“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 later church writers. As was the case with one of our previous weekly bastards (Elagabalus), Pope Benedict IX came to his position very young (the sources disagree on this point, but he was definitely no older than twenty) because he was the scion of an extremely well-connected family.
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.”
He earned this sort of scorn by working his way through as many of the Seven Deadly Sins as he could, as quickly and as often as he could. This pope was apparently on a first-name basis with most of the whores in central Italy, sold church offices for hefty bribes (a sin known as “simony.”), hosted frequent bisexual orgies, sodomized animals, and even went so far as to curse God and toast the Devil at every meal! Dante Alighieri, author of The Inferno, proclaimed Benedict’s reign the low ebb of the history of the papacy.
As had Stephen VII before him, Benedict owed his position to the Roman aristocracy, which meant that most of his critics came from among the many German clergymen holding positions in the church. Most of his opponents considered their reigning head of the church something of a bogeyman; perpetrator of “many vile adulteries and murders.” Desiderius of Monte Cassino who was a contemporary of Benedict IX and later reigned as Pope Victor III, wrote that Benedict committed “rapes, murders, and other unspeakable acts.” Benedict’s reign, wrote Desiderius, was “so vile, so foul, so execrable that I shudder to think of it.”
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.
So technically Benedict left not one, but two popes (well, really a “pope” and a pretender, or “antipope”) behind in Rome when he retired to one of his country estates later that same year.
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!
At this point clearer heads prevailed, and a group of bishops sent an appeal directly to Emperor Henry III in Germany, asking him to intervene. The emperor convened a special church council in 1047, and by 1048 Antipope Sylvester had been convinced to re-take his position as bishop of Sabina, Gregory VI had been convinced to retire, and “Pope” Benedict IX had been officially removed from office.
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.