PILLAGE of the relics of Constantinople lasted for forty years.
More than half of the total amount of objects carried off were,
however, taken away between the years 1204 and 1208. During the few
days which followed the capture of the city the bishops and priests
who were with the crusaders were active in laying hands on this
species of sacred spoil; and the statement of a contemporary writer is
not improbable, that the priests of the Orthodox Church preferred to
surrender such spoil to those of their own cloth rather than to the
rough soldier or the rougher Venetian sailor. On the other hand, the
highest priestly dignitaries in the army—men, even, who refused to
take of the earthly spoil—were eager to obtain possession of this
sacred booty, and unscrupulous as to the means by which they obtained
it. The holy Cross was carefully divided by the bishops for
distribution among the barons.
Gunther gives us a specimen of the means to which Abbot Martin, who
had had the German crusaders placed under his charge, had recourse.
The abbot had learned that many relics had been hidden by the Greeks
in a particular church. This building was attacked in the general
pillage. He, as a priest, searched carefully for the relics, while the
soldiers were looking for more commonplace booty. The abbot found an
old priest, with the long hair and beard common then, as now, to
orthodox ecclesiastics, and roughly addressed him, “Show me your
relics, or you are a dead man.”
The old priest, seeing that he was addressed by one of his own
profession, and frightened probably by the threat, thought, says
Gunther, that it was better to give up the relics to him than to the
profane and blood-stained hands of the soldiers. He opened an iron
safe, and the abbot, in his delight at the sight, buried his hands in
the precious store. He and his chaplain filled their surplices, and
ran with all haste to the harbor to conceal their prize. That they
were successful in keeping it during the stormy days which followed
could only be attributed to the virtue of the relics themselves.