Catholic Culture Podcasts
Catholic Culture Podcasts

The Greatest of Centuries?

by Diane Moczar


Diane Moczar, a writer and historian, provides a brief overview of some events, which took place during the thirteenth century, often named the "greatest of centuries." While this century can be compared with the great fifth century B.C. in Athens for creativity and lasting cultural contributions, a remark made by St. Francis that in his day "charity had grown cold" suggests that some bad seed had been quietly germinating unobserved even as the glory dazzled.

Larger Work

Latin Mass


36 - 39

Publisher & Date

Keep the Faith, Santa Paula, CA, Fall 2005

The thirteenth century was termed "the greatest" in James Walsh's 1907 work, The Thirteenth, Greatest of Centuries. Though outdated and written by a nonspecialist, the book is still worth reading as an introduction to the period, and for the enthusiasm the author felt at the Catholic civilization he was describing. In many ways this century can be compared with the great fifth century B.C. in Athens for creativity and lasting cultural contributions. Its saints are among the greatest: Thomas, Bonaventure, Francis, Dominic, Louis, Elizabeth, Gertrude, and so many more. But why does the Church, in the Collect for the feast of the Stigmata of St. Francis, say that in his day "the world was growing cold"? This echoes the remark of St. Francis to the effect that in his time "charity had grown cold." How could that be, in the greatest of Catholic centuries? And how could it be that the century that followed it could be such a disaster in every way, if some bad seed had not been quietly germinating unobserved even as the glory dazzled?

The opening of the thirteenth century marks a turning point in history in a number of ways. Some years ago the Metropolitan Museum of New York devoted a magnificent exhibit at The Cloisters to "The Year 1200." We shall be looking at the cultural glories and theological developments of the century in the next article, but here we must look at the European work in 1200. If we start with England, the picture is not encouraging. Bad King John had come to the throne in 1199 and was busy losing battles — and key Angevin territories — to the French king. He was also busy alienating his subjects, as he had already alienated the Irish he had been sent by his father to govern a few years earlier. Christopher Brooke wrote of him, in From Alfred to Henry III, "In fact, John was not much more despotic than his father and brother, but his manners and misfortunes made him appear to be so, and the disasters of his reign encouraged men to resist him to his face." He was the least favorite son of his mother, Eleanor Aquitaine, though she did her best to help and advise him until her death. Not even she, however, could rein in his abuses of power that eventually led to the revolt of his barons in 1215 and the extracting of the "Great Charter," Magna Carta, from him.

The significance of this famous document lies mostly in what was made of it in later times as a precedent for limiting (or abolishing) royal authority. At the time it was no such thing. Many states of the period had similar documents, spelling out what were called the "liberties" of various groups of subjects that the ruler was bound to respect. John's predecessors had also issued charters. Such documents in no way usurped the ruler's authority, though they specified details of its exercise. John's barons were actually excommunicated by the pope, not so much because of the Charter as because of "the manner in which it was extracted" — that is, for rebellion against a legitimate monarch. This is a large and complex issue, and I am glad to be able to tell you that John died the year following his signing of the Charter, so we needn't get into it. A poem in one of the Winnie the Pooh books sums up his reign: "King John was not a good man," it begins. Too true.

The long reign of John's young son Henry III, whose interests were protected by the papal legate who advised and supported him, included a period of civil war that was resolved before he died. An interesting feature of that revolt is that at one point both parties took their case to the great St. Louis IX, King of France, for arbitration — such was that monarch's reputation for astute and just decisions, as well as for sanctity. By the end of the century, under Edward I, we find the distinctively English institution of Parliament operating. While other rulers also had advisory councils of citizens from various classes, England's parliament was a national one, more suited to an island with a more or less cohesive population than it would have been for other countries. England ended the century as a unified state with a distinctive national character. Economic growth, increase in trade, population, and income, development of schools and universities, and an unusual number of saintly and competent bishops to govern the Church made thirteenth-century England an attractive place in which to live. (This would be especially true if estimates of how much people worked are correct. I have been unable to verify the claims that a man could earn enough in fourteen weeks of work to keep his family for a year, but certainly the great number of holy days, plus Sundays, made for less work at the same time as the standard of living seems to have risen. This was true of the other major countries too.)

France in this century went from glory to glory, both in the quality and policies of her kings, defense of the Church against heresy and support for the last Crusades, and the high civilization and economic prosperity that characterized her. Philip II had been ruling for twenty years when the century began, and had already gone on the legendary Third Crusade, the Crusade of the Kings, with Richard the Lion-Hearted of England and Frederick Barbarossa of Germany. That expedition, though a rich source of anecdotes, legends, and novels, was as unsuccessful as all the Crusades that followed the first. Philip, however, was definitely a royal success, though his domestic life was not. Historians still puzzle over why, the day after he married the young and pretty Ingeborg of Denmark, he was observed gazing at her with horror during their coronation ceremony, after which he left her and refused to return. She knew no French but she kept repeating, "Roma! Roma!" appealing to the Pope for vindication of her rights. The puzzling business dragged on for years, with Pope Innocent III trying to force Philip to take back his wife and Philip — sometimes hinting at "sorcery" as the obstacle — refusing to do so. There was a semi-settlement in the end, but meanwhile the king was able to assert royal authority over most of those French lords who had been unwilling to submit to his predecessors, defeat the allies of Bad King John in a significant battle, regain French land lost to the English, and leave to his descendents a powerful state and improved government. In the early part of the century he, like his successor, also supported the Albigensian Crusade, that target of anti-Catholic propaganda.

The heresy of the Albigensians, and its impact on the mentality of the time, will be discussed in the following article. Here we can review some of the facts. This is the myth about the Albigensian Crusades: once upon a time there was a romantic, peaceful area in southern France where the sun always shone, people sang songs of courtly love, and everyone was kindly and tolerant of differences in opinion and lifestyles — they resembled us, in fact. This utopian region asked only to be left alone, but the evil, rigid, intolerant, and power-hungry princes of the north would not do that. On the pretext of heresy in the south, they descended upon it with their armies, led by bloodthirsty bishops and papal legates, and wiped out the charming culture of the south in a ghastly bloodbath. After slaughtering the charming inhabitants, they divided up the land, which is what they wanted all along.

Here are the facts about the Albigensian Crusades: Catharism was a weird cult that stood for the negation of all Christian teaching as well as all secular authority. As with later heretical movements, it became mixed up with politics: southern lords espoused it as a symbol of their independence from the authority of the French kings, and it brought a certain coherence to the stubborn resistance of the southerners to that authority. Preaching and "dialoguing" proved futile in checking the spread of the heresy, especially after the murder of a papal legate sent to negotiate with the Cathars. It finally became clear that only armed conquest — a crusade — had a hope of suppressing this most dangerous of sects, and the refusal of the south to submit brought tragedy upon it. There is no evidence that a papal legate said during a battle, "Slay them all! God will know His own." The northerners did not divide up the lands of the South; most of them served in the feudal way for brief periods of a few weeks and then went home. Even Simon's acquisitions were not permanent. The massacre at Beziers was actually provoked by an attack on, not by, the crusaders. Even with the record set straight and the disinformation corrected, the suppression of Catharism was a brutal and melancholy enterprise, and even then the movement was not wholly erased from history. The French kings ended up with their authority extended over a large area they had not previously controlled, which was in the long run a good thing for France and the Church.

The high point of France's political, cultural, and religious development came with the great St. Louis IX, grandson of Philip. Legendary for his love of justice (we have seen how even rival Englishmen consulted him), a model husband and father, and devoted to the welfare of his people, he died on crusade in 1270 — a date generally considered to mark the end of the great enterprise that had begun in 1096 to free the Holy Land and shore up the Byzantine Empire. The King also commissioned one of the gems of Gothic architecture, which will be discussed in the following article. He left his son the most powerful and prosperous state in Europe, the center of Catholic civilization.

In contrast to England and France in the thirteenth century, Germany did not become a nation-state. In fact, it came apart at the seams and stayed that way until its unification in 1870, due to the disastrous policies of the sinister King Frederick II. Fred figures prominently in my dissertation as the violent antagonist and persecutor of the dissertation's hero, Pope Gregory IX; I therefore cannot pretend to have much appreciation for Fred's good points, if any. I know too much about his bad points, which were many. He blazed like a comet through the political atmosphere of his time, the most flamboyant, fierce, and unconventional monarch in a century liberally strewn with flashy characters. When he finally fizzled out, after a career that seemed too short for his fervent supporters and endless to his enemies, he left Germany smashed into pieces. Not that he intended things to turn out that way; when they did, far from blaming Fred, his countrymen wistfully invoked a legend that had him merely sleeping in a cave somewhere, soon to return and sort things out. He was known to his contemporaries as stupor mundi — the wonder of the world. Popes Gregory IX and Innocent IV wondered why he had to turn up during their reigns; northern Italians wondered when he would swoop down again on their towns and start taking and torturing hostages; the king of Scotland wondered why his daughter had disappeared so completely following her marriage to Fred; his Muslim friends, seeing him dressed like an Eastern potentate and traveling with a harem, wondered why he didn't convert to Islam. As for his three wives, poor things, they must have wondered . . . but that does not come into this story.

The calamity that was Fred began with the marriage of his parents at the end of the previous century. Henry VI, king of Germany, married Constance, Norman heiress of the Kingdom of Sicily, which included the southern half of Italy. To calm Italian and papal fears of a German-Sicilian mega-state, Henry agreed that Sicily and Germany would never be ruled by the same king. Whereupon he died, followed shortly thereafter by his wife, leaving Frederick, a three-year-old orphan. When he was five, a German warlord trying to kidnap him was startled to find himself attacked by the child, who fought him fiercely, tearing his skin and clothes. The Archbishop of Capua, describing the incident to the pope, concluded that if only Fred could live to grow up he would amount to something big. Pope Innocent, whom Constance had asked to be her son's protector, exerted what pressure he could on a series of "guardians"; one imagines that they were all tempted to murder their unruly captive, but somehow they restrained themselves and Fred duly came of age (all of fourteen) in 1208. There were rumors of his ungovernable temper and unpleasant games. It may not have been true that precocious scientific curiosity led him to cruel experiments on living creatures, but no one who loved animals would have given him a puppy.

Once Fred yielded to the temptation of being king of both Sicily and Germany, his twin goals became the conquest of all of Italy, including the Papal States and, apparently, the substitution of a new religion for Catholicism. He drowned or captured the bishops hastily summoned to a council by Pope Gregory IX to meet the crisis, and mounted an assault on Rome as the Pope was dying. His successor, Innocent IV, took refuge in France. Fred died in 1250, but his sons and grandson carried on the struggle for several more years. Finally, the family — called "the viper's brood" by a pope — was extinguished, and Germany and Italy were left to pick up the pieces.

The high point of medieval papal power and influence is generally considered to be the reign of Innocent III, and there is much to be said for this view. He did not aim to control the world, as his enemies have alleged; indeed, some of the texts that have been read that way turn out to have quite other meanings. His energy, intelligence, and forceful personality, combined with his dedication to the rights of the Church, reform, and resistance to heresy and Islam, made his reign one of great achievement. The Lateran Council, encouragement of St. Francis, St. Dominic, and other saints, approval of new orders, including one for the ransom of captives from the Muslims, and the founding of hospitals all over Europe were only some of Innocent's accomplishments. His successors continued his policies, though often with less success due to the German menace.

This great century is so full of larger-than-life personalities and stirring developments that no one article and no one book can treat them all. St. Ferdinand of Castile, saintly warrior against the Moors of Spain, and St. Margaret of Hungary — king's daughter and cloistered nun, praying in her cell for relief from the Mongol invasion — remind us that Europe was still under siege from more than one direction. St. Elizabeth of Hungary, combining in her 24 years of life a romantic and happy marriage, just and merciful rule of Thuringia, motherhood, and a widowhood of penance and charity, embodies the Catholic ideals of her century. St. Gertrude the Great, with her intellectual achievements, widespread influence, and revelations of the Sacred Heart, united the scholarly and mystical lives dear to St. Thomas, St. Bonaventure, and other saintly contemporaries. Had you lived then, you stood a good chance of actually meeting a saint, there were so many of them and they were so visible. You might even have taken a legal complaint to St. Louis, as he sat under the great oak in his palace grounds, hearing the grievances of the least of his subjects, and dictating his decisions to secretaries. You might have listened, enthralled, to the preaching of Francis, Dominic, or Anthony, or audited one of the courses of St. Thomas Aquinas, as even non-students sometimes did. It seems indeed to have been a blessed time, but it was not to last.

Diane Moczar is a writer and historian now teaching at Northern Virginia Community College. She studied at Columbia University, Catholic University, and the University of Paris.

© Keep the Faith, Inc.

This item 6926 digitally provided courtesy of