The Innocent III Abroad
In 1198, Lotario dei Conti di Segni, a thirty-seven-year-old Roman nobleman, became the Pontiff of Latin Christendom. He took the name of Innocent III. Not since Gregory VII, the man who had launched the eleventh century reform of the Church and freed it from subservience to secular rulers, had such a brilliant and energetic leader worn the papal tiara. To Innocent's mind, he had been awarded "not only the universal church but the whole world to govern." Not surprisingly, given this view, his pontificate proved dangerous for anyone who disagreed with him.

Like many of his predecessors, Innocent wanted to make over the world through crusade; unlike them, he possessed the intellectual, diplomatic, and organizational strengths to give it a try. His reign, from 1198 to 1216, sparked off a series of tumultuous events around the Mediterranean, many of them yielding unwonted results --- what today is termed collateral damage. The most resounding, in the encounter between Christianity and Islam, was the fatal weakening of the Byzantine Empire. Innocent's Fourth Crusade, preached enthusiastically at the outset of his pontificate, achieved what for centuries Muslim, Norman, and barbarian armies had not once succeeded in doing: taking and sacking Constantinople. Even for an age of impulsive, often harebrained violence, the event defied all norms.

The catastrophe came about when the northern Europeans of Innocent's Fourth Crusade, faced with extortionate fees demanded by Venetian mariners for the voyage to Outremer, reluctantly agreed to a novel barter arrangement: in exchange for eventual sea passage, they would do the bidding of Enrico Dandolo, the doge of Venice. After Dandolo --- wily, blind, and well into his eighties --- had them besiege and destroy a Christian city on the Dalmatian coast that was a rival to Venice, he spirited the Crusaders to the Bosporus, home to his city's other main competitor for maritime traffic in the eastern Mediterranean. Intrigues with a pretender to the mantle of the basileus, long-standing Latin hostility to the Greeks, and a frustrating wait outside the walls of Constantinople, a wealthy city the like of which did not exist in the west --- all of these eventually coalesced into a toxic medieval soup of greed and warrior fury.

When the Latins burst through the gates on April 12, 1204, mayhem ensued. It lasted three days, as a world capital uncaptured since its founding in antiquity was stripped of its treasures. Amid scenes of mass murder, whores cavorted on the alter of the Hagia Sophia; monasteries, churches, palaces, and libraries were looted; and the statuary of classical times, gathered by Constantine for his new capital in the fourth century, was either melted down or carted off as swag. Notoriously, the Hippodrome's bronze equestrian group believed to have been fashioned by Lysippos, the court sculptor of Alexander the Great, made its way to Venice, to become the Horses of St. Mark in that city's cathedral. The crusading Latin bishops particularly prized the holy relics contained in Constantinople, as their transferral to distant European monasteries and churches ensured a steady stream of visitors, blessings --- and revenues. The relics contained in Constantinople were so coveted that forty years later the Sainte Chapelle in Paris was constructed to house some of the sacred objects stolen from the Byzantine capital and subsequently bought by King Louis IX of France. The relics were said to cost more than the building.

Innocent, professing chagrin that his armed pilgrims never reached the Levant, nonetheless saw opportunity in the sordid event. The Great Schism of 1054 could be undone, and the independence of the Orthodox Church finally squelched. The pope installed an Italian, Thomas Morosoni, as patriarch of Constantinople, to dispense the Latin rite in the east. Baldwin of Flanders, a leader of the crusade, was crowned Latin emperor of Constantinople. The Greeks were appalled --- the survivors of the court moved to Nicaea in Bithynia near the Sea of Marmara, where a Byzantiumin-exile was established under the guidance of the Lascaris family.

Undeterred, Innocent continued his work, promoting the faith to the world at large. Under his stewardship the Teutonic Knights, a military order modeled along the lines of the Templars, were encouraged to keep up their raids around the Baltic and deep into eastern Europe, as part of a campaign of armed proselytism. For those already within the bounds of Christendom, Innocent proved even more zealous. Several sects of dissident Christians --- heretics, to the Church --- had bubbled up in the cultural effervescence of twelfth-century Europe, only to be suppressed with difficulty. With Innocent in charge, the hunt for heretics intensified.

The pope's ire came to be focused on the region of Languedoc, a patchwork of cities and towns whose leaders owed allegiance to France, the Crown of Aragon, and various lesser entities. The greatest nobleman of the area, Count Raymond VI of Toulouse, was of the same Saint-Gilles family that had stormed Jerusalem and, more recently, in the person of Raymond of Tripoli, had unsuccessfully counseled caution on the eve of Hattin. This crusading lineage failed to impress the pontiff, who bewailed the "foxes in the vineyard of the Lord" being sheltered by Raymond of Toulouse and his kinsmen.

These foxes were the Cathars, or Albigensians, believers in an austere, pacifist form of Christianity. They held the worldly trappings of Innocent and his clergy and the cult of relics to be heretical abominations that proved the message of Jesus had been hijacked by Roman worshippers of an evil, material god. As with the Almoravids and Almohads on the other shore of the Mediterranean, the enmity between the two sides of the same coin was profound. Innocent dispatched a Castilian preacher of genius, Domingo de Guzmán, the eponym and founder of the Dominican order of friars, to the Midi in the hope of coaxing the Cathars back into the fold. When he failed, and his successor, a Cistercian papal legate, was murdered in 1208, Innocent finally had the pretext to goad the northern nobility of France into a full-scale assault on Languedoc. Known to history as the Albigensian Crusade, the campaign raged intermittently for twenty years, reducing a once-wealthy region to a smoking ruin and consigning thousands to death in battle, captivity, or the flames of giant bonfires in which scores, sometimes hundreds, of unrepentant Cathars were burned alive while their cowled executioners sang hymns to the glory of God. Such was Innocent's response to dissent."

--- From Sea of Faith:
Islam and Christianity in
the Medieval Mediterranean World

Stephen O'Shea
©2006 Walker
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