Discover more from Dirtbags Through the Ages
a real papal pleaser
Or, the horny and heretical adventures of tenth-century Bad Pope John XII.
Sometimes when I sit down to write a new Dirtbags issue, I come up blank. Sure, I have a page in my bullet journal that’s just a bunch of names of shitty people from history, but sometimes my brainstormed ideas don’t stoke the inspiration fire, you know?
When that happens, I go to my old standby: I google “weird popes” and see what happens. This tactic has yet to fail me, which is why citizens of Dirtbag Nation are no strangers to the weird and inappropriate happenings of the Old-Timey Catholic Papacy. You might, for example, remember these recent hits:
Today, I’m pleased to report that the Well of Papal Shittery is not yet dry. Please give a warm welcome to this issue’s less-than-proper pontiff:
Pope John XII, the Children’s Book of Whose Life Should Have Been Titled If You Give a Horny Teenager the Papacy
We’re whisking ourselves back to the mid-10th century for this story, a time in which Europe was full of wars, the Battle of Hastings had not yet Hastinged, and the papacy was even more unhinged than I fully realized before doing my research for this tale. The story opens in about the year 937, when our hero was born with the given name Octavianus of Spoleto.
His father, a real piece of work named Alberic II, was a high-up noble guy. When he was on his deathbed in 954, Alberic made all of the Roman nobility swear an oath that when the current pope died, they would band together and make Octavianus the next pope. In a turn of events that should surprise no one, given that I brought it up in the first place, the pope passed away shortly after Alberic did, and in 955, Octavianus of Spoleto became Pope John XII at the august old age of 18.
Sidebar: did you know there is STILL NO MINIMUM REQUIRED AGE TO BE POPE? A kindergartener could start driving the popemobile tomorrow and no one could say anything about it. This institution is so unserious.
Anyway. John XII had now inherited his father’s titles, lands, and the entirety of the Catholic Church. And what did he decide to do with it, you ask? A bunch of dumbshit horny teenager antics. Because, as established, he was a dumbshit horny teenager.
You Otto Know
On the political side, John XII went to war with virtually every Italian city-state within screaming distance of the Vatican. He got so aggressive that the Roman nobility started to lose confidence in him—as you would, if a high school senior were repeatedly sending your city to war.
John XII, not to be deterred by voices of reason or moderation, turned outside the Vatican for some help. Specifically, he turned to King Otto I of Germany, a historical figure I know nothing about because reading about ancient Germanic kingdoms makes me want to put my head in a bucket of clam chowder. Anyway, John XII gave Otto the title of Holy Roman Emperor in 960 in exchange for providing security-for-hire services for the Papal States, preventing any of the Roman nobility from doing anything inconveniently coup-shaped.
Now, this could have worked out OK for John XII. Otto was a ferocious warrior, and with their armies combined it would have been pretty tough for any rebellious nobles to overthrow Teen Pope.
It could have. But it didn’t. Explicitly because Pope John XII sucked so bad.
That’s Got to Be the Worst Pope I’ve Ever Seen
We have a truly delightful number of historical records of people explaining just how lousy of a pope John XII was. I’ve grouped the main findings from these records by theme, for ease of reading.
Back in the 10th century, there were no explicit rules against the pope having sex. Celibacy was considered “optional, but highly encouraged” for priests until the Second Lateran Council of 1139, a meeting that must have been a real buzzkill to the cardinals in attendance.
There were, however, implied rules against the pope having sex with so many concubines, sex workers, widows, and other women in the papal residence that people referred to it as the Papal Whorehouse.
Did John XII give a damn about these implied rules? He did not, no.
One of the main requirements of being pope is “being good at Catholic things.” John XII did not entirely meet this qualification. A brief list of heretical things he was accused of doing:
Ordaining a bishop in a horse stable
Drinking toasts to the devil
Taking bribes in exchange for church positions (like, as far as I can tell, every other Renaissance pope ever also did)
Refusing to make the sign of the cross
Praying to other gods
That last one especially cracks me up. You were POPE. You had ONE JOB.
John XII also had a nasty little habit of murdering cardinals. He allegedly blinded his confessor, castrated one of his enemy cardinals, set priests’ houses on fire while riding around Rome on a big horse, and other assorted cardinal murdering techniques. I mean, we all have our unproductive ways of dealing with the daily torment that is living in a society, but this one is a yikes from me.
That Time He Made a 10-Year-Old a Bishop
I have nothing to say about this fact except that, as previously established, there were technically no age requirements for church offices, so I don’t really know what everyone was so steamed about re: Tales of a Fourth Grade Bishop.
It’s worth noting at this point in the story that Otto of Germany was the polar opposite of PJXII’s whole deal. He was extremely pious, as you’d have to be if you personally volunteered to be the pope’s bodyguard. I’m not sure if it was the sexy adventures or the castration or something else, but in 962, Otto was tired of these unholy antics.
He sent a strongly worded letter to Pope John XII asking him, essentially, “are you physically capable of not being a horny unhinged moron for five to seven consecutive business days?” John, of course, was not. So Otto turned around and, in 963, attacked Rome.
Pope John XII, like the whiny little frat boy he was, filled his pockets with treasure and ran away to hide in a neighboring town. Otto finished conquering Rome, then called a conclave where he demanded Pope John XII arrive in person and be held to account for his crimes. The pope did not show up, of course, because of who he was as a pope.
Otto, undeterred, deposed Pope John XII and appointed his successor, Pope Leo VIII. If you’re wondering “Can the Holy Roman Emperor just personally depose the pope and pick a new one?” the answer is no. Which means WE GOT OURSELVES AN ANTIPOPE!
Also important to note: before he was made pope, Pope Leo VIII wasn’t even a priest. He was just some guy. The college of cardinals had to ordain him as a priest and a bishop and a pope on the same day. What in the Real Housewives of Fuck County was going on before the Second Lateran Council, is what I want to know.
The Papal Yeet of 964
You may have noticed that I called him Pope Leo VIII, not Antipope Leo VIII. That’s because Pope John XII died 10 weeks after Leo was unofficially ordained, and the church figured that since it had a perfectly good antipope on hand, there was no reason to go looking for a new guy to make things even more confusing. (The church, you will remember, did not always make that decision.)
So what happened to Pope John XII, you ask? Well, I’m delighted to inform you that the answer is “something very stupid.”
John XII got an army together and rode back to Rome in February 964, where he declared his deposition was noncanonical. It’s a real “You can’t depose me, I depose you!” kind of response, which good on him for trying. He struggled to hold on to power for a few weeks after that, until he died in May under—guess what kind of circumstances? That’s right! Mysterious ones!
The apocryphal story goes that on the day of his death, John XII was loudly and obviously having sex with another man’s wife in her house. Unfortunately for John XII, the husband came home and was not happy.
And by “was not happy,” I mean “threw the literal pope himself out the window to his death several stories below.” As you do.
Alternate explanations suggest that John XII died of a stroke while having sex with this lady, which is almost but not quite as funny as papal defenestration.
Either way, Pope John XII died at age 27 and was buried in the Lateran Palace, where presumably his extremely horny ghost continues to haunt the hallways doing sick ollies over tourists on his ghostly skateboard. Rest in peace, Pope John XII.
Thanks for joining me for what is increasingly becoming “Allison’s Twice-Monthly Pope Musings,” friends. Until next time, be well, and go tell any fourth-graders in your lives that if they try really hard they can become pope tomorrow,