Geoffroi de Villehardouin

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(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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...

(The entire section is 2,837 words.)