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Innocent III, Saint Francis, and Frederick II in Medieval Christianity

From papal power to religious reform, learn about the significant contributions of Innocent III, Saint Francis, and Frederick II in shaping medieval Christianity.

During the medieval period, three figures played significant roles in shaping Christianity: Innocent III, Saint Francis, and Frederick II. Each of these individuals contributed to the development of the Church in their own unique way, from strengthening papal power to promoting religious reform and fostering cultural exchange. Learn more about their contributions and legacies here.

13th century map/ medieval Christianity

The Role of Innocent III, Saint Francis, and Frederick II in Shaping Medieval Christianity

IN the 13th century the Middle Ages reached a culmination. The synthesis which had been gradually built up since the fall of Rome became as complete as it was capable of being. The fourteenth century brought a dissolution of institutions and philosophies; the fifteenth brought the beginning of those that we still regard as modern. The great men of the thirteenth century were very great: Innocent III, Saint Francis, Frederick II, and Thomas Aquinas are, in their different ways, supreme representatives of their respective types. There were also great achievements not so definitely associated with great names: the Gothic cathedrals of France, the romantic literature of Charlemagne, Arthur, and the Niebelungen, the beginnings of constitutional government in Magna Carta and the House of Commons. The matter that concerns us most directly is the scholastic philosophy, especially as set forth by Aquinas; but I shall leave this for the next article, and attempt, first, to give an outline of the events that did most to form the mental atmosphere of the age.

pope innocent iii history

The Papal Power of Innocent III.

The central figure at the beginning of the century is Pope Innocent III ( 1198-1216), a shrewd politician, a man of infinite vigour, a firm believer in the most extreme claims of the papacy, but not endowed with Christian humility. At his consecration, he preached from the text: "See, I have this day set thee over the nations and over the kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant." He called himself "king of kings, lord of lords, a priest for ever and ever according to the order of Melchizedek." In enforcing this view of himself, he took advantage of every favourable circumstance. In Sicily, which had been conquered by the Emperor Henry VI (d. 1197), who had married Constance, heiress of the Norman kings, the new king was Frederick, only three years old at the time of Innocent's accession. The kingdom was turbulent, and Constance needed the Pope's help. She made him guardian of the infant Frederick, and secured his recognition of her son's rights in Sicily by acknowledging papal superiority. Portugal and Aragon made similar acknowledgements. In England, King John, after vehement resistance, was compelled to yield his kingdom to Innocent and receive it back as a papal fief. 

Pope innocent iii crusade

To some degree, the Venetians got the better of him in the matter of the fourth Crusade. The soldiers of the Cross were to embark at Venice, but there were difficulties in procuring enough ships. No one had enough except the Venetians, and they maintained (for purely commercial reasons) that it would be much better to conquer Constantinople than Jerusalem in any case, it would be a useful stepping-stone, and the Eastern Empire had never been very friendly to Crusaders. It was found necessary to give way to Venice; Constantinople was captured, and a Latin Emperor established. At first Innocent was annoyed; but he reflected that it might now be possible to re-unite the Eastern and Western Churches. (This hope proved vain.) Except in this instance, I do not know of anybody who ever in any degree got the better of Innocent III. He ordered the great Crusade against the Albigenses, which rooted out heresy, happiness, prosperity, and culture from southern France. He deposed Raymond, Count of Toulouse, for lukewarmness about the Crusade, and secured most of the region of the Albigenses for its leader, Simon de Montfort, father of the father of Parliament. He quarrelled with the Emperor Otto, and called upon the Germans to depose him. They did so, and at his suggestion elected Frederick II, now just of age, in his stead. But for his support of Frederick he exacted a terrific price in promises which, however, Frederick was determined to break as soon as possible. 

Innocent III was the first great Pope in whom there was no element of sanctity. The reform of the Church made the hierarchy feel secure as to its moral prestige, and therefore convinced that it need no longer trouble to be holy. The power motive, from his time on, more and more exclusively dominated the papacy, and produced opposition from some religious men even in his day. He codified the canon law so as to increase the power of the Curia; Walther von der Vogelweide called this code "the blackest book that hell ever gave." Although the papacy still had resounding victories to win, the manner of its subsequent decline might already have been foreseen.  Frederick II, who had been the ward of Innocent III, went to Germany in 1212, and by the Pope's help was elected to replace Otto. Innocent did not live to see what a formidable antagonist he had raised up against the papacy.

frederick ii king of prussi

Frederick ii of Prussia biography

Frederick one of the most remarkable rulers known to history had passed his childhood and youth in difficult and adverse circumstances. His father Henry VI (son of Barbarossa) had defeated the Normans of Sicily, and married Constance, heiress to the kingdom. He established a German garrison, which was hated by the Sicilians; but he died in 1197, when Frederick was three years old. Constance thereupon turned against the Germans, and tried to govern without them by the help of the Pope. The Germans were resentful, and Otto tried to conquer Sicily; this was the cause of his quarrel with the Pope. Palermo, where Frederick passed his childhood, was subject to other troubles. There were Muslim revolts; the Pisans and Genoese fought each other and every one else for possession of the island; the important people in Sicily were constantly changing sides, according as one party or the other offered the higher price for treachery. 

Culturally, however, Sicily had great advantages. Muslim, Byzantine, Italian, and, German civilization met and mingled there as nowhere else. Greek and Arabic were still living languages in Sicily. Frederick learnt to speak six languages fluently, and in all six he was witty. He was at home in Arabian philosophy, and had friendly relations with Mohammedans, which scandalized pious Christians. He was a Hohenstaufen, and in Germany could count as a German. But in culture and sentiment he was Italian, with a tincture of Byzantine and Arab. His contemporaries gazed upon him with astonishment gradually turning into horror; they called him "wonder of the world and marvellous innovator." While still alive, he was the subject of myths. He was said to be the author of a book De Tribus Impostoribus the three impostors were Moses, Christ, and Mahomet. This book, which never existed, was attributed, successively, to many enemies of the Church, the last of whom was Spinoza.

The words "Guelf" and "Ghibelline" began to be used at the time of Frederick's contest with the Emperor Otto. They are corruptions of "Welf" and "Waiblingen," the family names of the two contestants. ( Otto's nephew was an ancestor of the British royal family.)

The Secular Rule of Frederick II.

He is known for his secular rule, which challenged the power of the papacy and emphasized the importance of science and education. Frederick II was a patron of the arts and sciences, and he founded universities and libraries throughout his empire. He also promoted religious tolerance and allowed Jews and Muslims to practice their faiths freely. However, his secular approach to governance put him at odds with the Church, and he was excommunicated multiple times during his reign. Despite this, Frederick II's legacy as a secular ruler continues to influence political and intellectual thought to this day.

Frederick ii absolute monarch

Innocent III died in 1216; Otto, whom Frederick had defeated, died in 1218. The new Pope, Honorius III, was at first on good terms with Frederick, but difficulties soon arose. First, Frederick refused to go on Crusade; then he had trouble with the Lombard cities, which in 1226 contracted an offensive and defensive alliance for twenty five years. They hated the Germans; one of their poets wrote fiery verses against them: "Love not the folk of Germany; far, far from you be these mad dogs." This seems to have expressed the general feeling in Lombardy. Frederick wanted to remain in Italy to deal with the cities, but in 1227 Honorius died, and was succeeded by Gregory IX, a fiery ascetic who loved Saint Francis and was beloved by him. (He canonized Saint Francis two years after his death.) Gregory thought nothing else so important as the Crusade, and excommunicated Frederick for not undertaking it. Frederick, who had married the daughter and heiress of the King of Jerusalem, was willing enough to go when he could, and called himself King of Jerusalem. In 1228, while still excommunicate, he went; this made Gregory even more angry than his previously not going, for how could the crusading host be led by a man whom the Pope had banned? Arrived in Palestine, Frederick made friends with the Mohammedans, explained to them that the Christians attached importance to Jerusalem although it was of little strategic value, and succeeded in inducing them peaceably to restore the city to him. This made the Pope still more furious one should fight the infidel, not negotiate with him. However, Frederick was duly crowned in Jerusalem, and no one could deny that he had been successful. Peace between Pope and Emperor was restored in 1230. 

During the few years of peace that followed, the Emperor devoted himself to the affairs of the kingdom of Sicily. By the help of his prime minister, Pietro dera Vigna, he promulgated a new legal code, derived from Roman law, and showing a high level of civilization in his southern dominion; the code was at once translated into Greek, for the benefit of the Greek speaking inhabitants. He founded an important university at Naples. He minted gold coins, called "augustals," the first gold coins in the West for many centuries. He established freer trade, and abolished all internal customs. He even summoned elected representatives of the cities to his council, which, however, had only consultative powers. 

This period of peace ended when Frederick again came into conflict with the Lombard League in 1237; the Pope threw in his lot with them, and again excommunicated the Emperor. From this time until Frederick's death in 1250, the war was practically continuous, growing, on both sides, gradually more bitter, cruel, and treacherous. There were great fluctuations of fortune, and the issue was still undecided when the Emperor died. But those who attempted to be his successors had not his power, and were gradually defeated, leaving Italy divided and the Pope victorious. 

Deaths of popes made little difference in the struggle; each new pope took up his predecessor's policy practically unchanged. Gregory IX died in 1241; in 1243 Innocent IV, a bitter enemy of Frederick, was elected. Louis IX, in spite of his impeccable orthodoxy, tried to moderate the fury of Gregory and Innocent IV, but in vain. Innocent, especially, rejected all overtures from the Emperor, and used all manner of unscrupulous expedients against him. He pronounced him deposed, declared a crusade against him, and excommunicated all who supported him. The friars preached against him, the Muslims rose, there were plots among his prominent nominal supporters. All this made Frederick increasingly cruel; plotters were ferociously punished, and prisoners were deprived of the right eye and the right hand.

At one time during this titanic struggle, Frederick thought of founding a new religion, in which he was to be the Messiah, and his minister Pietro della Vigna was to take the place of Saint Peter. He did not get so far as to make this project public, but wrote about it to della Vigna. Suddenly, however, he became convinced, rightly or wrongly, that Pietro was plotting against him; he blinded him, and exhibited him publicly in a cage; Pietro, however, avoided further suffering by suicide. 

Frederick, in spite of his abilities, could not have succeeded, because the antipapal forces that existed in his time were pious and democratic, whereas his aim was something like a restoration of the pagan Roman Empire. In culture he was enlightened, but politically he was retrograde. His court was oriental; he had a harem with eunuchs. But it was in this court that Italian poetry began; he himself had some merit as a poet. In his conflict with the papacy, he published controversial statements as to the dangers of ecclesiastical absolutism, which would have been applauded in the sixteenth century, but fell flat in his own day. The heretics, who should have been his allies, appeared to him simply rebels, and to please the Pope he persecuted them. The free cities, but for the Emperor, might have opposed the Pope; but so long as Frederick demanded their submission they welcomed the Pope as an ally. Thus, although he was free from the superstitions of his age, and in culture far above other contemporary rulers, his position as Emperor compelled him to oppose all that was politically liberal. He failed inevitably, but of all the failures in history he remains one of the most interesting.

The heretics, against whom Innocent III crusaded, and whom all rulers (including Frederick) persecuted, deserve study, both in themselves and as giving a glimpse of popular feeling, of which, otherwise, hardly a hint appears in the writings of the time.

Cathars in southern France

The most interesting, and also the largest, of the heretical sects were the Cathari, who, in the South of France, are better known as Albigenses. Their doctrines came from Asia by way of the Balkans; they were widely held in Northern Italy, and in the South of France they were held by the great majority, including nobles, who liked the excuse to seize Church lands. The cause of this wide diffusion of heresy was partly disappointment at the failure of the Crusades, but mainly moral disgust at the wealth and wickedness of the clergy.

There was a wide-spread feeling, analogous to later puritanism, in favour of personal holiness; this was associated with a cult of poverty. The Church was rich and largely worldly; very many priests were grossly immoral. The friars brought accusations against the older orders and the parish priests, asserting abuse of the confessional for purposes of seduction; and the enemies of the friars retorted the accusation. There can be no doubt that such charges were largely justified. The more the Church claimed supremacy on religious grounds, the more plain people were shocked by the contrast between profession and performance. The same motives which ultimately led to the Reformation were operative in the thirteenth century. The main difference was that secular rulers were not ready to throw in their lot with the heretics; and this was largely because no existing philosophy could reconcile heresy with the claims of kings to dominion.

Catharism religion

The tenets of the Cathari cannot be known with certainty, as we are entirely dependent on the testimony of their enemies. Moreover ecclesiastics, being well versed in the history of heresy, tended to apply some familiar label, and to attribute to existing sects all the tenets of former ones, often on the basis of some not very close resemblance. Nevertheless, there is a good deal that is almost beyond question. It seems that the Cathari were dualists, and that, like the Gnostics, they considered the Old Testament Jehovah a wicked demiurge, the true God being only revealed in the New Testament. They regarded matter as essentially evil, and believed that for the virtuous there is no resurrection of the body. The wicked, however, will suffer transmigration into the bodies of animals. On this ground they were vegetarians, abstaining even from eggs, cheese, and milk. They ate fish, however, because they believed that fishes are not sexually generated. All sex was abhorrent to them; marriage, some said, is even worse than adultery, because it is continuous and complacent. On the other hand, they saw no objection to suicide. They accepted the New Testament more literally than did the orthodox; they abstained from oaths, and turned the other cheek. The persecutors record a case of a man accused of heresy, who defended himself by saying that he ate meat, lied, swore, and was a good Catholic. 

The stricter precepts of the sect were only to be observed by certain exceptionally holy people called the "perfected"; the others might eat meat and even marry.

It is interesting to trace the genealogy of these doctrines. They came to Italy and France, by way of the Crusaders, from a sect called the Bogomiles in Bulgaria; in 1167, when the Cathari held a council near Toulouse, Bulgarian delegates attended. The Bogomiles, in turn, were the result of a fusion of Manichæans and Paulicians. The Paulicians were an Armenian sect who rejected infant baptism, purgatory, the invocation of saints, and the Trinity; they spread gradually into Thrace, and thence into Bulgaria. The Paulicians were followers of Marcion (ca. A.D. 150), who considered himself to be following Saint Paul in rejecting the Jewish elements in Christianity, and who had some affinity with the Gnostics without being one of them.

Catharism heresy

 The only other popular heresy that  consider is that of the Waldenses. These were the followers of Peter Waldo, an enthusiast who, in 1170, started a "crusade" for observance of the law of Christ. He gave all his goods to the poor, and founded a society called the "Poor Men of Lyons," who practised poverty and a strictly virtuous life. At first they had papal approval, but they inveighed somewhat too forcibly against the immorality of the clergy, and were condemned by the Council of Verona in 1184. Thereupon they decided that every good man is competent to preach and expound the Scriptures; they appointed their own ministers, and dispensed with the services of the Catholic priesthood. They spread to Lombardy, and to Bohemia, where they paved the way for the Hussites. In the Albigensian persecution, which affected them also, many fled to Piedmont; it was their persecution in Piedmont in Milton's time that occasioned his sonnet "Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints." They survive to this day in remote Alpine valleys and in the United States. 

All this heresy alarmed the Church, and vigorous measures were taken to suppress it. Innocent III considered that heretics deserved death, being guilty of treason to Christ. He called upon the King of France to embark upon a Crusade against the Albigenses, which was done in 1209. It was conducted with incredible ferocity; after the taking of Carcassonne, especially, there was an appalling massacre. The ferreting out of heresy had been the business of the bishops, but it became too onerous to be performed by men who had other duties, and in 1233 Gregory IX founded the Inquisition, to take over this part of the work of the episcopate. After 1254, those accused by the Inquisition were not allowed counsel. If condemned, their property was confiscated in France, to the crown. When an accused person was found guilty, he was handed over to the secular arm with a prayer that his life might be spared; but if the secular authorities failed to burn him, they were liable to be themselves brought before the Inquisition. It dealt not only with heresy in the ordinary sense, but with sorcery and witchcraft. In Spain, it was mainly directed against crypto-Jews. Its work was performed mainly by Dominicans and Franciscans. It never penetrated to Scandinavia or England, but the English were quite ready to make use of it against Joan of Arc. On the whole, it was very successful; at the outset, it completely stamped out the Albigensian heresy.

The Church, in the early thirteenth century, was in danger of a revolt scarcely less formidable than that of the sixteenth. From this it was saved, very largely, by the rise of the mendicant orders; Saint Francis and Saint Dominic did much more for orthodoxy than was done by even the most vigorous popes. 

st francis of assisi short stor/ medieval Christianity

St Francis of Assisi life story summary

Saint Francis of Assisi ( 1181 or 1182-1226) was one of the most lovable men known to history. He was of a well-to-do family, and in his youth was not averse to ordinary gaieties. But one day, as he was riding by a leper, a sudden impulse of pity led him to dismount and kiss the man. Soon afterwards, he decided to forgo all worldly goods, and devote his life to preaching and good works. His father, a respectable business man, was furious, but could not deter him. He soon gathered a band of followers, all vowed to complete poverty. At first, the Church viewed the movement with some suspicion; it seemed too like the "Poor Men of Lyons." The first missionaries whom Saint Francis sent to distant places were taken for heretics, because they practised poverty instead of (like the monks) only taking a vow which no one regarded as serious.

But Innocent III was shrewd enough to see the value of the movement, if it could be kept within the bounds of orthodoxy, and in 1209 or 1210 he gave recognition to the new order. Gregory IX, who was a personal friend of Saint Francis, continued to favour him, while imposing certain rules which were irksome to the saint's enthusiastic and anarchic impulses. Francis wished to interpret the vow of poverty in the strictest possible way; he objected to houses or churches for his followers. They were to beg their bread, and to have no lodging but what chance hospitality provided. In 1219, he travelled to the East and preached before the sultan, who received him courteously but remained a Mohammedan. On his return, he found that the Franciscans had built themselves a house; he was deeply pained, but the Pope induced or compelled him to give way. After his death, Gregory canonized him but softened his rule in the article of poverty.

what is St Francis of Assisi known for ?

In the matter of saintliness, Francis has had equals; what makes him unique among saints is his spontaneous happiness, his universal love, and his gifts as a poet. His goodness appears always devoid of effort, as though it had no dross to overcome. He loved all living things, not only as a Christian or a benevolent man, but as a poet. His hymn to the sun, written shortly before his death, might almost have been written by Akhnaton the sun-worshipper, but not quite-Christianity informs it, though not very obviously. He felt a duty to lepers, for their sake, not for his; unlike most Christian saints, he was more interested in the happiness of others than in his own salvation. He never showed any feeling of superiority, even to the humblest or most wicked. Thomas of Celano said of him that he was more than a saint among saints; among sinners he was one of themselves.

The Religious Reforms of Saint Francis.

Saint Francis of Assisi is known for his radical approach to Christianity, which emphasized poverty, humility, and service to others. He founded the Franciscan Order, which rejected the wealth and power of the Church and instead focused on living a simple, humble life. Saint Francis also played a key role in the development of the Nativity scene, which has become a popular Christmas tradition. His legacy continues to inspire Christians around the world to live a life of service and compassion.

If Satan existed, the future of the order founded by Saint Francis would afford him the most exquisite gratification. The saint's immediate successor as head of the order, Brother Elias, wallowed in luxury, and allowed a complete abandonment of poverty. The chief work of the Franciscans in the years immediately following the death of their founder was as recruiting sergeants in the bitter and bloody wars of Guelfs and Ghibellines. The Inquisition, founded seven years after his death, was, in several countries, chiefly conducted by Franciscans. A small minority, called the Spirituals, remained true to his teaching; many of these were burnt by the Inquisition for heresy. These men held that Christ and the Apostles owned no property, not even the clothes they wore; this opinion was condemned as heretical in 1323 by John XXII. The net result of Saint Francis's life was to create yet one more wealthy and corrupt order, to strengthen the hierarchy, and to facilitate the persecution of all who excelled in moral earnestness or freedom of thought. In view of his own aims and character, it is impossible to imagine any more bitterly ironical outcome.

saint Dominic / medieval Christianity

Who is saint Dominic

Saint Dominic ( 1170-1221) is much less interesting than Saint Francis. He was a Castilian, and had, like Loyola, a fanatical devotion to orthodoxy. His main purpose was to combat heresy, and he adopted poverty as a means to this end. He was present throughout the Albigensian war, though he is said to have deplored some of its more extreme atrocities. The Dominican Order was founded in 1215 by Innocent III, and won quick success. The only human trait known to me in Saint Dominic is his confession to Jordan of Saxony that he liked talking to young women better than to old ones. In 1242, the order solemnly decreed that this passage should be deleted from Jordan's life of the founder. 

What was St Dominic known for ? 

The Dominicans were even more active than the Franciscans in the work of the Inquisition. They performed, however, a valuable service to mankind by their devotion to learning. This was no part of Saint Dominic's intention; he had decreed that his friars were "not to learn secular sciences or liberal arts except by dispensation." This rule was abrogated in 1259, after which date everything was done to make a studious life easy for Dominicans. Manual labour was no part of their duties, and the hours of devotion were shortened to give them more time for study. They devoted themselves to reconciling Aristotle and Christ; Alberrus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, both Dominicans, accomplished this task as well as it is capable of being accomplished. The authority of Thomas Aquinas was so overwhelming that subsequent Dominicans did not achieve much in philosophy; though Francis, even more than Dominic, had disliked learning, the greatest names in the immediately following period are Franciscan: Roger Bacon, Duns Scotus, and William of Occam were all Franciscans. 

The Impact of These Figures on Medieval Christianity.

Innocent III, Saint Francis, and Frederick II all played significant roles in shaping medieval Christianity. Innocent III strengthened papal power and asserted the Church's authority over secular rulers. Saint Francis founded the Franciscan order, which emphasized poverty and simplicity in religious life. And Frederick II challenged the power of the papacy and promoted secular rule, while also promoting religious tolerance. Together, these figures helped shape the religious and political landscape of medieval Europe.

The Legacy of Their Contributions Today.

The contributions of Innocent III, Saint Francis, and Frederick II continue to impact Christianity today. The papal power and authority asserted by Innocent III set the stage for the centralized power of the Catholic Church. The Franciscan order founded by Saint Francis still exists and continues to emphasize simplicity and service to the poor. And Frederick II's promotion of religious tolerance paved the way for modern ideas of religious freedom. These figures remain important historical figures in the development of Christianity and continue to influence religious and political thought today.


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