Geoffrey of Villehardouin (1160–1212?) is known as one of the first important names in French historiography. Unlike his predecessors, he was not a dry chronicler; he was a historian who participated directly in the events he described, and was reasonably objective by the standards of his day. His book, The Conquest of Constantinople, is a moving and pious account of his involvement in the Fourth Crusade. He was not born a nobleman; he earned his spurs as a knight through loyal service as a soldier and organizer of military campaigns. After his withdrawal from public life, he set out to record the great events he had been a part of, much in the same way that Bernal Diaz (one of Hernando Cortes’s soldiers) and Usama Ibn Munqidh (an Arab knight of the Crusades) would do. Great deeds of valor are rightly celebrated in every culture and in every age, because (as Sallust tells us):
Glory derived from riches and appearances is transitory and brittle, but masculine virtue is pure and eternal. [Cat. 1]
Like other men of his era, Villehardouin took it for granted that a man must display courage and fortitude in every aspect of his life. For him, it could not be otherwise. Nothing useful or productive could be accomplished without it, and leaders who could not live up to this standard should in his view be speedily replaced. But he was not a fanatic or a reckless dolt; good judgment and caution played an essential role in forming the personality of a commander, and those lacking these qualities were rightfully deserving of scorn. This is a man who has earned his titles, rather than had them bestowed on him by virtue of birth or wealth. His philosophy and value system come through on every page of his history. And yet his account is also bursting with sincere passion; by reading him, we realize just how much manly spiritual idealism in the West has been lost or suppressed. Reading his account made me sorely regret that I cannot read Old French.
To get a taste of the flavor and intensity of Villehardouin’s prose, consider the following passages. In one of his chapters, he describes the first siege of Constantinople, which took place from July 5 to July 17, 1203. Without going into too much detail on its origins and purposes, the Fourth Crusade (1202–1204) was a military campaign undertaken by a coalition of Western European forces ostensibly against Egypt and Palestine; in reality it was turned into an assault on the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Yet armies on the march do not ask political questions; the foot-soldier sees only the pack of the man in front of him, and does not concern himself with political machinations happening in board-rooms and conference-tables. Villehardouin does not dwell on these issues, nor should he be have been expected to. He was a fighting man with a mission and a purpose, and that was enough.
His army finally arrived before the gates of Constantinople, that fabled and wondrous city, the sight of which must have awed the Crusaders. With his pulse racing, he tells us:
The French planted two scaling ladders against a barbican [i.e., a fortified tower] close to the sea. The wall here was strongly manned by Englishmen and Danes, and the struggle that ensued was stiff and hard and fierce. By dint of strenuous efforts two knight sand two sergeants managed to scale the ladders and make themselves masters of the wall. A good fifteen of our men got up on top, and were quickly engaged in a hand-to-and contest of battle-axes against swords. The Greeks inside the barbican plucked up courage and fought back so savagely that they drove our men out, while retaining two as prisoners. These captives were led before the Emperor Alexius [the Greek emperor], who was overjoyed to see them…Many were wounded and many were left with broken limbs. [Trans. by Margaret Shaw]
We can almost feel the crash of stones hurled from mangonels, the screech of steel against steel, and the shouts of the belligerents. Villehardouin then relates:
Let me tell you here of an outstanding deed of valor. The Doge of Venice, although an old man and completely blind, stood at the bow of his galley, with the banner of Saint Mark unfurled before him. He cried out to his men to put him on shore, or else he himself would deal with the as they deserved. They obeyed him promptly, for the galley touched ground and the men in it leaped ashore, bearing the banner of Saint Mark to shore before the Doge.
As soon as the other Venetians saw this banner on land, and their lord’s galley touching ground before them, every man of them felt deeply ashamed, and all made for the shore. The men in the transports leaped out and waded, while those in the bigger ships got into boats, and every one of them, each vying with the other to get there quickest, hastened to reach land. Then began a grand and marvelous assault on the city. Geoffrey de Villehardouin, author of this chronicle, here affirms that more than forty people solemnly assured him that they had seen the banner of Saint Mark flying from the top of one of the towers…
See here how different the ethic of that era was from our own! See how the courage and tenacity of one old man can inspire others! This is how these things are: courage, like cowardice, is infectious. But think about this: would a blind old man today put himself in harm’s way, like the old Doge of Venice did when he insisted on going ashore into the thick of the fight? How do our own politicians of today compare with these men? Today’s generals and politicians have no skin in the games that they play. They never for a moment put themselves at risk of anything: nothing, not even their bloated pensions and benefits. And this is the problem. But let him continue his account:
Now let me tell you of an event so marvelous that it might be called a miracle. The people within the city fled, abandoning the walls to the Venetians. These all rushed in through the gates, each trying to outstrip the others and took possession of twenty-five towers, which they manned with their own people. The Doge called for a boat to take messengers as quickly as possible to tell the barons that twenty-five towers had been seized, and to assure them that these could never be retaken…
The Emperor Alexius now brought his men so far forward that either side could shoot at the other. On hearing of this the Doge of Venice sent orders to his men to come down from the towers they had taken, and declared he would live or die in the company of the pilgrims [his men]. So he came sailing towards the camp with as many men as he could bring with him…For some considerable time the armies of the Crusaders and of the Greeks stood facing each other; for the Greeks did not dare to fling themselves on our ranks, and our men would not move away from their palisades. When the Emperor grasped the situation, he began to withdraw his troops, and as soon as he had rallied them he turned them around in the direction of the city…
I can assure you that God never delivered any people from greater peril than that from which He saved our troops that day. There was not a man in the army, however bold and courageous, whose heart was not filled with joy. Thus the battle was halted that day, and by God’s will nothing further happened…Utterly weary and overwrought, [our men] took off their armor and laid their weapons aside.
Let me now ask you to consider the miracles of our Lord–how wonderful they are whenever it pleases Him to perform them! That very night the Emperor Alexius collected as much of his money and his people who wished to go, and fled and abandoned the city. The people of Constantinople were utterly astounded. They went to the prison in which the Emperor Isaac, whose eyes had been put out, was confined. They clothed him in his imperial robes, and carried him to the great palace of Blachernae, where they set him on a high throne, and swore allegiance to him as their lord. Then…messengers were sent to tell…the barons that the usurper [Alexius] had fled, and the people of Constantinople had re-established his brother as their rightful emperor.
And then, finally, Villehardouin ends with these stirring words:
As soon as the young prince heard the news he sent for the Marquis de Montferrat, who immediately summoned all the barons throughout the camp…Their joy on hearing it was such as cannot well be described, for no greater joy was ever felt by anyone in this world. The whole company joined in the most devout and reverent praises of Our Lord, for having within so short a time delivered them and exalted them so high from such a low estate. And therefore one may rightly say: “The man whom God desires to help, no other man can harm.”
Of the truth of this last sentence, there can be no doubt. The actions of a single man can play a decisive role in the outcome of events, and we must strive to be counted among such men.
Learn more about momentous events and courage in Sallust: