Christ blesses the Emperor
Otto II and his wife, the
Empress Theophanu in this 10th
century ivory panel.
Otto had his hands full establishing his power in Germany and so he needed a powerful representative in Rome to protect his papal nominee from the Roman nobility and their thugs. Benedict managed to hang on to the papacy for nine years and in that time he convoked several reform synods for the Diocese of Rome, in particular outlawing simony—the buying and selling of church positions—a common practice at the time. Part of his success in avoiding the sort of fate that met his predecessor was that he was a member of the family of the counts of Tusculum which provided some balance to the power of the Crescenti. It was only in 981 that Otto was finally able to come to Rome himself. Benedict died in July 983, Otto died five months later. Upon Benedict’s death, Otto named his chancellor, Pietro Canepanova as Pope John XIV. It was the chancellor’s death sentence as without the Emperor he had no protection from the anti-imperial party and their mobs.
Otto’s death left a political vacuum. His heir was his three year old son, Otto III. Otto II’s widow, the Greek Princess, Theophanu, was regent. The child Emperor was kidnapped by a German Duke in the spring of 984 and the Empress-Regent was preoccupied in regaining custody of her son, leaving Rome open to more trouble. The Romans resented the imperial nominee pope, John XIV, and anti-pope Boniface VII returned and imprisoned John in the Castle San Angelo where he was murdered. He was succeeded by John XV, the son of a Roman priest named Leo. (Clerical marriage was still the norm for the secular clergy. The Crescenti were opposed to him, but the Empress Regent, Theophanu, resided in Rome during much of his reign and protected him. John is noteworthy for a variety of reasons, so we will end this entry here and pick up with him in a day or two.
Before we sign off, however, a final word about Boniface VII. Having murdered Benedict VI and John XIV, he himself met a most unpleasant death. He seized the papacy, annulled the papacies of his two predecessors Benedict VII and John XIV. However, he himself died suddenly in 985, possibly murdered. He was so hated that his corpse was seized and dragged naked through the streets of Rome and left abandoned at the foot of the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. Not a nice guy; not a nice end.
Today he is considered an anti-pope but for centuries he was recognized as legitimate and the next pope to take the name Boniface (a character of somewhat mixed moral fiber himself) took the name Boniface VIII.
Note two things. The first is the imperial power to name popes. Political theory of the time saw the Emperor as the Vicar of Christ and as the earthly head of the Church. The pope was its spiritual overlord, but subject in temporal affairs, including the temporal affairs of the Church, to the authority of the Emperor. The Emperor was seen as having the responsibility for the integrity of the Church.
The second thing to note is the chaotic way in which popes were elected—the roman nobility, the mobs, and the emperor all had some say. The Emperor’s attempts to control the election of the popes was an attempt to bring some order out of the chaos and violence that too oftenmarked papal transitions. One of the most important reforms would be the establishment of the system of election by the cardinal clergy of the diocese of Rome. But that is still away off. More on that in the future.