Monday, February 04, 2008

Dave's Whirlwind Tour of the Papacy, Part 2

After discovering the fabulously preposterous Cadaver Synod last week, I resolved to find even more interesting events in the history of the papacy, but sadly, there don't seem to be any. After seeing one pope who fathered an unknown number of illegitimate children, ran the church like any other state but with more moral pretensions, and died under suspicious circumstances after getting caught with someone else's wife, you've pretty much seen them all.

Every once in a while, someone truly worthwhile comes along, like Celestine V, a Cincinnatus-like ascetic monk who was picked as a surprise "compromise" candidate during the 13th century. By all accounts Celestine was comletely out of his league running an enormous institution in a large city, accustomed as he was to leading a tiny Benedictine community in the Abruzzi mountains. (This later became the Celestine monastic order.) Celestine is supposed to have made a series of bad decisions as pope, which is not impossible, though so far the standard for being a competent pope seems to be pretty low. Celestine evidently realized this and, with a humility totally uncharacteristic of the papacy, made some new rules regulating the conclave to force future papal elections to run more quickly and with less outside interference. He then summoned some cardinals and proclaimed his intention to resign. It was an unusual, if not completely unprecedented decision, under the circumstances, and people didn't seem quite sure how to react. Celestine returned to his little community, but his successor, Benedict VIII, was suspicious of his predecessor's unusual popularity in Rome. To cut off any chance at a palace revolt, he had Celestine arrested and imprisoned, where he later died. On his way to his jail, Celestine quipped, "I wanted nothing but a cell, and a cell you have given me."

There are still a few more interesting stories left, even if I can't beat the Cadaver Synod. Alexander VI, for example, was pope from 1492 to 1503, and is widely regarded as one of the most corrupt popes in the history of the papacy. He owed his initial promotions in the church - from bishop to cardinal and vice-chancellor - to his uncle, Pope Calixtus III. He then served Calixtus's successors until 1492, the same year, coincidentally, that Christopher Columbus got lost on his way to India and accidentally on purpose found the Americas.

Alexander, then named Rodrigo Borja, was one of several noble Romans who might be in line for the Papacy. Earlier, it had become tradition for the belongings of the pope-elect's palace to be given to the poor. By this time, it was therefore also common practice for papabiles like Alexander to pre-empt the poor by moving all their possessions to the country. From these riches, Alexander took four mule-loads of silver and delivered them to one of his competitors, who promptly withdrew from the election. This competitor also got a bishopric, a vice-chancellorship, and a castle. (These bishoprics, incidentally, were basically revenue sources at the time; by this time in the Middle Ages, virtually no one was even bothering to pretend anymore that there was some sort of religious qualification or significance to the position.) Alexander paid several more by promising them towns, bishoprics, and abbeys once he became pope; discovering even with these promises that he couldn't win a 2/3 vote, he simply offered cash payments to the remaining cardinals until enough of them gave in. Alexander's bank could barely keep up with the withdrawals being demanded and nearly went bust shortly after the conclave. The open corruption became so ludicrous that Alexander's successor, Pope Julius II, immediately outlawed the buying or selling of religious property as papal bribes again, with the penalty that both buyer and seller be immediately excommunicated and the results of any corrupt election be cancelled.

Alexander saw no need to stop his sell-off of church resources once pope. In theory, the church had enforced celibacy for centuries now, but he already had at least four children with one of his mistresses. Alexander arranged for appropriate senior positions to be rewarded to his children and arranged marriages with various Italian royals. His daughter he actually married off to several men, one after another, each of increasing political influence.

Even better, though Alexander held a series of orges at the Vatican, culminating in the ludicrous Banquet of Chestnuts on Halloween, 1501. Several dozen prostitutes and courtesans were in attendance as chestnuts were strewn about the ground and a massive feast was held. After eating, Alexander auctioned off the clothing worn by the women, then had them crawl around the floor gathering up the chestnuts. The clergy and other noble guests were then encouraged to have sex with the prostitutes. Alexander's master of ceremonies, priest Johann Burchard, wrote in his memoirs that "prizes were offered - silken doublets, pairs of shoes, hats and other garments - for those men who were most successful with the prostitutes."

Alexander's death was as unseemly as his reign. He and a dining companion fell ill in 1503 - the circumstances would seem to suggest either food poisoning or deliberate poisoning, although the official explanation is malaria. He died after a week of extreme pain, in which his skin peeled and his stomach swelled. The body was eventually displayed to the public, prompting the ambassador of Venice to report home that Alexander's body was "the ugliest, most monstrous and horrible dead body that was ever seen." The priests at St. Peter's Basilica initially refused to accept the body for burial, only a sparse handful of clergy attended the funeral, and his immediate successor, Pius III (who croaked after only a few months), promptly forbade further official mourning and prayers for Alexander VI, saying it was "blasphemous to pray for the damned."

I think that concludes my tour of the papacy. I'm off to read something more spiritually uplifting, like the book of Judges.