Nigel's Reviews > The Fourth Crusade: And the Sack of Constantinople

The Fourth Crusade by Jonathan Phillips
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's review
Sep 13, 11

bookshelves: non-fiction
Read in September, 2011

I made the crucial mistake, while reading this, of listening to the Radio 4 comedy, All The World's A Globe, with the result that every now and then I would discover that I was reading it in the voice of Desmond Olivier Dingle, rendering this epic, tragic tale of the strangest left-turn in history, utterly hilarious.
It does boggle the mind, somewhat, that a holy crusade whose primary intention is to go kill Muslims in the Holy Land ends up off killing Orthodox Christians in Constantinople, but Philips lays it all out for the reader and traces the logic of how an untimely death here, a bit of uneven preaching there, some over-inflated numbers, a massive economic hole that threatens to founder both the crusade and an entire city-state, and a deposed Prince turning up at just the right time with just the right offer, all lead inexorably to the catastrophic downfall of one of the most amazing cities of the medieval world, and an entire empire falls with it.
My dimly remembered knowledge of this particular military foray recalls that most of the blame for the wayward expedition was lain at the feet of the wily Venetians, who built the fleet that was to carry the crusaders to the Levant. Phillips lucidly argues that the only truly naked act of greed and cynicism that the Venetians can be fairly blamed for is the siege of Zara. The leaders of the Crusade vastly overestimated the numbers and ordered ships accordingly, at a huge price. Venice literally stopped all other commercial activity for an entire year to produce the fleet, and when the numbers failed to materialise, were left very much in the same hole as the Crusaders. Even when settled on the shore of the great city, they had no intention of attacking the place: they fully expected the princes' extravagant promises to be honoured, whereupon it would have been hey-ho, off to Jerusalem we go. Circumstances, betrayals, mistrust, coups, murders, sneak attacks and outright hostility followed, and the rest is history.
Its a sad, fascinating story. One has to admire the drive, religious devotion, determination and sheer military skill of the Europeans, if not the use to which they are put. Phillips emphasises the importance of tournaments - wide ranging, sometimes lethal competitive brawls - in training the knights and soldiery of the west, as opposed to the neglected, poorly led and deteriorating Byzantine military forces. Even so, in the end, nothing much is achieved except a lot of dead people, tons of looted treasures, one burnt, wrecked and sacked city, and a lingering bitterness between the Catholic and orthodox churches

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