Although he didn’t ascend to the papacy until he was over eighty years old, Pope Gregory IX was the pope for 14 years -- and managed to do a lot of damage in that time. From picking on the Jews to taking a bizarre stance on cats that ultimately made the Black Death much worse, Gregory IX’s papacy offers several reasons why he was one seriously dangerous pope. Oddly enough, one of the more positive acts of Gregory IX was to establish a Papal Inquisition -- but more on that in a moment.
Pope Gregory IX and the Jews
In 1234, Pope Gregory issued Decretals -- which are papal decrees meant to address a point of canon law -- that were meant to reinforce his power over the Church. One such point of law was the doctrine of perpetua servitus iudaeorum, meaning “perpetual servitude of the Jews.” He invested this doctrine with the force of canon law, and it meant that the Jews would be in a position of political servitude until Judgment Day.
What this meant in practical terms was that the Jews couldn’t have any direct part in the political process. Also, because of the mistaken belief that Jews worshiped the Talmud, Gregory ordered that all copies of the Talmud be confiscated. As a result of this and of Christian-Jewish disputations, on June 12, 1242, 12,000 handwritten copies of the Talmud were burned in Paris.
Okay, we get it: Gregory IX was not a cat person. But he took his dislike of felines to the next level when he issued a papal bull, the Vox in Rama, that condemned devil worship...and, oh yeah, black cats.
The document specifically targeted black cats, which were alleged to be an incarnation of Satan. As a result, black cats were regularly killed up until the 19th century.
Because this cat-culling had a deleterious effect on the overall population of cats, it was easier for rats to proliferate in Europe in the decades that followed. Some historians posit that since the rat population was larger than it would have been had the cats been left alone, and because the bubonic plague is carried by rats, Gregory IX inadvertently caused the Black Plague that hit Europe a century after his death to be much worse than it otherwise would have been.
The Papal Inquisition of the 1230s
No, it’s not this Inquisition:
The Spanish Inquisition of the late 1400s was a different sort of affair from Gregory IX’s Inquisition. In fact, Gregory’s aim in instituting the Papal Inquisition was to keep local civil authorities and hordes of angry villagers in France and Germany from torching individuals suspected of heresy.
Because heresy was a crime against the state, not the Church, it could just as easily be used to conveniently get rid of one's political enemies as to target actual heretics. Gregory’s Inquisition actually saved thousands of people who, justly or unjustly, were accused of heresy or sorcery.
Pope Gregory IX also encouraged Crusades and squabbled with the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, for not making the Sixth Crusade happen in a more timely manner. So in Gregory IX, we have a Jew-hating, cat-hating, book-burning pope whose most laudatory act was an Inquisition. That’s why he gets our vote for one of the most controversial popes in history.
If you’ve never heard of Cesare Borgia, you’ve still probably seen his face. Or perhaps you’ve read a book based on his character and his rise to power. That’s because he was the basis for Machiavelli’s The Prince, and according to some writers and scholars, his face was quite possibly also the model for some of the most well-known images of Jesus, including the one below.
But who was Cesare Borgia, really?
Borgia was the illegitimate son of Rodrigo Borgia, who would become Pope Alexander VI, and his mistress Vannozza dei Cattanei. He was born in Rome in 1475 or 1476, and his siblings included Lucrezia Borgia, Giovanni Borgia, and Gioffre Borgia. Although Cesare Borgia was a cardinal and the son of a pope, he was also part of a family that was infamous for its political machinations and hunger for power.
Cesare’s rise to power began early: He was made a bishop at age 15 and a cardinal at age 18. He was in his early 20s in 1498, when he resigned the cardinalcy and was made the prince of a papal state in northern Italy. However, when his father the Pope passed away in 1503, Cesare’s power crumbled. He was on friendly terms with the new pope, Pius III, but Pius III was only the pontiff for 26 days -- after which Giuliano Della Rovere, an enemy of Cesare’s, took the pontificate as Pope Julius II, and Borgia was overthrown in just a few months.
It was while Cesare was a prince that Niccolo Machiavelli (whose portrait is below) paid him a visit in 1502-3, during which Machiavelli observed that Cesare Borgia was a prime example of the problems that arise when a ruler acquires a principality due to the influence of another person: When the more powerful person loses that power, many times, so does the one who was set up to rule.
Machiavelli also observed (and even admired) Borgia’s ruthlessness, but Cesare’s penchant for court intrigue and violence didn’t overrule his good looks and high connections in the Church. As a result, there are many scholars and authors who believe that Cesare Borgia was the basis for some of the most famous paintings of Jesus. Alexandre Dumas, who wrote not only The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo and many other novels but also a book about the Borgias as part of his Celebrated Crimes series, was a proponent of this theory.
So below is the real (non-Jesus-ified) Cesare Borgia. Think he looks like the portrait of Jesus? (We think he looks more like a Nirvana-era Krist Novoselic, but the resemblance is there.)
So there you have it: the guy who was a powerful crime family scion, illegitimate son of a pope, sometime teenage bishop and cardinal, and the inspiration for The Prince and the way we picture Jesus, all rolled into one. Not bad for a guy who only lived to see age 31.
The posts on this blog are conceived of and written by various members of a homeschooling family. We're lifetime learners who delight in finding odd bits of history, obscure practices that were once commonplace, and forgotten cultural icons tucked away in books and on the Internet.