By Roger Collins (Guest Contributor)
Not long after his death in 1342 Benedict XII had his life written by a French monk, who took the precaution of remaining anonymous, as what he had to say about the pope was not flattering. ‘Hard’, ‘mean’, ‘hating friars’ and thinking all of his cardinals were liars, were just some of the accusations made. Our author also said that Benedict drank so much wine that he gave rise to the popular toast Bibamus papaliter, or ‘Let’s drink like a pope’!
This was not the first time that this particular pope had received a bad press. Before he was unanimously elected in 1334, he had been bishop of Pamiers, near Toulouse in south-western France, and there had led the inquisition in its investigation of Cathars or Albigensians in his diocese, most notably in the village of Montaillou. His detailed records of these interrogations, partly preserved in his own notebook now in the Vatican Library, provided the material for the famous French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie to reconstruct so much of the life and thought-world of that community in his book Montaillou of 1975.
Unsurprisingly, some of those who appeared before Bishop Jacques Fournier, as he then was, felt he was ‘the spirit of evil’, and ‘a demon infesting the land.’ One of them wished he ‘would fall into a precipice.’ For historians today, however, Benedict XII is a an austere reformer, who resisted the temptation to reward his own relatives in the way so many of his immediate predecessors and successors did, and who tried to impose higher standards of conduct in the Church; for example reproving the ‘infinite’ number of Spanish priests said to be living openly with their mistresses. Other contemporary authors, who shared his ideals, reported sadness at his death and miracles at his tomb. But his successor, who became Clement VI, was far more generally popular, as he quickly showed that his nature lived up to his name.
Roger Collins is author of Keepers of the Keys of Heaven: A History of the Papacy (Basic Books).
Image: Pope Leo X, courtesy of Basic Books