Bad pope, no pulpit!

I’m more than halfway through The Bad Popes by Eric Russell Chamberlin. Oh, it’s a knee-slapper, to say the least. Plenty of illicit sex, violence, greed, avarice, conspiracy, etc. Chamberlin denudes the nasty personal habits and dirty professional deeds of various popes throughout history. Short of The Name of the Rose and Memoirs of A Gnostic Dwarf*, it’s the most earthy and entertaining book I’ve read relating to the papacy.

Pope Formosus and Stephen VII [sic] by Jean-Paul Laurens, 1870.

Ever heard of The Cadaver Synod? Pope Stephen VI, consecrated in 896, ordered the rotting corpse of his predecessor, Pope Formosus, be exhumed and put on trial for various crimes against the church. Poor bastard was nine-months dead when they dug him up. Stephen dressed the ripe stiff in papal robes, propped it up in a chair, and proceeded to scream unintelligibly at it for several hours in front of a rapt audience. Afterwards, Formosus was declared guilty and his body was dragged through the streets of Rome, then thrown into the river Tiber. Not suprisingly, the morbid spectacle turned public opinion against Stephen. Rumors spread that the dead pontiff had washed up on the banks of the Tiber and was performing miracles. Stephen VI was eventually deposed and strangled to death in prison.

Left: Early tarot card depiction of Pope Joan. Right: La Papesse as Antichrist, wearing a jaunty tiara.

Chamberlin also addresses the origins of good old “Pope Joan“, that legendary, likely imaginary Papesse who supposedly reigned from 855 to 858 (Protestants used to loooove bringing her up as proof of their moral superiority to Catholics). As the story goes, she was an Englishwoman who fell in love with a Benedictine monk, disguised herself as a dude and joined his order. Eventually she moved to Rome where she impressed everyone with her vast knowledge, becoming a cardinal, and then pope. (In earlier, juicy versions of this fable, Joan was already knocked up at the time of her election, and actually squeezed one out during the procession to the Lateran!) Chamberlin hypothesizes that these tall tales stem from accounts of The Rule of Harlots: a period of the papacy where various popes were either the progeny of dastardly, influential aristocratic women, or boinking them. In doing so, he has introduced me to my favorite new word… Pornocracy.

Chamberlin eschews a bland professorial style in favor of fairly plainspoken writing, and his dry sense of humor about the subject matter reminds me of Alice K. Turner’s approach to The History of Hell, yet another well-researched, highly entertaining read that deals with some of the sillier and more political aspects of Christian dogma. Highly recommended.

*Incidentally, Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf gets my vote for Most Jaw-Droppingly Disgusting Opening Paragraph Ever Written. Even better than the ejaculatory beginning of The Dirt. Must read.

14 Responses to “Bad pope, no pulpit!”

  1. Tequila Says:

    “…Pope Stephen VI, consecrated in 896, ordered the rotting corpse of his predecessor, Pope Formosus, be exhumed and put on trial for various crimes against the church…”

    I can’t be the only one who thinks that’s unbelievably awesome. I think we can all name a corpse we’d like to dig up and yell at…if anything that should be a Halloween activity this year dammit!

    That said…off to the bookstore I go!

  2. Heather Says:

    Bad Popes! I read this with William Davis’ Holy Anorexia*, and considered my Catholic education complete.

    * Holy Anorexia documents the anoretic fasting saints of the Middle Ages and compares their spiritual quest to the quest for ‘energetic slenderness’ today, with horrific descriptions of the ways they tried to dampen their appetites – drinking pus, eating scabs, etc. Also interesting is the idea that these women were the ones who gave us a vision of an adult, robust, possibly sexual Christ – before the holy anoretics, Christ was apparently typically depicted as a baby. But in their starvation-fueled fervor, these women would describe him as a fully-formed man, inflaming their various passions.

  3. john colby Says:

    Pease tell me there’s tons of dirt on the Borgia family.

  4. Mer Says:

    Yeppers. Chamberlin devotes a LOT of time to Alexander VI and the whole Borgia clan.

    Remember what the fella said: in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

    Name that quote, get a cookie. A SCAB cookie. Mmm mmm.

  5. andrew Says:

    Orson Welles as Harry Lime in The Third Man. Mmmm… scab cookie.

    I can’t believe I haven’t heard of the Cadaver Synod before. Great post.

  6. Populuxe Says:

    Orson Welles (as Harry Lime) in The Third Man–though I always want to attribute it to Jacob Burckhardt.

  7. ampersandpilcrow Says:

    I always loved the Cadaver Synod, the pornocracy, Pope Joan and the whole lurid tapestry that was the dark ages. In particular, My personal favorite part might be the aforementioned Ruling Harlots poisoning or otherwise murderin’ popes left and right as part of their own rivalry.

    I’m a little surprised more hasn’t been done, literary or cinema-wise, with the period, as it seems ripe for it. Though there’s supposed to be a movie on Pope Joan coming in 2009.

    Thanks much for the post, Mer. I think I know what I’m reading next.

  8. D Says:

    Loved History of hell, had so much in it that was new to me at the time. I’ll underline that reading tip. Twice. In pink.

  9. Ben Morris Says:

    This adds both The Bad Popes and Memoirs of A Gnostic Dwarf to my need_to_read.txt file; using an Umberto Eco novel as a point of comparison is a great way of grabbing my attention about any book. Incidentally if you haven’t read Eco’s most recent novel, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana its a wonderful celebration of books themselves. A rare book dealer who through an accident has lost his memory is reconstructing who he is by examining the books and other textual materials he owns (including comic books from his childhood, complete with illustrations from such).

    Also this post reminds me I still need to read Turner’s A History of Hell. When I was obsessed with Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun I scoured the mailing list concerning his books and Alice K. Turner’s posts were consistantly among the most interesting and insightful on there.

    I think the current pope would be much more entertaining if he had an Antipope to contend with. There is a quite nice palace in Avignon for the antipope to take up residence in, as they have in the past. Pope vs Pope, in an all out battle only one will be left standing!

  10. Skerror Says:

    Wow…a LITERAL pornocracy :o

    If I ever start doing ambient chill-down music, I’m doing it as “Pope Formosus”

  11. » Blog Archive » links for 2008-02-11 Says:

    […] Coilhouse » Blog Archive » Bad pope, no pulpit! two words: cadaver synod. (tags: funny wtf history spirit) […]

  12. Julian Says:

    find out the truth instead of biases you hear and read from various sources. Read Pope Fiction by Patrick Madrid, and realize many of the lies. Yes, there were few bad popes (around 3%), but this only proves the authenticity of the Catholic Church.

    A little philosophy inclines a man to atheism. Depth in philosophy leadeth a man to God – Francis Bacon

  13. Mer Says:

    Julian, how did you find Coilhouse? Are you a longtime reader, or just dropping by to fill your daily proselytizing quota?

  14. Rab Says:

    Mer, I had the strange idea that this was a reasoned forum. I don’t see any mean-spirited cattiness in Julian’s post, unlike yours.