Pope Innocent III and the secular crusades

Bachelor Thesis 2011 49 Pages

History Europe - Other Countries - Middle Ages, Early Modern Age










Propagated in his papal bull of April 1213, the Vineam domini sabaoth, is Pope Innocent III’s essential conception of, and approach to, his duty as Supreme Pontiff: ‘Among all the good things which our heart can desire, there are two in this world which we value above all: that is to promote the recovery of the Holy Land and the reform of the universal church’.[1] This bull, summoning the ecclesiastical leaders of Western Christendom to the Fourth Lateran Council, provides an essential background to our examination of ‘crusade’ during the pontificate of Pope Innocent III. It reflects the crucial foundation by which Innocent directed his efforts, and the efforts of his curia, in the years 1198-1216, whereby crusade and crusading achieved a primacy in the formulation of papal policy (unrivalled up this point in the history of the crusading movement), a primacy which was challenged only, but importantly not surpassed, by ‘the reform of the universal church’. As Penny J. Cole argues, with the accession of Innocent III to the seat of papal power in 1198, “the crusade gained an exponent of unprecedented determination and ability”.[2] Contemporaries did not fail to notice the singular dedication displayed by Innocent III to the crusading movement, and the various surviving chronicles, such as Hystoria Constantinopolitana of Gunther of Pairis, give the overwhelming impression of Innocent as ‘exceedingly worried about the business of the Cross’.[3] Indeed, the anonymous author of the Gesta Innocenti III comments ‘[h]ow diligent and solicitous, committed and prepared [he] was in supporting the needs of the Holy Land’.[4] The practical implication of Innocent III’s dedication to the crusade movement and the recovery of the Holy Land arguably manifested itself, as Christopher Maier suggests, in the integration of the crusade into his wider ‘grand political strategies’, formulated in his grand crusade strategy: the negotium crucis.[5]

Maier postulates that Innocent’s approach to the crusade was dominated by his vision of a Christian society organised for the negotium crucis, whereby Western Christendom was to be directed towards the successful prosecution of ‘the business of Christ’, the crusade.[6] Of particular importance is how, in attempting to realise the negotium crucis during his pontificate, Innocent enlarged the scope of crusade, introducing a new institutional framework and legal boundaries. Christopher Tyerman has famously argued in his article ‘Were There Any Crusades in the Twelfth Century?’ that following defeat at Hattin in 1187 and particularly under the influence of Innocent III, crusading itself became increasingly codified and institutionalised, so that the distinction between pilgrimage and crusade which had been absent from the earlier eleventh and twelfth-century crusade was increasingly recognized in secular law and government.[7] The extent of such differences in legalistic definition of crusade and crusading are displayed clearly in the series of crusade proclamations and papal decretals issued 1198-1216, particularly in Quia maior (1213) and Ad liberandam (1215). Running parallel to such novel reform of crusade doctrine, Innocent III was attempting to realise his deep-seated desire for crusades to be papally led enterprises, with the Church at its head. This, importantly, must be seen against Innocent’s wider strategies within secular European society, particularly his conviction that the pope was not ‘the vicar of any man or apostle, but the Vicar of Jesus Christ himself’.[8] This issue of control came to dominate and, ultimately, plague Innocent’s close involvement with crusades during his pontificate. As John France argues, “[n]o pope had ever ... so firmly and unequivocally placed the papacy in a commanding position in the movement. However, that position of command was to prove more national than real when it came to events”.[9] Indeed, the series of crusades launched under Innocent III’s pontificate were to exhibit the inadequacy of papal control when confronted with secular motivations, and as such, a growing rift between Innocent’s hopes for crusade and the actions of the crusaders.

The pontificate of Innocent III witnessed a growing dichotomy between the papal plans for crusade and the implications of the secular motivations which came to direct those enterprises launched under the Innocentian papacy. As R. W. Southern argues in Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages:

Doubtless they were responsible for some terrible acts of violence and cruelty, among which the Albigensian Crusade holds a position of peculiar horror. But on the whole the holders of ecclesiastical authority were less prone to violence, even against the unbelievers, than the people whom they ruled.[10]

As such, Southern highlights a fundamental discrepancy in the unity of crusading ideology in this period, whereby early thirteenth-century crusades were subjugated more and more to the concerns of their secular participants, rather than functioning to realise the more parochial crusade goals of Innocent III himself. Logically, such a dichotomy was to further engrain the endemic marginalisation of papal control in such crusade enterprises. As Ian Robinson suggests, a close reading of contemporary chronicles and papal documents “at once throws doubt on the effectiveness of papal direction of the crusade”, and hence prompts a more close analysis of the sources at our disposal which record the increasingly secular direction of such enterprises.[11] Such sources, which record the calamitous developments of both the Fourth and the Albigensian Crusade, reflect this widening gap in the thirteenth century crusade movement between ‘papal theory’ and ‘secular practice’, an aperture that will come to dominate our view of the Innocentian crusade program and its results.[12] To a certain extent, both the Fourth Crusade and the first Albigensian Crusade reflect different aspects in the growing trend of the secular hijacking of crusade enterprises, and as such, display the near complete ineptitude of papal direction in virtually all arenas of the early-thirteenth century crusade.

It is a central irony of the Fourth Crusade that it represents Innocent’s first real attempt to launch a papally-directed crusade enterprise to recover the Holy Places, yet it presents to the historian perhaps, in its character and direction, the most secular of all crusades. Thomas F. Madden posits in his work on this fateful papal enterprise that “[t]he history of the Fourth Crusade is governed by vows and contracts and the lengths to which men went to fulfil them”.[13] By entering into a series of contracts with the Venetians and subsequently the exiled Byzantine prince, Alexius IV, the Fourth Crusade ceased to represent an autonomous and independent papal enterprise, a process which is illustrated in particular by the chronicle of Geoffroy de Villehardouin. Such captivity of the crusading force by the expediencies of secular contracts was recognized by the anonymous author of the Devastatio Constantinopolitana, in his suggestion that the crusaders became ‘almost like captives’ following the Treaty of Venice.[14] Such custody of the crusading force by the obligations of their secular contracts resulted in, as John C. Moore has suggested, the pilgrims become nothing more than a ‘horde of men under arms’.[15] Indeed, this definition of the crusading force as a manifestly mercenary outfit, fulfilling their secular vows, has implications upon our approach to the enterprise itself. The dilemmas of the Fourth Crusade ultimately reflect the inefficacy of attempts at realising papal control when the goals of Innocent III, specifically the recovery of the Holy Land, conflicted directly with secular, and in this instance, economic interests. Crucially, we must question when, if indeed at all, we are able to view the events of 1200-1204 as constituting a crusade, or if, ultimately, this enterprise is tainted by its transformation into a palpably secular affair.

Launched against the Cathar heretics in Languedoc, the first Albigensian Crusade (1209-1215) certainly did not come to represent the pious crusade against heretics which Innocent III had envisaged in 1207. Any examination of the Albigensian Crusade is overshadowed by the simple reality that “[t]he primacy of the anti-heretical message that had inspired Innocent III to call for a crusade was increasingly drowned out by the secular implications of Simon’s conquests”.[16] The crusade as presented in the contemporary works of William of Tudela and Peter of Les Vaux-de-Cernay seems to lack the overarching rhetoric of religious piety as one would expect, and does not give the impression of an army of crusading pilgrims, but rather of an army geared towards secular conquest. Indeed, both Jonathan Sumption and Mark Pegg have viewed the Albigensian Crusade as ‘a national war’ and ‘a bitter war of national unity’ (respectively), rather than viewing it in the milieu of a crusading venture.[17] It can be argued that the Albigensian Crusade represents the transformation of Innocent’s crusade against heretics into a mere tool of secular conquest by elite elements of Frankish society. As such, this campaign illustrates, more fully perhaps than the Fourth Crusade perhaps, the widening gap between papal theory and secular practice, and the frequent conflict between Innocent III and ‘the exigencies of politics’.[18]

The pontificate of Innocent III thus witnessed the ascent of a manifestly secular conception of the crusading idea. For all his dedication, the issue of papal control over the crusade movement represented a constant fatigue for the dedicated work of the pope, frequently frustrating his own plans for the utilisation of crusade enterprises. Both the Fourth Crusade and the Albigensian Crusade reveal the inadequacy of papal control in the actual prosecution of crusade enterprises, but equally importantly, emphasise the growing rift between secular and papal motives for crusading. We must question, however, whether crusade reforms introduced under the pontificate of Innocent III, extolled by historians such as Christopher Tyerman as an unprecedented turning point in the history of the crusade movement, in fact facilitated the increasing marginalisation of the papacy from the activity of crusading. Indeed, the changing definition of crusade in this period may provide a precious insight into the changing approach to the activity of crusading in the early thirteenth-century secular crusader mindset.

The Fourth Lateran Council, which commenced in Rome in November 1215, provides a logical end-point for our discussion of Pope Innocent III and the crusade. The Fourth Lateran Council was, as James M. Powell posits, “the largest and most comprehensive assembly of the ecclesiastical hierarchy ever held in the Middle Ages”.[19] In terms of our discussion, however, we are concerned primarily with the implications of this council’s legislation upon the crusade movement, and most importantly, what this reveals about Innocent III’s own motivations for calling the council. Indeed, Powell suggests that the Fourth Lateran Council may well be the best key to understanding Innocent III’s view of the papacy.[20] More importantly, however, it is potentially the most valuable medium by which we can examine Innocent’s view of the crusade. The crusade bull Ad Liberandam, issued at this council, provided the essential framework for the future prosecution of crusade. As such, it reveals Innocent III’s own retrospective view of crusading enterprises during his pontificate, and ultimately, the problems which had plagued his vision of the negotium crucis. As Ad Liberandam states, in fact at the beginning of the crusade proclamation, ‘[i]t is our ardent desire to liberate the holy Land from infidel hands’, a clear indication of the position that the recovery of the Holy Land occupied in the mind of this most dedicated pontiff. Colin Morris, however, postulates that the Fourth Lateran Council was ultimately concerned with the question of papal authority, arguing that the council represents “the most dramatic expression of the monarchical power of the medieval papacy”.[21] In this manner, we reach the very crux of the issue that will dominate this discussion: did Innocent intend, through the Fourth Lateran Council, to fuse papal theory and secular practice, those two antagonistic forces that had consistently frustrated, and increasingly aberrated, his most dedicated effort to achieve his vision of a society geared towards the negotium crucis ?


Sir Steven Runciman, in the third volume of his encyclopaedic work A History of the Crusades, includes the events of the Fourth Crusade (1200-1204) in a chapter which he has entitled ‘Misguided Crusades’.[22] What is exactly inferred by this use of ‘misguided’ is a foundational aspect of our discussion. It reflects the deviation of this most prized enterprise away from Innocent III’s stated goal of the recovery of the Holy Land. Further, it reflects the endemic marginalisation of the Pope from the command of this campaign, a process that was to facilitate the haphazard direction which came to dominate this enterprise upon its departure from Venice, most strikingly at its denouement at the great Byzantine city of Constantinople, “amid scenes which put the massacres of Antioch and Jerusalem in the shade”.[23] The calamitous climax of the Fourth Crusade has earned a level of notoriety almost unrivalled in the history of the crusade movement, and has received the full vitriol of historians, most famously elucidated by Runciman: “[t]here was never a great crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusade”.[24] The subject of our discussion, however, is less concerned with a judgement of the morality of the crusaders’ actions at Constantinople, but rather, is concerned with the decisions that confronted the ‘crusaders’, and how these facilitated ‘the ignonimous and shameful outcome’ to Innocent III’s first crusade initiative.[25] As Jane Sayers argues, although culpability for the failure of this enterprise cannot be directed solely toward Innocent III, the Fourth Crusade is “an indicator of the weakness of papal power when secular and economic motives conflicted with his views”.[26] Indeed, this conflict presents a fundamental dilemma in the classification of the Fourth Crusade. With the increasing subjugation of papal concerns to other, often antagonistic, secular concerns of the Venetians and the Greeks to whom the crusading force was bound by contracts, the enterprise came to be driven by primarily secular currents; a ‘secular crusade’ one may argue. Ultimately, it is only by examining the chronological progression of this enterprise that we can fully grasp the extent of its secularisation, and through which we can further relate the panoply of expediencies which confronted the crusading host to the argument (offered by Colin Morris) that the enterprise progressed entirely independently of Innocent III.[27] Ultimately, this will enable us to fully comprehend how, as the thirteenth-century chronicler Ralph of Coggeshall writes, ‘the city of Constantinople was captured once and then again by an army of Latins on its way to Jerusalem’.[28]

The spectacular diversion of the Fourth Crusade from its stated ecclesiastical goals is rooted in the subjugation of the enterprise to the secular contracts into which the crusading force entered and, as Thomas Madden argues, the lengths to which men went to fulfil them.[29] The secularisation of the character of the Fourth Crusade began as early as 1202, with the failure of the crusading force to meet the terms of the arrangement agreed with the Venetians in the Treaty of Venice of 1201, a ‘contract’ which the crusade leaders had entered into ‘with sureties and a sworn pledge’.[30] The agreement with the Venetians, which stipulated the terms of the transport of the crusading army to the Holy Land represents, as Helene Tillmann suggests, a ‘business transaction’.[31] The failure of the papal army to meet the financial terms of this agreement resulted in their ‘captivity’ by their Venetian counterparts, a view propagated by the anonymous authors of both The Deeds of the Bishop of Halberstadt and the Devastatio Constantinopolitana.[32] As such, the crusaders, and the crusade itself, became indebted to the Venetians. Villehardouin states that the crusading force was 34,000 marks short of the agreed sum for the transport contract, whereas Robert de Clari places the crusader debt at 36,000 marks .[33] Such factual incongruities reflect the essential dichotomy between Villehardouin, as an official account of the political mechanisms of the enterprise, and De Clari, who offers the historian the more ‘unofficial’ perspective of the rank-and-file crusader.[34] Nevertheless, such an insignificant discrepancy in the level of the crusader debt does not undermine the grim reality of the crusade leaders’ situation, whereby this unpaid debt became “a mill-stone round the necks of the crusading leaders”, effectively subjugating the enterprise to the exigencies of their contract with the Venetians, and depriving the crusading force of its initial, though short-lived, autonomy.[35] In such a sense, the crusaders were transformed from an army of pilgrims under papal control into the ‘army of Latins’, whose function was ostensibly located in secular spheres of interest, specifically those of the Venetian fleet.

The capture of the Christian city of Zara by the army of Latins in November 1202 reveals, according to Chrsitopher Tyerman, just how secular the direction of the crusade had become.[36] Indeed, Villehardouin records the dissent engendered among the crusaders, a cohort fronted by the enigmatic abbot of Vaux, who ‘declared they would never give their consent, since it would mean marching against Christians. They had not left their homes to do any such thing.’[37] Clearly, it was recognized among the rank-and-file contingents, who viewed themselves still essentially as crusaders, that the attack on Zara was entirely at odds with the crusade’s stated purposes. Indeed, Hugh of St Pol, in his report to the West (1203) relates that ‘there were not more than ten who spoke in favour of the journey to Constantinople’, a view corroborated by Villehardouin who states that only twelve persons in all took the oath of behalf of the French.[38] However, such dissensions failed to penetrate palpably deaf ears. With the entry of the enterprise into the domain of contractual obligation, triggered by the inability of the crusading force to raise the funds owed to the Venetians for the construction of the fleet, the nature and function of the enterprise became ostensibly mercenary. Such a transformation essentially ostracised the leadership, and the crusaders themselves, from any sense of autonomy over the direction of their campaign. Ultimately, as Steven Runciman suggests, whatever the crusaders felt about the morality of the attack, they could not but comply with it.[39]

Further, this amputation of the leadership from the direction of the enterprise had serious implications upon the ability of Innocent III to influence the direction of the crusade, for example concerning the actions at Zara, even upon the appearance of a strict papal letter which prohibited such a manoeuvre. Innocent wrote to the army following the attack on Zara, stating that ‘although ... our letter was publicly presented to you, you paid no attention to the Apostolic See but forced the miserable Zarans to surrender’.[40] Herein is revealed the growing gap between papal command and secular practice upon this enterprise. The crisis at Zara reveals the inability of the leaders to obey papal demands, as they were themselves ostensibly powerless to control the direction of the enterprise, bound as they were by their contract with the Venetians. Indeed, in a letter dated 25 August 1203, the French barons that constituted this leadership wrote to Innocent III and lamented the events surrounding Zara, ‘that city of transgression ... whose ruin we viewed with sorrow, but we were driven by necessity’.[41] This letter certainly suggests a discernable disinclination in the leaders’ decision to attack Zara, attributing it as they did to necessity. Just as the rank-and-file contingent of the enterprise still harboured the aims of the crusade, it certainly seems that the leaders of the army did not harbour any desires for the wholesale diversion of the Christian enterprise that had resulted in the sack of a fellow Christian city. Indeed, Gunther von Pairis views the actions of the Latins in terms of ‘secur[ing] the greater good through means of the lesser evil, rather than to leave their crusade vow unfulfilled’.[42] The developing picture we have is that the crusade contingents still, arguably, had the original goals of the enterprise in mind, and as such, entered into a contract with the Venetians in order to ensure the successful continuation of the crusade. However, the frustrating terms of their agreement with the Venetians acted as a vice from which, ultimately, they could not escape. As the author of The Deeds of the Bishop of Halberstadt suggests, ‘as long as the pilgrims dwelled in Venetian ships, it was as if they dwelled in their homes’, a striking gauge of the subjection of the army of crusaders to the secular machinations, blameworthy or not, of the Venetians.[43]

The entry of the leaders of the Fourth Crusade into an agreement with the exiled heir to the Byzantine throne, Alexius Angelus, in 1203 following the sack of Zara, subjugated the enterprise once more to the volatile flux of secular politics. Indeed, in this very agreement is to be found the roots of the failure of the Fourth Crusade to achieve its goal of the recovery of the Holy Land. In return for his successful reinstatement, Alexius promised the crusaders, as recorded in the chronicle of Geoffroy de Villehardouin,


[1] As quoted in: Colin Morris, The Papal Monarchy: The Western Church from 1050 to 1250 (Oxford, 1991), p. 433.

[2] Penny J. Cole, The Preaching of the Crusades to the Holy Land, 1095-1270 (Cambridge, 1991), p. 80.

[3] Gunther von Pairis, The Capture of Constantinople, trans. Alfred J. Andrea (Philadelphia, 1997), p. 84.

[4] The Deeds of Pope Innocent III, trans. James M. Powell (Washington D. C., 2007), p. 133.

[5] Christopher T. Maier, ‘Mass, the Eucharist and the Cross: Innocent III and the Relocation of the Crusade’, in John C. Moore (ed.) Pope Innocent III and his World (Aldershot, 1999), p. 352.

[6] Ibid., p. 352.

[7] See: C. J. Tyerman, ‘Were There Any Crusades in the Twelfth Century?’, T he English Historical Review, Vol. 110, No. 437 (Jun., 1995), pp. 553-57.

[8] As quoted in: M. D. Costen, The Cathars and the Albigensian Crusade (Manchester, 1997), pp. 108; for further discussion see R. W. Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (London, 1970).

[9] John France, The Crusades and the Expansion of Catholic Christendom, 1000-1714 (London, 2005), p. 172.

[10] Southern, R. W., Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (London, 1970), pp. 15-16.

[11] I. S. Robinson, The Papacy 1073-1198: Continuity and Innovation (Cambridge, 1990), p. 349.

[12] Christopher Tyerman, The Invention of the Crusades (Basingstoke, 1998), p. 58.

[13] Thomas F. Madden, ‘Vows and Contracts in the Fourth Crusade: The Treaty of Zara and the Attack of Constantinople in 1204’,The International History Review, Vol. 15, No. 3 (Aug., 1993), p. 441.

[14] ‘The Devastatio Constantinopolitana’, in Alfred J. Andrea (ed.), Contemporary Sources of the Fourth Crusade (Boston, 2000), p. 205.

[15] John C. Moore, Pope Innocent III (1160/61-1216): To Root Up And To Plant (Leiden, 2003), p. 107.

[16] Christopher Tyerman, God's War: A New History of the Crusades (London, 2007), p. 566.

[17] Jonathan Sumption, The Albigensian Crusade (London, 1978), p. 142; Mark Gregory Pegg, A Most Holy War: The Albigensian Crusade and the Battle for Christendom (Oxford, 2008), p. xi.

[18] Helene Tillmann, Papst Innocenz III, trans. Walter Sax (Amsterdam, 1980), p. 248.

[19] James M. Powell, The Anatomy of a Crusade, 1213-1221 (Philadelphia, 1996), p. 41.

[20] James M. Powell, ‘Introduction’, in James M. Powell (ed.) Innocent III: Vicar of Christ or Lord of the World (Washington, D. C., 1994), p. 9.

[21] Morris, The Papal Monarchy, p. 417.

[22] Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades Vol III: The Kingdom of Acre and the Later Crusades (New York, 1967), p. v.

[23] H. R. Trevor-Roper, The Rise of Christian Europe (London, 1965), p. 110.

[24] Runciman, A History of the Crusades Vol III, p. 130.

[25] Jane E. Sayers, Innocent III : Leader of Europe, 1198-1216 (London, 1994), p. 172.

[26] Ibid., p. 175.

[27] Morris, The Papal Monarchy, p. 439.

[28] Ralph of Coggeshall, ‘Chronicle’, in Alfred J. Andrea (ed.), Contemporary Sources of the Fourth Crusade (Boston, 2000), pp. 286-7.

[29] Madden, ‘Vows and Contracts in the Fourth Crusade’, p. 441.

[30] ‘The Deeds of the Bishop of Halberstadt’, in Alfred J. Andrea (ed.), Contemporary Sources of the Fourth Crusade (Boston, 2000), p. 250.

[31] Tillmann, Papst Innocenz III, p. 282.

[32] Geoffroy de Villehardouin, ‘The Conquest of Constantinople’, trans.M. R. B. Shaw, Chronicles of the Crusades (Harmondsworth, 1963), p. 250.

[33] Ibid., pp. 42-3; Robert De Clari, The Conquest of Constantinople, trans. E. H. McNeal (New York, 1936), p. 41.

[34] Edwin Pears, The Fall of Constantinople, Being the Story of the Fourth Crusade (New York, 1975), p. 260.

[35] R. W. Southern, The Making of the Middle Ages (London, 1967), p. 57.

[36] Tyerman, God's War, p. 529.

[37] Villehardouin, ‘The Conquest of Constantinople’, p. 51.

[38] ‘Count Hugh of Saint Pol’s Report to the West’, in Alfred J. Andrea (ed.), Contemporary Sources of the Fourth Crusade (Boston, 2000), p. 188; Ibid., p. 51.

[39] Runciman, A History of the Crusades Vol III, p. 114.

[40] The Deeds of Pope Innocent III, p. 140.

[41] ‘The Registers of Innocent III’, in Alfred J. Andrea, Contemporary Sources of the Fourth Crusade (Boston, 2000), p. 81.

[42] Von Pairis, The Capture of Constantinople, p. 78.

[43] ‘The Deeds of the Bishop of Halberstadt’, p. 252; Evidently, the impact of the Venetians upon the Fourth Crusade was detrimental to the direction and autonomy of the enterprise. Both contemporary authors and modern-day scholars, however, have argued that there existed a conspiracy by Doge Enrico Dandolo, who hijacked the holy enterprise and used it for his own economic and political agenda. Such allegations are rooted in the contemporary perspective of the Venetians as scheming ‘out of pitiless hatred’, as elucidated by Gunther von Pairis. Such theories, although meritorious in their efforts, are in reality too adventurous in their allegations. In view of the secular nature of the enterprise, the Venetians too were subject to a contractual agreement. Robert de Clari records that upon the ratification of the Treaty of Venice, the Doge placed a moratorium on all Venetian business in order that all efforts were directed towards construction of the crusader fleet, later described as ‘the richest navy that was ever seen’. As an ostensibly secular participant in the enterprise from its very inception, the doge had to protect Venetian economic interests. As such, the Venetians were far from pernicious in their actions against the crusaders upon their inability to meet the terms of the agreement. As Robert de Clari writes, the Doge charged that the crusaders had ‘used us ill’. We must seriously question whether by maintaining this contention of the Venetians as ‘the villains of choice’, a term used by Thomas Madden, we are merely maintaining an idealistic rhetorical trope that disassociates us from the reality of the events. For further reading, see: Von Pairis, The Capture of Constantinople, p. 80; De Clari, The Conquest of Constantinople, p. 38; Thomas F. Madden, ‘Outside and Inside the Fourth Crusade’,The International History Review, Vol. 17, No. 4 (Nov., 1995),,p. 728.


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Title: Pope Innocent III and the secular crusades