by Brian Thornton
A few years back I wrote a couple of books about "bastards": (in)famous people with a mean streak- including some that many today continue to consider "heroes," or at least "good people"- admittedly many of these historical figures have overall positive public images, but in order to show that most everyone has a bit of the "bastard" in them, I included discussions of George Washington putting the moves on his best friend's wife, Jefferson siring children with one of his slaves, and so on.
More fun to write were the accounts we have of many historical personages who have all but disappeared from the pages of history, and getting the opportunity to lay out just exactly why these characters ought to still be considered "bastards" even today. This is one of those "neglected" personages. The account below is an expanded version of the one that ended up in The Book of Ancient Bastards, and lends more detail than I was given within the constraints of the book itself. I hope you enjoy it.
This entry and the one to follow both deal with medieval popes. One who put the throne of St. Peter up for auction, the other who put the corpse of his predecessor on trial. First, Benedict IX: the man who sold the Papacy.
“That wretch, from the beginning of his pontificate to the end of his life, feasted on immorality.”
– St. Peter Damian, Liber Gomorrhianus
This week’s bastard is another of those wacky medieval popes who so scandalized contemporary and
|Pope Benedict IX|
Think about it: who gives the sort of wealth and power that went with being pope to a twenty year-old and doesn’t expect it to go straight to the kid’s head? Who doesn’t expect someone living the medieval equivalent of a rock-star life to go a bit nuts once thrust into the limelight?
In Benedict’s case that’s precisely what happened.
Born a younger son of Theophylact, the powerful Count of Tusculum, Benedict was “elected” pope in 1032. In becoming pope he succeeded not one, but two of his uncles, who between them had spent the previous twenty years keeping the papacy “in the family.” It is a virtual certainty that Benedict’s father spread a fair amount of money around among the papal electors in order to ensure that it stayed there.
Daddy’s purchase of the papacy had a profound effect on young Benedict. Cynical and capricious from the moment he took the Shoes of the Fisherman, Benedict’s rule was quickly marked by episodes that illustrated not only his complete disregard for either tradition or propriety, but his taste for wretched excess as well. In the disapproving words of one chronicler, Benedict was a “demon from Hell in the disguise of a priest.”
|Pope Benedict VIII, and...|
|...Pope John XIX, both uncles of Benedict IX|
|Desiderius of Monte Cassino|
For his part Benedict doesn’t seem to have given a damn what his critics thought. His power base was among the members of the Roman aristocracy, and as long as they backed him he felt free to do as he pleased. Turned out he reckoned without the powerful (and fickle) Roman mob, who rioted in 1036 and ran Il Papa right out of the Eternal City. The uprising was quickly put down and Benedict returned to power there, but his hold on his throne was tenuous at best after that.
By the time Benedict’s opponents within the church had succeeded in driving him from Rome a second time in 1045, Benedict had tired of being pope. So he consulted his godfather, a well-respected priest named Johannes Gratianus (“John Gratian”) about whether he could legally resign this most holy of offices. When the “Godfather” assured him that such a thing, although unprecedented, was wholly acceptable according to church doctrine, Benedict offered to sell it to him for a ridiculous sum that would apparently be used to fund the former pope’s “lifestyle change.”
The older man accepted and took the papal name of Gregory VI. The bribe he gave Benedict so completely bankrupted the papal treasury that for months afterward the church was unable to pay its bills. To further complicate matters Benedict’s foes among the clergy had refused to recognize Gregory’s right to the succession, electing one of their number pope as Sylvester III.
Benedict didn’t waste any time, immediately proposing to a cousin (a common custom in his day). When she refused him the ex-pope got it into his head that it wasn’t such a bad thing being pope after all. Within weeks he’d headed back to Rome trying to get his old job back.
This time his allies among the Roman aristocracy deserted him, and Benedict got booted from the city a third time for his trouble. So now there were three “popes” running around claiming to be the infallible head of the Holy Catholic Church!
|The cool-headed emperor Henry|
A year later he was charged with simony (a charge of which he was clearly guilty). When he refused to appear before the church court that indicted him, Benedict was excommunicated.
How he responded to this latest reversal is unrecorded. But at some point during the next decade Benedict had a change of heart and as the story goes, presented himself at the abbey of Santa Maria di Grottaferrata, and asked for God’s forgiveness.
He spent the remainder of his days as a monk in that abbey, dying there in 1065.