William Blake: The Simoniac Pope
Christian attitudes to hell seem to have changed somewhat in the last century or two. Tertullian and Aquinas both thought that one of the delights of heaven would be a ringside seat to watch the torments of the damned. By contrast, in the salons of Proust’s Paris the Abbé Mugnier was asked if he believed in hell. “I do, because it is a doctrine of the Church”, he is said to have replied, “but I don’t believe there is anyone in it.”

A letter from Innocent III to an English monk in 1206 shows us something about the real fear of hell. The letter is included in English Historical Documents, volume 3, document 164. The issue was that the monk, who was originally called Henry, loyally changed his name to Augustine when he joined the Augustinian order. Then he had been worried enough to write to the Pope about the name change:

you fear that after death you may derive no benefit from the prayers which your loving brethren will make for you under the second of the two names.

Innocent assures Augustine that it will be all right: “you can with confidence keep the name given you at the time of your profession”, and then gently points out that he, too, had changed his name (he was previously known as Lotario di Segni) and he wasn’t too worried about prayers for him being incorrectly filed in heaven.

Dante’s Commedia, the hitchhiker’s guide to the afterlife, contains a fair number of popes, and a fair number of them are in hell. Innocent was perhaps right to be sanguine about his own chances because he doesn’t appear at all, except as a passing mention in the story of St Francis of Assisi (Paradiso XI). Innocent III was the pope who, grudgingly, allowed Francis to set up his own ascetic monastic order. In Paradiso the humble friar treats Innocent royally – regalmente – making abundantly clear Dante’s view of the real hierarchy.