I want to know the most probable meaning of "exterminare" in this passage from canon 3 of the Lateran IV Ecumenical Council of 1215 [1] [2], specifically whether it is "kill" or "expel":

ita pro defensione fidei praestent publice iuramentum quod de terris suae iurisdictioni subiectis universos haereticos ab ecclesia denotatos bona fide pro viribus exterminare studebunt

Whereas the passage is usually translated as in [1]:

so for the defense of the faith they ought publicly to take an oath that they will strive in good faith and to the best of their ability to exterminate in the territories subject to their jurisdiction all heretics pointed out by the Church

... a few Catholic sites have translated "de terris suae iurisdictioni subiectis [...] exterminare" as "to expel from the lands subject to their jurisdiction".

To the extent that actions may provide context for translation, heretics after 1215 were everywhere burned, not expelled. The foremost case was that of Jan Hus, who was condemned to death and burned in 1415 in the presence of the assembly of all the bishops attending the ecumenical council of Constance. If the Lateran IV Council had ordered to expel heretics, not to kill them, how didn't a single bishop come up and say "Wait, exterminare in Lateran IV means expel, not kill!"?

Additionally, does "pro viribus" before "exterminare" mean "manly"? If that's the case, it fits exterminare = kill more than exterminare = expel.


[1] Lateran IV, English & Latin: http://ldysinger.stjohnsem.edu/@magist/1215_Lateran4_ec12/02_lat4_c01-22.htm

[2] Lateran IV, Latin only: http://www.documentacatholicaomnia.eu/03d/1215-1215,_Concilium_Lateranense_IIII,_Documenta,_LT.pdf

2 Answers 2


"Viribus" here is not the ablative plural of the word vir "man", but the homographic ablative plural of vīs meaning "force, might, strength".

The word extermino can mean either "expel"/"banish"/"exile" or "destroy" (Lewis and Short qualifies the latter subsense as "late Lat"). Either sense could be viewed as falling under the overarching category of "remove"/"eliminate". It doesn't necessarily mean "kill", but I also don't think it clearly excludes this meaning in medieval Latin. So, while I am not certain of the original intended meaning in this context, I think it is not something that would stand out as a blatant contradiction to the imposition of the death sentence for obdurate heresy.

  • 1
    +1. Of interest might be the derivation noted in the link, which connects exterminare to terminus in the meaning of "boundaries": "terminus; qs. to drive beyond the boundaries". Also, the synonyms noted there: expello, eicio, proicio, all of them certainly leaning more towards "throwing someone out" than "killing". However, note III refers to the Vulgate, which presumably was more present to 13th century clerics than Cicero, where the meaning is apparently much closer to "destroy". Jun 6, 2023 at 8:45
  • I'm a little unsatisfied with this answer: it seems to boil down to, "I'm not sure of the original intended meaning, but maybe it means both"--but shouldn't it in theory be possible to track down how exterminare is used at the time? That is, after all, exactly what the OP is asking. @StephanKolassa mentions that the etymology clearly means "expel," and the L&S entry also says that meaning is "ecclesiastical." I even tracked down a few letters from the same time that explicitly say, "exterminare a terra."
    – brianpck
    Jun 6, 2023 at 15:28
  • @brianpck: I don't find it satisfactory either. Hopefully someone else can post a more illuminating answer!
    – Asteroides
    Jun 7, 2023 at 0:27

First of all, I want to state that this answer builds upon, and has been enabled by, Asteroides' answer.

According to the Oxford Latin Dictionary, which deals exclusively with Classical Latin, extermino means "to send beyond a boundary or frontier, expel, banish", as attested in works by Cicero, Apuleius, Columella, and Fronto, and secondarily "to dismiss (an idea from one's mind)". The meaning of "destroy" appears only in Lewis and Short, and most importantly for my question, is attested by two passages from the Vulgate.

Now, given these two sets of texts in Latin, the works of Cicero, Apuleius, Columella, and Fronto on the one hand and the Vulgate on the other, to which set is more probable that bishops in 1215 had been exposed to the greatest extent? Clearly to the Vulgate.

Let us now examine the two passages in question. The first, from Wisdom of Solomon (Sapientia), says of the manna: "Quod enim ab igne non poterat exterminari" (Wis 16:27). Clearly here the meaning is "destroy", since fire does not expel.

The second, from Revelation (Apocalypsis), is in the canticle of the 24 elders who thank God because "advenit ira tua et tempus [...] exterminandi eos qui corruperunt terram" (Rev 11:18). Clearly here "those who corrupted the earth" are not being expelled from one country to another (i.e. "horizontally"), but from the face of the earth to hell (i.e. "vertically").

Therefore, from the more probable profile of past exposure to texts in Latin of bishops in 1215, it follows that the more probable sense of exterminare in canon 3 of Lateran IV is "extirpate, destroy," not "expel".

This conclusion is consistent with considerations at the level of practical logic. Suppose Catholic country A borders with Catholic countries B & C. If the ruler of A expels heretics to either B or C, now the ruler of B or C has to expel them somewhere else. It is not reasonable to assume that the bishops intended that Catholic countries should be passing heretics around from one to the next until they could eventually be expelled to a non-Catholic country.

PS: The verbs that Jerome translated as "exterminandi" and "corruperunt" in Rev 11:28 are the same in the Greek text, namely diaphtheiró: to destroy utterly, to spoil, corrupt [1]. Accordingly, the Nova Vulgata renders the ending of Rev 11:28 "et exterminare eos, qui exterminant terram" [2].

[1] https://biblehub.com/text/revelation/11-18.htm

[2] https://www.vatican.va/archive/bible/nova_vulgata/documents/nova-vulgata_nt_apocalypsis-ioannis_lt.html#11

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