Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Pornocracy--shady ladies and promiscuous popes

When it is mentioned—ever so rarely—in a “Church History” class, it is referred to as the “saeculum obscuram” –the dark century, but I have always preferred the title “the pornacracy”—the “rule of whores.” I have heard that this term is attributed to Luitprand of Cremona, a bishop and court historian to the emperor Otto I, and indeed it might be. Luitprand had a vicious tongue and a streak of self—righteousness that makes his being the alleged coiner of this term plausible, but I have also heard that the term originated with sixteenth century Lutheran historians, anxious to discredit the papacy. That theory actually makes less sense, for while in the heat of the Reformation polemics were the menu du jour, Lutheran scholars were meticulous in the exactness of their work, Admiuttedly Martin Luther himself reportedly had a flair for vulgar language but it was pretty much limited to the table banter with his friends. The great Reformer, while he might have been able to “swear like a sailor,” could also write stirring prose (his sermos and German translation of the Bible) and powerful hymns. The Greek roots of the word pornacracy being porne (whore, harlot) and kratein (to rule) might indicate its sixteenth-century roots where the Renaissance had revived a knowledge of Greek but, while Greek was all but unknown in the 10th century, Luitprand had served as Imperial ambassador on at least one occasion at the Court of Constantinople and would certainly had some knowledge of the language. After all “prostitute,” “harlot, “whore” is one of the first words men try to remember when learning a language, if only so one can tell jokes. In any event, I suppose I could plow through his works and see if indeed he used the term, but frankly I am too lazy.
Well, enough of those trivialities. Who cares who coined the term; it’s a great attention grabber. Where to begin? This is always the problem because history is this great interlocking puzzle where part of the story is always part of a previous story and there is rarely a clear place where one can nicely cut into the cake. Behind the pornacracy is the fascinating (if ghoulish) story of the “Cadaver Synod” but we will go there some other time. Let’s begin with a young lady by the name of Marozia and who had been born in 890. By the time she was fifteen she was the mistress of Pope Sergius III (reigned 904-911). Today that would be called “child abuse” but in the ninth century it was not uncommon for people to be married at fourteen or fifteen. Nevertheless, given the probable age difference (we don’t know the year of Sergius’ birth but he would most likely have been at least in his thirties as pope and given his death in 911 may have been even in his fifties or sixties) it is a bit creepy. But then Sergius was a particularly creepy man with three distinctive marks
1. The only pope known to have murdered his predecessor (plus a rival claimant to the throne of Peter)
2. The only pope whose bastard son himself became pope (John XI)
3. And the first pope to wear—or at least the first to be depicted wearing—the papal tiara.

We will talk more about Marozia in a future posting. As I said this was the “rule of harlots” not the rule of “a harlot.” So let’s meet whore #2. Presenting, Theodora, wife of Theophylact, count of Tusculum and mother of …guess who? None other than whore# 1, yes, Marozia. Theodora is the mistress of Pope John X (reigns 914-928), successor but two to her daughter Marozia’s old flame, Sergius III. So what we have here is a Mother-Daughter prostitution ring in the Lateran Palace. (The popes didn’t live in the Vatican at the time, but in the palace adjoining the Lateran Basilica.)
Well, you might think, what is the poor count of Tusculum to do? How can one resist the power of the pope if he want your wife or your daughter. Poor Theophylact, how can a count resist the Ruler of Rome? Well, that’s the irony. These popes—indeed all the popes in this particular period—were zero’s when it came to power. If anything, they owed their power to Theophylact who was the de facto ruler of Rome. in fact, ol’ John X was only a deacon in Bologna when Theodora “noticed” him—i.e. took a fancy to him—and persuaded her husband to make her boy-toy first bishop of Bologna and then Archbishop of Ravenna from which it was only a hop, skip, and a jump to the papacy.
There obviously is something going on here besides sex. What is it? Well, I will come back to the saga of Theophylact clan, our sort of "Desperate Housewives of the Dark Ages" and we will find out more. Meanwhile, just as a teaser—Marozia holds the rare distinction of being the mistress of one pope, mother of a second, and grandmother of a third. I am sure she made Theodora and Theophylact proud.
Today's image is Theodora by Jean-Joseph Benjamin Constant. The only problem is that this is the wrong Theodora--this is Justinian's wife and we will do some posting on her too--she is a fascinating character. But in the meantime, this picture works both Theodoras had their shady-lady pasts.

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