Innocent III

Innocent III
(ca. 1160–1216)
   Innocent III was the most powerful and influential pope of the high Middle Ages, and in terms of political power as well as spiritual authority, his pontificate marks the historical apex of papal influence.He succeeded in persuading the sovereigns of several European nations to recognize him as their secular lord, he launched both the Fourth Crusade and the Albigensian Crusade, he recognized the new mendicant orders of Saint Dominic and Saint Francis, and he convoked the Fourth Lateran Council (the most important church council of the Middle Ages). In addition, he was the author of one of the most popular spiritual treatises of all time.More than anyone else, Innocent was responsible for building the papacy into the prestigious institution it had always been in theory.
   Innocent was born Lothario dei Segni, a member of one of the highest ranking of noble Roman families. His early education took place in Rome, after which he studied theology in Paris and law in Bologna. In 1187, Pope Gregory VIII appointed him a subdeacon, and at the papal court his brilliance, particularly in canon law, so impressed Clement III that he was made a cardinal at the age of 30. When the 90-year-old Celestine III died, Lothario was elected pope at the age of 37, taking the name of Innocent III.
   Innocent had three major objectives in his pontificate: first, to make real the doctrine of plenitudo potestasis (fullness of power) that the pope could theoretically exercise as the successor of Peter and hence, essentially, the vicar of Christ; second, to eliminate heresy within the church’s dominions; and third, to win back the Holy Land for the Christian church.
   Innocent wasted no time in acting on the first of these objectives. Taking advantage of the death of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI in 1198, Innocent reorganized the government of Rome in order to exercise secular authority over the Papal States surrounding the city. Claiming as justification the “Donation of Constantine” (a spurious document by which Emperor Constantine was purported to have given secular control of the Roman Empire over to the pope), Innocent strove to influence the election of the new emperor. His main objective was to prevent the new emperor from reuniting Germany with Sicily and thereby surrounding the Papal States with a single powerful empire.He first threw his support to Otto of Brunswick against the Hohenstaufen candidate Philip of Swabia, but after Philip was murdered in 1208 and Otto invaded Sicily in defiance of the pope, Innocent swung his support to the young Hohenstaufen heir, Frederick II—the king of Sicily and Innocent’s ward. Innocent did not live to see Frederick act upon his own ideas about a universal empire, thus initiating a clash between church and state.
   In other secular matters, Innocent was involved in a conflict with the French king Philip II over the king’s attempt to divorce his wife, Ingeborg of Sweden. Innocent also clashed with King John of England when the king refused to accept the papal appointee, Stephen Langton, as archbishop of Canterbury. Ultimately, having been excommunicated and pronounced deposed by the pope and threatened with invasion from France, John sued to be reconciled with the church, and in 1213 agreed to become the feudal vassal of the pope, making England a papal fief. The kings of Portugal, Aragon, and Hungary were also persuaded to become the pope’s vassals. Thus Innocent was able to realize the idea of a feudal theocracy. Innocent’s efforts to eliminate heresy involved, first, his peaceful reconciliation of splinter groups to the Catholic Church. The Humiliati had been previously condemned, but Innocent approved them in 1201 and organized them into three orders. He also welcomed two Waldensian groups in 1208 and 1210, and approved the Hospitaliers of the Holy Spirit, whom he brought to Rome in 1201 to run his hospital for the poor.Most significantly, he approved the rule of St. Francis in 1210, and particularly encouraged the preaching activities of St. Dominic and his followers, whom he wanted to employ to preach against the dualist Catharists of southern France.
   Innocent was unable to convert the Catharists through preaching, and when his legate, Peter of Castelnau, was murdered in 1208, he launched a war against them, the Albigensian Crusade. He vested the Dominicans with the power to act as Inquisitors, and legitimized a bloody campaign that destroyed the civilization of Provence and the entire Langedoc region and allowed the French, led by Simon de Montfort, to turn the Crusade into a war of conquest and annex the region after the defeat of the Albigensians at Muret in 1213.
   Innocent also spent a good deal of energy on the idea of a Crusade to recapture Jerusalem. He called for a Crusade immediately upon his election to the pontificate in 1198, but a conflict between England and France delayed the raising of an army until 1204. Innocent, having established the first tax on the clergy to fund the Crusade, persuaded the Venetians to build a fleet to transport the crusader army. But Innocent quickly lost control of the Crusade, and partly through the influence of the Venetians, the army ignored the Holy Land and was diverted to a conquest of the Christian cities of Zara and Constantinople instead.His war with the Catharists occupied Innocent for some time, and it was not until their defeat that he could begin planning another crusade. He died suddenly in Perugia while making preparations for the Fifth Crusade—which ultimately failed miserably. It seems fair to say that Innocent’s crusading goals were the least successful aspect of his pontificate. Innocent’s biggest successes, on the other hand, were almost certainly achieved with the Fourth Lateran Council in November 1215. After nearly three years of preparation, the council comprised more than 1,200 representatives, 412 of them bishops and archbishops, 800 of them abbots, priors, and other lay and ecclesiastical representatives. The council approved 70 canons or decrees, including a number that shaped Roman Catholicism for the next 750 years. The Inquisition was essentially established by measures against heresy contained in canon 3. Priests were banned from participating in any trial by ordeal or combat by canon 18. Canon 21 required, for the first time, that all Christian laypersons confess their sins to a priest at least once a year. And canon 1 defined the doctrine of transubstantiation, whereby the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist was affirmed. It was Innocent’s highest achievement, and he died suddenly shortly after the council, in 1216.
   Innocent’s contribution to literature includes more than 6,000 surviving letters, and collections of the sermons he preached as pope. He was also the author of several spiritual treatises during his time as cardinal, the most important of which was his De miseria humanae concitionis (The misery of the human condition), better known as De contemptu mundi (Contempt for the world).Written in 1195, the tract became enormously popular, surviving in more than 600 manuscripts. It was also translated into a number of languages, including apparently an English version by CHAUCER, who alludes to it in his prologue to The LEGEND OF GOOD WOMEN, and quotes from it in the prologue to his MAN OF LAW’ TALE.
   Innocent was a sincere reformer, and was renowned and respected for his skills as a preacher and theologian, as well as for his piety, his intelligence, his efficiency, and his energy. Posterity has sometimes condemned his secular ambitions and his conduct of the Albigensian Crusade, but it is impossible to deny his success in achieving for the papacy its highest status of power and influence.
   ■ Innocent III, Pope. The Letters of Pope Innocent III (11981216) Concerning England and Wales: A Calendar with an Appendix of Texts. Edited by C. R. Cheney and Mary G. Cheney. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967.
   ■ ———. On the Misery of the Human Condition (De miseria humane conditionis). Edited by Donald R. Howard. Translated by Margaret Mary Dietz. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969.
   ■ Packard, Sidney Raymond. Europe and the Church under Innocent III. Rev. ed. New York: Russell and Russell, 1968.
   ■ Powell, James M., ed. Innocent III: Vicar of Christ or Lord of the World? Rev. ed. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1994.
   ■ Sayers, Jane. Innocent III: Leader of Europe, 11981216. London: Longman, 1994.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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