Pope Innocent III and the Apogee of Crusading Part II


The Murder of Peter of Castelnau 1208

The so-called Albigensian Crusade (1209–1229) against the Cathar heretics in southern France was precipitated by the assassination of the papal legate Peter of Castelnau, which led Innocent III to grant an indulgence to those who would fight against the Cathars (also known as Albigensians) and their supporters, who he believed were responsible for this act. For all practical purposes this meant a crusade against the lands of the great nobles of the Languedoc. Yet it had only limited success and was subordinated to the great crusade that Innocent began planning in 1213. Only later, when the French monarchy became involved, did the Albigensian Crusade achieve significant gains. The pope played an important role in the Albigensian Crusade, as he did in supporting King Alfonso VI of Castile and in the preparations leading up to the great victory against the Moors at Las Navas de Tolosa (1212). But to some extent Innocent was himself being drawn along by a deep swelling of popular feeling for the crusade to the East, a feeling that manifested itself in 1212 in the so-called Children’s Crusade.

The term Children’s Crusade is not entirely accurate, since many of those who took part in it were adults. Yet at least some of the leaders were youths, and many were drawn from the rural classes of peasants and shepherds. It was not a unified movement, but some of the groups may have been linked by some form of communication. A German group crossed the Alps into northern Italy and supposedly arrived in Rome, where they were received by Innocent III and encouraged to return home. A French group moved to Paris, where King Philip II and members of the clergy persuaded the adults to devote themselves to the Albigensian Crusade. In one account of the crusade, a group of children went to Marseilles, where they were promised passage to North Africa by Genoese merchants, only to be sold into slavery. Yet this account contains elements that raise serious doubts as to its veracity; it may in fact have been a piece of propaganda directed against the prominent merchants whose names were given in this tale.

The Children’s Crusade may have been a reaction on the part of the young and the frustrated to the failure of the Fourth Crusade. What is more important is that it provides evidence that understanding of the crusade movement and support for it reached down to the lowest levels of society. There was a much broader body of opinion than we might expect in a society that lacked efficient means of communication. The spoken word, especially sermons but also vernacular stories and songs, was an important source of information as well as a barometer of popular attitudes.

Innocent was probably planning a new crusade to the East about the time that the Children’s Crusade was taking place. He started to make formal preparations in 1213. In April he issued one of the most important crusade letters to date, known as Quia maior (from the first two words of its Latin text). What is immediately evident is that Innocent had learned much from his previous experience. He was allowing two years for preparation before he would actually proclaim the crusade, which he planned to do at the Fourth Lateran Council, summoned for November 1215. Quia maior set forth detailed instructions for the preaching of the crusade. Innocent also established a network of crusade preachers, drawing on previous knowledge and experience. Several, including James of Vitry and Oliver of Paderborn, had been key figures in the preaching of the Albigensian Crusade. The pope ordered that the crusade should be preached to all, including women, regardless of their military suitability. Those not able to fulfill their vows in person might have them commuted for a money payment. Fund-raising was to begin immediately.

Innocent gave priority to this new crusade over the crusade against the Moors in Iberia or that against the Cathar heretics. He appointed legates with the task of resolving outstanding conflicts among European rulers, especially that between Philip II of France and John of England and their respective allies. He gave his own support to the young Frederick of Sicily to be crowned as king of Germany (as Frederick II) in place of Otto IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, whose policies in Italy had disappointed him. While some have suggested that Innocent did not want royal participation, this is an inference drawn from the fact that he did not at this time undertake final plans for the leadership of the crusade. He did, however, encourage Frederick to take the crusade vow in 1215. Frederick’s ally Philip of France, who did not take the crusade vow, played a key role in the selection of John of Brienne as the husband of Maria la Marquise, the heiress to the kingdom of Jerusalem.

The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) was the greatest meeting of its kind in the Middle Ages. More than 400 bishops and 800 heads of religious houses took part. Through Cardinal Pelagius of Albano, his legate to the East, Innocent had also tried to secure participation from the Eastern churches, but this effort was largely unsuccessful. There were representatives of the crowned heads of Europe. In addition to the reform decrees of the council, which were to have a lasting impact not only on the church but on European society as a whole, the important crusade appendix Ad liberandam provided for a crusade tax approved by the council and detailed regulations of virtually all aspects of the crusade, which was scheduled to depart on 1 June 1217. Drawing on themes he had already developed in Quia maior, Innocent provided a contemporary theology of the crusade, grounded in the theology of the cross. But the pope died on 16 July 1216.

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