Post-classical history



Two years earlier, on April 4, 1292, Pope Nicholas IV, a man whom many had called “the good Franciscan,” because he was the first of Francis of Assisi’s spiritual progeny to rise to the papacy, lay dead in Rome, leaving the chair of St. Peter vacant.

Nicholas was born Girolamo Masci and raised in the Marche region of central Italy, approximately 120 miles (circumnavigating the Apennine Mountains from the Marches north to the Adriatic, then south from there to the Abruzzi) from Peter’s home in the Abruzzi. These remote places of Italy often give one the impression that there are more mountain pines than people. Before becoming pope, Girolamo had been elected minister-general of the Franciscans to replace Saint Bonaventure, the influential friar who’d rewritten the Life of Francis and ordered destroyed all earlier versions written by men who knew the saint best. This was a century when the lines between sanctity, power, and violence can be difficult to discern, and, curiously, the diary of Bonaventure’s secretarywas discovered and published only a century ago. In it we learn that the theologian fell victim to a fate not uncommon in those days: murder. He was poisoned, to be exact, most likely by one of his own spiritual brethren.

After Girolamo succeeded Bonaventure, three years later he was made Latin Patriarch of Constantinople, a position created by the Crusades. He lived in conquered Constantinople, governing the Western Church precariously beside the Eastern Church’s Patriarch for three years. In 1281, he moved back to Italy to serve as the cardinal-bishop in Palestrina, and from that position he was elected pope in 1287.

By most accounts, Nicholas IV’s record as pontiff was solid. He was reluctant to accept the post, and in fact was elected by his colleagues in the College twice, in rapid succession, in order to demonstrate how sincerely they believed he was the man for the job. Nicholas IV combined the spiritual sensitivity of a good follower of Saint Francis with the acumen of a world ruler, skills he had learned abroad.

The thirteenth century was a time of creative intensity, not just in Italy, but around the world. It was an era of invention, intellectual curiosity, and adventure. For example, it was in the mid-thirteenth century that gunpowder was first used in a cannon in a land battle between the Mamluks and the Mongols in the Jezreel Valley of Palestine. The use of gunpowder is one of the primary reasons that the Mamluks were able to deliver the Mongols their first, real military defeat, keeping them from advancing toward Egypt. Later in the century, land mines were first used by Song Dynasty Chinese against Mongol invaders in southern China. Meanwhile, across Europe there was an awakened interest in the principles of Hippocrates, leading to the first accurate descriptions of diseases, medical conditions, and cures. Theories explaining the process of circulation of the blood as well as developments in surgery—most of which originated in the East with thinkers such as Averroes (d. 1198) and Ibn al-Nafis (d. 1288)—advanced modern medicine. Public intellectuals emerged in this century as well, through the burgeoning of universities. Men such as the Franciscan philosopher Roger Bacon (ca. 1214–94), his era’s Doctor Mirabilis, or “Wonderful Teacher,” began to focus on empirical methods of reasoning. Combined with the advancement of knowledge from philosophers in the Muslim East, this led to a gradual collapse of the authority approach to knowledge. Hypothesis, research, and evidence came increasingly into play. No longer were the ideas of a previous era’s experts automatically the starting point for the future. Just as Copernicus would soon reject the ideas of Ptolemy in the study of astronomy, so too did physicians and philosophers of the late thirteenth century begin to dispense with the best wisdom of the early Middle Ages in favor of new researches.

Other social changes were under way, as well. Laborers began forming workers’ guilds and planting the seeds that would give rise to the middle class in the centuries to follow. Powerful mayors and towns began to form as local economies strengthened because of enhanced transportation and trade, leading to the breakdown of old models of serfdom. People became more mobile than ever before, traveling outside their local parishes and provinces, on roads rediscovered and refurbished from the golden travel age of the Roman Empire. People’s lives were no longer completely determined by the situation into which they had been born. And religious life was undergoing rapid change and evolution, fueled by the energy of lay reform movements as well as the new Franciscan and Dominican orders. Early versions of boardinghouses and hostels were popping up to accommodate the pilgrims, friars, and wandering ascetics all about. All of this led to a vibrancy of intellectual, civic, and religious life never before seen.

In other respects, Western Europe and Mother Church were in dire straits. Both were in need of a savior. The center of the world was identified on maps that depicted Asia to Africa to Europe seen from a “birds-eye,” godlike perspective. At the center of the earth was the city of Jerusalem, and beside Jerusalem the hidden location of the lost Garden of Eden. The Holy Land was the pivot upon which the world turned. But it was still in Muslim hands.

Christian fervor to get it back had led to the first of the Crusades in 1095. Over the next two hundred years Christianity warred against Islam (and sometimes Eastern Christians, and usually Jews), and in the process families and inheritances were decimated (the orderly transfer of power from father to son was broken because so many sons were dead). It has been estimated that the capital lost during this time was staggering. To take one small example, the saintly King Louis IX of France is said to have spent six times the annual income of his throne (arming and provisioning 15,000 men and at least thirty-six ships) in order to recover a few relics of Christ’s Passion from the Holy Land to fill Sainte-Chapelle, the chapel he was building back in Paris.1

When he’d first ascended to the papacy in February 1288, Nicholas IV had offered new hope of success with regard to taking back Jerusalem, but it wasn’t to be. Tales of crusading victories as well as devastating defeat had been traveling home to Italy for nearly two centuries, and then the whole movement was dealt a death blow in the spring of 1291. The flow of princes, militant monks, and their recruits seeking adventure, riches, and eternal life came to an abrupt end when Acre, the fortress stronghold on Haifa Bay, capital of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem since 1192, fell to well-organized Muslim troops after a siege. Acre is in what is today northern Israel and was the site of all Western Christianity’s communication and travel in and out of the Holy Land. The fortress was inhabited by crusaders of all kinds, including Templars, Hospitallers, and knights from all over Europe with varying motivations, some good and some not so good. An estimated 40,000 Christians were living in Acre when the outpost fell on May 18, 1291. Within months, all the other nearby Christian footholds in the Holy Land had fallen too. These events took place at the tail end of Nicholas’s pontificate. To retain a foothold in the land where the Savior had walked meant everything to serious Christians of that era, and many believed that the calamity at Acre had occurred because of a lack of strength in the papacy.2 To illustrate, the playwright Peter Barnes offers this opening scene in his play about the life of Pope Celestine V: The most prominent cardinals of the Sacred College are standing in a Vatican antechamber bickering over whom they should elect to replace Nicholas IV. Latino Malabranca Orsini appears to be the most reasonable and spiritually minded among them. He holds up his Bible to the others and pronounces, “Whilst Christ bleeds and His holy blood waters the Holy Land—Acre and Tripoli are lost to the Infidels ’cause we hate.”3

There were other reasons to be concerned as well. Nicholas IV had made two decisions as pope that would have a fateful effect on his Church.

On May 29, 1289, the pope had favored Charles II of Anjou, an astute political strategist, by crowning him as the king of Sicily; he was already king of Naples. This otherwise minor figure in the history of Italy was at that time recovering from the embarrassment of losing Sicily in an important naval battle to Peter III of Aragon. But the papacy had long feuded with Aragonese rulers (before Peter III, it was his father, James I; and after Peter III, it was Peter III’s son Alfonso III), and Nicholas IV was happy to restore to Charles II his Sicilian crown even if it meant little “on the ground.”

Then Nicholas decreed in July 1289 that the cardinals of the Sacred College were to receive half of all the revenues accruing to the Roman See. This money, which flowed into St. Peter’s Basilica from sources all over the world—from the pockets of the faithful, from the simony of civil leaders purchasing ecclesiastical offices, from the taxation of clergy and dioceses—made the Sacred College an almost independent institution. In turn, this windfall gave the cardinals, those in charge of electing a new pope, motivation to maintain position and power. Without a pope, they were accountable to no one.

By the spring of 1294 Nicholas’s body had been buried at the Roman basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore for more than two years. It was more than time for the Church to move on. New leadership was desperately needed, yet no pope had been elected to replace him.

An interregnum was supposed to last only ten days. For the first nine (a novena), funeral rites would be conducted by the clergy in Rome for the deceased pope, filling the basilicas with pageantry and memories of the pope’s good works. On the tenth day the Sacred College would gather and begin their work. But factions within the College were stymieing the election at every turn. There was nothing new about this; the politics of electing a supreme pontiff had been complicated and corrupt for centuries.

The College of Cardinals

In the eleventh century, Saint Peter Damian (ca. 1007–72), one of the era’s most influential hermits and theologians—never known to be overly optimistic about the role of clergy in the spiritual life of the Church—spoke of cardinals in idealized language. He expressed the view that they might function like wise men of the empire, as an “ancient assembly of the Romans” who, in addition to steering the world’s ship could also be “spiritual senators of the universal Church.”4 But this ideal usually went unrealized. In the thirteenth century a cardinal was more likely to be a scoundrel than a saint. Typically portly, political, powerful, opinionated men, the cardinals spent most of their days insulated from the daily lives of those whom they served.

Political motivations usually took precedence over religious and spiritual ones. Many of the cardinals inherited their positions from members of their families, and bitter rivalries between these families embroiled both Church and State. This was nothing new. For centuries Scolaris, Scottis, Pierloeonis, and Frangipanis had achieved political prominence and financial patronage through the papacy, and had produced popes from among their numbers. Power was secured along family lines, and civil and religious leaders relied on these family organizations for powerful appointments, security, legal triumphs, and influence. The College of Cardinals was filled, not with the spiritual leaders of Europe, but with its most powerful men. It was little more than an oligarchy. Back then the questions of most importance in the room were Who are my enemies? and Who are my friends?

In response to this state of affairs, keenly felt even in the early eleventh century, an earlier pope, Nicholas II, had reformed the rules governing papal elections at a synod in 1059. Smartly, he declared a bold independence of the Church from the State, removing myriad machinations that had kept medieval popes in the pockets of Roman aristocracy and Holy Roman emperors. Future popes would be elected solely by the cardinals, he stated, and from Rome. But it took a long time—a few centuries—before this bit of wisdom would be followed. It wasn’t in effect in 1292–94.

At the outset of the 1292–94 Sacred College there were only twelve members. (By contrast, today there are usually between 160 and 180.) One of the best insights into how these powerful families controlled the Church comes from Niccolò Machiavelli’s famous book about politics, The Prince, first published in 1532. It shows that the cardinals were “strong men, who lived long, hard lives, and schemed stoutly.”5

To hold down the pope [the powers of Italy] made use of the barons in Rome. Since these were divided into two factions, Orsini and Colonna, there was always cause for quarrel between them; and standing with arms in hand under the eyes of the pontiff, they kept the pontificate weak and infirm. And although a spirited pope … sometimes rose up, still fortune or wisdom could never release him from these inconveniences. And the brevity of their lives was the cause of it; for in the ten years on the average that a pope lived, he would have trouble putting down one of the factions. If, for instance, one pope had almost eliminated the Colonna, another one hostile to the Orsini rose up, which made the Colonna rise again, and there would not be time to eliminate the Orsini.6

In the election of 1292–94 it was clear from the beginning that the cardinals were in for a protracted process. The two-thirds majority required for a successful election was going to be hard to come by. The two most powerful families, the Orsinis and the Colonnas, were preventing a new pope from being crowned through deadlock after deadlock. Each family sought the man who would most likely support their interests.

The Orsini family had three representatives: Matthew Orsini was the most experienced, participating in a total of thirteen papal conclaves over a long career, including four that took place between 1276 and 1277. The Orsini family had recently produced a pope, Nicholas III (1277–80), and Matthew Orsini would later be elected pope on the first ballot on the first day of the election that was called after Celestine V’s resignation. Matthew would refuse the job, and Cardinal Benedict Gaetani would be elected instead. Also present was Napoleon Orsini, nephew to Pope Nicholas III. Napoleon was the youngest member of the Sacred College, not even thirty years old at the outset. And then there was Latino Malabranca Orsini, the cardinal-bishop of Ostia and the cardinal-presider (what we call the dean today).

The Colonna family was no less influential. It was common knowledge in Rome throughout Nicholas IV’s papacy that the Colonnas controlled him. Even the medieval equivalent of a comic strip remains from those days; as the Catholic Encyclopedia explains it: “The undue influence exercised at Rome by the Colonna … was so apparent … during [Nicholas IV’s] lifetime that Roman wits represented him encased in a column—the distinctive mark of the Colonna family—out of which only his tiara-covered head emerged.” The Colonnas contributed two of the cardinals in the 1292–94 Sacred College: James, one of the most powerful men in the Papal State; and his nephew, Peter, who was made cardinal by Nicholas IV in 1288 as a favor to James.

Secret Conclaves

There hadn’t been a period of easy and orderly papal transition since the institution’s first centuries. The very first pope was the apostle Peter, appointed by Christ when he said before others: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Mt. 16:18). Peter then appointed his successor, Saint Linus (ca. 68–79), by designating Linus to act in his place when Peter was away from Rome. Peter’s appointment of Linus is attested to by at least two of the most important Latin Church Fathers, and one of the historians of that era.7 It is also generally agreed by historians that Peter predesignated two, and perhaps three, men to follow Linus. These bishops of Rome, sitting at the epicenter and capital of the new faith, each served relatively briefly by modern standards, leading the Church up to about the year 108 C.E. For the next few centuries, with occasional interruptions when one pope simply appointed another, elections were usually held from among the Christian community of Rome, then by the clergy and bishops of Rome, and eventually—first in the year 499—by a synod of all Italian bishops at St. Peter’s Basilica.

But throughout the Middle Ages papal elections were irregular and often corrupt. There were many successions by usurpers, simoniacs, and by hereditary and imperial appointments. It wasn’t until the first century of the second millennium that a more orderly process was firmly established through a series of reforms. By the year 1059 the basic principles of papal elections were set in place; most important, a defined group of cardinal-electors, the Sacred College, would elect a new pope.8 This did not solve the incidents of corruption; nevertheless, it was a step in the right direction.

The first true conclave elected Pope Gregory X in 1271. Conclave comes from the Latin cum clave and literally means “with a key,” a phrase that’s akin to our own “behind closed doors.” Locking the doors was an emergency measure undertaken by local authorities and the people of Viterbo as a way of solving the deadlock facing the Church. Once he was elected, Gregory X then undertook to write the principle of conclave into the permanent rules of how popes are selected. He drew up a constitution called Ubi majus periculum and took it to the Second Council of Lyon in 1274 for formal approval. The constitution decreed that within ten days of the death of a pope all cardinals involved in papal elections should gather in the papal palace. They were to live austerely during this time. They must remain together cum clave, remotely, secretively, until the election came to a successful completion. They were not to receive any income or monetary support (to encourage focused listening to discern the guiding of the Holy Spirit), and local authorities were to ensure their safety and needs for provisions—food, water, and wine rations per cardinal-elector; the rations were to be reduced for each day that a protracted conclave continued.9

For it to be a true conclave, the cardinal-electors had to be sequestered behind doors that were locked or barred, and guarded. Conclaves usually took place in Rome or at the episcopal palace of one of the cities outside Rome, such as Perugia or Viterbo. The principles were followed fully in the election of Gregory X’s successor, Innocent V, and then again for the election of Adrian V, but then Adrian decided that the special measures were no longer necessary, a decision that his successor, the Portuguese pope John XXI, reinforced. The reign of all three of these popes spanned a period of less than eighteen months. By 1292, both cardinals and ordinary citizens remembered how devastating it could be to go for months or years without a successful papal election, but locking cardinal-electors in a room and forcing them to work out their differences in a timely manner had fallen out of practice.10

Papal elections were once again becoming times of great commotion. Actually, commotion doesn’t do justice to what happened. Don’t imagine the simple and pious displays that were broadcast from St. Peter’s in the aftermath of John Paul II’s death, with nuns gathering in groups, young and old holding candlelight vigils, and teenagers kneeling silently in prayer. In the time of Peter Morrone there were riots in the streets, sometimes massacres, terroristic threats, and assaults upon the cardinal-electors themselves—not to mention plenty of wagering. Imagine trying to hold a papal election in the center of a bullfighting ring while a riot is going on in the stands. The cardinal-electors, who were ideally supposed to be discerning the will of God, were coming into frequent contact with the people, who were known to hold protests that would make a march on Washington seem mild mannered by comparison.

Some of the earliest papal elections are remembered for their high points of drama. In 366, for example, during the election of Pope Damasus I, some of Damasus’s supporters physically attacked the supporters of a rival deacon. The violence was so widespread that soldiers were sent in by the Roman emperor. In 903 the commotion that surrounded the election of Leo V continued after he assumed the throne, and he ruled for less than three months before he was strangled by the antipope who forcibly supplanted him. And then much later, in 1378, the Roman people rioted in the streets upon the death of French-born Pope Gregory XI, screaming for the next pope to be a Roman. The cardinals elected the archbishop of Bari and fled Rome before the people heard the news, fearing for their lives because they had elected a Neapolitan.

A Boccaccian Scene

If the Sacred College had met in conclave from 1292 to 1294, not only would the election have taken less time to complete, but the cardinals might have avoided the risk of contracting the plague in Rome during those long summers. The disease was common in the late thirteenth century before reaching its high point in the early to mid-fourteenth, when the Black Death was ubiquitous. Whenever it flared, people contemplated their eternal destiny. One might think that at times when people were faced with such calamity, the clergy might demonstrate their ability to channel God’s grace, clemency, and peace in the face of near-certain death, or that at least they might offer comfort, hear confessions, and administer last rites to those on death’s door. Instead, what often happened was quite the opposite: the clergy, such as the very cardinals who elected the pope, suspended all religious activity and fled to the quieter, safer countryside.11

Before they left Rome entirely, to get away from the clamoring crowds and the dangers of disease, the cardinals moved from the Savelli Palace to the Dominican monastery of Santa Maria sopra Minerva (later made famous by Saint Catherine of Siena, who is buried there). For weeks the Colonna family faction remained in Rome while Cardinal Benedict Gaetani retired to a villa in Viterbo to recuperate from illness. At that time Viterbo was known as “the city of popes,” having in recent years witnessed the election of five popes (most recently Martin IV, in 1281), and the deaths of four. The rest of the cardinals removed to the lovely town of Rieti, a provincial capital rich with associations with the life of Francis of Assisi. It was just southwest of Rieti, near the base of the 5,575-foot Mount Terminillo, that Saint Francis dictated the Rule of his order while standing in a grove of holly trees in 1223. And it was only nine miles northwest of Rieti in Greccio where Francis celebrated Christmas with a live nativity later that same year.

Pages were running back and forth from Rome to Rieti carrying threatening letters, sometimes laced with theological arguments, from the Colonnas to the Orsinis and back again. The distance from Rieti to Rome is about fifty miles on foot through the Tiber Valley, yet the Sacred College never did gather all together in Rieti. Instead, while the streets of Rome and the Papal States filled with unrest, all the cardinal-electors made their way to Perugia, perceived to be neutral ground. It was there, removed from the clamor of ordinary life, during their third hot summer of deliberations, that the Sacred College finally seemed motivated to do something.

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