It is impossible to enumerate all the forms assumed by Christian charity, or the institutions to which it gave rise. Some of the most curious were devoted to the recovery of prostitutes. This social sore existed throughout the Middle Ages, but increased during the thirteenth century with the growth of towns and universities. Prostitutes were found everywhere, even in the crusading armies! St Louis took steps to regulate their trade, and an encyclical of Innocent III in 1198 promised total remission of his sins to any pious man who married a harlot with a view to her rehabilitation.

In 1204, Fulk, parish priest of Neuilly who was afterwards celebrated as Peter the Hermit of the fourth crusade, began, with his curate Peter of Rossiac, haranguing fallen women in the public squares and in the streets. Later, he founded a congregation for the purpose of reclaiming them; and his devoted efforts soon brought into being an abbey which adopted the Cistercian Rule. Fulk was not alone in this work; in 1272, Bertrand, a citizen of Marseilles, established a similar community which was recognized as a monastic Order by Nicholas III. Their example was imitated at Rome, Bologna, Messina, Bourges, Bijon, and even at St Jean d’Acre in Palestine. But the most interesting and most successful of these undertakings was that of Canon Rudolph of Hildesheim, who was asked by the Archbishop of Mayence to reclaim the fahrende Weiber (street-walkers). He founded the Order of Penitent Sisters of St Magdalen, under whose austere rule these ladies might walk the road to heaven.

Henri Daniel-Rops, Cathedral and Crusade: Studies of the Medieval Church (1050-1350)


A hospital movement, quite distinct from that of Innocent III., which attracted so much attention shortly after the general hospital became common as to deserve particular consideration, was the erection of the leproseries or special institutions for the care of lepers. Leprosy had become quite common in Europe during the Middle Ages, and the continued contact of the West with the East during the crusades had brought about a notable increase of the disease. It is not definitely known how much of what was called leprosy at that time, really belonged to the specific disease now known as lepra. There is no doubt that many affections, which have since come to be considered as quite harmless and non-contagious, were included under the designation leprosy by the populace and even physicians incapable as yet of making a proper differential diagnosis. Probably severe cases of eczema and other chronic skin diseases, especially when complicated by the results of wrongly directed treatment or of lack of cleansing, were not infrequently pronounced to be true leprosy.

There is no doubt at all, however, of the occurrence of real leprosy in many of the towns of the West from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries, and the erection of these hospitals proved the best possible prophylactic against the further spread of the disease. Leprosy is contagious, but only mildly so. Years of intimate association with a leper may, and usually do, bring about the communication of the disease to those around them, especially if they do not exercise rather carefully, certain precise precautions as to cleanliness after personal contact or after the handling of things which have previously been in the leper’s possession. As the result of the existence of these houses of segregation, leprosy disappeared during the course of the next three centuries, and thus a great hygienic triumph was obtained by sanitary regulation.

This successful sanitary and hygienic work, which brought about practically the complete obliteration of leprosy in the Middle Ages, furnished the first example of the possibility of eradicating a disease that has once become a serious scourge to mankind. That this should have been accomplished by a movement that had its greatest source in the thirteenth century is all the more surprising, since we are usually accustomed to think of the people of the times as sadly lacking in any interest in sanitary matters. The role of the Popes in the matter is another striking feature well worthy of note. The significance of the success of this segregation method was lost upon men down almost to our own time. This was unfortunately because it was considered that most of the epidemic diseases were conveyed by the air. They were thought infectious and due to a climatic condition rather than contagious, that is, conveyed by actual contact with the person having the disease or something that had touched him, which is the view now held. With the beginning of the crusade against tuberculosis in the later nineteenth century, however, the most encouraging factor for those engaged in it was the history of the success of segregation methods and careful prevention of the spread of the disease, which had been pursued against leprosy. In a word, the lessons in sanitation and prophylaxis of the thirteenth century are only now bearing fruit because the intervening centuries did not have sufficient knowledge to realize their import and take advantage of them.

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)

Through the kindness of the Rev. D. A. Corbett, of the Seminary of St. Charles Borromeo, Overbrook, Pa., I have been able to secure a copy of Pope Boniface’s decree, and this at once disposes of the assertion that dissection was forbidden or anatomy in any way hampered by it…[:]

“Title–Concerning Burials. Boniface VIII. Persons cutting up the bodies of the dead, barbarously boiling them, in order that the bones, being separated from the flesh, may be carried for burial into their own countries, are by the very act excommunicated. As there exists a certain abuse, which is characterized by the most abominable savagery, but which nevertheless some of the faithful have stupidly adopted. We, prompted by motives of humanity, have decreed that all further mangling of the human body, the very mention of which fills the soul with horror, should be henceforth abolished.

“The custom referred to is observed with regard to those who happen to be in any way distinguished by birth or position, who, when dying in foreign lands, have expressed a desire to be buried in their own country. The custom consists of disemboweling and dismembering the corpse, or chopping it into pieces and then boiling it so as to remove the flesh before sending the bones home to be buried–all from a distorted respect for the dead. Now, this is not only abominable in the sight of God, but extremely revolting under every human aspect. Wishing, therefore, as the duty of our office demands, to provide a remedy for this abuse, by which the custom, which is such an abomination, so inhuman and so impious, may be eradicated and no longer be practiced by anyone, We, by our apostolic authority, decree and ordain that no matter of what position or family or dignity they may be, no matter in what cities or lands or places in which the worship of the Catholic faith flourishes, the practice of this or any similar abuse with regard to the bodies of the dead should cease forever, no longer be observed, and that the hands of the faithful should not be stained by such barbarities.

“And in order that the bodies of the dead should not be thus impiously and barbarously treated and then transported to the places in which, while alive, they had selected to be buried, let them be given sepulture for the time either in the city or the camp or in the place where they have died, or in some neighboring place, so that, when finally their bodies have been reduced to ashes or otherwise, they may be brought to the place where they wish to be buried and there be interred. And, if the executor or executrix of the aforesaid defunct, or those of his household, or anyone else of whatever order, condition, state or grade he may be, even if he should be clothed with episcopal dignity, should presume to attempt anything against the tenor of this our statute and ordination, by inhumanly and barbarously treating the bodies of the dead, as we have described, let him know that by the very fact he incurs the sentence of excommunication, from which he cannot obtain absolution (unless at the moment of death), except from the Holy See. And besides, the body that has been thus barbarously treated shall be left without Christian burial. Let no one, therefore, etc. (Here follows the usual formula of condemnation for the violation of the prescriptions of a decree.) Given at the Lateran Palace, on the twelfth of the calends of March, in the sixth year of our pontificate.”

The reason for the bull is very well known. During the crusades, numbers of the nobility who died at a distance from their homes in infidel countries were prepared for transportation and burial in their own lands by dismemberment and boiling. The remains of Louis IX., of France, and a number of his relatives who perished on the ill-fated crusade in Egypt in 1270, are said to have been brought back to France in this fashion. The body of the famous German Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, who was drowned in the river Saleph near Jerusalem, was also treated thus in order that the remains might be transported to Germany without serious decomposition being allowed to disturb the ceremonials of subsequent obsequies. Such examples were very likely to be imitated by many. The custom, as can be appreciated from these instances from different nations, was becoming so widespread as to constitute a serious source of danger to health, and might easily have furnished occasion for the conveyance of disease. It is almost needless to say to our generation that it was eminently unhygienic. Any modern authority in sanitation would at once declare against it, and the custom would be put an end to without more ado. There can be no doubt at all then that Pope Boniface VIII. accomplished good, not evil, by the publication of this bull. So anyone with modern views as to the danger of disease from the foolish custom which it abolished would at once have declared, and yet, by a perversion of its signification, it came to be connected with a supposed prohibition of dissection. For this misunderstanding Pope Boniface VIII. has had to suffer all sorts of reproaches and the Church has been branded as opposed to anatomy by historians(!)

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)

Probably the most important work that the Popes did for medical science in the Middle Ages was their encouragement of the development of a hospital system throughout Christianity. The story of this movement is not only interesting because it represents a coordination of social effort for the relief of suffering humanity, but also because it represents the provision of opportunities for the study of disease and the skilled care of the ailing such as can come in no other way. Those who are familiar with the history of medicine, and especially of surgery, know that a great period of progress in these departments came during the thirteenth century. The next two centuries indeed represent an epoch of surgical advance such as was probably never surpassed and only equalled by the last century. This seems much to say of a medieval century 700 years ago, but our chapter on surgery will, I think, amply justify the assertion. The reasons for this great development in surgical knowledge are properly understood only when we come to realize that there was a corresponding development in hospital organization. These two features of medicine always go hand in hand. The hospitals, as might be expected, preceded the surgical development, and owed their great progress at this time mainly to the Popes.

The city hospital as we have it at the present time, that is, the public institution meant for the reception of those suffering from accidents, from acute diseases of various kinds, and also for providing shelter for those who have become ill and have no friends to take care of them, is an establishment dating from the beginning of the thirteenth century. It will doubtless be a surprise to most people to be told that the modern world owes this beneficent institution to the fatherly watchfulness, the kindly foresight, and the very practical charity of one of the greatest of the Popes, whose name is usually associated with ambitious schemes for making the Papacy a great political power in Europe, rather than as the prime mover in what was probably the most far-reaching good work of supreme social significance that was ever accomplished.

At the beginning of the thirteenth century, mainly as the result of those much abused sources of many benefits to mankind in the Middle Ages, the Crusades, the people of Europe had begun to dwell together in towns much more than before. It is closeness of population that gives rise to the social needs. While people were scattered throughout the country diseases were not so prevalent, epidemics were not likely to spread, and the charitable spirit of the rural people themselves was quite sufficient to enable them to care for the few ailing persons to be found. With the advent of even small city life, however, came the demand for hospitals in the true sense of the word, and this need did not long escape the watchful eye of Innocent III. He recognized the necessity for a city hospital in Rome, and in accordance with his very practical character and wonderful activity, at once set about its foundation.

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)

Of the external foes of the Church, Mohammedanism was one of the most dangerous and long enduring. Ideologically it was not external, but one of the great heresies, containing as it did many Christian elements, mingled with some borrowed from Judaism, and much gross and carnal materialism foreign to both…But the organization of Islam was outside the Christian fold, and its pressure was from without. In its very first century of existence, this sect conquered not only large tracts of Asia, but all northern Africa as far as the Atlantic, engulfed Spain, and invaded France, leaving there, as on the crest of a highest wave, marks of its own culture which persisted even to modern times. Nor did the danger of a Mohammedan conquest of all Europe end with the Battle of Tours in 732. The peril endured for nearly a thousand years, now menacing France, now Italy, now striking through the Balkans, now through northeastern Europe: now on land, now on sea. In the tenth century the Moslems held Sicily, whence they raided the mainland of Italy, laid waste the country about Rome, profaned the apostolic tombs, and collected tribute from the Popes. They had been a threat to the peace and independence of European Christians for nearly four centuries when Pope Urban II preached the First Crusade against them in 1096.

William Thomas Walsh, Characters of the Inquisition (1940)

The Thirteenth Century bore many glorious fruits, but not for the sons of Abraham. And the decadent fourteenth had even worse things in store for them. It began with their plundering and expulsion from France by Philip IV in 1306; their slaughter by the pastoureaux in 1320, and even bloodier persecution in 1321, when the lepers accused them of having poisoned the wells and rivers – this about the time when Bernard Gui was composing his Practica. The Crusades had brought to the Jews the same punishment that their ancestors had  meted out to the idolaters, the blasphemers, the worshippers among them of the gold calf. Their ancient prophets would have said that they were being chastised for not walking in the ways of God. But what a mockery that this should be done in the name of Him who said, “Love your enemies; do good to them that hate you,” and murmured, as He gave up His life for the Jews and all men, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!” What an injustice, too, that the survivors of the pogroms were often granted their lives only on condition that they accept Baptism. Some of course sought it themselves in their fear of future massacres, confiscations, and social and economic discrimination. Many of the conversions, therefore, were insincere and temporary.

Modern Jews – Dr. Cecil Roth, for one – have acknowledged that the Popes and most of the hierarchy pretty consistently stood between the Jews and all this mob violence, and protected them from extermination or other barbarities in countless instances. Pope Alexander III was a friend to the Jews. The Third Lateran Council in 1179 defended their right to refuse Baptism. Innocent III, although he frowned on the tendency of many Christian rulers to give the jews power and preferment over Christians, issued a constitution, when the Jews appealed to him against the Crusaders, in which he forbade mob violence and compulsory Baptism – a measure that Gregory IX confirmed in 1235.

William Thomas Walsh, Characters of the Inquisition (1940)

As far as the traditional procedure of the church towards instructing the faithful and guarding them against the corrosion of heretical doctrines, the Albigensian Crusade represented an interruption, but so long as political and religious chaos persisted in Languedoc any other method of approach was hopeless. Now that political stability had been more or less achieved, religious reconstruction had a fair chance of success. The Cathars and Waldensians were alive and flourishing, but the support and protection of the nobility had been neutralized. Further, the political lines were no longer purely feudal. The rising power of organized citizenry, as demonstrated in town after town during the crusade, gave notice that they were a power to be reckoned with.

As sometimes happens, an administrator of lesser stature and activity may achieve more in certain areas than a more brilliant man. And so it was with Honorius III who saw an end to the Albigensian Crusade and received the active legal cooperation of the Kings of France and Aragon and the Emperor – which Innocent III did not have. The decrees of the Fourth Lateran Council now appeared in the legal codes of all three, along with their individual prescriptions of a less acceptable nature. In 1224 Frederick decreed the stake for heretics in Lombardy, but apparently the only time this edict received any attention it filed, and the official attempting to apply it very nearly lost his own life. It remained in effect a dead letter.

It is also fair to say, however, that the efforts of the past half century to deal with the problem of heresy had not achieved success. The successor to Honorius III in the papacy came to the conclusion that papal authority would have to lend support to competently trained experts circulating in the infect regions, using a uniform procedure under a centrally organized administration. The new pope, Gregory IX (1227-1241), set about to establish the Inquisition.

Albert Shannon, The Medieval Inquisition (1991)

Professor Draper’s philosophy of history is, indeed, something to make one pause. He says on page 291, “The result of the Crusades had shaken the faith of all Christendom.” As a matter of easily ascertainable history, the faith of Christendom was never so strong as during the century immediately following the Crusades. This was the thirteenth century, with the glorious Gothic cathedrals; the great Latin hymns; the magnificent musical development; the wondrous tribute of painting to religion, from Cimabue and Duccio to Giotto and Orcagna, and of sculpture from the Pisani to the great designers of some of the doors of the baptistry of Florence, of the finest arts and crafts in gold and silver, in woodwork, in needle-work, in illuminated books–all precious tributes to religious belief. In the hundred years after the Crusades, the Popes secured a position of influence in Europe greater than they had ever had before or have ever enjoyed since, which they used to secure the foundation of hospitals everywhere throughout Europe, the establishment of universities, the organization of religious orders for teaching and nursing purposes, and the finest development of social life and social happiness that the world had ever known.

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)

Within a year after the adjournment of the “Great Council” as it was known, Pope Innocent III was dead. Among his many projects, he had energetically devoted himself to the solution of the problem of the spread of heresy in Languedoc and elsewhere. He firmly believed that the preaching of sound doctrine would protect the faithful on the one hand, and bring back the wandering dissidents on the other. He recognized the negligence of some of the bishops and acted forthrightly to correct it. He admonished and encouraged the diocesan clergy to live up to their priestly office, and he took measures to assist in their proper selection and training. He treated the erring compassionately, but firmly, specifying that the teachings of each heretical group should be properly indicated and that the orthodox not be labeled as heretics, e.g. some of the Humiliati. New laws he did not make. He simply codified and tried to enforce those already enacted. He added no new punishments. But his good start, particularly with the aid of the well-trained monks and friars, was interrupted and thwarted by the continuing civil disorders, and more proximately, by the murder of the papal legate, Peter of Castelnau. Thus historical forces reversed the trend, and the Albigensian Crusade brought the use of stronger measures until in a more orderly, tranquil environment peaceful spiritual procedures could be resumed once again.

Albert Shannon, The Medieval Inquisition (1991)

An enormous amount of ink has been passionately spilled by otherwise well-balanced historians on the alleged atrocities and extensive slaughtering of the innocent in this Crusade through southern France. “Kill all! Kill all! for God will know his own,” was the supposed instructions of the papal legate to the inquiring crusaders at Beziers where 7,000 old men, women and children are reported to have been slain in a single church, La Madeleine, and 20,000 inhabitants are said to have been massacred in a town which held at the most liberal estimate eight or nine thousand. These oft-repeated horror stories have built a legend that has passed for history down to our own enlightened century. That the facts do not substantiate the charges does not disturb those who trumpet these tales.

Albert Shannon, The Medieval Inquisition (1991)