Post-classical history


‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said. Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t – till I tell you.’

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Innocent’s pontificate was crowned by the great council, known as Lateran IV, which he summoned in 1215. It was attended by more than 1,200 prelates from all over Latin Christendom and beyond, as well as the representatives of many secular rulers. In seventy canons the document issued with its authority drew together the reforming initiatives of the past century and a half to shape the church for the rest of the middle ages, consolidating and greatly extending the role of the clergy in every aspect of personal life and public affairs. The war on heresy was presented as the primary rationale for these measures.

The official statement of the council’s conclusions opened with a confession of faith.1 It was couched in the terminology of the Paris schools, a number of whose masters had been prominent in the preparation of the council. It emphatically disavowed the theological dualism now held to be the basis of the most pernicious heresies, insisting on the unity of creation, the incarnation, the resurrection of the body, the real presence in the Mass. The influence of the Paris masters was reaffirmed in the second canon, which vindicated at some length the teaching on the trinity of their emblematic figure and author of their essential textbook, Peter Lombard (d. 1160), against the criticism of the Calabrian visionary and prophet Joachim of Flora. It also condemned in a single sentence, but did not specify, the teachings of another Paris master, the charismatic Amalric of Bène (d. 1206). Amalric had been tutor to Louis, heir to the French crown. His teachings, which seem to have undermined the distinction between clergy and laity, had been widely disseminated in a number of northern French dioceses by students of his who had become parish priests. In 1210 ten of them were burned at Paris and four others imprisoned for life; another was burned at Amiens two years later. Amalric himself was exhumed and posthumously excommunicated and his bones thrown on a dungheap.

This second canon, at first sight somewhat parochial, even personal, in the context of a grand promulgation of regulations for the church universal, served (like the vindication of Gilbert de la Porée at Reims in 1148) to underline the essential autonomy of the masters as the definers of catholic doctrine. This was emphasised rather than qualified by the brusque acknowledgement of Amalric’s error in what amounts to a postscript. It constituted an essential preface to the unstated (and largely unforeseen) consequence of all the elaborate measures spelled out by this council for the better governance of the church, firmer control over its offices and revenues, and the better education and more effective disciplining of its clergy. Provision for the closer and more regular pastoral care of the laity included the famous requirement that every mature catholic should confess to a priest at least once a year, an institution without parallel in any other world religion. Like all sweeping and visionary measures of administrative reform, the implementation of the decrees would entail vastly increased responsibilities and opportunities for the administrators themselves. Lateran IV was a charter for the clericalisation of society.

The third canon was a firm assertion of the necessity for such a programme. It was a comprehensive restatement of existing provisions for the detection, trial and punishment of heretics, and of those who gave credence to their teaching or gave them hospitality, protection or support. They were to be excluded from public affairs and commercial and professional activity, and deprived of civic rights, including those of testifying in court and making a will; their property was to be confiscated and their children disinherited. The provisions of Ad abolendam against office-holders, secular and ecclesiastical, who acted with insufficient vigour against heretics and their supporters were repeated and elaborated. A secular ruler who failed to act within a year against heretics pointed out by the church was to be reported to the pope, who would release his vassals from their allegiance and offer his lands to catholics, whose indulgences and privileges were confirmed.

The terrible force of these sanctions, if not perhaps the awful menace of the dangers they were designed to avert, was driven home by the appearance on their knees before a full session of the council of Count Raymond VI of Toulouse and Count Raymond-Roger of Foix. Neither had been formally convicted of heresy or of supporting heretics, and both had undertaken to obey papal demands, but their appeals for the restoration of their confiscated lands were refused by vote, seemingly against the wishes of the pope. Raymond VI was to lose all the lands that had been conquered by the crusaders and live in exile with a modest pension. He was permitted to retain his wife’s dowry, and his son, when he came of age, to inherit the unconquered family lands east of the Rhône. The case of the count of Foix was referred to a commission of inquiry, which in due course declared him a catholic.


Innocent III died at Perugia in July 1116. His body was stripped overnight of his magnificent funeral garments as it lay unguarded in the cathedral, to be found next morning ‘putrid and almost naked’.2 The Lateran settlement was already unwinding. A few weeks later the capture of Beaucaire on the Rhône by the younger Raymond of Toulouse launched a campaign to recover the conquered lands, in conjunction with forces led from the Pyrenees by his father and Raymond-Roger of Foix. Simon de Montfort responded with his usual energy and ferocity until, in June 1218, as he was about to take Toulouse after a prolonged and bitter siege, he was struck on the head by a rock from a trebuchet. His body was taken back to Carcassonne. When his son and successor Amaury finallyabandoned the south in 1225, it was sewn into an ox-hide and taken back to his estate near Paris for burial. Raymond VI survived until 1222, though effective leadership of the resistance had passed to his son. He died in the habit of a knight of St John and a generous benefactor of the church – but still excommunicate and therefore unburied. Since Popes Honorius III, Gregory IX and Innocent IV refused in turn to reverse the sentence, his coffin lay outside the priory of the Templars at Toulouse for as many decades as it took for the rot and the rodents to do their work.

The slaughter continued as pious and mercenary adventurers responded to the calls of frantic papal legates for aid against the Raymonds’ attempts to restore their land and position, but without Innocent III and Simon de Montfort the crusading enterprise lacked shape and direction. Philip of France still resisted appeals from all sides to fill the vacuum, but his son Louis was steadily, though at first reluctantly, drawn into doing so. In 1219 Philip ordered him to assume the leadership, to forestall a suggestion that Thibaud of Champagne, who would have made a formidable rival, might do so instead. Louis showed himself a true crusader by presiding to the last woman and child over the massacre of the inhabitants of the small town of Marmande, which had rashly failed to surrender. He laid menacing siege to Toulouse but, to the astonishment and relief of its citizens, packed his bags and went home when the forty days required by his vow were up. But in 1224, his father dead, Louis VIII, as he now was, accepted from the hapless Amaury de Montfort the transfer of his rights and claims in the south which Philip had refused. Louis possessed the fanaticism lacking in his father. In his eyes this was still a holy enterprise. In 1226 he took the cross once more and assembled the largest force gathered since the first invasion of 1209. His death of a wasting disease at Montpensier in November 1226, with most of the region already in his hands, is attributed by the worldly to dysentery, but one chronicler blamed it on his refusal to avail himself of a young woman thoughtfully placed in his bed by a solicitous courtier who feared that an excess of chastity had undermined his constitution. Whether Louis’s ‘Madame, it shall not be’ portended a triumph or a failure of the will, the story is an early example of the supreme skill with which the thirteenth-century expansion and elevation of the French monarchy was bathed in the odour of sanctity.3

In the following year Raymond VII, who had shown himself a vigorous and resourceful leader, recovered most of the lost territory. Towns and lords all across the region, desperate to avoid yet another round of laying waste, of devastated crops, ruined orchards and uprooted vineyards, sieges and burnings, flocked to his banner as they had to Louis’s, and to Raymond’s own before that. Their fervour only brought it home yet again that neither side had a basis for unconditional victory. For twenty long years one had lacked the resources to repel invasion, the other to sustain a military occupation – but the French monarchy, unlike the de Montforts, would always be able to come back. In November 1228 Raymond accepted that he could not indefinitely withstand papally legitimated Capetian ambition and sued for peace. The guardians of the twelve-year-old Louis IX saw the wisdom of allowing Raymond terms that, harsh though they were, were not impossible to accept. By the peace concluded at Paris in 1229 Raymond remained count of Toulouse and lord of what had in effect been its core territories. His eastern provinces, along with the Trencavel lands, passed to the French. His nine-year-old daughter Joanne was betrothed to Louis’s younger brother Alphonse of Poiters, with the stipulation that they and their children would be Raymond’s heirs. As it transpired they had none, so Toulouse passed directly to the French crown when both Alphonse and Joanne died in 1271. In addition Raymond not only offered substantial sums to various churches by way of reparations for the damages alleged against him and his father but also paid for the foundation of a university to bring sound Parisian theology to Toulouse. He also undertook that his officials (among whom there would be no Jews or heretics) would seek out heretics and punish them as the church required.


The first secular ruler to make positive provision for the enforcement of the anti-heretical decrees of Lateran IV was the mightiest. Frederick II was crowned emperor in Rome in 1220, twelve years after assuming the Sicilian throne on reaching his majority (when he was fourteen) and five after his election as king of the Romans by German princes opposed to Otto IV. At a diet in Frankfurt earlier that year Frederick had acted against heresy in his German lands, though without specifying it as his objective, by proclaiming severe curtailments of the legal rights of the excommunicate. Pope Honorius III now took the opportunity to demand ‘something worthy of the royal dignity against heretics and their supporters’, and the observation of the Lateran provisions in all Frederick’s lands was duly proclaimed. In 1224 at Catania, Frederick stipulated that convicted heretics were to be seized by his officers and delivered to the flames, unless the ecclesiastical judges wanted them to be kept alive to secure the conviction of others. In that case their tongues were to be cut out, presumably after they had been persuaded to vouchsafe the requisite information.

In 1231 Frederick’s comprehensive legal code, the Constitutions of Melfi, opened with a statement of full and elaborate measures against heretics and their supporters, equating their offence with treason and laying down that anybody tainted with the slightest suspicion was to be examined by an ecclesiastical tribunal, and if convicted burned alive ‘in the sight of the people’. The property of their supporters and of their supporters’ children was to be confiscated and their civic rights denied, though the children might recover their positions by denouncing others.4 The substance of these provisions is by now familiar, though here presented with extreme thoroughness and ferocity. The language and rhetoric, however, did not follow those of the ecclesiastical pronouncements and conciliar canons of the previous century and more. They constituted an assertion of royal authority, containing no reference to the papacy, with which Frederick was by this time at loggerheads. The streams of heresy, he said, had been diverted from ‘the region of Lombardy, in which we know for certain that their wickedness is widespread’ – and where, as it happens, Frederick was ruthlessly bent on consolidating his power.


In principle the systematic detection and eradication of heresy would have required the constant vigilance of appropriately trained clergy in every diocese. Over time the measures prescribed by Lateran IV greatly improved the training and organisation of the parochial clergy. The higher clergy became better disciplined and – though always with many and conspicuous exceptions – less thoroughly entangled in the world. The ability of the papacy to control ecclesiastical appointments and through them to provide emoluments and promotion for its functionaries as well as advancement of its policies was greatly extended, though at a heavy cost in political resentment. Nevertheless, local clergy would always be more vulnerable, and often more sympathetic, to local interests and traditions than seemed desirable from a Roman perspective. The conditions that had made the Cistercians appear necessary as the advance guard and shock troops of the war on heresy had been especially visible in the lands of the count of Toulouse. They were present everywhere in Latin Christendom, though in varying degrees.

A solution to this problem, as indeed to many others, was supplied by the most dramatic development in the church since the days of the papal revolution, the appearance of the friars (from the Latin frater, ‘brother’). The conviction of Dominic Guzman of Calaruega that the influence of the good men might be more effectively contested by those who could match their austerity of life and humility of demeanour bore little fruit under the shadow of the Albigensian wars. By 1215 Dominic was established with sixteen companions in a house in Toulouse, and had vowed to follow the rule of St Augustine for canons regular, to possess no property and to combat heresy by preaching and pastoral solicitude. He had no visible results to show for it. Two years later, after a visit to Rome, he experienced some kind of crisis, and despite the protests of Simon de Montfort and the papal legate, dispersed his companions with instructions to preach the gospel and carry the fight against heresy across the world. At Bologna in 1220 Dominic confirmed in a general chapter of his followers that preaching was the main business of their order. His insistence that the best available academic training in theology and disputation was an essential foundation for this task not only took Dominican friars to the newly established universities of Paris and Bologna but quickly attracted recruits among the students and masters. By 1224, 120 Dominicans were studying theology at Paris; by 1234 their 20 houses had become 100, and by 1277 they had 400 houses, dispersed throughout Europe.

Francis of Assisi is one of the most familiar and, to many, most attractive personalities of the entire medieval period. Controversy surrounded his convictions and intentions almost from the beginning and became a major inspiration both of heresy and of persecution in the second half of the thirteenth century. Francis converted in 1205, from the soldier and would-be crusader son of a wealthy merchant to a hermit embracing the most extreme personal abstinence in the pursuit of poverty. He emerged three years later as a preacher of spectacular charismatic force and a minister to the poorest and most wretched of the world. The number of followers he gathered and the power of his life and preaching to arouse intense excitement and devotion in the teeming cities supplied the church with a new and immensely potent source of religious fervour, and the papacy with a force of energetic though unruly auxiliaries who spread rapidly in Italy from early in the thirteenth century, and then over Europe. The conversion was squarely in the apostolic tradition of John Gualberti and Peter Damiani. Francis differed from them, perhaps, in personal deference to every form of authority (apart from that of his father). He and his immediate followers, approved as a religious order by Innocent III in 1209, did not attack the ecclesiastical hierarchy by precept, however eloquently they may have seemed to do so by example.

The friars differed from the monks of the traditional orders not only in renouncing all property, living by begging (and for that reason being known as mendicants) and devoting themselves to activity in the world rather than withdrawal from it, but also in embracing not stability but mobility. They had no affiliation to a particular house and owed obedience not to an abbot or prior but to the superiors of their order and through them directly to the papacy, at whose disposal they always remained.


In 1221 Honorius III followed up the anti-heretical legislation that he had secured from the emperor by directing his legate Cardinal Ugolino of Ostia to have its provisions inserted, together with those of Lateran IV, into the municipal statutes of the Lombard and Tuscan cities. In 1227 Honorius and Ugolino, who in that year succeeded him as Gregory IX, demanded the incorporation in municipal statutes of both ecclesiastical and imperial legislation against heresy, specifically including that of Frederick II. The church thus offered, for the first time, its explicit endorsement of the death penalty for heresy. Since the death was to be by fire, the ancient prohibition of the shedding of blood was not infringed. In 1231 Gregory laid down that condemned heretics remitted to the secular power should be punished by ‘the debt of hatred’ – that is, put to death – and that the excommunication of their supporters and protectors should in itself incur permanent legal infamy – the loss of civic rights including that of election to public office, the power to make a will or to receive an inheritance, and access to the courts. At the same time the Roman senator (chief magistrate) Annibaldo issued a decree confirming these penalties, and the confiscation of the property of all condemned heretics, even if their heirs were catholic. One third of it would go to those who had denounced the heretics, one to the Senator’s treasury and one to the maintenance of the city walls. Denunciations and burnings duly followed.

Although reinforced by preaching missions conducted by Dominican and Franciscan friars, these measures seem to have had, in general, little immediate result. They were often accepted by the cities without objection but not actually implemented, while more pressing problems militated against sustained pressure from the papal side. In 1221 only Bergamo, Mantua and Piacenza responded promptly to Ugolino’s demands, and in Piacenza at least the effect was slight, for heresy in many guises was active, openly acknowledged and debated there well into the next decade. In 1230 Bergamo elected a Ghibelline podestà, who promptly released a number of heretics from prison. The pope retaliated by prohibiting its citizens from being elected as podestàs in other cities. There was a change of political allegiance in the opposite direction when, in 1228, Milan (traditionally the capital of heresy) temporarily transferred its alliance from emperor to pope. Heretics were expelled from the city and its territories on pain of the usual penalties and fines.

The nature of heresy in the Italian cities, and the difficulty (from the papal point of view) of dealing with it, was clearly expressed by the leaders of the defeated faction in Brescia in 1224. After several years of bitter conflict with the bishop and his allies, they were forced to seek terms from the pope. ‘Brescia’, they explained, ‘has been divided into factions for a long time, as everyone knows’, and they had defended their towers ‘not so much as heretics, but as members of their party’. And yet they did not deny that they were heretics, as indeed they might be thought to have demonstrated by burning several churches, and by conducting a parody of the ritual of anathema in which they solemnly excommunicated all members of the church of Rome.5 The point they were anxious to clarify was that their political rivalries existed independently of the religious difference and indeed, at least by implication, pre-dated it. By this time political conflict and religious rivalry had been inextricably interwoven in Brescia, and probably in most other cities of any size in northern and central Italy, for a century and a half or more. For most of that period the opponents of the bishop and his allies had been called Patarenes. This need not mean either that they had been organised as a sect or that their beliefs or religious practices had remained unchanged, any more than those of the catholics had done. The accusation of heresy was a very old weapon. It gained greatly in power and manoeuvrability in the decades following Lateran IV, but it did not necessarily describe the beliefs of its targets more accurately.

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