Pelagious And The Fifth Crusade Essay Research

Pelagious And The Fifth Crusade Essay, Research Paper

Craig Miller

Dr. Skopp

His 333


Book Review: Pelagious and the Fifth Crusade

The era of Medival Europe that spawned the crusades was very fascinating on many levels. At this time the church and the state were fighting for supremacy and the church found something that it could use as a prod against the secular rulers. The Christian faith permeated the every day lives of the vast majority of people in Europe at this time. Of course any good Christian would see the need to support the church in its aim to take back the Holy Land from the dreaded Muslim interlopers and establish it as the center of Christianity. If everyone had this same goal throughout Europe how could the Muslims stand against the might of a united Europe? Fortunately for them, they didn’t have to. History of this time, like history of any time is a history of people. Seldom have a large group of people been able to unite under one common goal without infighting and without ulterior motives. The time of the crusades illustrates this point quite effectively. Any historical account of this era therefore, should be rife with human intrigue and fascinating to read. It turns out that this is not the case in at least one respect.

The book Pelagious and the Fifth Crusade , by Joseph Donovan, is a very dry and plodding look at the events surrounding the Fifth Crusade. The book was written for an audience of peers and not for the general public’s consumption. One must take a good amount of knowledge of Medival Histroy and the Crusades with him in order to make any sense out of this book. Consequently, the average reader is left with a multitude of questions that go unanswered and is ultimately left unsatisfied with the experience. There is nothing exciting about this book and its style and content lend themselves to somnolence. Contemporaries of Professor Donovan will not find any new information and will be subjected to a chronological rehashing of the causes and effects of the Fifth Crusade that the author draws no conclusions about.

Donovan shows little if any bias toward the material in his writing. In fact, he does not seem to take a stand on any issues except perhaps on the placing of blame for the failure of the crusade, which I will discuss later. This is part of the problem with the book. While it is not generally wise to write history with a readily recognizable bias, it is good to have and show some emotion about the topic. Bland writing is ineffectual no matter what the subject. I don’t presuppose to know what Donovan’s intent was when embarking to write this book, but I am pretty sure he did not mean to put his readers to sleep. Perhaps his background as an Historian led him to want to write a collection of events in a chronological order that sheds light on the Fifth Crusade. If this was his intent he succeeded, but to what end? The following is an excerpt from the book in order to shed light on its style:

“Although encouragement was given to the crusade by the King of Norway, and Frederick II had made promises when he was crowned King in 1215, the only monarch of Europe to partake actively was King Andrew II of Hungary. Andrew had inherited the unfulfilled crusade vow of his father Bela III, and would have taken the cross earlier had his kingdom not been disrupted in civil war. King Andrew had an added motive motive for going to the East, even in anticipation of the time set by the Lateran Council. Henry, the Latin Emperor of Constantinople, died in June, 1216, and the Latins looking about for a ruler had intimated a choice between King Andrew and Pierre de Courtenay.” (Donovan, 28-29)

More about the structure of the book. It follows the life of Cardinal Pelagious when he arrived at Rome to assume his duties as a Papal Legate and follows his life until the end of the Fifth Crusade. Statements about Pelagious’ life and events of the time are heavily backed up by citations. This is one area where Donovan does not skimp. There is an average of at least four citations per page. Donovan approaches the subject through mostly political means. The decisions of each pope, Pelagious and the rulers of the era, lead us down the path of the crusade. One can see a period in history where political factions work for and against each other to the detriment of the overall goal. Political intrigue abounds. The reader is left wondering if any decision was made due to its “rightness” as opposed to political expediency. Pelagious comes to Rome at a time when the Pope Innocent is engaged in starting the machinery forwards that will lead to a hopefully successful crusade. He starts by having his ministers preach about the need for and holiness of a crusade. He then goes about rallying support amongst the rulers in Christendom. This is a time when the relationship between the church and state was tenuous and there was a constant struggle between the nobility and the church over who held the ultimate power. Many lords were willing to lend support for the church and a crusade in return for the church’s recognizing their various claims to certain lands. The church was more than eager to provide the lords with what they wanted in return for military support. Donovan shows us these intricacies of political life through quotes and writings from the period. As the crusade haltingly advances toward its main goal, Damietta, in Egypt, the reader is witness to an almost laughable array of errors and misjudgements due mainly to the jockeying for political position between the leaders of the church and the leaders of the various states involved. One gets the sense that if the Crusaders were even in the least bit unified they would have won easily. Donovan does a good job showing how the concerns each faction affected the whole of the crusade. The church wanted to have control of the military and be hailed victorious in the end, the secular leaders on the Christian side seemed only to be there for the gains they would receive from the church and the Moslem leaders were merely trying to defend their homelands. Eventually, the crusade ends and the Christians are defeated due to a grievous error in tactics by Pelagious who had assumed command of the forces. In the one area of the book where Donovan comes to a conclusion about the evidence, he points out that Pelagious alone should not be held accountable for the failure, but several circumstances, not the least of which, was the lack of organization and support from the rulers of Christendom lead to the eventual failure of the crusade.

The one impressive area of the book is Donovan’s use of other works to back up any statement he makes about events of the time. He uses sources such as contemporary documents, contemporary historical documents, and modern historical writings. Quotes and reasoning behind actions taken by the people of the time are generously cited by references to texts. The validity of the facts surrounding this period should not be questioned. Here, Donovan does his job as an Historian. On a literary level however, he fails to inspire any emotion in the reader or to hold the reader’s attention for any length of time. The book was published in 1950 so this might explain the dry approach to the material. This is definitely not a social history of the day and has its roots as a very old school approach to history. I would imagine that at the time of its publication the book received high regards for its thoroughness.

While reading the book and thinking about the events that lead to the Fifth Crusade and its failure, I couldn’t help but think that this period holds much fodder for the imagination of a good writer to flesh out and bring to life. Several novels could be written from various perspectives (and perhaps have been) that would fire the imagination of the reader and place him quite firmly in the events of the day. What was most unsatisfying about this book was that all of this information was presented in such a dry matter of fact manner. There is no emotion and one does not get the sense of the characters as real people, especially Pelagious around whom the book is written. I would like to see an account of this time that delves into the people who were major players.


Donovan, Joseph P. Pelagious and the Fifth Crusade. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1950.


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