From Liutprand of Cremona to Robert de Clari: Wonder and the Translation of Knowledge Before and After the Crusader Conquest of Constantinople

Teresa Shawcross
Princeton University

Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire and the largest city of Christendom, was a magnet to people “who were called Franks, but were really drawn from almost every nation”. These westerners – sometimes just passing through, at other times seeking to settle more permanently – were accorded a precarious status as visitors. Assigned official minders and confined to specific quarters of the city, they could at any time find themselves rounded up and massacred or banished. A series of writings in both Latin and Romance vernaculars (especially Old French) across a range of genres, culminating with historical writing, recounts purported encounters by westerners with the “wonders” of an alien urban landscape. 

This paper highlights the rhetorical strategies the texts employ in order to explore and diffuse sentiments of impotence and exclusion. It focuses in particular on the choice made to copy out, transliterate, translate or gloss Greek terms relating to the sights and sounds of the city. Many of the scenes recounted can be shown to have originated not in the authentic first-hand experience of travellers, but instead to have been taken from official guides produced by the imperial regime and deliberately disseminated. Moreover, western authors displayed little independence in their transmission and interpretation of these scenes, generally contenting themselves with word-for-word calques of their sources. Total domination of the resulting descriptions by the discourse of the host culture belied successive claims by individual westerners from the 10thcentury onwards to possess a linguistic fluency that granted them special insight into the workings of high politics and enabled them to speak to the emperor directly and negotiate favourable treatment as near equals. 

The set descriptions of Constantinople that were an established part of western literary repertoire by the late 12th century continued to exert influence into the 13th century, fundamentally shaping the content and organisation of narratives of the crusader conquest.