By J.H. Denton
Toleration and repression in the Middle Ages (2002)
Introduction: Personal attacks upon political and religious leaders, in whatever age they have taken place, may help us to understand the kinds of behaviour not tolerated in that age. But the evidence surrounding such attacks is rarely easy to interpret. A campaign of vilification against Boniface VIII, pope from 1294 to 1303, emerged very soon after he ascended the papal throne. It began in the papal court with the disaffected cardinals, James and Peter Colonna, and it quickly spread to the French court, where William Nogaret became the leading anti-papal protagonist.
During his life and after his death, over a period of thirteen years, Boniface was accused of many misdemeanours in detailed sets of complaints. He was publicly maligned in large meetings held in Paris in 1303, and, as the first stage in an abortive posthumous trial, depositions of witnesses were taken in 1310 and 1311. The evidence concerning this extraordinary attack upon the pope has recently been meticulously edited by Jean Coste in a major work which, in respect of the texts specifically relating to the sets of complaints, supersedes the time-honoured collection of Pierre Dupuy.
Taken as a whole the accusations seem to present a very detailed picture of beliefs and practices judged unacceptable. Do they provide direct evidence of what contemporaries found intolerable in a religious leader? The pope was charged with crude, insulting and menacing behaviour, with hypocrisy, sacrilege, blasphemy, idolatry, demonolatry, black magic and necromancy. In the government of the Church he was accused of oppressing Christians, working as an enemy of peace for the destruction of the Church and of the faith and the perdition of souls. His personal morality was exposed as scandalous: he was accused of sodomy, with adults as well as with children, and of keeping male concubines, and of adultery and incest.