Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Venice and the Fourth Crusade - What to Believe?

I almost began this entry by typing something along the lines of "Historiography seems to interest me even more than history." See how the zero-sum game mentality tries to creep in? History and historiography don't compete for my attention; it's their intimate dance that draws my attention! If people didn't do such bloody fascinating and ambiguous things, we wouldn't come up with such fascinating and ambiguous stories about them.

In two lecture series about the Byzantine Empire I heard a lot of intriguing stories: riots started over chariot races, an empire nearly torn apart over religious icons, and even a Crusade that stopped in Asia Minor because its leader decided to go swimming in his armor and got himself drowned. What intrigues me more than these events, though, is the fact that two historians can tell wildly different stories about any one of them.

First I made my way through Lars Brownworth's 12 Byzantine Rulers podcasts, and then I listened to Professor Kenneth W. Harl's lecture series World of Byzantium. Toward the end, I came across a striking difference between the ways in which the two lecturers portray Venice, and particularly the Doge Enrico Dandolo. This entry summarizes Mr. Brownworth's opinion that the Doge was basically a calculating villain who had his eye on Constantinople's riches from the very start. He spun a story about invading Egypt and then pulled a monumental bait-and-switch, knowing that the Crusaders wouldn't be able to come up with the money they promised. Once the Crusaders were indentured to Venice, Dandolo sicced them on the Dalmatian coast of Hungary, ignoring the Pope's outrage. In Zara Dandolo met Alexios IV Angelos, who had headed west to drum up support for a coup. In exchange for help, Alexios promised to end the Schism and reunite the Orthodox and Catholic churches, but Dandolo really had his eye on Constantinople. While the Byzantines struggled to maintain power over the city, Dandolo kept encouraging the Crusaders to invade, which of course they eventually did.

Professor Harl tells a very different story, although he admits from the start that his is only one of several versions. He says that the Venetians had to suspend shipping for a year in order to construct the Crusader fleet, and that when the Crusaders couldn't come up with the money, supplies, and people they had promised, Venice was facing bankruptcy. Therefore "...Dandolo had little choice but to go on crusade himself and work out some kind of installment plan to pay off the debt." Harl emphasizes the fact the the Venetians had already established plenty of trade routes in the east; the concessions they got from the Crusader states dwarfed those from Constantinople, so they had no reason to divert the Crusade there.

I'm not sure that I understand Professor Harl's argument. He seems to be saying that, since the Venetians had a lot of trade in the east, then of course they wouldn't want Constantinople. But since when does having some money make people not want more? Also, I think that "...Dandolo had little choice..." makes a poor excuse for sacking Constantinople. It all seems conspicuously apologist. However, Brownworth's version might be even more suspect. Unlike Harl, he doesn't even note that there are wildly different versions of the story. Also, his version of Dandolo sounds a bit too much like a moustache-twirling villain to be real.

Clearly I'll need to read more before I can lean any further toward either Harl's end of the interpretive spectrum or Brownworth's. This list may serve me well for that. In the meantime, I welcome discussion.

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