Today’s installment concludes Constantinople Taken by the Western Crusaders,
our selection from The Fall of Constantinople Being the Story of the Fourth Crusade by Edwin Pears published in 1903.
If you have journeyed through all of the installments of this series, just one more to go and you will have completed a selection from the great works of six thousand words. Congratulations!
Previously in Constantinople Taken by the Western Crusaders.
Time: April, 1204
The pillage of the relics of Constantinople lasted for forty years. More than half of the total amount of objects carried off were, however, taken away between the years 1204 and 1208. During the few days which followed the capture of the city the bishops and priests who were with the crusaders were active in laying hands on this species of sacred spoil; and the statement of a contemporary writer is not improbable, that the priests of the orthodox Church preferred to surrender such spoil to those of their own cloth rather than to the rough soldier or the rougher Venetian sailor. On the other hand, the highest priestly dignitaries in the army — men, even, who refused to take of the earthly spoil — were eager to obtain possession of this sacred booty, and unscrupulous as to the means by which they obtained it. The holy Cross was carefully divided by the bishops for distribution among the barons.
Gunther gives us a specimen of the means to which Abbot Martin, who had had the German crusaders placed under his charge, had recourse. The abbot had learned that many relics had been hidden by the Greeks in a particular church. This building was attacked in the general pillage. He, as a priest, searched carefully for the relics, while the soldiers were looking for more commonplace booty. The abbot found an old priest, with the long hair and beard common then, as now, to orthodox ecclesiastics, and roughly addressed him, “Show me your relics, or you are a dead man.”
The old priest, seeing that he was addressed by one of his own profession, and frightened probably by the threat, thought, says Gunther, that it was better to give up the relics to him than to the profane and blood-stained hands of the soldiers. He opened an iron safe, and the abbot, in his delight at the sight, buried his hands in the precious store. He and his chaplain filled their surplices, and ran with all haste to the harbor to conceal their prize. That they were successful in keeping it during the stormy days which followed could only be attributed to the virtue of the relics themselves.
The way in which Dalmatius de Sergy obtained the head of St. Clement is an illustration of the crusader’s belief that the acquisition of a relic and its transport to the West would be allowed as a compensation for the fulfilment of the crusader’s vow. That knight was grievously afflicted that he could not go to the Holy Land, and earnestly prayed God to show him how he could execute some other task equivalent to that which he had sworn, but failed, to accomplish. His first thought was to take relics to his own country. He consulted the two cardinals who were then in Constantinople, who approved his idea, but charged him not to buy these relics, because their purchase and sale were forbidden. He accordingly determined to steal them, if such a word may be applied to an act which was clearly regarded as praiseworthy. The knight, in order to discover something of especial value, remained in Constantinople until Palm Sunday in the following year. A French priest pointed out to him a church in which the head of St. Clement was preserved. He went there in the company of a Cistercian monk and asked to see the relics. While one kept the persons in charge speaking with him, the other stole a portion of the relic.
On leaving, the knight was disgusted to find that the whole head had not been taken, and, on the pretext that he had left his gauntlet behind, a companion regained admittance to the church, while the knight again kept the monk in charge in conversation at the door. Dalmatius went to the chest behind the altar where the relic had been kept, stole the remainder, went out, mounted his horse and rode away. The head was placed with pious joy in the chapel of his house. He returned, disguised, some days after to the church, in order, as he pretended, to do reverence to the relic — in order really to ascertain that he had taken the right head, for there had been two in the chest. He was informed that the head of St. Clement had been stolen. Then, being satisfied as to its authenticity, he took a vow that he would give the relic to the Church of Cluny in case he should arrive safely. He embarked. The devil, from jealousy, sent a hurricane, but the tears and prayers before the relic defeated him, and the knight arrived safely home. The monks of Cluny received the precious treasure with every demonstration of reverent joy, and in the fullest confidence that they had secured the perpetual intercession of St. Clement on behalf of themselves and those who did honor to his head. The relics most sought after were those which related to the events mentioned in the New Testament, especially to the infancy, life, and passion of Christ, and to the saints popular in the West.
In the years which followed the conquest Latin priests were sent to Constantinople from France, Flanders, and Italy, to take charge of the churches in the city. These priests appear to have been great hunters after relics. Thus it came to pass that there was scarcely an important church or monastery in most Western countries which did not possess some share of the spoil which came from Constantinople.
For some years the demand for relics seemed to be insatiable, and caused fresh supplies to be forthcoming to an almost unlimited extent. The new relics, equally with the old, were certified in due form to be what they professed to be. Documents, duly attested and full of detailed evidence — sometimes, doubtless, manufactured for the occasion — easily satisfied those to whom it was of importance to possess certified relics, and throughout the West the demand for relics which might bring profit to their possessors continued to increase. At length the Church deemed it necessary to put a stop to the supply, and especially to that of the apocryphal and legendary acts which testified to their authenticity, and in 1215 the fourth Lateran council judged it necessary to make a decree enjoining the bishops to take means to prevent pilgrims from being deceived.
This ends our series of passages on Constantinople Taken by the Western Crusaders by Edwin Pears from his book The Fall of Constantinople Being the Story of the Fourth Crusade published in 1903. This blog features short and lengthy pieces on all aspects of our shared past. Here are selections from the great historians who may be forgotten (and whose work have fallen into public domain) as well as links to the most up-to-date developments in the field of history and of course, original material from yours truly, Jack Le Moine. – A little bit of everything historical is here.
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