The Role of Christian Spirituality in 13th Century Interpretations of the Fall of Constantinople: Relics and Icons as Interpretive Lenses
By Donna Reinhard
Credo ut Intelligam: The Graduate Journal of Theology of Saint Louis University, Vol.1 (2007)
Introduction: Thomas Madden states the question regarding the fourth crusade well: “what happened to transform an effective and limited intervention in Byzantine politics into mass slaughter at Constantinople?” Madden argues that historians have spent too much energy on deterministic thinking when, in fact, Constantinople’s fall was not inevitable; it was a shock to the world. He proposes that the key to understanding the tragedy of 1204 is not in the tensions between East and West but in “the treaties that had governed the crusaders’ actions since 1201.” While broken treaties provide critical insight into the impetus for the tragedy of 1204, is it possible to understand why the 13th century chroniclers presented deterministic thinking in their historical narratives? While Jonathan Harris proposes that the deterministic underpinning of Byzantine historian Nicetas Choniates account was due to his dependence upon classical models, I propose that theological aspects may also have been at work in Choniates’ interpretation of the events, especially since the same theological presuppositions can be seen in the Western church’s interpretation of the fall of Constantinople. In this essay I will explore how the importance of relics in medieval Christian spirituality, combined with the pilgrimage nature of the crusade, led some in the Western church to interpret the sacking of Constantinople as the partial fulfillment of crusader vows. In addition, I will investigate how theological presuppositions about icons, specifically Marian icons, in Constantinople may provide insight into the Eastern analysis of this crusade.
Madden argues that the nullification of the secular contracts ended the secular wars by which the crusaders were obtaining transportation to the Holy Lands and marked the beginning of “a spiritual and ecclesiastical” war. This new conceptualization of the war was demonstrated by the clergy’s promotion of the crusade: they considered that “all Byzantines were schismatics and abettors of murder,” and thus they presented a crusade against Byzantium as “the equivalent of Jerusalem for Christendom.” Thus, the clergy reasoned that the papal indulgence also applied to those who would lose their lives in the attack on Constantinople. This placed the promise of papal indulgence, a major factor in the pilgrimage dimension of a crusade, as part of the rationale in attacking Constantinople. While the capture of Constantinople would not free the crusaders from their vow to the church, this subtle distinction was lost on many of the crusaders.
Since the focus of the conflict between the crusaders and Constantinople changed from obtaining transportation to Jerusalem to a religious war against the people of Constantinople, it is critical to understand the role of relics in pilgrimage and the concept of how relics were understood to be translated from one owner to another, i.e., furtum sacrum. In order to understand the role of relics in the fourth crusade, I will provide a general description of the role of relics in medieval Christian spirituality, then I will look at how relics were an integral part of medieval pilgrimages, and I will explore the role of the concept of furtum sacrum in the Western historiography of the events in 1204.