Geoffroi de Villehardouin Criticism - Essay

Frank Marzials (essay date 1908)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to Memoirs of the Crusades by Villehardouin and de Joinville, translated by Sir Frank Marzials, J.M. Dent & Sons, 1908, pp. x-xxvii.

[In the following excerpt, Marzials offers a brief review of Villehardouin's account of the first four crusades. He discusses the debate regarding Villehardouin's veracity, maintaining that he was essentially honest in his account of the Fourth Crusade. Marzials goes on to praise the simplicity and directness of Villehardouin's writing style.]

Villehardouin's story opens with the closing years of the twelfth century. In those years, as he tells, Fulk of Neuilly, near Paris, a priest well known for his holiness and zeal, began to preach a new Crusade; and Fulk's words, so men thought, were confirmed by many signs and miracles; and even apart from such supernatural aid, it is not difficult, I think, to conjecture wherein lay the force of his appeal or to imagine its nature. But while he was descanting on the necessity for another attempt to recover the Holy Land, and setting forth the glories and spiritual advantages of the proposed adventure, did he ever dwell at all, one wonders, on the story of the Crusades that had already been undertaken? Did he unfold for his hearers that tragic and terrible scroll in the history of men—a scroll on which are recorded in strange, intermingled, fantastic characters, tales of saintly heroism, and fraud, and greed, and cruelty, and wrong—of sufferings at which one sickens, and foul deeds at which one sickens more, and acts of devotion and high courage that have found their place among the heirlooms and glories of mankind?

Did he tell them of the First Crusade—tell them how, a little more than a century before, the heart of Peter the Hermit had been moved to fiery indignation at the indignities offered to pilgrims at the sacred shrines, and he had made all Christendom resound to his angry eloquence; how at the Council of Clermont, in 1095, Pope Urban II. had re-echoed the hermit's cry; how the nations had responded to the call to arms in so holy a cause, the noble selling or mortgaging his land, the labourer abandoning his plough, the woman her hearth and distaff, the very children forsaking their play; how a great wave of humanity had thence been set rolling eastward—a wave of such mighty volume, and so impelled by fierce enthusiasm, that, notwithstanding every hindrance, dissension within, utter disorganisation, misrule, famine, plague, slaughter, wholesale desertions, treachery on every side, wild fanatical hostility—notwithstanding all this, it had yet rolled right across Europe, rolled on across the deserts and defiles of Asia Minor, and swept the infidel from Jerusalem and the fastnesses of Judæa? Did Fulk of Neuilly, one wonders, tell his hearers the story of that First Crusade, which, for all its miseries and horrors, accomplished the mission on which it started, and placed its great and saintly leader, Godfrey of Bouillon on the throne of Jerusalem, and founded a Christian kingdom in the Holy Land? (1099).

Did he tell them the story of the Second Crusade? That was the Crusade preached by one of very different mould from Peter the Hermit, by one who was in many ways the master-spirit of his time, St. Bernard. For to St. Bernard it seemed a scandal and intolerable that the Christian kingdom of Judæa, prayed for with so many prayers, purchased with so much blood, should be dissolved. He held it as not to be borne that the place where our Lord had been cradled in the manger, the fields where He had taught, the hill where He had died for men, the sepulchre in which He had lain, should fall once more into the unholy possession of the infidel. And yet, ere fifty years had passed since the taking of Jerusalem, this seemed an approaching consummation, so weakened was the new kingdom by internal dissension, so fiercely attacked from without. Already the Moslem were prevailing on every side. The important position of Edessa had fallen into their hands. So St. Bernard came to the rescue. By his paramount personal influence, he induced Lewis VII. of France, and Conrad of Germany to take the cross. Again there was a march across Europe; again treachery on the part of the Greek Emperor at Constantinople; again most terrible slaughter in Asia Minor; again unheard-of sufferings; again folly, ineptitude, treachery. But not again the old ultimate success. This time the great human wave, though it did indeed reach Jerusalem, yet reached it spent and broken. Edessa was not retaken. Damascus was besieged, only to show the utter want of unity among the Crusaders. Conrad returned to Germany. Lewis, a year later, returned to France (1149); and of the Second Crusade there remained small immediate trace, save, in France and Germany, depopulated hamlets, and homes made desolate, and bones bleaching in the far Syrian deserts.

Could Fulk have turned, in the retrospect, with better heart to the Third Crusade?—Somewhat unquestionably. That Third Crusade is the one in which we Englishmen have most interest, for its central figure is our lion-hearted king, Richard. And it is, probably, the Crusade of which the main incidents are best known to the English reader, for they have been evoked from the past, and made, as it were, to reenact themselves before us, by the magic of Sir Walter Scott. What boy has not read the Talisman? And so it will not be necessary for me to dwell at length on the history of that Crusade: the rivalries of Richard and Philip Augustus; the siege and surrender of Acre; the return of Philip Augustus to France; the bitter feud with the Duke of Austria; the superb daring and personal prowess of Richard; the abortive march on Jerusalem—which must have been retaken save for the insane rivalries in the Christian host; the interchange of courtesies with the chivalrous Saladin; the abandonment of the Crusade; the return of the English king westward, and his imprisonment in an Austrian dungeon (1192).

Not a story of success, most certainly. Richard left the Holy Land pretty well where he found it. His object in going thither had been the recovery of Jerusalem, which, in 1187, after being nearly ninety years in Christian hands, had fallen a prey to Saladin. And that object was as far as ever from attainment. But still there rested about the Third Crusade a glamour of courage and heroic deeds, so that when scarce nine years after its conclusion, Fulk went about preaching new efforts for the expulsion of the Saracens, he may possibly have sought to raise the courage of his warlike hearers by dwelling on the doughty deeds of Richard and his knights.

Otherwise, if he referred to the past at all—for the latest German expedition of 1196-1197 had just come to an inglorious close,—his message can scarcely have been one of confidence as he addressed the nobles and lesser men assembled at Ecri, towards the end of November 1199, to take part in the great tournament instituted by Thibaut III., Count of Champagne. No, the past was against them. It spoke little of success, and much of misery, disorganisation, disaster; while as to the future, if Fulk and his hearers had seen into that, one doubts if they could have been moved to much enthusiasm. Whatever admixture of worldly motives there may have been, the Fourth Crusade was vehemently advocated by Pope Innocent III., proclaimed by Fulk, joined by multitudes of devout pilgrims, for the express purpose of recapturing Jerusalem, and driving the heathen out of Palestine. But it never reached Palestine at all. It did far less than nothing towards the recovery of the Holy City. It delivered its blow with immense force and shattering effect upon a Christian, not a Moslem, state. It contributed not a little, in ultimate result, to break down Europe's barrier against the Turk. Thus, from the Crusading point of view, it was a gigantic failure; and, as such, denounced again and yet again by the great Pope who had done so much to give it life.

How did this come about? What were the real influences that led the Fourth Crusade to change its objective from Jerusalem to Constantinople? The question has been many times debated. It is, as one may almost say, one of the stock questions of history; and I can scarcely altogether give it the go-by here—as I should like to do—because in that question is involved the more personal question of Villehardouin's own good faith as a historian. If there were wire-pullers at work, almost from the beginning, who laboured to deflect the movement to their own ends; if the Venetians throughout played a double game,1 and betrayed the Christian cause to the Saracens, then it is necessary, before we accept him altogether as a witness of truth, to inquire why he makes no mention of the Marquis of Montferrat's intrigues, or the Republic's duplicity. Did he write in ignorance? or did he, while possessing full knowledge, banish ugly facts from his narrative, and deliberately constitute himself, as has been said, the “official apologist” of the Crusade?

For, as he tells the story, all is simplicity itself. There is scarcely anything to explain. The Crusade has a purely religious origin: “Many took the cross because the indulgences were so great.” Villehardouin himself, and his five brother delegates from the great lords assembled in parliament at Compiègne, go to Venice, and engage a fleet to take the host of the pilgrims “oversea”—an ambiguous term which meant Syria for the uninitiated, but “Babylon” or Cairo for the Venetian Council—“because it was in Babylon, rather than in any other land, that the Turks could best be destroyed.” Then comes the death of Count Thibaut of Champagne, who would have been the natural leader of the Crusade, and the selection, in his stead, of the Marquis of Montferrat, “a right worthy man, and one of the most highly esteemed that were then alive.” Afterwards the pilgrims begin to assemble in Venice; but owing to numerous defections, their number is so reduced that the stipulated passage money is not forthcoming, and the Venetians naturally refuse to move. The blame, up to this point, lies entirely with the pilgrims who had failed to keep their tryst. Meanwhile, what is to be done? Some, who in their heart of hearts wish not well to the cause, would break up the host and return to their own land. Others, who are better affected, would proceed at all hazards. Then the Doge proposes a compromise. If, says he, addressing his own people, we insist upon our pound of flesh, we can, no doubt, claim to keep the moneys already received, as some consideration for our great outlay; but, so doing, we shall be greatly blamed throughout Christendom. Let us rather agree to forego the unpaid balance and carry out our agreement, provided the pilgrims, on their part, will help us to recapture Zara, on the Adriatic, of which we have been wrongfully dispossessed by the King of Hungary. To this the Venetians consent, and likewise the Crusaders, notwithstanding the remonstrances of the evil-disposed party aforesaid. So the blind old Doge assumes the cross, with great solemnity, in the Church of St. Mark, and many Venetians assume it too, and all is got ready for departure.

Then, and not till then, do we get any hint of an attack on the Greek empire. “Now listen,” says Villehardouin, “to one of the greatest marvels and greatest adventures that ever you heard tell of,” and he proceeds to narrate how the young Greek prince Alexius, having escaped from the hands of that wicked usurper, his uncle, and being at Verona on the way to the court of his brother-in-law, “Philip of Germany,” makes overtures to the Crusaders, and how the latter are not unprepared to help him to recover his father's throne, provided he in turn will help them to re-conquer Jerusalem. Whereupon envoys are sent to accompany the youth into Germany, for further negotiation with Philip, and the host, Crusaders and Venetians together, set sail for their attack on Christian Zara.

And here for the first time Villehardouin makes mention of the religious objection to the course that the Crusade is taking. The inhabitants of Zara are prepared to capitulate, but are dissuaded by the party which, according to Villehardouin, were anxious to break up the host, and while the matter is under discussion, the abbot of Vaux, of the order of the Cistercians, rises in his place and says, “Lords, on behalf of the Apostle of Rome, I forbid you to attack this city, for it is a Christian city, and you are pilgrims.” Nevertheless the Doge insists that the Crusaders shall fulfil their contract, and Zara is besieged and taken.

While the host is waiting, after the capture, they are joined by the envoys from Philip, and from Philip's brother-in-law, Alexius, the son of the deposed Emperor of Constantinople. These envoys bring definite and very advantageous proposals. The Crusaders are to dispossess the treacherous and wicked emperor, also called Alexius, and reinstate the deposed Isaac; and in return for this great service, Alexius the younger promises, “in the very first place,” that the Greek empire shall be brought back into obedience to Rome, and then—seeing that the pilgrims are poor—that they shall receive 200,000 marks of silver, and provisions for small and great, and further that substantial help shall be afforded towards the conquest of the “land of Babylon,” oversea.

The hook was well baited. The reunion of Christendom, gold and stores in plenty, active co-operation from the near vantage ground of Constantinople in the dispossession of the infidel, a splendid adventure to be achieved—no wonder the Crusaders were tempted. Villehardouin himself never falters in his expressed conviction that the course proposed was the right course, that he and his companions did well in following, at this juncture, the fortunes of the younger Alexius. Nevertheless it is clear, even from his narrative, that a great, almost overwhelming, party in the host were unconvinced and bitterly opposed to the deflection of the Crusade. Hotly was the question debated. The laymen were divided. The clergy, even of the same religious order, were at bitter strife. When it came to the ratification of the convention with Alexius, only twelve French lords could be induced to swear. Thereafter came defection on defection—the deserters, as Villehardouin is always careful to note, not without a certain complacency, coming mainly to evil ends. “Now be it known to you, lords,” says he, “that if God had not loved that host, it could never have kept together, seeing how many there were who wished evil to it.” Even the Pope's forgiveness for the attack on Zara, and his exhortation to the pilgrims to remain united, did not avail to prevent further disintegration.

Nevertheless the host ultimately reaches Constantinople, routs the Greeks, who have no stomach for the fight, sends the usurping Emperor Alexius flying, reinstates the blinded Isaac, and seats the younger Alexius, by the side of Isaac, on the imperial throne. But naturally the position of Isaac and Alexius is precarious, and when the latter asks the Crusaders to delay their departure, the adverse party tries once more to obtain an immediate descent on Syria or Egypt. They are overborne. Soon, however, it becomes clear that Isaac and Alexius either cannot, or will not, fulful their promises. As a matter of fact Alexius has placed himself and his father in an impossible position, of which death, in cruel forms, is to be the outcome, and they become, in turn, the objects of attack, and their empire a field of plunder. Henceforward the die is cast. The Crusade ceases to be a Crusade, and becomes as purely an expedition of conquest as William's descent on England. Whatever may be their occasional qualms, Franks and Venetians have enough to do in the Greek Empire, without giving very much thought to Judæa.

But to all this there is another side. Thus, if we are to believe the chronicle2 compiled in 1393, by order of Heredia, Grand Master of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, Villehardouin first proposed the Crusade to his lord, the Count of Champagne, not on any specially religious grounds, but because, after the peace between the kings of France and England, there were a great many idle men-at-arms about, whom it would be desirable to employ. So also Ernoul, a contemporary, after telling how the barons of France, who had sided with Richard against Philip Augustus, cast off their armour at the tournament at Ecri, and ran to take the cross, adds: “There are certain persons who say that they thus took the cross for fear of the King of France, and so that he might not punish them because they had sided against him.”3

This, however, is relatively unimportant. Mixed motives may at once be conceded as probable and natural. What is of greater significance is the attitude of the Venetians and the question of their good faith. Villehardouin here hints no doubt. According to him, the Republic made a bargain to provide freight and food for an expedition to the Holy Land or to “Babylon,” and provided both amply, and it was only on the failure of the pilgrims to carry out their side of the bargain that the Venetians fell back on Zara. They were prepared to take the Crusade to its original destination. But the same Ernoul, from whom I have just quoted, tells another story. He relates how Saphardin, the brother of the deceased Saladin, hearing that the Crusaders had hired a fleet in Venice, sends envoys to the Venetians, with great gifts and promises of commercial adventage, and entreats them to “turn away the Christians,” and how the Venetians accept the bribe, and use their influence accordingly;4 while certain modern historians...

(The entire section is 7297 words.)

M. R. B. Shaw (essay date 1963)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to Chronicles of the Crusades, Penguin Books, 1963, pp. 7–25.

[In the following essay, Shaw surveys the content, form, and style of Villehardouin's Conquest of Constantinople. Shaw commends the “simplicity and lucidity” of the work.]

Few events in history have been more coloured by romantic imagination than that series of expeditions to the Holy Land known as the Crusades. The very name conjures up a vision of gallant knights inspired by pure religious zeal, leaving home and country to embark on a just and holy war against the enemies of the Christian faith. The two chronicles here presented, each composed by a man who took part in...

(The entire section is 4126 words.)

Colin Morris (essay date 1968)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Geoffroy de Villehardouin and the Conquest of Constantinople,” History, Vol. LIII, No. 177, 1968, pp. 24-34.

[In the essay that follows, Morris discusses the content and style of Villehardouin's Conquest of Constantinople, arguing that despite some omissions and the “unfair” treatment of certain subjects, Villehardouin's account is primarily an honest and accurate one.]

The Conquest of Constantinople, by Geoffroy de Villehardouin, was much the most popular history of the fourth Crusade during the Middle Ages, and is still today the most easily available of the contemporary accounts.1 It deserves its popularity. It gives a vivid...

(The entire section is 5454 words.)

Jeanette M. A. Beer (essay date 1968)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Le Conquette de Constantinople—Its Style and Language” in Villehardouin: Epic Historian, Librarie Droz, 1968, pp. 67-81.

[In the following essay, Beer examines the two stylistic traits for which Villehardouin's work is most commonly praised: its clarity and brevity. Beer also investigates the way in which Villehardouin uses such devices as repetition and antitheses.]

The qualities most frequently praised in La Conquête de Constantinople are its clarity and its brevity.1 Villehardouin's clarity could no doubt be unmeditated—the result solely of a simple, orderly, perhaps even unimaginative conception of events. Nevertheless, a...

(The entire section is 4405 words.)

Jeanette M. A. Beer (essay date 1970)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Villehardouin and the Oral Narrative,”Studies in Philology, Vol. LXVII, No. 3, 1970, pp. 267-77.

[In the following essay, Beer studies the way in which Villehardouin, in Conquest of Constantinople, utilizes elements of the oral narrative tradition. Beer observes that certain features, including Villehardouin's use of exclamations and his “fondness” for exaggeration and repetition, strongly demonstrate the influence of oral narration on Villehardouin's work.]

Since Adolf Kressner's article “Über den epischen Charakter der Sprache Villehardouins,”1 the transitional nature of Villehardouin's style has been accepted without question....

(The entire section is 4216 words.)

Paul Archambault (essay date 1974)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Villehardouin: History in Black and White” in Seven French Chroniclers: Witnesses to History, Syracuse University Press, 1974, pp. 25-39, 127-29.

[In the following essay, Archambault summarizes the content of Villehardouin's Conquest of Constantinopleand reviews the debate concerning Villehardouin's motivation and sincerity. Archambault suggests that the work should be examined not as a historical document but as a work of literature “dictated by a certain vision of reality.”]

Villehardouin lived most of his life during the latter half of the twelfth century, but his Conquest of Constantinople, dictated in French from his castle in...

(The entire section is 7823 words.)