Home > Biography / Autobiography, Catholicism, Christianity, History > Pope Innocent III (1160/61–1216): To Root Up and to Plant

Pope Innocent III (1160/61–1216): To Root Up and to Plant

  • Series: The Medieval Mediterranean
  • Author: John C. Moore
  • Publisher: B~ (2003)
  • Language: English
  • Pages: 344
  • ISBN-10: 9004129251
  • ISBN-13: 9789004129252
  • Format: PDF

This book is a biography of Pope Innocent III. Avoiding the many scholarly controversies concerning the pope, it offers a concise and balanced portrait of the man and his pontificate. Its chronological organization—unusual in biographies of Innocent—enables the reader to see how the pope was usually dealing with many different subjects at the same time, and that the events in one aspect of his life could influence his views of other topics. This structure, together with the thorough documentation, can provide new insights even for scholars well-versed in his pontificate. Written in clear, jargon-free English, the book also gives the students and general reader a good sense of this pope and of the medieval papacy.

In the 1830s, Friedrich Hurter published a laudatory and lengthy biography of Pope Innocent III organized on strictly chronological lines. Although true to the way Innocent experienced his life, the result was, in its abundant detail, somewhat difficult to follow. Later biographers, perhaps learning from Hurter’s experience, have all organized their studies of Innocent’s life topically. In his six volume biography of Innocent, Achille Luchaire devoted each volume to a separate aspect of the pope’s life: Les Royautés Vassales, La Question d’Orient, and so forth. This approach by Luchaire and later students of Innocent, including the distinguished scholars Jane Sayers1 and Colin Morris, has revealed a great deal about Innocent and his pontificate, but at a cost. Readers can rarely learn from these studies how Innocent experienced his pontificate from day to day and how the events in one area of his experience may have influenced his reaction to events in others. A “sign of God’s favor” in Spain, for example, could play a role in his deciding to try again to organize a great crusade to the Holy Land.

Another common tendency among students of Innocent has been to stress certain of his decretals that were influential in the development of canon law after his death. This approach too has produced a body of very valuable historical literature, but it has also somewhat distorted our understanding of Innocent. A phrase used once or twice by Innocent may be very important to later history without being especially important for understanding Innocent’s mind. He claimed the right to intervene in the conflict between John of England and Philip of France occasione peccati or ratione peccati, by reason of sin, a phrase to assume considerable importance because of its inclusion in canon law. But Innocent used it only on this one occasion and it is not the best entry into his understanding of his office. The same can be said of several of his other decretals.

A similar tendency of scholars has been to quote a rarely used but striking phrase from Innocent’s records as though it characterized his entire papacy. Innocent’s attitudes, or at least his moods, varied over his eighteen-year pontificate. He was not always the “cool and calculating pope” presented by Walter Ullmann.3 He was sometimes over-confident, sometimes discouraged, sometimes elated, frequently ineffectual, and in his uncertainties he searched the developments of his day for signs of divine approval or disapproval.

This book, while not completely abandoning topical emphases, returns to a chronological approach in order to recapture events as Innocent experienced them and to look for their impact on him personally and on the decisions he made. It also looks to phrases, such as those in the front pages of this book, that tell more about Innocent’s fundamental views than do some expressions that were later enshrined in decretal collections. The book is not intended to revisit the many controversies surrounding Innocent and his pontificate but to give as clear and full a picture as possible of Innocent the man and of his life as he experienced it. At the same time, it is intended to be solidly based on evidence. I hope that even well-informed scholars, while testing my assertions against the evidence cited, can learn something from this approach and that general readers will find here a comprehensible and reliable introduction to Pope Innocent III.

In pursuit of this purpose, I have quoted generously from Innocent’s sermons and letters, all the while knowing that there is at present no way of knowing how much of that material was actually written by him, how much was written by others on his behalf. Consequently, we cannot always be sure that a perceptive observation or a neat turn of phrase originated with him. But just as we attribute to modern heads of states opinions presented in speeches that were nearly always drafted by others, I do not hesitate to attribute to Innocent ideas and attitudes that appear frequently in his writing, even though the text may have been first drafted by advisers or curial clerks. Few historians would doubt that Innocent was a strong personality, and few would find it likely that the prevailing themes and attitudes of his papacy were created and maintained by anyone but him.

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