Enrico Dandolo, the Blind Doge in his nineties: age and disability in politics and history.

Enrico Dandolo was born around 1207. He died in 1205, having been on campaign in Bulgaria. By his sixties, he was acting as a senior diplomat for Venice, notably in Constantinople and Sicily. He became doge (akin to Duke, ruler of the Republic) in 1192, at around 85 years of age.

It is often said that the modern world has become besotted by the cult of youth. Political leaders are commonly, it seems, getting younger. It need not be so. Certainly, some political leaders cling on well past their sell-by date. When Churchill became prime minister for the second time in 1951 he was 76, by his retirement he was clearly suffering the effects of a serious stroke, and old age. By the time Ramsay MacDonald stood down in 1935, at the age of 69, his mental powers were in steep decline. Monarchs and dictators often cling on to the bitter end. In the modern world, even beyond: the 82-year-old Franco and the 76-year-old Brezhnev were kept alive, after a fashion, to try and ensure a stable succession. Here is the old man, just about still going, with the man who would later change it all, Gorbachev (here receiving the Order of the October Revolution from the old man).

Some come to power when it is already, in truth, too late. The Renaissance papacy saw a succession of elections in which the primary criteria for election seemed to be age, leaving the college of cardinals safe in the knowledge that the new incumbent could not last too long and could not, therefore, become too powerful. Some maye be well, but turn out to be old men in a dangerous hurry: the 68-year-old Neville Chamberlain might be just one such example. By the time Andrew Bonar Law became prime minister in 1922, he had just a year to live; by the time he resigned his throat cancer had left him gravely ill and unable to speak audibly. Brezhnev was succeeded as leader of the USSR by the 68-year-old Yuri Andropov, whose ambitions to begin to reform a creaking Soviet system were undermined by his ill health and subsequent death 15 months later. His successor, Konstantin Chernenko, was 72: his health was far worse, however, and he was dead within 13 months. Hardly a shock.

Age need not be an Impediment, however, to political success. Famously, Churchill was 65 when he became prime minister; Ronald Reagan became president at the age of 69: neither could be accused of failing to make an impact.

The 3rd duke of Norfolk, the one we all associate with Henry VIII, died in 1554, at the age of 82. For all the previous reign he he been in the tower, yet after his release was still able to put down Wyatt’s Rebellion before dying later the same year. Age certainly had not withered them.

Thus, Enrico Dandolo was not without precedent. He was though, pretty remarkable. If he became Doge in 1192, it wasn’t until over ten years later when, as a man in his late nineties, he led the Fourth Crusade’s capture of Constantinople.

It wasn’t just that Dandolo was ancient; he was also completely blind. In this era, to be blind was generally taken to mean that a man could not lead. Indeed, it was almost commonplace in the late Byzantine empire to blind deposed leaders. The Fourth Crusade was diverted to Constantinople to restore Isaac II to the imperial throne, at the behest of his son, Young Alexios. Isaac, when he had been deposed by his brother, was then imprisoned and blinded. William the Conqueror blinded those who crossed him, meaning they could no longer lead men in battle, and were thus unfit to lead.

Dandolo’s blindness was total. Geoffrey de Villehardouin, the crusader and historian knew him, and reported as much. It might have been expected that his blindness would have prevented him from even being doge. He was unable to read and, by law, thus unable to sign documents. Instead, he proved to be an energetic ruler, notably reforming the Venetian currency.

He was by no means the only significant figure in politics or history to have been disabled in some way. Some were less admirable than others. Kaiser Wilhlem II had a withered arm, Goebbels had something like a club foot; however morally dubious they were, they made an impact. Baldwin IV of Jerusalem, the Leper King, was a pretty effective ruler until the progressive effect of his leprosy overwhelmed him. Disability can go hand in hand with greatness. Nelson lost an eye, and a right arm. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, one of the great US presidents, was left disabled by polio as a young man. Interestingly, though, FDR went to great efforts to disguise his disability in public.

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That blind people have achieved great things in history should not really surprise us. Milton went blind before writing Paradise Lost. In our own time, David Blunkett achieved high office, despite being brought up in an era in which a disability such as his blindness was generally taken to preclude people from much of education, especially higher education, let alone high office. It may seem more surprising that blind people could be warriors too: John of Bohemia died in battle at Crecy, despite having been blind for a decade or more; Leper King he may have been, but Baldwin IV defeated Saladin in battle.

Even in that company, Dandolo was remarkable. He led stood on the brow of his ship, led his men under hails of arrows and was carried on a litter in the vanguard of the assault on Constantinople. He was, in effect, the first leader to breach the great walls themselves. Once the city was taken, he organised the systematic looting of its religious treasures, most famously the horses atop the portal of St Mark’s. He then became the power behind the Latin throne.

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The great historian of the crusades, Sir Steven Runciman, famously described the cpsack of Constantinople as  the greatest crime. Some seems to agree. After they had attacked and taken Zara back for Venice, and thus attacked fellow Christians, Pope Innocent III excommunicated all the crusade’s leaders. The Franks repented, but the Venetians did not. Instead, they went to and took Constantinople as excommunicates. Whether they hoped that they would be reconciled, perhaps in gratitude for they way in which they placed Byzantium under The authority of the papacy,  we will never know. What we do know is that after welcoming the news, Innocent was appalled by the looting, rape and murder the sack of Constantinople soon became notorious for. Dandolo died excommunicate, and was buried in Haghia Sophia. When the Latin empire fell, his remains were disinterred and thrown to the dogs; legend has it that not even the dogs would touch them.

Yet he was not forgotten. Later, the site of his tomb would be commemorated, and it still is. All that for a man in his late nineties, and wholly blind too. Perhaps this history does have on lesson. Of those who aged, or disabled, or both, we should never assume weakness. Nor, it seems should we necessarily assume virtue. Instead, we should assume human nature, like the rest of us, for good or ill or both. Remember Enrico Dandolo.

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