Post-classical history



As news of Peter Morrone’s election spread across Italy, the responses were shock and surprise. Peter didn’t at all fit the profile of a holy pontiff. For one, he was an almost complete outsider. He wasn’t the son or nephew of a previous pope, or a member of the Roman curia. He was not known as a man of intellect or scholarship—or one of Plato’s “philosopher kings.” He was no Gregory the Great, known for his erudition and the Commentary on Job he wrote while he was a monk, long before he was elected (in 590C.E.). Peter also wasn’t known for drama or, particularly, passion.

Peter Morrone was an adept organizer and leader, but one whom few other men of importance had heard from in years. Among the hierarchy of the Church he had a reputation for being simpleminded. Few of his contemporaries would have ever imagined he would become pope. Every man of religious influence knew, or was soon to learn, that Peter had recently retired to a hermitage high in the mountains, dissociating himself from the daily routine of running a religious order that had preoccupied the middle part of his life.

By the time he came to write the letter to Cardinal Latino Malabranca, Peter had founded or come to control dozens of monasteries throughout the Abruzzi and Molise. He had made the Santo Spirito of Morrone, near Sulmona, the motherhouse and then had retreated once again to live as an eremite in the highest mountains overlooking the monastery. This was the setting in which he had expected to end his days.

If there had been odds-makers in thirteenth-century Europe, the chances of Peter’s filling Nicholas IV’s seat would have stood at about 125 to 1. Simply in terms of name recognition, the philosopher and theologian Roger Bacon would have stood at better odds of being elected, even though he too was eighty years old in the spring of 1294, was English, and had been accused of heresy two decades earlier. Raymond of Gaufredi and Etienne of Besancon, minister-general and master of the Franciscans and Dominicans, respectively, would have been clear options as well. Cardinals Matthew Orsini and James Colonna, the most powerful men of the two competing families, would have been the likely favorites.

In 490 B.C.E., according to a legend repeated by Herodotus, an Athenian man ran the 150 miles from Athens to Sparta in less than a day and a half to spread the word of the Greek victory at the battle of Marathon. But news traveled more slowly in thirteenth-century Italy than it had more than 1,500 years earlier at the height of Greek civilization. The Greeks and Romans had built a system of roads that were unrivaled until after the Renaissance. State messengers did the work of spreading news, but these roads vanished when the empire broke apart.

In thirteenth-century Italy the average man never traveled more than twenty miles from the place where he was born. A man might never visit a town five miles from his own if a mountain stood between them. News traveled as fast as a man or a horse could walk. Rarely were there roads that led directly from one city to the next, unless the distance was short. More commonly, one might journey for days around mountains before meeting up with a road that then led toward one’s destination. Religious news of this sort—the election of a supreme pontiff—was more highly regarded than most news, but it never traveled fast. Word was passed along by friars walking from one city or region to another, by soldiers coming and going to and from campaigns, and by merchants making trips to sell their goods.

News would have traveled to Rome first of all the cities of Italy, for there were always travelers going to and from the Holy City. The people of Venice would have learned quickly, too, for it was the wealthiest city in all of Europe by this time, and in 1288 the city had established a coordinated plan for formal ambassadors and envoys to give and receive news from abroad.1 But it would be weeks or months before the news reached farther-flung communes, friaries, monasteries, dignitaries, governments, and towns. It is no surprise, then, that there were no dignitaries present when Peter learned the news of his election. Few people knew of it. But it is surprising that none of the members of the Sacred College seem to have made plans for a quick trip to see their new leader, to bring news of God’s will for the Church. Not a single cardinal joined the mission to tell Peter Morrone the news, yet at least one world leader did.

Some have suggested that Charles II visited Peter in the mountains before Peter ever wrote his fateful letter to Cardinal Malabranca. The idea was that Charles prodded the hermit to use his spiritual authority to wake the sleeping cardinal-electors into action.2 We know that immediately upon his ideas being rejected by the cardinals at the March meeting in Perugia, Charles then spent April 6–7 in Sulmona, below the monastery of Santo Spirito, donating fifty gold florins to support the monks’ work.3 Regardless of whether it is fact or fiction that Charles and Peter communicated before Peter wrote his letter to the Sacred College, there is no doubt that Charles was delighted by Peter’s election from the moment he received the news at the palace in Melfi, which his father had taken from the German Hohenstaufen kings.

An older man is often elected pope during a time of conflict and trouble in the Church, when it is perceived that what is most needed is a man of solid reputation, one who also won’t be around for very long. This thinking certainly played a part in the cardinal-electors’ agreeing on Peter. Choosing Peter was also a way of steering clear of the factions that existed within the Sacred College. He was believed to have no distinct loyalties to either the Orsinis or the Colonnas.

Could he inspire the world by his moral authority? He would have to be bold. A pope could not rule with only a staff. He would need a stick. He would need to be able to wield power and influence and play a serious role in the politics of the day.

The Holy See had been a player on the world stage for centuries before the thirteenth century—since the emperor Constantine (306–12 C.E.) made Christianity the religion of the empire. Before Constantine’s time, the Christian faith was outlawed and owning property or having any secular authority at all was unthinkable for Christians. According to legend, Constantine granted Pope Sylvester I (314–35) and his successors control over the city of Rome and the western half of the Roman Empire.

The supposed Roman imperial decree known as Constantine’s Donation, written sometime in the eighth century, went undetected as a fake until the early fifteenth century. Today we know that this fictional “Donation of Constantine” never actually happened. The fourth-century emperor never donated anything more than the Lateran Palace to the papacy. Yet this myth was upheld for centuries, and in 751 Saint Boniface crowned the German ruler Pepin the Short, and Pepin returned the honor by donating the lands around Ravenna to the growing papal territories. Then twenty years later Pope Adrian I (772–95) asked the emperor Charlemagne to be as virtuous as Constantine and Pepin had been and donate additional land. This included Tuscany, Lombardy, and the island of Corsica. By 1054, Pope Leo IX was using the Constantine Donation to bolster his claims for controlling vast swaths of land. “[I]n a letter of 1054 to Michael Cærularius, Patriarch of Constantinople, he cites the ‘Donatio’ to show that the Holy See possessed both an earthly and a heavenly imperium, the royal priesthood.”4 By the time of Pope Gregory VII (1073–85) the papacy had begun to define itself by the territory of the Papal States, calling these lands its divine inheritance, terra sancti Petri, or “the sacred land of Peter.”

The Habsburg monarch Rudolf I would donate all of Romagna to the Holy See in 1278, by which time the Donation was widely acknowledged and became the basis for Church authorities to add future landholdings. Henceforth the largest landholder in all of Italy would be whoever was pope, and he could presume all manner of power, including taxation and commanding armies. For most of three-quarters of a millennium the lands of the Papal States encompassed much of what is present-day Italy. Today Vatican City is all that is left of this medieval theocracy.

The modern notion of a pope who is only, or even primarily, a spiritual leader would have been completely foreign to the understanding of people of Peter Morrone’s day. The pope was the chief spiritual authority of the Church, but since a few centuries before Peter Morrone the bishop of Rome had also been the world’s most powerful Christian—if not, also, the world’s most powerful man.

Did the cardinals who elected Peter believe that the hermit pope would understand these distinctions? Did they believe that he would be able to rule with the strong and certain hand that would be required? How would he relate to world leaders?

Much of the surprise at Peter’s election centered on the fact that no one knew him to be even an observer of world events. He was certainly no Leo the Great, the early pope who not only met Attila face-to-face in 452, but then somehow convinced the Hun not to invade Italy. Peter was shut away in his hermitage. One of our great novelists, Cormac McCarthy, wrote in Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West: “The man who believes that the secrets of this world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear.” This would seem to characterize Peter. What he desired to know, and knew most deeply, with the greatest certainty, was what he learned in prayer. The affairs of the world had never much concerned him.

There have been many who believed that the election of Peter Morrone was nothing less than a miracle. It had the stuff of divine inspiration. Even the name that Peter took for himself as pope, Celestine, suggests that he believed celestial powers had guided the cardinal-electors. As a star led wise men to the Son of God in Bethlehem 1,300 years earlier, divine intelligence could have led the College of Cardinals to choose him. Like a divining rod, the Holy Spirit pointed them toward the man destined to lead the Church out of its corruption and compromises, and into a new era. Hope was discovered as one might find treasure buried in a field.

Did the cardinals believe that this hermit wouldn’t be a nuisance as so many of his predecessors were? It would be easy to pull the strings of an octogenarian pope, and his reign wouldn’t last very long anyway. Inspiration may have guided the Sacred College, but so did the idea among some of them that they were buying time until they could each gather the wherewithal to get their own man in.

But he would puzzle them. Devout and introverted, Peter Morrone was also strident and charismatic. Known to be short-tempered, he came with all of the trappings of a man who was meek. The man who would be crowned Pope Celestine V was one of the greatest bundles of contradictions that the world has ever seen.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!