Four Horses of the Cathedral

April 25, 2011

Over at His Futile Preoccupations, things are gearing up for a heavy dose of deep, dark, syrupy, sicko-noir, from Jim Thompson.  He wrote The Grifters and The Getaway, favorite films, as well as the screenplay for Kubrick’s Paths of Glory!  Before I dive into that, I felt the need for a bit of escape to one of my favorite historical time-place intersections, Venice and the Fourth Crusade.

I am reading Jonathan Phillip’s history, The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople, a nice read by an historian who is not as eager as some have been to take to task the Venetians for their diverting of the holy rollers from their destination in Palestine to overthrow the Byzantine Empire instead.  No, you have to see it in context… I really can see it from the crusader’s point of view, because I’ve been reading the chronicle of the events written by Robert of Clari, an ordinary knight who took part in the whole mess.  As he relates, the Venetians committed themselves to ferrying the army to Egypt (the strategy was to take Alexandria, make a base, then move up the coast to Jerusalem) and they through the entire resources of their city-state economy into the task of building an enormous fleet.  Then, the ‘army’ doesn’t show up!  Or only a very small part of it does.  All those boats, and nobody to sail in them!

The Venetians were out a lot of money and needed to be paid.  Then there was this heir to the eastern throne who was hanging around Germany who had some contacts with the crusaders since he was hiding out in Europe after his uncle murdered his father.  (Byzantine rulers ruled by a sort of ‘heavenly mandate.’  That is, if a slave murdered his way to the throne, he was assumed to have been divinely destined for it.)  One thing led to another, and the crusade made its fatal detour in history, and Venice got the four horses that used to reign over the Imperial Hippodrome…

Robert gives us quite a long digression to explain the dynastic politics of the Eastern Empire – much treachery, putting out of eyes, assorted bloodshed –  before resuming his chronicle of the crusade, and he includes this pungent episode involving a filthy camel:

And when the morrow came, early in the morning, the nobleman took Andronicus [the deposed traitor] and led him away to the royal palace into the presence of the Emperor Isaac [rightful and restored emperor]. When Isaac saw him he said to him, “Andronicus, wherefore hast thou in such fashion betrayed thy lord, the Emperor Manuel [Isaac's murdered father]; and wherefore didst thou murder his wife and his son; and wherefore hast thou been so fain to do evil to those who were displeased because thou went emperor; and wherefore didst thou seek to have me taken?”

And Andronicus answered him, “Hold thy peace!” (quoth he) “for I would not deign to answer thee!”

When the Emperor Isaac heard that he would not deign to answer him, he summoned many of the men of the city to come into his presence. And when they were in his presence, the emperor said to them, “Sirs, behold, here is Andronicus, who hath done so much evil both to you and to others. I myself could, me seemeth, in no wise do such justice to him as ye all would desire; but I release him to you, to do with him what ye will.”

Then were the men of the city right glad, and they took him; and some said that he should be burned; and others, that he should be boiled in a caldron that he might live longer and suffer more; and others, that he should be drawn and quartered; so that they could not agree amongst themselves by what death or what torture they might destroy him. But there was there a certain wise man, who said,  “Sirs, if ye would trust me, I would show you how we might avenge ourselves right well of him. I have at home a camel, which is the foulest beast and the most bedunged and ugliest in the world. Now we will take Andronicus, and we will strip him stark naked, and we will bind him to the camel’s back in such fashion that his face shall be against its rump, and we will lead him from one end of the city even unto the other. Thus will all they, both men and women, whom he hath wronged, be able to avenge themselves right well.”

And all agreed to that which that man had told them. And they took Andronicus and bound him even as the man had devised. And as they were leading him adown the city, then came those that he had wronged; and they stabbed him and pricked him, some with knives, and others with daggers, and yet others with swords. And they cried, “Twas thou didst hang my father! ‘Twas thou didst ravish my wife!”

And the women whose daughters he had taken by force tare his beard and wrought such other indignities on him that when they were come to the other end of the city there was no flesh whatsoever left upon his body. Then took they his bones and cast them into a draught-house. In such wise did they avenge themselves of the traitor.

Holy War

February 17, 2008


Venice, the greatest city in the world, as far as I am concerned. A city grown on trade, ready armies and ready cash, always on the qui vivre for a good opportunity. When the army of the Fourth Crusade found itself through inept planning camped on the Adriatic with no means to transport itself across the water to the Holy Land, the Venetians were ready. As Gibbon recounts with his usual dryness,

“The maritime states of Italy were alone possessed of the means of transporting the holy warriors with their arms and horses; and the six deputies proceeded to Venice, to solicit, on motives of piety or interest, the aid of that powerful republic.”

There was, still, the problem of payment for these services, and the armies were short of money. Gibbon continues,

“The obstacle was removed by the policy and patriotism of the doge, who proposed to the barons that, if they would join their arms in reducing some revolted cities of Dalmatia, he would expose his person in the holy war, and obtain from the republic a long indulgence, till some wealthy conquest should afford the means of satisfying the debt. After much scruple and hesitation [the cities were Christian, not infidel], they chose rather to accept the offer than to relinquish the enterprise.So great an affront to Christian principles could not go unpunished: The pope excommunicated the assembled host.

That is, the Venetians said, “Let’s make a deal.” They got the holy rollers to subdue some rebellious (Christian) possessions of their empire, and they helped move the Crusade along. They did get a bit sidetracked – there was more loot to be had in Constantinople than Jerusalem, nevermind that it was a Christian empire all its own. It wasn’t Catholic!

You can read the whole sordid story in the Chronicle of the Fourth Crusade by Villehardouin. It seems to me to be somehow emblematic of certain recurring themes in human history: greed, cynicism, the perversion of high ideals and the tragedies that brings, and of course, as the great Flaubert would say, stupidity.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 172 other followers