Post-classical history

Chapter Forty-Six

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The Debt of Hatred

Between 1229 and 1250, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II helps the pope establish the Inquisition and is then excommunicated and deposed

THE HOLY ROMAN EMPEROR FREDERICK II, dodging the rain of pig scraps hurled his way, had left Jerusalem. He arrived back in Italy in 1229, knowing from reports sent by his officials what he would find: the empire ready to break apart.

The Holy Roman Empire, held together only by the fiction of the Roman resurrection, was perpetually splintering. Germany had possessed its own strong national identity since the tenth century. The northern Italian cities, separated from the German duchies by the Alps, had already reassembled the twelfth-century Lombard League that had defied Frederick’s grandfather. And Sicily, part of the empire only because Frederick II had inherited its crown from his mother Constance, was for all practical purposes a separate kingdom.

In Frederick’s absence, Pope Gregory IX had taken revenge on the unrepentant excommunicate emperor by prying at the empire’s cracks. He had given the deposed John of Brienne, the father of Frederick’s dead wife, permission to attack Sicily, promised his support to the Lombard League, and gone even further: “The pope has . . . spread false news of our death, and made the cardinals swear to it,” Frederick wrote back to al-Kamil’s court, upon his arrival in Italy. “So, on these men’s oaths . . . a rabble of louts and criminals was led by the nose. When we arrived . . . we found that King John and the Lombards had made hostile raids into our domains, and doubted even the news of our arrival because of what the cardinals had sworn.”1

When the Lombards and King John found out that the reports of Frederick’s death had been exaggerated, they lost heart; and when Frederick appeared on the horizon at the head of a German army, both parties beat a hasty retreat. Gregory IX, left without supporters, was forced to agree to a truce. He lifted the emperor’s excommunication; in return, Frederick promised not to take revenge on the agitators.2

Frederick’s next problem: Germany itself.

He had not been back to Germany, the core of his empire, for over ten years. He had left the country in the care of his young son Henry, crowned king of the Germans in 1222, which meant that Henry’s regents had been the de facto rulers for nearly a decade. But in his father’s absence, Henry had grown up. He was now nineteen, desperately anxious to be independent.

Realizing that Henry needed reining in, Frederick sent him a message ordering him to attend, in 1231, an imperial diet (a general assembly of all the dukes of Germany, presided over by the emperor) at Ravenna. Immediately, the Lombard League cities banded together and blocked Henry’s pathway through the Alps. Henry, without a great deal of regret, sent his apologies to his father.3

Frederick replied sharply. He was displeased with reports of Henry’s lavish lifestyle, and his tendency to favor court advisors who were hostile to the emperor. He ordered his son to meet him in the north of Italy in 1232. In the meantime he issued a series of imperial decrees reversing Henry’s latest decisions.4

Henry decided not to push the issue—yet. He met Frederick and took an oath of loyalty to him. But the two men were strangers, and the oath was an empty one.

Frederick chose to view the matter as closed. He sent Henry back to Germany and prepared to visit Sicily, the third of his three kingdoms; it was his birthplace, and the only part of the empire that felt like home. But before he left Italy, he finished putting into place another strategy for dealing with the Italian troubles—one that played to his own natural tendencies and also tied Gregory IX’s purposes more closely to his own.

Frederick II had always been inclined to treat heresy as an intensive offense against the empire itself. “To offend the divine majesty,” he had written, back in 1220, “is a far greater crime than to offend the majesty of the emperor.” A greater crime: more destructive and more pernicious, he meant, and deserving of at least the same penalty as treason.5

At the beginning of his reign, he had decreed that heretics within his realm should be banished forever and all of their possessions confiscated: the penalties that emperors before him had also enforced. The Albigensian Crusade, boiling along in southern France during the first decade of his reign, gave him another model for dealing with heretics.

Just two years earlier, the Council of Toulouse had established inquisitive committees of laypeople and priests in each southern French parish, tasked with investigating heresy and handing over the suspects to the secular authorities for punishment. Together, the emperor and the pope took this strategy a step or two further. The Dominicans, the Order of Preachers founded by Dominic Guzman to evangelize the Languedoc heretics, were appointed to spearhead the same hunt, throughout Sicily, and Germany, and Italy itself. By the papal decree Excommunicamus, published in 1231, anyone pointed out by the Dominicans was to be taken into custody by imperial officials (“relaxed to the secular arm”), held for examination, and then punished with animadversio debita: the “debt of hatred,” the due penalty for those who had rebelled not only against the emperor but against God himself.6

Gregory did not specify the exact nature of the ultimate animadversio debita, but repentant heretics were to be imprisoned for life. Unrepentant heretics clearly deserved much worse. Burning at the stake had been legal for centuries in Germany, although the penalty had not often been enforced, and Frederick had already decreed its legality for the Lombard cities within the empire. Now he wrote it into law once more. The first stipulation in the Sicilian Code of 1231—Sicily’s first written constitution—condemned heretics as traitors, subject to the same penalty of death.7

Now, in all three kingdoms of Frederick’s empire, heretics were to be hunted, imprisoned, questioned, and executed. The Council of Toulouse had established the Inquisition, but Frederick and Gregory IX had armed it with the sword.

Between 1231 and 1240, the two men cooperated in a series of decrees that increased the reach of the Inquisition and bound their two purposes closer and closer together. Both were driven by the specter of disorder and chaos in their domains, and Gregory at least was a firm believer that this disorder came from the supernatural world. Heretics, he explains in his 1233 letter Vox in Rama, gather their strength from secret rites where they do homage to a black cat, and summon into their midst a demonic creature who demands their obedience: a manifestation of Lucifer himself, “the most damned of men . . . whose lower part is shaggy like a cat.” “Who would not be inflamed against such perdition and the sons of perdition?” he concludes. “. . . No vengeance against them is too harsh.”8

And the vengeance was harsh indeed. Heretics were burned at the stake in Verona, in Milan, in Rome itself. “In the year of our Lord 1231 began a persecution of heretics throughout the whole of Germany,” records an official chronicle of the archbishops of Trier, “and . . . many were burned. . . . So great was the zeal of all that from no one, even though merely under suspicion, would any excuse or counterplea be accepted . . . no opportunity for defense be afforded. . . . Forthwith, he must confess himself guilty.”9

FREDERICK HAD MANAGED to align himself, however briefly, with Rome; but he continued to spar with his own son.

Near the end of December 1234, Henry declared open war against his father and his father’s forces. He headquartered himself on the banks of the Rhine river, just south of the German city of Koblenz. It was a short rebellion. Frederick, avoiding the hostile northern Italian lands altogether, landed on the northern shore of the Adriatic and then marched up through the loyal eastern German duchy of Carinthia. Joined by the Duke of Carinthia and by the equally loyal Duke of Lorraine, he progressed to Worms. His presence in his country, after so many years away, was greeted as a Second Coming by his people; and by the time he reached Worms, Henry’s supporters had faded away. “The Emperor . . . seized his said son, King Henry, and two sons of his, little lads,” wrote the Florentine chronicler Giovanni Villani, no fan of Frederick, “and sent them into Apulia into prison . . . and there he put him to death by starvation in great torment.” In fact, Henry did not die from starvation, but after nearly eight years in confinement he could bear no more; in the early days of 1242, while riding under guard to a new prison cell near Martirano, he spurred his horse over a steep cliff face and was killed.10

But Henry was still alive when Frederick assembled a new imperial diet at Mainz, in 1235, and had his second son, seven-year-old Conrad, elected as the new king of Germany (and crowned two years later). He then began to plan a war against the rebellious Lombards; determined, now that his own family was in line, to restore “the unity of the Empire.”11

While the Inquisition began to spread its new-fledged wings, Frederick—ignoring Gregory IX’s repeated pleas for peace in Italy—campaigned in Lombardy. Verona welcomed him; Vicenza resisted, and was sacked; Ferrara surrendered; Mantua fell. The Milanese fought stubbornly, for months on end. Frederick, backing away, managed to draw them away from their home ground towards Cortenuova, farther to the east, and then surrounded them. On November 27, 1237, the emperor’s army killed or took prisoner over half of the Milanese soldiers and seized almost all of their horses, wagons, and supplies.

The remainder fled; and Frederick, bolstered by his victory, demanded the unconditional surrender of the city. Milan refused. “We fear your cruelty,” they wrote back, in response, “which we know by experience; we had rather die under our shields by sword, spear, or dart, than by treachery, starvation, and fire.” Instead, they dug themselves in for the winter; and their resistance encouraged the other Lombard cities to rejoin the battle.12

It had become increasingly clear to Gregory IX that Frederick’s designs on Italy would, eventually, reach down to Rome itself. The temporary truce between the two men was fragile; cooperation against heretics would last only so long, as a common bond. Gregory IX’s attempts to negotiate peace between emperor and Lombards were rejected. When, early in 1239, Frederick landed troops on the shores of the island of Sardinia, which the pope claimed as his own territory, Gregory IX rose up in wrath and condemned the emperor’s ambitions: “The hatred which sprung up between the pope and the emperor, like an old wound, produced foul matter,” records the English chronicler Matthew Paris. In the Lenten season, Gregory IX pronounced Frederick II not only excommunicated but deposed.13

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46.1 Frederick’s War in Italy

The foul matter was now out in the open. Pope and emperor exchanged a series of increasingly testy letters, with Frederick copying his complaints to the crowned monarchs of Europe. (“The nations are now endeavouring to despise the ruler of Italy and the imperial sceptre!” he complained, neatly conflating his differences with Gregory and his desire to put down the Lombard revolt.) Finally Frederick II, leaving troops to go on with the war in Lombardy, began to march south towards Rome itself. In August of 1241, he was approaching the city’s walls when Gregory IX—well into his eighties, suffering from the heat of a Roman summer—died.14

Immediately, Frederick retreated and pointed out piously that his quarrel was not with the Church but with the ambitions of the man himself. Gregory’s successor served for only seventeen days before dying of illness and throwing Rome into chaos. Not until 1243 was a new pope finally elected: the Genoese cardinal Sinibaldo Fieschi, a canon lawyer who now became Pope Innocent IV.

Frederick had been friendly with Cardinal Fieschi, but he had his reservations. “This election,” he told his familiars, “will be of much hurt to us; for he was our friend when cardinal, and now he will be our enemy as Pope.” His prediction very shortly came true.15

Innocent IV had a lawyer’s mindset, and before long was combining Roman law with canon principles to come up with a clear articulation of his own power. Church law, he wrote, was above secular law; and since, in Roman jurisprudence, the prince stands above the law, so the pope also stands above church law, unbound by it, able to change it, depart from it, or even nullify it as needed. Absolute papal monarchy: it was a theory that Innocent IV spent much of his papacy elaborating and defending, and it was almost custom-designed to infuriate the emperor.16

Innocent IV began his papacy by ordering Frederick to give up all of the territory he had conquered since his excommunication by Gregory IX, five years earlier. When Frederick refused, Innocent IV traveled to the French city of Lyons—outside of Italy, and outside of the emperor’s grasp. There he renewed both the excommunication and the call for Frederick’s deposition as emperor.17

This began yet another war of letters, with both pope and emperor pleading their case to the rest of the world. “I hold my crown from God alone; neither the Pope, the Council, nor the devil shall rend it from me!” Frederick raged. “What might not all kings fear from the presumption of a such a pope?” “When a sick man who cannot be helped by mild remedies undergoes a surgical incision or cautery,” wrote Innocent IV, primly, in response, “he rages in bitterness of spirit against his doctor. . . . If then Frederick, formerly emperor, strives to accuse . . . the sacred judge of the universal church . . . he is behaving in the same fashion.”18

Inevitably, the war of words devolved into simple war. Innocent IV declared one of Frederick’s German subjects, Henry Raspe, to be the new king of Germany in place of young Conrad (now seventeen); Henry marched on Conrad’s own forces but died on campaign, so Innocent threw his weight behind another candidate, William of Holland. While Conrad fought in Germany, Frederick II started to lose his foothold in Italy. Bishops and cardinals loyal to the pope were preaching revolt to the emperor’s subjects in Sicily and Lombardy. In early February of 1248, Frederick’s army was unexpectedly defeated while laying siege to the city of Parma; the emperor was forced to flee to Cremona, and most of the gold and treasure he had been using to finance the war fell into Lombard hands. The Milanese, heading the Lombard League, led the recapture of Modena; Como fell; and in 1250, still battling, Frederick II grew ill with dysentery, the scourge of a soldier’s existence.19

“That Frederick who was once emperor died . . . in Apulia,” writes the Franciscan Salimbene. “And because of the very great stench of corruption which came from his body, he could not be carried to Palermo, where the sepulchers of the kings of Sicily are.” Salimbene was a northerner, and other northern Italians believed his horror story. In fact, Frederick’s body was embalmed, taken by ship to Sicily, paraded through the streets with an honor guard, and buried in Palermo, at the church of Monreale. The emperor’s death left Innocent IV still marooned in Lyons, Frederick’s son Conrad fighting off the anti-king of Germany, William, and the Inquisition blooming like a black weed across Europe.20

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