Chronicler of the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) and the early years of the Latin Empire of Constantinople up to 1216.
Robert of Clari was probably born around 1180; he was a poor knight whose tiny fief was situated at the modern Cléry-lès-Pernois (département Somme, France). He first appears in sources from 1202 when, with his father Gilo, he witnessed a gift from their lord Peter of Amiens to the abbey of St. John of Amiens.
Clari went on crusade as a follower of Peter of Amiens. He names himself twice in his narrative: once during the attack by the crusaders on Constantinople (mod. Istanbul, Turkey) on 12 April 1204, and once at the end, when he testifies that he was an eyewitness to the events that he has described. His account is firsthand until the spring of 1204, but he does not seem to have been in the army defeated by the Bulgarians at Adrianople (mod. Edirne, Turkey) in 1204, either because he had already returned to France or because he was waiting to do so at Constantinople. He was still alive in 1216 when the news reached France of the death of the Latin Emperor Henry, which he mentions at the end of his chronicle. He brought back many relics from Constantinople, which he gave to the abbey of Corbie.
Clari is not always accurate in his dates, placing the negotiations of the crusade leaders with the Venetians after the death of the count of Champagne and the choice of Boniface of Montferrat as his replacement. His work is designed to instruct his audience, which would have been even less well informed than he. He includes long digressions on the political history of Byzantium to explain the feuds between the different Greek factions and the house of Montferrat. He also gives much space to descriptions of churches and palaces and, in particular, to the relics and the marvels to be found there. Clari’s account is particularly valuable as it gives the viewpoint of the poor knights in the ranks of the crusade army. He is sharply critical of the greed of the leading crusaders and the hauts homs (men of high rank). He saw the defeat at Adrianople as God’s punishment for this greed. His vivid account of the maneuvering of the crusader squadrons when confronted by the army of Emperor Alexios III Angelos outside Constantinople shows how jealous the different factions were of each other and how near they came to defeat. Clari’s chronicle complements that of Geoffrey of Villehardouin and provides a completely different perspective on the events of the crusade until mid-1204.
Clari’s style is vivid and full of life. Very aware of his audience, he makes every effort to explain difficult words and events. He had clearly taken some trouble to discover the political and historical background to events in Constantinople, and all his digressions are there to help his listeners understand his narrative. He struggles to find the vocabulary adequate for the task, which results in some repetition. His syntax is unsophisticated, with overlong sentences, but he is eager to communicate and does so with a vigor that contrasts with the much more detached style of Villehardouin.