The twelfth century witnessed the first large 'general' synods since the seminal councils of the fourth to the ninth centuries. Most notable are the four Lateran councils (1123,1139,1179 and 1215) and the two Lyon councils (1245 and 1274), the largest of them attended by over a thousand prelates from throughout the Latin Church and beyond, though representation from each country was by no means proportional, and observers from the Byzantine sphere were rare.1 Important as the example of the great congresses of the late Roman era was, the medieval councils grew immediately out of the Lenten synods held by popes of the eleventh century, especially Gregory VII, to which bishops from outside Italy might be called.2 Moreover, while the earlier ecumenical councils showcased the power of the emperor in collaboration with the patriarchal bishops of the East, the dominant power in the twelfth- and thirteenth-century councils was unquestionably the pope. The decrees of Innocent III's Fourth Lateran Council, for example, were regularly referred to simply as the 'constitutiones Innocentii' or the 'constitutiones dominipape'.

1 Achille Luchaire discovered and printed a list of attendees to Fourth Lateran in his article 'Un document retrouvé', Journal des savants n.s. 3 (1905), 557-68. See also Georgine Tangl, Die Teilnehmer an den allgemeinen Konzilien des Mittelalters (Cologne: Bohlau, 1969).

2 I. S. Robinson, The Papacy 1073-1198: Continuity and Innovation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 122-3.

Such gatherings served a number of purposes. Foremost, they were often a show of unity after a time of division. The First Lateran Council took place at the close of the Investiture Controversy. The Second Lateran Council put to rest the Anacletan schism, and the Third came at the end of the schism of Octavian (Victor IV). The First Council of Lyon aimed to consolidate resistance to Frederick II, who was deposed at the meeting. Finally, the Second Council of Lyon followed a long (nearly three-year) and bitter vacancy in the papal office. The papacy also used councils to thunder against those perceived by clerical elites to be enemies of the church, such as Cathars (at the Third Lateran), Greeks (at the Fourth Lateran) and Saracens (Fourth Lateran and Second Lyon both called for crusades). At the same time, the councils of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries laid out clear directions for ecclesiastical reform; they prohibited clerics from engaging in sex (all four Lateran councils) or the shedding of blood (Second and Third Lateran), restricted pluralism (Third Lateran and Second Lyon), insisted upon an educated and 'suitable' clergy (Third and Fourth Lateran especially), mandated poverty and enclosure for monks (Third Lateran) and outlawed new regular orders (Fourth Lateran and Second Lyon). Matters directly affecting the laity were less evident, but by no means absent. Second Lateran, for example, forbade tournaments; Fourth Lateran prescribed annual confession and communion and issued new regulations governing the prohibited degrees of marriage (down from seven to four); Second Lyon even addressed rowdy behaviour in church. Many historians have questioned the degree to which these provisions were imple-mented,3 but merely by expressing such standards, synodal decrees helped mould notions of virtue for both priest and parishoner alike. Nor did conciliar legislation ignore key matters of procedure and church administration, such as prelatial elections (Third Lateran), papal appeals and delegated jurisdiction, the latter two covered by First Lyon, the most legalistic of all the high-medieval councils, governed by perhaps the great jurist pope, Innocent IV.

The Lateran and Lyon councils naturally attract the most attention. These six are today among the ecumenical councils recognized by the Catholic Church. Yet, they were only part of a larger wave of papally directed synodal activity, particularly evident in France. The Council of Clermont (1095) famously inaugurated the crusades, while Rheims was the site of three

3 For example, Marion Gibbs and Jane Lang, Bishops and Reform 1215-1272, with Special Reference to the Lateran Council of 1215 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1934), 131-79, and more recently Paul B. Pixton, The German Episcopacy and the Implementation of the Decrees of the Fourth Lateran Council, 1216-1245: Watchmen on the Tower (Leiden and New York: Brill, 1995).

councils in the twelfth century. The second of these was held by Innocent II, who also presided over meetings at Clermont, Piacenza and Pisa before the Second Lateran Council. Alexander III called a council at Tours fifteen years before Third Lateran, and between Fourth Lateran and First Lyon, Honorius III convoked the Council of Bourges. These councils dealt with many of the same issues as their more famous counterparts at the Lateran and in Lyon.


Rich in liturgical solemnity, councils offered a fitting ceremonial occasion to showcase the pope's growing legislative role, as well as his judicial power, since disputes were aired on these occasions (the question of primacy in Spain, for instance, between Toledo and Compostela at Fourth Lateran, or the complaints raised at First Lyon over the flood of Italian providees in England and other perceived abuses inflicted on the English church by Rome4). They were, however, a cumbersome tool for exercising regular jurisdiction, occurring, as they did, only once every decade or two. A more effective means by which the popes of this period functioned as the judges and, by creating precedents, the lawgivers of the Latin West, was by opening the doors of apostolic justice to cases from every corner of Europe. This practice had deep roots. The notion that causae maiores belonged to the Roman see can be traced back to Innocent I, and among the Carolingian popes, Nicholas I stands out as a busy iudex, for example in the case between Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims and Bishop Rothad of Soissons or the dispute between the churches of Hamburg and Cologne over control of the diocese of Bremen.5 These causes were undeniably 'major', involving not only bishops, but metropolitan power as well. But what distinguished the popes of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries from earlier pontiffs like Nicholas was both the vast increase in the volume of judicial activity at the curia and the extent to which it involved litigants whose ranks and cases were far more humble. Most of these came to the curia on appeal from lower ecclesiastical courts, though some plaintiffs preferred to skip the intermediate jurisdictions available to

4 For the Spanish question, see the Giessen Anonymous description, Stephan Kuttner and Antonio Garcia y Garcia, 'A New Eyewitness Account of the Fourth Lateran Council', Traditio 20 (1964), 124. The complaints of the English in Lyon are related by Matthew Paris, Chronica majora, ed. Henry Richards Luard, Rolls Series 57:4 (London: Longman and Co., 1877), 440-5.

5 On Nicholas I's adjudication of the case between Hincmar and Rothad, see Le liber pontificalis, ed. L. Duchesne, vol. 2 (Paris: E. de Boccard, 1955), 162-5. For his decision in the matter of Bremen, see Rimbert, Vita sancti Anskarii, PL 118, cols. 959-1012.

them and head directly to the papal curia. As jurists asserted, while Roman law demanded that a suit first be heard by the proper lower court before being brought before the prince, canon law had no such restriction; anyone might seek the pope at any time.6

The number of litigants submitting cases to papal jurisdiction increased rapidly in the second half of the twelfth century, when the era of the 'lawyer popes' begins, particularly during the pontificate of Alexander III. Indeed, so overwhelming had the judicial side of papal business become that some popes sought to restrict the number of cases inundating Rome, as when Alexander tried to eliminate fraudulent or frivolous appeals and when Gregory VIII, complaining he was 'unable to endure the shouts and murmurs of those crowding together from all directions' at the curia, attempted to restrain 'trivial business', that is, cases involving fewer than twenty marks.7 Gregory's solution was to hand supervision of lesser disputes over to metropolitan bishops. In other matters, however, the papacy assumed exclusive control of certain 'reserved cases' at the expense of archbishops and regional instances, cases that only added to the overwhelming mass of suits at the Lateran. Cases such as grave violence against clerics, as well as episcopal resignations, translations and depositions were thus arrogated to the papacy.8 Disputed episcopal elections were added to this list by Alexander IV in 1257.9

The growth in papal justice, historians often point out, was largely a passive phenomenon.10 The curia did not so much demand recognition of its claims as litigants chose to seek curial attention. This was particularly true when it came to the use of papal provisions. Responding to the entreaties of petitioners, popes of the twelfth century sometimes requested that local churches install needy clerics in vacant posts. In the thirteenth century, this swelled into an

6 See Ricardus Anglicus' gloss to the Compilatio prima decretal 'Vel ex malitia' (lib. 2, tit. 20, c. 47) (Vatican City, Biblioteca apostolica vaticana, Pal. lat. 696, fol. 44v): 'secundum leges pretermisso medio non appellator ad principem, secus secundum canones, nam ab omnibus appellator ad papam, de aliis secus nisi gradatim procedatur'. Laurentius Hispanus explained further in his gloss to Comp. I text 'Cum non ignoretis' (lib. 1, tit. 22, c. un.) (Vatican City, Biblioteca apostolica vaticana, Vat. lat. 1377, fol. i4v) that 'oppressi ad romanam ecclesiam omissis omnibus aliis mediis appellent'.

7 C. 6 of Third Lateran. See Giuseppe Alberigo, ed., Conciliorum oecumenicorum decreta, 3rd edn (Bologna: Istituto per le scienze religiose, 1973), 214; and Emil Friedberg, ed., Quinque compilationes antiquae (Graz: Akademische Druck- und Verlagsanstalt, 1956 [repr. of Leipzig, 1882]), 24-5 (Comp. I, lib. 2, tit. 20, c. 47).

8 See Kenneth Pennington, Pope and Bishops: The Papal Monarchy in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984), 75-114.

9 C. Bourel de la Ronciere et al., eds., Les registres d''Alexandre IV (Paris: A. Fontemoing, 1917), vol. 2, 684-6 ('Dilecti filii').

10 For example, R. W. Southern, Western Church and Society in the Middle Ages (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), 109.

extensive papal right to bestow benefices throughout the Western church. While the abuses of the provision system (its aggravation of the problem of pluralism, for instance) were serious, the incomes of available prebends proved to be a useful means of supporting the growing cadre of clerics needed to staff the papal administration.

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