20 Reasons Why Pope John XII was the Worst Pope in History
20 Reasons Why Pope John XII was the Worst Pope in History

20 Reasons Why Pope John XII was the Worst Pope in History

Tim Flight - April 29, 2019

20 Reasons Why Pope John XII was the Worst Pope in History
An anti-clerical illustration showing Reynard the Fox hypocritically preaching to some foolish birds, France, c.1300-40. Wikimedia Commons

4. John’s Lateran Council were delighted when Otto demanded they find a new pope, since he never celebrated mass properly and was an all-round bad egg

Though his quarry had eluded him, Otto wouldn’t head home empty handed. He called an unofficial Synod as soon as he arrived, in which the many crimes of John would finally be examined. John was summoned three times, but refused to cut short his hunting expedition. In his absence Otto presided over the meeting, which is why it’s still seen by some church historians as an unofficial Synod. But if John had been there, we might never have found out the details of his colourful life, for the witnesses certainly didn’t hold back in their testimony.

Snarling with rage, Otto heard the charges against John elaborated in excruciating detail. John’s own cardinals explained how he never took communion before celebrating mass (incredibly sacrilegious), didn’t observe canonical hours, and had committed the offences we’ve already seen above. In sum, reliable witnesses swore that young John was a murderer, gambler, whoremongerer, idolater, adulterer, and arsonist also guilty of incest. In his absence, he was deposed on December 4 963, and the Lateran Council consecrated one of its own members, the much better-qualified Leo, Pope on the same day. But John wasn’t finished yet…

20 Reasons Why Pope John XII was the Worst Pope in History
John caused a bloody riot not unlike the later St Bartholomew’s Day Riot depicted by Francois Dubois, Switzerland, c.1572-84. Wikimedia Commons

3. John responded to being summoned by threatening to excommunicate everyone at the Synod, and started a riot by offering a bounty for Otto’s head

John’s reaction to the summons was typically measured and proportionate. He wrote back to his Lateran Council to inform them he would not be attending, thundering that the Synod was illegal and threatening to excommunicate everyone present. And then he put down his quill (we know it was his quill as the letter’s Latin grammar is absolutely terrible), jumped on his horse, and went off hunting again. But he also found time to have a bit of a think about the future, and decided to offer a huge sum of money in exchange for Otto’s head on a plate.

Otto, as a German, was very unpopular in Rome, and people were so desperate to collect the bounty on his head that a riot was soon underway. Otto quashed the rebellion with brute strength, making him even more unpopular. Poor old Leo was also widely-despised just because Otto had backed him as Pope, and was left on very shaky ground in the aftermath. It says something of John’s ridiculous character that he didn’t simply do a bolter with the Vatican wealth and settle in a neutral land, but instead decided to fight the older, wiser, and much more powerful Otto.

20 Reasons Why Pope John XII was the Worst Pope in History
Pope Leo VIII, Nuremberg, 1493. Wikimedia Commons

2. As soon as Otto left, John returned to Rome, mutilating his opponents and ousting his replacement, Pope Leo VIII

Instead of taking the more sensible course, John made preparations to return to Rome. Otto left the city shortly after the riot on January 4 964, leaving Pope Leo cowering in the Vatican Palace (presumably now free of prostitutes). John was back in Rome by mid-January, and incredibly, despite his terrible reign as Pope up to that date, the locals decided they liked him better than Otto and Leo. With tumultuous Romans hot on his tail, Leo fled to Otto’s court. John now took vengeance on those who denounced him the previous December, torturing and hacking them to death.

Otto’s reactions hitherto are uncertain, but he can’t have been happy. But what really made his blood boil was a Synod held on February 26 964. Here John excommunicated Pope Leo and, most foolishly, overruled the acts of the Synod that Otto had presided over when he was given the sack and deemed it illegal. Unable to tolerate this fresh attack on his authority by the troublesome priest, Otto marched with his army on Rome, this time no doubt dreaming of having John flayed alive. John took the hint, and went to hide out in Campagna that April.

20 Reasons Why Pope John XII was the Worst Pope in History
The death of John XII by Franco Cesat, Rome, 1861. Wikimedia Commons

1. Thankfully, only a few months later he was fatally injured by another man after being caught in bed with his wife

As well as keeping a low-profile, John tried one last gamble: he sent Otgar, Bishop of Speyer, a member of Otto’s beloved German church, to broker an agreement with the king. But before Otgar managed to catch up with the Holy Roman Emperor, John was dead anyway. All sources agree that he was in bed with a married woman when his 9 years of stupidity and incompetence ended. Death came either in the form of a blow from the woman’s irate husband or simply a stroke: either the hand of a man or the Hand of God, in other words.

One can only imagine what would have happened to John if Otto had got his massive hands on him. Given his strong Catholic faith, it’s unlikely Otto would have had the Pope executed, for he was content to sack John rather than arrested and slain after the Synod of 963. Nonetheless, medieval prisons were notoriously unhygienic, and so perhaps Otto would have chucked him in one and let him contract dysentery. But it’s here our story ends: Pope John went out doing what he loved best, and has proved a headache for defenders of Papal Infallibility ever since.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Dynes, Wayne R., ed. Encyclopedia of Homosexuality. London: St. James, 1990.

Herbermann, Charles George, ed. The Catholic Encyclopedia. London: Caxton, 1907-1922.

Kelly, J.N.D. The Oxford Dictionary of Popes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Mann, Horace K. The Lives of the Popes in the Early Middle Ages, Forgotten Books, 1910.

McBrien, Richard P. Lives of the Popes: The Pontiffs from St. Peter to John Paul II. San Francisco: Harper, 2000.

Wickham, Chris. Early Medieval Italy: Central Power and Local Society, 400-1000. London: Macmillan, 1981.

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