The Papacy: Innocent III (1198-1216)

After a much-needed respite from the austere history of the Papacy –from which I sought greener pastures among the likes of Shakespeare– I decided to revisit this project and continue my inquiry into the nature of absolutism and theocratic global rule. How has the political theology of Christianity provided fertile ground for such an enduring regime? To what extent has the sovereignty of a universal supreme pontiff –a ruler who governs the poor in spirit– either blossomed or withered over time? These and other questions I hope to explore as I revisit this project from time to time.

A 13th century fresco of Pope Innocent III at the Monastery of Sacro Speco of Saint Benedict 

Under Pope Innocent III, “the medieval Papacy reached its zenith. No pope ever had a more elevated conception of his position than Innocent III; he was indeed the Vicar of Christ on Earth (a designation that first became current in his day), standing, as it were, halfway between God and man. But his complete confidence in himself –together with a sense of humor rare in the Middle Ages—made him patient, simple, and always approachable, genuinely loved by those around him” (171). For example, we receive a warm vignette of his character in a letter written by one of his papal staff to an absent colleague: in August 1202, during a blazing hot summer, Pope Innocent III and his Curia traveled through Latium and stopped at Subiaco, a town thirty miles east of Rome where a monastery stood. However, there were not enough lodgings for the full papal procession, so all members, including the Pope, camped in tents on a nearby hill, battling arid heat and flies. While many were too tired, the Pope made the difficult sojourn down to a nearby lake to cool himself. These anecdotes help to fill out the man behind the papal mystique.

Lotario di Segni was born around 1160 into an aristocratic Italian family (his father was Trasimondo, the Count of Segni, and his mother was Claricia, a Roman of the patrician Scotti family). Being well-connected to the seat of power, his uncle was Pope Clement III, and his nephew was the future Pope Gregory IX. Lotario was raised as a worldly intellectual with a world-class education. He studied theology in Paris and law at Bologna. In his youth, he made the pilgrimage to Canterbury only a year or two after the murder of the Thomas Becket. He was appointed a Cardinal in 1190 by his uncle, Pope Clement III (who was pope from 1187-1191), but the subsequent pope, Celestine III (1191-1198), pushed Lotario into the background owing to a long-standing familial dispute. Not to be deterred, this small, handsome, humorous man of wits used his time in metaphorical exile to write several religious tracts, including the popular De Miseria Condicionis Humane (which survives today in some seven hundred copied manuscripts).

By all accounts, Lotario was a charismatic fellow. On the very day of Pope Celestine III’s death –January 8, 1198—at age thirty-seven, Lotario was unanimously elected Pope Innocent III. Within two years, he was to enjoy a privileged rule afforded few popes: he found himself without a secular rival in Europe. Henry VI of Germany (son of Frederick Barbarossa) had died leaving the House of Guelf and the Hohenstaufen in a state of civil war while Sicily was no longer independent since it was technically under the rule of Henry VI’s three-year-old son, Frederick II. In the east, Byzantium was in chaos under the rule of the ever-ridiculous Emperor Alexis III Angelus, while in the west, France and England were subsumed by problems following the death of Richard I “Coeur de Lion” in 1199. “The pope was consequently in a stronger position than any of his recent predecessors, and without a hostile emperor to intrigue against him he was soon able to reassert his authority both in the Papal States… and in Rome itself, reconciling the various aristocratic factions” (172).

Here was a master diplomat, however Innocent’s fortunes were soon tested when he gave his blessing to the Fourth Crusade. In yet another ill-fated effort to recover Jerusalem from perceived Muslim occupation, a 2.5 percent tax was levied on clerical incomes but still the proper funding could not be raised for the war. Thus in Venice 1202, an alliance of Venetians and crusaders decided to sack Zara (now known as Zadar on the Dalmatian coast), one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in Croatia to this day. Both the Crusaders and the Venetians disputed the spoils and wound up dividing the city for themselves during the long winter. Outraged at the whole expedition, Pope Innocent excommunicated the whole contingent (later retracting part of his harsh sentence).

Meanwhile, Frederick Barbarossa’s fifth youngest son, Duke Philip of Swabia, proposed a deal with Innocent. If Papal Crusaders would escort his brother-in-law, Alexius (son of the dethroned Byzantine Emperor Isaac II Angelus), to Constantinople, then Alexius would finance future advancing crusades with an army of ten thousand. Also, the 150-year schism would be revisited with Constantinople intent on submitting to Rome as the true authority. However, trouble was brewing. Escorting Alexius to Constantinople in 1204 soon led to “the most unspeakable of the many outrages in the whole hideous history of the Crusades” (173). Constantinople was brutally sacked by men wearing the Cross of Christ and they partitioned the city. As a result, these “Frankish thugs” occupied the throne of Constantinople for the next fifty-seven years. “Byzantium was to endure for almost two centuries more, but only as the palest shadow of what it once had been” (173).

Now, the Albigenses was a “heretical” Christian sect which first appeared in the Languedoc region (southern France) beginning in the eleventh century. Their heresy was known as Catharism, or to the Armenians they were called Paulicians, and to the Bulgarians and Bosnians they were Bogomils. This sect caused many painful headaches for the ruling parties in Byzantium. The Albigenses were Manichaeans who believed in the otherworldly ascetic ideal. They viewed life as one grand battlefield between two separate deistic spheres of good and evil. The Albigenses maintained strict adherence to spiritual habits, especially under their leaders who were known as the perfecti, a group that abstained from consuming meat or engaging in sexual activity. They also rejected imagery, saints, relics, and most church sacraments like baptism and marriage. Pope Innocent simply could not tolerate the presence of this heretical sect so he sent a delegation to France for negotiations in 1209, but when one of the delegates (Peter of Castelnau, Abbott of Citeaux) was found murdered by a henchman of Count Raymond VI of Toulouse, the Pope declared another crusade. Known as the “Albigensian Crusade” or the “Cathar Crusade” (one of many crusades spurred on by the pope against heretical or schismatic Christian sects), the fighting was to last another twenty years. The northern barons (led by Simon IV de Montfort) battled those in the south. It was a brutal, destructive war –in particular, the Massacre at Béziers in July 1209 is often acknowledged as one of the first instances of modern genocide. The entire city was burned, homes were invaded, women were raped and slaughtered, children were publicly executed, and churches were looted with priests strung up and massacred regardless of their allegiances. A letter sent to Rome described 20,00 innocents put to the sword, regardless of age or sex. In the letter, it was praised as “divine vengeance” and a “miracle.” In the end, much of medieval Provencal civilization was decimated in this monstrous atrocity. Scores of “heretics” were massacred even as the Treaty of Paris was being signed in 1229, yet the Albigenses refused to entirely disappear. It wasn’t until the gruesome efficiency of the Spanish Inquisition nearly a century later that the last of the Albigenses were finally snuffed out by the pious adherents of Christian orthodoxy.

It was at the start of the Albigensian Crusade in 1209 that two important mendicant orders were established –St. Francis of Assisi and St. Dominic. Both men were known to Innocent, and he approved the Franciscan Order in April 1209. The Franciscans were a band of humble preachers who worked for poverty wages, typically in agriculture, and cared for the sick while preaching to the peasants. It was an immensely popular order and grew precipitously. The Dominicans would be sanctioned in 1216, five months after Innocent’s death.   

One of the pre-eminent concerns of Innocent’s early papal reign concerned the future of the German crown following the death of Emperor Henry VI, whose son Frederick of Sicily was still only a child. This led to a power vacuum and a disputed successorship which ensued between his uncle, Philip, Duke of Swabi; and Otto, Duke of Brunswick (son of the Guelf leader the Lion, Duke of Bavaria and Saxony and his wife, Matilda, daughter of Henry II of England). Innocent threw his support behind Otto, Duke of Brunswick in the hopes of regaining Sicily. Philip was murdered in 1208 by the Count Palatine of Bavaria after refusing one of his daughters in marriage. With the path now clear, Innocent happily performed Otto’s coronation ceremony on October 4, 1209.

“But the Duke of Brunswick proved a sad disappointment. Within weeks he was showing himself every bit as arrogant and bullying as Barbarossa or Henry VI had ever been, and in the summer of 1210 he invaded the Sicilian kingdom and took possession of all South Italy” (176). Otto was already on shaky ground being the nephew of King John of England, who infamously refused the pope’s selection for Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, and then confiscated all papal lands. The situation culminated in John’s excommunication, and his kingship suffered in ensuing years after a failed invasion of France to regain the Angevin territories he lost and new parliamentary restraints were then placed upon the king with the signing of Magna Carta. At any rate, Otto was promptly excommunicated after his invasion of Sicily and the pope sought a new Germany ally. He extended an invitation of German kingship to Otto’s only remaining rival, the seventeen-year-old Frederick in Palermo. After a politically fraught series of months, Frederick accepted and was crowned king in Germany (whose soil he had never set foot in). The relationship between Frederick and Innocent was mutually beneficial, at least initially. He attended the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, which John Julius Norwich dubs “the climax of his pontificate, and indeed of all medieval papal legislation” (178). In attendance were some eight hundred abbots and priors, the envoys of Frederick (king of Sicily and Germany), the Latin Emperor of Constantinople, as well as the kings of England, France, Aragon, Hungary, Cyprus, and Jerusalem. The council concerned itself with two chief things: “the occupation of the Infidel of the Holy Places and the recrudescence of heresy.” A new crusade was proposed for 1217, along with its required taxes, however Innocent’s death on July 16, 1216 postponed the military campaign. The Council had, in total, promulgated some seventy-one canons, or decrees, covering issues like transubstantiation, new religious orders (like the Dominicans), confession, communion, prohibitions against illegitimate sons of clergy inheriting their fathers’ churches –and many canons barring commerce with Jews, compulsory garb for Jews and Muslims so they could be publicly identified, prohibitions against Jews appearing in public during Holy Week, and the barring of Jews from holding public office over Christians. Indeed, before the end of the century, King Edward I “Longshanks” of England would banish the entire Jewish community from English soil.

Innocent’s reign “marks the apex of the temporal power of the medieval Papacy, but none could have foreseen the suddenness with which it came to an end” (180). Pope Innocent III, while en route northward to resolve a dispute between Pisa and Genoa, experienced a resurgence of malaria (a disease which had afflicted him years earlier), and he died at the age of fifty-five at Perugia. The following night, his body was stolen and robbed. It was found a day later, stripped naked and decomposing in the hot sun before it was hastily buried in the Cathedral at San Lorenzo. At a later date, “the bones of the greatest –if not the greatest—of medieval popes were heedlessly thrown, together with those of Urban IV and Martin IV, into a box which was stored in a cupboard in the sacristy of the new cathedral. At the end of the nineteenth century Leo XIII ordered that they be brought back to the Lateran; and so they were finally returned to Rome, in the suitcase of a priest, by rail” (180).   

For this reading I used John Julius Norwich’s 2011 single volume history of the papacy Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy.

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