routes are popularly known, went unused. Jewish Rhadanite traders had travelled those paths, and as the Islamic caliphates had stretched from Spain to the Indus River, so had Muslims.  But Latin Christendom had become detached from all of this in the periods between the fragmentation of the Western Roman Empire and the Crusades. Now, with much of Asia unified under a Mongol Empire and a reignited European taste for what the east had to offer, Venetians and others would join them and re-engage in the trade from the Mediterranean, and through it from the cloth-producing markets of the north, to India, to China, to the quote/unquote “spice islands,” and elsewhere.

This moment of relative unity that allowed them to ease into transcontinental business has been called the Pax Mongolica, a reference to the idea of the Pax Romana, the “Roman peace” that had stabilized the realms within its ambit and allowed for the kind of easy exchange of goods and ideas that could only occur under such conditions. Of course, it may also bring to mind the words that Tacitus had put in the mouth of a Caledonian chieftain, that the Romans had made a desert and then called it peace. And there’s some truth to that here. The Mongols had done their fair share of desert-making as their conquests had forged a vast empire. But leaving aside how they had gone about it, the Mongols had, for a moment, made one what had been many, or at least they very briefly had. Mongol Peace is a bit of a misleading term, as by this point the Mongol khanates are already fighting each other. Still, for mile after mile, you travelled under Mongol authority.

And this is credited as having had an enormous impact. People, goods, and ideas could move more easily under this semi-unified rule. They were subject, broadly, to one set of laws and stable tribute gatherers, not ambushed figuratively and physically by this bandit lord’s men and that local king’s extortionate demands. Of course, there was still danger. As we saw in the preceding episodes, the natural environment itself could be terminally daunting, and the threat of physical violence was clearly not entirely banished from the situation. Demons and less supernatural sources of death still lurked in the shadows of possibility. Mongol force had not entirely tamed all within its domains, and in the conquered territories of the empire we find those who still held out; Friar William mentions Alans in the Caucasus and also those who had escaped Mongol service and now clawed out a living through raids and brigandry. But it was still easier. 

There was a system of law that discouraged local warfare and theft, an ability to anticipate to some degree the costs one would accrue in travel, and a saving in securing and protecting the goods in transit. I think a lot of people probably imagine the Mongol-controlled steppes as a land where you were promptly shot on sight by ruthless, mounted archers, but as should be becoming pretty clear, religious figures, ambassadors, and, most importantly for us, merchants, were generally able to move through it without experiencing such misfortune.

Venice was one of the powers which was going to be doing well out of this. The city’s merchants had been doing very well in fact, trading, among other things, in cloth, spices, and slaves, and this Pax Mongolica, however misleading that “Pax” part may be, opened new possibilities, many of which could be found in Constantinople. 

In that city, they had the deck stacked pretty well in their favour. I mean, it’s true that much of the local populace likely hated them. The Venetians were inseparably associated with the bloodshed of the 4th Crusade, and events in which Constantinoplites had been violently juiced by their rulers to pay off the crusaders and seen significant sections of their city, significant numbers of their homes I should say, burned in massive fires for which Venetians were in no small part to blame. So there was that. But they very much had the run of the city. In the port they had six jetties, they had churches, and they had two large fondachi, the facilities which catered to travellers and merchants with warehouse space, an inn, and a central courtyard to receive caravans of goods. They had a governor, or podesta, making trade agreements on their behalf, and they were propping up a faltering Latin Emperor whose barons even pawned the crown of thorns, supposedly THE crown of thorns, to them in desperation. They shipped silk, spices, slaves, wood, and riches home to Venice. They had the run of the city and the gateway to the Black Sea, but it couldn’t last forever. 

Venice could not support such an unsustainable regime indefinitely. The Latin Empire Of Constantinople increasingly lacked the approval of the locals, was weak from the start both militarily and financially, and was soon hemmed in on land by Nicaea, one of the Byzantine states that had survived exile from the imperial capital, and at sea by the Genoans, who wanted back in. The end couldn’t be long, and in July of 1261, it came. The forces of Michael Palaiologos, who’d schemed and fought his way to Nicaean dominance, reclaimed Constantinople as Byzantine, not with the assistance of Genoan naval pressure, but simply by way of a poorly secured section of the walls. No prolonged siege was required, just the timely presence of Michael’s general who acquired two vital pieces information: one, that the Venetian fleet and much of the Latin garrison were away raiding in the Black Sea and two, that there was a convenient passage by which his men might enter the city quietly, open a gate, and secure large portions of its walls by dawn. And so it went. The Latin Emperor Baldwin II awoke to an unpleasant surprise and was forced to escape in such a hurry that he left his sceptre and crown behind him, and the city’s Venetians rushed to follow. But two of Venice’s most famous men had already left the city.        

Two of the sons of Andrea Polo da San Felice, Niccolo and Maffeo Polo, had been carrying on their business in Constantinople since around 1254. We read that “these respectable and well informed men, [had] embarked in a ship of their own, with a rich a varied cargo of merchandise.” The third brother in this fraterna compagnia, Marco but not that Marco, remained behind in Venice, likely to continue to conduct the merchant family’s transactions in his brothers’ absence. It was a standard enough business arrangement and made sense when partners would be gone for seasons or years at a time. In this case, the partners were going to be gone a little longer even than that. 

Niccolo and Maffeo apparently spent their time in the then still Latin imperial city trading their varied cargo for “fine and costly jewels,” and just how much time they spent doing this is totally unclear. Dates generally in this part of the story are speculation and the tying together of known events, so you’ll see the brothers Polo leaving Venice anytime between 1250 and 1255 and in some sources staying until as late as 1269; this last date is clearly incorrect though as they are to have left when the Latin Emperor still reigned and that puts a cap of 1261 on things. I’m going to follow historians such as Peter Jackson, who I relied on frequently in the Mongols series, and say that they departed Constantinople in 1260. They did so then, safely ahead of the Byzantine recapture of the city, but they may have been pushed to go by the increasing threat of political and economic instability, may have sensed the inevitability of coming change. It’s fairly likely that they did, and that this led them to convert their stock to the gems which of course carried the benefit of being highly portable and easily sewn away into their clothing. Across the Black Sea they went, bound for the city of Soldaia, a trading centre on the Crimean Peninsula from which foods, furs, and slaves passed on into Europe, Egypt, and elsewhere. 

It was much the same itinerary we saw Friar William follow, and William had mentioned meeting many merchants in the city from Constantinople. The Polos themselves had a trading house there, so they weren’t strangers to Soldaia, but, as with William, they wouldn’t be staying in they city. Maybe they had not found business to their liking on arrival; perhaps the demand for their jewels was not what they’d thought it would be or the competition too fierce for profits to match their desires. More likely though, it had been their plan all along to strike out overland from the Black Sea port. They would have heard, certainly, from their time in Constantinople, that the Mongol rulers had a tremendous appetite for gems both as luxury goods and as currency, and that they could expect to find ready buyers for what they carried. Whether by necessity or, more likely, by prior intent, they went east.

Their mode of travel now was the horse, The Travels of Marco Polo tells us, but it tells us little else. As we’ll see when we get deeper into the text in the next episode, it really isn’t a travel narrative and is often a frustrating read from which to try to piece together any kind of coherent story. And this is still just the prologue to Marco’s journey proper which we’re dealing with. We need to look elsewhere then for the details on what the road may have been like.   

They would have travelled northeast until they reached Tana, where the Don River meets the northeast corner of the Sea of Azov. There we can pick up the thread of Florentine trader Francis Balducci Pegolotti, who would write about the route nearly a century later in his Merchant’s Handbook. He describes the road from Tana to the Volga River as 25 days by ox-wagon or 10-12 by horse-wagon, and then from there up to Sarai by river. Salt-fish and flour you’d need to set out with, enough to last, but you could buy meat along the way. Pegolotti reckoned it to be the most dangerous stretch of the whole long road to China, though if you had 60 men in your company, you’d still “go as safely as if you were in your own house,” but even more than armed men, he emphasizes the absolute need to hire a good guide and interpreter before leaving Tana. It was foolish to imagine you might save money on a translator of lesser skill and expense, for you’d surely end paying much more than what you’d saved at every step and possibly find yourself in real danger.

What arrangements the Polos made, we do not know. We do know that they had several Christian servants who they had brought with them from Venice, and would be with them for the duration of the trip, and we know that they made it. They made it to Sarai, and they made it to Berke Khan. And we should quickly cover who this was. 

This was a grandson of Genghis Khan by way of Jochi, Genghis’ eldest son though perhaps not his biological son. Berke was by this time khan of the Golden Horde, the Jochid domain that Batu Khan had carved out and which stretched from central Ukraine to Eastern Kazakhstan.

Maffeo and Niccolo reached the Jochid khan at an interesting time, but then, as I’ve said before, it was really always an interesting time in the Mongol empire. In this case, Mongke, the great khan, had died, and there was a civil war, the Toluid Civil War between his brothers, to decide who would replace him, with Berke supporting the claim of the traditionalist youngest brother against that of the eventual victor, Kublai. More regionally, the years building up to the Venetians’ arrival had seen hostilities brewing between Berke and his neighbour to the south, his cousin Hulagu Khan, whose Ilkhanate now stretched across Persia, much of Anatolia, and northern Syria. Hulagu had committed various acts of mass violence against Berke’s Muslim co-religionists; most notably he had sacked Baghdad and killed its Abbasid Caliph; he may also have been responsible for the deaths of up to three Jochid princes who’d died under unclear circumstances as part of his campaign; and finally, he’d occupied land in northwestern Iran and around the Caucasus that had been part of the Jochid Mongols’ territory. Balanced against all of this, “he’s my cousin” started to looked pretty inconsequential.

For what it’s worth, chroniclers tend to favour religion as Berke’s primary motivator for going to war again his relative, but he had financial reasons for doing so too. Because Hulagu had cut him out of the immensely profitable trade routes running through Iran, Berke and his successors, while continuing to fight for that territory, were going to need to look elsewhere. And this would actually lead to Golden Horde khans really elevating trade through the Black Sea, something which had previously gone largely ignored. What had once been a distant second was now by necessity their first option in trade, and this pivot towards the Black Sea could have already been taking shape in Berke’s mind as the Polos arrived.

They would have found him holding court at either Sarai or Bolgar along the Volga River. The former was by then a walled palace surrounded by tents and pavilions and complete with markets, religious buildings, and public baths, while the latter was something more established, a centuries old urban centre that had been the capital of the Volga Bulgars and was taken by the Mongols in 1237. 

And again our source is pretty sparse here, with none of the details with which the Franciscans had coloured their encounters with the khans. It mentions Berke giving them a warm reception, and it mentions an exchange of sorts. Apparently, the Polos laid some of their stock in jewels before the khan and seeing how much they pleased him, made him a generous present of the lot. And Berke, pleased indeed and unwilling to be shown up as less generous, ordered them given double the jewels’ value and “several rich presents” too. It’s an interesting moment. Perhaps we are meant to admire the merchants’ daring success here, the immense profits of their largesse, but clearly they had not come so far with the fruits of their trading in Constantinople to hand them over without expectation of reward. This was a predictable mode of transaction which, with the one participant being royalty, was performed as an exchange of gifts. These Venetians were not the Franciscans of earlier decades, navigating unknown waters, and they had surely picked up, in Constantinople and Soldaia, from the readily available body of knowledge on dealing with Mongol royalty. 

Whatever their expectations, the Venetians seem to have done well out of it, but for reasons we don’t know, they didn’t take their winnings and turn for home. They apparently stayed on for a year in the khan’s domains, but doing what? Were they trading this entire time, had the khan requested they stay, or were they simply really, really enamoured with life at Berke’s court?      

Whatever kept them, they waited too long. They waited until Constantinople had fallen back into Byzantine hands, cutting off their return, with Venetian merchants blinded or otherwise maimed in the violent aftermath; they waited until open war between Berke and Hulagu blocked the possibility of passing down between the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea and to the city of Tabriz; and rather than wait any longer, they chose to  embark on an absurdly long detour. They were going to try and circle round to the north of the Caspian Sea, pass down well to the east of it into what’s now Uzbekistan, and then make a sweeping turn south toward Turkmenistan and Afghanistan and west for the Mediterranean. It’s probably for the best that it didn’t come to that. 

As it was, their jumping off point was Ukek, midway between Sarai and Bolgar, and it was a substantial hike to their destination, the city of Bukhara, a grinding 2,300 km according to Google Maps, which doesn’t offer a horse option but estimates it to be a 473 hour walk. Of this epic trek, the text has only this to say: that at one stretch they crossed a desert for 17 days and that they found there “neither town, castle, nor any substantial dwelling, but only [Mongols] with their herds, dwelling in tents on the plain.” It’s been pointed out that this was an old caravan route and that, contrary to claims of having seen nothing but tenting Mongols, they must have passed through substantial commercial centres like Urgench and Khiva along the way. The text does say they took an “unfrequented route,” -they were carrying a great deal of wealth and likely fearful of being caught up in fighting or attacked by thieves- so maybe they avoided these centres, but that doesn’t seem likely. Their survival doesn’t seem likely, if that was the case. It’s more probable that this was just another missing element in the text. This wasn’t after all their story, and storytelling was not the strength of the text.

In Bukhara, the brothers found an ancient city and an important centre of trade and religion, but one that had fallen on hard times and had more to come quite shortly. Genghis Khan and his army had arrived in 1220, and the garrison had left. With little other choice, Bukhara had surrendered; its people were taken out of the city, and the Mongols stormed in. They took everything they could, killed everyone that they found still within the walls, and left a burning ruin in their wake. One chronicler tells us that Genghis “contented himself with slaughtering and looting once only, and did not go to the extreme of a general massacre.” The useful artisans and women were enslaved, the young men enlisted to be driven up against the walls of the next city and soak up the casualties. Everyone seems to have been taken, slain, or scattered, but then we read of a rebellion in the area in 1238 and new slaughter, and still the city seems then to have been reestablished. Sorghaghtani Beki, an immensely powerful and capable administrator, and mother of Kublai and Hulagu, had overseen Bukhara’s rebirth, financing an important madrassa there among other projects. 

Though there would be more violence ahead, for now the city was again on the upswing, helped by its position along well travelled and long established trade routes. However, as Niccolo and Maffeo arrived it was also caught in the middle of a war. Its connection to continental trade was strangled off, and so was the Venetians’ progress. They were stuck in that city for three years, and we really don’t know what they were doing. Maybe they took part successfully in the local trade that still continued; maybe they took advantage of the opportunity to absorb knowledge and language from the diverse array of people that had repopulated this centre of trade, the Persians, Mongols, Turks, Chinese, and more. Maybe they simply settled into the everyday life of a trading city on the tense knife-edge of being swallowed up in civil war.

However they occupied their time, they were eventually offered a curious escape route, not a door opening back to their home in the west, but further east and further in. Some men had come to town, were passing through actually, and they happened to hear of these two Venetians who were living there. They were envoys of Hulagu, the khan of Persia, and they were on their way to the court of Kublai Khan, ostensibly still great khan of all the Mongols, though the empire was cracking apart at its dynastic seams. Would the brothers like to join them?  They could promise safe and secure passage, an honourable reception, and a khan who would be most interested to meet them. Between that and being stuck in Bukhara, it was not a hard choice. Would they like to come? Certainly, they would. 

Again, we’re given little detail as to the journey, but this time we’re given a reason up front. The brothers witnessed “many things worthy of admiration” in the area, but those are to be saved for later, for Marco Polo’s telling. Fair enough then. I’ll do the same. But I will comment on the time this is supposed to have taken them, a full year from Bukhara to Kublai’s court, on account, apparently, of the extreme weather, the snows and flooded rivers. Having just followed the journeys of elderly and overweight friars making the full trip from Constantinople or Hungary to the Karakorum region in less time, this seems a little weak on the Polos’ part. Perhaps I’m being a little harsh on them though. Maybe even in the envoys’ company, war still slowed their advance; maybe the envoys had business along the way somehow pressing enough to delay them in their dealings with Kublai; or maybe the weather really was particularly bad; they were going through some pretty punishing terrain after all. And maybe it wasn’t really a full year. 

However long it took, it’s worth noting that even in this time of strife, they were able to make the journey at all. They’d been stranded in Bukhara for three years, but a traveller with the title and tablet of a khan’s envoy could still freely move about in safety, likely by way of the system of relay stations that dotted the empire and facilitated rapid travel for those on official business.  Whether one year or not, these envoys delivered them to Kublai Khan just as they had promised.

And I’ve been following friars over the long roads to the Mongols for 7 or 8 episodes now, so I fear I may be becoming a little blasé about meeting the Mongol khans. Make no mistake though; this was quite a big deal. According to the book, this was an enormous deal and Kublai Khan had never seen a, quote, “Latin” before. That does seem a little suspect. Mongke Khan’s camp had been brimming with all manner of European artisans, slaves, and soldiers. Still, this was a milestone, a new kind of encounter, certainly the first Venetian merchants that we know of making the trip and meeting the great khan of the great Mongol Empire and the founder of the Chinese Yuan dynasty in what was to be his summer palace. 

We don’t have a great deal of information about the meeting, of course, but with what we do have, we can contrast the Venetians’ experience with those of the friars who came before them. Those Franciscans had been successful in gathering information about these barely known horse-people but had been repeatedly frustrated in efforts at making any kind of spiritual or diplomatic headway among them and had generally come away with more threats than promises to carry home. 

Kublai Khan greeted these guests warmly, “with great honour and hospitality,” and then, as previous khans had of their visitors, closely questioned the Venetians on the European emperors, quote, “how they maintained their dignity, and administered justice in their dominions; and how they went forth to battle, and so forth. And then he asked the like questions about the kings and princes and other potentates.” The Mongols seem always to have been seeking to learn and ready to take opportunities to discover what they could of far-off lands, peoples, and their rulers, from interviews like this right up to the reconnaissance which preceded their invasions. 

Next, we read that:

...he inquired about the Pope and the Church and about all that is done at Rome, and all the customs of the Latins. And the two brothers told him the truth in all its particulars, with order and good sense, like sensible men as they were; and this they were able to do as they knew the [Mongol] language well.

Now there are a few things to note here. First, that they had learned the language during their long travels, maybe in Bukhara. It was an enormous advantage over early visitors to the steppes, men like Friar William who had eventually picked up only enough to realize that he could not at all trust his translator and had struggled horribly as a result of these limitations. However, those previous travellers had generally had a bit of a different attitude towards sharing information with the Mongols. They had also answered questions about who the most powerful men in Europe were, but they had been very aware that the people they were speaking to may very well soon be coming over the plains and through the mountains to use any information they were given against them. Previous travellers had also usually found excuses to not return with Mongol ambassadors, recognizing that these were potential spies and scouts they would be bringing home with them. Not so with the Polos. They seem to have been only too happy, when Kublai requested it, to accompany one of his men back to Rome. Maybe this  was because the idea of Kublai taking action against Christian Europe was no longer really a live threat. 

While previous messages from the Mongols had offered only promises of invasion if the pope and all his kings did not promptly offer their submission, the tone here was dramatically different. This was a khan whose efforts were entirely focussed on China and whose western domains were really no longer actually under his control; Berke Khan’s Golden Horde was independent, and Hulagu’s Ilkhanate recognized Kublai’s official supremacy but not really his governance and was in any case entirely caught up in fighting the Golden Horde and the Mamluks. So for Kublai, Europe was much further away than it had been for his predecessors. It was quite out of mind, as a prospective conquest at least. So what did Kublai Khan want?

What he wanted was holy oil from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, a curious request, but not one that necessarily indicated any interest in converting. What he was asking for was, aside from anything else, a token of spiritual power and prestige to be delivered to him by a foreign religious leader; it was, as such, an instrument, among many I’m sure, which could demonstrate his greatness and the power and reach of his empire. I’m thinking here of the way the gifts from King Louis of France, of a specially made chapel tent and various books and relics, had been used 20 years earlier, how they were displayed to visiting leaders and ambassadors in a way which said “look how the Franks have offered their submission; look how all the world’s powers bow before me.” I think the holy oil might be put to similar use.

Kublai may have also wanted the oil for quite a different kind of power. This was after all a holy object, held to be so by the Christian world, and as we saw in the last series, Mongols were often quote syncretic about these things. Spiritual power was, after all, spiritual power. So long as it worked, they weren’t necessarily picky. 

He also wanted people. Specifically, he wanted the pope to send him 100 well-educated Christians, well-suited to argument and to disproving the words of the “idolaters” and other folk. If they could accomplish this, it was claimed, then he and all his people would become Christians, but again, I don’t think conversion was ever on the menu.

It’s quite conceivable that these promises simply made their way into the story by way of its Christian transcribers, an issue I’ll return to in later episodes, but, that aside, the possibility of a Christian Mongol khan had been dangled about before, with little to show for it. Moreover, Kublai had long relied heavily on the Buddhist and Daoist advisors who were very close to him, and it’s unlikely he would reject them and potentially damage his rule in China. Instead, I think it’s more probable that Kublai wanted the Latin Christians as a balancing force. He’d witnessed firsthand in Northern China the violently disruptive effects of religious conflict and had been called on then to facilitate a fierce debate to decide the issue. These 100 of the pope’s men could be brought in to counteract the dominance of Muslims, Buddhists, and Daoists in his counsel and administration, or they might be put to use as officials in conquered regions to deflect local resentment from the Mongols themselves. Religious or otherwise, a purpose could always be found for 100 well-educated individuals.  

And with that, the Venetians had their commission, and they’d be given something to aid them in carrying it out: a golden tablet granting the bearers rights to make use of the system of imperial stations for shelter and fresh horses, and to call on local governors to escort them and on cities and towns to provide provisions. They’d taken the long way to Kublai, but the way home should have been much smoother with that golden tablet in hand.

Yet all does not seem to have gone smoothly. Their Mongol ambassador companion fell ill, quickly and seriously, and had to be left behind, and again weather seems to have caused delay to an unreasonable degree. This time it was said to be three years, owing to the “extreme cold, the snow, the ice, and the flooding of the rivers,” and they probably weren’t three years; likely the time span here is just meant to convey the great difficulty of their travels, the grand nature of their feat. But however long it took them, the reached Layas in Lesser Armenia, about as far east as you can go on the south coast of Anatolia before the land curves south.

From Layas they were sailing for the crusader city of Acre, arriving in April of 1269, or 70, or 72, or 60, depending on the manuscript. And immediately they received bad news in regards to their Mongol-commissioned errand, that mission to deliver a letter to the pope and secure holy water and a full 100-strong complement of his best Christian minds. It turned out that the pope was dead. This was pretty fresh news, working from the 1269 arrival date. Pope Clement IV had died recently, in November of 1268. What were they to do? They weren’t going to be making the return journey to Kublai just yet, not if they were to complete their business with the pope. They were going to need to wait for a new one to materialize. That’s what the papal legate in Acre, Teobaldo Visconti, apparently urged them to do, and that’s what they did. They, quote, “determined upon employing the interval in a visit to their families in Venice,” which was very sweet of them. 

As it turned out, they wouldn’t be in and out the door. This would be the longest papal interregnum on record, an excruciating electoral ordeal, in which the cardinals were physically locked up in a building to motivate the decision making process. Niccolo and Maffeo didn’t yet know that though. 

They arrived in Venice to find that while they had been away time had passed there also. Niccolo had left a wife, and he returned to find her dead. He’d surely heard while in Constantinople that his son had been born, but he returned to find that baby-Marco was already a young man of around 15 years old.

And that’s where we’ll leave Marco Polo and his family for today. With my next few episodes, we’ll get into the travels of Marco himself. We’ll pick up his story as he joins Niccolo and Maffeo on their return journey. We’ll get into the long quest to separate fact from fiction, and we’ll get into the story of the books themselves. I’ll talk to you then.

Sources:

  • The Travels of Marco Polo, the Venetian, translated by Willam Marsden, edited by Thomas Wright. George Bell & Sons, 1907.

  • The Mission of Friar William of Rubruck, translated by Peter Jackson. The Hakluyt Society, 1990.

  • Cathay and the Way Thither, Being a Collection of Medieval Notices of China, Vol. III, translated and edited by Henry Yule and Henri Cordier. London, 1916.

  • Abu-Lughod, Janet L. Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350. Oxford University Press, 1989.

  • Ackroyd, Peter. Venice: Pure City. Chatto & Windus, 2009.

  • Ciociltan, Virgil. The Mongols and the Black Sea Trade in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries. Brill Academic, 2012.

  • Larner, John. Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World. Yale University Press, 1999.

  • Madden, Thomas F. Venice: A New History. Viking, 2012.

  • Olschki, Leonardo. Marco Polo's Asia. University of California Press, 1960.