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Feb 25, 2013

Medieval Mondays: Previous popes who have resigned, part two

Last week, I talked about the early popes who resigned, or at least are said to have resigned. The records are scarce for the early Papacy. In this second of my two-part post, we're on firmer ground in the Middle Ages.

The most colorful pope from the last post was Pope Benedict IX, who turned the Vatican into a giant block party and got bribed to resign in 1045. The guy who bribed him, who then became Pope Gregory VI, soon had to resign himself. While everyone appreciated his getting rid of Benedict, he had committed the sin of simony--paying for holy offices. So in 1046 he had to go.

For a time the Popes managed to keep their office until their death. There wasn't another resignation until Pope Celestine V in 1294. Celestine only spent five months on the throne of St. Peter before he decided the job wasn't for him, issued an edict saying it was OK for popes to resign, and left to live the life of a hermit.

His successor, Pope Boniface VIII, worried that he might change his mind and so he threw Celestine into prison, where the hermit-turned-pope-turned-hermit died ten months later. Celestine was later canonized and Boniface was lampooned by Dante in his Divine Comedy.

The next resignation came when Pope Gregory XII stepped down. This was a time of deep schism in the Church. Two rival popes had set themselves up at Avignon and Pisa. Both had considerable support. Kingdoms lined up to put their weight behind one pope or another. World War One looked like it would break out 500 years early.

The Church Council of Constance met in 1414 to avert disaster. Gregory and the pope from Pisa agreed to step down in 1415. The Avignon pope refused and was excommunicated. The Council then elected Pope Martin V.

From then on no pope has resigned, until this week.

Image of Pope (later Saint) Celestine courtesy Marie-Lan Nguyen.

Feb 18, 2013

Medieval Mondays: Previous Popes Who Have Resigned

Last week, Pope Benedict XVI stunned the Catholic world by announcing he would resign. The media were quick to note that this hasn't happened in centuries. Little information was given about other popes who resigned. Who were they, and why did they give up a position that's supposed to be ordained by God and last for life?

It's unclear who the first pope was who resigned. The records for the early popes are sparse and unreliable. It's said the first Pope to resign was Pontian, who served from 230-235. He was exiled and forced to work in a mine during the persecutions of the Roman Emperor Maximinus Thrax and is said to have resigned so a new man could serve as pope in Rome. Pontian died in exile.

Pope Marcellinus (296-304?) may have resigned during the persecutions of Diocletian. Some sources say that under pressure, he offered up sacrifices to the pagan gods and then resigned in disgrace. Other sources deny this. Pope Liberius (352-366) may also have resigned in order to clarify the succession with a rival who claimed the papacy, but this is also disputed. Another dubious claim says that Pope John XVIII (1004-1009) resigned in order to live as a monk.

We're on firmer ground with Pope Benedict IX. He became pope in 1032 and led a dissolute life, conducting orgies in the Vatican and bumping off political rivals. Even the Catholic Encyclopedia calls him a disgrace. He was kicked out of Rome in 1036 but had powerful political allies and soon returned. In 1044 he was kicked out again, but returned the next year. More pressure was put on him and in 1045 he was bribed to resign. Benedict decided he liked the power that came with the Papacy and clawed his way back the next year.

The pressure on him proved too great, however, and he was driven out of the Lateran Palace by irate German troops. In 1049 he was excommunicated. His tomb in Grottaferrata Abbey, Italy, is shown in this Wikimedia Commons image.

Tune in next week to learn about the other Popes who have resigned!

Feb 11, 2013

Medieval Mondays: Mons Meg, supergun of the Middle Ages

When we think of the Middle Ages we don't usually think of artillery, yet black powder cannons were around for most of that period. The first European cannon was depicted in a manuscript in 1327. Within a hundred years they were becoming commonplace.

They were a cumbersome and slow to load, so mostly were used for sieges. Soon, though, they began to be used on the battlefield and even on ships. In the 15th century there was an arms race to see who could build the biggest cannon. One of these giant cannons, called bombards, was Mons Meg, which you can see at Edinburgh Castle.

It was made in Burgundy in 1449, one of the centers for artillery production at the time, and was given as a gift to King James II of Scotland in 1457. It weighs more than 15,000 pounds, is 15 feet long, and fired stone balls 20 inches in diameter and weighing 400 pounds. It was supposedly made for James II to knock down castle walls. Records show that it had a range of more than two miles!

Like the typical big guns of the era, it was made from long iron bars fused together and strengthened with iron hoops. This was so much like making a barrel that the term "barrel" began to be used for the long tube of a gun.

Sadly, it no longer works. It was fired for the last time in 1680 by an English gunner. The Scots say it was blown up on purpose because the English were jealous of the Scots having such a huge gun. Ah yes, bombard envy!

This was also the era that saw the development of medieval firearms.

Photo by Phil McIntosh.

Feb 4, 2013

Flying penises of the Middle Ages

Yes, this is exactly what it looks like. It's a penis with wings from the British Museum. This little guy is a lead badge that would have been worn by pilgrims to medieval holy sites. They were so common back then that this particular item can't be dated with any precision. The most precise date the curators could come up with was 400-1500 AD.

There were many badges sold as mementos and good luck charms at pilgrimage sites back in the Middle Ages. Some were of eyes or legs to help with ailments to those particular body parts. These are still used in Mexico. The penis, however, was popular for giving luck and, of course, love and fertility.
This pewter phallus badge dates to the 15th century and sold for £190 ($300) at Timeline Auctions.
This one is a reproduction by Medieval Market of a Dutch flying penis dating to around 1375-1425.

Flying penises weren't always beneficial. At a witchcraft museum in Spain I saw a display telling how in Renaissance and Early Modern Europe, women would often go to work as fruit pickers away from home. Sometimes they'd encounter a flying penis and become pregnant. Whether the guys back home really believed this story or not is another question.

Flying phalli have a long history. They were popular with the Romans. This bronze tintinabulum form the first century AD was a common garden wind chime. They were a good luck charm and protected the household from evil. This photo was taken by Darren Foreman in the British Museum.

It seems strange that the Catholic Church would allow such randy items at its holy spots, but the church was a bit strange at times. There were abortionist saints, carvings of naked women in church, and all sorts of other craziness. One researcher even made the controversial claim that the Catholic Church allowed gay marriage.