The Crusades " Annals"

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AP World History

Primary Source Analysis

The Crusades


Nicetas Choniates

As Anna Comnena's account suggests, from the Byzantine perspective, the crusades were nothing less than barbarian invasions from the West. Before the First Crusade ended, Latin and Greek Christians had already clashed on the field of battle, although these initial skirmishes were not terribly serious (except to the people who died in them). During the twelfth century, as Latin fortunes suffered a number of reverses in the Holy Land, two additional major crusades were sent eastward: the Second Crusade (1147–1149) and the Third Crusade (1189–1192). Each further exacerbated Latin-Byzantine relations by en-gendering increasingly sharp conflicts and misunderstandings.

Following Saladin's recapture of Jerusalem in 1187 and the failure of the Third Crusade to retake the holy city, the West was eager to strike back at Islam. In the early thirteenth century, a force made up largely of French warriors and Venetian sailors planned to strike at Islam by capturing Alexandria in Egypt, thereby relieving pressure on the embattled Latin settlements in the Holy Land. That particular assault never took place. Rather, circumstances led the army and fleet of the Fourth Crusade (1202–1204) to Constantinople, where the crusaders became embroiled in a dynastic power struggle between rival imperial claimants. Eventually the crusaders attacked Constantinople on April 12, 1204, and captured it the following day. After three days of brutal looting, the crusaders settled down and established the Latin Empire of Constantinople (1204–1261).

The Byzantines regained their capital city in 1261, but their empire was by then largely a shadow of its former self. Just as significant, the events of 1204 caused the final and, until today, irreconcilable rupture between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox branches of Christianity.

The Byzantine nobleman, court official, and historian Nicetas Choniates (ca. 1155–ca. 1216) included a vivid account of the Fourth Crusade in his Annals, a history that traces Byzantine imperial fortunes from 1118 to 1207. His account is especially telling inasmuch as he was an eyewitness to and victim of the crusaders' capture and pillage of Constantinople. The following selection begins early on the morning of April 13. On the previous day, after bloody and bitter fighting, the crusaders had managed to penetrate the walls of the city and set up a small armed camp within hostile territory. With the situation still in doubt, they spent a sleepless night, wondering what the morning would bring.

Reprinted material from Harry J. Magoulias, trans., O City of Byzantium: Annals of Niketas Chronicles, 198, with the permission of Wayne State University Press.


Nicetas Choniates

The enemy, who had expected otherwise, found no one openly venturing into battle or taking up arms to resist; they saw that the way was open before them and everything there for the taking. The narrow streets were clear and the crossroads unobstructed, safe from attack, and advantageous to the enemy. The populace, moved by the hope of propitiating them, had turned out to greet them with crosses and venerable icons[1] of Christ as was customary during festivals of solemn processions. But their disposition was not at all affected by what they saw, nor did their lips break into the slightest smile, nor did the unexpected spectacle transform their grim and frenzied glance and fury into a semblance of cheerfulness. Instead, they plundered with impunity and stripped their victims shamelessly, beginning with their carts. Not only did they rob them of their substance but also the articles consecrated to God; the rest fortified themselves all around with defensive weapons as their horses were roused at the sound of the war trumpet.

What then should I recount first and what last of those things dared at that time by these murderous men? O, the shameful dashing to earth of the venerable icons and the flinging of the relics[2] of the saints, who had suffered for Christ’s sake, into defiled places! How horrible it was to see the Divine Body and Blood of Christ[3] poured out and thrown to the ground! These forerunners of Antichrist,[4] chief agents and harbingers of his anticipated ungodly deeds, seized as plunder the precious chalices and patens;[5] some they smashed, taking possession of the ornaments embellishing them, and they set the remaining vessels on their tables to serve as bread dishes and wine goblets. Just as happened long ago, Christ was now disrobed and mocked, his garments were parted, and lots were cast for them by this race; and although his side was not pierced by the lance, yet once more streams of Divine Blood poured to the earth.

The report of the impious acts perpetrated in the Great Church[6] are unwelcome to the ears. The table of sacrifice, fashioned from every kind of precious material and fused by fire into one whole—blended together into a perfection of one multicolored thing of beauty, truly extraordinary and admired by all nations—was broken into pieces and divided among the despoilers, as was the lot of all the sacred church treasures, countless in number and unsurpassed in beauty. They found it fitting to bring out as so much booty the all-hallowed vessels and furnishings which had been wrought with incomparable elegance and craftsmanship from rare materials. In addition, in order to remove the pure silver which overlay the railing of the berna,[7] the wondrous pulpit and the gates, as well as that which covered a great many other adornments, all of which were plated with gold, they led to the very sanctuary of the temple itself mules and asses with packsaddles; some of these, unable to keep their feet on the smoothly polished marble floors, slipped and were pierced by knives so that the excrement from the bowels and the spilled blood defiled the sacred floor. Moreover, a certain silly woman laden with sins...the handmaid of demons, the workshop of unspeakable spells and reprehensible charms, waxing wanton against Christ, sat upon the synthronon[8] and intoned a song, and then whirled about and kicked up her heels in dance.

It was not that these crimes were committed in this fashion while others were not, or that some acts were more heinous than others, but that the most wicked and impious deeds were perpetrated by all with one accord. Did these madmen, raging thus against the sacred, spare pious matrons and girls of marriageable age or those maidens who, having chosen a life of chastity, were consecrated to God? Above all, it was a difficult and arduous task to mollify the barbarians with entreaties and to dispose them kindly towards us, as they were highly irascible and bilious and unwilling to listen to anything. Everything incited their anger, and they were thought fools and became a laughingstock. He who spoke freely and openly was rebuked, and often the dagger would be drawn against him who expressed a small difference of opinion or who hesitated to carry out their wishes.

The whole head was in pain. There were lamentations and cries of woe and weeping in the narrow ways, wailing at the crossroads, moaning in the temples, outcries of men, screams of women, the taking of captives, and the dragging about, tearing in pieces, and raping of bodies heretofore sound and whole. They who were bashful of their sex were led about naked, they who were venerable in their old age uttered plaintive cries, and the wealthy were despoiled of their riches. Thus it was in the squares, thus it was on the corners, thus it was in the temples, thus it was in the hiding places; for there was no place that could escape detection or that could offer asylum to those who came streaming in.

O Christ our Emperor, what tribulation and distress of men at that time! The roaring of the sea, the darkening and dimming of the sun, the turning of the moon into blood, the displacement of the stars—did they not foretell in this way the last evils? Indeed, we have seen the abomination of desolation stand in the holy place, rounding off meretricious and petty speeches and other things which were moving definitely, if not altogether, contrariwise to those things deemed by Christians as holy and ennobling the word of faith.

Such then, to make a long story short, were the outrageous crimes committed by the Western armies against the inheritance of Christ. Without showing any feelings of humanity whatsoever, they exacted from all their money and chattel, dwellings and clothing, leaving to them nothing of all their goods. Thus behaved the brazen neck, the haughty spirit, the high brow, the ever shaved and youthful cheek, the bloodthirsty right hand, the wrathful nostril, the disdainful eye, the insatiable jaw, the hateful heart, the piercing and running speech practically dancing over the lips. More to blame were the learned and wise among men, they who were faithful to their oaths, who loved the truth and hated evil, who were both more pious and just and scrupulous in keeping the commandments of Christ than we “Greeks.”[9] Even more culpable were those who had raised the cross to their shoulders, who had time and again sworn by it and the sayings of the Lord to cross over Christian lands without bloodletting, neither turning aside to the right nor inclining to the left, and to take up arms against the Saracens and to stain red their swords in their blood; they who had sacked Jerusalem, and had taken an oath not to marry or to have sexual intercourse with women as long as they carried the cross on their shoulders, and who were consecrated to God and commissioned to follow in his footsteps.

In truth, they were exposed as frauds. Seeking to avenge the Holy Sepulcher,[10] they raged openly against Christ and sinned by overturning the Cross with the cross they bore on their backs, not even shuddering to trample on it for the sake of a little gold and silver. By grasping pearls, they rejected Christ, the pearl of great price, scattering among the most accursed of brutes the All-Hallowed One. The sons of Ismael[11] did not behave in this way, for when the Latins overpowered Sion[12] the Latins showed no compassion or kindness to their race.[13] Neither did the Ismaelites neigh after Latin women, nor did they turn the cenotaph of Christ[14] into a common burial place of the fallen, nor did they transform the entranceway of the life-bringing tomb into a passageway leading down into Hades, nor did they replace the Resurrection with the Fall.

Rather, they allowed everyone to depart in exchange for the payment of a few gold coins; they took only the ransom money and left to the people all their possessions, even though these numbered more than the grains of sand. Thus the enemies of Christ dealt magnanimously with the Latin infidels, inflicting upon them neither sword, nor fire, nor hunger, nor persecution, nor nakedness, nor bruises, nor constraints.[15] How differently, as we have briefly recounted, the Latins treated us who love Christ and are their fellow believers, guiltless of any wrong against them.

[1] Sacred pictures.

[2] Highly revered body parts and other items associated with the lives of saints and of Jesus.
[3] Consecrated eucharistic bread and wine, which both Western and Eastern Christians believed was the actual body and blood of Jesus.
[4] An evil false Christ who will momentarily reign prior to Jesus’ Second Coming.
[5] Vessels used in the sacrifice of the Mass.
[6] Hagia Sophia (see source 82).
[7] The sanctuary where Mass is performed.
[8] The patriarch’s throne.
[9] A sarcastic reference to Western clerics who maintained they were better Christians than these degenerate Greeks.
[10] The Tomb of Christ, which is in Jerusalem.
[11] Muslims. Arabs claim descent from Abraham through his son Ishmael.
[12] Jerusalem.
[13] The army of the First Crusade captured Jerusalem in a blood bath in July 1099.
[14] A cenotaph is a monument. This is a reference to the crusader Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, which stands over the presumed sites where Jesus was crucified, buried, and arose from the dead.
[15] Nicetas contrasts Saladin’s treatment of the defeated Latins, after he captured Jerusalem on October 2, 1187, with the crusaders’ actions at Jerusalem on July 15, 1099 and in Constantinople.

Printed from Houghton Mifflin Company's History Companion

1. According to Nicetas, how the crusaders show themselves to be hypocrites?
2. According to Nicetas, what is the crusaders biggest sin?
3. What, does he imply, could Constantinople expect if it were captured by Muslims?
4. Descirbe Nicetas’ POV (point of view)? Why is it so?

5. In what ways does this reading show that the Crusades were more complicated than simple Christian missions to the East?

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