Post-classical history



The degree of antipathy between Byzantines and Crusaders during the Fourth Crusade may have been exaggerated. Nevertheless, the Byzantine elite still regarded the Latins or ‘Franks’ as barbarians having strength, cunning and courage, but lacking the culture that was the mark of a true man. This traditional view was of course out of date by the early 13th century, at least in the more advanced parts of Western Europe where the ideal ‘fighting knight’ was expected to be literate and cultured.

Although the educated elite of France probably felt no cultural inferiority to the Byzantine Greeks, they were aware that their own sophistication was recent. As the poet Chrétien de Troyes wrote in the later 12th century: ‘Our books have told us that Greece was first renowned for chivalry and learning. Then chivalry came to Rome, and all learning, which has now arrived in France.’ Similar views were expressed in Germany and Italy.

Religion was, of course, central to both identity and morale in medieval armies. Nor was the idea of Church-sanctioned violence against fellow Christians new. It had been seen in the ‘Peace of God’ movement, during the struggle between popes and Holy Roman emperors and also against the Normans in southern Italy. Where armies fighting on behalf of the papacy were concerned, such violence even included the indulgences and remission of sins that were more normally associated with warfare against ‘infidel’ Muslims and pagans. Even stranger to modern ears was the idea of warriors going off to war in order to avenge ‘wrongs done to God’, which was prevalent around the time of the Fourth Crusade. For example, the epic Chanson d’Antioche has Jesus on the Cross saying to the ‘good’ robber on his right:


The basic elements of an early 13th-century knight’s equipment, with the exception of his lance, are shown in a relief carving of an allegorical ‘Virtue’ on the west front of Amiens Cathedral. (Author’s photograph)


The late 12th and early 13th centuries were a time of military experimentation, as seen in the early coat of plates worn by a mace-wielding knight in this southern French or northern Spanish manuscript. (Beatus Commentaries on the Apocalypse, Bibliothèque Nationale, Nouv. Acq. Lat 2290, f.106v, Paris)


Illustrated in Flanders a few years after the Fourth Crusade, this simple manuscript shows a knight wearing a flat-topped great helm and a horse in full mail barding. (First Book of Maccabees, Bible de Leau, Bibliothèque du Grand Séminaire, Ms. 1B3, Liège)


Fully armoured knights in a late 12th-century central-Italian wall painting showing the martyrdom of Thomas Becket. (Church of Sts Giovanni e Paolo, Spoleto)

Friend… the people are not yet born

Who will come to avenge me with sharp lances,

And will come to kill the faithless pagans

Who have always refused my commandments.

In contrast, the knight Robert de Clari’s account of the capture of Constantinople reflects the desire, widespread across Europe, for common cause between eastern and western Christianity, which he believed had been undermined by Byzantine treachery.


A centaur with a sword, buckler, and pointed helmet on a late 12th-century carving in Studenica Monastery in Serbia. (Author’s photograph)


The swords and shields used by humans and mythical creatures on an early 13th-century carved panel in the Cathedral of Freiburg-im-Breisgau reflect south-German infantry equipment at the time of the Fourth Crusade. (Author’s photograph)

This said, it is important to recognize that the chansons de geste so beloved by the knightly elites included a great deal of parody, social satire and humour. The butt of jokes and targets of social criticism included the pretensions of the knightly class itself, and there is compelling evidence that much of the French-speaking aristocracy did not take the chivalric ideals too seriously, nor their supposed belief in the power of religious relics. The enthusiasm of previously keen Crusaders could also be dampened by the prospect of a sea voyage, though this would not have applied in places like Venice. Such fears were expressed in Del gran golfe de mar, a poem by Gauclem Faidit written after his return from the Fourth Crusade, thanking God for saving him from the ‘great gulf of the sea’ and describing his relief at getting home: ‘Nor does a ship shake me about, nor am I frightened by warships.’

While the social status of knights and other ranks may have been changing, laws restricting the use of weapons by lower social classes had also begun to appear. Meanwhile, merchants often seemed to be a class apart, not only armed but being competent in the use of weapons, and it was only during the 13th century that peaceful and portly merchants became commonplace. A short-lived trend in the opposite direction saw monks not only going on crusade but also occasionally taking an active part. This really began when Pope Innocent III announced that anyone could go on crusade, with corresponding changes in certain monastic vows. Yet it remained a passing phenomenon, with monks returning to their original static role by the early 14th century.

The decades leading up to the Fourth Crusade saw significant changes in weaponry and armour. Most obvious was a widespread adoption of the handheld crossbow. Although the crossbow’s slow rate of fire and the speed of the simple hand-held bow (wrongly called a longbow) have both been exaggerated, the crossbow remained a hard-hitting but relatively slow weapon, which proved most effective in siege warfare. The bow was considerably cheaper, but was largely limited to hunters and woodsmen who were themselves relatively few in number.

The Byzantines were clearly surprised by the amount of armour worn by the Crusaders, not just the knights (who may actually have been more lightly protected than the heaviest Byzantine cavalry), but other ranks too, including a large proportion of the infantry. Nicetas Choniates was similarly appalled by the sheer size of the enemy force, which included, he later wrote, ‘thousands of archers and crossbowmen, and carried more than a thousand armoured horsemen’. The decade or so before the Fourth Crusade had seen the adoption of increased facial protection in many parts of Europe, though most notably in the south. This trend probably reflected an increased threat from crossbows, which may also have accounted for larger shields and more extensive mail hauberks worn over thick padding.

By the time of the Fourth Crusade the counterweight mangonel or trebuchet was in widespread use in most of Europe, as well as the Middle and Near East. Clearly mentioned in northern Italy in 1199, it was almost certainly known a decade or more earlier, especially in the maritime republics, which were in such close commercial contact with the Islamic world. The counterweight trebuchet had also been used in the Byzantine Empire since the mid-12th century and probably much earlier. During the sieges of Constantinople the Byzantine stone-throwing weapons actually proved more effective, but this was probably because they enjoyed a height advantage.

When it came to intelligence gathering, the Fourth Crusade was operating in a region where such skills were very sophisticated. Although medieval Western Europeans are generally thought to have been inferior to both Byzantines and Muslims in espionage and intelligence gathering, this generalization probably did not apply to Italian maritime republics such as Venice.

Until large numbers of Venetians suddenly took the cross in 1203, the majority of participants in the Fourth Crusade were French or Flemish. In both cases religion was still the primary motivation but elements of the new chivalric code of courtly love were also apparent. One of the verses by a troubadour known as Huon the châtelain of Arras, is though to be associated with the Fourth Crusade. It is addressed to the lady he leaves behind and makes the rather delightful point that, although he leaves his heart with her, he believes that her heart will come with him and that it will make him brave.


Most of the ships built by the Venetians for the Fourth Crusade were constructed in private boatyards, as boats still are next to the Rio della Sensa. (Author’s photograph)


The famous Arsenal of Venice was established early in the 12th century, though its existing fortifications were constructed several centuries later. (Author’s photograph)


Large boats were still constructed next to beaches around the Mediterranean until modern times, as here on the Greek island of Thasos. (Author’s photograph)

Inevitably, more is known about the senior noblemen and significant poets who went on the Fourth Crusade, whereas the rank and file are almost entirely unknown. How they were paid or maintained is similarly obscure, though the army was probably structured along much the same lines as most Western European armies of the time. One of the best documented of these was the army of King Philip Augustus of France. Here the milites or knights got 7 sous per day while sergents à cheval received from 3–4 sous. During the early 13th century such mounted sergeants were still a separate cavalry force, usually outnumbering the knights four to one. The balistarii equites, or mounted crossbowmen, were paid 5 sous a day, compared with the 18 deniers a day (1½ sous) of the infantry crossbowmen. Infantry sergeants armed with other weapons got only 9 denierssou) a day whereas sappers and miners received 15–18 deniers a day according to their skills. Specialist military engineers tended to be highly paid.

Another very important military development was the increasing professionalization of armies, especially in France. This resulted in the employment of large numbers of highly skilled but notoriously violent mercenaries, mostly from Navarre, Flanders, Hainault, Brabant and other parts of the Holy Roman Empire. Most crossbowmen, for example, seem to have been professionals at this time. Other infantry weapons required less skill to use and to maintain, but they could be highly effective in the hands of disciplined foot soldiers. One such weapon was the jusarme orguisarme, a long-bladed axe with a thrusting point, which the chansons de geste usually put in the hands of ‘brutish’ soldiers, urban militias or peasants. Another infantry weapon that might already have been making its appearance was the faussart, which was almost like a single-edged sword-blade mounted on a short haft. For reasons that are still unclear, the chansons de geste tend to place maces in the hands of loyal but low-status cavalry and infantry.

The military situation in Flanders was slightly different. Here rapid economic development, urbanization, a decline in the early medieval custom of ‘private war’ and the church’s attempts to ban tournaments meant that the Flemish military had less and less reason to use their skills at home. Furthermore, the spread of free status in other classes of society made ‘aristocratic freedom’ less distinctive. Another problem for Flemish knights might seem odd, given the growing prosperity of Flanders. This was a worsening lack of money amongst supposedly elite families, which found their income from feudal estates diminishing because of the need to constantly divide such estates amongst their heirs. Similarly the fixed revenues from such estates were devalued by inflation, while at the same time knightly or noble families felt obliged to maintain a traditional but extravagant way of life. Perhaps the crusades opened up other opportunities, as did the demand for mercenaries in France, England and Germany.

The situation was similar in neighbouring Brabant, Namur and Liège, which lay within the Holy Roman Empire. The Brabançons were, in fact, amongst the most feared and respected mercenaries of the later 12th century, particularly as infantry in siege warfare. They also seem to have had a distinctive appearance, as the troubadour Raimbaut de Vacqueyras recalled when, during the siege of Constantinople, he fought on foot ‘armed like a Brabantin’. Meanwhile, barding (horse armour) appears to have been quite common in Liège and Hainault, as it was amongst Brabançon mercenary cavalry.

The rest of the largely German Holy Roman Empire was militarily similar to those provinces that now form part of Belgium and the Netherlands. It is, for example, clear that personal display and the wearing of bright colours was almost obligatory for the knightly class, as highlighted in the epic poem Nibelungenlied, written around 1200, probably in Austria. Although the miles (knights) of Germany were slower to achieve an aristocratic status than their neighbours in much of France, the concept of knighthood came to have a more spiritual or religious element than in France or England. This was because of a close association between the knightly class and the church-ruled mini-states within the empire, as well as the German higher aristocracy’s clinging to earlier Carolingian concepts of duty to the church.

Apart from that of Venice, the most important Italian contingent to take part in the Fourth Crusade was probably that of the Marquis of Montferrat. However, it represented only one aspect of the remarkably mixed military forces available in Italy at this time. Apart from significant military differences between northern, central and southern Italy, there were major variations between urban and rural, upland and lowland forces. Those of Montferrat were essentially feudal, rural and came from a region of foothills between the plain of Lombardy and the Ligurian mountains, where enlistment, command structures and motivations appear to have had more in common with feudal southern France than the increasingly important Italian cities.


Zadar was an important Dalmatian port at the start of the 13th century. Although devastated by the Fourth Crusade, its religious buildings were largely spared, including the circular Church of St Donatus, dating from the 9th century. (Author’s photograph)


Venice had difficulty asserting its authority around the Istrian Peninsula before the Fourth Crusade. One of those towns that retained its autonomy for another half-century was Porec (Parenzo), whose Basilica dates back to the 6th century. (Author’s photograph)


A carved capital showing a huntsman armed with a sword and leading a dog, made around 1185 in Slovakia, which was then part of the huge medieval Kingdom of Hungary. (in situ Praemonstratensian Church, Bina, Slovakia. Jursa photo)

It is unclear whether Boniface of Montferrat’s infantry were as skilled, disciplined and effective as their better-known rivals from the Lombard cities. As elsewhere, crossbowmen and archers were recruited from the lower ranks of society. Even though the bow was still widely used in Italy it was already becoming a rural and uplands weapon, with the crossbow dominating urban infantry forces. In fact the military importance of trained archers, as distinct from crossbowmen, was already recognized in various parts of Piedmont and Savoy, perhaps including Montferrat, while the first record of such ‘corps of archers’ would be just two years after the crusade, at Aosta in 1206.

The importance of Venetian military and naval contributions to the Fourth Crusade can hardly be overestimated. In general terms, the early 13th-century Venetian ‘art of war’ seems to have been similar to that of their Genoese rivals, being based upon a combination of land and sea power. Both these maritime republics relied upon a superior skill in the use of what might be called ‘wood-and-rope technologies’. Partly as a result, the lower orders of Venetian society had recognized military roles. In fact, a remarkably broad spectrum of Venetian society was involved in the organization, financing and sponsorship of naval expeditions; this was certainly true of the Fourth Crusade.

During the early days of Venetian history, its military systems were essentially the same as those of other Byzantine provinces in Europe, but this changed considerably during the 12th century. The doge’s bodyguard, recorded since the 9th century and perhaps much older, was now supported by an increasingly effective and highly motivated urban militia. Some of the very-limited land area within the Venetian Republic seems to have been held in return for military service, but there was apparently no ‘knight’s tenure’ within Venice itself. Similarly, some Venetian monasteries held land partly in return for supplying military personnel for the doge’s guard.

Without the Venetian naval contribution the Fourth Crusade could not have conquered Constantinople. Nevertheless, at the start of the 13th century Venetian naval power was not organized in the same way as in later centuries. Oarsmen in the galleys, like the seamen aboard these and other vessels, were free men, not galley slaves. Nor was work on the galley benches considered demeaning, the oarsmen being chosen by lot to defend their city.

Throughout the medieval period, the Venetian shipbuilding industry relied upon forests in the Istrian peninsula. Great logs were then tied together to be floated along the coast to Venice, where most ships were constructed in private yards. These ‘private arsenals’ were usually near the owner’s home and provided employment when winter prevented fishermen from sailing. Meanwhile the state-owned Arsenal of Venice, initially built around 1104, was primarily used for storage rather than for naval construction, though it did manufacture weaponry.

The Venetian commitment to the Fourth Crusade was massive, but it was not just the Venetian government’s money that was involved; large numbers of ordinary people, from merchants to craftsmen, committed their labour and resources. It appears that an agreement to build a ship normally began with the formation of a partnership, with each partner having a share in the vessel. Skilled men would then be hired under one or more master craftsmen. In Genoa, such partners were often unable to pay all these costs without borrowing heavily, sometimes agreeing to repay their creditors out of profits from the ship’s first voyage. The net result was that a large part of the Venetian population was depending upon the success of the Fourth Crusade.

Zadar, the first victim of the Fourth Crusade, was currently part of the sprawling joint Kingdom of Hungary and Croatia. Like neighbouring Istria and inland Croatia, Dalmatia was already used to contingents of Crusaders passing through, while local knights had also taken part in such campaigns. In fact Pope Innocent III, the instigator of the Fourth Crusade, was meanwhile promoting crusades against heretics in neighbouring Bosnia; this was a process supported by the archbishops and clergy of several Dalmatian towns, including Zadar. Consequently the population of Zadar tried to protect themselves from the Fourth Crusade by displaying crosses outside their walls.

In strictly military terms, Dalmatia was a mixture of coastal towns organized along lines similar to Italian cities, and a rural hinterland dominated by Byzantine, Slav and Hungarian traditions. Even in Hungary itself, however, Central and Western European military influence was becoming dominant, nine of the 26 aristocratic clans of Hungary being of non-Magyar (non-Hungarian) origin during the reign of King Andrew II (1204–35). In contrast, the Croatian feudal nobility remained notoriously turbulent, often pursuing its own policies with or without Hungarian governmental approval.

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