The Two Powers

The Papacy, the Empire, and the Struggle for Sovereignty in the Thirteenth Century

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Brett Edward Whalen
Middle Ages Series
  • Philadelphia: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , June
     328 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Two Powers: The Papacy, the Empire, and the Struggle for Sovereignty in the Thirteenth Century by Brett Edward Whalen is a penetrating look at the incredible power struggles of 13th-century Europe. Drawing upon a wide range of sources, Whalen covers the battles fought between pope and emperor with victory continuously shifting between the two powers, and he offers new insight into the relationship between the papacy and the empire in the 13th century. In his writing, Whalen reveals the ugly face of 13th-century Christianity and empire with all its plots, intrigues, and murders.

Whalen has written a wise, in-depth, and passionate account of the struggle of the two 13th-century Popes Gregory the IX and Innocent the IV, both of whom were determined to put their political agendas ahead of the Church and their own priestly roles. Through decrees and communication agendas the two popes propagated the belief that the Apostolic See was above the emperor and all other rulers. In view of this, crusades were to be implemented as decreed by the popes, and the Inquisition was formed to eradicate any heresy in all of Christendom.

At times the emperor nullified anathemas and excommunications decreed by the pope by deliberately refusing to implement these decrees. In response, the pope, as head of the Church and earthly kingdoms, threatened earthly rulers with ecclesiastical censure—the spiritual keys of binding and loosening sinners through excommunication and interdict. Whalen writes that, in the power struggle, the situation could be dirty and ugly due to the plots, attempted assassinations, and poisonings. The author makes clear that the Church was involved in this scandal of the century.

To understand what was happening in the 13th century, one needs a torch, and Whalen’s book serves as one, shedding light on the intricacies of the power struggle. Whalen reveals that the interest of the church leaders was a name. The popes were primarily concerned about having their names recognized as the supreme temporal power rather than as spiritual leaders. This book can rightly also be called “the name struggle.”

The war continued and Christendom was in crisis. Whalen points out that, throughout the century, the confrontation between pope and emperor constantly worsened. Frederick II, who stood his ground as the head of the empire, was never in any true agreement with Popes Gregory IX and Innocent IV, even when he swore a public oath with his hands on the gospel and the cross. 

According to Whalen, the popes wanted the emperor, at all cost, to follow the directive given by the pope to the emperor on how the crusades were to be organized in the empire. From the time of Pope Gregory IX and Innocent IV, the power struggle with Frederick II continued until the pope excommunicated the emperor. Pope Gregory IX died on August 12, 1241, but the struggle was so huge that even after his death the power struggles continued with the new Pope Innocent IV. This was really the dark ages—the era of the Papal monarchy. Reconciliation and terms of peace did not work. It was a dilemma between the two powers.

On December 13, 1250 Emperor Frederick II died at Castel Fiorentio in Pulia but his sons continued with the power struggle. Whalen continues to say that the popes of Rome gained spiritual and temporal supremacy in the 13th century. The author adds that that the death of the emperor gave victory to the pope, and he was able to combine ruling the church and the Hohenstaufen dynasty for a short period of time. In this book, Whalen shows that 13th-century church leaders Gregory and Innocent’s fights with Frederick prepared the historical destiny of the 13th-century papacy. He emphasized in his book that the historical developments of the century helped the public sphere of medieval Christendom.

After the death of the Emperor Frederick II, his sons continued the fight with Pope Innocent IV until his death on December 7, 1254, at Foggia. The power struggle between papacy and emperor was more widespread and violent during the time of Gregory IX (1227–1241) and Innocent IV (1243–1254) than at any other point in history.

This is an easy book to read, especially for anyone interested in the history, religion, and politics of the medieval world. It is well written, and the well-organized ideas help readers understand specific regions, topics, and periods. This is the resource book lecturers and students have been waiting for. It is written in the 21st century and highlights the conditions of the medieval 13th-century history. I recommend it to the lecturers and students of church history and to colleges and universities as a resource book.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Victor Chilenje is professor of church history and church polity and dean of the School of Theology and Religion at Justo Mwale University, Lusaka, Zambia.

Date of Review: 
September 22, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brett Edward Whalen is associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He is author of The Medieval Papacy and Dominion of God: Christendom and Apocalypse in the Middle Ages.


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