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The Catholic Historical Review 89.2 (2003) 182-212

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Metropolitan Might and Papal Power on the Latin-Christian Frontier:
Transforming the Danish Church Around the Time of the Fourth Lateran Council

Anthony Perron

Even before the Fourth Lateran Council met in the autumn of 1215, contemporaries believed it would be one of the greatest ever convoked. When the archbishop of Lund, Anders Sunesen, tried to excuse himself from attending, Innocent III expressed chagrin. "Even if you had not been summoned," the pope wrote, "you ought to do everything possible to take part in such a great council." Surely, no prelate would want the "shameful stain on his glory" that would result from a failure to participate in "this great solemn event, a work so necessary and so pious." 1 Nor did the synod fail to satisfy expectation. 2 "Neither eye has seen nor ear has heard" the multitudes who flocked to the apostolic see on this occasion and the many languages they spoke, or so one observer reported. 3 This assessment is shared by modern scholars. John Watt, for [End Page 182] one, has called Fourth Lateran "the most comprehensive expression of the classical policies of the medieval papacy in its heyday, at once typifying its major aspirations and identifying its goals." 4 Indeed, the agenda outlined in Rome that November—the reform of clerical morals, the eradication of heresy, and a renewed commitment to crusading—would echo throughout the next century.

Given this sanguine interpretation of the council's place in the history of the medieval church, it is surprising to read the almost uniformly pessimistic evaluations of the success of Innocent's great program in the various corners of Europe. While Raymonde Foreville credited Fourth Lateran with hastening a "flowering" of provincial and diocesan synodal activity, 5 when it comes to the bread-and-butter implementation of specific decrees, the verdict has been harsh. As early as 1934, Marion Gibbs and Jane Lang criticized the English episcopate for failing to comprehend the spirit of the pope's plan. 6 And while their judgment is tendentious and marked by an unrealistically high estimation of what "success" might have meant in the context of medieval reform, it continues to shape the interpretation of Langton's church. Nicholas Vincent noted in 1996 that Cardinal-Legate Guala Bicchieri, notwithstanding his past as a reformer in France, "did less than might be expected to modify the laws of the church of England" in light of the constitutions of 1215. 7 The discourse of Fourth-Lateran failure has also been reproduced for Spain by Peter Linehan, who traced the almost comic ineptitude of the papal legate John of Abbeville when confronted by a backward and greedy Spanish church, and for Germany, where Paul B. Pixton dissected the German bishops' inability to effect change in the years before the First Council of Lyon (1245). 8 In Pixton's words, "The legislation of Lateran IV had little appreciable [End Page 183] effect on the German church in general or upon the vast majority of German clerics as individuals. Imposed from above, the Lateran decrees failed in their intended purpose and remained for the most part mere bureaucratic statutes." 9

To a great extent, this historiographical disjunct can be attributed to a difference in perspective. If the individual statutes of the council were not applied with sufficient vigor in particular dioceses or countries, the congress's larger ideology did nonetheless signal a major shift in the Western church. To be sure, priests continued to keep concubines and canons to hoard the incomes of underserved parish churches, but the years after 1215 marked the emergence of a new stage in papal universalism. The big issues articulated at Fourth Lateran provided a foundation for tighter Roman control felt throughout Latin Christendom. The anxiety over crusade funding, for instance, would make the papal tax collector a familiar character across thirteenth-century Europe, 10 while the specter of heresy and the emergence of the mendicants, whose approval...


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