Innocent III’s expansion of crusading

Painting. Expulsion of the Cathars

Cathars being expelled from Carcassonne in 1209. In this group, women appear to be nearly as numerous as men and the Crusaders seem to give women equally harsh treatment for their beliefs.

By 1212 there were examples of the failures of the knights nearer to home. In the south of France a Crusade was under way, supposedly against the heretical Cathars, but some commentators noted that the purpose was equally to dispossess the count of Toulouse and to annex his land for the king of France. Some people complained that the knights who participated in this Crusade expropriated the belongings of the vanquished and took possession of their estates.

The worldliness of the Church gave rise to regular criticism that manifested itself in the form of heresy. These heresies typically called for the Church and society as a whole to return to the simplicity and poverty of the apostolic life. Since, in their time as in ours, divisions of wealth mirrored the division of society into castes, criticism of wealth implied criticism of the existing social order and the avarice of Church, crown, and nobility. Poverty is the fount of all virtue. This message was preached not just by the Cathars and Waldensians but by St. Francis of Assisi. If this contention is so, then only the poor are virtuous, and if only the pure in heart are capable of wresting the Holy City from the Muslims, then it follows that children and poor shepherds have the power to do so. The implications of this thinking were radically subversive, calling into question the social hierarchy.

In January 1208 the assassination of Peter of Castelnau, a papal legate in south-western France, prompted Innocent to turn the machinery of the Crusade on the Cathars, Christian heretics who had permeated every level of society in the region over the past century. The assassin was a vassal of the count of Tolouse, Raymond VI, who had already been excommunicated himself for his lax approach to the heresy running rampant through his domain. Raymond, alarmed at the enthusiastic response to Innocent’s call for a Crusade against Tolouse and the sizable army that was gathering in Lyon, had himself flogged in a local abbey as a sign of penance; he then promised to be more diligent about dealing with heresy in his lands and pleaded for mercy. So the Crusaders struck at the viscount of Beziers and Carcassonne, whose lands had a high density of Cathars. Beziers fell to the Crusaders in July 1209; 15,000 townspeople were massacred, an event that probably played no small role in the quick capitulation of Carcassonne the following month.

The entire region was then subjected to seasonal crusading much as that taking place in the Baltic. Every summer a Crusader host appeared and campaigned; during the “off-season” Simon of Montfort, veteran of the Fourth Crusade (but one who obeyed papal orders) was charged with protecting the gains. In 1211 Simon invaded Tolouse, citing the fact that Raymond had not made good on his promises. Keeping control over gains made during these short, sporadic Crusades in Tolouse was a daunting task; strategic sites loyal to Raymond capitulated during the summer campaigning season only to renege and rejoin the count when the Crusade ended. This game of cat and mouse continued until the summer of 1213, when the king of Aragon, Peter II, marched to assist his brother-in-law Raymond and, no doubt, to look after Aragonese interests north of the Pyrenees. Simon, however, defeated the Aragonese army, and King Peter himself was killed. When Innocent ended the granting of indulgences for crusading against the Cathars (he did not want it competing with the new Crusade to the East he was planning), it sapped much of the virility out of the effort. In the end, it was not really crusading that finally stamped out the heresy but the arrival of the Inquisition.

Just as important as Innocent’s expansion of crusading, and his application of it to new purposes, were the modifications he made to its apparatus. Although he drew upon the latent ideas of previous authors, Innocent was the true father of the plenary indulgence, which became the crowning jewel of Crusader rewards. Crusading was no longer seen as a satisfactory penitential act; it was now the divine guarantee of an all-loving God to completely obliterate penalties for sins committed by humans who, however weak they may be, had enough spiritual strength and devotion to perform such an act. The spiritual pot, so to speak, was significantly sweetened for would-be Crusaders. In his Ad libemndum, Innocent clarified and codified the traditional privileges Crusaders received, giving a good deal more precision to the boons that helped motivate Crusaders or made their journeys a bit easier. His greatest contributions might well have been in developing new means for financing Crusades. In the past, Crusaders were obligated to finance themselves completely unless they received the largesse of a greater lord to help defray the cost. Crusading, however, had become increasingly expensive, and this situation was complicating recruitment. Innocent devised two solutions to the problem that had tremendous impact on the further development of the movement. First, by instituting a tax upon the clergy, Innocent hoped to generate enough cash to subsidize Crusaders. Second, Innocent proffered vow redemption as another means for financing crusading activity. Able-bodied warriors were no longer the only Christians who could take the cross; the aged, the sick, and women could take the vow, “redeem” it through a cash payment, and receive the indulgence.


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