Category Archives: Medieval History

Today in Catholic History – The Foundation of Sapienza – Università di Roma

On 20 April 1303, Pope Boniface VIII issued the bull In Supremae Praeminentia Dignitatis establishing the Studium Urbis, in 1660 to become known as as La Sapienza, or Wisdom, and today known as Sapienza – Università di Roma. Which today, although no longer under the control of the Pope, is the largest university in Europe and the oldest of the three public universities in Rome.

Pope Boniface founded the university for the purpose of ecclesiastical studies. The name La Sapienza came from the 111th Psalm – “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”.

Pope Eugenius IV in October 1431 would issue a bull, In Supremae, which would establish additional funding for the university through a tax on wine. He also established the faculties of law, philosophy, medicine and theology.

In 1870, after the capture of Rome by the armies of the Kingdom of Italy, La Sapienza shifted from papal control to that of the government of Italy.

In January 2008, a hostile response from 67 professors of Sapienza and many students would cause Pope Benedict XVI to cancel a proposed lecture at the university.

More on Sapienza
Pope Benedict XVI’s proposed lecture at Sapienza and the controversy over it


Today in Catholic History – The Canterbury Tales

On 17 April 1397, Geoffrey Chaucer began his telling of the Canterbury Tales at the court of Richard II and, according to the text, it was on this date in 1387 that the pilgrims of the tale began their journey to the shrine of Thomas Beckett.

At the time in which the Tales were written, the Catholic Church was still suffering from the effects of the Great Schism – two and later three claimants asserted their legitimacy as pope at the same time.  Struggles to end the schism and return unity to the Catholic Church motivated calls for reform by such men as John Wycliffe – who attacked papal supremacy.

The Canterbury Tales thus reflect this difficult time in the Church.  Many of the characters are religious such as the Pardoner, the Summoner, the Friar, the Monk, the Prioress, the Priest and the Nun.   Chaucer uses these characters to attack what he considered the corruption among the clergy and to emphasize what he considered true religious virtue.  Chaucer wanted his stories to point out those who had failed to live as they should and also those who did serve as good examples to others.

Today, Chaucer’s work continues to serve as a model of the Christian pilgrimage to heaven, sinners and saints striving for holiness.  In his 2005 talk for World Youth Day, J. Francis Cardinal Stafford noted:

In this Catholic poet, we see how a many-layered tradition (pilgrimage to a shrine containing a relic) can eventually exhibit a whole range of phenomena, from the authentic spirituality of the Parson to crassest superstition and entrepreneurial greed. The very existence of such beliefs reveals the nature and quality of the Catholic faith at that time: Christians would not respond to a god as a mere abstract idea, an abstract spiritual principle or a subject of speculation. The Catholic faithful wished to see and touch the true God. This was no light matter.

The Canterbury Tales

Today in Catholic History – The Fourth Crusade Captures Constantinople

On 12 April 1204, the Crusaders of the Fourth Crusade captured Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire and would establish the short lived Latin Empire which lasted until 1261.

The crusaders had sailed from Venice on 24 June 1202 with the intent to attack Cairo. They had been explicitly banned by Pope Innocent III from attacking any Christian states. However, when the crusaders began assembling, they had requested from Venice far more ships to be constructed than they would eventually need. Venice built ships for 33,500 crusaders but when the crusade set sail there were only 12,000 soldiers. Despite not needing the additional boats, Venice required that the crusaders pay for all ships constructed. This reduced many of the crusaders to poverty and placed a severe economic strain on the Venetians. When Byzantine prince Alexius Angelus approached the Crusaders with an offer to provide them with money, men and ships in exchange for helping him to overthrow Emperor Alexius III and restore Isaac II, the father of Prince Alexis, to the throne – the Crusaders saw an opportunity to recoup their losses.

While the initial motive of the crusader attack on Constantinople was to restore Isaac II to the throne, after the Crusaders overthrew Alexius III, prince Alexius – now Alexius IV, was unable to deliver the promised wealth to the Crusaders. Moreover, Alexius IV became extremely unpopular in Constantinople and was eventually strangled to death and replaced by one of his courtiers who would become Alexius V. The Crusaders then demanded that Alexius V honor Alexius IV’s agreement, but Alexius V refused. Therefore, the Crusaders continued their attack on Constantinople to get they money they believed they were owed.

It should be noted that Pope Innocent III had sent explicit letters forbidding an attack on Constantinople but these letters were kept hidden by the clergy participating in the siege of Constantinople.

When the Crusaders finally took Constantinople, the destruction was enormous. Fires in the city would leave 15,000 homeless. The sack of the city lasted three days, during which the Crusaders violated churches and destroyed the Library of Constantinople. One account writes:

the French and others destroyed indiscriminately, halting to refresh themselves with wine, violation of nuns, and murder of Orthodox clerics. The Crusaders vented their hatred for the Greeks most spectacularly in the desecration of the greatest Church in Christendom. They smashed the silver iconostasis, the icons and the holy books of Hagia Sophia, and seated upon the patriarchal throne a whore who sang coarse songs as they drank wine from the Church’s holy vessels… The Greeks were convinced that even the Turks, had they taken the city, would not have been as cruel as the Latin Christians.

When Pope Innocent III heard about what the Crusaders had done, he was furious and asked:

How, indeed, will the church of the Greeks, no matter how severely she is beset with afflictions and persecutions, return into ecclesiastical union and to a devotion for the Apostolic See, when she has seen in the Latins only an example of perdition and the works of darkness, so that she now, and with reason, detests the Latins more than dogs? As for those who were supposed to be seeking the ends of Jesus Christ, not their own ends, who made their swords, which they were supposed to use against the pagans, drip with Christian blood, they have spared neither religion, nor age, nor sex. They have committed incest, adultery, and fornication before the eyes of men. They have exposed both matrons and virgins, even those dedicated to God, to the sordid lusts of boys.

Although the Byzantines would eventually recover Constantinople, the Empire was permanently weakened and the destruction of the Fourth Crusade would contribute to the eventual fall of the Empire in 1453. Furthermore, while the schism between East and West could be said to have begun in 1054, it was the sack of Constantinople that made that rupture permanent.

The memory of the sack of Constantinople is still strong among the Orthodox. Twice, Pope John Paul II issued an apology for what the Catholic West had done. In April 2004, Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I formally accepted Pope John Paul II’s apology.

For more on the Fourth Crusade

#229 – A Message for the Khan

In just a few days, the Mongol armies had devastated the armies of Western Europe and all of Christendom seemed ready to fall. Pope Innocent IV placed all his hopes for peace in the hands of a sixty-five year old Franciscan.

Letter of Pope Innocent IV to the Great Khan
The Letter of Great Khan Güyük to Pope Innocent IV
The Journal of Father John de Plano Carpini

Photo is map of the journey of Father John de Plano Carpini

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podcasticon#229 – A Message for the Khan

Today in Catholic History – Second Lateran Council

On 4 April 1139, Pope Innocent II opened the Second Lateran Council and the tenth ecumenical council.

Almost a thousand attended the council which gathered to remedy the effects of the schism of anti-pope Anacletus II.  At the council, with his own hands Pope Innocent would strip the symbols of episcopal authority of those who had been ordained bishops by Anacletus.

The council condemned the heresies of Arnold of Brescia and Peter of Bruys.   Arnold of Brescia had argued that the Church should imitate the apostles and renounce ownership of property.  His ideas would later be influential amongst the Spiritual Franciscans.  Peter of Bruys denied the value of the Old Testament and the writings of the Church Fathers.  He also denied infant baptism and the incarnation of Jesus Christ in the flesh.

The council also addressed other issues such as forbidding bishops and priests to wear clothing likely to cause scandal or was overly extravagant; forbidding priests from marrying – indeed the faithful were not to attend Masses said by married priests;  prohibiting nuns from praying the Divine Office with monks; and forbidding any joust which might be life threatening.

The Second Lateran Council

Today in Catholic History – The Siege of Constantinople

On this day in 1453, the forces of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II surrounded the city of Constantinople to begin a siege of the city that would end on 29 May 1453 with the fall of that city to the Ottoman forces and the end of the Byzantine Empire.

While the last Roman Emperor Constantine XI appealed for help from the West, Pope Nicholas V was unwilling to send help without an agreement to accept the decrees of the Council of Florence regarding union between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. Though it is questionable how much help Nicholas could have provided considering the limited assistance Pope Eugene IV was able to provide in 1438 when the Emperor of Constantinople did agree to acknowledge papal authority.

Still some Western forces did arrive from the Italian city states. But the forces of Constantinople numbered only 7,000 [of which 2,000 were foreign mercenaries] and they faced a besieging army of 100,000.

What was not accomplished by Church council was accomplished by the threat of the Ottoman armies as Catholic and Orthodox fought together against the common foe and Orthodox and Catholic faithful united in liturgy and prayers for God’s assistance.

With the fall of the city, the beginning of the Renaissance is said to have begun.

More on the Fall of Constantinople

Today in Catholic History – The Praise of Folly

Desiderius Erasmus, from “The Praise of Folly”

All this amounts to no less than that all mortal men are fools, even the righteous and godly as well as sinners; nay, in some sense our blessed Lord himself, who, although he was the wisdom of the Father, yet to repair the infirmities of fallen man, he became in some measure a partaker of human Folly, when he took our nature upon him, and was formed in fashion as a man ; or when God made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. Nor would he heal those breaches our sins had made by any other method than by the foolishness of ‘the cross…

Today in the city of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, the publication of the famous book by Desiderius Erasmus “The Praise of Folly” is celebrated. The actual date is unknown but the book appeared in 1512 and with today being April Fool’s Day – is there a better day to praise folly?

Erasmus wrote this work while spending time with St. Thomas More in England and dedicated the book to him.  Indeed, the Greek title of the text “Moriae Encomium” can also be read as “In praise of More”.

In the book, Erasmus extols the virtues of foolishness and is highly critical of the corruption and abuses he saw in the Catholic Church. Erasmus called for a return to the spirituality and life of the early Apostles and Church Fathers.

While his work was very popular and would serve to fuel the approaching Protestant Reformation, Pope Leo X found the book funny and Erasmus himself wanted to reform the Catholic Church while remaining part of it. However, Erasmus’ support of Luther’s call for reform but his refusal to support Luther’s schism will lead to Erasmus finding himself viewed with suspicion both by the Protestant Reformers as well as the Catholic Counter-Reformers. Luther will call him “the very mouth and organ of Satan” and Pope Paul IV will place his writings on the Index of Prohibited Books.

For his part, Erasmus will write, “I detest dissension because it goes both against the teachings of Christ and against a secret inclination of nature. I doubt that either side in the dispute can be suppressed without grave loss.”

The complete text of The Praise of Folly can be found at the the Internet Archive

Today in Catholic History – Bernard of Clairveaux preaches a crusade

On 31 March 1146 in Vézelay, France St. Bernard of Clairveaux issued a call for what would become known as the Second Crusade.

In 1144, the city of Edessa fell to the Seljuk Turks, this along with requests from Armenia and the other Crusader states for assistance led Pope Eugene III to ask St. Bernard to publicly call for Christian knights to again go to the Holy Land, offering the same indulgences that had been issued by Pope Urban II for the first Crusade.

In front of an enormous crowd at Vézelay, including French King Louis VII and his wife Queen Eleanor of Acquitaine, Bernard preached a very inspiring sermon. Whereas previously there had been little interest in another crusade, after Bernard’s sermon those in attendance rushed to swear oaths to go to the Holy Land. It is said that the crowd ran out of cloth to make Crusader crosses and that Bernard gave up his own outer garments to be cut up to make more. These cloth crosses were worn by crusaders as a sign of the oaths they had taken.

Bernard would later write to Pope Eugene about the great response, “Cities and castles are now empty. There is not left one man to seven women, and everywhere there are widows to still living husbands.” He would claim himself of deserving no praise for the tremendous response to his preaching as he was acting only in obedience to the will of the pope.

The Second Crusade proved to be a disaster for the Crusaders. While the Seljuk Turks were united in their resistance, the Crusaders were divided both in terms of objective as well as in their leadership. One chronicler sums up the results of the Second Crusade with these words, “having practically accomplished nothing, the inglorious ones returned home.”

The failures of the Second Crusade after such an inspirational beginning left Europe disillusioned with the whole idea of a crusade and there would never again be such a popular response to the call for a crusade as their had been with the First and Second Crusade. Much of the blame for the failure fell upon Bernard, who would later send a letter to the pope trying to distance himself from the Second Crusade and laying the faults for its failure upon the sins of the crusaders. Again, Bernard asserted that he had not preached the Second Crusade from his own desires but rather because he wished to respond to the will of the pope.

More on the Second Crusade

Today in Catholic History – The Council of Pisa

On this day in 1409, the Council of Pisa was called into session in an attempt to end the Great Schism and the competing Avignon and Roman claimants to the papacy. The Catholic Church had found itself split and unable to determine who the real pope was. Unfortunately, the Council of Pisa ended with the inauguration of the Pisa line of papal claimants under anti-pope Alexander V and instead of having to determine the true pope among two opponents, now the faithful had to chose between three possibilities. This problem would not be resolved until the Council of Constance in 1414.

More information on the Council of Pisa can be found in episode #158 of Catholic:Under The Hood.