Post-classical history

Peter Morrone … my heart was filled with anxious grief

When you pronounced the words, “I will!”

For that yoke might lay upon your neck

Only to damn your soul to Hell.

“Epistle to Pope Celestine V”



Despite the power of his physical presence—or perhaps, because of it—Peter Morrone preferred writing to oratory. This is not surprising. The man, after all, was a hermit, and although the word didn’t exist back then, it’s safe to say that the monk with the body of an athlete and the heart of a rebel was an introvert. When he had something to say, more often than not, he wrote a letter.

The word hermit comes from Latin and Greek and literally means “of the desert.” For millennia a hermit has been a man who aims to live mostly alone in order to pray and work out his salvation. The prophet Elijah was a Hebrew hermit who lived centuries before Christ. John the Baptist was living as a hermit in the Land of Israel along the Jordan River before Jesus began his adult ministry. In the fourth century Christian hermits sometimes went to “the desert”—any lonely or remote place—in order to learn to more fully and completely love others. They needed very little, but in their poverty they believed they could most directly understand Christ.

On one particular occasion an eighty-four-year-old hermit was desperate to make his feelings known. The College of Cardinals was taking far too long to select the next pope, and something had to be done.

Peter believed that the cardinals should consider the implications of their seemingly endless deliberations. We won’t have another interregnum! he probably said to a brother monk, standing outside the entrance to his cave. Broadly speaking, an “interregnum” is the time that lapses between the death of one pope and the election of a new one. But by 1294 the term had come to stand for a notorious vacancy of the papacy that was still fresh in people’s minds—the three years between 1268 and 1271.

After Clement IV died in 1268, for two years the cardinal-electors were bickering and fighting, meeting and adjourning in the Palazzo dei Papi, or “Palace of the Popes,” in Viterbo, refusing to lay down their self-interests in order to elect a successor to the chair of St. Peter. So the people of Viterbo locked the sixteen cardinals inside, laid siege to the palace, bricking up the entrances, allowing only bread and water to be passed through, insisting that the cardinal-electors finally choose a man for the job. The siege lasted for more than twelve months. Still nothing. Then, when the patience of the people had reached its limit, piece by piece the people removed the roof above the room in which the cardinals were meeting, letting in hot sunshine and pouring rain. Within three days Tebaldo Visconti was elected Pope Gregory X by a compromise delegation of six cardinals. And when it was all over and the cardinals emerged looking well fed, as usual, the people realized that the cardinal-electors must have had secret access to other food and supplies. Four of those sixteen cardinal-electors went on to become mostly unimpressive popes themselves: Adrian V (r. July 11–August 18, 1276), Nicholas III (r. 1277–80), Martin IV (r. 1281–85), and Honorius IV (r. 1285–87).

In the summer of 1294, Peter looked down into the valley below him. The land was lush with verdant greens, but he knew that not far from where he stood the cardinals of Mother Church were once again divided, avoiding their duty, refusing to come to a consensus about the future.

Like a Desert Father in Syria or Upper Egypt in the fourth century, living just enough on the outskirts of the cities to be out of reach of Roman authority, Peter lived in what was considered the most remote region of Italy: the mountains of Abruzzi, seventy miles east of Rome. From his perch he was as much the inheritor of the poet Horace’s powerful ideal of rusticorum mascula (“masculine offspring”) as he was one of Jesus’ followers seeking to be meek in order to inherit the earth.1 In lifestyle, he was closer to John the Baptist than he was to the cardinals, or “princes,” of the Church.

From the mountains Peter was in a good position to see clearly what the Church needed most. His was an ancient perspective: that rough living and landscape built moral character and men of the mountains could see what those in cities could not.2 Although Peter would not have presumed to consider himself a prophet, his actions parallel those of the Hebrew prophets who were always outsiders pointing out what was going wrong. Peter’s message in his letter to Cardinal Malabranca is, in fact, reminiscent of something Isaiah said:

    The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,

    because the Lord has anointed me

    to bring good news to the afflicted;

    he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,

    to proclaim liberty to the captives,

    and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.

Or Saint John the Divine who said: “I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, ‘Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea’ ” (Is. 61:1; and Rv. 1:10–11).

By the summer of 1294, Peter was revered for his age and wisdom. At eighty-four, he was an old man, but Saint Anthony of Egypt lived to be 105, Peter would have reminded his monks. And Saint Paul of Thebes, Anthony’s teacher, lived even longer. Saint Jerome, too, was often visited by angels during the decades of old age that he spent living alone near Bethlehem. Every hermit knew such things.

There have been a few occasions when a letter has changed the course of history.3 This was one of those times. The letter Peter wrote was both private and intended to provoke. Because of his religious celebrity reputation, any communication from Peter would be unusual, even for the College of Cardinals meeting in Perugia.

The letter would have looked rather ordinary. Various types of wood were common for letter-writing during this period, and bark was the most portable of them all. It might seem that bark would be too perishable to be used for a letter written to a cardinal, but in the hands of a hermit that humble material might have had just the effect that was intended. Paper, as opposed to the animal skins used for parchment, was even more impermanent in those days since it was made from rags and “other more vile material,” as Peter the Venerable once put it.4

The actual letter is no longer extant. Perhaps a cardinal accidentally threw it into the fire with a previous round’s ballots, or maybe it was tucked into the pages of a Latin codex, and is still extant, 750 years later, lost in a library somewhere in Europe. All we know is that the letter was written in June 1294 and was addressed to Cardinal Latino Malabranca Orsini, dean of the College of Cardinals. The letter was written in Latin, which means that if Peter wrote it himself the writing would have been unskilled because, as sources tell us, he was largely uneducated. And we can surmise that the missive was delivered by a younger monk who could maneuver down the rocks and inclines better than a vibrant octogenarian.

I can imagine Peter instructing the young monk charged with delivering his letter to the Sacred College.

Brother, pronto! Presto!

The letter delivered in person to Malabranca on the morning of July 5, 1294, was, according to the venerable hagiographer Alban Butler, filled with “holy rage.” What did the letter say?

God’s judgment falls on those who ignore His will, and on those who are willingly blind in seeking it. You and the others have been like ones charged with restoring a roof to a beautiful house, and yet you leave the tools and plans at home for years on end, leaving those inside to burn in the hot sun and freeze to death during blazing summers and dread winters. The inaction you have shown will surely bring the wrath of Jesus Christ down upon you, upon your families, and upon all of us who call ourselves by his name.

We can’t be certain that these were Peter’s exact words, but these were the ideas and feelings communicated—and something in that letter inspired the cardinal, because we know for certain that he quickly nominated Peter as the next ruler of God’s Church on earth.

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