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Innocent III (pope)

was born Lothar of Segni in ca. 1160 and died in Perugia, July 16, 1216. He was the son of Trasimund, count of Segni, and Claricia dei Scotti, a daughter of a noble Roman family. He was educated in Rome, possibly at the Schola Cantorum, then at Paris where he studied theology. After Paris he went to Bologna where he probably studied law for between two and four years. He was elected pope in 8 January 1198 and took the name Innocent III. His pontificate was the most significant of the Middle Ages. He reformed the Roman curia, reestablished and expanded papal authority over the Papal States, worked tirelessly to launch Crusades to recover the Holy Land, created new courts and procedures to combat heresy in Italy and Southern France, shaped a powerful and original doctrine of papal power within the Church and in secular affairs, and presided over the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 that reformed many clerical and lay practices within the Church.

Early Life and Career

After his early education in Rome Lothar traveled North to Paris to study theology in the late 1170's or 1180. Although we know little about his stay in Paris, what we do know is suggestive. His teachers, Peter of Corbeil and Peter the Chanter, were the best theologians in Europe. Stephen Langton, whom Innocent later appointed archbishop of Canterbury, and Robert of Courson, whom he appointed as a papal legate and later raised to the cardinalate, were among his fellow students. His theological training shaped his mind and his language for the rest of his life. In Paris he learned to use Bible as a tool for understanding and solving problems. Until the end of his life, his theological training provided a foundation for his outlook and his policies.

After Paris Innocent studied law in Bologna. If he studied law for more than two or three years (the chronology of his life at this time is uncertain) law did not become the discipline that shaped his view of the world or his vision of the papacy. Before he was elected pope Lothar wrote three theological tracts: "On the Miserable Human Condition," "On the Mysteries of the Mass," and "On Four Types of Marriage." The first was enormously popular in the Middle Ages, and the others demonstrate that he was a competent, if not gifted, theologian. All three tracts demonstrate his ability to use the Bible for understanding Christian institutions in creative and original ways.

Lothar probably entered clerical orders in Rome while he was a young boy. After his studies in Paris Pope Gregory VIII made him a sub-deacon in late 1187. Pope Clement III elevated him to the Cardinal deacon of SS. Sergius and Bacchus in December 1189 or January 1190. He worked in the papal curia during the 1190's but was not given important commissions and did not hold significant positions. In spite of his youth and his lack of administrative experience, the cardinals quickly elected the young cardinal as pope on the same day that Pope Celestine III died (8 January 1198). He was given or took the name Innocent III. The pope-elect was ordained a priest 21 February, 1198 and consecrated as bishop of Rome the next day on the feast day of St. Peter’s Chair. Innocent undoubtedly chose the day of his consecration carefully. He wrote many sermons after he became pope. Among them were several that commemorated the feast day of his consecration. When Innocent reflected on the first pope and Peter’s legacy in these sermons, Innocent presented a luminous vision of the papal office and the pope’s role in Christendom.

Early Pontificate

At the beginning of his pontificate Innocent faced several serious problems. The Emperor Henry VI had died, and there were two candidates for the imperial throne, the brother of Henry, Philip of Hohenstaufen, and Otto of Brunswick. The German princes were divided, and Southern Italy was in political shambles. The Christian States in the Holy Land were in the hands of the Muslims. In the second half of the twelfth century heresy had become a grave problem in Southern France. Papal authority in the city of Rome and over the Papal States had disintegrated in the second half of the twelfth century. The papal curia needed reform. Innocent faced all of these problems simultaneously.

The vigor and resolve of the new pope can be seen in the letters of the papal registers and in a chronicle (Gesta Innocentii III) written by an unknown person in Innocent’s curia who knew the pope very well. Innocent addressed one of his first letters to King Philip Augustus of France ordering him to take back his wife whom the king had abandoned. With this mandate Innocent signaled his intention to extend papal jurisdiction and authority into the marital affairs of Christian princes. At the same time he reestablished papal temporal authority over Rome and the Papal States. Immediately after his consecration he received homage from the leaders of the Roman nobility. In order to dominate the city of Rome Innocent ordered the construction of a massive military fortification in the middle of the city (Torre dei’Conti). After its completion he placed it under the command of his brother Richard. Earlier popes had confined their claims over the Papal States (Patrimony of St. Peter) to the area immediately around Rome. Innocent used the power vacuum created by the death of the emperor to make much more expansive claims. He systematically sent papal legates to the cities of Central Italy to secure their loyalty. Within a remarkably short time, cities close to Rome and as far away as Ancona, Assisi, Perugia, and Spoleto had declared their allegiance to the pope. By 30 October 1198 Innocent sent a letter to the rectors of those cities that had submitted to papal lordship. He fashioned a striking verbal image of papal authority that he would repeat during his pontificate. Papal authority was represented by the sun. The moon signified the power of lay princes. Both powers were established by God, but just has the moon received its splendor from the sun, papal authority bestowed greatness and dignity upon royal power. Innocent’s creative and passionate rhetoric became a part of his ruling style. His deeds matched his rhetoric. Innocent created a much larger papal territory than any of his predecessors had controlled. From Innocent’s pontificate on, the pope became an important secular prince in Central Italy. Innocent understood the dangers of the pope exercising secular power. In the Gesta, his biographer commented that the more that Innocent wished to free himself from secular affairs, the greater they burdened him. Innocent, he said, had often remarked, "who touches tar is dirtied by it (Eccl. 13.1)."

Innocent was consumed by a passion to reconquer Jerusalem and the Holy Land that had been lost in 1187. On August 15, 1198 he sent letters to the kings and bishops of Christendom and implored them to take the cross and launch a new crusade. He promised crusaders a new papal indulgence, took them under papal protection, and imposed a tax on the clergy to help pay for the expedition. In spite of Innocent’s best efforts, the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) lacked strong leadership and was chronically short of money. The Venetians built a large fleet to transport the army, but large French and German contingents could not fulfill their contractual obligations to pay them for transport. The result for a disaster for the papacy and for the Byzantine empire. The Venetians persuaded the army to divert the crusade to Constantinople. They wanted to depose one emperor and replace him with another. Innocent excommunicated the Venetians, but he could not thwart their plans. The fleet arrived in Constantinople, and after a siege the city fell into Latin hands (12 April, 1204). Innocent accepted the result. He mistakenly believed that the conquest of Constantinople would reunite the Latin and Greek churches. The Latins ruled over a truncated empire until 1261 and irrevocably weakened it. After the Greeks gained control of their Church, they rejected papal authority and remained in schism until the present.

Innocent’s first year was also marked by his efforts to establish his vision of papal monarchical power and authority within the Church. He formed most of his ideas about the pope’s role in church government early in his pontificate. His reforms of the papal curia and his reorganization of the papal judicial system strengthened the hierarchical structure of the Church. At the same time Innocent swept away almost all of the older, decentralized institutions that were characteristic of the Church in the early Middle Ages. His most creative rhetorical statements on papal power were expressed in letters that expounded the authority of the pope over the emperor, kings, princes, and bishops. He transformed the theory of papal monarchy and pushed the papacy in new directions. He combined a streak of hard-head-headed practicality with an intellectual’s interest in ideas. Innocent developed his vision most fully in a series of letters in which he subordinated bishops to papal authority. He claimed that the pope "has this authority because he does not exercise the office of man, but of the true God on earth." He mandated the subordination of the bishops to the pope and insisted that only the pope could approve all episcopal translations, resignations, and depositions. The author of the Gesta painted a portrait of a pope who had great skill in judicial affairs and who participated personally in some of the legal cases appealed to the papal court.

The most difficult task Innocent faced in his first years as pope was the struggle between Otto of Brunswick and Philip of Hohenstaufen for the imperial throne after the death of the Emperor Henry VI. When Innocent was elevated to the papacy the political situation in Italy and Germany was precarious. When Emperor Henry VI died in 1197 he had subjected almost the entire Italian peninsula and Sicily, including most of the Papal States, to his rule. Innocent had moved quickly and effectively to recover the Papal States. The situation in Southern Italy and Sicily was much more complicated because the Norman Kingdom of Sicily was a papal fief and subject to the authority of the pope. Innocent immediately attempted to exercise his rights as feudal overlord of the kingdom. There were two claimants to the imperial throne, Otto and Philip. Henry had left a three year old son, Frederick, who was the legitimate heir to the Kingdom of Sicily. Innocent attempted to separate Sicily from the Empire because any ruler who possessed both crowns was a threat to the Papal States. Innocent exacted promises from Otto and Philip that they would respect the boundaries of the Papal States. Both candidates betrayed his trust. The importance and seriousness of the problem can be seen in the pages of the Gesta whose author devoted many pages to the dispute and in the special papal register that Innocent’s curia maintained for preserving a record of it ("Super negotio Romani imperii"). Although in 1212 Innocent was forced to turn to Henry’s son, Frederick, the pope used the dispute to establish the pope’s right to judge and evaluate imperial candidates in a contested election. He established the right of the pope to choose one of the candidates as emperor in a decretal letter, Venerabilem. Innocent’s claim was unprecedented but quickly became part of canon law of the Church.

At the beginning of his second year, Innocent turned his attention to the problem of heresy within the borders of Christendom. In a decretal letter, Vergentis in senium, (25 March, 1199) that he sent to Viterbo, a city within the Papal States, Innocent declared that heresy was treason against God. He applied the sanctions and employed the procedural norms used in ancient Roman treason trials against heretics. This began Innocent’s long campaign to eradicate heresy that lasted until the end of his pontificate. His war against heresy culminated in the Albigensian Crusade. Cathar (Albigensian) heretics had become prevalent in Southern France. As early as 1199 the pope sent legates to deal with the heretics and their supporters. In 1206 St. Dominic began to preach to the heretics with Innocent’s support. These efforts produced few results. Finally in 1208 Innocent launched a crusade against the heretics and gave the participants full crusader indulgences and privileges. The war lasted until after Innocent’s death. Even after a political settlement was made that brought the fighting to an end, the Cathar heresy flourished in the region until the beginning of the fourteenth century. Innocent began the practice of using the crusade to combat papal enemies wherever they were found. Later popes called for crusades against disobedient Christian rulers and even cardinals of the Church.

Later Pontificate

A conflict between King Philip II Augustus of France and King John of England occupied the middle years of Innocent’s pontificate. John was a mediocre king. Philip was skillful at exploiting John’s weaknesses. At the beginning of Innocent’s pontificate, John still held extensive lands in France for which he owed fealty and homage to Philip. In 1202 Philip declared that John was guilty of improper behavior in marriage case and stripped him of his French fiefs. The result was a war that lasted four years. Philip’s armies had great success, and John appealed to Innocent for justice. The pope responded in a decretal letter, Novit ille, in which he refused to condemn Philip but did state that he could intervene in secular matters by reason of sin (ratio peccati). Novit ille became a part of canon law and justified papal and ecclesiastical interference in secular affairs for centuries.

John and Innocent’s paths continued to cross for the rest of their lives. John became embroiled in a dispute with the monks of Christ Church, Canterbury who had the authority to elect the archbishop of Canterbury, the primate of England. John tried to force his candidate upon the monks. They appealed to Rome, and Innocent bypassed both candidates to appoint a famous theologian, Stephen Langton, as archbishop. Taking away the right of election from local churches became more and more common after Innocent’s pontificate. John refused to accept Stephen. Innocent finally excommunicated the king for his obstinacy in 1209. A settlement was concluded between Innocent and John in 1213. In return for Innocent’s support, John subjected his kingdom to the pope and swore homage and fealty to him. Like Sicily England became a papal fief. This arrangement probably reflects Innocent’s ideal for the proper governance of Christendom.

The crusade continued to occupy Innocent in his later years. He called for a new crusade in April 1213 in a letter in which he also announced a new council to be held in Rome during 1215. The Fourth Lateran Council provided a capstone for his pontificate. In November 1215, 412 bishops obeyed the pope’s summons and gathered in Rome at the church of St. John Lateran. The Council issued 72 canons. The first canons dealt with heresy, the last with the new crusade. Canon 8 provided the preliminary foundations of a new institution in the battle against heresy, the Inquisition. Canon 18 forbade the participation of clerics in the ceremony of the ordeal. This canon eventually rendered the Germanic modes of proof, ordeal by water, fire, and oaths, ineffective in Christian society. If they had not already done so, secular courts quickly adopted the court procedure of the ecclesiastical court system (except in England). Innocent also paid attention to the spiritual affairs of his flock. Canon 21 dictated that all Christians should confess their sins and receive Communion once a year. Canon 50 changed the limits of consanguinity and affinity for marriage from seven to four degrees. The council promulgated other canons that regulated the lives of the clergy and the administration of churches.

The Fourth Lateran Council was the most important of the medieval period. It was a fitting end to Innocent’s pontificate. The pope died in Perugia less than a year after the Council ended. His new crusade had not been launched. The Church was still struggling with heresy. The young Emperor-elect, Frederick II, was a growing concern. But Innocent left a rich legacy. He had a talent for balancing power and spiritual solicitude. His pontificate changed the papacy forever and provided future popes with conception of papal authority that still inheres in the papal office today. A medieval chronicler, Jacques de Vitry, has left us a vivid account of Innocent’s death. He saw Innocent’s body in Perugia. Innocent lay almost naked on his tomb. His body smelled. Looters had plundered the rich garments in which the pope was to be buried. "brevis sit et vana huius seculi fallax gloria," reflected the chronicler — "brief and empty is the deceptive glory of this world." The chronicler did not know that he was contemplating the fate of the greatest of all medieval popes.


Innocent's correspondence may be found in J.P. Migne, Patrologia Latina, vol. 214-217, the Gesta Innocentii III in vol. 214 and his theological works in vol. 217 (1890-1891). The Austrian Academy of Science has published five volumes of modern, annotated editions of Innocent’s letters (Registers 1, 2, 5.6, 7), edited by a team of scholars: Othmar Hageneder, Anton Haidacher, et al. Publikationen des Historischen Instituts beim Österreichischen Kulturinstitut in Rom (1979-1995). The record of the dispute between Otto of Brunswick and Philip of Hohenstaufen is in Regestum Innocentii III Papae super Negotio Romani Imperii, F. Kempf (ed.) in Miscellanea Historiae Pontificiae, vol. 12 (1947). See also F. Kempf, Papsttum und Kaisertum bei Innocenz III. in Miscellanea Hististoriae Pontificiae, vol. 19 (1954); One of his theological works has been edited and translated: De miseria condicionis humane / Lotario dei Segni (Pope Innocent III), Robert E. Lewis (ed.) (English and Latin) (1978). Lotharii Cardinalis (Innocentii III) De miseria humae conditionis. Michele Maccarrone (ed.) (1955), tr. Donald R. Howard. (1969). For an account of the proceedings of the Fourth Lateran Council, see Stephan Kuttner, and Antonio García y García, "A New Eyewitness Account of the Fourth Lateran Council," Medieval Councils, Decretals, and Collections of Canon Law (1992): 115-178 (Latin text tr. Constantin Fasolt, in Medieval Europe: Readings in Western Civilization, J. Kirschner and K. F. Morrison (eds.) [1986]); the best general biographies of Innocent are Jane E. Sayers, Innocent III: Leader of Europe 1198-1216 (1994) and Helene Tillmann, Papst Innocenz III (1954), tr. Walter Sax (1980); Edward Peters has written an excellent synthesis on Innocent’s early life before he became pope, "Lotario dei Conti di Segni becomes Pope Innocent III: The Man and the Pope," Pope Innocent III and His World, ed. John C. Moore, Brenda Bolton et al. (eds.) (1999): 3-24; there are other valuable essays in this volume. On his early career also see Michele Maccarrone, "Innocenzo III prima del pontificato," Archivio della R. Deputazione romana di Storia patria 9 (1966) 59-134, together with the essays in Pennington, Popes, Canonists, and Texts, 1150-1550 (1993). Other important studies are M. Maccarrone, Chiesa e stato nella dottrina di Papa Innocenzo III, in Lateranum, vol. 6 (1940) Studi su Innocenzo III (1972); For Innocent's relations with England, see C.R. Cheney and W.H. Semple (eds.), Selected Letters of Pope Innocent III Concerning England (1953); Innocent III. The letters of Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) concerning England and Wales: A Calendar with an Appendix of Texts, C. R. Cheney and Mary G. Cheney (eds.)(1967); C. R. Cheney, Pope Innocent III and England (Päpste und Papsttum 9; 1976); for the pastoral side of Innocent’s character see, Brenda Bolton, Innocent III : Studies on Papal Authority and Pastoral Care (1995); Innocent’s theology is examined by Wilhelm Imkamp, Das Kirchenbild Innocenz' III. (1198-1216) (Päpste und Papsttum 22; 1983). Innocent’s vision of the papal office is discussed by Kenneth Pennington, Popes, Canonists, and Texts and Pope and Bishops: The Papal Monarchy in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries (1984). Werner Maleczek has examined the politics of Innocent’s curia in Papst und Kardinalskolleg von 1191 bis 1216: Die Kardinäle unter Coelestin III. und Innocenz III. Publikationen des Historischen Instituts beim österreichischen Kulturisntitut in Rom, Abhandlungen, 6; 1984); Maleczek discovered the only known letter written by Cardinal Lothar,. "Ein Brief des Kardinals Lothar von SS. Sergius und Bacchus (Innocenz III.) an Kaiser Heinrich VI.," Deutsches Archiv für Erforschung des Mittelalters 38: 564-76 (1982). For Innocent’s views on Church and State see Kenneth Pennington, "Pope Innocent III's views on Church and State: A Gloss to Per venerabilem," Law, Church and Society: Essays in Honor of Stephan Kuttner (1977): 49-67 and BrianTierney, "Tria quippe distinguit iudicia . . ., A note on Innocent III's Decretal Per venerabilem," Speculum 37: 48-59 (1964). On the scene at Innocent’s death, see Reinhard Elze, "Sic transit gloria mundi: Zum Tode des Papstes im Mittelater," Deutsches Archiv für Erforschung des Mittelalters 34: 1-18 (1978).


Kenneth Pennington The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.