The Crusades and the Lost Literature of the Italian Renaissance
Lecture by Brian Jeffrey Maxson
Given at East Tennessee State University, on November 12, 2012
“The Crusades have long fascinated historians, politicians, and even the general public,” explains Dr. Brian Maxson, ETSU assistant professor of History. “According to numerous stories and films, Robin Hood defended the good people of England while brave King Richard the Lionheart crusaded in the east and sparred with wise Saladin. In less heroic tales, the brutality and greed of western crusaders become a foil against which religious toleration is taught in the 21st century.
“The Fourth Crusade in particular has been held up as an example of vicious hypocrites worthy only of condemnation,” he continued. “In 1204, Venetian, French, and papal forces set out to take Jerusalem for Christendom; instead, they sacked, looted, and burned the Christian city of Constantinople. In fact, the author of the best known and most widely read History of the Crusades, Steven Runciman, declared that ‘there was never a greater crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusade.’”
Maxson points out, however, that western thinkers and historians did not always hold such a negative opinion of the Fourth Crusade. He says that in the midst of the Italian Renaissance, historian and writer Biondo Flavio viewed the Fourth Crusade as a “glorious undertaking.”
“Biondo argued that the Fourth Crusade was sanctioned by God, fought against tyrants, and established legal claims for rulers hundreds of years later to retake lands in the east long since lost to Byzantine Greeks and Ottoman Turks,” Maxson said. “Biondo is not a well-known figure today – his works exist primarily in handwritten manuscripts or in Latin editions from the earliest days of the printing press in the 1500s. Yet, he has credibly been called one of the first modern historians. His works heavily influenced literature and historical writings across Europe for centuries. His account of the Fourth Crusade, in fact, was cited by other writers until the 20th century – nearly 600 years after his death.
In this talk Maxson will introduce readers to the “lost world of literature” in which Biondo’s works fit and discuss Biondo’s conception of Fourth Crusade.