“Burned without pity” – a fake quotation attributed to Pope Innocent III

While looking for some information on the Spanish Inquisition, I came across a whole slew of pages containing the following quotation (various, but here).

Pope Innocent III: “Anyone who attempts to construe a personal view of God which conflicts with church dogma must be burned without pity.” ~Papal Bull, 1198, qtd. in Peter Tompkins, Symbols of Heresy in THE MAGIC OF OBELISKS, p.57 (New York: Harper, 1981)

Source: https://www.worldslastchance.com/end-time-prophecy/appalling-papal-proclamations-straight-from-the-harlots-mouth.html

Well, that sounds like a fun quotation.  Naturally I wondered if it was true.  And so I looked for a primary source.  On an Amazon.com discussion I found a claim that:

I can give you the papal bull of Pope Innocent III dated march 25 of 1199 and it says like this: “anyone who attempts to construe a personal view of God which conflicts with church dogma must be burned without pity.”

However that bull seems to be Vergentis in senium, as mentioned here.   The Latin text for the bull is at IntraText here.  Using Google Translate gives a very good idea of the contents, and this is not in it.

Fortunately I then found that Tompkins, The Magic of Obelisks (1981), was at Google Books, in snippet form, and a bit of wiggling gave me the relevant part of p.57:

I.e.

Once it became clear that perhaps a third of all nominal Christians were secretly practising a heretical religion, Christian persuasion was replaced by the rack, the gibbet and the stake.  Declaring that anyone who attempted to construe a personal view of God which conflicted with the dogma of the Church of Rome must be burned without pity, Pope Innocent III decided on a crusade “to exterminate the impious”, accusing the Cathars of being “lascivious sects, who, overflowing with libertine ardor, are but slaves to the pleasures of the flesh.”

This plainly is the source of the quote.  And … it is not a quote at all.  It is a summary, by Peter Tompkins, of what he believes that Innocent was saying, in some unspecified text.  Whether it is a fair summary or not I could not say; there is, as we can see, no footnote on the paragraph.  Whether the supposed verbatim quotations are in fact accurate we cannot tell, but I have my doubts about these also.

Tompkins himself was a journalist, who lived long enough to have a web page, full of crank stuff.

It’s not my purpose to look into medieval history, but at least to identify this particular quote as false.

UPDATE (6 March 17): In the comments, SuburbanBanshee draws our attention to the fact that Tompkins is actually quoting a 1931 book by Maurice Magre.  I find in Google Books snippet that the phrase appears on p.60 of “Magicians, seers and mystics” (Dutton, New York, 1932: snippet here).  It doesn’t seem to be a quote there either.

According to a bookseller, the UK publication was “The Return of the Magi”, London, 1931, translated from the French “Magiciens et illumines…”, 1930, by Reginald Merton.  The latter title has been reprinted in 2016 – I assume it has dropped out of copyright.  I have ordered a copy and we will see what it says.

UPDATE (28 March 17): I have now obtained the book and discuss it here.

20 thoughts on ““Burned without pity” – a fake quotation attributed to Pope Innocent III

  1. If people are interested… usually you look up medieval papal pronouncements in the Corpus Iuris Canonici, and then in the various “bullarium” collections, and then in Migne and other old friends. The Vatican website has the more recent stuff, and the volumes of Acta are slowly combining online; but the older stuff is not a priority.

    If you can find the right Latin phrase, though, you can usually find stuff on Google Books.

    The obelisk book seems to be quoting Maurice Magre’ s book The Return of the Magi, in its 1932 English translation.

  2. Innocent was elected pope at the ruins of the Septizodium, btw, so he does fall under your purview in that way. (I had no idea the elections were ever held there. Wonder why. It was pretty central, of course.)

  3. Roger,

    Thanks for putting this on your blog. Falsified history (including false quotes) is, sadly, common, but it is one thing that irritates me considerably. I was wondering if you have come across any information about the 1229 Synod of Toulouse and the supposed proclamation issued banning possession / reading of the Scriptures for laymen? I encountered this story in a book I am reading (interestingly, the book includes only vague references here), and the only other references I can find seem less than trustworthy. If a reader could direct me to reputable sources dealing with what exactly happened at the Synod of Toulouse, that would be wonderful as well.

  4. @Suburbanbanshee – thank you so much for the guidance! I had no idea that this was how it was done. I just googled. I shall try to remember for future reference!

    You are also right, I see, about Magre. I find in Google Books snippet that the phrase appears on p.60 of “Magicians, seers and mystics” (Dutton, New York, 1932: snippet here). It doesn’t seem to be a quote there either.

    According to a bookseller, the UK publication was “The Return of the Magi”, London, 1931, translated from the French “Magiciens et illumines…”, 1930, by Reginald Merton. The latter title has been reprinted in 2016 – I assume it has dropped out of copyright.

  5. @RobertL: This is a new claim to me, and appears to be a bit of old-fashioned Protestant anti-Papist invective. There’s a fairly full statement of the claim here. It contains the following claim:

    Cannon 14 from the Council of Toulouse says that the Roman Catholic Church:

    “Forbids the laity to have in their possession any copy of the books of the Old and New Testament…. and most strictly forbids these works in the vulgar tongue.”

    To which a poster responds:

    Here is the WHOLE canon number 14.

    “14. Forbids the laity to have in their possession any copy of the books of the Old and New Testament (except the Psalter, and such portions of them as are contained in the Breviary, or the Hours of the blessed Virgin), most strictly forbids these works in the vulgar tongue.”

    Landon, E. H. (1909). Vol. 2: A Manual of Councils of the Holy Catholic Church (172).
    Edinburgh: John Grant.

    So as you see it was not the possesion of the whole bible but of SINGLE BOOKS of the bible that was prohivited, the psalter (i.e the psalms) was allowed.
    The creation of any of these books in the vulgar tonge was prohivited to prevent poor and heretical translations.

    I’ve not verified this, however.

  6. Roger,

    Thank you for that. I was able to find the book by E.H. Landon on archive.org https://archive.org/details/amanualofcouncil02landuoft and, according to that book published in 1909, the Synod of Toulouse did not ban all Scripture for laity. Also, a poster on the forum you linked mentions that this was a local council and not meant to bind all of the Roman church – in effect, it was decreed to combat a local heresy. That is an interesting claim that I need to investigate, although I will say that the other decrees at this council were indeed concerned with heresy.

    Oh, that people would not resort to false polemics! This is one reason why I love your blog, Roger. Informed and well researched.I hope you continue it for as long as you are able.

  7. RobertL,

    Well spotted! It’s worth adding a link to the first volume:

    https://archive.org/details/amanualofcouncil01landuoft

    with Landon’s original 1845 Preface (pp. [v]-vi), his son, Perceval Landon’s, 1893 Preface to the revised second edition (pp. [vii – viii]) and the crucial footnote on page [1] that “This and all similar references are to Labbe and Cossart, Concilia Sacrosancta, in 16 tomes, ed. Paris, 1671.” This includes the one at the end of the entry on “TOULOUSE (1229), “Tom. xi. Conc. p. 425.”

    Happily, the Internet Archive has Sacrosancta concilia ad regiam editionem exacta quae nunc quarta parte prodit auctior by “Labbe, Philippe, 1607-1667; Cossart, Gabriel, 1615-1674; Josse, Georges, d. 1678”, “Vol 11, Part 1”, where we find that “425” is a column, rather than a page, number. On that page (at the foot of which is handily found this detail of its composition: “Dd iij 22 Vt”), col. 426 gives the chapter titles, including that for canon 14, while col. 430, two pages on, has the text of canon 14, which, if I am linking correctly, should be readable, here:

    https://archive.org/stream/gri_33125010890925#page/n229/mode/2up

    (I assume this is the full text,rather than a Latin summary, of the canon, but in fact know nothing about Labbe, Cossart, and Josse’s manner of proceeding – this is the first time I’ve tried following up such a Landon reference!: in any case, this should get us closer to the source!)

  8. I just attempted to submit a comment about the Landons (father and son) and their source for the 1229 Council of Toulouse, and assume it has landed in a moderation queue on account of having two distinct links to Internet Archive items – I’ll check back at some later time, to see if that is so – if it is, feel free to delete this comment!

  9. The Council of Toulouse (1229) was part of the resistance to the Albigensian heresy, so that is presumably the context of canon 14: to resist neo-Manichaean misinterpretation of Scripture, and promote faithful use of Scripture in daily prayer.

  10. When I tried to resubmit it (to see if it might have vanished en route), that was recognized as a duplicate… so at that point the original must have been somewhere for purposes of comparison… If it doesn’t turn up, I’ll try a revised version!

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