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Sins of History

I must confess to having committed a grievous historical sin in my post on the Fourth Crusade. Not about the Fourth Crusade; I went back and checked and, while some of the details are wrong, the broad outline is correct (I mixed up Joinville and Villehardoin, for instance, but it makes no difference to the story). This is because I've actually read Villehardoin's Chronicle of the Fourth Crusade, a primary source on the subject, so my mistakes are only mistakes of memory.

On the Eighth, or Children's, Crusade I did something quite evil, however. I told the story of it based on half-remembered stories told to me by other people. I've never read about it in a second hand source, and certainly never read any primary sources on the subject. As such, when I went back to casually fact-check my post I discovered that my accounting of the Children's Crusade is, to use the parlance of our times, bullshit. Certain events happened which have now been built into the Legend of the Children's Crusade, but the version I related is apocryphal at best.

In fact, there were severl events that occurred around the same time. One involved a crusade led by a French child. This ended when certain of his prophecies failed to materialize. Another involved a crusade by a shephard who gathered a bunch of children to his cause, and claimed he would part the sea at Genoa. He didn't, and what happened after is unknown. It's quite possible the children were sold into slavery, but more likely they went home or re-settled in Genoa. A third related event was a movement by displaced peasants, who walked from town to town seeking alms and clamoring for better lives. They were referred to diminutively at the time as "Children," which may have lead later chroniclers to be confused and think that they actually were children on a crusade. In any case, the first explicit reference to the Children's Crusade was written fifty years after it was supposed to have occurred, and appears to be based on legend and hearsay rather than any actaul documentation. So, while it is theoretically possible that the Children's Crusade occurred as described, it is highly unlikely.

I'm particularly angry at myself because that's the sort of sloppy history-by-apocryphal-anecdote that I hate when reading older histories. History writing has gotten much more professional over the last century, and there was a time when almost all history was written as a series of anecdotes. Now things have gotten much better, at the cost of some of the entertainment value in history writing.

For instance, nowadays it's fairly rare to see anecdotes in historical writing. You see statistics, you see primary evidence laid out, analyzed, critiqued, and synthesized to create a broad sense of what happened. When anecdotes appear, they are generally examined not for their content but for what they tell us about the person who relates them. Even then, anecdotes are only examined if they come to us from contemporaries to the event. Anecdotes of unknown origin are considered too dubious to include. If entertaining, apocryphal anecdotes do appear, they are used sparingly and for rhetorical purposes, and with lots of warning signs and flags, e.g. "One anecdote told of this event, likely false, is illustrative of this general trend..." They are used to advance a point, but are clearly demarcated as fictional.

In contrast, historical writing once consisted almost entirely of anecdotes linked by a thin narrative thread. This is entertaining at first, but rapidly becomes maddening. It starts funny and amusing, but then you ask yourself "Alright, in what sense have I learned anything about this time and this place?" You come away knowing a lot of tall tales of the period, but you have no larger sense of how real people actually acted, what forces shaped their society, etc. You're left with a sense of having been entertained without having increased your knowledge of the subject.

Further, older historical writing generally made no attempt to distinguish the probably true anecdotes from the almost certainly false ones. It hits you when you read an anecdote that makes absolutely no sense, that nobody could possibly believe really occured. Then you step back and wonder what percentage of the stories you're reading are true, and what percent are just bullshit. This is why I haven't gotten past the first section of The Barbary Coast, by Herbert Asbury, yet. The first pithy story is fun. The tenth in a row is tedious. Eventually you wish he would just devote a chapter to the broad pattern of crime through San Francisco's development, rather than yet another chapter profiling the (fictionalized) exploits of some rakish, lively San Francisco villain.

I think the problem is that the anecdote is a poor tool for education outside of its illustrative value, and at the same time a string of anecdotes presented as a history is a poor means of entertainment. If you want fiction, you'll read fiction. Also, the anecdotal method of historiography feels immensely condescending. "I could give you the full academic analysis of this, but wouldn't you much rather hear another funny story? I thought so."

Another point: Anecdotal history is lazy history. As I showed above, it's very easy to ratlle off a story you heard second hand from someone who read a book about it once. When writing a history of a period, it's a lot of work to carefully gather your evidence, analyze it, and marshall it to make a point or convey a sense of the sweep of the period. On the other hand, it's very easy to read a bunch of books on the subject, write down as many funny anecdotes as you can find, arrange them chronologically and write a narrative thread to connect them.

Then there are ideological questions (I feel anecdotal history favors the "Big Man" view of history, while serious history favors "Movements and Groups" historicism) but, if I'm to get into those questions, I think I should do it in a seperate post.

To return to my subject: I apologize for failing to fact-check myself before posting. Having chastened myself, I shall endeavor not to make the same mistake again.

Well Doge my cats


I played board games tonight with the Columbia Strategic Simulations Society. One of the games I didn't participate in, but did watch, was San Marco, a territory control game set in Medieval Venice. One of the important pieces in the game is the Doge, who in those times was the elected leader of Venice. Thinking about this started me thinking (naturally!) about the calamitous Fourth Crusade (so much did it set me to thinking this, by the way, that I began quietly narrating the history of said crusade while watching the game, causing one of the girls playing to give me occasional quizzical looks).

Sadly, my copy of Joinville's Chronicle of the Fourth Crusade seems to have been left at home, so I'll have to work from memory here. Essentially, this is one of the great crusades where nothing went right. Really, the high water mark for crusades was the first one. After that they were progressively less successful. Of course, that measures success by the metric of the official, textbook reasons given for the crusades, that they were a mission from God to re-take the Holy Lands from the Saracens. While this may perhaps have been more true than not of the First Crusade, subsequent crusades were motivated less and less by religion and more and more by greed.

It's interesting to note that, if you read contemporary Muslim accounts of the crusades, their relationship to the crusaders was not unlike the relationship of the English to Viking raiders. There was a sort of sense of "Aw, nuts, the pillagers are back" when the great cross-shaped sails appeared. The Christians came, beat people up, took all the treasure they could lay their hands on, then quickly retreated when the Saracen army showed up.

Incidentally, probably the most successful Crusade by the profit metric was the eighth and final one, the so-called Children's Crusade. The high-concept behind it was that the Saracens wouldn't kill children, so if they created an army of children and sailed them to the Holy Lands, they'd be invincible. So they collected kids from all over Europe and gathered them at a port in the south of France (the name escapes me at the moment). Then the organizers had a brilliant idea. They said "You know, the Holy Lands are a long way away, and if this whole 'won't kill children' thing doesn't wash, we're going to get our asses handed to us. So, we could go all that way on a gamble, or we could take the sure thing and just sell these little fuckers into slavery." And so they did. So they made a tidy profit without actually killing anyone or putting themselves out too much. On the other had, they sort of poisoned the Crusade well. It's tough to get people to throw their lives away for a crusade after you just got done selling the last gang of suckers that did it into slavery.

The Fourth Crusade, though, is one gigantic comedy of errors. They get to southern Europe and find out that the local king (possibly of Hungary?) won't let them through (for reasons which will become more obvious as the story progresses). So they change course to Venice. There they make a deal with the Doge of Venice (you see! It does tie to my hook at the beginning!) to pay him a huge amount up front for some ships, plus a share of the loot. The Doge comes along, and actually, if Joinville's account of him is accurate, is a pretty handy fighter. That is, he's right in there with everyone else in the battles. So they take the Venetian boats to the Dalmatian Coast, but they lose some along the way, and another big chunk of folks decide to go back. They get there and the local displaced lord wants them to help him get his throne back. They do, but also incidentally pillage his land while they're there. He grudgingly gives them some men to help them out and grants them passage through his lands.

They keep moving. Next stop, Byzantium! Only they get to Constantinople (Which, it should be pointed out, in those days was the closest the Medieval European world had to a Big Cosmopolitan City) and notice that the city's really wealthy, full of all sorts of glittering treasures. So they decide to drop the whole "Holy Land" business, and decide "Hey! Let's just conquer the Byzantine Empire!" After all, the Holy Land's way the Hell over there, and has all those Saracens. The Byzantines are RIGHT HERE, and on top of that, they're loaded! So they invented a vague sort of religious reason why they need to beat up the Byzantines (which about half their force didn't buy and went home) and they took Byzantium. So then they had a bogus election and crowned one of them the new Emperor, and divided the land up into fiefdoms, and after they'd gotten done with that they remembered that there was an angry Byzantine army out there, plus Saracens, plus invading Turks. So they sat on Constantinople for a while, eventually got expelled by the Byzantines, and then in very short order the severely weakened Byzantines were overwhelmed by the Turks, who now controlled the Muslim world.

So they had set out to free the Holy Lands, and managed in the end to beat the crap out of the holders of the last Christian foothold in the East. On the plus side, and this is important, they got some great loot out of those high-falutin Byzantines. And the Doge kicked some mighty ass.

UPDATE: Also, you might not be aware of this, but the Dogi of Venice were the bearer's of one of the world's great silly hats. Behold! Doge Hat!

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