So now that my rage has subsided into a low, manageable simmer (despite TWO MORE shootings in the last several days. TWO. MORE. No wonder humanity is going extinct in 86 years) let’s talk about something fun! Let’s talk about popes.
Whatever your views may be on the Catholic Church (one holy catholic and apostolic Church…we acknowledge one baptism for remission of all sins… sorry, I got caught in the Nicene creed for a second), it sure has given us much in the way of comedy. Growing up Catholic, that comedy often came from my mother making fun of the priest during mass if he went on too long. (Her motto: If you can’t say it in ten, don’t say it in twenty.) Between family stories about setting things on fire, wearing kleenexes on your head (if you forgot your hat), and taking a sip too many of the sacred backwash that is communion wine at one’s First Communion (age 8), the laugh riot never ends, but truly, our most holy gift is the pope.
With a history more bloody and scandalous than Game of Thrones, a library of apocryphal stories with all the blood, gore, and crossdressing one could hope to be titillated about, and aristocratic families fighting for control of the giant golden throne, one can only imagine the glorious scandal that a comprehensive history of the papacy could be. Well, too bad, because I’m only going to talk about the things I think are funny. To wit:
According to popular history, Pope Joan ruled at as Pope John Anglicus for several years in the 13th century, and was actually pretty damn good at it. Wise, learned, and with that sense of fun you only find in a transgender pope, she was revealed as a fraud when she gave birth while parading through Rome on horseback. Of course, she fell from her mount and was dragged for a half a mile before dying, at which time she was buried in disgrace.
Pope Joan did not exist (although I’m willing to bet that we have had a few popes who were actually women–see anyone who did not have illegitimate children during the Renaissance because EVERYONE had illegitimate children in the 16th century), but if she did, I have questions. 1. How was she so unaware of her impending labor that she decided to ride around publicly on horseback? 2. How did the papal staff not realize that the pope was getting fat on a remarkably specific timeline? 3. Who had sex with the pope in a) such a way as to impregnate her, and b) not tell all their friends in a drunken stupor? Was it an extremely disappointed gay man? Was her lover unceremoniously offed? Is the ground under Rome filled the corpses of Joan’s loose-lipped lovers?! The world may never know.
The Three Popes in a Boat and No One Can Steer (The Western Schism)
So as you might imagine, the Middle Ages were a peaceful time filled with stable governments, easy transitions of power, and many happy and tolerant people who lived long, productive lives.
HA. Ha ha. Hahahahaha. Ha.
The Middle Ages was a time when people were either fighting over paltry portions of land and power, or they were so bored they started killing each other. (That’s how the Crusades started. Seriously.) And by people, I’m obviously referring to landowning men and their sons, because neither poor people nor women nor non-Christians were considered people, a tradition that continues today in the thoroughly not-a-theocracy United States.
Anyway. At one point, the papacy up and moved to France for several decades, and since the pope essentially ruled Rome, the people in ye olde country were none too happy about it. (It’s like the next president being a British citizen, living in Britain, and consulting with whoever the fuck is in charge over there. It’s an emperor, right? Emperor of the Galaxy or something? Politics are stupid.) So the Romans demanded a Roman pope, and since people never turn down enormous power and wealth, the College of Cardinals picked some guy from Naples, who became Pope Urban VI. (He was terrible. The only good thing to come out of Naples is the ice cream, and I’m not even sure about that. But most popes were awful, so there you go.) So the College got together again and chose Pope Clement VII, who skedaddled right on back to France. (He also wore an onion on his belt, as was the fashion at the time.) So they fight it out for thirty years or so (‘I’m the true of voice of God on Earth!’ ‘No, I’m his only holy representative!’ ‘You’re a blasphemer!’ ‘You’re a blasphemer!’), and the then College meets up again (rather than having a couple of good, old-fashioned assassinations, which would be so. much. easier.) and they elect a third pope, Alexander V, based in Pisa (‘Neener neener boo boo, I’m the real pope now!’ He was also known as the antipope, perfect for all your papist infection needs.).
Cut to five years later, and enough’s enough. The College meets one more goddamn time, they fire everybody, and elect a fourth pope, Martin V, whom no one hates enough to kill or depose, and everyone lives happily ever after. In Opposite Land. No, he actually initiated some wars, attempted genocide against the so-called heretics in Bohemia, organized a crusade in Africa, and endorsed slavery. History is fun!
Everyone loves the Crusades! The following is factually true:
-There were four of them.
-They all involved the same (mostly French) aristocratic families.
-They all started with bored idiots and their swords rampaging through Europe, decimating local Jewish populations.
-The Children’s Crusade was real, and while those darlings wandered to the sea to take back the Holy Land for Jesus, they mostly died of exposure, starvation, and disease, and the ones who lived got the grand adventure of being sold into slavery! Where they probably died of exposure, starvation, disease, AND horribly cruel beatings!
-The Crusades started because Western Europe was too peaceful. (Does that not explain everything about Western society ever?) There were a bunch of landless, battle-trained younger sons wandering around killing each other (because you’ve got to have some spare knight-sons in case your first couple die and you have to give the land to your daughter’s husband), and the Pope had a nope sandwich and created the first crusade so they could blow off steam in the (then) peaceful, productive, well-educated and tolerant Middle East. So rather than embracing peace and hammering their swords into plowshares, the (mostly French) aristocrats gather an army, kiss their wives and mistresses goodbye, and invade a series of countries, kicking off about a hundred years of conflict at home and abroad and ruining the pretty great societies thriving in the Middle East. THANKS, POPES.
You may find yourself asking why this is relevant? Good question, yourself, HISTORY IS ALWAYS RELEVANT. But actually, it’s because history is always relevant and has echos that affect us today. Here’s a little thinky-think: it’s on the funny side, seeing Pope Francis plead for peace in Israel and elsewhere, when a little less meddling from the papacy would’ve been much more helpful in the following: 1. Deconstructing the long-held idea that Jews were less than human and deserving of genocide, eventually leading to the Holocaust, 2. Never planting the idea that Western Europe has any sort of mandate to act politically in the Middle East (see also: colonialism, Gulf War), and 3. Using violence as a solution for just about anything (see also: violent antisemitism, colonialism, Gulf War).
I actually really like Pope Francis and I think he’s creating more change in just a year than most popes aspired to ever. But history is long and filled with assholes, and it’s our job to call them out.
And Now Your Moment of Zen
The Pope Francis Popener, ideal for opening all your beer and adding a taste of the holy.
He smiles because alcohol!