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HIST1087 Papal power in medieval Europe: crusades, heresy and clashes with kings

Module Overview

We are all aware of the power of the EU in modern Britain and the rest of Europe, but the idea of an international body making laws, decisions and interventions in national politics is nothing new. In the later middle ages, the Church and, above all, the papacy claimed and tried to exercise power in worldly affairs on spiritual grounds: Pope Innocent III was one of the most interventionist medieval popes and did more than any other to develop ideas to justify such interventions. The module will explore not only his political ideas and actions, but also his reputation as a pastoral pope, comparable in some ways to the charismatic Pope Francis in seeking to reconnect the Catholic Church with the people.

Aims and Objectives

Module Aims

- investigate the influence and importance of the Medieval Church through the achievements of one of its most significant leaders - help you to understand the complex relationship between religious and secular authority (Church and ‘State’) in Medieval Europe - introduce you to a wide range of key issues in the cultural, political, social and religious history of the European Middle Ages

Learning Outcomes

Knowledge and Understanding

Having successfully completed this module, you will be able to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of:

  • the power of the medieval papacy in theory and in practice
  • the key events and achievements of Innocent III’s papacy
  • papal policy towards its enemies inside and outside Christendom
  • the impact of the papacy on European politics and society
Transferable and Generic Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • critically engage with both primary and secondary sources (in English)
  • write cogently within a common academic framework and to deadlines
  • participate confidently in seminar discussions
  • write cogently under pressure of timed examination
  • enhanced presentation skills
Subject Specific Intellectual and Research Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • differentiate between theoretical aspirations and actual practice
  • closely read documents analysing their ideological and historical content
  • empathise with the different beliefs, motives and attitudes of people in a distant historical era
  • engage critically with the contrasting viewpoints of historians


Innocent III’s papacy marked a key turning-point in the history of the Western Church and Society in the Middle Ages. He claimed that his election to the papacy made him higher than man but lower than the angels. Older historians therefore perceived him as bent on world domination and noted his wide-ranging interventions in Western politics as evidence of this. Recent historians have adopted a more nuanced approach and seen Innocent as more responding to events than shaping them. He is clearly a controversial figure but his role in transforming the medieval papacy is undisputed. We will begin by examining the broad theoretical claims that Innocent made for papal power. These largely concern the relationship between the papacy and secular rulers. This examination will provide the basis for understanding Innocent’s interventions in the political affairs of the German Empire, France, England, and other kingdoms and communities, as well as his key role in the creation of the ‘papal state’ in central Italy. We will then consider Innocent’s achievements in the religious sphere, including his launching of crusades both in the East and against the Church’s enemies in the West, his attempts to combat religious dissent or ‘heresy’ which laid the foundations for the inquisition, and his efforts to reinvigorate the religious life of Western society through a programme of radical reform and the approval of new movements such as the Friars. We will make use of a variety of primary sources including Innocent’s own letters and contemporary chronicles as well as a wide range of secondary literature.

Special Features

Each weekly session will be divided into two one-hour parts with a brief break in between. The first session will provide you with an informal introduction to the subject followed by a formal lecture introducing the topic of the student presentation scheduled for the following week. This will establish the pattern for each week. A key element of the student presentation will be the cogent examination of one or two primary texts, which will be essential reading for all participants. In seminar discussion, we will pay particular attention to how your own reading illuminates your understanding of the primary texts and vice a versa. Through the preparation of a presentation and the weekly discussions, you will develop your critical ability as an historian, honing your capacity to make a historical argument rooted in a nuanced reading of primary and secondary texts. Thinking hard about the processes behind the production of historical writing will prepare you for writing the assessed essay and the examination.

Learning and Teaching

Teaching and learning methods

Teaching methods include - lectures (one hour, each week) - complementary seminars (one hour, each week) - essay tutorials Learning activities include - guided as well as independent reading in preparation for seminars and assignments - accessing online resources - preparation and presentation of a 15-minute seminar presentation - completion of an assessed 2,000 words essay and preparation for a one-hour examination

Independent Study126
Total study time150

Resources & Reading list

C. Morris. The Papal Monarchy, esp. Part III. 

J. M. Powell. Pope Innocent III. 

J. Sayers. Pope Innocent III. 

H. Tillmann. Pope Innocent III. 

This website of Professor Kenneth Pennington includes his essays and course materials on Innocent III; his essays are important for understanding Innocent III’s political thought and reputation as one of the great lawyer-popes of the Middle Ages..

B. Tierney. The Crisis of Church and State, 1050-1300. 

R. W. Southern. Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages. 


Assessment Strategy

Assessments designed to provide informal, on-module feedback - your seminar presentation will be marked informally and commented upon - a practice examination will be set, conducted under exam conditions and returned in person - there will be individual meetings to help prepare for the examination and to plan the assessed essay


MethodPercentage contribution
Commentary exercise  (1000 words) 20%
Essay  (2000 words) 40%
Examination  (1 hours) 40%

Repeat Information

Repeat type: Internal & External

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