Diseases and causes of death among the Popes

Diseases and causes of death among the Popes

By Francois Retief and Louise P. Cilliers

Acta Theologica, Vol.26:2 (2006)

Abstract: The causes of death of popes are reviewed in the light of existing knowledge, and analysed in terms of four periods: First Period (64-604) Early Middle Ages (604-1054), Late Middle Ages and Renaissance (1054-1492), and Post-Renaissance (1492-2000). Among those who died of natural causes, multi-disease pathology was commonly present as is to be expected in an older population group, and acute terminal febrile illnesses, malaria, stroke, severe heart disease, gout or poly-arthritis, terminal kidney disease, gallstones, cancer, dysentery, the plague, lung infection, gangrene of a leg, abscesses, depression or debilitating psychiatric illness. Unnatural causes comprise inter alia assassination, death in prison or in exile, casualties of war or public violence, poisoning and stoning during street violence. This study covers the time period up to the year 2005.

Introduction: The word “pope” is derived from the Greek for “father”, the head of the family as well as of religious congregations. Thus senior priests and bishops were also addressed by this term in ancient times. From the 5th century AD it was increasingly applied to the Bishop of Rome, and after the 8th century exclusively so. As pope, the Bishop of Rome was head of the international Christian church. With the passage of time, events such as the schism with the Eastern Church (from the 6th century), the Reformation, and the royal revolt of the English Church in the 16th century, split Christianity into factions, with the consequence that the pope ultimately became the head of what we today term the Roman Catholic church.

Over the past two millennia the papacy has come full circle in terms of power and influence. In the 1st century AD it came into being under difficult circumstances as a purely spiritual institution with a limited sphere of influence. During the Middle Ages its status and in particular its secular power and its material wealth increased immensely, up to and including the Renaissance, after which the emphasis on spiritual leadership was gradually restored, so that today we again have popes who are purely religious leaders.

There have been 263 popes in all, 78 of whom have been posthumously canonised as saints. There were also 39 “anti-popes” who acted unlawfully as popes, and two of these were also eventually canonised. Only four popes abdicated voluntarily. The overwhelming majority of the popes (194) were Italian (77 of them from Rome), but their number also included thirteen Frenchmen, fifteen Greeks, eight Germans, seven Syrians, three Sicilians, two Sardinians and two Spaniards. Two popes came from North Africa, and one each from England, Portugal, Holland, Poland, Palestine, Burgundy and Dalmatia. One pope was a Goth, and nine were of uncertain ancestry. The 13th-century story of a female Pope Joan is a complete fiction.

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