The period from 897 to 1047 is possibly the nadir of the Papacy – even counting the Borgias. Lowlights included:
- The Cadaver Synod where Pope Stephen VI (VII) exhumed the body of his predecessor Pope Formosus, put it on trial for perjury and tossed it into the Tiber. This inspired the disgusted Roman mob to rise up in revolt, depose Stephen and toss him in prison where he was strangled.
- The reign of Pope Sergius III who reputedly ordered the murder of his two immediate predecessors Leo V and Antipope Christopher and may have fathered a bastard who became Pope John XI.
- The reign of Pope Benedict IX the only man to have been Pope more than once (three terms), the only man to sell the Papacy (to his second successor Gregory VI) and the first verified man to resign it.
While this was going on the Saracens were raiding Southern Italy and had conquered Sicily. From the middle of the 10th century the Imperial title in the West would be conferred on the Kings of Germany who repeatedly meddled in Papal elections. That the Papacy survived being a plaything tossed around by the Roman nobility and the Kings of Germany is a miracle. It probably helped that communications were poor and most of the Christian world was unaware about the proclivities of the Bishops of Rome and too busy fending for themselves. The Vikings were ravaging England, Ireland and Northern France. The Iberian Kingdoms were desperately holding off the resurgent Ummayads of Cordoba. The Byzantines were busy fending off Russian invasions and commencing their recovery in Anatolia.
In the middle of all this John XII has earned a special place in infamy. He was born Octavian, the son of Alberic II, Count of Tusculum and ruler of Rome, and nephew of the aforementioned John XI. The House of Tusculum provided at least five popes (including Benedict IX) during this period.
Octavius was only a teenager when elevated to the Papacy as John XII in December 955 on his father’s deathbed. He was only 27 when he died. A youth unprepared for the responsibility of his office he allegedly proceeded to spend it in a life of hedonistic excess. Unable to control the local nobility he invited Otto I of Germany into Italy and crowned him Emperor and placed the Papacy under imperial protection.
But Emperor and Pope soon came into conflict. The Emperor asked the Pope to mend his ways. The Pope alarmed at the rise of Imperial power started intriguing with the Emperor’s enemies. The exasperated Otto called an uncanonical council and deposed the Pope electing Leo VIII. John had been driven from Rome but recovered it in February 964 on the departure of Otto. Leo fled to to the Emperor for protection. While the battle between Pope and Emperor was still in the balance, John died suddenly. His death allegedly occurred while enjoying an adulterous sexual encounter – by apoplexy or at the hands of his partner’s husband.
The historical sources are uniformly hostile to John XII.
“Then, rising up, the cardinal priest Peter testified that he himself had seen John XII celebrate Mass without taking communion. John, bishop of Narni, and John, a cardinal deacon, professed that they themselves saw that a deacon had been ordained in a horse stable, but were unsure of the time. Benedict, cardinal deacon, with other co-deacons and priests, said they knew that he had been paid for ordaining bishops, specifically that he had ordained a ten-year-old bishop in the city of Todi… They testified about his adultery, which they did not see with their own eyes, but nonetheless knew with certainty: he had fornicated with the widow of Rainier, with Stephana his father’s concubine, with the widow Anna, and with his own niece, and he made the sacred palace into a whorehouse. They said that he had gone hunting publicly; that he had blinded his confessor Benedict, and thereafter Benedict had died; that he had killed John, cardinal subdeacon, after castrating him; and that he had set fires, girded on a sword, and put on a helmet and cuirass. All, clerics as well as laymen, declared that he had toasted to the devil with wine. They said when playing at dice, he invoked Jupiter, Venus and other demons. They even said he did not celebrate Matins at the canonical hours nor did he make the sign of the cross.”
The later historian Edward Gibbon wrote:
“We read with some surprise that Pope John XII lived in public adultery with the matrons of Rome; that the Lateran palace was turned into a school for prostitution, and that his rapes of virgins and widows had deterred the female pilgrims from visiting the tomb of St. Peter, lest, in the devout act, they should be violated by his successor.”
It is hard to know how much of the vituperation is true. John’s successor Benedict V was soon deposed by Otto who restored Leo. As a result there was nobody to give John any favorable press. However, given the antecedents of his family and the general tenor of the times it is likely, that many of the charges of lustful living against John are true. It is unclear however whether he was a modern day Caligula or Elagabalus as the sources indicate. He remains in legend one of the most depraved and licentious Popes in history.