The Sack of Constantinople in 1204

There was never a greater crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusade.
(Sir Steven Runciman, 1954)

Until I read John Julius Norwich’s account of the Fourth Crusade, which ended with the devastating sack of Constantinople in 1204, I hadn’t appreciate what a seismic and unmitigated disaster it was.

Norwich’s account of the Latins’ destruction of the biggest, richest city in the world was so harrowing I was depressed for days and found it difficult to continue reading the book in which he describes it, Byzantium: The Decline and Fall.

Like reading detailed accounts of Hiroshima, I just felt that…. after seeing humanity revealed in such appalling colours, why… why go on with anything?

For me, personally, the reason to go on is to understand better. Not to understand perfectly, which I am confident, or acknowledge, is beyond human wit. But just because perfect understanding is an impossible platonic absolute, doesn’t mean that some understanding isn’t better than none. And, for me, personally, understanding things brings sweet mental joy.

And so, just like Norwich’s detailed description of the Sack of Rome by Alaric and the Visigoths in 410, a detailed description of the Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople makes it so much more comprehensible. Only if you follow the events in the most detailed way possible do you realise that a distant event which is often treated as a single thing – the Sack of Constantinople – was in fact a complex concatenation of accidents and misunderstandings and misjudgments and bad agreements. It took the malevolence of some people (the doge of Venice), the chancer’s gamble of the pretender to the Byzantine throne Alexius III, and then the passive acquiescence of the majority of the crusaders, to take place. Reading the details makes you realise that a) this is how ‘history’ i.e. human events, work, in complex unexpected ways, where all kinds of spokes are stuck into the machine and b) makes you realise how the nature of human life, human experience, human societies, and big political events, doesn’t change much. I’m thinking of the sequence of events which brought about Brexit, and which we are still in the middle of. The results aren’t as murderous and destructive as the sack of Constantinople – but they are recognisably the product of the same confused, chaotic species.

In other words, reading about the sack itself is grim and depressing, but the knowledge and insight it gives you into human nature and how human affairs operate, are powerful and liberating.

Summary

This is the short version you’re likely to read in books focusing on other subjects, such as the crusades as a whole, or the Middle Ages.

In April 1204 the Latin, Western soldiers of the Fourth Crusade laid siege to Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire. On 12 April the crusader armies breached the city’s defences and stormed the city. Attacking Venetian forces tried to use fire as a defensive shield but it quickly got out of control and burned unchecked through the city. As if that wasn’t catastrophic enough, once the crusaders had established a bridgehead, they proceeded to spend three days pillaging and looting the city.

The Greek emperor fled and leaders of the ruling families were driven into exile, so the crusaders chose a Latin ruler – Baldwin of Flanders – who was crowned Emperor Baldwin I and inherited about a quarter of the territory his Greek predecessors had ruled This Latin rule of the Byzantine Empire was to last just under 60 years, before a Greek ruler and army re-established Greek power.

After the city’s sacking, most of the Byzantine Empire’s territories were divided up among the Crusaders, but Byzantine aristocrats also established a number of small independent splinter states, one of them being the Empire of Nicaea, which would become the kernel of Greek resistance and – after a long series of small wars, setbacks and struggles to reunify Greek leadership – would eventually recapture Constantinople in 1261 and restore the Greek tradition and religion to the city of Constantine.

But the restored Byzantine Empire never managed to reclaim all its former territorial or economic strength, and eventually fell to the rising Ottoman Sultanate in 1453.


Background

The Latin West and Greek East of Christendom had been growing apart for centuries, with the pope in Rome arrogating more and more power and authority to himself, insisting the Eastern church submit to his authority, and Western clerics as a whole coming to regard the Eastern Orthodox church as schismatic and in error on a wide range of theological and procedural issues. Norwich’s three volumes of Byzantine history are littered with theological, administrative and geopolitical arguments between the papacy and the emperor or Patriarch (head of the Eastern Church) of Constantinople. This helps explain the indoctrination of western crusaders that the Byzantines were exotic, untrustworthy, almost heretics.

But the real focus of the story is the growing rivalry between the maritime republic of Venice, whose wealth was based on shipping and trading across the Muslim Middle East to the ‘Indies’ where spices and pepper came from, and Byzantium as the established power in the region. Successive emperors of Byzantium had been obliged to make trade treaties with Venice and given Venetian merchants extensive privileges in the city, such as an entire quarter down by the docks for their use and trading rights across the Empire’s territories and islands.

The sack had three causes:

  1. long-term mistrust between Latin Westerners and Greek Byzantines
  2. the long-term rivalry with Venice which wished to supersede Byzantium as the main power in the eastern Mediterranean
  3. a short-term, proximate cause which was a string of accidents to do with the mismanagement of the Fourth Crusade, which were ruthlessly exploited by the doge of Venice, Enrico Dandolo, to fulfil point 2.

East-West relations

1. Mass arrest of the Venetians 1171

Latin Catholics from the rival cities Venice and Genoa dominated the city’s maritime trade and financial sector, having secured concessions from successive Byzantine emperors, which resulted in a virtual maritime monopoly and stranglehold over the Empire by the Venetians.

Rich Italian merchants grew very rich and so did the Byzantine aristocrats who allied with them, leading to popular resentment among the middle and lower classes in both the countryside and in the cities.

The Venetians resented that their main Italian rivals, the Genoese, also had extensive quarters in Constantinople, and in 1171 the Venetians attacked and largely destroyed the Genoese quarter. The Emperor retaliated by ordering the mass arrest of all Venetians throughout the Empire and the confiscation of their property (a move he had probably been meditating for some time – the Genoese attack gave him a pretext). As with all civil unrest, there were also rapes and the burning of houses. Infuriated, the Venetians launched a naval expedition to attack Byzantine interests, which failed, but the encouraged the Empire’s enemies, specifically the Serbs – to take advantage of the unrest and launch land attacks.

Relations were only gradually normalized, reaching an uneasy peace in the mid-1180s.

2. The massacre of the Latins

But the simmering resentment didn’t go away and burst out anew in the Massacre of the Latins which took place in Constantinople in April 1182.

After the death of Emperor Manuel I in 1180, his widow, the Latin princess Maria of Antioch, acted as regent to their son and became notorious for the favoritism she showed to Latin merchants and the big aristocratic land-owners.

In April 1182 she was overthrown by the ageing general Andronicus I Comnenus. He marched on Constantinople and entered the city in a wave of popular support. But the celebrations quickly got out of hand and escalated into mob violence against the hated Latins. The ensuing massacre was indiscriminate: Latin men, women and children were attacked in the street, their houses burnt down, Latin patients lying in hospital beds were murdered. Houses, churches, and charities were looted. Latin clergymen received special attention and Cardinal John, the papal legate, was beheaded and his head dragged through the streets at the tail of a dog.

Andronicus finally took control and curtailed the rioting, but the massacre obviously left profound bad feeling. The Normans under William II of Sicily in 1185 sacked Thessalonica, the Empire’s second largest city, while over the next decade or so, the German emperors Frederick Barbarossa and Henry VI both tried to get papal approval to mount an attack on Constantinople.

The Fourth Crusade

Henry VI’s failed expedition

This fraught relation between East and West, and especially between Byzantium and Venice, was the difficult background to the Fourth Crusade and largely explains what happened next.

The Third Crusade had ended in 1192 with a treaty signed between Richard I of England and Saladin, leader of the Saracen forces, agreeing that Jerusalem would remain under Muslim rule but that Christian pilgrims and traders would be assured safe passage to visit the city.

Almost immediately the failure to liberate Jerusalem led to calls for a new crusade to finish the job. In 1195 there was one of those large-scale western incursions into the area which aren’t included in the canonical ‘crusades’ but which Norwich describes in just as much detail – the steady rumble of expeditions, wars, raids, alliances and defeats which fill Norwich’s pages and help put the crusades into a broader context of unending conflict.

Henry VI, the second son of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, organised a new Eastern expedition and in the summer of 1197 a large number of German knights and nobles, headed by two archbishops, nine bishops, and five dukes, sailed for Palestine. There they captured Sidon and Beirut, but then the army heard that Henry himself had died at Messina in Sicily on his way to the Holy Land and many of the nobles and clerics returned to Europe. Deserted by much of their leadership, the rank and file crusaders panicked before the advance of a Muslim army from Egypt, and fled to their ships in Tyre. Thus ended this brief Western foray.

Pope Innocent III preaches the fourth crusade

Pope Innocent III succeeded to the papacy in January 1198 and immediately began preaching a new crusade. The kings of Germany, France and England were all distracted by dynastic squabbles, but the pope managed to get a leader in the shape of Count Thibaut of Champagne who, in 1199, committed to the crusade and began rallying knights. In the event, Thibault himself he died in 1201 and was replaced by an Italian count, Boniface of Montferrat.

Richard the Lionheart’s advice – attack Egypt

Now, on his return from the third crusade in 1192, King Richard of England had given his opinion that the main goal of any future crusade should be to seize Egypt. Jerusalem is far to the south of the east Mediterranean coastline and experience had shown that, going the land route through Anatolia (modern Turkey) tended to focus the military efforts of the crusaders on the territory they passed through – on Cilicia and Syria and Antioch and so on, in the north of Palestine – whereas Jerusalem is far to the south, much closer to the heart of what had been the Fatimid Dynasty in Egypt.

The idea being that whoever held Egypt would find it easy to secure Jerusalem as a strategic add-on and would have a strong secure hinterland. The leaders of the fourth crusade took all this on board and planned from the beginning to launch a naval campaign against Muslim Egypt.

The deal with Venice

However, an invasion of Egypt would require ships and the only Christian kingdom with the maritime capacity to help was Venice. Thus Boniface and the other leaders sent envoys to Venice, Genoa, and other city-states in 1200 to negotiate a contract for transport to Egypt.

Venice agreed to help. Specifically, Venice agreed to build the ships necessary to transport 33,500 crusaders across the Med. The agreement made for a full year of preparation on the part of the Venetians to build numerous ships and train the sailors who would man them. All this would take place at the cost of her own commercial activities. Venice also negotiated for permanent possession of ports seized in the Holy Land. The crusade was to be ready to sail on 24 June 1203 and make directly for the Ayyubid capital, Cairo. The agreement was ratified by Pope Innocent, with a solemn ban on attacks on Christian states.

However, nobody had enforced commitment to the Venice plan on the heterogenous armies and forces scattered all across Europe, and so various contingents sailed under their own steam from a variety of European ports. The number of crusaders who actually turned up at Venice in the appointed month of May 1202 was about a third of the expected 33,500.

Reasonably enough, the Venetians, under their aged and blind Doge Enrico Dandolo, would not let the crusaders leave without paying the full amount agreed to, some 85,000 silver marks. The crusaders could only manage 35,000 silver marks between them. This was disastrous for the Venetians, who had suspended their usual trading for a year, trained sailors and so on, in order to fulfil the deal.

Doge Dandolo proposes an attack on Zara

It is now that the Doge Dandolo starts to emerge as the wicked genie of the expedition. Dandolo proposed that to pay off their debts the crusaders should help Venice with a spot of bother: the port of Zara in Dalmatia had traditionally been dominated by Venice but had rebelled in 1181 and allied itself with King Emeric of Hungary. Dandolo told the crusaders they could pay off their debt if they helped Venice seize back control of Zara.

Now King Emeric was himself a Catholic and had taken the cross in 1195, so many of the crusaders understandably refused to countenance attacking Zara, and some, including a force led by the elder Simon de Montfort, returned home. Also, as soon as he learned about the proposal, the Pope wrote a letter to the crusading leadership threatening excommunication if they attacked another Christian state. However, this letter was kept secret from the ranks of the crusader army, which proceeded to take ship across the Adriatic and besiege Zara in November 1202.

Although the inhabitants of Zara hung banners from their buildings with crosses on to point out that they were fellow Christians, the crusaders quickly breached the walls and proceeded to ransack and pillage the city. Giving way to crude greed, the Venetians and other crusaders came to blows over the division of the spoils.

When Innocent III heard of the sack of Zara, he sent a letter to the crusaders excommunicating them and ordering them to return to their holy vows and head for Jerusalem. The leaders kept this letter from the troops, and replied to the pope that they had been forced to do it by the Venetians, having had no alternative between carrying out the attack or calling off the whole crusade.

The pope relented and in February 1203 rescinded the excommunications against all non-Venetians in the expedition. Somewhere someone must have done a study of just how ineffectual papal excommunications were in the Middle Ages.

The fatal deal with Alexius IV Angelus

Meanwhile, the nominal leader of the crusade, Boniface of Montferrat, had left the fleet before it sailed for Zara, to visit his cousin Philip of Swabia. At Philip’s court he found the exiled Byzantine prince Alexius IV Angelus, Philip’s brother-in-law and the son of the recently deposed Byzantine emperor Isaac II Angelus. (Isaac II had been deposed and blinded by his older brother, Alexius Angelus, who then claimed the throne as Alexius III. Alexius IV wasn’t Alexius IV yet, but would be if he could only reclaim the throne.)

Now Alexius proceeded to make the two would-be crusaders an offer: if they could get the crusaders to sail to Constantinople, and overthrow the reigning emperor Alexius III Angelus, and restore his father and himself to the Byzantine throne, then Alexius would:

  1. use the wealth of the Byzantine Empire to pay the entire debt owed to the Venetians
  2. give 200,000 silver marks to the crusaders
  3. give 10,000 Byzantine professional troops for the Crusade
  4. pay for the permanent maintenance of 500 knights in the Holy Land
  5. offer the service of the Byzantine navy to transport the Crusader Army to Egypt
  6. place the Eastern Orthodox Church under the authority of the Pope

This fantastic offer was passed on to the leaders of the Crusade as they wintered at Zara and they enthusiastically agreed, seconded by Doge Dandolo – although the latter knew that Alexius could never keep these promises: he knew that Byzantium didn’t have that much money and would never agree to submit its church to Rome. Dandolo did, though, see at a glance the benefits for Venice in such an arrangement, which were:

  • revenge for the massacre of the Latins and other historical grievances
  • seizure of Constantinople’s significant wealth
  • by reinstating a large Venetian colony in the city, gaining a permanent commercial advantage over Venice’s rival, Genoa

Even now there were dissenters among the crusade’s leaders who (correctly) thought it was no part of a crusade against the Muslims to attack the mainstay of Christian power in the East. Led by Reynold of Montmirail, they sailed directly on to Syria.

Diversion of the crusade to Constantinople

But the majority of the fourth crusade now set sail for Constantinople in April 1203. The fleet consisted of some 60 war galleys, 100 horse transports and 50 large transports (manned by 10,000 Venetian oarsmen and marines). The Pope hedged and issued an order against any more attacks on Christians unless they were actively hindering the Crusader cause, but he did not condemn the scheme outright.

The crusaders attack Constantinople

When the Fourth Crusade arrived at Constantinople on 23 June 1203, the city had a population of approximately 500,000 people, a garrison of 15,000 men (including 5,000 Varangians), and a fleet of 20 galleys. Norwich emphasises that the city’s defences had been left to decay by the useless emperor Alexius III Angelus, and most of the galleys had fallen into disrepair.

The crusaders delivered their ultimatum demanding that that the emperor Alexius III should abdicate to make way for his nephew, Alexius IV. The emperor refused. The crusaders attacked the suburbs of Chalcedon and Chrysopolis. When about 200 ships, horse transports, and galleys delivered the crusading army across the narrow strait of the Bosphorus from Asia to Europe, Alexius III had lined up the Byzantine army in battle formation along the shore but, when the crusader actually knights charged, the Byzantine army turned and fled.

The Crusaders followed south along the shore and attacked the Tower of Galata. From this tower stretched a massive chain across the Golden Horn, the strait of water up the east side of the city, preventing entry to enemy ships. The crusaders took the tower and lowered the chain, allowing the Venetian fleet to sail up the Golden Horn. This is a narrow strip of water and the crusader galleys were able to come up close against the city’s seaward walls. Here they presented the pretender to the throne, Alexius IV, but were surprised when the people and soldiers of Constantinople jeered from the battlements. The crusaders had been told the people were in the grip of a cruel dictator and that they and Alexius would be greeted as liberators. Now they began to realise this was not true.

The crusaders set about attacking the city, combining an attack on the land walls at the north-west, with attacks on the sea walls from the fleet in the Horn. Eventually a breach was made and the crusaders entered the city. They were forced back by the Byzantine response and set a fire to keep off their attackers. This fire got out of control and was the first of the disastrous fires which were to burn through a large part of the city, this first one leaving an estimated 20,000 people homeless.

Alexius III made one last foray out to face the crusaders, but compounded his reputation for cowardice and ineffectiveness by turning his 8,500 men back in the face of the crusaders’ smaller force of 3,500. The impact of the fire and of this dismal capitulation led to a collapse in morale among the defenders. Alexius fled the city with his favourite daughter and courtiers.

The Byzantine officials now quickly declared the runaway emperor deposed and restored blind old Isaac II to the throne.

This presented the crusaders with a dilemma. The main, official, justification for the whole expedition was supposed to be restoring Isaac and his son, Alexius IV, who had proposed the whole scheme in the first place, to the throne. Now the Byzantines had called their bluff and restored Isaac. The crusaders responded that they would only recognize the authority of Isaac II if his son was raised to co-emperor, but the Byzantines again called the crusaders’ bluff by immediately agreeing to this, taking Alexius into the city and hurriedly arranging for his coronation at Hagia Sophia where he was crowned Alexius Angelus IV, co-emperor.

Alexius is unable to pay

As Norwich makes all too plain, Alexius now realised what a dreadful error he had made. The mismanagement of the Angelus dynasty over the previous decades had left Byzantium’s coffers bare, and Alexius III had made it worse by fleeing with as much imperial treasure as he could carry.

Alexius IV now ordered the seizure and melting down of priceless icons and church plate to use their gold and silver to pay off the impatient crusaders who were waiting across the Golden Horn in the suburb of Galata. Forcing the populace to destroy their most precious icons to satisfy an army of foreign schismatics did not endear Alexius IV to the citizens of Constantinople. Alexius negotiated a six-month extension to his pledge to the crusaders, making it now fall due in April 1204. Alexius IV then led 6,000 men from the crusader army against his rival Alexius III in Adrianople, with a view to seizing back the treasure his uncle had stolen and whatever could be ransacked from the Empire’s second city.

The Great Fire of Constantinople

But during the co-emperor’s absence in August 1203, rioting broke out in the city against the arrogant Latin occupiers, a number of whom were killed. In retaliation armed Venetians and other crusaders entered the city from the Golden Horn and, among other mayhem, discovered a church which had been converted into a mosque to cater to Constantinople’s not insignificant Muslim population. Citizens, both Greek and Muslim, rallied to the defence of this building and, to cover their retreat, the Latins started a fire, which – as is the way with fires – quickly spread out of control.

This became the ‘Great Fire’ of Constantinople which burnt from 19 to 21 August, destroying a large part of the city, consuming many ancient palaces and churches, and leaving an estimated 100,000 homeless. Amid the ruins the demoralised citizenry struggled on, while the crusaders waiting impatiently for their money.

The overthrow of Alexius IV

In January 1204, blind old Isaac II died, probably of natural causes, and rule now passed to his lamentable son, Alexius IV. The Byzantine Senate elected a young noble Nicolas Canabus to be co-emperor, in what was to be one of the last known acts of this ancient institution. However he declined the appointment and sought church sanctuary. Who can blame him?

Now during this period of crisis a nobleman called Alexius Ducas (nicknamed Mourtzouphlos, referring to his bush eyebrows) had led Byzantine forces during the initial clashes with the crusaders, winning respect from both the army and the people. And so it was Mourtzouphlos who one night entered the bed chamber of Alexius IV, told him there was rioting outside and the people were baying for his blood, led him through secret passages in the palace, to a dungeon where he chained and locked him up. Then returned to join his supporters and have himself proclaimed Emperor Alexius V. A few weeks later Alexius IV, the man who had caused all this trouble with his foolish promise to the crusaders, was strangled.

Alexius immediately took control of the Byzantine resistance and had the city fortifications strengthened, as well as recalling loyal troops from the provinces to bolster the Constantinople garrison.

The crusaders and Venetians, incensed at the murder of their supposed patron, demanded that Mourtzouphlos honour the contract that Alexius IV had made. The terms, if you remember, were to:

  1. use the wealth of the Empire to pay the entire debt owed to the Venetians
  2. give 200,000 silver marks to the crusaders
  3. give 10,000 Byzantine professional troops for the Crusade
  4. pay for the maintenance of 500 knights in the Holy Land
  5. offer the service of the Byzantine navy to transport the Crusader Army to Egypt
  6. place the Eastern Orthodox Church under the authority of the Pope

The crusaders renew their attack

Alexius V refused for the simple reason that there was nowhere near that much money in the imperial treasury. In March he ordered the forcible expulsion of all Latins from the city, which , and so in April the crusaders launched another attack on the city. Alexius V’s army put up a strong resistance, hurling projectiles onto the crusader’s siege engines, shattering many of them, and bad weather also hampered the attackers.

Pope Innocent III again sent a message ordering the crusaders not to attack, but once again the papal letter was suppressed by the clergy and never made public. While the Latin crusaders prepared to attack the land walls the Venetian fleet drew close to the sea-walls in an attempt to storm them.

On 12 April 1204, the weather conditions finally favoured the crusaders. A strong northern wind helped the Venetian ships get close to the seaward walls while on the land approach, the crusaders managed to make a hole in the walls through which a force of crusaders was able to crawl and overpower the defenders.

The crusaders captured the Blachernae section of the city in the northwest and used it as a base to attack the rest of the city. Alexius V fled the city accompanied by his wife and mother-in-law. In the Hagia Sophia Constantine Lascaris was acclaimed emperor but, when he failed to persuade the Varangian guard to continue the fight against the crusaders, in the early hours of 13 April he also fled, leaving Constantinople abandoned to the control of the Latins.

The sack of Constantinople

Over the centuries Constantinople had become a museum of ancient and Byzantine art. Having secured control of the city the crusaders proceeded to systematically sack and devastate it for three days. Churches and palaces were ransacked. Vast numbers of works of art were stolen, or melted down for their precious metals, or just burned and destroyed. Thousands of citizens were murdered or raped.

Despite the pope’s threat of excommunication, the crusaders destroyed, defiled and looted and set on fire the city’s churches and monasteries. Priests were abused, defrocked or murdered. In the greatest church in Christendom, Hagia Sophia, the crusaders melted down the silver iconostasis, smashed the icons, burned the holy books, and set on the patriarchal throne a prostitute who sang bawdy songs as the crusaders got drunk and pissed on the holy relics.

It was now that the Venetians stole the four statues of horses which they set up over the portico of St Mark’s cathedral in the main square in Venice. A large bronze statue of Hercules, created by the legendary Lysippos, court sculptor of Alexander the Great, was destroyed. Like countless other artworks, the statue was melted down for its metal value.

It was said that the total amount looted from Constantinople was about 900,000 silver marks. After the dust had settled the leaders of the ‘crusade’ made a big pile of their takings and divided up according to a pre-arranged deal. The Venetians took 150,000 silver marks that they reckoned was their due, while the crusaders took 50,000 silver marks. A further 100,000 silver marks were divided evenly up between the crusaders and Venetians. The remaining 500,000 silver marks were kept back by crusader knights and gangs.

When Innocent III heard of the conduct of his crusaders he was beside himself with rage. The whole episode sharply highlights the limits of papal power, and the ineffectiveness of even of the strongest weapon the pope possessed, that of excommunication. Various popes excommunicate numerous kings and emperors and princes throughout Norwich’s book and it never seems to have the slightest effect. In fact I wonder if there is a single example of the threat of excommunication making anyone (anyone of note, any leader) change their behaviour. In his shame the pope wrote:

As for those who were supposed to be seeking the ends of Jesus Christ, not their own ends, who made their swords, which they were supposed to use against the pagans, drip with Christian blood, they have spared neither religion, nor age, nor sex. They have committed incest, adultery, and fornication before the eyes of men. They have exposed both matrons and virgins, even those dedicated to God, to the sordid lusts of boys. Not satisfied with breaking open the imperial treasury and plundering the goods of princes and lesser men, they also laid their hands on the treasures of the churches and, what is more serious, on their very possessions. They have even ripped silver plates from the altars and have hacked them to pieces among themselves. They violated the holy places and have carried off crosses and relics.

The fourth crusaders

The naval attack on Egypt was never carried out. Only a relatively small number of the members of the Fourth Crusade finally reached the Holy Land. About a tenth of the knights who had taken the cross in Flanders arrived to reinforce the remaining Christian states there, plus about half of those from the Île-de-France. What a farce.

The Fourth Crusade – if indeed it can be so described – surpassed even its predecessors in faithlessness and duplicity, in brutality and greed. Constantinople in the twelfth century had been not just the wealthiest metropolis in the world, but also the most intellectually and artistically cultivated and the chief repository of Europe’s classical heritage, both Greek and Roman. By its sack, Western civilisation suffered a loss greater than the sack of Rome by the barbarians in the fifth century or the burning of the library of Alexandria by the soldiers of the Prophet in the seventh – perhaps the most catastrophic single loss in all history. (Norwich, p.182)

The aftermath – a Latin emperor and the Greek successor states

When the looting was quite finished and large parts of the once-glorious city burned to the ground, the crusaders convened to appoint a Latin emperor to take control of the city and the Byzantine Empire. Doge Dandolo wisely withdrew from the field of candidates and Boniface of Montferrat was deliberately rejected because of his family ties with the Greek regime. Several other crusader leaders were overlooked till they settled on the inoffensive Baldwin of Flanders. The Empire was now partitioned:

  • Boniface went on to found the Kingdom of Thessalonica, a vassal state of the new Latin Empire.
  • The Venetians founded the Duchy of the Archipelago in the Aegean Sea.
  • A Duchy of Athens controlling most of Greece.

Byzantine refugees founded their own rump states, namely:

  • the Empire of Nicaea, just across the Bosphorus on the Asian mainland, under Theodore Lascaris (a relative of Alexius III)
  • the Empire of Trebizond far away on the south coast of the Black Sea
  • the Despotate of Epirus on the Dalmatian shore opposite Italy

While Crete, Rhodes, Caphalonia and Corfu were permanently handed over to Venice.

Partition of the Byzantine Empire into The Latin Empire, Empire of Nicaea, and Despotate of Epirus after 1204 (source: Wikipedia)

Its enemies take advantage of the ruin of the Byzantine Empire

Norwich’s book takes a decisive turn after the sack of Constantinople. Up till then the reader had a reasonable grasp on the notion of one Byzantine Empire and one Byzantine emperor, who faced a sea of opponents to north, west and east.

But now there were no fewer than four emperors – the Latin one in Constantinople, the Greek one in Nicaea, one in faraway Trebizond and an aspirant one in Epirus (not to mention the Holy Roman Emperor based in Germany). Each of these are led by rulers who aren’t content with their holdings but immediately started scheming against each other, and involving the leaders of the lesser states – the Duchy of Athens, the Principality of Achaea and so on.

For the next fifty years or so, all these characters conspired against each other, fought against each other, made and broke alliances with each other – all the time doing the same with the many enemies who continued to surround and menace the Empire, from the Bulgarians and Serbs in the north, to the Seljuk Turks in the East.

Several of the major Greek and Latin protagonists in the events died or were killed soon after the fall of the city. The betrayal and blinding of Murtzuphlus by Alexius III led to his capture by the Latins and his execution in 1205. Not long after, Alexius III was himself captured by Boniface and sent to exile in Southern Italy. He died in Nicaea in 1211.

On 14 April 1205, one year after the conquest of the city, the Latin emperor Baldwin was decisively defeated and captured at the Battle of Adrianople by the Bulgarians. In 1205 or 1206, the Bulgarian Emperor Kaloyan mutilated him and left him to die (others suggest he was kept captive in the famous Baldwin’s Tower in the Bulgarian capital Veliko Turnovo, where he died under unknown circumstances). Either way, he only lasted a year as the ruler of the Latin Empire and that Empire was to lead a stunted, blighted life, menaced on all sides and deprived of all economic livelihood.

Baldwin was succeeded by his brother Henry of Hainault who appears to have been a wise and fair king, liberal to his Greek subjects, and who – beside battling the troublesome Bulgarians – reached a peace settlement with the Greek Empire based in Nicaea.

The Latin Empire always rested on shaky foundations but it took nearly sixty years before the city was finally retaken by the Nicaean Greeks under Michael VIII Palaeologus in 1261. But it was a ruined wreck of a city, as Norwich’s desolate description makes clear. Many of the churches and palaces still lay abandoned ruins. The population had collapsed. The city was never to recover.

Conclusion

The sack of Constantinople was a major turning point in medieval history. The Crusaders’ decision to attack the world’s largest Christian city was controversial at the time and has been ever since. Reports of Crusader looting and brutality horrified the Orthodox world and crystallised bitter opposition to the barbarian West.

Relations between the Catholic and Orthodox churches were blighted, arguably right up to the present day. Norwich makes the point that, as the Turks drew nearer in the coming centuries, most Byzantines, whether aristocrats or peasants, preferred the idea of subjection by the Muslims to the barbaric destructiveness of the West Europeans. The Byzantines had a saying, ‘Better a turban than a cardinal’s hat,’ and they meant it.

So much for East-West relations, but the main and obvious result of the sack was that the Byzantine Empire was permanently crippled. Broken up into a number of successor states, it was never to be really unified again, never able to muster the resources in men and goods necessary to hold off its enemies, especially the Ottoman Turks who would begin their rise to power 200 years later.

The actions of the Crusaders thus directly accelerated the collapse of Christendom in the East, and in the long run facilitated the expansion of Islam across the Bosphorus and right into the heart of Europe. In 1529 the Ottoman Turks led by Suleiman the Magnificent were to lay siege to Vienna.

So you could argue that the net effect of the entire crusading enterprise was not only to leave an enduring legacy of bitterness throughout the entire Muslim world and among the Greek Orthodox eastern world – but also to hand the Middle East, all of Anatolia and half the Balkans over to Muslim occupiers.

Was ever a mass social movement and religious undertaking so utterly and completely counter-productive?


Related links

Reviews of other books and exhibitions about the Middle Ages

Europe’s Inner Demons: The Demonization of Christians in Medieval Christendom (1) by Norman Cohn (1975)

Norman Cohn (1915-2007) was an English academic historian. In the 1960s he became the head of the Columbus Centre, which was set up and initially financed by Observer editor David Astor to look into the causes of extremism and persecution. As head, Cohn commissioned research and studies from other academics on numerous aspects of persecution, and himself wrote several books on the subject, namely:

  • The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957) which traced the long history of millenial, end-of-the-world cults which, more often than not, seek scapegoats when the Great Awakening or Rapture or whatever they call it fails to happen
  • Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith (1993) which traced millennial religious themes to their sources in ancient civilizations
  • Warrant for Genocide (1966) about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-semitic forgery which surfaced in Russia in 1903 and claimed to describe a Jewish conspiracy for world domination

Europe’s Inner Demons is roughly in two halves: what it builds up to is a description of the witch craze and witch trials of early modern Europe and America (i.e. the 1600s and 1700s). But it’s the first half which interests me more. In this Cohn describes the origin and meanings of many of the absurd accusations which were later to be brought against the ‘witches’, following them from their origin in pagan times, through the early medieval period, and climaxing with their deployment in the arrests, torture and execution of the Knights Templar in the early 1300s.

It happens that I’ve just finished reading a book about the Knights Templars, which mentions Cohn’s book, and so I was inspired to read the first half, up to and including the Templars trial.

Cohn shows that:

  • In pre-Christian, pagan Rome writers and authorities attributed inhuman and uncanny activities to minority, outsider groups who they associated with secret societies dedicated to overthrowing the state. Chief among these was the (originally traditional) event of the Bacchanalia, which, originally, was an orgiastic festival celebrating the god Bacchus but, over time, became associated with dark nights, wine and promiscuous sex. Cohn shows how traditional Roman writers came to associate it with darker, anti-social motivations. A fateful link was made between tiny, minority sects who held secretive activities – the worry that these sects were in some way anti-social, dedicated to social revolution – and the attribution to them of increasingly absurd accusations, such as child murder, ritual sacrifice, the drinking of human blood, and deliberately indiscriminate sex – all designed to undermine traditional values and hierarchies and relationships.
  • In the early centuries of Christianity, pagan and Roman writers redirected the tropes they’d developed to blacken the followers of the Bacchanal at the new Eastern religious sect, accusing the Christians of unholy rituals at which they drank the blood of ritually murdered individuals, or engaged in promiscuous sex. Cohn points out that these are easily understandable distortions of a) the Eucharist, where Christians really are enjoined to drink the blood of Christ and b) the Loving Cup or various other references to group love, team love, Christian love, which had a purely Platonic, non-sexual meaning. But not for the accusers and propagandists who scraped the barrel of the human psyche to dredge up all the worst crimes they could think of.
  • Once Christianity had become established (by, say, around 400) the powers-that-be began to persecute Christian heretics and Cohn shows how these heretics now found themselves subject to the same slanders and propaganda as the early Christians had been – dark rumours of midnight masses, perverted rituals, the slaying of a victim whose blood was then drunk and body eaten. And he shows how the ritual victim was all-too-often said to be a baby.

Medieval pessimism

A big-over-arching idea which I found particularly powerful was Cohn’s contention that as the Middle Ages progressed, Christianity – and western culture, such as it was in the early Middle Ages – became more pessimistic.

Going back and reading the early Church Fathers – Tertullian and Justin Martyr and St Jerome and so on – he says you are struck by their conviction that the end of the world is just around the corner and the Day of the Lord is at hand. The early Christians are strong in their faith and happy, burning with conviction that the End is Nigh, that any day now the Lord will return in splendour and all their sufferings will be justified.

However, as the years, then decades, then centuries go by, hopes fade, the Roman Empire is overthrown, societies sink into less advanced forms, the economy collapses, waves of barbarians fight their way across the old imperial lands. And Jesus does not return. By around 1000 AD, medieval culture can be described as depressed. And in its disappointment, it looked with ever-greater desperation for scapegoats.

The atmosphere was changing. Fantasies which in the early Middle Ages had been unknown in western Europe were turning into commonplaces. (p.41)

This is reflected in the rise of the figure and role of Satan and his demons. Cohn has a fascinating chapter (pp.16-34) describing the development of Satan, the Devil. In the Old Testament he is barely mentioned. When bad things happen it is generally because the Old Testament God is wilful and capricious and swayed by his bad moods. Satan does appear in the Book of Job but he is more of a collaborator with God than his enemy; it is Satan who comes up with new ways to persecute Job. It is in the so-called inter-testamentary period – between the last of the accepted books of the Old Testament, written about 300 BC and the first books of the New Testament, written about 50 AD, that Satan undergoes a sweeping change of character. Historians usually attribute this to the influx of Eastern, Zoroastrian and Manichean ideas coming from the Persian Empire in the greater multicultural atmosphere created by the triumph of the Roman Republic and then Empire.

Anyway, in the New Testament, Satan has become a completely new thing, a tormentor and tempter sent to oppose Jesus at every step. Satan’s demons possess innocent people and only Jesus can exorcise them. In the climax of a series of tests, Jesus is made to go out into the wilderness to be confronted and tempted by the Devil in person.

Cohn shows how in the early centuries of the church, saints and holy men were still supposed to be able to drive out demons and Satan’s helpers, merely by revealing the consecrated host or a cross or saying Jesus’ name. But in line with the growth of medieval pessimism, the years from around 1000 AD saw greater and greater anxiety that the Devil was taking over the world which translated into ever-more paranoid fears that secret societies and heresies were flourishing everywhere, dedicated to the overthrow of existing society and to establish the triumph of the Antichrist.

Slowly and steadily, the myth of Devil worship, and the details of how this worship was carried out – by murdering a baby, drinking its blood or its ashes mixed with blood, and then weird rituals to do with black cats (lifting its tail to kiss its anus) – were carefully elaborated by successive generations of highly educated and paranoid Catholic intellectuals.

The stereotype of the Devil-worshipping sect was fully developed, in every detail, by 1100. (p.76)

Heretic hunting and the inquisition

Cohn devoted a chapter to the rise of inquisitions, carefully delineating the difference between secular courts and their power, and the power vested in one-off inquisitors by the pope. He describes the hair-raising campaigns of heretic-hunting inquisitors in Germany and the South of France in the 1200s, notably the egregious Conrad of Marburg appointed inquisitor in central Germany in 1231, or John of Capestrano, appointed heresy inquisitor by the pope in 1418. Already, in 1215 the Lateran Council, by insisting that bishops do everything in their power to suppress heresy on pain of dismissal, had incentivised people across society to come forward with denunciations. Basically a lot of people were tortured into confessing and then burned to death. A lot.

Along the way we learn about the beliefs, the demographics and then the terrible persecutions endured by groups such as:

  • the Paulicians – Christian sect which was formed in the 7th century and rejected a good deal of the Old and much of the New Testament, originally associated with Armenia and horribly persecuted by the Byzantine Empire
  • the Bogomils – sect founded in the First Bulgarian Empire by the priest Bogomil during the reign of Tsar Peter I in the 10th century, a form of opposition to the Bulgarian state and the church, they called for a return to what they considered to be early spiritual teaching, rejecting the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Dualists or Gnostics, they believed in a world within the body and a world outside the body, did not use the Christian cross, nor build churches, as they revered their gifted form and considered their body to be the temple, giving rise to many forms of practice to cleanse oneself through purging, fasting, celebrating and dancing.
  • the Waldensians – originated in the late twelfth century as the Poor Men of Lyon, a band organized by Peter Waldo, a wealthy merchant who gave away his property around 1173, preaching apostolic poverty as the way to perfection. Waldensian teachings quickly came into conflict with the Catholic Church and by 1215, the Waldensians were declared heretical and subject to intense persecution.
  • the Fraticelli ‘de opinione’ – members of the Franciscan order of monks who rebelled against its growing worldliness and corruption (St Francis had died in 1226) and tried to return to a really primitive material life, owning literally nothing, and having no food from one day to the next. Declared heretics in the 1400s, Cohn goes into great detail about the trial of leading Fraticelli in 1466.
  • the Cathars – from the Greek katharoi meaning ‘the pure’, the Cathars were a dualist or gnostic movement which became widespread in Southern Europe between the 12th and 14th centuries. They believed there were two gods, one good, one evil – diametrically opposed to the Catholic church which believes in only one God. The Cathars believed the God of the Old Testament, creator of the physical world, was evil. Cathars thought human spirits were the genderless spirits of angels trapped in the material realm of the evil god, and destined to be reincarnated until they achieved salvation through the consolamentum, when they could return to the benign God of the New Testament.

The self-fulfilling nature of torture

Cohn introduces the reader to each groups’ likely beliefs and social origins, then describes how the secular and religious authorities (i.e. the King of France or Holy Roman Emperor or pope) launched an inquisition, sometimes even called a ‘crusade’, against each of them. (The crusade to exterminate the Cathars in the south of France became known as the Albigensian Crusade, 1209-1229).

And then he makes his over-arching point which is that, time and time and time again, the use of torture made ‘heresies’ appear to explode, appear to be held by huge numbers of people, at all levels of society, as innocent victims were roped in and tortured and, quite quickly, would say anything and implicate anyone in order to stop the torture (or, more cruelly, to prevent their family and children being tortured, too).

Yet as soon as they were free to speak in front of secular courts, again and again these supposed ‘heretics’ recanted and said they only confessed to the bizarre rituals, murder, cannibalism and orgies, because they were tortured into saying so.

Cohn shows that there were real heretics i.e. groups who rejected the worldly corruption of the Catholic Church and tried to return to the simple, pure, ascetic life of the early apostles and that, on its own terms, the Church was correct to be concerned about them and to try and bring them back within the fold.

But that the way it did this – by trying to blacken their name by getting members to confess under torture to midnight masses where the Devil appeared in the shape of a black cat, and then a baby was ritually burned to death and its ashes mixed in with wine which all the followers had to drink to assert their membership — all this was fantasy cooked up in the feverish brains of Catholic propagandists and the inquisitors themselves.

What interests Cohn is the way these fantasies became formalised, and turned into part of received opinion, official ‘knowledge’ – not least when a list of these perverse practices was included in a formal papal bull, Vox in Rama, issued in 1233, which included the accusation that the Devil in person attended the midnight covens of the Waldensians and other heretics. In other words, by the early 13th century these absurd fantasies had received official sanction and recognition from the highest religious authorities on earth.

Although each of the heretic-hunting frenzies Cohn describes eventually burned out and stopped – sometimes due to the death or discrediting or, in the case of Conrad of Marburg, the assassination of the lead inquisitor – nonetheless, the period as a whole had established the absurd practices of all heretics and enemies of the Church as accepted, indisputable fact, sanctioned by the pope and the entire church hierarchy.

The crushing of the Knights Templar (pp.79-101)

Cohn then goes on to show how precisely the same old tropes, the same accusations of unnatural and blasphemous crimes, were dusted off and dragged out to accuse the Knights Templars, in their trials which lasted from roughly 1307 to 1309. His account is largely the same as Michael Haag’s in The Tragedy of the Templars: The Rise and Fall of the Crusader States namely that the whole farrago of trumped-up accusations was made by King Philip the Fair of France in order to get his hands on the Templars’ vast amounts of gold and land. Its more proximate cause was that Philip wanted to merge the two great crusading orders, the Templars and Knights Hospitallers, into one super-order and then place himself at the head of it in order to lead a mighty new crusade – but that was never very likely to, and indeed never did, happen.

Instead Philip’s loyal bureaucrats pounced, arresting all the Templars on the same day and submitting them to torture to force them to admit to the same litany of crimes: that at the initiation ceremony they were forced to spit on the cross, to kiss their initiator on the lower back, buttocks or mouth, agree to sodomy if requested by a senior brother, and other blasphemous acts such as worshiping a malevolent satanic head.

All the Templars who were tortured signed confessions agreeing this is what they had done – understandable, seeing that the tortures included:

  • having your hands tied behind you, being hauled up via a hook secured to the ceiling, then suddenly released, coming to a stop with a jerk, so that the tendons, muscles and sometimes bones on your shoulders and bones were abruptly torn or shattered
  • having your feet covered in grease and pit in a naked fire, where they roasted until the toe and feet bones fell out of the cooked flesh

As one Templar said, rather than submit to the tortures he would have confessed that he personally murdered Jesus Christ. The sorry saga dragged on for three years because Pope Clement feebly tried to rescue the order which was, theoretically, answerable only to him. But being himself French and a nominee of the French crown, and based in Avignon on French soil, he eventually, feebly acquiesced in the crushing of the order, the confiscation of its wealth and the burning at the stake of its four most senior officers (plus at least a hundred others).

The fate of the Templars is a sorry, sordid tale of greed, corruption and unbelievable cruelty, but for me is one more proof that the nominally Christian Middle Ages were a complicated mixture of genuine religious belief, almost incomprehensible religious fanatacism, alongside staggering cruelty, all underpinned by very recognisable motives of greed and ambition.

More generally, Cohn’s review of how society has tended to demonised outsider groups -from as far back as we have records – sheds sobering light on this permanent tendency of human nature, and shows how even the most ridiculous prejudices and bigotries can be entrenched as established ‘fact’, and then revived as and when needed to persecute the different, the strange, the non-conformist, the helpless. Couldn’t happen now? Well, the career of the fanatical heretic-inquisitor Conrad of Marburg could be usefully compared to that of Senator Joe McCarthy. And in our own time, right now, 2019, we are seeing the revival of all kinds of tropes and stereotypes designed to justify prejudice and persecution. At least we don’t strappado people or burn them to death – but the underlying impulses of human nature haven’t changed one whit.

Some Knights Templar being burned at the stake, illustration in the Chroniques de France ou de St. Denis.


Related links

Reviews of other books and exhibitions about the Middle Ages

Conclave by Robert Harris (2016)

‘No emotion, Ray,’ warned Lomeli. ‘We need to think very clearly.’ (p.330)

The Pope dies in the middle of the night. Heart attack, according to the Vatican doctors. The Dean of the College of Cardinals, Jacopo Baldassare Lomeli, Cardinal-Bishop of Ostia, is woken in the early hours to come see the body and set in train the host of formal procedures prompted by the death.

Immediately we are thrown into the midst of the procedural and political complexities of the Holy City, and quickly ushered into a melee of bustling cardinals and archbishops, and to the monsignors and priests, secretaries, nuns and security men, who staff and run the Vatican.

It turns out that we are going to see the entire story from Lomeli’s point of view. The text is not a first-person narrative, it is a third-person narrative, but it follows Lomeli very closely and continually eavesdrops on his thoughts and feelings as the story unfolds.

This is because, as Dean of the College of Cardinals, it falls to Lomeli to make all the practical arrangements for the conclave which must now be called to elect a new pope – to invite the cardinals to Rome, to organise their accommodation, to supervise the transformation of the Sistine Chapel into a voting chamber, the whole thing. Thus Lomeli is the perfect character to accompany through all these arcane mysteries and also the man best placed to confront and unravel the knotty problems which the conclave, in the event, throws up…

Harris skips over the state funeral of the dead pope, which is irrelevant to his purpose, in order to jump to the moment three weeks later when the conclave of all the cardinals foregathers to elect the next pope. One hundred and seventeen cardinals are called from all over the world to the conclave. The successful candidate must gain two thirds of the votes i.e. 79. If the classic thriller is a question of Whodunnit, Conclave is a Whowillgetit: who will be the next pope?

Factual research and conclave procedure

In fact there are more than 117 cardinals in the world but, back in 1970, Pope Paul VI introduced an age limit: no cardinal over the age of eighty can vote. The procedure was further amended by Pope John Paul II in 1996. Thus only 117 are eligible.

Harris is a former investigative journalist, and the book is heavily loaded with factual information, from an intimate description of the interior of the Sistine Chapel as it is prepared for the Conclave of Cardinals, to a detailed description of the hostel on the south side of the Vatican, the Casa Santa Marta, where the cardinals all stay, with all kinds of scattered insights into the roles of the serving nuns or security police, and so on. Building up an in-depth and persuasive picture of how the place runs.

I was particularly fascinated by his description of the actual process of voting, which is surprisingly straightforward: each of the cardinals has a sheet of paper placed in front of their seat at the benches lined up in the Sistine Chapel and, after some preliminary prayer, they simply write down the surname of the cardinal they’re voting for in big block capitals then fold the piece of paper in half.

Then, one by one, they process up to the altar of the chapel where tellers are waiting, say a short formal prayer, place the folded paper on a chalice and tip the chalice up so the paper falls into an urn, while a secretary counts off their name. When all 117 have voted, the pieces of paper are then counted by one teller, another teller unfolds each one and reads out the name, handing the paper to an assistant who skewers it on a big needle attached to a red thread, so there can be no accidental double counting.

When all 117 have been read out and the votes totted up, the teller announces them, then the pieces of paper on thread are bundled into an oven and burnt.

There is another oven next to it (both being makeshift installations inside the famous chapel) beside which are two piles ‘cartridges’ filled with a chemical mix. After the count, an assistant places one or other of these cartridges into the second oven and ignites it. One produces a billow of black smoke, indicating that a pope has not been elected, the other produces white smoke, indicating that a pope has been elected.

I thought there might be speeches or presentations from the leading candidates but no: they all just vote and the results are read out. Then they traipse back to the Casa Santa Marta where lunch is served amid a hum of gossip and intrigue. And then they traipse back to the Sistine Chapel (or pack into the cheesy little white minibuses which are laid on to take them the half mile or so round the back of St Peter’s, in case it’s raining), troop into the chapel, take their places at the makeshift benches, listen to another prayer, then one by one write out their preferred candidate, walk up to the tellers table, tip their voting slip into the urn, and so on.

Generally, it only takes four or five ballots for a winner to gain the necessary two-thirds majority. In 1978 it took eight ballots to elect Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, Archbishop of Kraków, as Pope John Paul II. The rules have changed several times in recent decades but the current rule is that, if the first ballot gives no clear result, there follow four ballots a day, two in the morning, two in the afternoon. Wikipedia gives the full, current procedure:

In Harris’s novel, the process is given a sense of urgency and suspense because Cardinal Lomeli gets unofficial bulletins from the reliable Monsignor O’Malley, ‘Secretary of the College of Cardinals’, about the press speculation going on outside the Vatican, and in reply gives generalised advice for O’Malley to pass on to the Vatican press office.

The set-up

Even as Lomeli is called to the bedside of the dead pope on that fateful evening, he realises that the two or three other cardinals in attendance are already beginning to assert their authority and – gently but firmly – compete for the vacant position.

By the time we’ve jumped forward three weeks to the start of the conclave, the competition is overt and jostling for position among the three or four main contenders has become open. There is worldwide attention – as many as a billion and a quarter Catholics are waiting on the result, as well as every media organisation on the planet.

(The three week delay is to give time for every cardinal around the world to sort out their affairs, and fly to Rome, to get settled in at the Casa Santa Marta, and prepare physically and spiritually for the conclave.)

The media and the cardinals themselves acknowledge the leading candidates, representing the various wings of the church. Most obviously there is a liberal, Secretary of State Aldo Bellini, and a man-of-the-people conservative, the Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Tedesco.

But there is also the smooth-talking, silver-haired operator, the Canadian Chamberlain of the Holy See, Joseph Tremblay, plus a number of ‘outsiders’, including the African cardinal, Joshua Adeyemi from Nigeria who, if elected, would obviously be the first black Pope.

Revelations

But just as the conclave is about to begin, just as the last of the cardinals arrives at the gate of the Vatican, and the last of the non-essential staff leave in order to ensure there are no distractions and no communication with the outside world (all phones and laptops must be handed over), Lomeli is thrown into turmoil by two revelations:

1. The Polish Woźniak, Prefect of the Papal Household, makes a fearful confession to Lomeli: on the very afternoon of his death the former Pope had summoned smooth Cardinal Tremblay and dismissed him from all his offices i.e. sacked him. Why? Woźniak doesn’t know.

2. Lomeli is still reeling from this revelation when he is summoned back to the gates and told that there is an unexpected cardinal there, one who is not on the official list. How can this possibly be the case? It turns out that Vincent Benítez, Archbishop of Baghdad, was made a cardinal by the dead Pope in his last few weeks, by a process known as in pectore, in his heart’, meaning the Pope didn’t tell anyone else.

This is pretty irregular but not unknown. Pope John Paul II had also created a cardinal in pectore, it was widely thought because the new cardinal was dispatched to work in China, where he had to conceal his identity from the authorities.

In the event the other cardinals take this discovery in their stride, welcoming cardinal Benítez during the first group meal, and he turns out to be a slender, quiet, but popular figure.

The plot

Having set the scene the book then rattles along at a steady pace, mixing factual background about this or that aspect of the voting, with acute insights into Lomeli’s own personal doubts and hesitancies – after the votes and communal meals we follow him back to his spartan quarters where he often prays for guidance, and the reader shares these moments of vulnerability, indeed all his moods – but the driver of the book is the well-calibrated description of the Race To Be Pope.

And, because it is a thriller, you won’t be surprised to learn that there is a steady stream of further revelations which shock and horrify Lomeli, who then has the agonising responsibility of whether to share them with the rest of the conclave. And face the accusation that when he does, he is only doing so in order to sabotage his opponents and place himself in pole position.

And although we are privy to all his thoughts – Lomeli repeatedly tells all the other cardinals, and himself, that he does not want to become pope, he saw what it did to the previous incumbents – nonetheless, as scandal engulfs not one but two of the leading candidates, in each consecutive ballot the vote for him increase, and the reader wonders whether he will, despite all his protestations, end up being elected. Whether, in fact, the man whose inner doubts and worries we have been party to, will turn out to be the next Pope.

But quite apart from his place inside the story, Lomeli plays a far more important function as our eyes and ears into what is going on, providing appropriate explanation whenever needed – and for his pondering over the meaning of the hints and implications which drive the plot.

In fact, slowly and inexorably Lomeli, who is supposed to be a frail 75-year-old Italian cardinal, turns into Hercule Poirot, a slow-moving, thoughtful but acute observer of other people, who puts together various pieces of evidence to piece together the mysteries hanging over the conclave.

Spoilers

Two more revelations dominate the main body of the story.

1. it emerges that the African cardinal, Adeyemi, thirty years earlier had had a brief affair with a very young novice and got her pregnant. Now she has turned up, assigned among the nuns who silently and reverently prepare and serve the cardinals’ meals between voting sessions. This middle-aged nun confronts Adeyemi in the canteen in front of all the other cardinals during dinner, and the resulting scandal ends his promising candidature.

But Lomeli is prompted to ask who arranged for this African nun to be transferred at short notice from Nigeria to Rome. And a trail of clues eventually leads him to a further revelation. When Woźniak told him about the former Pope dismissing Tremblay, there was mention of a report into his alleged misdeeds. Where can this report be? Probably among the dead Pope’s belongings. In his apartment. Which is sealed up with plastic ribbon and papal seals.

Well, Lomeli prays for guidance and decides he can’t do nothing, and so in the middle of the night he calmly breaks into the former Pope’s apartment and searches it until – in the tradition of schoolboy adventure stories – he discovers that the old Pope’s massive, antique wooden bed contains hidden compartments. And in these compartments Lomeli discovers the report the late Pope had commissioned which turns out to be a root and branch investigation into the finances of each and every one of the cardinals, with generally shocking results.

But in particular Lomeli discovers indisputable proof that smooth-operator Tremblay had been paying other cardinals to vote for him. This is the sin of corruption or simony.

Not only that, but he discovers it was definitely Tremblay who arranged for the African nun to be brought to Rome to stymie Joshua’s chances! What a schemer! What a crook!

As usual we are given access to Lomeli’s private thoughts as he ponders what on earth to do, before deciding that God has helped him discover all this, and it is not his job to conceal it: if he waits till after Tremblay is elected pope and this all gets out – as, he ruefully reflects, every secret the Vatican has tried to smother for the previous fifty years does, eventually, leak out – think what damage it will do to the institution he has served all his life.

And so he co-opts the assistance of the steely-willed head of the Vatican’s nuns, Sister Agnes, head of the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul, and between them, overnight, they make 118 photocopies of the dead Pope’s damning report into Cardinal Tremblay’s activities and place one on every seat in the cardinals’ refectory. As they come down to breakfast the next morning, one by one they read it, leading to uproar. In a dramatic scene Tremblay stands, confronts the accusations head on, and claims Lomeli has only done this to sabotage him, Tremblay, and promote his, Lomeli’s, chances of becoming pope.

Which, for a moment, sways the cardinals against Lomeli until the steely little nun Sister Agnes breaks all convention by speaking in the refectory, demanding to be heard, and announces to the horrified cardinals that she can vouch for the fact that it was Tremblay who requested the African nun be transferred to Rome and thereby sabotaged cardinal Adeyemi’s candidature.

After which the tide turns against Tremblay, and he can only stand begging for understanding and denying it’s true as the rest of the cardinals turns their backs on him.

And so, with only eighty pages of this 380-page-long book left to go and the two front runners, Adeyemi and Tremblay, dramatically withdrawn from the race, who on earth is going to win?

Two bombshells

With Adeyemi and Tremblay knocked out, the next ballot puts Lomeli ahead as front runner, though without the necessary two-thirds majority, when there is an abrupt and shocking change in the tone of the book. A car bomb goes off in St Peter’s Square out front of the Vatican. And a suicide bomber blows himself up. And a terrorist goes into a Catholic church in Munich and starts machine-gunning the congregation.

Suddenly, and irrevocably, the rather charming, old-world if intriguing atmosphere of the novel is shattered. If you have any imagination, you can hear the screams of the wounded, the smell of burned flesh, the body parts scattered across the cobbles. For me this sudden eruption of the real world shattered the rather quaint, almost Ealing Comedy era atmosphere Harris had created.

Lomeli finds out what has happened from O’Malley and then, as usual, agonises about whether to even tell the other cardinals. they heard the loud explosion. Indeed some of the stained glass in the lobby of the chapel was blown in, but it is against the rules of the conclave to bring in any extraneous subject – otherwise it would turn into a political talking shop, not a retreat for spiritual meditation.

Eventually, Lomeli decides he will tell the assembled cardinals what is going on (it is, as it has been all the way through, his job to run the conclave, as Dean of the College of Cardinals: that’s why Harris chose him to be the main protagonist of the story).

Once he has it prompts two speeches from the assembled cardinals. First of all the son of peasants, the ultra-conservative Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Tedesco, declares that, in light of this atrocity, all the Catholics in the world will be looking for strong leadership. If he’d stopped there he would have seized the meeting, but he unwisely goes on to lambast all the progressive tendencies of the last 50 years, tolerance of homosexuality, of divorced Catholics remarrying, up to and including the mass immigration which has seen countless mosques being built across Italy, home of the Catholic Church, and it s during his tirade against Islam that the first cries of ‘Shame’ and ‘Boo’ are heard.

When he finally sits down, to everyone’s surprise it is the shy, retiring and inexperienced Vincent Benítez, Archbishop of Baghdad, who asks to be heard, and makes an impassioned plea for tolerance and forgiveness. He has tended to Christians dying in Muslim lands and can tell his fellow cardinals that not one of them wanted vengeance. they all died in the spirit of Christ, asking for their murders to be forgiven.

This quiet speech for the first time creates a real sense of religion, of holiness, in the chapel. Lomeli finds himself being lifted by it, and when the next ballot is held he unequivocally votes for Benítez and then listens, dazed, as the votes are counted and the secret cardinal of Baghdad is voted Pope!

But that isn’t the second bombshell. This comes when Prefect of the Papal Household, Woźniak, staggering at the news, asks to take Lomeli aside for a hurried word. Right back at the start of the narrative it had been Woźniak who told Lomeli that the previous Pope had dismissed Tremblay and Lomeli had asked him to do a bit of digging, which led to the revelation that the former Pope had commissioned the report. But  Woźniak had also done a bit of digging into Benítez while he was at it.

Back then, three days earlier, he’d told Lomeli that Benítez had been involved in a car bomb explosion in Baghdad, been injured but (obviously) survived, and there were some references to him being booked into to go to a clinic in Switzerland, a visit which was then cancelled and here he is at the conclave, having just been voted Pope. But Woźniak has only just had time to find out more, to contact the clinic and discover it is a clinic for gender reassignment.

My God. Lomeli runs through to the small Room of tears where Benítez is already being fitted into the papal robes. They have sent the white smoke out the chimney. Already the crowd in St Peter’s Square is roaring. He is only minutes from making his appearance and his first speech.

Lomeli turfs everyone else out the room and demands Benítez tells him the truth. So he does. Benítez was born with the genitals of a girl, but his parents (like so many parents in developing countries, wanting a boy) raised him and dressed him as a boy and, of course, as soon as he started attending seminary school, and then into the junior priesthood, he didn’t give sex a thought, he didn’t see other men’s genitals, his looked normal to him. It was only when he was injured in the car bomb and went to hospital, that a full inspection revealed he was a woman. He went straight to the former Pope to discuss it, and himself made a booking at the gender reassignment clinic. But then realised this is the way he’s made. This is the way God made him. And this is the destiny God has chosen for him. Who is he to say no to God.

And leaving Lomeli perplexed and bewildered the new Pope continues dressing ready to greet his flock of over 1 billion souls, the first ladyboy to be Pope!

Clichés and clarity

On page one we read a description of cardinal Lomeli making his way at two in the morning to the pope’s apartment.

The Rome air was soft and misty yet already he could detect the first faint chill of autumn. (p.1)

Later on we read that:

Once, in his youth, Lomeli had enjoyed a modest fame for the richness of his baritone. But it had become thin with age, like a fine wine left too long. (p.115)

A cliché can be defined as a thought or description which you’ve read or heard so many times before that it slips past the eye or ear with the minimum amount of disturbance, barely registering, like soothing background music in a restaurant or hotel lobby. It is designed not to detain you but speed you on your way to your business appointment.

This is true of a great deal if not most of Harris’s writing – it is smooth and effective without stirring any ripples. If you pause for thought, it is at what he is reporting – documentary explanation of the byzantine procedures of the Vatican or the latest revelation in the fast-moving plot – but never the way he reports it. As befits a man trained by years in journalism, Harris’s English is unfailingly clear and lucid.

Harris isn’t an awful writer, he is a very good writer, but of a kind of clear and rational prose which is almost devoid of colour. This is very effective when conveying factual information (and his novels tend to be packed with factual information which needs to be written out as clearly as possible in order for the reader to understand what is at stake.) But it leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to character.

I’ve just read Munich, his thriller set during the 1938 Munich Crisis and the best parts of it, the bits which have stayed with me most, are his documentary descriptions of the actual meetings between Neville Chamberlain and Hitler. The personalities of the two male protagonists of the thriller plot pale into insignificance next to the factual content. They are like competent watercolours placed next to an oil painting.

Same here. Lomeli is meant to be Italian, a crusty, 75-year-old, dogmatic, Catholic cardinal of an Italian; just imagine what a rebarbative, rich, gnarly old cuss he must be, and all the sins and corruption he must witnessed, and the decades of in-fighting and politicking he has had to navigate. You’d imagine he would have wildly un-PC views about race, homosexuality, women and so on. Just imagine the depths of cynicism this tottering old Italian must have sunk to, what a monstrous character could have been created.

And yet, in Harris’s hands, Lomeli is a decent chap who thinks in perfectly lucid, grammatically perfect, English sentences. There is no confusion in his mind. He reacts to new information or insights with the thoroughness of a computer, processing them and thinking entirely rationally about what to do next. If he is temporarily at a loss, things soon reappear to him in a cool rational way.

Harris makes a few gestures towards Lomeli’s age, his decrepit body, his wavery voice and the fact that he has difficulty sleeping, but these are all on the surface. Lomeli’s mind is never confused or overcome by bias or prejudice or cantankerous feelings. In fact he hardly has any feeling. Harris gives him ‘moments of doubt’ when he kneels and prays to God for help and advice. But none of these convey any emotion at all, let alone a sense of genuine religious anguish or loss. They are window dressing.

This is because Lomeli is a cypher, a cog at the centre of the plot. In a thriller, the plot is everything, literally everything. Each new development must be communicated in as clear a way as possible so that the reader can share the sense of suspense and thrill and excitement. Any lingering over description or psychology just gets in the way of the slow release of new information to build up suspense.

So Lomeli is given a few superficial trappings of age and experience:

He switched on the stuttering light and checked himself in the bluish glow: front first, then his left side, then his right. His profile had become beaky with age. He thought he looked like some elderly moulting bird. (p.138)

But no real psychological depth, no sense of the countless physical degradations of age or the incredible depth of experience such a man must have. Instead he sounds much like you or me, a decent chap doing a tricky job.

Instead he is Hercule Poirot in the Vatican, on the trail of several mysteries, as the clock ticks on and the conclave votes go by – breaking into sealed apartments, investigating the dead pope’s last wishes, uncovering sin and corruption.

And, at the end of the day, what he uncovers (until the final revelation) is relatively clean and straightforward:

1. Adeyemi had an affair with a pretty young woman which, to most of us, is acceptable and forgiveable. It was a breach of trust and an abuse of his position. But it wasn’t the systematic sexual abuse of under-age boys, which is the real story in the modern Catholic Church. This subject is referred to a couple of times by Harris’s cardinals but is treated very much as something of the past, something that has been dealt with and is behind the church now. Which we know not to be true. The opposite. It shows every sign of growing to really profoundly undermine the Catholic Church forever.

2. Similarly, we learn that Cardinal Tremblay has doled out what appear to be mere tens of thousands of Euros to cardinals to get them to vote for him; but there is no mention of the far, far bigger, scandalous involvements of the Vatican Bank with the Mafia, with organised crime, drugs and people smuggling, and a shadowy network of freemason, which emerged in the 1980s.

In the middle of the book, when not much had been revealed and it is full of dark premonitions, I imagined the big secret would turn out that Tremblay had murdered the Pope because he was uncovering a vast web of financial corruption. It all turns out to be that Tremblay was directing Church funds towards the generally backward and impoverished dioceses of cardinals he hoped would vote for him.

In other words, Harris’s protagonist uncovers ‘scandal’ but it is relatively clean and respectable scandal. Nothing to seriously frighten the horses.

Maybe this is part of the deal he did with the Vatican, whose authorities gave him such full access to the Vatican, even rooms off limits to the public and gave him every help and advice. Maybe in return Harris pledged to keep the ‘scandal’ on the safe side. Or maybe there was no deal or understanding, Harris was just being tactful and polite. Or maybe these relatively minor transgressions were his plan all along.

Whatever the motivation, in his earlier novels, protagonists proceeded from the everyday world and slowly uncovered vast and horrifying conspiracies which underlie it – hence their tremendous grip and excitement. Whereas this ‘thriller’ about the Vatican, in the end delivers ‘revelations’ which are pale and insignificant compared to the actual scandals which have rocked and continue to rock the Catholic Church.

Hence, for me anyway, a tremendous sense of disappointment and anti-climax.

The car bombs

That said, the midly intriguing narrative is turned upside down by the car bombs which, for me, ruin the tone of the book. they introduce a note of real tragedy and bloodshed which is all to recent and real for a Londoner like me. And all the less necessary as, in the end, their only use in the plot is to provide the opportunity for a speech by the arch conservative which loses him the papacy, and the quiet speech in favour of forgiveness which wins it for Benítez.

And then there is the revelation that the new pope is a woman!

This, for me, reduced the whole thing to an extended joke, with this revelation as the punchline. The climax of Harris’s first and best book, Fatherland, was the revelation of the Holocaust in a Nazi Germany which had won the war and successfully covered its appalling secret. The slow uncovering of the truth and the final scenes of full knowledge, made my hair stand on end with genuine fear and terror.

The last few pages of Conclave did quite the reverse, and make me laugh out loud at its politically correct, bien-pensant, North London liberalism.

Not only have almost all the cardinals all the way through been immaculately correct in their attitude to black and other Third World cardinals, none of them has had a flicker of a thought about women, let alone choirboys (with the egregious, scapegoating exception of Adeyema), and now the result of all this praying by all these decent, upstanding, compassionate old men turns out to be… electing a woman Pope!

Very funny. Very suave. Very slick. But more like a Guardian editorial turned into a novel than his earlier, genuinely gripping, thrillers.


Related links

Robert Harris’s thrillers

1992 Fatherland – Berlin 1964. Germany won the Second World War. Xavier March is a cop in Berlin, capital of the huge German Empire. The discovery of a corpse in a lake leads him on an increasingly nail-biting investigation into the dark heart of the Nazi regime and its most infamous secret which, in this terrifying parallel universe, has been completely buried.

1995 Enigma – Bletchley Park 1943, where a motley collection of maths, computer and coding geniuses are trying to crack the Germans’ Enigma codes. The hero – weedy geek Tom Jericho – discovers that the gorgeous, sexy woman who seduced him and then as casually dumped him a month later, is in fact a spy, stealing top secret intercepts from the base for her Polish lover. Or is she?

1998 Archangel – Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso, a populist historian of contemporary Russia, stumbles across one of the secrets of the century – that the great dictator Josef Stalin had a son, brought up by communist fanatics in the forests of the frozen north, who is now ready to return to claim his rightful position as the ‘Great Leader’ and restore Russia to her former glory.

2007 The Ghost – The unnamed narrator is a ghost writer called in to complete the memoirs of former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang (a thinly disguised portrait of Tony Blair) after the previous writer died mysteriously. Marooned with the politico and his staff in a remote mansion on the coast of New England, the ghost writer slowly uncovers a shattering conspiracy.

2011 The Fear Index A series of bizarre incidents plague American physics professor-turned-multi-billionaire hedge fund manager, Alex Hoffmann. Slowly it becomes clear they are all related to the launch of the latest version of his artificial intelligence program – VIXEL-4 – designed to identify and manage anxiety and fear on the financial markets, but which has gone significantly, bewilderingly, beyond its money-making remit.

2013 An Officer and a Spy A long, absorbing fictional recreation of the Dreyfus Affair which divided France at the end of the 19th century, seen from the point of view of a French army officer who played a key role in the prosecution of Alfred Dreyfus as a German spy, and then slowly, to his horror, uncovers the evidence which proves that Dreyfus was innocent all along, and his trial one of the great miscarriages of justice in history.

2016 Conclave We follow Dean of the College of Cardinals, Jacopo Lomeli, as he supervises the conclave called in the Vatican to elect a new Pope, only to discover a number of scandals which compromise most of the leading candidates, and lead up to a very unexpected result.

2017 Munich A young German civil servant tries to smuggle a key document showing Hitler’s true intentions to his opposite number during the fateful Munich Conference of September 1939, complicated by the fact that the pair were once friends who shared a mistress until she met a terrible fate at the hands of the Gestapo.

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