Book Week: The Pope Who Quit by Jon M. Sweeney

PopeWhoQuitThose of you who know my interests in history won’t be surprised at all that I was eager to read a book about Pope Celestine V, elected in 1294. And with the recent resignation of Pope Benedict, Celestine’s abdication has been mentioned in news stories, editorials, and blogs around the world.

From the time I first heard of this book, a year or more before its 2012 publication, I felt an affinity with Sweeney. I spent years researching the events surrounding Celestine’s election and resignation, as I’m sure Sweeney did. And considering the wide-ranging sources and research on the subject, it’s not too surprising that we came to slightly different conclusions about some of the characters involved.

The book is essentially a biography of Peter of Morrone, who took the name Celestine as pope. Thorough, well-written, and not too densely academic, I enjoyed reading it very much–burning my Nook late into a few nights to finish it. Little is known about Celestine’s early life, and even up to middle age he was a man of obscurity, seeking a life of isolation. Sweeney presents this unusual life in a well-0rganized yet lively way.

My disappointments came with his presentation of corollary characters: namely, the succeeding pope, Boniface VIII, and the King most directly involved with Celestine, King Charles II of Naples. I admit, I have a bias against Boniface. (I am certainly not alone in this.)

My fists went up in the prologue when Sweeney describes Boniface (Cardinal Benedict Gaetani, prior to becoming pope) as Celestine’s “trusted adviser”. I suppose, technically, this is true. Celestine trusted his advice on various things, and depended on his help in carrying out his desire to resign. But in light of the subsequent betrayal–imprisoning Celestine for the rest of his life–the term “trusted adviser” stuck in my craw.

Then there is the negative portrayal of the king of Naples, Charles II. Here is a weak king, and a man at the mercy of the papacy. An earlier pope had established Charles’ father as “King of Naples” in exchange for fighting some of the papacy’s worldly battles, and his kingdom (which initially included the island of Sicily) was subject to the pope as overlord. Charles II himself spent years as a prisoner of war in those battles. While Sweeney presents Charles as manipulating Celestine, he omits entirely the fact that Charles’s three sons, including his heir, were prisoners in Aragon for the previous five years. Only the pope could confirm a treaty to free them, and by the time Celestine was elected, there had been a vacancy for more than two years in the papacy. The previous pope flatly refused to approve the treaty that both kings involved had agreed to. I view Charles as a man desperate to free his sons, and doing all he can to gain influence with the one man who can help him.

Yes, I know. I’ve slipped from book review to historical rant. As you can see, what happened in history is far from settled, even though the events are long past. The true motivations of those involved are rarely known with certainty, and always subject to nuances of interpretation.

The end notes are thorough and interesting, mentioning numerous of Sweeney’s sources. There is no bibliography or index, but that’s not unusual in a book presented for public rather than scholarly interest. I most appreciate Sweeney bringing Celestine into the public view, more than he has been in a while. And I suppose I should thank the former Pope, Benedict, for his recent resignation which revived the interest in Celestine even more.

The Pope Who Quit is a worthwhile read for anyone with an interest in the thirteenth century, church history, or the medieval Kingdom of Sicily/Kingdom of Naples.


Anagni: Walk through the city with me..

This entry gate to the city of Anagni looks like a great portal for time travel to me. And it’s easy to feel you’ve been transported to the medieval era in Anagni, as so much of that period is preserved.

The city has very ancient origins, and was part of a confederation attacked and defeated by Rome in 306BC. Since that time, Anagni has been an ally of Rome, and a strong supporter of the Roman church. It became an important city during the Middle Ages, and in one 100-year span covering the 13th century, four men from Anagni were elected pope.

On an outer wall of the city’s cathedral hangs a statue of the most famous of those popes, Boniface VIII. You can see it in the upper right corner of this photo.

Boniface’s palace is open for tours, and as we walked through it I could imagine the lavish furnishings this wealthy, powerful man might have enjoyed there. Today the contents are quite sparse, but there are remnants of the thirteenth century paint on some of the walls, in a pattern that reminded me of wallpaper.

The city is open for auto traffic, with many one-way streets and tight spaces. I was glad we found a parking spot outside the walls, and walked through the narrow lanes. Walking also allowed us to take in more of the atmosphere, even though the chilly rain dampened us a bit.

The cathedral has beautiful Cosmati tile work on the floor, and the crypt is decorated with Romanesque/Byzantine frescoes in brilliant color and very well preserved.

The modern buildings surrounding it stand in stark contrast to the medieval center of Anagni. I recommend a visit for history lovers, and anyone interested in medieval buildings and design.

Book Review: The Stones of Naples

Sometimes I think that only a nerd like me would be fascinated by a book subtitled “Church Building in Angevin Italy, 1266-1343”. But I’m glad to know there are enough nerds like me around that the author, Caroline Bruzelius, and the publisher, Yale University Press, decided to produce it.

The Stones of Naples is filled with stories of why and how various churches were built in Naples during the first three generations of Angevin rule there, 1266 to 1343. The social history is tied to the architectural history to answer questions I didn’t even know I had! And I have plenty of questions about these Angevins–for some reason their story resonates with me.

The book is academic, filled with minutiae about builders and stone, about bishops and their political persuasions, about monastic influences on the royal family members, and their influence on one another. There are several appendices, and pages of end notes, a lengthy bibliography, and detailed index.

But the academic burden (which it might seem to some readers) is lightened by a few other inclusions. Right up front there are maps, a city plan of Naples, and a genealogical chart of the Angevins. The large-format book contains many photos (too few in color, but there are many) and illustrations of church floor plans, construction elements, and decor. And the cover is beautiful, featuring detail from the Tavola Strozzi, showing a view of Naples in 1465 commemorating the Aragonese victory.

Although Naples itself figures heavily in the Angevin church construction, locations throughout southern Italy are mentioned or discussed.

I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in southern Italy of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It helps me understand the events and the atmosphere of the period, and develop a clearer picture of medieval Naples.

BOOKS: Must have this book!

For people like me, with a freakish interest in the medieval Angevin Kingdom of Naples, there are some books we must have. Only recently I learned that a Bible has surfaced, after mouldering for half a millennium in the Low Countries somewhere, a Bible which was created at the court of Robert the Wise in Naples, and presented to his granddaughter Joanna, who would succeed him to the throne of Naples and rule for more than forty years.

The Anjou Bible: A Royal Manuscript Revealed was published last year by Peeters Publishers. At 350 pages, it weighs 4-1/2 pounds and costs about $100.

I don’t care. I want it.

All the illuminated folios are reproduced in the book, as well as information about the illuminator who signed the work in the early 1300s. Historical information about the Angevin dynasty in Naples–a family I have researched for more than 25 years–sounds as beautiful to me as the illuminations.

The fourteenth century Bible is now owned by the University of Leuven in Belgium, the oldest existing Catholic university in the world. The manuscript was disassembled, cleaned, digitized, and displayed for twelve weeks  in 2010 before being rebound and returned to the vaults for long-term storage.

This book is definitely on my Christmas list!!

A Castle Tour to Remember: Fumone

Ever arrive at a hotel or bed and breakfast and immediately regret making the reservation? We had a close call like that when trying to cram in lots of research into a short amount of time.

The research subject was Pope Celestine V—you’ve seen his name on this blog before. He resigned as pope in 1294, and was promptly taken prisoner by his successor, Pope Boniface VIII, to prevent Celestine’s friends from claiming that his resignation was coerced. (I don’t believe it was.) Boniface sent the former pope to the castle of Fumone, on a hilltop two hours north of Naples, where he died in 1296.

We phoned the day before our visit, and a man with a fine command of the English language assured us there were tours available in English, and even overnight accommodations. As our travel times were uncertain, we decided to play it loose and didn’t reserve a room.
Fumone’s hilltop fortress, between Rome and Naples.

Fumone is a spectacular sample of a medieval hilltop fortress, with parking outside the walls, and narrow twisting cobblestone streets.  We parked and walked through the gates in mid-afternoon, eager to find the castle inside the fortress, and begin our tour. We enjoyed wandering through the streets, but could not find the castle entrance, nor any real help finding it, because the
town was pretty deserted.

Darkness was falling by the time we knocked—and waited—at the castle door. It looked like no one was home, but after a few minutes a light came on, and a young man of Pakistani or maybe Indian origin opened the door. When we explained we wanted a tour in English, he reluctantly invited us to step into the entryway, then yelled up the stairs to an older man of similar origin, in a language we did not understand. They argued, apparently about who would be stuck showing us around, and the older man lost, so off we went with him. He turned lights off as we left the entry, and lights on as we came to each new room, so it seemed that whatever room we were in was the only lighted room in the castle. A little eerie.

As our guide began to describe…  ?? What was he saying? We came to realize he was speaking English, but with his thick south Asian accent, pretty much everything required two or three repetitions for us to understand. Our first stop was the chapel built adjacent to the “cell” where Pope Celestine spent his last months. The chapel was built at a later date, from the room which housed Celestine’s companions during his imprisonment. On the chapel wall hangs a shadowbox style reliquary containing relics of various saints and holy objects, and in true Roman Catholic style, it contains a relic of Celestine himself—a tooth.

Then, in dramatic tones our guide says there is another very sad story connected to the castle’s history, and it is difficult for some people. Are we sure we want to see it? Yes?  He leads us to another room with a portrait on the wall of a mother and child. This woman and her husband had only daughters, and prayed for a son. They were overjoyed when their prayer was answered, but their daughters knew very well that their brother would inherit all the family’s wealth. They poisoned their brother. But the mother, unable to part with her son, kept his body preserved (we are directed to look at a closed cabinet) so she could always be
near him. Inside the cupboard we are shown a glass case holding said child, and his little wardrobe of clothes and toys stored with him.

Then there is the virgin’s well…. I’m just going to let you read about that on the castle’s website here:

We no longer had any interest in lodging at the castle, even though lodging at castles is always an enthralling prospect for me. No, we completed the tour, made our way down the hill in the dark, and were glad to find a room at a dreary, cold hotel a few miles away.

BOOK REVIEW: The Lady Queen by Nancy Goldstone

Nancy Goldstone touches on my favorite era of southern Italian history–the Angevin period–in her book The Lady Queen: The Notorious Reign of Joanna I, Queen of Naples, Jerusalem, and Sicily. Goldstone’s lively prose brings Joanna to life and immerses the reader in the challenges and triumphs of her exceptional reign of nearly forty years.

Joanna was born in 1326, during the rule of her grandfather, Robert the Wise. Joanna’s father died when she was two years old, leaving her heiress to the kingdom. Soon afterwards, her mother died, and Joanna was raised in the court at Naples.

At 17, she became Queen when her grandfather died. Threats to her rule came from within and without her kingdom, persisting through four marriages, and Joanna faced them with courage. Goldstone engages her readers as she presents background and historical context which add significance to Joanna’s accomplishments.

The book is written for a general audience, but the endnotes, bibliography, and detailed index provide guidance for further study of the reign of Joanna and the lives of those who influenced her. If all history was written like this book, a lot more people would be interested!

According to her website,, she is working on a book about Joan of Arc which is expected out in 2012. The Lady Queen was published by Walker Publishing in 2009. I can also recommend the book Four Queens, which touches on southern Italy. In Four Queens, Goldstone tells the story of four daughters of the Count of Provence who all became queens during the 13th century. One of them, Beatrice, married Charles of Anjou who later became King of Naples.

Goldstone shares her enthusiasm for Joanna in a YouTube video which also appears on her website: