In response to:
Murder in the Monastery? from the July 21, 1983 issue
To the Editors:
Every experienced writer is aware of the dangers involved in a spontaneous speculative aside to an otherwise carefully organized piece of scholarly prose. Imagine, then, my surprise when I read the following parenthetical expression in Richard Ellmann’s review of The Name of the Rose [NYR, July 21]: “…that dubious pope John XXII (whose name no other pope would take until the twentieth century).”
In point of fact, however, that name was taken less than a century later than the death of John XXII by Baldassarre Cossa upon his election to the papacy as John XXIII on May 17, 1410. Thus, John joined the illustrious company of Rome’s Gregory XII (1406-1415) and the Pope in Avignon, Benedict XIII (1394-1424). Infamous for his unscrupulousness and his ambition, Cossa was forced by the Council of Constance to abdicate on May 29, 1415, and he and Benedict were declared Anti-Popes. After a three year imprisonment in the Palatine, with his old enemy the Elector Ludwig III as his jailer, Cossa returned to Italy, where he threw himself on the mercy of Pope Martin V. He died as the Cardinal-Bishop of Tusculum on December 22, 1419.
State University of New York
Stony Brook, New York
Richard Ellmann replies:
According to no less an authority on the Papacy than Oscar Wilde, Pope John XXII died a shameful death. After the death of his predecessor, the College of Cardinals could not agree on anyone, and in desperation fixed on a young priest of a little church in the Campagna. Since he was only twenty years old, he fell in love. The young wife of an elderly noble gradually responded to him. Wilde attests, “At first they loved with the love that dies—the love of the soul for the soul; and then they loved with the love that never dies—the love of the body for the body.”
In the Vatican, however, opportunities were few. They agreed to meet in a little villa in the Campagna belonging to the lady’s husband, and Pope John was duly furnished with the key to the postern gate. Early on the appointed day, the Pope dressed as a Roman noble, and rode into the Campagna. But on the way, he saw in the distance the little church of which he had so recently been priest. It was early and he had time to spare. He tethered his horse and went in. The fancy took him to don the priest’s vestments and to sit in the confessional as so often before. Suddenly the door opened and a man entered in a state of great agitation.
“Father,” he said, “I have a question to ask of you.”
“Speak, my son,” said Pope John, “What is it that you would know?”
“Is there,” said the man, “any sin so great that Christ Himself could not absolve me from it?”
“Nay, my son, there is no such sin. But what grievous sin have you committed that you ask me this?”
“I have committed no sin,” said the man, “but I am about to commit a sin so deadly that I do not think that even Christ Himself could absolve me. I am about to kill the Vicar of Christ upon Earth, Pope John the Twenty-Second”.
“Even from this sin could Christ absolve you,” said Pope John. The man left.
The Pope proceeded on his journey, opened the postern gate of the villa with his key, and saw his lady awaiting him in the garden. They threw themselves in each other’s arms. Suddenly a figure sprang from among the trees and drove a dagger into the Pope’s back. He fell to the ground, dying. With a supreme effort he raised his hand and gasped, “Quod ego possum et tu eges, absolve te.” This, according to Wilde, was the shameful death of Pope John the Twenty-Second.
It seems clear from Wilde’s historical account that no Pope could have taken the name of John until the twentieth century, by which time the shame would have subsided.