14.09.14, Van Tricht, The Latin Renovatio of Byzantium

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Anne E. Lester

The Medieval Review 14.09.14

Van Tricht, Filip. The Latin Renovatio of Byzantium: The Empire of Constantinople (1204-1228). The Medieval Mediterranean. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill n.v., 2011. Pp. xii, 535. ISBN: 9789004203235 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Anne E. Lester
University of Colorado at Boulder

The fall of Constantinople to French, Flemish and Venetian crusaders in the spring of 1204 has long been recognized as a watershed moment in the history of East-West relations and in the history of crusading. The Latin victory over the Greeks seemed to be a definitive moment in a longer set of tensions, pressures and animosities informing the Latin-Greek divide, tensions only made worse by the constant influx of Franci or French crusaders from 1096 onwards. From the standpoint of the history of the crusades, the Latin victory over the Greeks signaled a definitive shift in the nature of crusading, whereby for the first time Christians fought--more explicitly "crusaded"--against other Christians, in turn opening the possibilities for other crusades against Christian heretics (as in the south of France) and political enemies who shared the Christian faith (as in the French crusade against Aragon). Most histories of the Fourth Crusade thus foreground this outcome and emphasize the western sack of Constantinople and the fall of the city. While the adage may be true that much of history is "written by the victors," we have, as Filip Van Tricht notes, largely overlooked how the Latin victors lived and wrote about certain aspects of their victory. The detailed descriptions of the sack of the city--the breach of its walls, the splendor of its domes, the glitter of its churches, and the riches of its treasuries--are familiar narratives transmitted to the west by Robert of Clari, Geoffrey of Villehardouin, and Gunther of Paris. Less familiar sources, however, talk about the idea of renovation, or in the phrase Robert of Auxerre, the thirteenth-century Cistercian chronicler, the "renovatio imperii" that followed the Latin victory of 1204 (482).

In his book Filip Van Tricht asks us to consider whether and how such a renovatio was accomplished. By writing about the idea of renovation in Byzantium he seeks to find the continuities that persisted within the Byzantine world after the momentous events of 1204. These continuities can be seen in aspects of imperial culture and administration, in the disposition of space and place, and in the role of officials at the provincial and governmental level, and in some aspects of the relationship between the emperors and their neighbors. When most successful, political identity in the renovated Empire was characterized by a mixed Latin-Byzantine state that must be seen "not so much as an aberration…but as an integral part of Byzantine history" (482). This is a new and provocatively positive spin on what is often constructed as an endpoint in the slowly eroded relationship between the Latins and the Greeks and especially between Western and eastern Christians during the period of the crusades. Van Tricht can make these claims because his focus is primarily on political culture after 1204. To that end, in order for the crumbled Byzantine state to run, even within the greatly circumscribed region of the Constantinople, the Latin ruling elite had to rely on the networks and administrative structures already in place and had to learn how those mechanisms and techniques worked. Thus for a few brief decades, the adaptability of the Frankish elite as they tried to build or rebuild an empire in their own idealized image comes to the fore. These were individuals willing to displace their families (often at great cost, emotional and economic), to learn Greek, to make profound political compromises, to engage in near ceaseless military campaigns to keep together an idea of imperial rule that was always more imagined than real. The empire was "built on the basis of feudalistic principles" that drew together separate smaller "principalities and regions[that]...were in principle dependent on the Latin emperor's suzerainty," but were "de facto...practically independent entitles" (3). As Van Tricht characterizes it, writing a political-institutional history of the Latin Empire from 1204-1228 entails making "a comparative assessment between centripetal and centrifugal political forces in the feudally structured empire" (3).

After a brief introduction that lays out the aims of the study and enumerates the challenges of the sources, languages, and terminology involved, Van Tricht offers a prologue to the Empire of Constantinople that covers the attitudes of the Latin world toward Byzantium and gives an overview of the Fourth Crusade and the Byzantine response. Here we are introduced to a great number of Greek families who formed the core of the political elite of the city both before and after 1204. Although the sources for tracing the connections are not as forthcoming as Van Tricht might hope (he finds 23 families attested in the sources, but is convinced there must have been more from among the 161 families represented among the imperial elite prior to 1204), he concludes that a "considerable number of the Byzantine imperial aristocracy residing in Constantinople initially showed their preparedness to continue to function within the political framework of the feudally organized Latin empire" (38). Although Van Tricht seeks to argue for the continuity of empire, the first two substantive chapters of the book address the necessary accommodations that occurred following 1204. The most dramatic, of course, was the parceling out of land and rights among the victors and the election of a new Latin Emperor in the person of Baldwin I (IX of Flanders). Through a close reading of the legal agreement that divided the empire, known as the Partitio terrarum imperii Romanie he concludes that the Empire underwent a drastic "feudalization"--a realignment of territory and allegiances along western organizing principles. This undercut the older and more sophisticated central and provincial bureaucratic networks that had been in place facilitating administration and the collection of taxes. And yet, despite that change, the idea of Empire persisted for it carried important symbolic meaning and prestige. But as Chapter 2 shows, it persisted within a distinctly Latinized mode, for as the agreement of March 1204 recognized, the Latin Empire was to be governed "ad honorem Dei et sancte Romane Ecclesie et imperii" or as Van Tricht construes it "in the service of the Christian Faith and the Roman Catholic Church" (62). This was a carefully chosen phrase meant to underline imperial authority while yoking it the holiness of the Roman Church and to the pope in Rome, thus drastically altering the kind of Christian power in place before 1204. The first Latin rulers learned quickly how to adapt and use imperial ideology through the appropriation of the imperial title, ceremonies, rituals and traditions, as well as use of the imperial insignia, symbols and images. As a consequence, a "hybrid Byzantine-Latin imperial ideology" (100) developed under Baldwin I and Henry I.

Chapters 3 and 4 turn to the space and place of imperial power, examining first the administrative practices in the Imperial Quarter. Here Van Tricht attempts to reconstruct the working and personnel of the imperial chancery, the central judicial organization, and the military organization at the core of the empire, in the city of Constantinople. He shows persuasively that the machinery of the bureaucracy retained its pre-1204 design, although Latins--clerics and knights close to the emperor--held the higher offices within the administration. This is not particularly surprising and was entirely practical. Moreover, it mirrored many of the strategies of expansion and adoption western elite used when they came to power in other regions, like England and Sicily, in the preceding centuries. Matters became more complicated as the emperors attempted to rule beyond the imperial core. In part, there were simply more interests involved: other western feudal lords, ecclesiastical lords, Greek princes, to say nothing of those parties hostile to Latin rule. Van Tricht presents a dizzying array of players, most acting with their own interests in mind. He also demonstrates that ecclesiastical officials and monastic houses were deeply entwined in the political interests of the Byzantine world, sometimes working as agents for the emperor, sometimes solidifying regional claims to power on the part of a founding patron, but rarely with a clear or coordinated strategy. This chapter is the least coherent of the book. In part, the trouble comes from the desire to argue for two conflicting forces at once: the inherent challenge of a centrifugal and centripetal thesis. A more subtle analysis that engages ideas of flexibility, or strategies of accommodation would have been more persuasive. Instead the reader is left to parse vast and ill-defined conclusions as when the author explains that "this relatively less centralizing policy did not prevent a number of centripetal strategies being maintained, inter alia the development of a supraregional aristocracy by means of granting court titles and entering into marital alliances, the partial retention of imperial representatives in various territories of the empire, the defence [sic] of the imperial prerogatives with regard to the patriarchal election, and the attitude adopted vis-à-vis Venice" (250).

Moving from the framework of space to that of people, Chapters 5 and 6 analyze the composition of the central elite and the ecclesiastical personal in authority between 1204 and 1228. These are fascinating topics and demonstrate much more clearly how interconnected and complex life was on the ground in the newly renovated empire. That said, much is lacking in terms of a narrative. There are vast lists of names and intricate prosopographical webs that are extremely useful if one comes to this book with specific questions, but there is also not much that is surprising. The imperial elite was mostly made up of men close to Baldwin IX before he was elected emperor, men who hailed from the "emperor's home region" (264). Sometimes these were men of means in the west, but they were often--at the level of the chancery, treasury, etc.--clerics and chaplains who had accompanied nobles on crusade. We meet--especially after 1217--a second generation of administrators who arrive from the west to replenish the ranks of those who died or left the east. These changes had important consequences as new recruits were often less willing to accommodate for the differences of the Byzantine world (297-298). In the end, "in this way...the Latin-Byzantine model of co-operation came under pressure" (305). This pressure was added to by the lack of cooperation or coordination on the part of the church in the Latin Empire. As Van Tricht explains, "because of the Latin-Byzantine differences in the ecclesiastical-religious sphere the Church was unable to form an element on which the unity of the empire could be built" (349). This is a complex topic that is only touched on briefly within author's framework of political history, and yet there was much more at stake and interwoven in the meaning and role that the church could and did play within the Latin-Byzantine world.

The relations between the Latin Empire and its neighbors, namely the Empire of Nicaea, the Sultanate of Konya, the Principality of Epiros (later known as the Empire of Thessalonike), the Empire of Bulgaria, the principality of Serbia, the Kingdom of Hungary, and the Russian principalities, provide the focus for Chapter 7. The author treats this kaleidoscopic landscape through the lens of two main questions: did the Latin Emperors' foreign policy change from that pursued prior to 1204; and to how did neighboring states regard the Latin Empire? Much of the chapter is devoted to long synthetic descriptions culled from secondary source material, which makes for rather laborious reading. The conclusion, that the Latin Empire pursued a foreign policy that was "typically Byzantine in its basic principles" as applied to "Byzantine space" begs the question of this obvious tautology: what was typically Byzantine in Byzantine space after 1204? Such an analysis is not helped by the fact that one feels the English translation must be muddying the ideas and argument. For example, one reads that: "in the Byzantine space the Latin emperors were in the first place confronted with a number of powers that, just as they themselves, claimed the Byzantine inheritance" (427). Clarity is lost in a sentence like that. It is clear, however, that there were phases to the Latin rulers' relations with their neighbors. 1204 through ca.1213 was a period of adjustment and negotiation that yielded important compromises and peace treaties through diplomatic negotiations. This began to break apart between 1214 and 1224, and again through 1228 as a second wave of less-tolerant and less-compromising westerners began to take up positions of power in empire and as the Latin rulers began to lose territory to their neighbors following renewed military confrontations.

The final chapter sets the Latin Empire into the context of the Latin Orient as a whole. Here Van Tricht asks the curiously obvious question "whether the Outremer also acquired a place of any importance in the Latin Empire's concrete foreign policy, and the extent--if any--to which this was inspired by the earlier Byzantine policy vis-à-vis the Latin Orient" (433). To answer this, we are treated--again--to a highly descriptive chapter that moves the reader through the empire's relations with the Principality of Antioch, the Kingdom of Cyprus, the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the County of Tripoli, and the Latin religious institutions in the Holy Land. There is an important section on the "migrational movements" between the Latin Orient and Romania, which suggests some of the regional and familial connections among the Latin elite and how the Latins in both locales imagined themselves as settlers, crusaders, and defenders of their newly acquired territories. This seems especially intriguing, as we know both communities struggled to retain settlers in strong numbers. Moreover, more work needs to be done on the connections and comings-and-goings of those contingents of the Fourth Crusade that did not go to Constantinople, but chose to continue on to Syria only to appear in Greece in the decades that followed.

This is a complex and ambitious book. It is welcome for its framing of the question in a new, and arguably more positive, light. For those who work on this subject there is much of use in these pages. Van Tricht has synthesized a great deal of secondary literature and mined the edited sources for their prosopographical details. And yet, it is hard to feel that we have arrived at a new understanding of the Latin Empire. Many of the conclusions are speculative and in the absence of new sources they must remain so. Moreover, it is not a very user-friendly text. The book began as a dissertation in Dutch and was translated into English. But in many passages the translations are awkward, cumbersome and unclear, rendering the meanings opaque and ambiguous. There are numerous copy-editing errors as well as misspellings, repetitions and other infelicities that make reading the text extremely challenging. The book also did not need to be 482 pages. If the publisher wants to market a text this long and this expensive we must to demand more responsible editing and production. Still, it will be a useful book from which to solicit specific details or broad conclusions as thankfully each chapter has a clear summary that helps orient the reader within the density of the prose.

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Author Biography

Anne E. Lester

University of Colorado at Boulder