Article abstract: After playing a significant role in the organization and conduct of the Fourth Crusade, Villehardouin wrote an original and valuable history of it.
Geoffroi de Villehardouin, who was in all likelihood the son of Villain I de Villehardouin, was born circa 1150 to a family whose earlier history is virtually unknown. While little information exists about Villehardouin’s youth, it seems that by 1172, the year that his name was entered on a list of the vassals of the Count of Champagne, he was already married and had children. The surviving records suggest that Villehardouin married twice and that he had, in all, five children.
In 1185, Villehardouin became Marshal of Champagne, which means that he assumed specific domestic and military responsibilities at a high level. In addition to overseeing the care of all the horses of his suzerain, Count Henry II of Champagne, Villehardouin’s charge included the supervision of the military service and remuneration of the count’s vassals. In time of war, Villehardouin’s duty as marshal was to follow his overlord into battle, in the forefront of the army. Villehardouin may have done just that in 1190, when Henry left for the Holy Land to join in the Third Crusade, but there is no historical evidence establishing this as fact. While versed in Latin, theology, and music, Henry had little interest in works of literature written in the vernacular. It is quite possible, therefore, that Villehardouin’s lack of enthusiasm for the courtly ideal, as later reflected in the generally sober style of his historical writing, was conditioned by the count’s literary tastes.
Villehardouin achieved distinction both as a leader and as a historian of the Fourth Crusade. Unhappily, this dual distinction was to a certain degree tarnished by the abortive outcome of the Crusade itself, which, setting out to liberate the Holy Land from the Muslims, was diverted to the assaulting, capturing, and looting of Christian cities, such as Zara on the Dalmatian coast and Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Furthermore, Villehardouin’s largely positive account of the expedition fueled the suspicion that he was primarily concerned with justifying his decisions and those of his fellow commanders rather than exposing the errors and the dubious motivations. In the final analysis, however, Villehardouin’s achievement both as a participant in and as a chronicler of the Fourth Crusade proved to be outstanding.
Along with his new suzerain, Count Thibaut III of Champagne, Villehardouin became a Crusader in November, 1199, responding to the appeal launched the previous year by Pope Innocent III. From the outset, Villehardouin’s role in the Fourth Crusade was prominent. He and Conon de Béthune, the celebrated poet, were among six envoys who went to Venice in February, 1201, in order to negotiate for the transportation of the Crusaders to the Holy Land. Subsequently, upon the death on May 24, 1201, of Thibaut, it was again Villehardouin who assumed an active role in the search for Thibaut’s replacement. Indeed, at the Council of Soissons in June, 1201, Vilehardouin argued in favor of Boniface of Montferrat as the new commander in chief of the Crusaders and saw his personal choice ratified.
After the Crusaders had captured Constantinople on July 17, 1203, and restored Emperor Isaac II Angelus, who had been deposed by his brother, Alexius III Angelus, Villehardouin was designated the spokesman among the four representatives sent to meet with the emperor. Villehardouin was charged with reminding the latter of the political and financial obligations that the emperor’s son, young Alexius, had assumed when he had asked for the Crusaders’ help for his father. Villehardouin’s mission proved successful, and on August 1, 1203, the young Alexius was crowned coemperor, becoming Alexius IV. Later, however, because their fraternization with a Latin army of Crusaders had angered their Greek constituents, Isaac II Angelus and Alexius IV no longer seemed disposed to respect the agreement to provide monetary assistance to the Crusaders. In November, 1203, Villehardouin was again among envoys dispatched to the coemperors to convince them to honor their commitments.
Following the second conquest of Constantinople on April 13, 1204—in the course of which the Crusaders put to flight the usurper Alexius Ducas Murtzuphlus, who had strangled Alexius IV and seized power as Alexius V (Isaac II Angelus having died shortly before his son, apparently from a stroke)—an opportunity was afforded Villehardouin to display his skills as a conciliator. A dispute having arisen between the new emperor of Constantinople, Count Baldwin of Flanders, and Boniface of Montferrat over the kingdom of Thessalonica, Villehardouin brought about a face-saving truce by blaming the dispute on the bungling of the disputants’ advisers. Emperor Baldwin then agreed to give Thessalonica to Boniface.
In 1205, with the Greeks in open revolt and the Bulgars and Vlachs invading the Crusaders’ strongholds, circumstances developed which permitted Villehardouin to display his military prowess. After Baldwin had laid siege to Adrianople and had in turn been attacked by King Ioannitsa of the Vlacho-Bulgarian state, Count Louis of Blois was killed, on April 14, 1205, when he unwisely left the main detachment of the Crusaders to pursue the enemy’s Cuman archers. Baldwin himself was captured in this engagement, having followed Louis. Villehardouin halted the disorderly retreat of the Crusaders, reassembled them into a fighting unit—despite the constant harassment of the Bulgars—and effected an orderly withdrawal. Yet Villehardouin could not single-handedly stem the tide of military reverses. On September 4, 1207, Boniface was killed in an ambush by the Bulgars, thus dramatically marking, at least as far as Villehardouin was concerned, the official and tragic conclusion of the ill-fated Fourth Crusade.
Beyond being a trusted ambassador, an adroit conciliator, and an effective, courageous military commander, Villehardouin was also a chronicler of the momentous events of the Crusade. The portrait of Villehardouin the historian, however, is far more complex than that of Villehardouin the Crusader.
Villehardouin’s work, written after 1207, was entitled L’Histoire de Geoffroy de Villehardouin, mareschal de Champagne et de Roménie, de la conqueste de Constantinople par les barons français associez aux Vénitiens, l’an 1204 (1584; The Chronicle of Geoffry de Villehardouin, Marshall of Champagne and Romania, Concerning the Conquest of Constantinople by the French and Venetians, Anno MCCIV, 1829). More commonly known by the modernized French title La Conquête de Constantinople, Villehardouin’s account seems at first glance designed not only to...
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