April 14


Bulgars defeat the forces of the Latin Empire

Devoted readers of this blog will remember that on April 12 we recounted the story of the fall of Constantinople in 1204 to the forces of the Fourth Crusade who overthrew the Orthodox Byzantine rulers, sacked the city and established a Catholic empire. The first emperor of this new state was Baldwin of Flanders, a western knight who faced resistance from both his fellow crusaders and rebellious Greeks. In 1205 his army was defeated by an army of Bulgars and their pagan allies from the Eurasian steppes, the Cumans. Baldwin was captured and disappears from history except for a legend that he was murdered by his captors and his skull turned into a drinking goblet, the same fate to which the Bulgars had subjected the emperor Nicephorus in 811.

In Western Europe Baldwin became one of those kings whose shadowy fate inspired impostors, like the False Dmitri (I and II) in Russia and the Princes in the Tower who bedevilled the reign of Henry VII in England. A minstrel named Bertrand appeared twenty years later and claimed to be Baldwin, explaining his absence by a story of having become a hermit. Though Bertrand was exposed as a fake, a number of other impostors appeared for the next few decades and inspired discontented peasants to follow them.

The Catholic or Latin Empire never really took hold in the ruins of the Byzantine state and in 1261 Michael Paleologus would succeed in driving the westerners out of Constantinople and establishing the last Orthodox dynasty in the empire.

April 12


The Fourth Crusade takes Constantinople

One of the most tragic and pathetic moments in Christian history is the story of the doomed Fourth Crusade which aimed at recapturing Jerusalem but which ended in the sack of Christendom’s greatest city.

The tale begins with the fall of Jerusalem to the Islamic sultan Saladin in 1187. The Third Crusade, led by Europe’s greatest monarchs — the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, the wily Philip Augustus of France, and Richard Lionheart of England — failed to regain the city in the 1190s but the crusading urge did not die. Papal efforts were made to launch a Fourth Crusade. Innocent III issued the bull Post miserable which called on Christian kings to attack Muslim powers in the Levant; none at that exalted rank heard his call but a number of mid-level nobles responded and agreed to gather in Venice in 1202 and mass for an attack on Egypt. They contracted with Venetian authorities to provide a massive fleet to carry the anticipated 35,000 troops and horses across the Mediterranean. In the end, however, only about 12,000 knights and soldiers showed up.

This left the Venetians in a pinch: they had constructed hundreds of ships, assigned thousands of sailors and bent their entire economy for a year to fulfill the crusaders’ orders. Of the promised 85,000 silver marks, the crusaders who had appeared in Venice could only come up with 49,000. On the one hand, Venice desperately needed the money and could refuse to sail if the bill was not paid; on the other hand, they did not want 12,000 heavily-armed warriors camped close to Venice to turn hostile and attack the city. A disgraceful compromise was reached between the aged doge Enrico Dandolo and the crusaders: if the knights would agree to lay siege to the city of Zara, a commercial rival to Venice on the Adriatic coast, Venice would discount the money owed them. Learning that not only was Zara a Roman Catholic city but that its overlord was a vassal of the pope who had taken a crusader’s oath, many left in disgust and returned home. However, enough felt that this was the only way the crusade could continue and held their nose at this moral lapse. The crusade proceeded to Zara (in modern Croatia) and took the city. The pope was furious and threatened excommunication.

The story becomes even more complicated and venal at this point. To Zara, where the crusade was wintering, came Alexius Angelus, a Byzantine prince whose father, the emperor Isaac II, had been deposed, blinded and thrown into prison by his usurping brother Alexius III. (There will be a plethora of Alexii showing up, so keep a close eye on their assigned number). The young man made the following astounding offer to the crusaders.  He would pay off the entire Venetian bill and throw in an additional 200,000 silver marks to the crusaders. He would contribute 10,000 troops to the attack on Egypt and promise to maintain 500 knights to garrison the Holy Land. Finally, he vowed to end the Great Schism between Orthodoxy and Catholicism by submitting the Byzantine empire to the papacy. All the crusaders had to do was to attack Constantinople and restore his father to the throne. Naturally, the Venetians were all for this rancid proposal as the two cities were always at economic and political odds with each other.

So in 1203 the crusaders set sail for the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and its massive land walls which had held off would-be conquerors for 800 years. After a series of battles outside the walls, the usurping Alexius III scurried off and Isaac was restored by the Byzantines to the throne. Constantinople now faced the impossible task of fulfilling the outlandish promises the young prince had made. In order to assure that happened the crusaders insisted that the young man be made co-emperor with his father and so he was enthroned as Alexius IV.

While the crusaders camped impatiently outside the city, Alexius IV scoured the city for money but found that his uncle had made off with the treasury as he escaped. So churches were ransacked for their gold and silver, and even icons were melted down to satisfy the debt, causing unrest among the iconophile populace. A riot broke out in which westerners were killed by local mobs; in retaliation Venetians and other crusaders attacked a mosque and burnt down much of Constantinople.

Unrest in the city grew in early 1204. The elderly emperor Isaac died in January and a military usurper deposed Alexius IV, killing him in February. This ambitious general now ruled as — what else? — Alexius V. A final showdown was coming between the Fourth Crusade and the Byzantines. Open warfare broke out, Alexius V fled and on April 12, 1204 crusaders and Venetians broke into the city.

What followed was awful. Rape and loot proceeded at an industrial level. Much of Constantinople was destroyed, never to be rebuilt. The greatest church in Christendom, Hagia Sophia, the Church of Holy Wisdom was desecrated. Holy relics and massive wealth were stolen and sent to western Europe to enrich the Venetians and the French. Priceless art and manuscripts were wantonly ruined. The crusaders set up a Latin Kingdom in Constantinople and announced a reunion with the Roman church while Byzantine nobles went into exile and plotted their return.

The consequences of the Fourth Crusade are incalculable. As Innocent III angrily predicted, it soured relations between Eastern and Western Christians:

How, indeed, will the church of the Greeks, no matter how severely she is beset with afflictions and persecutions, return into ecclesiastical union and to a devotion for the Apostolic See, when she has seen in the Latins only an example of perdition and the works of darkness, so that she now, and with reason, detests the Latins more than dogs? As for those who were supposed to be seeking the ends of Jesus Christ, not their own ends, who made their swords, which they were supposed to use against the pagans, drip with Christian blood, they have spared neither religion, nor age, nor sex. They have committed incest, adultery, and fornication before the eyes of men. They have exposed both matrons and virgins, even those dedicated to God, to the sordid lusts of boys. Not satisfied with breaking open the imperial treasury and plundering the goods of princes and lesser men, they also laid their hands on the treasures of the churches and, what is more serious, on their very possessions. They have even ripped silver plates from the altars and have hacked them to pieces among themselves. They violated the holy places and have carried off crosses and relics.

The resulting hostility exists to this day. The fall of Constantinople gutted the Byzantine Empire which for centuries had guarded the eastern borders of Christianity from barbarians and Islam — it would now be too weak to hold off new invaders who would soon pour in from the Middle East. The crusading movement which should have focussed on retaking the Holy Land was now diverted into propping up the Catholic rulers of the rump Byzantine state.

April 11


Premiere of Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion

J.S. Bach wrote a number of musical settings for depicting the events of Christ’s final days leading up to his execution, but only his treatment of St Matthew’s and St John’s gospel accounts survive. Written for a 1727 Good Friday performance in Leipzig’s St Thomas Church where he was employed as cantor, the work is divided into two parts: the first encompasses the Last Supper, the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane and his betrayal and arrest; the second deals with the trial, crucifixion and burial culminating in the great chorus Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder, “We sit down in tears”. Bach revised it on a number of occasions and the version usually performed dates from the middle of the 1740s, set for two choirs and two orchestras.

Here is the entire 2 hours and 43 minutes of the masterpiece: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jm1os4VzTgA&spfreload=10

For those who wish a highlight only, here is the final chorus Wir setzen uns mit Tränen niederhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w7X41SUO5-o&spfreload=10

The lyrics are:

We sit down with tears

And call to you in your tomb
Rest gently, gently rest!
Rest, you exhausted limbs!
Your grave and tombstone
For our anguished conscience shall be
A pillow that gives peace and comfort
And the place where our souls find rest.
With the greatest content there our eyes
will close in sleep.

April 8


Krak des Chevaliers falls to Muslim forces

When the knights and princes of the First Crusade recaptured much of the Holy Land for Christendom in 1099, they found that it would require considerable military might to defend it. That task fell largely on members of a new kind of organization: the military monastic orders, principally the Knights Templar and the Hospitallers or the Knights of St John. Originally begun as groups dedicated to serving the sick and pilgrims, they grew in the early twelfth century into formidable armies of warrior monks. Based in fortresses in what is now Israel, Syria and Lebanon they were the backbone of the crusader kingdoms of the Levant.

The most impressive of their castles was the Hospitaller fortress of Krak, built on a hill overlooking a strategic road that connected the cities of Homs and Tripoli. Supported by donations from European Christians, loot from raiding Muslim areas, and the revenues from surrounding farms, the Knights of St John in the Krak garrison worked to erect ever more impregnable defences, manned by over 2,000 soldiers.

By the late 13th century, however, the crusader kingdoms had been reduced to a few forts and a narrow strip of the Mediterranean coast. Muslim disunity, from which the crusaders had benefited, had ended and Islamic armies under Baibars, the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt succeeded in besieging Krak in 1291. After their outer fortifications had been been breached, a letter (probably forged) reached the beleaguered garrison of 300 warriors by carrier pigeon; it purported to be from the Hospitaller Grand Master and counselled the Knights to surrender. This they did and on April 8, 1291 they turned the fortress over to the Mamluks and marched away. The fall of Krak is often held to signal the end of the era of crusader states on the eastern Mediterranean mainland.

The castle still stands and because of its commanding position is still used militarily in the ongoing Syrian Civil War.

April 7


Trial by fire in Florence

Girolamo Savonarola (1452-98) was a Dominican monk whose career of outspoken criticisms of the pope, wild apocalyptic prophecies, and involvement in Florentine politics ended in a bizarre confrontation in front of a giant bonfire.

Savonarola was born in Ferrara and entered the Dominican order in 1475. An early attempt to win influence in Florence failed and he spent a number of years as an itinerant preacher before he was invited back to Florence at the behest of the humanist Pico della Mirandola. Florence was then at the height of its Renaissance glory, governed by the Medici clan and its leader Lorenzo the Magnificent who became Savonarola’s patron. The monk, however, did not feel himself bound to be a grateful supplicant of the powerful: his preaching scorched the rich and denounced the corrupt clergy. When Lorenzo lay dying in 1492 it is said that he sent for Savonarola to give him the last rites. “Will you return your ill-gotten gains and restore the liberty of Florence?” asked the Dominican. When Lorenzo refused, Savonarola left him unshriven. (Or so the story goes; other sources have Savonarola and Lorenzo reciting prayers together.)

Lorenzo’s death led to a short spell of government by his son Piero the Unfortunate who was driven from Florence in 1494 and replaced by a republic inspired by the preaching of Savonarola. For a time the monk held sway, instituting a reign of moral repression, political experimentation, and financial incompetence. When the King of France failed to fulfill some of Savonarola’s prophecies and the pope excommunicated him, his enemies inside Florence came out into the open. In 1498 one of his followers foolishly agreed to a challenge by some Franciscan monks who were fierce critics of Savonarola: which side could enter flames and emerge unscathed? Despite many misgivings Savonarola agreed to the test.

On April 7, 1498 a huge bonfire was set up in the midst of the city’s main square. The volunteers from both sides had prepared with a week of prayer and fasting. A roped-off walkway led to the pyre; three Franciscans and Savonarola with two supporters would walk along in it into the fire. The Piazza was filled with Florentines eager to see which faction would display God’s approval by surviving the inferno. Security was heavy: foreigners were banished from the city and a strong guard set to prevent disorders. The Franciscans arrived quietly but the Dominicans paraded in singing a psalm.

At this point delays began to occur. The Franciscans demanded that Savonarola remove his heavy robe; he agreed. The Franciscans then insisted he remove his undergarments lest they be enchanted with fire-prevented spells; finally, both sides agreed to exchange garments. Then the Franciscans objected to Savonarola carrying the eucharistic host into the flames. After many hours and much argument, it began to rain and the event was cancelled.

Florentines interpreted this turn of events as a divine repudiation of Savonarola. The citizens turned against their prophet with a vengeance. Mobs sacked the Dominican church; Savonarola and his associates were arrested and tortured. On May 23 the Dominicans were hanged and burnt in the same square where the trial by fire was to have taken place.

April 5


Jan Matthys dies outside Münster

Jan Matthys van Haarlem (c. 1500-1534) was a Dutch baker who converted to Anabaptism in the 1520s. By 1533 he had convinced himself that he was the reincarnated prophet Enoch and began to preach the coming Apocalypse. His followers infiltrated the city of Münster in Westphalia and summoned Matthys in January 1534 to become the leader of the New Zion. They drove out the Catholic inhabitants of the city and instituted a regime of the godly who were awaiting the End Times. Community of goods, simple living, adult baptism, and theocracy was the new order of things with Matthys as the deciding voice. The seizure of the city led the Catholic bishop to summon help from German princes to crush this dangerous heresy and Münster was soon under siege (pictured above).

In the middle of a wedding banquet Matthys was seized by the Holy Spirit, and cried out, “Father, not as I will, but as Thou wilt.” With a deep sense of gloom he bade farewell to his followers and left the room, claiming that he had been supernaturally instructed that he should go out of the city to confront his enemies. On the next day, at high noon on Easter Sunday, he imitated Gideon and chose thirty companions to sally forth against the Bishop’s army. The poor loon, no warrior by any means, and his band were quickly killed. Matthew’s head was paraded around the walls on a pole and his genitals were nailed to the town gates. His death meant that leadership devolved on the even more radical John of Leiden whose rule of the doomed Anabaptists became bizarre and tragic.

April 2


The Frog Lake Massacre

In 1885 some native tribes and Metis settlers in the Canadian Northwest Territories rose in rebellion. While most historians have focused on land claims, government inaction and the decline of the great buffalo herds as reasons for the uprising, there was a significant religious justification for it in the mind of Metis leader Louis Riel. There were also fatal consequences for some Catholic clergy.

In late March, violence broke out in the South Saskatchewan River Valley where a Metis militia defeated a government force at Duck Lake. This victory seems to have inspired some native bands to take up arms: the town of Battleford was looted as were a number of Hudson’s Bay Company posts. A Cree raiding party attacked the settlement at Frog Lake in what is now eastern Alberta. The leader of this group, Wandering Spirit (also known as Kapapamahchakwew), shot the local Indian agent in the head, and his followers murdered eight others before sacking and burning the village and mission. Seventy settlers were taken prisoner although sympathetic natives sheltered some and kept them safe. (A 2006 article in Alberta History suggests that there was a tenth man killed, the mission school teacher, A. Michaud, recently arrived from France.)

Among the dead were two priests, Leon Fafard and Felix Marchand. Father Fafard, a native of Quebec was 36 years old and had worked among the natives in the Fort Pitt district for past ten years, founding the mission of Notre Dame du Bon Conseil; Father Marchand, age 26, was a native of France and had not been in Canada long. Both were members of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a French order. Media depiction of the killings helped to arouse the federal government to send out an army to oppose the rebels.

After the rebellion was crushed, Wandering Spirit and his accomplices Round the Sky, Bad Arrow, Miserable Man, Iron Body, Little Bear, Crooked Leg, and Man Without Blood were convicted of treason for their actions in the Frog Lake Massacre; they were hanged on November 27 with two other Cree murderers in the largest mass execution in Canadian history and the last public hanging in Canada.

April 1

1375 St. Catherine of Siena receives the stigmata

Caterina di Giacomo di Benincasa (1347-80) was born in Siena, Italy, the twenty-fourth of twenty-five children. (Has anyone considered her mother for sainthood?)  By the age of seven she had vowed herself to a religious life and at 16 she took the vows of a Dominican nun. During her short career she was known for her care of the sick and for the divine messages she received in a state of ecstatic transport. Her four treatises called “The Dialogues” are considered masterpieces of Italian prose.

At the age of 21, Catherine experienced what she called her “mystical marriage” to Christ. Some early accounts of her life assert that her wedding ring was the foreskin of Jesus. In 1375 Catherine received upon her body the five wounds that had pierced Christ at the Crucifixion, though these wounds were not visible until after she had died. (But see the painting by Tiepolo above where her hand clearly shows the sign of the supernatural nail.)

Catherine undertook to involve herself in the grander affairs of the church and successfully undertook to end the Babylonian Captivity that had seen the capital of Christianity move from Rome to the French town of Avignon. In 1377, at Catherine’s behest, Pope Gregory IX moved back to the Eternal City. (Unfortunately within a year the Papal Schism had broken out, with a pope in both Avignon and Rome.)

Catherine of Siena was canonized in 1461, and named Patron Saint of Italy in 1940. Pope Paul VI named her a Doctor of the Church in 1970, one of only three females with such a title (St. Teresa of Avila and St. Therese of Lisieux are the other two)

March 28


The Feast of Pope Sixtus III

“May you live in interesting times” is supposed to be an ancient Chinese curse, part of a triplet of ill-wishes which includes “may you come to the attention of the authorities” and “may you achieve your desires.” Sixtus III (r. 432-40) lived in times that were full of interest and he played an important role in them.

Sixtus, one of 79 popes to be recognized as a saint, is probably best known for his building program of Roman churches and his attempts to repair the damage done to the city by the Visigoth sack of 410.  He refurbished the original St Peter’s basilica and the church of St John Lateran as well as dedicating new churches such as Santa Maria Maggiore and the basilica of Santa Sabina. The building of Santa Maria Maggiore reflects the intense devotion to the Virgin Mary which arose out of the Council of Ephesus which decided that Mary could be given the term “Theotokos” or “God Bearer.”

The mid-fifth century was a time of vigorous and rancorous theological debate. Originally a supporter of the British monk Pelagius, Sixtus eventually declared himself against the extreme free-will doctrines of Plagiarism and also waged ideological war against Nestorianism. Sixtus was succeeded by his deacon Leo, who became the first of only two popes to be called “the Great”.

March 26


The Feast of St Dismas

Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.”  The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.”  Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  He replied to him, “Amen I say to you today you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke 23: 39-43

For centuries it was the custom of Christian storytellers to fashion names and legends for the unnamed characters who appeared in the life of Jesus. The soldier who pierced the side of Jesus, for example, was identified as Longinus; the Bad Thief was Gestas and the Penitent Thief was Dismas. In medieval art, St Dismas is often depicted as accompanying Jesus in the Harrowing of Hell.

The California town of San Dimas (sacred to fans of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure) and the Church of the Good Thief, built by prisoners in Kingston, Ontario take their cue from Dismas, who, his devotees say, was the only saint directly canonized by Christ.