Sack of Constantinople

Geoffrey's Crusade 4: Simon & the Seven Thieves

Sack of Constantinople

When Robert de Clari entered Constantinople, he spoke with wonder of what he witnessed. There was the Palace of the Lion’s Mouth with its 500 chambers “all wrought in mosaic work of gold,” and among its 30 chapels, its wonderful Holy Chapel, with its precious stone pillars, its white marble floors, and its relics. There were two pieces of the True Cross, “as thick as a man’s leg and a fathom in length”; the lance which had been plunged into Christ’s side; two of the nails that had been driven into his hands; a crystal phial of his blood; the tunic which was torn from him; his crown, not of thorns, but of “sea rushes, sharp as dagger blades.” There were the clothes of Mary and the head of John the Baptist, a likeness of St. Demetrius from which oil ran without end, and a tile and towel, both of which bore the imprint of God’s face. There were so many more that Robert could not begin to describe them all, or indeed to understand them.

At the Hagia Sophia, Robert was struck by its “altogether round” shape, its magnificent pillars, each with their own powers of healing a specific malady, and its “high altar … so rich that the price … could not be reckoned.” It was the riches there that struck him most: so much silver, gold, and gems, so much magnificence. But he also took note of a tube, a mysterious tube of unknown metal, “of the size of one of those pipes such as sheperds pipe upon,” and of a certain miraculous virtue. Whenever a sick person would put their mouth to the tube, it would seize them, holding them fast so that their eyes would roll up in their heads, and it would draw the poison in their body out through their throat. But if you were to put your lips to the tube when you were well - because it’s always a good idea to mouth items previously mouthed by multitudes of desperately sick people - well then it would not hold you, which was probably for the best.

Outside the church, there was a thick pillar, “thrice the spread of a man’s arms, and ... full fifty fathoms high.” And at its top, a great stone, and a horse with a copper-cast figure upon it, identified by Robert and others as Heraclius, but it was what we know as the Column of Justinian, the 6th-century ruler stretching one hand out towards “Heathendom,” Robert tells us, and in his other holding an apple marked with a cross.

Robert and the other crusaders were in awe of the hippodrome, its open space a full crossbow shot and a half in length. They were amazed at the numbers of people, of priests, of abbeys, and of the riches they contained. They saw the marble table that Jesus was placed on after being brought down from the cross, and they saw the tears that Mary had cried over him. They saw the shroud which Jesus had been wrapped in, the one which raised itself up every Friday, to reveal his form, and Robert noted that nobody knew what became of it after the city fell.  

It was said of one gate that the golden ball above it would protect the city from lightning strikes so long as it remained there, and this was no small thing given how vulnerable the place was to fires. Over another gate were a pair of copper elephants, so enormous that it was a marvel to behold them. That was the Golden Gate, never opened, Robert thought, save in victory, when the emperor would, in the city’s brighter times, re-enter after battle, parading upon a chariot for all the people to share in his triumph, and to honour him.  

But these were not those times. 

There, behind the two copper women, 20 feet high and both very beautiful, had been where the moneychangers would come to sit, with piles of coins and precious stones before them, open for business, but there were much fewer of them now, that Constantinople was taken. And elsewhere in the city, Robert tells of two pillars, 50 fathoms high and with a hermit living on the top of each, stylites we would say. On these pillars were portrayed and written prophecies of all that had come to happen to Constantinople and all that was yet to come. And there, for all now to look on, were the Latin invaders and the boats by which they had won their way in. None had been able to see them for what they were until it was too late, but now, with the invaders in the city, people came, and they mused on this, their fate, and that of their city. 

Hello, and welcome. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus. If you wish to keep our chamberlains from offing our emperors in the night, if you’re enjoying what I do and think it’s worth supporting, please do consider doing so on my Patreon page, that’s, where every $1 a month and up makes a difference for me. And on that note, I want to say thank you to my newest patron, who goes by the delightful name of Ephemeral von Hinterland. Thank you very much! And now, back to the story. 

Today, that story takes place in the aftermath of the fall of Constantinople to the fighters of the Fourth Crusade. It’s what happened in the city once the bulk of the fighting was over. It’s something of a caper film, starring an intrepid party of Venetians.  But before we get to that, let’s check in with Robert and Geoffrey, and Niketas. The fate of the city had already been decided when the invaders found, on the morning of Tuesday, April 13th, that there was no one now to oppose them. What followed were three days of violence, plundering, and all the other ugliness included in the sack of a city.

Geoffrey speaks of something very organized. Three churches were established as collection points and a guard set, made up “of ten noble knights from amongst the pilgrims, and ten Venetians who were reputed to be honourable men,” Robert says. All of this had been sworn to before they’d even taken the walls, as part of what we now call The March Pact, the meeting I mentioned last episode, where they hammered out who would get what, what loot, what land, what title, when victory came. And also what they were not allowed to do. Robert mentions being required to swear not to do violence to any women or despoil any church, but Niketas would say they were oath-breakers on both counts. 

There was every reason for making these March arrangements before taking Constantinople. There was every chance they’d be able to temporarily occupy a section of the city and loot it, even if the whole placed proved too much for them. They had to promise to reimburse the Venetians for money owed, needed to guarantee that they would be able to, and it was also always better to decide how to divide the ice cream before that awkward moment when someone was actually holding it and everyone had their swords out. When you didn’t make plans ahead of time, you had problems like what William of Tyre claimed had happened at Ascalon in 1153. There, a group of Templars were said to have kept others from following them through a gap in the walls just so they didn’t have to share the spoils, but then they’d been cut off from those others and killed. The episode may not have really occurred in that way, but the lesson was out there to be learned. Rules established beforehand save bloody acrimony after the fact. 

In this case, there was to be fairness in distribution, with each getting a share according to their station: 2 men on foot equalling 1 horseman, 2 horsemen equalling 1 knight. However, despite these precautions and the threats of punishment, some, Geoffrey admitted, did hold back what they had taken, or committed outright theft. And of course this would happen. The temptation was strong, and “not a few” were hung as a result, including one knight who had followed Hugh of Saint-Pol. “...the covetous began to keep things back,” Geoffrey said, “and our Lord began to love them less. Ah God! How loyally they had borne themselves up to now!” 

Robert was even less content with the whole thing. From the first moments of occupation - really that first day inside the wall when you get the sense he hadn’t previously realized what the game was going to be - he’d seen the rich and highly placed take advantage of those beneath them. The treasure now gathered in the churches was a marvel to behold, true; it seemed so much that not even the 50 other richest cities of the world could equal it, and it was said locally “that two-thirds of all the wealth of the world was in Constantinople, and that the other third was scattered throughout the world.” But Robert says that the guards assigned to the churches were the ones most guilty of theft, that they used their position to help themselves as they pleased, and that the richest of the conquerors simply wandered in and likewise had from the hoard what they wanted, whether it be jewel, or silk, or gold.

And Niketas, as we heard a bit of at the end of last episode, he was of course rather more critical than either crusader of what went on in Constantinople. It wasn’t a question of spoils won to him, but of violence done to his city, its people, and its holy places.

Niketas describes the destruction of icons and trampling of relics, all in order to get at what money was to be had in jewels and adornments. 

"These forerunners of Antichrist," he raged, "chief agents and harbingers of his anticipated ungodly deeds, seized as plunder the precious chalices and patens; some they smashed, taking possession of the ornaments embellishing them, and they set the remaining dishes on their tables to serve as bread dishes and wine goblets. Just as happened long ago, Christ was now disrobed and mocked, his garments were parted, and lots were cast for them by this race; and although his side was not pierced by the lance, yet once more streams of Divine Blood poured to the earth."

And there’s more. A lot more, in fact. There was hardly a sin that Niketas did not find the crusaders guilty of, and he filled pages in making his point. He painted a scene of gross moral corruption, of frauds draped in crosses polluting the holy places of his city. In one striking passage, he describes the greedy raiders leading mules into the temple to pack out their ill-gotten gains, and how, quote, “some of these; unable to keep their feet on the smoothly polished marble floors, slipped and were pierced by knives so that the excrement from the bowels and the spilled blood defiled the sacred floor.” 

And those were some of the views, broadly speaking, from the conquered and the crusaders, but what of the Venetians? I’ve regularly divided them from “the crusaders,” in quotes, for convenience and clarity, but it’s at the cost of perhaps implying that the Venetians were something else, that they could not be crusaders themselves but were rather a bunch of bloodthirsty merchants or mercenaries, that they were somehow less capable of religious feeling than their co-religionists, and that each and every one of them was every bit as conniving as their doge, in his common portrayal. 

But clearly that’s not accurate. 

This story then is a kind of antidote to that picture because although it is a tale of theft, it’s not money that the Venetians involved were after. This is not to say that Venetian plundering during the sack of the city was any less treasure-oriented than the other crusaders. Actually, if there’s a difference, it’s generally thought that they tended to seize pieces of art as intact pieces, not breaking them apart for the value of their raw materials. Most famously, their take included the Cavalli di San Marco, the four bronze horses which long adorned the Saint Mark’s Basilica. However, this is not the story of those horses. In our story, something else entirely was taken. It was a saint. Or at least, the body of a saint. A holy relic. 

And that’s what we’ll get into in a moment now, after this quick break.

"In the memory of the blessed Simon the prophet, I will tell in what way and by what means his body was translated from the city of Constantinople and taken through the Adriatic Sea to the city called Venice."

So begins the Translatio Symonensis, the written record which does exactly that and was recovered in 1995 in Milan, in a 14th century collection of Venetian hagiographies. It, along with the excellent work of historian David M. Perry, will be my source here. 

"With the city captured," the text continues, "those who did not die began to plunder certain fortifications, palaces, and buildings that were filled with gold and silver. In the army, there were seven citizens of the Rialto. These seven were better men, because of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit."

And we know who those seven “better men” were. The names that have come down to us are Andrea Balduino, Pietro Steno, Leonardo Steno, Marino Calvo, Angelo Drusario, Nicola Feretro, and Leonardo Mauro. It all started on the ship, with Andrea and Pietro speaking of Simon, their parish’s patron saint. Did not his blessed body lie there in that very city, asked Andrea. Why yes, it did, Pietro confirmed. He could not remember exactly where, but he had been to see the city, and the saint, just two years earlier, with his uncle. The streets of Constantinople were not easy to follow, but if they just started at the Hagia Sophia, then he was sure that he could find the way from there.  

These two ringleaders, likely men of Venice’s merchant class, said a quick prayer, as they often in would in this story, and they looked to assemble their team. Andrea brought together men from their neighbourhood, from their church parish, people they could trust, and he found 10 of them. Together, they made a little scouting run

Working back from the Hagia Sophia, they found what they were looking for. They located the Church of St. Mary of Chalkoprateia, and within, a marble ark with their saint inside. Above it hung an image of a young Jesus being placed in Simon’s arms. Before, was a well of living water in which hung a miraculous orb; glowing as if made from a burning ball of wax, it was not visible to those who were dishonest, so it served as a testament to the Venetians honourable intent. They took their time, seeing all that was to be seen, and knowing all that was to be known of their target. Then, they retreated to their ship. 

There, they took a vow of secrecy, and they planned. They chose Palm Sunday to go into action, and just to put that into context, the city had been taken, and those first three days of violent looting begun, on April 13th. Palm Sunday would be the 18th, when people could be expected to be otherwise occupied and to not notice their little group going about its secret business. It wasn’t so much the locals they were worried about, the people of the city who had now little enough say over their own bodies, let alone those of the dead. Their concern was with their own side. Though it sounds like open-season had been declared, this was something - looting a church - that there had been a sworn agreement against, and people were being hung for keeping spoils to themselves. It was, it seems to me, no crime, unless you were caught. So they just had to not get caught. 

They began “when Palm Sunday had not yet ended,” with Andrea saying to his comrades:

"See, soldiers of Christ, rouse yourself in a manly way, tighten your belts, and trust in God. Do not fear Death nor the dangers of money. With faith in God we can be audacious, with the same type of audacity as with which we secured these walls."

And the other eleven answered back with one voice: “He who fears may die, because fear comes with punishment. As the scripture says, he who fears is not perfected in charity.” Confident and ready then, they left the ship.

They split into two groups, so as to not draw attention to themselves, five going by one route and seven, the seven I have already named, going the other, with plans to rendezvous at the church. But as you may have guessed from my only reading seven names, that was not how it went. That unnamed five became confused in their way. Maybe they were the group that had to take the unfamiliar way, while the other retraced steps previously taken, and they were lost in that huge city’s narrow streets and never reached the church. Maybe they never existed at all. 

Our seven did though. They paused outside the door to speak for a moment on the value of doing things quickly and without pause, Andrea reminding his comrades that “he who goes intelligently goes boldly,” and that “all good things are done with quick work.” Then, it was decided that three should enter and take what they had come for while four would guard the doors and make signs to those within should anyone approach. 

So in went the three to find the ark, their St. Simon within, but once they were there and in front of the thing, nobody could actually bring himself to open it. They started urging each other on. Surely it would be better if you should be the one! No, no, after you. You should pry it open. But not one actually took it upon themselves to do it, and from outside they heard calling. What was going on in there, their friends at the door wanted to know, the minutes the three had spent inside probably feeling like much, much more than that. Was there a problem? Were they done?

Not only were they not done, the reluctant three heard the voices of and reacted with alarm and fright. Was someone else out there? Was it time to flee or to fight? Naturally, the lookouts were not impressed by this timidity. “Where is your courage,” they demanded. “Are you men? Go, in the name of God, and complete your work knowing that God is with you. It would be better if you were dead than to leave empty-handed and without the precious treasure.”

So back in the three went, and this time, there was less delay. Andrea swung his hammer, cracking the ark open and revealing a lead case inside. That too was struck open, revealing yet another lead box within. This third one was wrapped in iron bands, but they were rusted out and already broken. Andrea stepped back then, for if he had smashed their way in, someone else ought to bring the saint out. That someone else would be Pietro, Pietro who now revealed his vision of the night before, of alone aiding mass back in Venice, with no one else there to help the rector. 

His companions insisted it should be the same then in the church as it had been in his vision, and Pietro, unhurried, in this telling at least, by the pressuring of their comrades outside or by fear of interruption, took a moment to pray: 

"Oh most sacred Simon the Prophet, who deserved to hold our lord and saviour Jesus Christ, the true light, revelation, and glory of the tribes and people of Israel, in your arms, do not turn your attention to my sins. Through your mercy make us worthy to lift up and hold your precious limbs in our hands, in order that, illuminated, we might succeed in transferring you to our lands. Thus we and our people, with great gratitude, could honour you properly and bless the Lord of lords, who lives and rules the entire world."

“Amen,” answered the other two, and down Pietro reached to pull out the bones of St. Simon, lowering them onto the purple cloth they had prepared. And as he touched the bones, a smell filled the church. It was a sweet smell like that of balsam wood and so strong that it reached the look-outs outside and caused them to call out, in joy and fear, that God was surely with them. Pietro hurried on, revealing not just bones, but also small marble containers with the teeth of the saint, a broken ring, and the milk of the virgin Mary, which they somehow all immediately recognized, presumably by its miraculous properties. They took it all, and they made their way back to the ship. 

They went with haste now, the evidence upon them much worse than any previous signs of suspicious activity, if they were caught. And that evidence was not doing any of the work of concealing itself for them. There was that powerfully sweet smell, strong enough to attract curiosity, and now there was a light too. No one had challenged the progress of the seven through the streets of conquered Constantinople, but when they had the saint’s relics safely on the ship, and stowed away in a box of aromatic herbs, it began to glow. It started to glow with a such a fierce light that not even that of candles could, by comparison, hide it. Quote: “Because God wished to reveal the sacred items by way of miracles. Even at night when most people were sleeping on the ship, the relics glowed fully and splendidly, and most of the people awake wondered at its brightness.”    

If the thieves had achieved success in bringing St. Simon onto their ship, they still couldn’t actually leave. There was that item in the March Pact, that all must remain and aid the new emperor, whoever that might turn out to be, and there was the decree of their doge, Enrico Dandolo, enforcing it. No matter how clearly Simon’s relics shone out like a bat-signal to those looking down from the city’s hills, there was to be no getting away. With some reluctance, I imagine, the thieves smuggled Simon’s body back into the city and away from from their watchful eyes.

They took it to a small chapel within a palace. There’s no mention of which one, but it must have been somewhere they were already familiar with, very likely somewhere they’d plundered just days before. In the chapel, they found an old woman caring for the space, lighting candles and offering incense, and, in an astonishing leap of faith, they left their package in her care. They implored her to keep it secret and promised money for the upkeep of the chapel in return. 

The old woman was either swayed by the money, was simply honest, or, as the Venetians’ seemed to think, was simply ignorant, because she kept their secret. She kept it well for them for six months. That was six of months of political turmoil and infighting among the crusaders, and also of rumours circulating of the saint’s disappearance, grumblings among the locals which reached the ears of the leadership. The doge decreed that any who brought in the missing relics would receive their weight in gold, but maybe this was an invention in the text, a way of showing the Venetians’ worthiness. Sights and smells had signalled God’s approval of their actions, and their success in the venture would signal the saint’s. Now, quote, “The Lord strengthened the hearts of the … men, and none of them were seduced by the love of money, but firmly persisted in their good plan,” and maybe they really were required to resist this temptation; maybe it was by bribery and confiscation that Dandolo and other leaders acquired many of holy relics that would make their way west from Constantinople, or maybe this was just a bit of artifice by which the authors would tell us that these were men morally equal to their high intent.

Whatever the particulars, none of them cracked, and that elderly caretaker of the chapel didn’t either. They held it all together until one of their number was allowed to return to Venice. It was Angelo Drusario whose lot it was to return home, and we don’t know much about his journey back. The text does tell us that “the number of sea-borne miracles that … God judged them worthy to be shown,” was beyond the human ability to describe, and this sort of thing was very much in keeping with this sort of story, that of furta sacra, or holy theft. 

What’s not in keeping, is that there’s no more detail as those miracles on water, and no adventures at sea to test our protagonists, and for which they must rely on the aid of their saint to survive. Instead, we only learn that rejoicing and praise greeted the relic’s return to Venice, that the Patriarch of Grado and the Bishop of Castello oversaw their internment “in a marble ark beneath the altar in the church of St. Simon on the Rialto; and the orations flourished there on that same day.” A business that had begun in the darkness of secrecy and theft was now recognized in the light and made holy.

In a moment, we’ll go further into the wider world of sacred plunder in Constantinople, but first, a quick break. 

This story of ours was of course not the first one of Venetians bringing relics home in less than officially authorized circumstances. Most famously, there’d been the 9th-century theft of San Marco’s bones from Alexandria by a pair of merchants. But it was also not the only act of relic-theft in Constantinople once the crusaders got in. 

The take from that city was generous in relics. The Bishop of Soissons alone is to have brought home a head of St. Stephen the Protomartyr, Thomas the Apostle’s finger and head, a Crown of Thorns thorn, a belt and scrap of cloth from Mary’s garments, another scrap from Christ’s last supper-wear, a forearm and head from John the Baptist, a rib and head from St. Blaise, fragments of the True Cross, and the staff of Moses. 

Now you might think that this bishop, this energetic head-collector, was a thief-extraordinaire, and that our Venetian friends’ activities paled in comparison to his prolific burgling. However, much of his haul he seems to have had from a chapel in the Bucoleon Palace, a palace which was under the administration of his friend, Boniface of Montferrat, during the first month of occupation. This was not stealing then. This was confiscation. It was authorized and legitimate theft, not done in secrecy while guarding the door against one’s “allies” interrupting the looting.

Between the extremes of the Venetian 7’s conspiracy and the bishop’s taxation, is one of my favourite stories of sacred theft. Dalmacius and Poncius were two knights who had, upon being released of their duties in Constantinople, failed in trying to reach Jerusalem, and returning disappointed, had requested of the papal legates that they be allowed to take a relic. The legates had given their permission, but did not allow the knights to buy one. So Dalmacius and Poncius had needed to find what they wanted by other means. They had dropped in on the Monastery of St. Mary Peribleptos and, while Dalmacius distracted the monks with questions about St. Clement, Poncius is supposed to have walked in and walked out with the saint’s head.  

Even more in the thick of things was Abbot Martin of Pairis. He located a priest in a monastic complex already being looted by crusaders, and he forced the man, under threat of death, to reveal the valuables. Martin would eventually come away with some of the blood of Christ, wood from the cross, a piece of John the Baptist, the arm of James the Apostle, and more.

Even one of the Papal Legates got in on the act. Peter Capuano wound his way through Southern Italy leaving a trail of relics behind him. His hometown of Amalfi received the head of its patron saint, St. Andrew, while Gaeta got the head of St. Theodore. In Sorrento, he left relics of James the Apostle, at the Abbey of Monte Cassino, St. Athanasius’ arm, and at Naples, pieces of other saints. 

And there are countless other stories, too many to mention here. Robert de Clari, who we’ve been following, is himself said to have brought fragments of the True Cross back with him to the Monastery of Corbie, where his chronicle would be recorded on vellum. 

All of this is to say that Constantinople was absolutely harvested in and after 1204. Relics of all descriptions were taken and trucked across Europe, along with the other riches of the city, and in this climate, trafficking and forgery thrived, very old businesses both.

You might be wondering, with all of this pillaging, all of this emptying out of treasury and church, how could the crusaders defend their actions? How could they possibly justify what they had done? We can start to answer this question by examining the Translatio of the Venetians. How did it present its heroes’ actions in the best possible light?

One way was through the villainizing of the “victims” in the story, and the author wasted no time in accomplishing this. The first paragraph establishes the citizens of Venice as “most Christian people, filled with the Catholic faith, and most eager to serve the army of Christianity … born of a noble race, but … ha[ving] a faith even more noble.” By the second, it’s the turn of the people of Constantinople: they’re hated by God “on account of their iniquities.” Wicked, impious, malignant, and arrogant, they were the target of this most just crusade. In fact, there’s no mention that it might ever have gone elsewhere, to Egypt or Jerusalem for example.     

Another method of justification was emphasizing the goodness of the individuals involved in the theft. If they were truly good, then what they had done must surely also be good, and these people were very good indeed. The text tells us, with reference to the Book of Isaiah, that our protagonists had “a spirit of wisdom and understanding, of counsel and fortitude, of knowledge and piety, and a spirit that feared God.” “... although they might have numbered seven, nevertheless they were as one, because they shared one spirit and one faith they discovered the body of the blessed Simon prophet of the lord.” 

Elsewhere in the text, as the group pray for the success of their venture, they ask for assistance in finding the saint, and they evoke the three magi in doing so, seeming to compare the search for the son of God with their search within the city. If the twelve’s mission was like that of the three, then how could it be wrong?

Finally, as you might have guessed, the production of the text itself is part of the act of justification. It wasn’t just how the relic was gained. It wasn’t just having possession. The story was important, and where the resources were available, a narrative would sometimes be commissioned that would help to establish the relic in its new home. That would include the story of the acquisition, its journey home with the saint usually intervening on its bearers behalves, and also miracles on arrival. Authenticity, meaning, and significance would be attached to the object, through the kind of ceremonies that occurred at the Church of Saint Simon, and through a new tradition of miracles in this new context. 

But the pope, you might be asking, what of his reaction? What did Innocent III think of all of this? It had after all, not gone quite according to plan. His threats of excommunication, and attempts to steer the ship once it had disembarked, had largely failed. Some men had been dislodged, it was true, but he’d had little effect on the direction things took. However, now the great city of Constantinople had been taken, and it might perhaps at last rejoin with western Christianity. Surely that counted for something?

Well, it did, at least at first. When the news reached Innocent that the city had been taken, news which was delayed by Genoese piracy, he seems to have been overjoyed, but in quite a pointed way. In a letter to Count Baldwin, he praised the accomplishment as that of God “work[ing] magnificent miracles with [the crusaders] for the praise and glory of his name, for the honour and the profit of the Apostolic See, and for the benefit and exaltation of the Christian people.” Innocent had never approved of the conquest in the first place, but now it had happened, he placed the new lands “under the primary protection of St. Peter.” He offered help, the crusading indulgence for those defending Constantinople, but also a warning. The city had fallen because its people had strayed from Rome; let not its new occupants do the same. Let them instead, quote:

"...diligently and faithfully make sure that ecclesiastical goods, both fixed and moveable, are protected until they might be properly organized in accordance with our authoritative decision, so that those things that are Caesar’s might be rendered to Caesar, and those things that are God’s might be rendered to God without confusion."

Of course, as we’ve seen there had already been some “confusion” of that sort, and there were going to be years of confusion to come. That aside, even within the terms of the March Pact, there was much for the pope to take issue with. There was language around the divvying up of church property, and then there was the agreement that whichever side in the conquering force that lost out in seeing their own man as emperor would get to appoint the patriarch. This was clearly a power that Innocent would have thought belonged to Ceasar and not one he could surrender willingly to the Venetians. 

Still, Innocent seemed willing to compromise. He accepted the narrative that Dandolo and Baldwin presented in their letters about the the March Pact, that the tangled route which had led to the conquest of Constantinople was divinely inspired, and though he did not at first accept the Venetian appointment to the office of patriarch, he did then rush their chosen man through ordainment as deacon, priest, bishop, and then patriarch, all in the month of March, 1205.

However, he would not remain so amenable. As time passed, the looted church property failed to to be returned, and the Greek population failed to convert, his position shifted. He’d tried offers of rewards, and threats, but his legate, Capuano had released the crusaders from their vows, requiring only that they stay for a year to defend their conquest. Events had truly slipped from the pope’s grasp, and in his letter to Capuano, and in a very similar one to Boniface, he made his displeasure clear:

"How will the Greek Church … return to ecclesiastical unity and devotion to the Apostolic See, a church which has seen in the Latins nothing except an example of affliction and the works of Hell, so that now it rightly detests them more than dogs? … It was not enough for [the Latins] to empty the imperial treasuries and to plunder the spoils of princes and lesser folk, but rather they extended their hands to church treasuries and, what was more serious, to their possessions, even ripping away silver tablets from alters and breaking them into pieces among themselves, violating sacristies and crosses, and carrying away relics."

He wasn’t just concerned with plunder, by the way. There was talk too of swords dripping with Christian blood, and incest, adultery, and fornication. 

It was all part of the narrative which was building around the Fourth Crusade. The providential victory at Constantinople had given way to a much more accusatory tone. By their sin, by their own greed and gold-lust, their looting of the Greek churches, the crusaders had diverted much needed men and resources from the Holy Land, and they had corrupted the path which God had laid down for them. 

That was the climate within which saintly translation narratives were produced. Some of them sought as best they could to erase Constantinople from their stories. They might, for example, speak of relics brought out of disaster in the Holy Land to new homes in France, with no mention made that the items in question were really had from the looting of 1204. One way or another, these stories found ways to work around that tricky issue and with it the pope’s castigation. But not the Venetians. Strikingly, their stories did not at all avoid the question of the relics’ origins. As we’ve seen, they found other ways to craft the image of the pious thief, even as the situation in Constantinople darkened, and with it, the future of its Latin Empire. 

As for Robert and Geoffrey, they would directly tie the problems to come with the looting of 1204. Robert saw those misfortunes as, quote, “the Lord God tak[ing] vengeance on them for their pride and their bad faith which they had shown toward the poor folk of the host, and for the horrible sins that they had committed in the city after they had taken it,” while Geoffrey would grimly conclude that “full oft do the good suffer for the sins of the wicked.” 

But we’ll get into those problems, that suffering, next episode. I’ll be wrapping up this round of the Fourth Crusades, and the stories of the characters that we’ve been following.


  • 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.

  • Perry, David M. Sacred Plunder: Venice and the Aftermath of the Fourth Crusade. Penn State Press, 2015.

  • Perry, David M. "The Translatio Symonensis and the Seven Thieves: A Venetian Fourth Crusade Furta Sacra Narrative and the Looting of Constantinople."

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