Post-classical history



In the days of the Roman Empire, after Christianity was established as the religion of state, the Church established prisons for detaining ecclesiastical officials who were seen as having begun to err in their ways and needed some correction. The idea was to create secure places where one dissenter would not influence others, and so that there might not be any shedding of blood.1

Celestine’s captivity was just this sort of custody and exile, rather than punishment or rehabilitation. What could he have been charged with, other than perhaps disturbing the peace? Late medieval sentences often included public shaming, forced amputations, payment of debts and fines, the confiscation of property, imprisonment, and exile. Something in between the two latter options seems to have been intended for the ex-pope. He was simply going to be held.

Peter’s imprisonment at Fumone wasn’t the first in which Boniface VIII had been involved. In 1281, during the conclave that elected the French pope Martin IV, the papal legate Gaetani played a part in the brief imprisonment of his opponent Cardinal Matthew Orsini “in squalor, with scant bread and little water, even to the damage of his constitution.”2 They played rough in those days. Soon after, Martin IV elevated Gaetani to cardinal and put a red hat on his head.3

We have no direct evidence that conditions were harsh for Peter at the castle. It’s worth considering that his situation was probably no worse than what he would have willingly chosen for himself and his fellow hermits in the Abruzzi.4 But this is to ignore the difference between living in voluntary poverty and living at the mercy of another. Peter Morrone had always reveled in access to open air and free spaces. A castle prison was something else entirely.

The old man had left Naples with such hope and optimism in his heart. “He seemed to withdraw easily, his shoulders removed from a yoke, his neck from a fatal axe,” wrote the poet Petrarch. And now it had come to this. Within the span of less than a year, Peter had been a renowned hermit, a failed pope, and a wandering hermit, and finally finished up wasting away in prison.

But, Murder?

The suggestion that he was murdered is not far-fetched. By varying accounts there have been as many as twenty popes who were murdered over the course of history. As many as “a third of the popes elected between 872 and 1012 [alone] died in suspicious circumstances,” according to Eamon Duffy.5 The list of those who have been killed looks something like this:

    • John VIII (872–82) was likely poisoned and then beaten and left for dead.

    • Adrian III (884–85), his successor, was also poisoned.

    • Stephen VI (896–97) was thrown into prison and strangled by his political enemies.

    • Leo V (903) seems to have been strangled by the pontiff who succeeded him.

    • John X (914–28), a vigorous, warring man, was suffocated in his sleep by the young mistress of the future Pope Sergius III.

    • Stephen VII (929–31) was most likely murdered.

    • Stephen VIII (939–42) was “horribly mutilated,” in Duffy’s words.6

    • John XII (955–64) became pope at the age of seventeen and was a warring pope and one of the most completely corrupt popes in history. He seems to have been murdered by the jealous husband of one of the women he’d been sleeping with.

    • Benedict VI (973–74) was either poisoned or strangled on the orders of some Roman politicians.

    • John XIV (983–84), like our man Celestine V, died either by starvation or murderous neglect, while imprisoned in Rome at Castle Sant’Angelo by his political and religious enemies.

    • Gregory V (996–99), the first German pope, died so suddenly and amid so much contention that poison is suspected.

    • Sergius IV (1009–12) was likewise poisoned.

    • Clement II (1046–47) was either poisoned with lead sugar, or he took lead that was intended for medicinal purposes and was poisoned.

    • Damasus II (1048), Clement II’s successor, was such an awful pope that since we don’t know why he died, we assume that he, too, was probably murdered.

    • Celestine V (1296–?)

    • Benedict XI (1303–4), who succeeded Boniface VIII, died so suddenly and seemingly without cause that again foul play is suspected. John Cornwell names the cause “powdered glass in his figs.”7

    • Even in our own lifetime John Paul I (1978), who canceled his own coronation ceremony for simplicity’s sake and was often accused of “naivete and ignorance of world affairs,”8 died just thirty-three days after his election. He was only sixty-five years old and was found sitting up in bed. The official cause of death was given to the world as a heart attack suffered during the night. But without an autopsy (forbidden on a pontiff), and given the rapid embalming (also customary), as well as a vow of silence (imposed on all who were present that morning), poison has seemed plausible to both historians and conspiracy theorists.9

In addition, there have been other popes who have been plotted against without success. The Avignon pope John XXII (1316–34) was nearly poisoned to death by a cadre of accomplices of the bishop of Cahors. John XXII, who from the moment he became pope lived extravagantly, had accused the bishop of simony and other abuses of power; the bishop, in turn, plotted to poison John, using magic and arsenic in his bread, so as to do the deed undetected. The bishop was found out and John declared that “legally, a murder by poison was worse than one committed with a sword”; he stripped the bishop of his clerical status, dragged him through the city streets, and then burned him at the stake.10

There’s a precedent for both murderous and murdered popes.

God’s representative on earth isn’t always safe. Still, it is interesting that although the secular rulers of the Middle Ages often behaved in ways that showed that they had no respect for a religious man, they nevertheless considered the Holy See in a privileged position, such that they rarely felt emboldened to simply strike down a pope. Any killing had to be done deftly, secretively, carefully. Their usurping or vengeful or simply retaliatory motivations had to be disguised. Perhaps even their own souls demanded coups that had some semblance of a spiritual solution, as well. Today we would call this perception over reality: a pope with a knife in his back has been murdered, but a poisoned pope may have been called home by the Almighty.

One of the most common iconographical images of Celestine V depicts the hermit holding a palm branch, the symbol of a martyr’s death. But if he died accidentally or of natural causes while in that castle, why would his death be considered a martyrdom? This question has never been answered. Speculation was rampant even in the summer of 1296.

In the Castle Darkness

There is of course no physical evidence of what happened to Peter, nor are there any firsthand accounts from prison guards. A century later Biondo Flavio of Forli (1392–1463), a humanist scholar and civil servant, a secretary to princes, and member of the papal curia in Rome, left us something. As an elderly man, having served four popes, Biondo was a true insider in the early Renaissance curia when people were still interested in trying to figure out what had happened to Peter Morrone. In his classic period work, Italy Illuminated, Biondo devotes only one manuscript page to summarizing the events surrounding Peter’s death, but he records an idea that had begun circulating soon after Peter’s death:

[Boniface] had compelled Celestine V—a simple soul and a saintly man who had honored Boniface with the papacy that he himself resigned—to die in prison at Fumone.11

Is this true? And if so, how might it have happened?

A number of theories have been put forward over the centuries. For example, we know that he was not strangled. He was not stabbed. He was not starved to death. He did not die of a stroke or a heart attack. All of these causes of death would have left physical manifestations on the body that would have been understood even by late-thirteenth-century physicians. Many people saw Celestine’s dead body and none spoke of any signs to indicate he died in any of these ways.

Whatever happened it was more subtle than that.

So, then, perhaps he died of old age. He was eighty-five, after all—well beyond the average lifespan of a man of his era. A death resulting from old age was the official cause given. An old, revered ex-pope had died while residing near the childhood home of his successor.

But Peter had languished at the Fumone castle for ten straight months. He died on May 19, 1296. And it appeared to those who saw the body that he may have been suffering from what looked like an infection from an untreated wound to the skin. This suggests severe treatment, or at least negligence. Was Peter abused? What did Boniface know, do, or not do? Another theory is that the ex-pope was murdered by his successor.

The Nail in the Head Theory

A fascinating, possible scenario emerged in the earliest days after Celestine’s death. Imagine Boniface himself going to the castle to see Celestine. Quietly and secretly. Perhaps he approached the older man’s cell to ask for his forgiveness. What a fascinating scene that would have been: the saintly hermit expecting the best of the conniving Boniface, the old man looking to the younger man for respect. Without any attendants or members of the curia or even an attendant or prison guard present, Boniface could have visited Peter’s cell (prison cell, not monastic cell) and repented his sins. Who else might a pope confess to but another pope?

And what might those sins have been? Greed, connivance, slander—all in the service of achieving his goal of ascending to the chair of St. Peter. Boniface may have been culpable for forcing Celestine’s abdication, or even for stealing his office. We will never know for certain what happened.

In August of 1998 an Italian monk, Reverend Quirino Salomone, caused international headlines when he produced a theory that Celestine’s death may have been caused by a nail driven into the side of his head. Salomone claimed to have discovered a half-inch hole in Celestine’s left temple by means of a CAT scan.12 But there is nothing conclusive in Salomone’s “discovery.” In fact, scholars have long known about the hole in his skull. One historian wrote eighty years ago: “The corpse [of Celestine V] was seen by many, and bore no trace of foul play. Today his skull, treasured at L’Aquila, has a nail-hole in the temple, but beyond question it is of later manufacture.”13 All of this begs the question: whose remains do we possess, and which remains were examined eighty years ago, or more recently? We’ll never know exactly whose skull it is and how it came to have a hole in it.

The Poisoning Theory

How, then, did Celestine die?

The evidence seems to point to at least one thing for certain: Boniface had no intention of allowing Celestine to live freely. He locked him up for life, knowing that the old man wouldn’t live much longer. But we have no physical evidence of the cause of death. There is no corpse, and there were no direct eyewitness accounts and no autopsy.

Nevertheless, the Middle Ages was a time of scientific discovery. The works of Hippocrates and Galen were translated into Arabic in the eighth century as physicians in the East rediscovered the power of medicines. A few centuries later, the work of these pioneering Muslim thinkers made its way West. The ancient theory that the human body was composed of four humors (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood) was finally discredited, researches were undertaken to comprehend human anatomy, and surgeries were once again practiced. Renewed forms of medical knowledge were born in the late Middle Ages and so was knowledge about the potency and accuracy of poisons, building upon the work done long before by the ancient Mesopotamians, Egyptians, and Greeks. Ancient theories gave way during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries to true developments in the use of herbs and chemicals to both heal and harm. In certain times and places these were commonly used by experienced and confident practitioners. The medicinal use of herbs (such as lavender, nightshade, hemlock) wasn’t limited to physicians, but in fact was most common among professions such as dentists, midwives, and monastic gardeners. There was also a flourishing trade in herbs used for more magical purposes. The annals are full of stories of women using concoctions to induce their husbands to love them, or other “old wives” tales and charms.

Poisoning matches the subtlety required to end the life of a prominent religious rival. After Celestine had been kept in that prison for several months, those who guarded him might have been surprised that the elderly man had not yet died of natural causes. Perhaps they concocted another plan.

Since ancient Babylonia, we have evidence of the use of real poisons, as well as antidotes to poison.14 Ancient philosophers such as Galen spoke often of poisons. The first-century Roman historian Tacitus wrote about rumors that the emperor Nero had poisoned one of his enemies under the ruse of healing him from his ailments.15 Queen Cleopatra is said to have compiled a book of poisons acute to the sense of sight (to glimpse them was to fall under their spell). Many naturally occurring plants and other natural substances were understood to be toxic and dangerous to humans. At the same time, in nearly every ancient civilization simple antidotes such as vinegar were used to counteract some of the effects of poisonous substances, including snakebites. Human beings have understood that certain animals, vegetables, and minerals are dangerous ever since the Garden of Eden; and they have known how to use salves of various kinds for just as long.

Nearly every field of knowledge benefited from the work of Islamic scholars. Through the transmission of various Arabic texts and their translation into Latin, Western physicians and students followed the advances coming from the East. Many famous Western religious figures wrote small tracts on poisons, stimulated by these new researches. The preeminent Jewish philosopher Maimonides (1135–1204) was one, and the scholastic theologian Robert Grosseteste (ca. 1170–1253) was another. The following definition of a poison, as stated in one medieval Arabic text, fairly represents the understanding of the era:

A poison … is overpowering in its nature.… It is not an accident but it exists permanently. Poison is something which overpowers and destroys that which is called the life force of an animal. When it overcomes this force, the functioning of the organs of the body is disturbed. The liver, stomach, and veins cannot function so that the strength of the heart, liver, brain, arteries, warmth, and sinews cannot be transported through the body as they were previously. The quality of this condition is the characteristic of death since, in consequence of these things, it corrupts the breath which gives rest to the body.16

Much of the work on poisons remained superstitious, full of myth and magic, such as ideas about poisonous sights and sounds; nevertheless, the following areas became more sophisticated in the decades leading up to the late 1290s:

    • Treatments of snake, rat, and scorpion bites.

    • Ways of keeping food safe from poisonous substances.

    • Diagnosing symptoms related to the ingesting of poison.

And dozens of poisonous concoctions were known to exist, their recipes orally transmitted as well as physically circulated in the libraries of Europe. These included animal (frogs, spiders, lizards, animal blood, tarantula, bats), vegetable (coriander, fleawort, toadstool), and mineral (arsenic, mercury, vitriol) ingredients.

The symptoms of poison were well known as well. Someone who ate or drank poison was known to lose color, show confusion of mind, tremble, perspire, laugh, become languid, or become frightened. There were books of symptoms, therapies, and cures for the one who came upon a poisoned person without having seen the cause of the ailment. It was common to attempt to force vomiting, but if that didn’t work, various herbs and minerals were prescribed.

One of the questions surrounding Boniface and Celestine is this: Did the younger pope poison the elder? Boniface certainly had motive, opportunity, and means.

Motivations for Murder

The first textual evidence we possess for hypothesizing that Celestine was murdered by Boniface comes from documents written by Boniface’s opponents, so they cannot be absolutely trusted. In early May 1297 formal accusations were first made against Boniface; he was called “the illegitimate usurper” of the chair of Peter and accused of having used undue and deceptive influence over Celestine. And at least by March 1303 Boniface was accused of being complicit in his predecessor’s death.

On May 10, 1297 (two years to the day after Peter was captured by Boniface’s men on the Adriatic coast), Cardinals James and Peter Colonna wrote the following to the canon law experts at the University of Paris:

By evil advice and false arguments he and his accomplices persuaded our lord pope Celestine V of happy memory to renounce the apostolic office, though this was contrary to the rules and statutes of divine, human and canon law and a cause of scandal and error to the whole world. Then, when Celestine had resigned the papacy de facto—for he could not do so de iure since it is clear to all who are willing to investigate the matter carefully that the Roman pope cannot resign or give up the papacy or be released from it except by God alone—he did not fear to put himself de facto since he could not do it de iure in the place of the same lord Celestine.17

These accusations were published far and wide, spreading the conspiracy theory rapidly throughout Italy. It was said that “during the day, the manifesto was fixed on the doors of several churches in Rome and even laid on the high altar of St. Peter’s.”18

The Colonna brothers were essentially fighting with Pope Boniface over property and power; for all practical purposes, James and Peter were at war with Boniface. The surrounding curia and cardinals knew as much. This was partisan politics full of self-interest on both sides. Nevertheless, the arguments of the Colonnas were also considered on the merits, and since they reflected the feelings of a growing number of people both inside the Roman curia and out, people believed them. Franciscan poet Jacopone of Todi took to referring to Boniface as a “new Lucifer … on the papal throne” at about this same time. Many clergy, including bishops residing outside of Italy, signed the Colonna manifesto.

Meanwhile, one of the leaders of the Spirituals, Peter Olivi, a theologian of great renown who died at the age of fifty in 1298, weighed in on the matter. The year before his death he came to the defense of both popes, saying that Celestine’s resignation was justified. In response to the Colonnas’ letter, Olivi distinguished between the sacramental office of the holy father (handed down from Saint Peter) and the juridical office of the pope. The first can never be removed, while the second, can, Olivi said. A bishop has always been able to remove the juridical function from another priest, he argued, and the bishop of Rome has always been able to do the same with another bishop under his direction. “By arguing that the pope has the same authority over himself as he has over other bishops, Olivi even went further and claimed for him not only the right to resign … but to nominate his own successor as well.”19 The Spirituals, who were his followers, called Peter Olivi a saint; and the Conventuals, who ruled the order, would eventually call him a heretic and a generation later would desecrate his grave.

The Colonnas’ charges were repeated a variety of times and in a number of places over the next decade. One scholar has summarized what happened this way: “The abdication of Pope Celestine V was interpreted, especially by the adversaries of his successor … as an uncanonical ‘divorce’ from the universal Church to which the pope was married.”20 We have this reflection from 1303 by the French theologian William of Plaisians, which shows how the Colonnas’ ideas had deepened in the six years since they were first published. In a long list of heresy charges brought against Boniface VIII, this is the twenty-sixth:

It is notorious that he [Boniface VIII] treated his predecessor Celestine inhumanely, a man of holy memory who led a holy life; and that, because Celestine could not resign and because, therefore, Boniface could not legitimately succeed to the Holy See, the latter threw him in prison and had him quickly and secretly killed. And all this is widely and publicly known by the whole world.21

Soon Jacopone of Todi coined this prophecy about Boniface VIII: “You crept into the papacy like a fox, you will reign like a lion, and you will die like a dog.” And sure enough, Boniface was nearly killed by his enemies. On September 7, 1303, he was abducted at his home in Anagni by one of the Colonnas together with William of Nogaret, whom Boniface had also excommunicated for calling him a criminal. The two men beat him for three days, leaving him humiliated but still pope. Boniface died a month later.

A century later the Renaissance humanist Biondo Flavio recorded that Boniface came to his own bad end because he was complicit in the death of Celestine. Meanwhile, the Catholic Encyclopedia considers it a calumny to state “that Boniface treated him [Celestine] harshly, and finally cruelly murdered him.” We’ll never know for certain, but in the end Celestine died while held captive by Boniface. And there are no reasons why the new pope would have wished for the papa angelico to live.

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