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April 29, 2005

The best of intentions

In 1204 a Western European contingent of "Crusaders" took a detour and ended up sacking Constantinople. The act has not gone down with honorable mention in the annals of history, my personal impression is that historians who tend to try and withhold judgement on happenings that today we might find distasteful have a hard time keeping an even tone about this event. In The Fourth Crusade: and the sack of Constantinople1 University of London historian Jonathan Phillips draws heavily upon primary sources to paint a narrative of the events themselves and the causative factors that resulted in the sacking of a Christian city by Holy Warriors ostensibly intent on smiting the heathen. Phillips manages to imbue his text both with sympathy for the desperate circumstances which drove the Crusaders to sack Constantinople and the horror of the Greeks who watched as the "Queen of Cities" was defiled and ransacked. As someone with mild antiquarian predilictions I had a difficult time reading the accounts of how avaricious the Westerners were toward works of art and monuments that had been fixtures since the time of Justinian.

In any case, two interesting issues resolved themselves in the pages of the book for me. It seems clear that the Crusaders were sincere believers in the Christian message and their mission to the Holy Land was not driven primarily by material considerations. But they were not blessed with luck and financial debts incurred by their alliance with the Venetians resulted in side-ventures to even the ledger. First they sacked the Christian city of Zara in Dalmatia, and second they sailed to Constantinople, originally to "restore" a claimant to the throne who promised them great riches, but eventually to claim the city for themselves. But this was not the plan of the Pope, who sent letters stating that men who fought in the name of their Christian faith should not, and could not, attack Christian cities and peoples, on pain of excommunication. As I stated above, I find it plausible that the leaders of the Crusade were sincere believers, but in connivance with some of their clerical contingent they kept the news of Papal displeasure and wrath from their followers. Were these men willing to sacrifice their eternal soul so as to fulfill financial obligations? Judging from what little I have seen in studies of modern believers I doubt they believed any such thing, somehow I suspect they squared defiance of the Pope with their sincere and true faith. The point is that what goes on between the ears is a mysterious thing to many, and no matter what it says in the Book of God or the sermons preached by the Men of God, individuals will make of their faith what they wish.

A second point of interest to me is the repeated references to statues of the pre-Christian gods of Greece in Constantinople. I have read conflicting assertions about the foundational Christianity of Constantinople, some authors assert that Constantine made sure that no pagan temples were founded within the new city that grew up around old Byzantium, while other scholars suggest that pagan shrines and centers sprung up unbidden even in the last days of the old religion in the heart of a citadel of the new. In any case, it is clear that Christianity, in particular Chalcedonian Christianity which later was termed "Eastern Orthodox" in the West, was part and parcel of the Byzantine identity, as was the Greek language and Roman self-perception. And yet the references to Athena, Helen and other gods and godlings out of Greek mythology suggests that the people of Byzantium did not turn their backs on the memory of their own pasts. Though no doubt they did not ascribe any divinity to these golden sculptures, they obviously held some cultural resonance. The author recounts Nikitas Choniates, the primary Byzantine voice in the narrative, expressing disapproval at the destruction of the statue of Athena by a mob angered that she seemed to gesture toward the West (the direction from which the Crusaders came). I am not aware of statues of Kernunnos persisting anywhere in what later became France, or landmarks punctuated by the imposing presence of an ancient deity of the north anywhere in the Germanic world. It seems in those regions Christianity relegated the old gods to the shadows as demons and whispers, while the impression I get is that the Byzantines simply morphed the old Greek religious motifs into cultural totems without sacral significance. This may be a function of the character of Christianization in north and west Europe vs. south and east Europe, the scholarly sources I have read suggest that doctrinal fluency and correct belief and practice were deemphasized after the 6th century to speed up the conversion of pagan peoples who were brought into the fold by their leaders by fiat. This rather pro forma conversion might have resulted in a greater de facto vitality of the old pagan beliefs and gods among the masses, ergo, there was a greater need to seal away the public sphere from any congress with the pre-Christian motifs so as to not suggest that there was any legitimacy for heretical and heathenish beliefs commonly held. In contrast, the more thorough and to some extent individually mediated Christianization on the Mediterranean fringe, in particular its urban centers, might have rendered the possible threat to legitimacy from non-Christian deities toothless, so it may be that the authorities had no hesitation in the maintainance of ancient artistic and cultural motifs because they clearly held no religious content for the populace but did have sentimental value.2

1 - The sack is described in detail in one of the last chapters. It reminded me a great detail of narratives that chronicle the sack of Louyang in China in 311 by barbarians.

2 - I am not totally convinced that the dichotomy between the conversion of the Mediterranean and northern Europe is as strong as some scholars make it out to be, but there was definitely a difference of degree. With the conversion of the commanding heights of the imperial regime to Christianity no great amount of fiat was necessary for most of the populace to shift toward the new faith, a process that took centuries in some locales (Justinian was sending missionaries to central Anatolia in the mid-6th century). In contrast, the conversion of some northern European nations was more confused, as officially there was no organized pagan presence after the conversion of the king (in the Mediterranean ancient senatorial families and the philosophical class continued to promote paganism at the elite level after Christianization of the emperors), but on the ground there was a great deal of heterodox belief and practice and a general lack of knowledge of the basics of the new religion.

Posted by razib at 06:14 PM