Pulling Back Papal Mourning Curtains

When Pope John Paul II died, tens of thousands of mourners filled St. Peter’s Square to express their sympathy.

What a difference a few centuries make, according to Joëlle Rollo-Koster, professor of history, whose latest book, Raiding Saint Peter: Empty Sees, Violence, and the Initiation of the Great Western Schism, has just been published (Leiden and Boston). During the Middle Ages, it was common to pillage and sack the goods of a dead pope.

“Basically, throughout the history of Christianity when a pope or a bishop died, crowds rushed to his dwellings and emptied them of all moveable goods,” says Koster, one of a handful of medieval historians who deal with cultural anthropology, which means she applies anthropological methods to her analysis of events and behaviors.

“People are usually interested in papal history, but very few are aware of this practice, which is recorded in ample documentation,” says the historian.

“Many Catholics do not realize that the election of the pope was once in the hands of the congregation. After the people were marginalized and pushed out of the papal electoral process, the pillaging began,” says Rollo-Koster.