The Ree, the Roo, the Raa!; or Bene Bene Pendentes!
It is surprising that the world was surprised at, or by, the recent little drama in The Church as one sitting pope resigned and another ascended the throne of Peter. For waywardness, that event is insignificant compared to several papal commotions during the Middle Ages in Europe. Although it is a literary work, Geoffrey Chaucer’s satirical Canterbury Tales (1475) is, in part, a useful sociological, albeit fictionalised, account of medieval ethical and moral clerical excesses. One variant of that was the ‘selling’ of indulgences to believers. Professional ‘pardoners’ granted shrift in exchange for lucre. One of the colourful characters through whom Chaucer focalises his searching narrative is the satirical figure, ‘The Pardoner.’ In “The Pardoner’s Tale” that protagonist mocks the clergy, whom he personifies, by declaring:
If gifts your change of heart and mind reveal,
You’ll get my absolution while you kneel.
Come forth, and kneel down here before, anon,
And humbly you’ll receive my full pardon;
Or else receive a pardon as you wend,
All new and fresh as every mile shall end,
So that you offer me each time, anew,
More gold and silver, all good coins and true.
Chaucer wrote of a time when faith was on its knees like a sinner or a shrunken beggar, a time when the steeple was as crooked as the tilting tower of Pisa. This was the dark ages in clerical as well as in any other term: popes fought for office like the nastiest of mafia bosses; devilish intrigue and executions were not exempt.
For example the phenomenon now described as the Western schism, consolidated between 1378 and 1417, was a situation in which an official pope and one or two equally legitimate ‘antipopes’ existed simultaneously between Rome and Avignon, France. The height of such political brouhaha was 1409 when three holinesses co-existed, installed one after the other by the same conclave of disgruntled cardinals in that one unholy instance. Across the ages the Holy See sees to it that wicked entertainment is provided its admirers, secular and lay alike. But no histrionic compares to the catastrophe – for a very misogynist clergy – of accidentally installing a female pope in Rome or Avignon in the ninth century (?).
If true, that is probably the first serious documented case of ‘passing’ in history – way ahead of its appearance in slave-owning America when bi- or multi-racial slaves who looked white enough simply passed for white and lived a more humane existence. Women in the medieval period were not much more than cattle – just like the Slavic people from whom the word ‘slave’ derives. And since poor nutrition and the shaven heads of priests, not to talk of cross-dressing amongst the clergy, bent the features of man or woman to a sexless blur, it was possible for the latter to pass by crossing genders and thus escaping slavish conditions towards upward social mobility. This is much within the same existential goals, which made Slavs convert to Christianity because The Church declared that the Christian ideal precluded a follower of Christ from being a slave. Medieval gender and social transgressions provided the opportunity such that a certain John Anglicus who ‘had no balls’ could nevertheless become a man, a priest – and a pope (?).
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