Post-classical history


The closing decades of the twelfth century saw the emergence of several powerful new forms of spirituality across western Europe.1 A thriving economy brought widespread urban expansion and considerable personal gain, but this financial boom clashed with a growing interest in a pure and simple existence, modeled on a life of apostolic poverty. In tandem with this, increasing numbers of lay people openly questioned both the wealth of the Church and the moral qualities of some of its clerics. Men such as Waldes of Lyons gave up a comfortable lifestyle to follow a more spiritual approach and his calls for austerity attracted numerous followers. Notwithstanding his overt criticism of the Church, Waldes was, at heart, still fairly close to orthodox Catholicism, although his demands to be allowed to preach in public were rejected by the papacy, jealous to preserve proprietorship of what it regarded as the true interpretation of the Gospels.2 Around the middle of the century, however, another strand of religious belief began to surface: Catharism (from the Greek kathare meaning “pure”), a radical set of ideas that posed a profound challenge to the power of the Catholic Church. To fight this threat Pope Innocent launched the Albigensian Crusade, a conflict that brought the horrors of holy war to the heart of Christendom and engendered levels of atrocity unseen in Europe since the barbarian invasions. As one contemporary lamented, the launch of the crusade was “the decision that led to so much sorrow, that left so many men dead with their guts spilled out and so many great ladies and pretty girls naked and cold, stripped of gown and cloak. From beyond Montpellier as far as Bordeaux, any that rebelled were to be utterly destroyed.”3


Two of the prime reasons why Catharism posed such a danger to the Church lay in the broad appeal of its beliefs and the fact that it did not rely on a single charismatic leader but had a well-established hierarchy. At the heart of the faith was dualism, the belief that a Good God had created all spiritual matter, including men’s souls, and an Evil God (Satan) had created all material and corporeal things.4 Christ had come to earth, but only took on a human appearance to avoid entering a physical body. He told the Cathars how to achieve salvation through the baptism of the spirit, an act known as the consolamentum, a process that could be administered only by a spiritual elite, the perfecti. These men and—crucially—women renounced all property, vowed never to kill any human or warm-blooded beast, to consume no products of sexual intercourse such as meat, cheese, eggs, or milk, to tell no lies, and abstain completely from sex, which was the means of physical procreation and intrinsically evil. Most Cathars found these rules an impractical way to exist and followed as modest a life as possible. They rejected the Old Testament, the Eucharist, baptism, and only took the consolamentum—thus obtaining salvation—as they neared death. The concept of a female priest was unheard of in the Catholic Church, but given the restricted outlets for women’s spirituality anyway it represented another powerful attraction of this new faith. The simple tenets of Catharism were easy to understand; the perfecti seemed to lead genuinely pure lives—especially compared to the venality of the existing hierarchy. Local lords did little to shift the newcomers and some welcomed the spiritual rigor they seemed to bring.

Catharism originated in southeastern Europe and it first appeared in the West, probably carried by traders and returning crusaders, during the 1140s in Cologne and southern France. Another group surfaced in Oxford in 1166, but King Henry II swiftly ordered the detention of the thirty individuals involved. Punishment was swift and harsh: their brows were branded, they were stripped to the waist, flogged, and driven out of the city to perish in the bitter winter cold: the sect was never again seen on English shores. Other Cathar communities, however, thrived and the papacy felt compelled to pass formal legislation to outlaw the heretics at the Third Lateran Council in 1179: “since the loathsome heresy of those who some call the Cathars . . . has grown so strong that they no longer practise their wickedness in secret, as others do, but proclaim their error publicly and draw the simple and the weak to join them, we declare that they and their defenders and those who receive them are under anathema . . . [therefore, they will not receive Mass] or burial amongst Christians. We also grant that to faithful Christians who take up arms against them . . . a remission of two years’ penance.”5

Catharism flourished most strongly in southern France. Culturally and linguistically, the Languedoc was entirely distinct from northern France (the langue d’oc—oc means “yes”). It was the home of the troubadour poets, of remote rural villages; a rugged land of castles clinging to rocky spurs, of fertile valleys and the broad floodplain of the River Rhône easing out into the Mediterranean. Based far to the north, the Capetian kings had no worthwhile influence in the Languedoc and while the counts of Toulouse were figures of considerable standing, most local power structures were highly fragmented. The Catholic Church was poorly developed in comparison to the well-established hierarchies of northern France; many urban clerics were perceived as greedy and indolent, while the rural clergy were often ill-educated men who lived openly with their mistresses and children. Such conditions were ripe for Catharism to enter communities and, with the support of the local nobility, it put down the most tenacious roots. The Church sent special delegations of Cistercian monks to try and bring the heretics and their supporters back into the fold. Cathar perfecti and Catholic clergy held numerous debates, but unsurprisingly neither conceded their beliefs were wrong. When Innocent III became pope, these efforts intensified; given his determination to guard the Christian faith, he saw that Catharism needed to be utterly eradicated.

Even before Innocent’s pontificate, churchmen had described the region around Toulouse as “a great cesspit of evil, with all the scum of heresy flowing into it,” and “the mother of heresy and the fountainhead of error. . . . When heretics spoke, everyone applauded.” The city itself was “so diseased that, from the soles of its feet to the top of its head, there was not a healthy piece in it;” the solution offered was simple—to stun, sever, and raise up the head on a sword.6 This highly emotive language of pollution and contamination formed the basic register in the fight against the Cathars; the body of the Mother Church itself was said to be threatened from within, as if by a cancer, and only a sword could cut it out. In 1204 Innocent tried to persuade King Philip of France to eradicate the wild beasts who planned to destroy the Church. The pope offered him the same remission of all sins as a crusader to the Holy Land if he would go to Toulouse and crush the man seen as the Cathars’ principal protector, Count Raymond VI of Toulouse. Philip declined the invitation, as he would repeatedly do in the future.7 It was another four years before the confrontation with the Cathars escalated into outright conflict. The situation became tinder-dry with the repeated failure of preachers to convince the heretics to recant; indeed, according to the near-contemporary William of Tudela, their attempts met with derision: “People in this region think more of a rotten apple than sermons.”8 The conflagration itself was largely precipitated by the murder of a papal legate, Peter of Castelnau, in January 1208. Peter had spent months trying to bring the heretics to heel and in the course of his travels, as he waited for a ferry to cross the River Rhône, he was fatally stabbed in the back by one of Count Raymond’s vassals. When the news reached Rome, Pope Innocent was furious; he lit a candle and, in the name of Saint Peter, he dashed it to the floor and cursed the murder.9

Godfrey of Bouillon and Adhémar of Le Puy head the armies of the First Crusade. Taken from a thirteenth-century manuscript of the Old French Histoire d’Outremer of William of Tyre. (Bibliothèque Municipale de Boulogne-sur-Mer MS 142 fol. 264v)

Patriarch Aimery of Antioch tied to the citadel of Antioch, where Prince Reynald smeared his head with honey and released a hive of bees on him, an act of revenge for the aging churchman’s opposition to his marriage to Princess Constance. Taken from a thirteenth-century manuscript of the Old French Histoire d’Outremer of William of Tyre. (Bibliothèque Municipale de Boulogne-sur-Mer MS 142 fol. 199r)

Marriage of Guy of Lusigan and Queen Sibylla of Jerusalem. Taken from a thirteenth-century manuscript of the Old French Histoire d’Outremer of William of Tyre. (Bibliothèque Municipale de Boulogne-sur-Mer MS 142 fol. 264v)

Carved ivory cover ornamented with turquoises, rubies, and emeralds and showing a king carrying out the six acts of mercy specified in the Book of Matthew. Taken from the Psalter of Queen Melisende, probably presented to her by her husband, King Fulk of Jerusalem. The bird is a falcon, a pun on Fulk’s name. (The British Library)

Saladin’s mausoleum in Damascus. Next to the original medieval tomb (left) stands a marble structure presented by Kaiser Wilhelm II after his visit of 1898. (dbimages/Alamy)

Seal of Richard the Lionheart.(Reproduced with the permission of Dr. Emmett Sullivan)

Seal of Emperor Frederick II, ruler of Germany, Sicily, and Jerusalem. (Interfoto/Alamy)

Aerial view of the Hospitaller castle of Krak des Chevaliers, southern Syria. This 1920s photograph shows locals’ houses still within the fortifications, prior to their removal by the French. (Institut Français d’Archéologie, Beirut)

The burning at the stake of the Grand Master of the Templars, James of Molay, and Geoffrey of Charney on March 18, 1314, on a small island in the River Seine. (The British Library)

Portrait of Sultan Mehmet II, conqueror of Constantinople, 1453. (The London Art Archive/Alamy)

State visit to Jerusalem of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany in October 1898. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Contemporary cartoon from Punch, drawing a parallel between Richard the Lionheart’s failure to take Jerusalem during the Third Crusade and General Allenby’s entry into the city in 1917. (Reproduced with the permission of Punch Limited,

Poster for Pershing’s Crusaders, the first official film report of the U.S. Army in Europe, 1918.(Peter Newark Pictures/The Bridgeman Art Gallery)

The Jarrow Crusade, 1938. (Getty Images)

A U.S. Army sergeant, identified as Kelly, thirty-eight, from Chipley, Florida, steps on a carpet depicting Saddam Hussein and Saladin, at the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) base in Baghdad, May 11, 2003. (Reuters/Corbis)


Without hesitation Innocent called for a crusade: “In the name of Christ and in my name . . . drive the heretics out from the virtuous.”10 Thus the weapon that had been used so frequently against God’s enemies overseas and at the edges of Christendom was deployed in the heartlands of western Europe against a people that were, of a sort, Christians (they approved of the New Testament) and who certainly lived among, and were supported by, Catholics. This marked another extension in crusading theory, although the familiar justification of a defensive war was fulfilled by the threat Catharism posed to the Church: “Attack the followers of heresy more fearlessly even than the Saracens—since they are more evil—with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. Forward then soldiers of Christ! Forward brave recruits to the Christian army! Let the universal cry of grief of the Holy Church arouse you, let pious zeal inspire you to avenge this monstrous crime against your God!”11 The Cathars were rebels against God, dangerous adversaries sent by the Devil to ensnare the faithful and lead them to hell: the contagion of heresy had to be torn out from society and proper order restored.

Peter of Castelnau was hailed as a martyr and when, several weeks after his death, the legate’s body was transferred to its proper tomb it was “found to be as whole and unimpaired as if it had been buried that very day. A marvellous perfume arose from his body and clothing.”12 In contrast to this story of Catholic purity, the Church portrayed the heretics as vile, depraved creatures who engaged in endless orgies and barely clung to the vestiges of humanity. One writer described how a Cathar “fell into such depths of madness that he emptied his bowels beside the altar in a church and by way of showing contempt for God wiped himself with the altar cloth.”13

In the autumn of 1208 Cistercian preachers toured northern and eastern France to whip up support for the crusade. Recruits wore the sign of the cross and received all the privileges, protection, and spiritual rewards of a crusader to the Holy Land. King Philip was too worried about a possible invasion by King John of England to take part, but many senior nobles took the cross. The duke of Burgundy, the count of Nevers, the count of Saint-Pol, and the count of Montfort all committed themselves to God’s cause. These families had proud traditions of crusading that stretched back to the capture of Jerusalem in 1099. The count of Saint-Pol’s predecessor, Hugh, had been one of the leading knights on the Fourth Crusade until his death from gout in January 1205. Count Simon de Montfort was another veteran of that expedition, although, as we saw, he could not stomach the idea of attacking the Christian city of Zara and so left the campaign in the autumn of 1203 to sail directly to the Holy Land. With the guiding hand of Pope Innocent at his back, Simon would emerge as the champion of the Church and over the next decade his struggle with Count Raymond came to inflict horrific suffering across the towns and castles of southwestern France.

The first target of papal rage was the count of Toulouse, a man who had been excommunicated in 1207 for his apparent tolerance of the heretics. “You cherish heretics, you yourself are strongly suspected of heresy . . . you stand convicted as an adversary of the Gospel . . . we cannot allow such an injury to the Church to go unpunished . . . [your] territory will be taken from you. . . . The wrath of the Lord will not be turned from you,” thundered Innocent.14 In reality, Count Raymond was probably not an active Cathar, but he was undoubtedly sympathetic to their cause and resented what he came to see as a blatant attempt by the northern French crusaders to steal his lands. Raymond’s career attracted starkly opposing assessments. Peter of les Vaux-de-Cernay, a partisan of the Montforts, stated that “the count was a vicious and lecherous man . . . from early youth he lost no opportunity to seek out his father’s concubines and felt no compunction about bedding them—indeed none of them could please him unless he knew that his father had previously slept with her. . . . Always he acted as a limb of the Devil, an enemy of the Cross . . . a veritable treasury of all sins.”15 To his supporters, however, he was “valiant, joyful and strong,” and when, later in the crusade, he entered Toulouse to eject the French he was greeted as “the morning star, risen and shining upon us! Our lord who was lost!”16

With the crusade poised to attack his lands Count Raymond tried to deflect the Church’s ire and made a humiliating public submission to the papal legate in Saint-Gilles, the town of his family’s patron saint. Today Saint-Gilles is a sleepy village a few miles distant from the Mediterranean, yet it still possesses one of the most famous Romanesque churches in Europe and its magnificent tympanum features imagery connected with the rich crusading history of the counts of Toulouse.17 In the course of his supposed reconciliation Raymond was led naked to the church doors where, in the presence of the papal legate and other leading clerics, he swore to obey the papacy. He was then robed and scourged by the legate to absolve him of his sins and taken into the church. So great was the crowd that Raymond had to leave through the crypt and pass—by neat irony—the tomb of the murdered legate, Peter of Castelnau. The count then took the cross himself, although this was soon declared the act of a false and faithless man by the hostile Peter of les Vaux-de-Cernay.18


The main crusade continued to head relentlessly southward and soon it entered the lands of another man accused of harboring heretics: Raymond-Roger Trenceval, the viscount of Béziers. His hometown stands on a commanding hilltop location overlooking the broad floodplain of the River Orb. On July 21, 1209, the citizens who lined its walls caught their first glimpse of a distant dust cloud: slowly it grew bigger and bigger; movement rippled underneath the billowing mass and gradually came into focus. Sunlight reflected off armor, banners bearing bright red crosses cracked in the early evening breeze, warhorses snorted and whinnied beneath their masters while cart horses strained to haul heavy wagons. This was a force with lethal intent: an army of twenty thousand crusaders set upon the destruction of the Cathar heretics, some of whom sheltered defiantly behind the town walls.19

Bishop Reynald of Béziers stood in his cathedral and tried to convince the inhabitants to surrender. His voice breaking with fear, he urged the people to reconsider their resistance. He brandished a list of the names of the 220 individuals suspected of heresy and warned of the dire consequences if they were not handed over. The citizens’ response was crisp—they told the bishop “they would rather be drowned in the salt sea than take his advice.” They cared little for the distant authority of Rome and had faith in their own beliefs and the strength of their town walls; as one contemporary dryly observed, however, “an evil gift the men of Béziers received when they were told to stand firm and give battle.”20

Reynald carried the news out to the crusader army. Grim-faced, Abbot Arnold Amalric of Citeaux, the papal legate and leader of the expedition, ordered the siege to begin on July 22. At first the defenders were confident—one crusader was seized, mutilated, and thrown off a bridge. The senior crusading nobles gathered to discuss strategy; Béziers appeared very well fortified. Yet as they talked, cries of “To arms! To arms!” rang out from their lines. The most unpredictable element of the crusader army, known as the ribauds—basically the servants and hangers-on—had become fed up with the citizens’ mockery and charged toward the walls. Armed with little more than clubs and picks they began to batter and smash away at the defenses and their ferocious onslaught provoked panic.

Astonished by the ribauds’ progress the crusading knights rushed to put on their armor and to join the fray. At the sight of the heavy knights gathering in formation, courage deserted the men defending the city and they abandoned the walls and the gates. The crusaders swarmed into Béziers, inflamed with religious zeal and determined to reap material rewards for their success in the holy war; the ribauds scented riches beyond their wildest dreams and began to seize and hoard everything they could. With a frenzied energy the crusaders started to ransack the houses, shops, and palaces; meanwhile the inhabitants sought refuge in the cathedral. Soon it was packed full with desperate people; the priests sensed their impending fate and donned vestments for a Mass for the dead and the bells tolled a funeral lament. As the town fell, the crusaders faced a dilemma because they could not decide who was guilty of heresy and who was not. They were painfully aware that Catholics—even those tainted by association with the unbelievers—were mingled among the heretics. “What shall we do, Lord?” they asked Abbot Arnold Amalric. Might some of the Cathars pretend to be Catholics to avoid death and then continue to spread the contagion of heresy once the crusaders had gone? The abbot was stony-faced; an example had to be made to all the enemies of the Church. Calmly he uttered one of the most chilling phrases in the history of medieval Europe, words that sealed the fate of thousands of innocent men, women, and children: “Kill them all. God will know his own.”21

At this uncompromising edict the massacre began. The ribauds and the knights went to work with, to a modern reader, a stomach-churning enthusiasm and soon the piercing shrieks of the dying assailed the ears of those inside the cathedral. The smell of smoke began to permeate into the building as nearby houses and shops were torched in the anarchic, frenzied atmosphere of the sack. Soon the flames spread to the cathedral itself and, barricaded inside their supposed place of sanctuary, thousands were incinerated in the house of God. So intense was the heat that the cathedral split into two and central Béziers became one enormous funeral pyre. Warfare in western Europe had reached a new level of horror, and all in the name of God. The message was plain: heresy would be extinguished at all costs.

Carcassonne was next in line to the crusaders and it surrendered relatively quickly; the viscount of Béziers (who had fled there for safety) was taken prisoner and he soon died in custody. By the autumn of 1209, however, the crusaders began to melt away because their terms of service were set at only forty days’ fighting and they wanted to return home. Only a few remained in the south and the rebels started to regain much of their lost land.


While Raymond of Toulouse had lain low during these events, his patent lack of enthusiasm for the crusade soon brought him into open opposition to the Church once more. As noted above, his principal opponent was Simon de Montfort, a man who perfectly fused the secular and spiritual motives of a crusader. Simon was driven by a deep conviction that he was doing God’s work and a sense of moral certainty that he was entitled to take over the lands of the heretics. Physically, he was a powerful man, which caused the pope to pun that the lord of Montfort was “the Strong Mountain” (mons and fortis) sent by Christ to defend the Church. A contemporary admirer described him as “eloquent of speech, eminently approachable, a most congenial comrade-in-arms, of impeccable chastity, outstanding in humility, wise, firm of purpose, prudent in counsel, fair in giving judgement . . . and totally dedicated to the service of God.”22 To an opponent, he was a man who “destroys and devastates, a man devoid of pity.”23 As time moved on, however, his desire to conquer and hold lands in his own right even began to provoke disquiet in the Church and aroused ever more fierce opposition in the south.

In 1213, the prospect of a new crusade to the Holy Land brought a brief cessation to hostilities, but so embedded were the respective hatreds that this calm lasted only a matter of months. Between 1209 and 1218 Simon fought no fewer than thirty-nine sieges; some lasted only hours, others took months. He was capable of terrible atrocities: at the castle of Bram all the defenders except one were blinded and had their noses cut off. The remaining prisoner was blinded in only one eye and told to lead this pitiful procession of brutalized troops back to the rebel lands.24 On another occasion he ordered the buildings of Toulouse to be so ravaged that a man could pass straight into the city without pause. Roofs, workshops, chambers, and doorways were ripped out: “such was the noise, dust and damage,” wrote William of Tudela, “that it felt like an earthquake . . . in every street, men were in tears, their hearts and spirits overcome by darkness.”25 Yet Raymond’s resistance—in large part an attempt to hold on to his own ancestral lands—enabled Catharism to survive, especially in the more remote areas of the Languedoc where its adherents continued to practice their beliefs and spread their gospel. The perfecti moved from village to village, preaching to the people and setting up formal Cathar communities of men and (separately) women, rather like monasteries. The fight swayed back and forth as every year, waves of crusaders arrived, the heretics retreated to the countryside and then came back to the towns and castles once the danger had passed. It was like a simmering pot that all too often came to the boil, but Simon was iron-willed in his determination to bring the Languedoc to orthodoxy and to take the lands and titles of those whom he defeated. He had spent eight months besieging Toulouse when, on June 25, 1218, he was struck on the head by a catapult stone.

The anonymous continuator of William of Tudela reported that the machine was worked by noblewomen, girls, and wives—perhaps a sign that everyone was involved in the defense of their city. Such a comment was also intended as a slight on Simon with the suggestion that “mere” women had fired the fatal shot. In any case, “a stone struck Count Simon on his steel helmet, shattering his eyes, brains, back teeth, forehead and jaw” and he died immediately.26 He had certainly brought the power of the Catholic Church and the northern French nobility to the Languedoc, and at times, he had borne down hard upon the heretics. Unsurprisingly, he was loathed by the southern French as this scathing assessment of the epitaph on his tomb shows: “[It says] that he is a saint and a martyr who shall breathe again and be seated in the kingdom [of heaven]. . . . If, by killing men and shedding blood, by damning souls and causing deaths . . . by kindling evil and quenching good, by killing women and slaughtering children, a man can in this world win Jesus Christ, certainly Count Simon wears a crown and shines in heaven above.”27 Four years later Count Raymond died, marking the end of the first phase of the war.

The Church continued to fulminate against the heretics, but for a time the military situation became a little calmer. Amaury de Montfort and Raymond VII of Toulouse, the sons of the two great warriors, moved toward a compromise. In the mid-1220s, however, a new player appeared. King Louis VIII of France (1223–26) hitched his territorial ambitions in southern France to the papacy’s ongoing holy war against the Cathars to trigger a new crusade.28 Louis was, of course, following in the crusading footsteps of his father, Philip, his grandfather Louis VII, and his great-uncle Hugh of Vermandois, although they had all been to the Holy Land. In 1226 the king led a large army southward and received the submission of Avignon and Albi. At the Treaty of Paris in 1229 the lords of southern France were compelled to accept royal authority and a concerted attempt was made to deprive the heretics of their places of refuge.29 Yet the Cathar belief system still persisted and with less military action during the 1220s it recovered much of its vigor. While there had been periods when the crusade made great progress, ultimately, it must be judged to have failed to uproot Catharism.


The final phase of the conflict saw the papacy make its most calculating effort to destroy the heretics.30 Churchmen realized that warfare and preaching could be avoided by those who wished to escape detection and so they developed a new mechanism to flush out the heretics and to create fear and suspicion in the very heart of their communities. The result was the fearsome Inquisition, headed by the crack troops of the medieval Church, the Dominican friars. They were university-trained experts in theology, yet their personal poverty and mendicant vocation meant they lacked the worldly trappings of the Church hierarchy and so could not be accused of the greed or moral failings of many of their predecessors.

The Inquisitors’ powers were unfettered: homes could be searched, anywhere a heretic was known to have stayed was to be destroyed, repentant Cathars were resettled in places where no heresy had been discovered.31 No one other than churchmen was permitted to possess copies of the Old and New Testament, and those whose confession of heresy was obtained under torture were to be imprisoned as a penance. The new measures made it far harder for the Cathars to move around and to live peacefully. AManual for Inquisitors from 1245–46 gives a stark insight into the sophisticated disputation procedures available to extract confessions. If a village was suspected of heresy, all males over fourteen and females over twelve were required to come forward and make a statement of orthodoxy. If under suspicion—and anyone could, in complete anonymity, point the finger at a fellow villager—they had to confess, to recant from all heresy, and swear to pursue and seize other heretics. Everyone known to have given perfecti food and hospitality, or listened to sermons, had their names recorded; many came to the friars of their own volition, trying to preempt arrest. Those who confessed had to perform pilgrimages and other acts of penance and to wear a yellow cross for the rest of their lives. People who refused to abjure the heresy were handed over to the secular authorities and burned to death. One measure that aroused special ire was the practice of condemning deceased heretics and then exhuming their bones to be burned “in detestation of so heinous an offence.”32 All of this generated—as it was intended to do—a climate of fear and suspicion that would fragment communities for decades. From the point of view of the Church, it began to yield results and many perfecti were forced to live as outlaws, or were identified and handed over to the authorities.

Inevitably, people reacted violently to this intrusive and arbitrary justice. At Albi in 1234, the inquisitor, Arnold Catalan, went to dig up the bones of a woman but he was confronted by a crowd led by a local knight. They began to hit Arnold on the chest, to slap his face and drag him away by his clothing and he only narrowly escaped being pushed into the River Tarn. Arnold retreated to the safety of the cathedral where a frenzied mob demanded his head be cut off, put in a sack, and thrown into the water. The inquisitor excommunicated the entire town, a measure which led to peace negotiations and the withdrawal of the censure. Many of his colleagues were not so lucky and a number of clergymen were assassinated as they tried to implement the inquiry.

On May 28, 1242, William Arnold, the leader of the Inquisition, was ambushed and slaughtered in a remote town, twenty-five miles southeast of Toulouse, by men from the castle of Montségur, the focal point of Cathar resistance. Such an atrocity inevitably provoked a response and troops sent by Louis IX (1226–70) invested the Cathar stronghold the following summer. Penned into the fortress were 361 people, including children, of whom 211 of the total were perfecti.33 Montségur stands almost four thousand feet above sea level on a rocky outcrop around fifty miles south of Toulouse: it remains resonant of its role in history, shrouded in mist, a melancholy and ravaged structure that stands over a place of death and destruction. It was not until March 1244 that a group of servants were able to scramble up the precipitous northeastern edge of the crag. They took the guards by surprise and captured the tower. The larger part of the fortress remained secure, but the besiegers’ foothold allowed them to bring up more men and to intensify their assault. The defenders realized their resistance was futile—or as William of Puylaurens, a near-contemporary author, commented: “the faithless could not withstand the onset of the faithful.” They accepted a promise that their lives be spared while the Cathar believers were handed over. William related that “the heretics were invited to accept conversion, but refused. They were confined to an enclosure made of pales and stakes. This was set on fire, they were burned and passed on to the fire of Tartarus.”34

The fall of Montségur in March 1244 marked a watershed. With the death of so many perfecti the Cathars lost a major part of their spiritual elite. This last intervention by the French crown, combined with the rigor of the Dominican inquisitors, had finally cracked the heretics’ resistance and while their beliefs persisted for a few more decades, fundamentally they had been broken. While Innocent’s crusade had failed, its successor, the Inquisition, proved a far sharper and more subtle weapon in the fight against heresy.


In spite of Pope Innocent’s unsuccessful efforts to regain the Holy Land, one startling manifestation of popular support for crusading took place in 1212—the near-legendary Children’s Crusade.35 Over the centuries this strange event has metamorphosed into a tale of lost innocence, greed, debauchery, and sheer fantasy. As early as the mid-thirteenth century, writers started to gild the story. One claimed that the whole episode was initiated by two clerics who had been imprisoned by the leader of the Syrian Assassins, the Old Man of the Mountains. The men were freed on the promise that they would bring him back a group of young boys; therein lay the “explanation” for the crusade. For some commentators, the naïveté of the young was fit to be mocked; for others, it was an excuse to blame unscrupulous Italian merchants who allegedly sold their hapless passengers into slavery; a few were dispatched to Baghdad where they were said to have been martyred or set to hard labor.36 In reality, the Children’s Crusade was far less exciting than these exotic vignettes, although for us, its importance lies in its ability to illuminate the age of crusading under Innocent III.

In essence, the Children’s Crusade was an unauthorized, popular movement. It has become known as a crusade because of its aims—to recover Jerusalem and the True Cross; in fact, within a year of its demise a preacher calmly commented on the “innocent children who became crusaders the other year.”37 The idea that a group of children and young people could reach, let alone recover, the Holy Land from the Muslims was, of course, utterly ridiculous. What it reflected, however, was a sense of frustration with the efforts of the powerful and the wealthy, that is, the failure of the Third Crusade and the diversion of the Fourth. In line with contemporary admiration for apostolic poverty and a belief in the virtue of the poor and the pure, the sense that divine providence would bring victory to this most worthy enterprise took these adventurers far from their homes and created an extraordinary legacy.

The “crusade” began in the late spring of 1212 near the town of Chartres, about sixty miles southwest of Paris. This was a region with a rich history of crusading—some relics from the Fourth Crusade had been given to the cathedral, although in the form of Simon de Montfort, at least one notable local figure had shown his disapproval for the events of 1203–4. At the feast of Pentecost (May 13), groups of peasants, shepherds, and servants gathered at the cathedral for the ceremonial display of an important relic, the tunic worn by the Virgin Mary as she gave birth to Christ. A week later prayers were said for the fight against the Muslims in Spain, and this combination of religious ceremony and preaching stirred a fervent, if unexpected, response. The “Chronicle of Mortemer” noted: “In the realm of France, boys and girls, with some more mature males and old men, carrying banners, wax candles, crosses, censers, made processions, and went through the cities, villages and castles, singing aloud in French, ‘Lord God, raise up Christendom! Lord God, return to us the True Cross!’ . . . this thing, unheard of in past ages, was a wonder to many.”38 The tender years of many of these devotees has aroused much comment and it seems likely that, at this stage at least, a large proportion of young children aged between seven and fourteen took part in these processions. The lack of clergymen involved is conspicuous, again an indication of the popular nature of this movement, while the desire to recover the True Cross shows the undimmed significance of this relic to the people of the West, even twenty years after its loss to Saladin.

To stimulate the enthusiasm of these people further would need a charismatic leader, and the sources name a young shepherd, Stephen of Cloyes, as the figure who emerged. Stephen had a vision from God in which Christ appeared to him as a pilgrim. The shepherd treated him kindly and so the pilgrim revealed his identity and gave him letters to deliver to the king of France at Saint-Denis, just north of Paris. Stephen and the pueri headed toward Saint-Denis, gathering even more adherents en route, and by the time they reached the town the group numbered several thousand. Saint-Denis was a place rich in crusading history, as we saw at the time of the Second Crusade. Stephen handed over his letters to royal counselors and they duly held discussions with the king. Taken to its logical conclusion this was an attempt to pressure the king to lead a new crusade, but Philip was resolutely not interested. Given Stephen’s many followers there must have been some concern about public order and the king was advised to command the pilgrims to disperse. The “Chronicle of Laon” said: “And so this boyish revival was terminated as easily as it had begun. But it seemed to many that by means of such innocents gathered of their own accord, the Lord would do something great and new upon the earth, which turned out to be far from the case.”39 This seems a regrettably tame ending to such an effusion of religious fervor, but over the next few weeks some of the pueri, undeterred, stayed on the road and headed eastward toward Cologne and the Rhineland, set to follow the old route taken by Peter the Hermit on the First Crusade.

Their arrival prompted a new outbreak of enthusiasm among the poor and the young, and thousands are said to have taken the cross determined to make the pilgrimage to the Holy Land, to recover the True Cross, and to seek a better life. Cologne Cathedral holds a magnificent reliquary that houses the relics of the Magi (the three kings) and was, therefore, an appropriate place to begin a pilgrimage. The crowds drawn to the adventure believed that they had been chosen by God, and at this stage they were warmly received by locals as they headed south through Germany in July and August. People gave them gifts and food and others joined the expedition. By now the crusade was headed by another charismatic young man, Nicholas of Cologne, who carried a T-shaped cross (known as a tau), a symbol of the exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt; they, of course, had followed their leader and crossed the sea dry-footed—perhaps some of Nicholas’s followers believed the same would happen when they arrived at the Mediterranean.

Unfortunately for the pilgrims their march coincided with one of the hottest summers on record and the effort needed to cross the Alps sapped the strength and the conviction of many in Nicholas’s band; every day more of his troupe fell by the wayside or returned home in shame. By late August the few thousand survivors had reached the port of Genoa in northwestern Italy. Unsurprisingly, the pragmatic sea captains refused to offer free passage to such a rabble and quickly extinguished the dreams of many of these hopeful, yet utterly naive, travelers. Some settled in Genoa, others went west to Marseilles where they were also rejected by the seafaring community. The remainder wandered home, no longer welcomed so kindly, but ridiculed for their stupidity. Nicholas probably went to Rome, and although he did not meet Innocent in person the pope undoubtedly heard about the young pilgrims’ activities. The Children’s Crusade was an unofficial popular movement, but it had demonstrated the desire of nonknightly classes to contribute to the crusades, and Pope Innocent was sharp enough to try to harness this in his next formal crusade appeal for the Holy Land.

Quia maior, issued in April 1213, marked a significant change in the direction and form of papal appeals.40 As we shall see below, it urged everyone to become involved in the campaign, not just knights and nobles but also townsmen, the poor, and the infirm. It is no coincidence that Innocent took this step in the few months after the Children’s Crusade reached Italy and this, rather than the legends of later writers, represents its true legacy. Nicholas himself managed to hang around Rome and southern Italy and he left Brindisi with the armies of the Fifth Crusade in 1217. Thus he became a “legitimate” crusader after all, and took part in and survived an expedition to the East.


After the successes of the Second Crusade (1145–49) the pace of reconquest in Iberia slowed and the character of the crusading movement in the peninsula changed. In contrast to crusading in the Holy Land there was little involvement of external forces and most progress was a consequence of local and regional initiatives.41 The concept of the Military Order proved immensely popular in Iberia and the foundation of several organizations, such as the Order of Santiago (1170) and the Order of Calatrava (1158), institutionalized the struggle with Islam. While the Christian kingdoms of northern Spain began to grow in strength, the Muslims of Iberia experienced a period of upheaval with, by 1172, the removal of the ruling Almoravid dynasty at the hands of the austere Berber tribesmen of Morocco, a group known as the Almohads.42 In 1195 Almohad armies exploited rivalries between the Christian kingdoms to crush them at the Battle of Alarcos, near Toledo.43 So soon after the loss of Jerusalem to Saladin this latest disaster raised fears that Islam was poised to sweep aside Christianity in the peninsula as well. Such had been the antipathy between the warring factions of León and Castile that prior to this battle the ruler of the former had preferred to ally with the Muslims rather than join with his coreligionists. The shock of Alarcos was sufficiently profound to prompt a degree of Christian cooperation and with the accession of Innocent III the papacy began to offer increasing encouragement to the Iberian crusade. As we saw earlier, the most spectacular manifestation of this was the 1212 penitential procession in Rome. When King Peter II of Aragon called for outside help, Innocent appealed to the French and, with a positive response, the Christians assembled their most formidable force for years. At the same time, the Almohads were struggling with rebellions in North Africa and, to exacerbate their situation, Calpih al-Nasir was a weak, paranoid figure who executed many of his most able lieutenants.44

By July 1212 the Christians had made steady progress southward and they brought their opponents to battle in mountainous terrain near Las Navas de Tolosa, roughly midway between Christian Toledo and Muslim Granada. The kings of Castile, Aragon, and Navarre all took to the field, although most of the French were absent after a dispute over the distribution of booty. The crusaders confessed their sins and called for divine help in their struggle; their prayers were soon answered when the Christian cavalry burst through the enemy lines and put them to flight. Al-Nasir fled, leaving many splendid treasures, including the beautiful tapestry that covered the entrance to his tent, an object that still hangs in the monastery of Las Huelgas near Burgos.45 His silken tent, golden lance, and standard were all sent to the papal court and an exultant Innocent translated and read out Alfonso VIII’s victory letter to a public assembly—irrefutable evidence that the procession and prayers in Rome had induced divine favor.46 Alfonso’s message resounded with crusading imagery: “Our Lord slew a great number of them with the sword of the cross,” and although his estimates of the enemy dead—100,000—and the Christian losses—only twenty to thirty—may have been somewhat exaggerated, the point was made: the Muslims had suffered a savage defeat and the Christians could establish firm control over much of southern Iberia. While Innocent saw the victory at Las Navas de Tolosa as an inspiration to the Christian cause, he adduced it as a reason to suspend the crusade in the peninsula and to concentrate on the Holy Land. Progress halted for a couple of decades until the capture of the Balearic Islands (1235), Cordova (1236), Valencia (1246), and Seville (1248). Protected by the Sierra Nevada mountains, however, the kingdom of Granada remained in Muslim hands for more than two hundred years, meaning that the reconquest was far from complete. The battle at Las Navas de Tolosa has become a seminal moment in Spanish history because it was the point at which the divided kingdoms began to work together; indeed, within a few decades the absent rulers of León and Portugal found their way into the story of the battle as well, accounts of which almost entirely exclude the role of the papacy because in terms of generating a national identity it was the Spanish alone—“Soli Hispani”—who had fought for God, the Catholic faith, and Spain.47


In the course of the Second Crusade, Pope Eugenius III had brought the war against the pagans of northern Europe into parity with the campaigns in the Holy Land and Spain. This situation did not, however, continue and there was no ongoing papal initiative in the region.48 Local princes and churchmen organized further campaigns of conquest and conversion to Livonia, southern Estonia, and Prussia. During the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, efforts at missionary work gathered momentum as the Church sought to provide proper instruction for the people now under Christian authority. Innocent quickly appreciated the need to defend these new acquisitions; he also tried to counter the trend of forcible conversion, something contrary to canon law. In papal thinking, however, the need to preserve these Christian outposts justified the use of violence, “to root out the error of paganism and spread the bounds of the Christian faith.”49 The pope granted partial indulgences to various expeditions in the Baltic: in other words they did not receive the full forgiveness of sins and the protection of property granted to crusaders in the Holy Land, Spain, or against the Cathars of southern France. While the Baltic campaigns shared the idea of service to God they were not, at this point, regarded as equals. Innocent had created a hierarchy of crusading with the Baltic placed behind these other holy wars; presumably a judgment on their perceived spiritual merits and the threat posed to the Christian faith therein.

In the decades after Innocent’s pontificate this approach changed when Honorius III (1216–27) brought the Baltic crusades back on a par with the campaigns to the Holy Land, probably a reflection of his interest in the emergent mendicant orders of the Franciscans and the Dominicans.50 Missionary work needed support, and crusades could help to defend both the newly converted and the missionaries themselves. In the 1230s the Teutonic Knights arrived in Prussia. Originally founded during the Third Crusade, this new group of warrior-monks soon established itself as an important institution in the Levant.51 Given its national origins it also became a natural outlet for crusading ideas in the Baltic and Prussia and the papacy provided it with considerable support and freedom of action.52 By 1245 Innocent IV had awarded the Teutonic Knights the right to recruit crusaders at any time, thereby removing the need for him to grant permission for a specific campaign. The war against the pagans became, therefore, a perpetual crusade, a ceaseless struggle against the enemies of the faith. As the experience of the Holy Land showed, taking territory was one thing, but holding it was often a much harder matter. Yet the Teutonic Knights soon became such a powerful and wealthy institution they were capable of doing just this, and the order secured promises from the papacy and the German Empire that it could keep the conquered lands for itself. As we shall see, this was hugely significant because in later centuries it meant the Teutonics became a sovereign power in their own right in northeastern Europe.


With his crusades against Markward of Anweiler, the Cathars of southern France, the Muslims of Spain, as well as the ill-fated Fourth Crusade, we can see Innocent III’s near-obsession with fighting the enemies of the faithful. To this list one might add calls for a crusade against heretics in Milan in 1212–13 and hints that he considered a campaign against King John of England for his persistent disobedience to papal instructions.53 The popular enthusiasm for the Children’s Crusade was a manifestation of continued public support for holy war, and in April 1213 Innocent issued Quia maior, one of the most powerful and forceful crusade appeals of all time.54 Innocent’s sense of passion blazed forth and he demanded action to recover the holy places, “because at this time there is a more compelling urgency than there has ever been before to help the Holy Land in her need.” He argued that God could have saved Jerusalem if he had wished, but because of man’s sins he had created a test of their faith and now offered the people who fought for him a chance of salvation. To the individuals who rejected this opportunity Innocent had a threat: “those who refuse to pay him the servant’s service that they owe him in a crisis of such great urgency will justly deserve to suffer a sentence of damnation on the Last Day of severe Judgement.” The pope castigated ungrateful Christians for rejecting Christ’s “ancient device” that would deliver salvation to them. He sought to arouse their feelings by describing the slavery and suffering of captive Christians and he delivered a scathing denunciation of “the false prophet Muhammad, who has seduced many men from the truth by worldly enticements and the pleasures of the flesh,” a typical attack on the alleged immorality of the Muslims. Innocent even cast the situation in an apocalyptical framework when he reminded his audience that, according to the Revelation of Saint John, the end of the beast, that is, Muhammad, would happen in 666 years, of which almost six hundred had passed.

Innocent sought to capitalize on the hunger for crusading apparent in the Children’s Crusade by taking the radical step of broadening his appeal beyond the usual warrior classes. He indicated that those who were unsuitable, or unable to go in person, but who paid for a soldier to go in their place would also receive full remission of their sins. He also offered partial remission of sins to those who provided money for other crusaders. Innocent’s vision of Christianity pulling together was restated in his commands that communities should organize processions, prayers, and almsgivings to show their support for the crusade and to gain God’s favor—in other words, events similar to the display in Rome in 1212. Innocent offered some practical ideas too. He urged abbots, bishops, and all the clergy, as well as cities, villages, and castles, to contribute to the crusade. He also asked the Italian mercantile cities to provide vessels for the campaign, which showed the importance of shipping as the method of transportation to the eastern Mediterranean. As noted above, he temporarily suspended the crusades in Spain and southern France on the basis that they were making good progress and the needs of the Holy Land were more urgent.

To bring the spiritual attention of the Catholic Church into proper focus, Innocent then organized the Fourth Lateran Council, an event advertised years in advance, to give himself a platform to address the largest gathering of churchmen and lay leaders in the medieval period.55 This most dazzling of public ceremonies took place over several days in November 1215 when more than four hundred bishops, archbishops, patriarchs and cardinals, numerous representatives of cathedral chapters and monasteries, as well as envoys from the rulers of France, Germany, Hungary, Jerusalem, Cyprus, and Aragon, plus Count Raymond VI of Toulouse (keen to defend himself against accusations of heresy), gathered to hear Innocent set out his vision for the faithful. This was an astounding display of papal power and undoubtedly the apogee of Innocent’s—and probably any medieval pope’s—pontificate. The new crusade loomed large on the agenda and Innocent added a boost to Quia maior by legislating that the clergy should give one-twentieth of their annual income to the crusade—a very unpopular move among the clerics, but a way to show lay people that the Church (with its obvious wealth) truly supported the expedition. The pope promised that he and the cardinals would make an even bigger donation to the campaign—one-tenth of their income; he also commanded the secular authorities to prevent Jews from charging interest on loans to crusaders.56

At the forefront of his message was a total obligation on mankind to obey the divine mandate of the crusade. Once again he castigated those who were unwilling to take the cross: the sense of threat in Innocent’s crusade appeals was something barely apparent in earlier papal bulls and showed his unwavering belief in the necessity and moral right of the cause. His final strictures demanded a four-year peace throughout the Christian world, an attempt to head off another common reason why crusades had struggled; those who broke this order were threatened with excommunication.

Innocent intended the crusaders to gather at Brindisi in southern Italy in June 1217 and he hoped to send God’s army on its way in person. In the event, he did not live to see his grand plan fulfilled. In April 1216 the pope addressed an enthusiastic crowd of potential crusaders at Orvieto and, in pouring rain, as the throng clamored to take the cross he insisted on fixing the insignia to everyone who had taken their vows. Soon after it was apparent that he had caught a chill, but the pope traveled on to Todi and then to Perugia, where his condition began to weaken considerably and he died on July 16, 1216. By some astonishing error, no one was left to guard his body in the cathedral and the following morning the corpse of the most powerful man in Christendom lay almost naked, stripped of its precious clothes and starting to putrefy: “How brief and how vain is the treacherous glory of the world” as one contemporary observed.57

His pontificate had been a period of astounding energy, confidence, and challenges for the Church. Innocent truly believed that as the Vicar of Christ he was responsible for the souls of everyone, that all Christians should be subject to his authority, and that the crusade was a means by which he could maintain and extend this guardianship. As we have seen, he made some progress in Iberia and (at the time of his death) against the Cathars, but the Fourth Crusade was a disaster and the Fifth Crusade would struggle to gather momentum against a background of turmoil in the German Empire and the continued warfare between England and France. As the pope himself wrote in one of his treatises: “I have done as well as I could, but not as well as I wished.”58

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!