The 13th Century


More traditionally minded Roman Catholics have seen the thirteenth century as the golden age of Roman Catholic civilization. Certainly it witnessed the papacy achieving the summit of its power over the politics and culture of Western Europe.


The pope who presided over this Catholic “high noon” was Innocent III, who was bishop of Rome from 1198 to 1216. His baptismal name was Lothario Conti. Born in 1160, he came from one of Rome’s most ancient aristocratic families. After studying theology and law at Rome, Bologna, and Paris, he lectured at Bologna law school. In 1190, his career took a more churchly turn when he became a cardinal deacon of Rome. Then in 1198, at the young age of 37, he was unanimously elected pope, taking the name Innocent III. He proved to be a skillful, shrewd, far-seeing leader of the church, patient and purposeful, a master at bending even adverse circumstances to his own advantage.

Innocent effected a significant cluster of church reforms. Many of these focused on centralizing the structures of the church around the papacy. For example, Innocent augmented the system of papal legates (ambassadors). A legate was an official who was personally appointed by, and responsible to, the pope. His role was to supervise church affairs in different regions, ensuring that bishops were executing papal policies. Innocent also entrenched the pope’s right to appoint bishops in disputed cases. He famously exercised this right in England, where Innocent forced King John to accept the papal nominee Stephen Langton as archbishop of Canterbury. (In the process, the English monarchy was abjectly humiliated.) In 1199, Innocent decreed the first general income tax on the clergy, to be paid to Rome.


Innocent’s reforming activities reached their finale in the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. The council enacted wide-ranging reforms relating to the moral conduct of clergy, the importance of preaching, and issues of church discipline. The council, for example, determined that all Christians must confess their sins to their priest at least once a year and receive mass at least once a year at Easter.

The most important enactment of the council concerned the theology of the mass. For the first time, the doctrine of transubstantiation was officially defined. The definition reads:

There is indeed one universal Church of the faithful. Outside this Church, no one at all is saved. Within this Church, the Priest, Jesus Christ, is also Himself the sacrifice. His body and blood are genuinely contained in the sacrament of the altar, beneath the outward appearances of bread and wine. By God’s power, the bread is transubstantiated into Christ’s body, and the wine into His blood. Thus we receive from Him what He received from us [that is, flesh and blood, which Christ received from us in the incarnation]. In this way the mystery of unity [between Christ and the Church] is made concrete. No one can carry out this sacrament except the priest, who has been correctly ordained according to the power of the Church’s keys, which Jesus Christ Himself gave to the apostles and those who followed after them.

The word transubstantiation (change of substance) had been used before 1215 by men such as Hildebert of Tours (d. 1134), but the Fourth Lateran Council made the word and the associated concept official Roman Catholic orthodoxy.


The Council also condemned the teachings of dissenting movements such as the Waldensians and the Cathars (see below). It also required Jews who did not accept Christianity to wear distinctive garb and live in special Jewish areas of towns and cities, segregated from the Christian population. This decree echoed the increasing anti-Judaism that characterized Western society in the later Middle Ages. This attitude led to the expulsion of all Jews from England in 1209, from France in 1306, and then again more effectively from France in 1394. There was a general massacre of Jews in Spain in 1391, and the Spanish monarchy officially expelled them in 1492. The Portuguese expelled them in 1496. Jews were not expelled from Germany due to its lack of centralized government, but popular hatred of Jews was probably strongest there. In 1349, for example, a Christian mob in Strasbourg (which was then in Germany, but today in France) hounded the city’s entire Jewish population—some two thousand people—to the local cemetery and killed all who refused to embrace Christianity.

This popular Christian animosity to unbaptized Jews was inflamed by tales that Jews kidnapped and murdered Christian babies and practiced religious rituals in which they treated the wafer of the mass with blasphemous mockery. There is no reason to believe these tales were true, but they do reveal the social and religious gulf which now yawned between the church and Israel. A more pragmatic explanation for Christian anti-Judaism was that until the close of the Middle Ages, the church prohibited Christians from practicing usury (lending money for interest). Jews stepped into the vacuum and became the great medieval moneylenders. It seemed utterly scandalous to Christians that unbelieving Jews should wield such economic power over them.


One of the greatest challenges facing Innocent III was the great upsurge of religious dissent in Roman Catholic Europe from about 1150 onwards. This mushrooming of dissent was probably connected to serious socioeconomic changes in the Western world at that time. In the Netherlands, western Germany, northern Italy, and France, the growth of towns, cities, trade, and industry was sapping the foundations of the old feudal system. Feudalism had been based on land ownership. Now, however, a new economy was emerging which was based increasingly on money rather than on land. Thus were established the key elements of capitalism (an economic system based on capital, that is, money). As a result of this proto-capitalist economy, the medieval rich became visibly richer, and more numerous; the poor, however, became visibly and shockingly poorer. At the same time, there was significant population growth, so that feudalism’s old land-based way of life was less able to support those who lived in rural areas.

The peasant class lost out badly in this socioeconomic revolution, particularly if they left the overpopulated land and migrated into towns and cities. In the old feudal village, the lord of the manor personally cared for his peasant workers (apart from anything else, he could not afford to let his labor force starve). An unemployed town-dwelling peasant, however, would indeed starve. He no longer belonged to a lord—and to that extent, he had gained freedom. However, along with this freedom came the dissolution of the old feudal bonds of community, which had once ensured that even the poorest people had a place in society and were looked after.


This loss of the sense of security and belonging, and the development of great social inequality produced a fertile soil in which new religious movements could flourish. The two most widespread of these movements were the Waldensians and the Cathars. The Waldensians originated in Lyons in the 1170s as a movement of lay preachers, whose inspirational founder seems to have been named Valdes. Friction with local episcopal authority, however, eventually drove the Waldensians out of the church. Rather than extinguishing the movement, this enabled it to grow rapidly and spread widely. Unconstrained now by the need to conform to Roman Catholic orthodoxy, the Waldensians evolved into an embryonically “Protestant” movement, anticipating many of the concerns of the sixteenth-century Reformation.

The Cathars are a more controversial movement. A previous generation of Protestant scholars saw them as essentially akin to the Waldensians—an Evangelical movement of dissent. This, then, gave way to the view that they were a basically gnostic movement. Now some modern scholars deny they existed at all. I take the view that they did exist and were basically gnostic. One reason for taking this view is that there was a parallel movement in the Eastern Byzantine world, the Bogomils, who were gnostic—the Eastern Cathars, as it were, whose existence I see no reason to doubt. The Cathars flourished outside the confines of the church (which they denounced as the “Great Whore of Babylon”), and they made a notable impact on southern France, where they were known as Albigensians.


The church made attempts to break the Albigensian grip on southern France. Initially these attempts were peaceful, providing the context for the preaching of Dominic, founder of the Dominicans. But a spiral of violence culminated in Pope Innocent III’s proclamation of the twenty-year Albigensian Crusade (1209–29). By the time the crusaders had conquered southern France, not only the Albigensians but the Waldensians, too, had lost their base of operations. (The crusaders did not make much distinction between one heretic and another.) The Waldensian movement, however, found a new and permanent home in the Alpine valleys of northern Italy.

During the Albigensian Crusade, Innocent III took another step towards the centralization of the church around the papacy. He created a system of special legates to root out any surviving heretics in southern France. Prior to this, the church had left the investigation of heresy to local bishops, who were often uninterested or incompetent. Innocent transformed the investigation of heresy into a centrally controlled Europe-wide operation. His actions laid the foundations for what in 1227 became the “inquisition” (or “holy office,” as it was officially called). The inquisition was a separate organization within the church that was free from episcopal control, subject only to the pope, and devoted entirely to unmasking and punishing heretics. It grew into the most feared organization of the later Middle Ages. Once the inquisition had accused a person of heresy, it was virtually impossible for him to prove his innocence. Those who confessed received financial penalties or acts of penance such as going on a pilgrimage. Those who refused to confess received varying degrees of punishment. Depending on the gravity of their error, some had all their assets confiscated, others were incarcerated perhaps for life, and the gravest offenders were handed over to the civil authorities to be burnt at the stake.

The inquisition forced dissenting movements to meet in secret. This is the chief reason why we know so little about the history of religious dissent in later medieval Europe compared with what we know of the Roman Catholic Church itself.


It was also during the era of Innocent III that the new “mendicant” (begging) orders of friars flourished—chiefly the Dominicans and Franciscans, but also the Augustinians, Carmelites, and others. You can read more about these orders later on in this issue of Tabletalk. Suffice it here to say that they harnessed and unleashed new torrents of spiritual and intellectual energy, some of which would ultimately have surprising consequences. Think of that most famous Augustinian friar, Martin Luther.


The twelfth and thirteenth centuries witnessed a rich blossoming of knowledge, especially theology and philosophy, in Western Christendom. It reached its high point in the thirteenth century, which was the age par excellence of scholastic theology.

Scholastic theology” means “school theology,” and the “school” in question was the university. Western universities began to take shape around the middle of the twelfth century, with Paris and Bologna leading the way. A fully developed university would come to have four departments or “faculties,” teaching theology, law, medicine, and the arts. The driving aim was that the university should be a center for storing and propagating the sum total of human knowledge.

The theologians who taught in the universities—the scholastic theologians or schoolmen—developed a distinctive approach to theology. We can summarize this as follows.

• 1. Faith and Reason

Scholastic theologians were marked by a vibrant interest in the relationship between faith and reason. What could human reason discover about God by investigating creation without referring to the Bible? For example, what could pure reason ascertain of a divine Creator, the Trinity, or providence? If a revealed truth could not be established by reason alone, could it still be shown to be in harmony with reason? For instance, even if unaided reason cannot discover the Trinity, can we still show that the Trinity does not contradict reason? Can something be false from the standpoint of reason, yet true according to the standpoint of revelation?

• 2. Systematic Theology

Scholastic theologians wanted to offer a complete account of Christian truth. This meant probing a particular doctrine logically from every point of view. A typical schoolman would, however, go further and try to bring the entire body of revealed truth together into a system of theology. They called such a system a summa (summary). In seeking to construct a universal system of truth, the schoolmen sometimes expended time and energy on issues which most Christians today would probably think pointless. Could God have become incarnate as an animal or as a woman? Can one angel be in two places at the same time? Can two angels be in the same place at the same time? Who sinned the most, Adam or Eve?

• 3. Philosophy

The schoolmen were both the theologians and the philosophers of the Middle Ages. They hoped to give a complete account not just of Church teaching but of all truth. So they did not restrict themselves to theological issues. They would try to answer the deep philosophical questions, too. What is matter? What is mind? What is morality? What is time? What is space? What is being? What is the nature of cause and effect?


In the thirteenth century, scholastic theology increasingly exploited the philosophy of the great pagan thinker Aristotle (384–22 BC ). A few of Aristotle’s works had been known to the early schoolmen in Latin translation. However, the entire corpus of Aristotle’s writings became available in Latin in the 1100s. This was largely owing to two great Islamic philosophers, the Persian Avicenna (980–1037) and the Spanish Averroës (1126–98). They translated Aristotle from Greek into Arabic for the benefit of the Islamic world. Christian scholars then translated the Arabic, along with Islamic commentaries on Aristotle, into Latin for the benefit of the Christian world. Arabic translations of Aristotle found their way into Christian Europe chiefly through Muslim Spain. (Remember that Spain was under Islamic rule during much of the Middle Ages.)

Roman Catholic Europe’s rediscovery of Aristotle had a huge intellectual impact. In Aristotle, Christians found an understanding of God, humanity, and the cosmos which seemed logical, comprehensive, and persuasive—all worked out without any reference to the Bible. Some of Aristotle’s teachings, however, contradicted the Bible. For instance, Aristotle taught that the cosmos had existed from eternity.

Initially, many Roman Catholic theologians reacted against Aristotle, seeing his philosophy as a dangerous alternative to Christianity. Many traditional theologians preferred Plato to Aristotle in matters of philosophy, especially since Augustine of Hippo, the greatest Western theologian, had been a Platonist. There was a campaign to ban the study of Aristotle’s writings. For a time, this anti-Aristotelian movement enjoyed some success. However, by the thirteenth century, the tide had turned in Aristotle’s favor, and scholastic theologians began regarding him as the great pagan precursor of Christian truth whose philosophy was uniquely suited to ground, express, and commend the theology of the church. The greatest of the Aristotelian schoolmen was Thomas Aquinas (1225–74), who is covered in a later article in this magazine. Other outstanding scholastic theologians of the thirteenth century included Alexander of Hales (1170–1245), Albertus Magnus (1193– 1280), Bonaventura (1221–74), and Duns Scotus (1265–1308). The tradition of Aristotelian Theology has continued down to our own day, largely among Roman Catholics, but with some Protestant support (for example, the Italian Reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli, Anglican theologian Richard Hooker, and some aspects of Lutheran and Reformed scholasticism).


Relations between the Western Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches plunged to an all-time low in the thirteenth century. Innocent III proclaimed the Fourth Crusade, and the crusaders (almost wholly French) set out in October 1202. They had intended to seize Egypt from Muslim control. However, they were being carried in ships provided by the Italian trading republic of Venice, and Venice insisted that the Crusaders first conquer the city of Zara (in modern Croatia) as part of the city’s payment. Zara had recently seceded from the Venetian empire. So, the Fourth Crusade began with the crusaders shedding the blood of fellow Christians as they stormed Zara. Innocent III was outraged and excommunicated both the French and the Venetians. He eventually forgave the French crusaders on their professions of repentance, but he refused to lift the sentence from the Venetians.

At this point Alexius Angelus, son of deposed Byzantine emperor Isaac II, diverted the French and Venetian force yet again. Alexius promised the Crusaders large payment and the submission of the Eastern Orthodox Church to the papacy if they would help him gain the throne of the Byzantine Empire. The Venetians welcomed Alexius’s proposal because they wanted to secure control of all Eastern trade. Innocent III forbade the crusaders to fight the Byzantines, but they ignored Innocent, went to Constantinople, and placed Alexius on the throne. When, however, Alexius could not keep his extravagant promises of payment, the French and Venetians besieged Constantinople, capturing it in April 1204. The triumphant Crusaders looted the Byzantine capital’s fabulous treasures. A French noble, Baldwin of Flanders, became emperor of a new Roman Catholic kingdom of Constantinople, and other French nobles shared out large parts of the Byzantine Empire among themselves. The new rulers of Byzantium set up a Roman Catholic patriarch of Constantinople and made the Eastern Orthodox Church subject to the pope. Even so, except where Western force constrained them, the Orthodox Christians of the East scorned the papacy, remaining loyal to their own church and their own patriarch.

The Fourth Crusade was one of the darkest episodes in Christian history. For the first time, a crusading army fought fellow Christians, both Roman Catholics in Zara and Eastern Orthodox in Constantinople, merely for material gain. The Byzantine Empire received a mortal injury from which it never really recovered. Even though the Byzantines recaptured Constantinople in 1261, the empire finally fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Thus, an enduring legacy of deep hatred for the Western church was left among the Eastern Orthodox.

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