THE DEEDS OF INNOCENT III. Edited and translated by James M. Powell (Catholic University of America Press; order from Hopkins Fulfillment Service, P.O. Box 50370, Baltimore, Md. 21211, 2004), 320 pp. HB $59.95.
Innocent III was one of the most significant popes in history and certainly the most important pope in the medieval period. A skilled and energetic figure in the papal bureaucracy, Lothari di Segni was elected pope in January 1198 at the young age of thirty-seven. During his eighteen-year reign Innocent elevated the papacy to newfound heights of power and prestige. James Powell, an emeritus professor of history at Syracuse University, has provided another insight into the personality, policies, and projects of this famed medieval pontiff with his translation of the often-overlooked Gesta Innocenti [the Deeds of Innocent III].
The Gesta covers the first eleven years of Innocent’s pontificate. Part narrative and part cannibalization of papal letters, the work was primarily an in-house document, whose intended audience was other members of the papal curia. While the writer is anonymous, Powell makes a convincing case that Peter of Benevento, a prominent member of the curia who knew Innocent well and compiled a collection of the pope’s decretals, composed this source. The Gesta highlights the main concerns of Innocent’s papacy: Italian politics, reform, crusading, eastern re-unification, and the elimination of heresy.
Powell believes that the source shows that Innocent was more of a motivator than an innovator, but I would respectfully demur. For example, his proposal of a crusade against the papacy’s political opponent, Markward of Anweiler, marked an important shift in crusading ideology—waging crusades against Christians. This would pave the way for crusading against heretics, as Innocent would later do in the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars.
Innocent also revolutionized crusading by enabling those who did not directly participate in this holy war to receive a crusade indulgence. Christians were now able to redeem their crusading vows through the payment of money, which would be used for the campaign. This innovation generally eliminated the large body of non-combatants who would often impede the progress of the army, making it a much smaller, professional fighting force.
Scholars of the crusades generally regard his pontificate as a watershed moment in crusading history. In fact, crusading was the issue that linked all the other policies of Innocent’s reign. He used crusades to stamp out heresy, to safeguard papal political interests on the Italian peninsula, and to promote reform. Concerning the latter, the pope linked crusading and reform in arguing that Christendom needed first to amend its own ways in order to ensure a successful crusading expedition—for medieval Christians believed that failure was a manifestation of divine condemnation. Innocent even tried to utilize crusading as a means of promoting greater cooperation (and hopefully reunification) between the West and the Byzantine Empire. Powell has drawn attention in particular to Innocent’s efforts to involve the Emperor Alexius III in the Fourth Crusade. Ironically, through a series of mistakes, this crusade would ultimately be turned upon Constantinople itself—a development, which the source illustrates, that the pope was quick to condemn but powerless to enforce.
As a prolific scholar in the fields of crusading, papal studies, and medieval Italian history, Professor Powell to some extent reflects Innocent III’s own embodiment of these issues. His translation of the Gesta Innocenti is a fitting addition to his long list of academic contributions and expands our understanding of Innocent’s famous pontificate. Moreover, Catholic University of America Press should be commended for their continual commitment to putting neglected sources into translation, much to the benefit of both scholar and student.
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