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URI historian pulls back the papal mourning curtains

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Pillaging, sacking once common after a pope died


KINGSTON, R.I. –March 28, 2008—When Pope John Paul II died, tens of thousands of mourners filled St. Peter’s Square to express their sympathy.

What a difference a few centuries make, according to Joëlle Rollo-Koster of Wakefield, professor of history at the University of Rhode Island, whose latest book, Raiding Saint Peter: Empty Sees, Violence, and the Initiation of the Great Western Schism, published this month by Leiden and Boston. (288 pages).

During the Middle Ages, it was common to pillage and sack the goods of a dead pope.

“Basically, throughout the history of Christianity when a pope or a bishop died crowds rushed to their dwellings and emptied them of all moveable goods,” says Koster who is among a handful of medieval historians who deal with cultural anthropology, which means she applies anthropological methods to her analysis of events and behaviors.

Eventually, the looting practice moved to the conclave (once it was created in 1274). The conclave is a closed room or hall specially set aside and prepared for the cardinals who elect a new pope. People sacked the cells of the conclave once a decision had been reached.

“People are usually interested in papal history, but very few are aware of this practice, which is recorded in ample documentation,” says the historian. “My book traces the history of this pillaging (hence, Raiding Saint Peter) from early Christianity till the 15th century.” I link the practice to the mode of election of the bishops and popes.

“Many Catholics do not realize that the election of the pope was once in the hands of the Christian congregation. But after the people were marginalized and pushed out of the papal electoral process, pillaging began,” says Rollo-Koster.

The book looks at the famous papal election in 1378 that was extremely contentious and violent. The election started what is called the Great Western Schism (1378-1417) when two popes ruled Christianity.

Koster’s use of historical anthropology has won her recognition from her peers. One article “The Politics of Body Parts: Contested Topographies in Late Medieval Avignon,” Speculum: A Journal of Medieval Studies 78 (January 2003), 66-98, won the Honorable Mention of the William Koren Prize of the Society for French Historical Studies. The award is presented at each annual society meeting to the author of a distinguished scholarly article on French history in any time period published in an American, Canadian, or European journal.

Another article, “From Prostitutes to Virgin Brides of Christ: The Avignonese Repenties in the Late Middle Ages,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 32 (2002), 109-144, was selected as the April Article of the Month for the Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index site at http://www.haverford.edu/library/reference/mschaus/mfi/month.html

More recently she received the Adele Mellen Prize for Distinguished Contribution to Scholarship for The People of Curial Avignon (Lampeter, GB, and Lewinston, USA: The Edwin Mellen Press, contracted for 2009).