Analysis: Pope Innocent III's use of papal interdicts to shut down the church was a powerful weapon against those who displeased him

By Salvador Ryan, St Patrick's College Maynooth 

A lockdown is announced. Church services are suspended, to be replaced by private masses celebrated by priests behind closed doors. Confirmations, ordinations, and other gatherings are postponed indefinitely. People die in their homes without the last rites. Funerals are lonely affairs.

The normal streams of church revenue are threatened and, in some areas, dry up completely (as do holy water fonts in churches). There are some priests who flout the rules or ignore them completely. Others don't quite understand what the regulations permit or prohibit, and clarification is sought from the authorities. Christians don't know when all of this will end or when normal (church) service will resume. Ultimately, that decision will be negotiated by those who govern, secular and ecclesiastical.  

Despite apparent similarities, the lockdown I’m referring to wasn’t inflicted by a global pandemic, but by popes in the 13th century. Its official title? The papal interdict.  

What was the papal interdict?

This was where the pope, through his local ecclesiastical representatives, ordered that all church services be suspended and that sacraments be withheld until the particular ruler, or ruling body with whom he was in conflict, saw the error of their ways. Medieval Europe saw a number of conflicts between ecclesiastical and secular rulers, most notably between kings and popes. Given that the pope commanded no large armies, the most powerful weapons in his arsenal were of the spiritual kind. And they didn't come much bigger than the interdict.

An interdict could be applied to a specific person or group of people or, more often, to a city, region or province. However, the most sweeping interdicts were levelled against whole kingdoms and became, in effect, what we might call 'national lockdowns’ today.  

The theory behind interdicts was to punish the innocent along with the 'guilty’. The intention was that large numbers of people, deprived of the sacraments and fearful for their salvation, would rise up against their ruler and exert sufficient pressure to make him back down in his dispute with the papacy. But things didn’t always work out that way.  

The pope, the king, his wife and his mistress

Two of the most famous incidences involved the King of France and the King of England respectively. In 1198, a papal representative was dispatched to France by Pope Innocent III to warn the French king, Philip II, that he had a month to set aside his mistress, Agnes, daughter of a Bavarian duke, and return to his lawful Danish wife, Ingeborg. When he refused, the whole kingdom was placed under interdict in 1199. By September 1200, Philip had, half-heartedly, relented.

In the case of England, a disputed election to the archbishopric of Canterbury, and the rejection of Pope Innocent III’s favoured candidate, Stephen Langton, led to the imposition of a general interdict on England and Wales in 1208. It would last for a whole six years. 

So how did an interdict affect church life on the ground? An interdict first had to be promulgated at a local level by a senior ecclesiastical figure. All church services provided by priests would then be suspended. There would be no public liturgy, although some monasteries were allowed to celebrate a weekly mass privately behind closed doors, but in a low voice, and with no chanting or ringing of bells.

Was England's interdict experience one of the residual reasons for Britain’s hostility to Europe to this day

The use of holy water was forbidden and holy water stoups outside churches left empty. The blessing of candles at Candlemas was outlawed. Provision of the sacraments was halted, except for the baptism of infants (thought, otherwise, to be in danger of damnation), and the hearing of deathbed confessions. The dying would not be afforded the sacrament of extreme unction (the last rites) nor would they receive the Eucharist.

Most distressing of all was the ruling that burials could no longer take place in consecrated ground. In some regions, priests were instructed to depart, stripping church altars, removing sacred images and leaving only sufficient clergy to baptize infants and give penance to the dying. 

Such blanket bans rarely worked out in practice, and popes were eventually forced to make concessions. In France in 1200, crusaders and charitable workers were allowed to attend private masses. In other cases, churches opened their doors to the laity, but only for private prayer. In an interdict of 1298, Pope Boniface VIII permitted the sacrament of penance to crusaders (essential workers?) who might well die in the line of duty. The same pope worried that the faith of children and adolescents weakened during times of interdict, and so made an effort to relax measures within reason. 

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From Royal Holloway, University of London History Hub, how did King John go from being excommunicated to having the Pope as his ally at the time of Magna Carta?

Ultimately the interdict was counter-productive. King John pressured clergy to defy the ban or lose their property. He also arrested the concubines of some clergy, using them as leverage. One Cistercian monastery got a papal rap on the knuckles for throwing open its church doors and bellowing its chants loudly to the public. In Béziers in 1298, local officials stole consecrated hosts from the local church and brought them to the town hall for veneration. 

More often than not, papal interdicts caused people to support their own monarch rather than their far-more-distant pope. They also engendered a great deal of anti-clericalism. The Oxford bishop-historian, William Stubbs (1825-1901), called the interdict ‘that most suicidal weapon of the medieval church’. Indeed, on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’ in 1997, broadcaster Lavinia Byrne even suggested England’s interdict experience as one of the residual reasons for Britain’s hostility to Europe to this day. 

Prof Salvador Ryan is professor of Ecclesiastical History at St Patrick's College Maynooth. He is a former Irish Research Council awardee

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ