Reviewed by Elizabeth DACHOWSKI, Tennessee State University, NASVILLE, TN 37209
Agostino Paravicini-Bagliani's study of the pope's body seeks to do for the papacy what Ernst Kantorowicz's The King's Two Bodies did for kingship. Kantorowicz argued that the medieval king had two distinct characters, one as the hereditary holder of a public office and the other as an ordinary man. The first is an on-going presence, not limited by the mortality of the second. "The king is dead; long live the king" sums up this view of the continuity of the royal office. Paravicini-Bagliani, following the theory of the German historian Reinhard Elze, argues that the body of the pope cannot be understood in the same way. Because the pope does not inherit from a blood relative, the death of a pope necessitates an election. In the interval, the office (though itself eternal) is vacant. The tension arises when considering the eternity of the office and the mortality of each individual pope. A better analogy might be with theories of imperial power, which is elective rather than strictly hereditary.
The interest in the body of the pope arose only gradually in the middle and later Middle Ages. Paravicini-Bagliani sees the most important developments in the debate over the pope's body occurring from the eleventh-century through the end of the thirteenth century. He briefly touches on centuries before and since, but argues that the political and religious developments of this core period gave the question a new urgency and led to the institutionalization of the rituals which defined the pope's role in the Church. Paravicini-Bagliani suggests that because the reformers of the eleventh century defined the pope as the incarnation of the Church, they and subsequent generations of churchmen needed to control and define the pope's physical presence through ritual.
The first and third sections of this work concern the body of the living pope. Paravicini-Bagliani begins by considering the problem of "Peter's Years." The eleventh-century writer, Peter Damian discovered that the apostle Peter, the first to hold the office, had been pope for twenty-five years, and that no pope since had held office for that length of time. Even those elevated to the papacy at a relatively young age had failed to reach Peter's years. (This remained true until the nineteenth century.) Damian argued that popes lived more intense lives than other mortals, and that this accounted for their shorter life spans. From that point onward, Paravicini-Bagliani chronicles a growing interest in the physical well-being of the pope. Through the twelfth and thirteenth centuries popes were increasingly likely to have court physicians, remove the papal court from Rome during the summer months (when malaria was common), commission alchemical treatises on prolonging life, and take elixirs designed to prolong life. Likewise, rituals and symbolism grew up during this time to define the Church's position toward the pope's body. Popes were routinely reminded of their own mortality upon ascending the pontificate. One such ceremony involved burning flax to remind the pope of the transience of worldly things. In another ritual, a stone mason would approach the newly consecrated pope and request that he select the material for his tomb. Nevertheless, the pope also began in this period to claim more religious authority, calling himself the vicar of Christ (a title previously used by the emperor while the pope claimed to be the vicar of Peter). Other practices emphasized the Christ-like nature of the pope. The pope was expected to wear white next to his skin to symbolize purity and red outer garments to symbolize Christ's suffering and compassion.
Paravicini-Bagliani devotes the second section of his study to the death of the pope. When the pope died, it created a crisis, a "moment of terror," in the Christian west. With the office of Christ's vicar empty, many saw the Church as headless. Although theologians argued that the Church and Christ were eternal and not affected by the death of a mere man, the populace of Rome often reacted to the death of the pope violently, by sacking the papal palace. Only with the extended removal of the papacy from Rome, according to Paravicini-Bagliani, was the traditional vandalism surrounding the pope's death discontinued. Meanwhile, other rituals arose to define the pope's passage from being the living Vicar of Christ to being in death a mere man. These included rituals for temporarily passing on the power of the pope to other Vatican officials, rituals for washing and dressing the body of the deceased pope, and the public funeral of the pope. Within this context, the need for criteria for determining the legitimacy of the papal election should not be surprising. By the late fourteen century the length of time between burial of one pope and election of his successor had lengthened from three days to nine days, sufficient time to allow for an extended mourning period and performance of increasingly complex funerary rituals.
The fourth and last section of The Pope's Body examines the papacy of Boniface VIII. Paravicini-Bagliani argues that Boniface VIII solidified and intensified the trends of the previous century and a half. Compared to previous popes, he was more likely to have court physicians, fear poisoning, take up summer residence outside of Rome, and take elixirs to prolong his life. Furthermore, he commissioned several important artworks which glorified the papacy generally but also associated his image with the eternal power of the papacy more closely than any pope had done previously. One important motive for this, according to Paravicini-Bagliani, came from the circumstances surrounding Boniface's election. Unlike other popes, Boniface VIII did not become pope following the death of his predecessor. Celestine V had abdicated his papacy for religious and political reasons. Therefore, the usual funerary rituals which preceded a legitimate election had to be dispensed with. Furthermore, "there was some fear that [Celestine V] might retract his renunciation of the papacy" (p. 219). In these circumstances, Boniface VIII used every means at his disposal to establish himself as the legitimate occupant of the papal palace.
Overall, this is a well-researched, logically argued, and thoughtful piece of scholarship, though one with some minor flaws. Paravicini-Bagliani's previous work on the papacy, cardinals, and medieval medicine means that he is intimately acquainted with a wealth of primary sources. He is also well-grounded in the historiographical tradition of institutional history. Although he frequently touches on popular beliefs and practices, however, his interest in this subject is clearly tangential at best. Neither in his text, nor his notes is there an extended consideration of popular attitudes towards death, the body, or the papacy. Neither does Paravicini-Bagliani seem particularly interested in new theoretical approaches to the body. Except for a brief allusion to the legend of Pope Joan, he does not acknowledge the fact that the pope's body is always a male body, nor consider what recent scholarship on bodies, both male and female, might add to his debate. Another aspect of this study which is not fully developed is the parallel between papal and imperial imagery. Although he points out numerous instances in which papal rituals were borrowed from Byzantine practices, he does not follow up on these developments.
Scholars of the medieval papacy will be the main beneficiaries of this study. The detailed descriptions of rituals and the dates of their performance will allow researchers to date medieval phenomena more precisely and provide a firm foundation for future research. Non-researching teachers also might find this useful for fleshing out descriptions of the medieval papacy and providing a more nuanced understanding of the medieval world-view. Students and other interested non-specialists will undoubtedly be fascinated by his descriptions of rituals, mob violence in Rome, and the pleasant summer retreats of the popes. Understanding of Paravicini-Bagliani's larger argument requires a greater familiarity with past scholarship than most lay readers would possess. Finally, this work provides less help to the reader than it could. Anyone reading the text would find no mention of the sixteen plates included in the book. These plates provide useful illustrations of specific points made by the author, but without in-text references the reader might well regard the plates as colorful curiosities rather than integral to the argument. Another flaw in the text from the point of view of the non-specialist is that the author assumes that the reader will be acquainted with the broad outlines of the medieval papacy. He seldom mentions the dates of the popes in the text and glosses over the historical context of their elections and pontificates. He also presents information in a thematic rather than chronological order, but does not always indicate when he has begun a discussion with a later rather than an earlier example. This work would undoubtedly appeal to a wider audience if he had included in an appendix a list of relevant popes with years of pontificate and perhaps a sentence or two on their ethnic origin, notable accomplishments, and circumstances of election.
Despite these flaws, this is an important work of scholarship for anyone interested in the history of the papacy. As the current pope becomes more feeble in body and his possible successor becomes more a subject of popular speculation, the audience for this work can only grow.