Pope Alexander III had strengthened the Church’s hand in Europe, but Christianity’s travails in the Holy Land only continued after his death in 1181. For just beyond the borders of the Crusader States, history’s next great Muslim empire was taking shape under a Kurdish general named Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub — or, as the Europeans would come to call him, simply Saladin. By 1185, Saladin controlled Egypt, Syria, and a good chunk of the Arabian Peninsula, including Islam’s holy city of Mecca. He was increasingly speaking of himself as a unifier of Muslims, and speaking of his empire as the successor to the great caliphates of Islam’s earliest years, when the infighting had been minimal and the new faith had looked to be on its way to conquering the entire world in the name of the Prophet Mohammad and his God. Saladin spoke of jihad — holy war — against the Crusader States, those infidel enclaves, “swarming with pigs and crosses,” that besmirched formerly Muslim lands. In the summer of 1187, he launched an attack on them.
Whatever else one can say about him — and the historiographies of both the Western and Muslim worlds are rife with interpretations — Saladin was most definitely a man to be reckoned with. The Crusader States, alas, had no comparable figure. The current ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem was a Frenchman named Guy I, whose talents lay chiefly in the direction of courtly intrigue. “If Guy is a king,” said his own brother about him, “I am worthy to be a god.”
Nonetheless, this feckless character led an army out to meet Saladin, carrying in its vanguard the precious fragment of the cross of the crucifixion that had been found in Jerusalem. Unfortunately, mystic relics proved to be no adequate substitute for sound tactics. Saladin led the Christians on a merry goose chase that took them everywhere except close to the few wells that existed out here in the scorching desert; these he was careful to keep under his own control. When he finally deigned to join battle, on July 4, 1187, the Europeans in their heavy armor were already half dead from heat and thirst. His soldiers proceeded to knock them over like so many dominoes. King Guy surrendered as soon as he was promised a drink of water. Recognizing that such an inconsequential personality could pose little threat to his plans, Saladin opted to let him live. As for the fragment of the cross of whose power the Christians had been so convinced: it disappears from history after this point, after being quite possibly burned on some unwitting Muslim solders’ campfire.
Saladin gave the city of Jerusalem itself a chance to surrender, swearing to the people there that he would treat them as humanely as he had treated their king. “I believe,” he said, “that Jerusalem is the home of God, as you also believe, and I will not willingly lay siege to it or put it to assault.” But he had no choice but to do so after his ultimatum was rejected by the city’s untrusting inhabitants. When the siege that followed was just twelve days old, the Christians reconsidered, opening their gates to the Muslims after all. Even now, Saladin did not let his men run amok in the way the last conquerors of Jerusalem had done. He first accepted ransoms from those of his captives who could pay, and in the end freed everyone who was willing to swear never to take up arms against him again. They scurried back to the remaining Crusader State strongholds of Tripoli and Antioch, where the helpful clergy told them exactly what they wanted to hear: that their pact with the heathen emperor carried no weight whatsoever with the one true God.
So, they sent word back to Europe: another Crusade was necessary to retake Jerusalem, they told the people there. This message the current pope, whose name was Clement III — no relation to the recent antipope who had gone by that same name — duly amplified. With the Age of Chivalry at its height and the Song of Roland and the tales of King Arthur in the air, the Europeans decided to take no chances, decided to send proper armies eastward instead of mobs of peasants. No fewer than three European monarchs elected to lead armies personally to the Holy Land: Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I, the aging bête noir of Pope Alexander III; King Philip II of France, whose overweening sense of his own grandeur had led to his adoption of the sobriquet “Augustus” in honor of the first ancient Roman emperor; and King Richard I of England, who was destined to go down in history as the epitome of the Medieval warrior king under the name of Richard the Lionheart. He even bore a sword called Excalibur, which he believed was the same one that had been wielded by King Arthur.
Frederick elected to march overland in the footsteps of the First and Second Crusaders, while Philip and Richard sailed in ships, bickering all the while in that timeless tradition of the French and the English. It didn’t go well for poor Frederick: the old man somehow managed to drown in a waist-deep river on the road between Constantinople and the Holy Land. The rest of his army wasn’t quite sure what to do after that, but most of it finally straggled onward with the monarch’s rapidly ripening body in tow. (All they had to preserve it in was vinegar.) Frederick’s odoriferous funeral, once it belatedly took place in Antioch, was presumably not terribly pleasant for the attendees. His headless army blundered around a bit more afterward, then went home again.
The French and the English had more luck. Richard stopped off to conquer the island of Cyprus on his way to the Holy Land, giving it to the recently ransomed Guy I of Jerusalem as an act of charity from one king to another. Then he joined Philip in attacking the coastal city of Acre, which had fallen to the Muslims just before Jerusalem. Acre was surrendered in the summer of 1191, giving the Crusaders a base from which to continue the campaign. Philip, however, returned to France at this point, having fallen ill and being worried about the state of his kingdom back home. So, the issue was left to be settled by Richard and Saladin alone, mano a mano.
The campaign that followed was of the sort that is most beloved by a certain species of military historian, a duel between two equally brave, shrewd, and sporting gentlemen; the desert war waged by Rommel and Montgomery in the 1940s springs to mind as a point of comparison. Just as in that case, wishful thinking about “honorable” war has probably run away with the reality when it comes to Richard and Saladin. It does appear, however, that the two were fairly equally matched, and did genuinely respect one another’s talents. In the end, neither could force an outcome; Richard couldn’t find a way to take back Jerusalem, and Saladin couldn’t manage to take back Acre. On September 2, 1192, the monarchs signed a truce which froze the status quo for the time being. Legend says that Richard promised he would return in due course to continue the sport of kings, whereupon Saladin politely replied that, if he must lose Jerusalem someday, he hoped it would be to so worthy an opponent as Richard.
But as it happened, the war between the two would never be rejoined. Saladin died at age 55 the following year, while Richard wandered straight into a hornet’s nest of intrigue masterminded by his brother John — the wicked King John of Robin Hood fame. It resulted in him being imprisoned far from England for a year and a half. He eventually did make it home and make it back onto his throne, but he never made good on his promise to return to the Holy Land. He died in 1199 at just 41 years of age, whereupon the wily John, having escaped punishment for his earlier machinations, got his fondest wish at last, becoming the legitimate king of England. The Middle Ages were strange times in many ways.
In the big picture, this Third Crusade had been neither a sweeping success like the first one nor so dismal a failure as the second. Had the kings of Europe not come to their rescue, the Crusader States would most likely all have fallen to Saladin’s armies in relatively short order. As it was, the Europeans still had a toehold in the Holy Land, even if they had lost Jerusalem, the conquest of which was the principal reason they had come there in the first place.
As you may have gathered by now, the popes from around the time of the Third Crusade were rather inconsequential entities. But one destined to be very consequential indeed appeared on the scene in 1198.
Aptly described by Dan Jones as “long of face and razor-sharp of mind,” Pope Innocent III didn’t fit the mold of a demagogue in private. He was a small man, wiry in body and well-formed in countenance, who smiled often and was given to riddles, puns, and other forms of wordplay. He sang and wrote poetry, and was not without reservoirs of kindness and patience for those he knew and liked best. Yet when he put on the mantle of his office and went forth to speak to the world, he left no doubt that he expected to be treated as almost a divinity unto himself, the one and only intermediary between the mortals of this earth and God, their savior in Heaven. He regarded himself as almost literally the reincarnation of Peter. “Others are called to the role of caring,” he said with reference to all of the other bishops and priests of the Church, “but only Peter is raised to the fullness of power.” A pope was “the servant who is set over the household, truly the vicar of Jesus Christ,” a being “lower than God but higher than man: one who judges all, and is judged by no one.” He hardly bothered grounding his authority in any mere worldly document such as the Donation of Constantine. His power was God- rather than emperor-granted: “The Lord left to Peter the government not only of the Church but of the whole world.” The Christian kings of Europe might also enjoy the favor of God in their way, but they were no better than the moon in the firmament; the pope, by contrast, was the sun. It was a grandiose conception of his role, to say the least. And yet he would largely succeed in the difficult mission of convincing all of Western Christendom to see him as he saw himself.
Innocent was born as Lotario dei Conti near Rome in 1161. He was a nobleman, the son of a count, with all the privileges that went with it. He studied philosophy, theology, and law in Paris and Bologna. He first became known not through his preaching — he actually never served as a priest — but rather through his learned yet accessible tracts, which bore titles like Mysteries of the Mass and Misery of the Human Condition. (An extraordinary 700 hand-copied examples of the latter have survived down to today, a testament to its huge popularity during the Middle Ages.) Despite holding only the rank of deacon — the lowest order of the clergy — he was selected as pope at the crazily young age of just 37, on the basis of his writings and, no doubt, the wealth and influence of his family. He would go on to expend every iota of his youthful energy on the task of strengthening the Church. Not only would he launch yet another Crusade — entirely on his own recognizance this time, without waiting for any plea out of the East — but he would broaden the very definition of Christian holy war, drawing into its orbit another word than “Crusade,” one with an even more checkered historical reputation: “Inquisition.” He would leave the Church more powerful than it had ever been before, but also crueler than it had ever been before, in both word and deed.
The Fourth Crusade, which Innocent started pushing for from the very instant he became pope, wasn’t an easy sell. The kings of Europe felt they had wasted enough blood and treasure in those faraway lands. The newly minted King John of England, whose position at home was far from secure, flatly refused to countenance another expensive trip to the Holy Land. Meanwhile there was no universally recognized Holy Roman Emperor, thanks to a dispute over the succession that wouldn’t be resolved for another decade. King Philip II of France tried to beg off by pleading a lack of sufficient ships to duplicate the voyage he had once taken with Richard the Lionheart. Sensing an opening here, Innocent called his bluff by negotiating a deal with the Republic of Venice, an emerging naval powerhouse which tended to think of financial profit first, second, third, and last. The Venetians would build a fleet capable of bearing 4500 knights with their horses and squires and 20,000 ordinary infantrymen to the Holy Land, then sell it to the French. By the summer of 1202, the fleet was ready to go. But King Philip reneged on the deal: he sent to Venice an army only a third of the size he had pledged, along with only half the gold he had promised.
The latter was a bigger problem for the bustling city of seafarers than the former. The Venetians had all but bankrupted themselves building Philip’s fleet; they needed a return on their investment. The current doge of Venice — the republic’s supreme leader — was a 95-year-old man named Enrico Dandolo. Not knowing what else to do, he announced that he would take a Crusader’s vow himself and lead the fleet forth, with those Frenchmen who had turned up and those Venetians who now wished to join the cause aboard.
Some would later say that the Crusader’s vow had been a ruse from the start, that the shrewd old Dandolo made a deal with the Muslims in the Holy Land not to attack them before he ever left Venice. At any rate, he now made a beeline not for the Holy Land but for the city of Zadar in Croatia, another wealthy Christian trading port, one with which Venice had recently been embroiled in a series of disputes. The ostensible Crusaders for Christ sailed into the harbor of Zadar, knocked down the gates with their catapults, and commenced emptying the city’s warehouses into their ships’ holds. They then carried their plunder back to Venice, while Pope Innocent, who hadn’t intended his Crusade to go anything like this, raged and threatened them all with excommunication. Doge Dandolo begged him for absolution instead, promising future sorties against worthier targets. Innocent gave it, ordering the Crusaders to return the booty they had stolen. They thanked him and quietly kept most of it. Venice’s financial crisis had been averted.
But Doge Dandolo was beginning to enjoy his new fleet and army. Thinking about where to take them next, he hit upon an audacious target indeed. Why not plunder Constantinople? The current Byzantine emperor, whose name was Alexios III, had gained the throne by deposing, blinding, and imprisoning the previous emperor, his own older brother. Now the son of the deposed emperor, a callow youth who confusingly also bore the name of Alexios, was hiding out in Venice. Doge Dandolo decided to take him along, in order to be able to claim the righteous cause of deposing the deposer. Surely the pope wouldn’t mind. After all, the Byzantine Christians were out of communion with the Catholic Church, weren’t really Christians at all according to Church doctrine. Attacking them ought to be sanctioned by God in the same way that attacking Muslims and all other heathens was.
The fleet sailed up to the walls of Constantinople on June 24, 1203. A Frenchman named Villehardouin who traveled with it tells of the awe the old imperial capital could still inspire.
You may be assured that those who had never seen Constantinople opened wide eyes now, for they could not believe that so rich a city could be in the whole world, when they saw her lofty walls and the stately towers wherewith she was encompassed, and these stately palaces and lofty churches, so many in number as no man might believe who had not seen them, and the length and breadth of this town which was sovereign over all others [in the Byzantine Empire]. And know that there was no man among us so bold but that his flesh crept at the sight. And therein was no marvel, for never did any men undertake so great a business as this assault of ours, since the beginning of the world.
Despite its outer splendor, the Byzantine Empire was a decrepit shell of itself this far into its existence, too hollowed out by infighting to have any chance of fending off a concerted seaborne attack like this one on its capital. The Crusaders ran Alexios III off in short order, replacing him with their own young client, who now took the title of Emperor Alexios IV. Then they got down to their real business, which few other than themselves would ever have the gall to describe as “great.” The Venetians had been trading with Constantinople for many years; they knew the city well, including the locations of most of its wealth. Now, they set about carrying off as much of it as they could. Thinking they would look better in their own city’s central square, they took the four 900-year-old bronze horses that watched over Constantinople, along with nine tenths of the contents of the imperial capital’s treasury. They smashed the enormous jewel-encrusted altar of Hagia Sophia to pieces and carried it away in their pockets. When they got bored with looting, they started burning. Among the victims of their arson was a library containing a complete collection of the works of the ancient Athenian playwrights Sophocles and Euripides; thanks to these Crusaders, we are able to read only a minority of the two renowned writers’ output today.
The hapless Alexios IV soon got his throat cut under mysterious circumstances, whereupon the Crusaders declared Constantinople to be the capital of a new Latin Empire, with a Frenchman named Baldwin as its first emperor. And so we have come to yet another of history’s hidden linchpins, when Catholicism seemed on the verge of healing the schism of 1054 by shabby force of arms, making the pope in Rome the one and only patriarch of all Christians everywhere. After being initially disposed to condemn these Crusaders of his who had gone so badly off track for a second time, Innocent III decided that tempting prospect was sufficient reason to desist with more threats of excommunication against them. He sent high-ranking clergy to Constantinople instead, to commence the dominion of the Catholic God over the East as well as the West.
In the end, though, the would-be Latin Empire, and with it the prospects of Catholicism in the East, would never overcome the ignominy of its origin story. Even some in the West confessed to finding the unprovoked sacking and looting of Constantinople “outrageous” and “shameful.” Understandably embittered, the remnants of the Byzantine Empire held on as rump states in the hinterlands, clinging that much tighter to their incarnation of Christianity as they did so, praying for the return of their old capital — a prayer which would be granted within barely 50 years, as it happened.
For his part, Pope Innocent seems to have taken an important lesson away from his Fourth Crusade, which never did make it anywhere near Jerusalem: that Crusading could take many different forms and could be directed against many different enemies. Through the remainder of his life, he used the word again and again, but never again in reference to an attack on Jerusalem. He instead encouraged the Christians close to the Muslim kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula to take up the Crusading mantle. This they did, inflicting a devastating defeat on the Muslims at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212, an event which marked the beginning of the end of this singular enclave of Islam in Europe. By the end of the thirteenth century, the only enclave of Islam left in Europe would be Granada, at the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula.
Likewise, Innocent told the Christian kings of Scandinavia to launch a Crusade against the last remnants of Nordic paganism in their midst. And this they did, bringing the final curtain down on the old Viking religion of Thor and Valhalla. This Crusade was different from earlier ones not only in terms of the people it was directed against but also in terms of its agenda: these Crusaders sought to conquer not just territory but souls for Christ. The pagans of Scandinavia were told that they could continue to live where they were in peace if they only abandoned their old faith and pledged themselves to the Catholic God.
It made a stark contrast with the way Christianity had been spread during the first millennium of its existence: by unarmed missionaries, self-declared lambs of Christ who were ready and willing to go to the slaughter of martyrdom if need be. Innocent’s vision of missionary work was something else entirely, a job for lions of God who were armed to the teeth, who offered those whom they attempted to “persuade” the simple choice of conversion or death. This really was something new under the sun; even those celebrated First Crusaders who had taken Jerusalem once upon a time had done it to recapture the holy city for those of their own faith, not to forcibly convert those Muslims and Jews who already lived there. (Killing them without offering them a choice was, of course, another matter…) After Innocent, though, conversion by force was to be one of the Church’s sanctioned methods of spreading the word of God.
But Innocent was most ruthless of all against those already inside the closed ranks of Catholic Christendom who dared to question his own authority to even the slightest degree. To them, he applied the chilling words of the Book of Deuteronomy. (Innocent was more of an Old than a New Testament sort of pope.)
If there arise among you a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams, and giveth thee a sign or a wonder… Thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams… And that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams, shall be put to death: because he hath spoken to turn you away from the Lord your God… If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly… Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him: But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hands of all the people. And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die…
With his expansive view of papal authority, Innocent felt that the name and word of the pope were virtually interchangeable with those of God in passages like the one above. The most tragic victims of his wrath against unsanctioned interpretations of Christianity were the members of a sect who called themselves the Cathars, who lived largely in southern France — i.e., disconcertingly close to Rome itself.
The Cathars were a puritanical sect of Christians, rejecting wealth and all other worldly pleasures. In this, they were not so different from a number of Catholic monastic orders, such as the Franciscans, who were just getting their start at this time under Saint Francis of Assisi. They got into trouble, however, when their intensive readings of the Gospels caused them to question the many towering institutional edifices which the Catholic Church had built upon some decidedly narrow and tenuous scriptural foundations. For example, they came to reject the Eucharist as much ado about a passing metaphor, even dared to ask whether Jesus had really intended to create a singular, all-powerful, intensely bureaucratic Church when he had called Peter his “rock.” To help others engage with these questions and many others like them, they began translating parts of the Gospels from Latin into the French spoken by the common people around them. For obvious reasons, Innocent thought the Cathars were extremely dangerous to the Church, decided that something simply had to be done about them. He wrote to King Philip II that “wounds that do not respond to the healing of poultices must be lanced with a blade,” even as he declared this nest of heretics in the bosom of Christendom to be more of a threat to the true faith than all the Muslims in the world.
For reasons of his own, Philip was happy to take up the cause: he had already been looking to reassert his control over the southern half of his kingdom, which had been growing restive of late under high taxation. He hired a fanatical veteran of the Fourth Crusade named Simon de Montfort to cut a bloody swath through his realm. Beginning in 1209, de Montfort engaged in “a killing that will be talked of till the end of the world,” as one contemporary account puts it. The violence employed against the Cathars was so drastic that even many orthodox Catholics in the south took up arms against the northern army. Innocent’s French legate Arnaud Amalric was unperturbed: just kill them all, he purportedly said, “for God knows his own.” The religious scouring degenerated into a full-fledged civil war. At the same time, it marked the first manifestation of a new Age of Inquisition, complete with many of its all too familiar tropes: “heretics” burned at stakes, “witches” thrown down wells, etc. The Cathars were gradually and tortuously annihilated, setting an ominous precedent for Europe’s future.
In 1215, seventeen years into his very eventful papacy, Innocent’s career reached its apex, when he called the Fourth Council of the Lateran. Arguably the most important single Church gathering in terms of practical outcomes since the Council of Nicea of 325, it was attended by over 1500 high-ranking clergymen. Over the council’s course, the attendees codified a raft of theory and practice that has remained at the heart of Catholicism to this day; for example, they presented the first detailed explication of the full doctrine of transubstantiation as we know it today. By Church law, they said, the faithful must attend Mass at least once per year to remain Christians in the eyes of God and thus to have any chance of getting into Heaven, and they must confess their sins to an ordained priest just before attending Mass so as to do so in as pure a state as possible. Speaking of which: the rite of Confession too — another one never mentioned in the Bible — was described in careful detail, complete with the expectations and strictures that applied to both the layperson and the priest.
More forebodingly, the Fourth Lateran Council was also the place where the rules for Inquisition were laid out. It introduced the new holy ministry of “Inquisitors,” a sort of spiritual police force charged with investigating and if necessary punishing those suspected of heresy throughout Christendom. The Inquisitors were above any mere secular authority: the rulers of all lands were ordered to follow their instructions absolutely, charged “to exterminate, from the lands subject to their obedience, all heretics who have been marked out by the Church for due punishment.” Any worldly leader who neglected this sacred duty deserved and could expect excommunication, deposition, and very probably execution. The council also ordered that all Jews and Muslims in places where those faiths were tolerated at all must wear an identifying mark of some sort on their clothing, an idea ironically borrowed from Muslim rulers of earlier centuries. (The parallels with the Star of David that Jews were forced to wear under the Nazis can hardly be overlooked by any modern reader…)
When not laying down much of the theory and practice that still mark the Catholic Church today and setting the stage for Inquisitions across Europe, the Fourth Lateran Council also found time to promote the cause of Crusades to foreign lands. With the Fourth Crusade having gone freelance, Pope Innocent III called for a Fifth Crusade to another novel target: Egypt, the rich but soft underbelly of the empire Saladin had left behind. He thought it ought to be possible to bite off a substantial piece of Egypt, then trade it back to Sultan Al-Kamil — the inheritor of Saladin’s empire — in return for Jerusalem. King Andrew II of Hungary promised to lead the expedition.
But Innocent never saw his Fifth Crusade become a reality: he died the year after the Fourth Lateran Council, his youthful vigor having been ground to dust by his relentless drive to standardize religious practice throughout Christendom and establish the Church’s unassailable authority over every aspect of life. Even in his own time, some of those inside the Church looked upon his interpretation of the papacy’s role and powers with mixed feelings; some whispered that he was “too much king, too little priest.” Perhaps tellingly, the Church has never canonized him despite his being one of the most important popes in all of history.
Indeed, Pope Innocent III will cast a long shadow over all of the pages of our story that are still to come. “When he died,” writes Will Durant, “the Church had reached a height of organization, splendor, repute, and power that she had never known before, and would only rarely and briefly know again.” His would become the model papacy which advocates of a supremely authoritative, absolutely sovereign Church would perpetually try to recreate, even as others — some of them with much in common with the Cathars whom he had so brutally persecuted — would see him as the antithesis of what Christianity ought to be, and would come in time to kick against everything he represented.
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(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)