Post-classical history


If the earth should rise up against you, and the stars of the heavens should reveal your iniquity and manifest your sins to the whole world, so that not only humans but the very elements themselves should join together for your destruction and ruin and wipe you from the face of the earth, sparing neither sex nor age, even that punishment laid upon you would still not be sufficient and worthy.

Innocent III to the citizens of Viterbo1

As Innocent III, Lothar Segni, the outstanding talent in a new generation of leaders, became pope in 1198. At thirty-seven he was probably the youngest man ever to do so. The son of a well-connected family of the Roman Campagna, he had been educated in Paris and active in the papal curia since his elevation to the cardinalate in 1189 or 1190. It was this experience that gave him a reputation as a lawyer and a man of business, for there is no evidence that he had a legal education. As pope he brought several masters from Paris to his court, and theology rather than law pervaded his thought. During the 1190s he wrote two works of devotional theology, On the Mystery of the Mass and On the Contempt of the World, which remained influential for several centuries, the latter surviving in more than 700 medieval manuscripts.

Innocent III had charm, dynamism and vision. He also had a loftier conception of the powers of his office than any pope since Gregory VII.

It is to me that the words of the prophet apply: I have established thee above peoples and kingdoms, that thou mightest uproot and destroy, and also that thou mightest build and plant. It is to me that it was said: I will give thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven.

On this basis he claimed ‘fullness of power’ (plenitudo potestatis) over the lives and business of the Christian people and used it to excommunicate two emperors, seven kings and many lesser lords, and to suspend catholic services in their lands. Holding himself bound to intervene vigorously in the affairs of the world because ‘We who are, unworthily, the vicar of Christ on earth, following his example and imitating the custom of our predecessors, wish and are obliged to attend to the restoration of true peace and concord between those who are in dispute’, he presided over two of European history’s infamous atrocities.2 In 1204 Constantinople, the greatest Christian city in the world, was besieged and looted by an army of crusaders initially raised to recover Jerusalem from the Muslims. In 1208 Innocent launched another crusade, ostensibly against the Albigensian heretics of the lands between the Rhône and the Garonne, whose relentless succession of sieges, lootings and burnings set a new level of savagery in wars between Christians. Posterity has generally supposed that in both cases Innocent did what he thought was right.


Two years before Innocent’s accession the city of Orvieto had seized control of the stronghold of Acquapendente, which commanded a road bridge crucial to its trade, and over which the papacy had long claimed jurisdiction. One of Innocent’s first actions was to demand its return. When the Orvietans refused, he placed the city under interdict, recalled the bishop to Rome and sent a Roman noble named Pietro Parenzo to take over its government as papal rector. The events that followed, as described immediately after Pietro’s murder less than a year later, by Master John, a canon of the cathedral who himself became bishop of Orvieto in 1211, offer a unique cameo of the place of heresy in Italian life and politics at the end of the twelfth century.3 John’s tale of Pietro’s heroic confrontation with the heretics, the hatching of a plot against him, his bloody death and the reaction that followed, sealed by miracles at his tomb, would have given Verdi the material of a superb libretto.


In Act I Orvieto’s heretics were so emboldened by the bishop’s absence that

the notion began to grow upon them of confiscating the goods of any catholics who would not join their sect, and expel them or kill them, so that they could turn the city, with its impregnable fortifications, into a citadel for heretics from all over the world to hold against the catholic church.

The terrified catholics,

afraid that the tunic of Christ would be irreparably torn, met together under divine inspiration and sent some of their number to Rome to find a rector who would acquire the pope’s favour for the Orvietans, make peace with the Romans and extirpate the heresy from the city.

The pope ordered Pietro Parenzo, ‘young in years, but old in wisdom, constant, intelligent, eloquent and clear-headed’, to cleanse Orvieto of heresy, with the comforting reassurance that ‘if he died in the attempt he would be assured of eternal glory’.

In Act II Pietro ‘was received in Orvieto with joy and honour, with laurels and olive branches, by all the citizens, high and low’. He inaugurated his regime by forbidding jousting at the Lent carnival, ‘since at that time many murders had been committed under the cover of sport’. On the first day of Lent the heretics, pretending to be playing a game, started a brawl and soon

the whole city was fighting in the piazza with swords and lances, stones were thrown from the towers and palaces around it and the peace was shattered. Pietro mounted a horse and broke up the fight by riding between the sides, exposing himself to the danger of death. By divine protection he passed through their ranks unharmed.

Sadly, John neglected to record his aria.

Condign punishment of the heretics followed. Pietro

had the towers and palaces from which the skirmishing had been conducted razed to the ground so that everybody was punished in proportion to his wealth and without regard to persons. From the many who had fought, with great bloodshed, he exacted lawful recompense with severity.

In conjunction with the bishop Pietro then issued an ultimatum:

Anyone who returned to the church before a stated day would be received with mercy and good will; anyone who refused to return before the day fixed would be liable to the penalties laid down by civil and canon law. The recalcitrants were bound in iron fetters, and some were sentenced to be publicly flogged, some exiled from the city, and some fined, which was bitterly lamented by the greedy; he exacted large recognisances* from others, and had the houses of many of them destroyed.

At the beginning of Act III Pietro returned to Rome to spend Easter with his family, reporting to the pope that he had acted against the heretics with such severity that they were publicly threatening to kill him. Innocent accepted this news with equanimity, promising that ‘by the authority of God, and of the apostles St Peter and St Paul I absolve you from all your sins if you die at the hands of the heretics.’ Pietro went home, made his will and bade farewell to his weeping mother and sisters. Meanwhile in Orvieto the heretics laid their plot, bribing one of Pietro’s servants to betray him. Pietro returned, once more to be ‘received by the Orvietans with garlands, flowers and great joy’. ‘Far from giving up his persecution of the heretics, he bravely ignored their threats and warnings and visited them with the full penalties of the law.’

On 20 May, as Pietro was preparing for bed, a gang of heretics called at his palazzo, asking to see him. With the help of the bribed servant they seized and gagged him, and took him to a mill in the contado, where they demanded that he return their recognisances, promise to stop harassing them, and resign his lordship of the city. Pietro was willing to give back their money from his own resources, but

he would rather submit to any torture than stray from the path of the catholic faith by consenting to their heresy. He would not evade his orders, or ensnare himself in the web of perjury, for the government of Orvieto had been entrusted to him, on oath, for one year.

In this he persisted until

one of them growled, ‘Why are we wasting words on this scoundrel?’ He raised his fist and struck Pietro in the mouth, knocking out a tooth and leaving his face streaming with blood. Another, seized by the same fury, grabbed a millstone and hit Pietro on the back of the head, so that he fell to the ground and got a mouthful of dust, which he received as a holy sacrament. Others killed Pietro with swords and knives. He was stabbed four times. They tried to get rid of the body in an old well overgrown with vegetation, but they could neither move the body nor open the well. The body remained immovable so they fled, leaving it under a walnut tree which had formerly been sterile, but that year by God’s will produced two heavy crops in witness of the martyrdom.

Next morning Pietro’s body was found by monks on their way to the mill, and Act V describes the distress of the Orvietans and their reaction, in which some of the heretics were lynched, others were brought to trial and some escaped from the city, but not from the plague that followed, a sign of divine vengeance. Pietro was buried in the cathedral, but only after a good deal of argument, because

the great church was deprived of attendance and respect, and there were scarcely three lamps inside to provide light … the place where his tomb rests had almost no protection from the rain, given the poor condition of the roof above it. As a result that deserted place, with the rain irrigating it and the grass growing appeared like a meadow.

As the resting place of the martyr, however, the cathedral became once more a place of pilgrimage and the centre of the life of the city, not the least of the miracles that Pietro worked being to call down fire from heaven, ‘burning scarlet and gold, to light the lamps, candles and lanterns whenever their own flames had burnt out’.4

It is, of course, quite anachronistic to retell the story of Pietro Parenzo in the shape of a five-act opera. Apart from anything else, Verdi, a fervent supporter of the nineteenth-century Italian Risorgimento, would have sided with the heretics. Master John’s story was directly, and equally self-consciously, modelled on the passion of Christ. It is deliberately and carefully crafted, designed to consolidate the supporters in Orvieto of papal lordship and of the recovery by the bishopric of lands and revenues lost, largely to lords of the contado, during the turbulent 1160s and ’70s. In neither respect was it entirely successful. The cathedral was still dilapidated and the episcopal property wretchedly depleted when Bishop Rainerio made an inventory of it in 1228, and the attitude even of catholic Orvietans to papal lordship remained ambivalent. Master John himself, when he became bishop, found it necessary to defy Innocent III by renewing a feudal contract with Count Bulgarello of Parrano, at a time when Bulgarello was under sentence of excommunication as a supporter of the emperor Otto IV. Innocent’s refusal when he preached in Orvieto in 1216 to give a hearing to fifty Orvietans who wanted to testify to miracles at Peter’s tomb is another indication that the story was not quite so straightforward as John makes it appear. Passionately committed though he was to the fight against heresy, it did not suit the pope to give a saint to a Roman family with which his own relations were distinctly strained.


Even for so clear-headed a man as Innocent III it was not easy to distinguish between heresy as a religious force and as a political one. Of all the problems that confronted him the most dangerous had been created by the death of King William II of Sicily, without a legitimate male heir, in 1189. Its consequences reshaped and dominated the affairs of the Italian peninsula, and therefore of the papacy, for the rest of the period considered by this book. The succession was fiercely contested by William’s able and well-supported but illegitimate nephew Tancred and by the emperor Henry VI, who claimed it through his wife, Constance, a daughter of Roger II of Sicily. The Sicilian kingdom was a papal fief, and though their relations were often uneasy, it had provided the papacy throughout the twelfth century with an essential counter-balance to imperial power in Italy – essential, at any rate, if the papacy was to preserve any measure of political independence, and still more so if it was to exercise political power on its own account.

The pope could hardly view the prospect of empire and kingdom in the same hands with equanimity, or welcome Henry’s victory, after a series of exceptionally cruel campaigns, in 1194. Henry’s early death in 1197 precipitated another succession dispute. The empire was claimed by his brother Philip of Swabia and by Otto of Brunswick, hereditary enemy of the Hohenstaufen. The championship of Philip’s cause by Henry’s most trusted lieutenant, Markward of Anweiler, precipitated a renewed and bitter struggle throughout the peninsula. In May 1198 Innocent crowned Frederick, the three-year-old son of Henry and Constance, as king of Sicily, but not as king of the Romans, the title that normally designated the heir apparent to the empire. In return Constance reaffirmed that Sicily was a papal fief. When she died in November 1198, Innocent accordingly assumed the guardianship of Frederick and the regency of Sicily. These events framed the conditions in which the papacy acquired the habit of using every weapon in its spiritual armoury – crusading, privileges for its allies, excommunication and anathematisation as heretics for its enemies – in defence of its territorial interests. Henceforth every rebellion, every factional conflict, every project of domination, could be assimilated to the cause, or at least adorned with the label, of the Guelfs (Welf being the family name of Otto IV), who upheld the temporal power of the papacy, or the Ghibellines, the supporters of the Hohenstaufen. The drama of Pietro Parenzo’s governorship of Orvieto was not only the simple story of heroic piety pitted against heretical depravity that we heard from Master John. In the circumstances that gave rise to it, the manner in which it was played out and its aftermath it contained almost all the elements that came together in the 1190s to transform Italian politics. The tensions and divisions that multiplied in its course, at every level of society, created an environment in which accusations of heresy and their consequences multiplied and flourished.


Whatever their relations, both pope and emperor faced another power that both despised, but which was potentially greater than either of them. The towns were now growing explosively in size and wealth, and ever more vigorously engaged in dominating and enlarging their contados, often in rivalry with one another. Tensions that had long been building between towns and their lords and between different factions of citizens surfaced in the 1190s to make the first half of the thirteenth century, a time of even more rapid growth and development than the twelfth had been, also one of constant and violent civic conflict. The communes had been established by the factions of noble families that dominated them for most of the twelfth century, conducting their vendettas from their networks of fortified towers. Merchants too banded together to defend their common interests and win a share in civic government. Little is known of the early history of the merchant guilds because, when possible, they were ferociously suppressed by the noble communes. From about the 1150s, however, they fragmented and multiplied as particular trades and specialisms, and the inhabitants of particular quarters, began in their turn to claim and seek to advance their collective identities and to form armed associations to defend their common interests. These were the groups that became known collectively as the popolo, whose ferocious conflicts with the noble communes reverberated through the thirteenth century, eventually to deliver the cities to the rule of despots. The contest broke into the open at Brescia in 1196, at Piacenza in 1198, at Milan between 1198 and 1201, at Assisi between 1198 and 1202, Padua in 1200, Cremona in 1201, Lucca in 1203 … and at Orvieto in 1199. The particular combination of grievance and alliance between different groups and interests, between those within the city and in the contado, between the factions in the city and the claims and claimants of rival cities, of wider lordship, of empire or papacy, was unique in every case, but all were drawn from the same list of ingredients.

Innocent confronted the towns directly when, in April 1198, a council at Verona, instructed by him to deal with the problem of heresy in northern Italy, decreed that heretics should be excluded from all participation in municipal elections and from every official position.5 Thus within a few weeks of his accession Innocent gratified the ambition of every political agent and every would-be tyrant for a handy way to disqualify his opponents, before or after the event. The message was received well beyond Lombardy. Within a few months Zukan, lord of Dioclea (modern Montenegro), in rebellion against his elder brother the ruler of Serbia, saw an opportunity to find favour both with the pope and with King Imre of Hungary. He claimed that his neighbour and rival lord (ban) Kulin of Bosnia, an underling of Imre’s own rebellious younger brother, had become a heretic, along with ten thousand others, and suggested that the pope might urge Imre to expel them. So it continued.

Reputation must be confirmed by due process, of course, and Innocent did his best, on occasion, to see that those accused – a clerk at Nevers in 1200, a group of laymen and women from La Charité-sur-Loire and another from Bologna, in 1205 – had a proper, legal opportunity to defend themselves. On the other hand, convinced that he was surrounded on all sides by the enemies of the faith, he was always ready to identify opposition to his designs with hostility to the Christian religion itself, and to deploy the full panoply of spiritual sanctions against every opponent. Among those enemies Innocent, at heart more theologian than lawyer, saw heretics as the most dangerous, and their danger greatest in the theological dualism for which his generation of students had been taught to look out. He warned especially against

the impious Manichaeans, who call themselves Cathars or Patarenes, and whose madness the apostle Paul foresaw, ‘giving heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of devils … forbidding to marry and commanding to abstain from meats …’ created not by God but by the Devil, by whom all corporeal and visible things were created … more to be detested than Simon Magus.6

It is a revealing comparison. It was of the sin of Simon Magus, which they regarded as the root of the evils that beset the church, that the first Patarenes had accused Innocent’s predecessors, and it was this sin that their successors in his time continued to denounce.

In pursuing the heretics whom he so fervently believed to menace the souls of the Christian people, Innocent could not, or would not, refrain from advancing simultaneously the political interests of the Roman see and the centralisation of ecclesiastical policy and of appointments in the papal court. One of his first actions was to issue, in March 1199, the bull Vergentis in senium, addressed to the clergy and people of Viterbo. In this decree he described heresy as lèse-majesté, equating it with the crime of high treason and subject to the same penalties in Roman law, which was cited extensively. The property of heretics was to be confiscated. They were to be declared infamous, incapable of holding office and denied access to the courts, and these penalties were to be extended even to their catholic descendants: ‘Life only is to be allowed to their children, and only as an exercise of mercy.’ It was another huge step in the papacy’s embrace of the model of secular monarchy that appalled its critics, and another huge incentive to princes everywhere to discover and convict heretics among their subjects. It was this policy that brought the citizens of both Viterbo and Orvieto into confrontation with papal authority.


According to Master John, heresy had been introduced to Orvieto in the time of Bishop Rustico – that is, before 1175 – by a Florentine named Diotesalvo.

He denied the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ, and the efficacy of catholic baptism; he said that alms and prayers do not help the dead to attain absolution; that St Sylvester* and all his successors are suffering the tortures of the damned; that all visible things are the creation of the devil and subject to his power; that any good man has the same merits and prerogatives as St Peter, the chief of the apostles, while any evil man suffers the same punishment as the traitor Judas, and a number of other pernicious doctrines which may readily be found in the book Contra haereticos.

‘That all visible things are the creation of the devil and subject to his power’ is one of the earliest surviving assertions of theological dualism among Italian heretics, and is consistent with Master John’s characterisation of the heresy as Manicheeism. It is not, however, consistent with the other teachings he lists, for to those who believed that the material world was the creation of the devil it was the only hell their theology required: there was no place in it for the post-mortem tortures of the damned. This suggests that Master John borrowed his description from the pope, or found it in the Contra haereticos to which he refers – apparently an academic treatise of unknown authorship that survives in a number of thirteenth-century Italian manuscripts.

After Bishop Riccardo (1178–1202) threw Diotesalvo out of the city, the latter’s place was taken by two women,

Milita of Monte-Meato and Julieta of Florence, both daughters of iniquity. They adopted the semblance of religion, so that by appearing eager to hear the holy offices they seemed to be sheep though in reality they were wolves. The bishop was deceived by their religious disguise, and advised their admission into the confraternity of the clergy for regular prayers. Milita, like another Martha, feigned anxiety about the state of repair of the cathedral roof, while Julieta, like Mary, pretended to embrace the contemplative life. Many of the ladies of our city and their relations began to respect them as very holy women. So, as beloved enemies or highly virulent germs these snakes in the grass drew many men and women into the labyrinth of their heresy under the pretext of piety.

We have met such women before, often prominent in varied expressions of lay piety, often involved in good works around the church. It is an interesting coincidence, though perhaps no more, that in Florence, where Milita and Julia came from, the clothworkers’ guild had been taking responsibility for looking after the fabric of the baptistry for the past fifteen or twenty years, and that there, though not until well into the thirteenth century, accusations of heresy did arise from tensions between clergy and laity involved in such arrangements.7 The condition of the cathedral roof was a sensitive point in Orvieto. A canon of the cathedral might easily have concluded after the event that lay activity in the cause of repairing it, coupled with accusations of avarice or neglect against theclergy, was no more than a cover for heresy. Master John placed a similar interpretation on the arrival of an emissary from Viterbo, ‘a doctor of the Manichees named Peter the Lombard who began to hold secret conclaves in Orvieto with other heretical leaders’ after Innocent III’s interdict in 1198 had withdrawn Bishop Riccardo from the city. Viterbo was at this time engaged in precisely the same dispute with the pope about the nature of his jurisdiction over it as Orvieto. In both cases, that is, those who resisted the consolidation of papal authority in their respective cities were identified and condemned as heretics.

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