Medieval Geopolitics: Striking Back against the Empire: Per venerabilem

By Andrew Latham

Over the course of the thirteenth century, canonists and civilians also definitively reconceptualized the heart of temporal supreme authority. Where at the beginning of the century they had understood supreme authority to be vested in the universal Empire, by the end of the century they had come to believe that such authority was vested in the various kingdoms that comprised Latin Christendom (and that the Empire itself was simply one such kingdom).

This reconceptualization took place along two closely related but analytically distinct paths. The first originated in the writings of the influential canonist Alanus Anglicus who, in the course of glossing Pope Innocent III’s decretal Per venerabilem (1202), introduced the idea that “the king in his kingdom is the emperor of his kingdom”.


The second, also tracing its roots to Per venerabilem, denied the universal authority of the emperor and, although they evolved along discrete pathways, ultimately these two formulae converged in the medieval political imagination to produce a new understanding of the proper heart of supreme political authority – an understanding that vested that authority in the rex rather than imperator.

In Per venerabilem Pope Innocent III asserted that he had the power to dispense illegitimate children, not so that they could enter holy orders, but so that they could inherit property. The immediate cause for the transmission of this decretal was a petition from Count William of Montpellier requesting that Innocent legitimize the children born of his mistress.  Ordinarily, the count would have submitted this petition to his temporal superior, the king of France.


In this case, however, William did not want to compromise his de facto independence from the French crown by formally submitting such a petition; nor did he wish to undermine Montpellier’s close commercial and diplomatic relations with the Spanish kingdom of Aragon by formally recognizing his vassalage to the King of France.  Having no other option, he appealed to Innocent, recalling in his petition that the Pope had already legitimized the children of the illicit union of king Phillip Augustus and Agnes of Meran.

As part of his response, Pope Innocent III unambiguously stated that the King of France recognized no superior in temporal affairs.  This statement was to reverberate down through the centuries, ultimately resulting in the emergence of the modern state and state-system.

On the basis of this papal rescript, canon lawyers subsequently developed two doctrines of regnal sovereignty. The first stated that the king was emperor in his own kingdom (rex in regno suo est imperator regni sui).  Originating in the works of Alanus Anglicus c. 1200, during the course of the thirteenth century, canonists further developed this formula to advance their claim that kings were sovereign in the sense that the king within the territory of his kingdom exercised the same authority as the emperor did in the empire as a whole”.

The second doctrine, deriving directly from commentary on Per venerabilem, held that certain kings were sovereign in that they recognized no superior in temporal affairs (rex qui superiorem non recognoscit). For those holding the latter view, the empire was but one of many territorially limited sovereign states, and regnal sovereignty was in no way derived from imperial sovereignty.  Although it would take several centuries for the sovereign state ultimately to triumph – and although the Empire would certainly strike back both militarily and theoretically – the historical die was set.


Andrew Latham is a professor of political science at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is the author, most recently, of The Idea of Sovereignty At the Turn of the 14th Century. You can visit Andrew’s website at or follow Andrew on Twitter @aalatham 

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Top Image: 13th century fresco of Innocent III, by Giotto