16.02.15, Perry, Sacred Plunder

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Brendan McGuire

The Medieval Review 16.02.15

Perry, David M. Sacred Plunder: Venice and the Aftermath of the Fourth Crusade. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2015. pp. 248. ISBN: 978-0-271-06507-6 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Brendan McGuire
Christendom College

The Fourth Crusade continues to fascinate scholars, and rightly so; despite the consensus that has prevailed for nearly twenty years on the events of the crusade itself, there remain many unexplored questions related to its context and aftermath. David Perry's study Sacred Plunder: Venice and the Aftermath of the Fourth Crusade breaks important new ground, concerning itself with translatio narratives, a significant feature of the broader thirteenth-century debate over memorializing the crusade and its effects. This debate began in the immediate wake of the Fourth Crusade, was particularly sharp during Innocent III's pontificate, and continued throughout subsequent decades as the Latin Empire of Constantinople became more obviously a failed state. Perry points out that "diverse religious houses with no known points of contact with one another" commissioned hagiographical texts which Perry calls translatio narratives (3); these texts sought to legitimize the possession of looted relics from Constantinople. Perry argues further that these narratives competed with the vision articulated by critics of the crusade, who blamed the struggles of the Latin Empire on the loss of divine favor provoked by the despoliation of churches and monasteries. Finally, he argues that these translatio narratives came to play a unique role in Venetian political culture, in which context they functioned not merely as a defense of Venetian behavior against outside critics, but more especially as a form of civic catechesis that shaped Venetians' self-understanding well into the later Middle Ages. Perry divides his work into three sections. The first sets out to establish a clear understanding of the processes by which holy objects made their way from Constantinople to the West, and of the range of reactions that this large-scale theft of holy objects provoked (particularly papal condemnation, and the self-justifying counter-narratives produced by the beneficiaries of relic theft). The second section--in many ways the true heart of the book--deals with the translatio texts themselves, examining the different techniques through which authors "offered affirmative and valorizing narratives in the service of authentication and legitimization of translated relics" (110). The third section focuses on Venice, arguing that translatio narratives played a unique role in the development of the Venetian mythos.

The first of Perry's three sections makes certain points very effectively--particularly, that the gradual, deliberate exportation of relics from Constantinople over the course of decades has to be distinguished from the more well-known looting of the city that occurred amidst the tumult of the 1204 sack. It also includes some problematic mischaracterizations of Pope Innocent III's religious policy vis-à-vis the Latin Empire, and tends to understate the complexity of the ecclesiastical situation generally. Recent scholarly works on the Latin Empire (e.g. the works of Michel Balard, Stefan Burkhardt, and Filip Van Tricht) are inexplicably absent from the notes and bibliography; this would tend to explain Perry's apparent unfamiliarity with the current scholarly consensus on a variety of points, including the permeability of boundaries between Catholicism and Orthodoxy in the Latin Empire (Perry relies a little too heavily on the dated work of Robert Lee Wolff). For example, Perry places the "conversion of the Greek people to the Roman rite" among Pope Innocent's policy goals (59). These weaknesses are forgivable, however, in a section whose main focus is to establish the Western European context in which it became necessary to create the translatio narratives.

Perry's second section, on the translatio texts themselves, is a masterpiece of source criticism. He collates nine texts, taken from France, Germany, and Italy, which seek to celebrate "the very behavior condemned by the papacy and other critics," namely, the theft and transfer of sacred objects from Constantinople to the West (78). Perry asserts that these texts form a "hagiographic corpus" that seeks both to memorialize the transfer of relics to new homes in the West, and to respond to hostile narratives that emphasized the depravity of the crusaders. He ably demonstrates the various ways in which the authors sought to create narratives that would exempt the relic in question "from the stain of papal or other condemnation" (134), either by suppressing any association between the relic and the Fourth Crusade, or by trying to wrap the Fourth Crusade, through various rhetorical exercises, in the mantle of the more general struggle for the Holy Land. Venetian narratives, however, take a radically different tack from those created in other parts of Europe, openly embracing the association between the conquest of Constantinople and Venetian possession of key relics. Perry notes that these texts emphasize the miraculous, with supernatural events giving clear divine approbation to the Venetian thefts and, conversely, expressing God's judgment on the perfidy of the Greeks. Perry's analysis of the Venetian translatio tradition is then expanded in part III, which demonstrates the role played by these texts in crafting and supporting Venice's grandiose claims to be the divinely chosen successor-state to ancient Rome, and the recipient of a providential translatio imperii from the fallen empire of the Greeks.

Although relatively short, Perry's work represents a significant contribution to our understanding of the contested legacy and memory of the Fourth Crusade in the medieval West. His focus on the notion of narrative is quite brilliant; he shows that the medieval world understood something only recently explored by modern psychology: the power of narrative creativity to persuade where other means would undoubtedly fail.

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