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The Bible: The Book That Bridges the Millennia

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The Fourth Crusade

The Sack of Constantinople (1204)

   The First Crusade was the most successful from a military point-of-view and very violent against Moslems. The Fourth Crusade, proclaimed by Pope Innocent III (1198-1216, picture below), wreaked violence on other Christians.

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   The crusade was to be directed at Egypt, because the Crusaders believed that conquering it would be the key to regaining Jerusalem. The expedition took an expected turn, however, and the Pope could not stop it.

   The Crusaders gathered at Venice, Italy, but they could not raise enough money to sail to the Holy Land. They made an arrangement with the Venetians. For Venice, the Crusaders would conquer the Christian city of Zara; then the Venetians would take them on to Jerusalem. Pope Innocent III ordered the army not to proceed and even excommunicated them, but he could not stop them.

   After conquering Zara, the Crusaders diverted to Constantinople rather than sail on to the Holy Land. They and the Venetians attacked Constantinople, the richest Christian city in the world. They plundered the city and took its wealth, including the treasures of the great church Hagia Sophia. They battled against other Christian men and they raped Christian women.

   The conquering of the great Christian city in 1204 ended the Fourth Crusade and had significant religious and political consequences. A number of Latin states were established in Greece and the Aegean; the communion between Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches ended. The Byzantine government moved to Nicea. Likewise most of the Greek bishops abandoned their sees and took refuge at Nicea, leaving their churches to the Latin bishops; Greek convents were replaced by Cistercian monasteries.

   Although other Christians had been transgressed, the Crusaders, who returned with many Eastern treasures, generally were not condemned by European society. Pope Innocent III even removed the ban that had excommunicated them. The acquisition of the Greek Empire was, after all, a great prize.

The Sack of Constantinople (1204)

Nicetas Choniates

The Byzantine historian Nicetas Choniates (ca. 1155-1215/16) here gives an account of the sack of the city.

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"Taking of Constantinople, 1204"
by Domenico Tintoretto (1518-1594)

   . . . How shall I begin to tell of the deeds wrought by these nefarious men! Alas, the images, which ought to have been adored, were trodden under foot! Alas, the relics of the holy martyrs were thrown into unclean places! Then was seen what one shudders to hear, namely, the divine body and blood of Christ was spilled upon the ground or thrown about. They snatched the precious reliquaries, thrust into their bosoms the ornaments which these contained, and used the broken remnants for pans and drinking cups, --precursors of Anti-Christ, authors and heralds of his nefarious deeds which we momentarily expect. Manifestly, indeed, by that race then, just as formerly, Christ was robbed and insulted and His garments were divided by lot; only one thing was lacking, that His side, pierced by a spear, should pour rivers of divine blood on the ground.

   Nor can the violation of the Great Church [note: Hagia Sophia in Constantinople] be listened to with equanimity. For the sacred altar, formed of all kinds of precious materials and admired by the whole world, was broken into bits and distributed among the soldiers, as was all the other sacred wealth of so great and infinite splendor.

   When the sacred vases and utensils of unsurpassable art and grace and rare material, and the fine silver, wrought with gold, which encircled the screen of the tribunal and the ambo, of admirable workmanship, and the door and many other ornaments, were to be borne away as booty, mules and saddled horses were led to the very sanctuary of the temple. Some of these which were unable to keep their footing on the splendid and slippery pavement, were stabbed when they fell, so that the sacred pavement was polluted with blood and filth.

   Nay more, a certain harlot, a sharer in their guilt, a minister of the furies, a servant of the demons, a worker of incantations and poisonings, insulting Christ, sat in the patriarch's seat, singing an obscene song and dancing frequently. Nor, indeed, were these crimes committed and others left undone, on the ground that these were of lesser guilt, the others of greater. But with one consent all the most heinous sins and crimes were committed by all with equal zeal. Could those, who showed so great madness against God Himself, have spared the honorable matrons and maidens or the virgins consecrated to God?

   Nothing was more difficult and laborious than to soften by prayers, to render benevolent, these wrathful barbarians, vomiting forth bile at every unpleasing word, so that nothing failed to inflame their fury. Whoever attempted it was derided as insane and a man of intemperate language. Often they drew their daggers against any one who opposed them at all or hindered their demands.

   No one was without a share in the grief. In the alleys, in the streets, in the temples, complaints, weeping, lamentations, grief, the groaning of men, the shrieks of women, wounds, rape, captivity, the separation of those most closely united. Nobles wandered about ignominiously, those of venerable age in tears, the rich in poverty. Thus it was in the streets, on the corners, in the temple, in the dens, for no place remained unassailed or defended the suppliants. All places everywhere were filled full of all kinds of crime. Oh, immortal God, how great the afflictions of the men, bow great the distress!

Take the Highway

Journey Through Time

The Crusades, with an emphasis on the First Crusade. The First Crusade was the most successful from a military point of view. Accounts of this action are shocking.

Choose a Byway

1. Learn about The Middle Ages: 476-1453

2. Visit other web sites that explore the history and theology of the Crusades.

3. The Reconciliation Walk. The purpose of the Walk was to bring Christians face-to-face with Muslims and Jews with a message of regret and confession about the Crusades. The Reconciliation Walk in Jerusalem on July 15, 1999, the 900th anniversary of the fall of the city to the Crusaders.

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The Sack of Constantinople by Nicetas Choniates was translated by D. C. Munro, Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European History, Series 1, Vol 3:1 (rev. ed.) (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1912), 15-16.

The introduction has been written for this online study of the Bible. The text by Nicetas Choniates has been reproduced (with spelling corrections added) from the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use. © Paul Halsall, Mar 1996

The image of Innocent III is detail of a picture is from An Outline of Christianity: The Story of Our Civilization, Vol. II (New York: Bethlehem Publishers, Inc., 1926), p. 210. The art by Tintoretto (the original painting is in color), p. 370.

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