History will tell us whether there is more to Benedict XVI’s abdication than Monday’s Vatican press statement about his advanced age and deteriorating strength. In the meantime, it is the novelty of the move that generated the widely reported shock among Catholics and other observers. No pope has voluntarily resigned for over seven hundred years. Some considered the lightning bolt that struck the dome of St Peter’s Basilica shortly afterwards to indicate a lack of divine enthusiasm for the step.

The last pope to resign was Celestine V, in 1294, after a mere five months in office. Before Monday, Celestine was little known: chiefly distinguished for being ‘the pope who quit’. 1 In his day, however, he was a controversial and tragic figure, elected for his great holiness and imprisoned from his resignation until his death. His abdication was surrounded in mystery, rumours of manipulation and murder; and sparked a series of extremely damaging crises. Twenty years later, he had been elevated to sainthood 2 and condemned by Dante to the periphery of the Inferno. Dante – in his Divine Comedy – encountered the former pope among a crowd of souls who, ‘lived without infamy and without praise… The heavens reject them… nor does deep Hell receive them’. Here, Dante reported: ‘I saw and knew the shade of him who in his cowardice made the great refusal.’ 3 It is Dante’s judgement on Celestine’s act that has lingered on, and now, in some quarters, is being used to critique the decision of Benedict XVI.

The brief pontificate of Celestine V was, in its way, an extraordinary moment within the history of the institution. From some perspectives, his election as pope was the culmination of several centuries of struggle over the proper nature of the Roman Church. Beginning in the eleventh century, a series of reforming popes sought to purge the clergy of sinfulness and also to secure its independence from secular interference. This period saw, among other things, the enforcement of clerical celibacy, the emergence of the Inquisition, and perhaps – as has been recently argued – the redefinition of ordination to exclude women. 4 The papacy became one of the most powerful players in European politics, commander of armies, and head of an ecclesiastical hierarchy that penetrated every level of society.

Historians continue to debate the question of how far these developments provoked criticism and ultimately led to an erosion of the standing and authority of the papacy. There were potent currents of spirituality in western society that viewed poverty and humility as the most essential characteristics of holiness. While there seems to have been general agreement that it was crucial for the pope, as God’s representative on earth, to be an effective force in temporal affairs, idealists dreamed of a pope who might achieve all this without the trappings of worldly power. In the decades before the election of Celestine V, wistful prophecies of an ‘angelic pope’ were in circulation. In ca. 1268, an Englishman, Roger Bacon, wrote to Pope Clement IV:

It was prophesied forty years ago – and there have been many visions to the same effect – that there will be one pope in these times who will cleanse canon law and the Church of God from the sophistry and fraudulence of lawyers, and bring justice to everyone without the rattle of lawsuits. And due to the goodness, truth and justice of this pope it might happen that the Greeks will revert to the obedience of the Roman Church, and the greater part of the [Mongols] will be converted to the faith, and the Saracens will be destroyed; and there will be one flock and one Shepherd… 5

An Italian, Salimbene de Adam, recorded a prophecy of the 1270s, that a pope would appear: ‘a man of angelic life’ who ‘will hold to the decrees of Christ’. 6 It was against this background of expectation that Celestine V was elected. To many, he seemed to be the angelic pope embodied. In a society that assumed God worked particularly through the most holy individuals, it was anticipated that precisely his unworldliness would make it possible for him to achieve everything that the church had been failing to achieve.

In 1292, Pope Nicolas IV died. So divided were the cardinals that they spent more than two years in conclave, arguing over his successor. They only came to a decision, the story goes, when an angry letter arrived from a hermit, one Peter of Marrone, warning them that if they did not elect a pope quickly, God’s wrath would fall upon them. Alarmed, they immediately elected the hermit as pope. This decision was not, perhaps, as eccentric as it sounds. Peter’s life of extreme penance in a cave had proved so appealing to his contemporaries that he established his own religious order. It had thirty-six houses by 1300. Peter had, however, resigned its governance and had retired once more to a solitary life when the cardinals called him to the papal see. It was with reluctance that he accepted the office and arrived, riding with humility on a donkey.

He was not, despite this administrative experience, well-suited to lead all Christendom. After a mere five months in office, he resigned for reasons that were never entirely clear. The whole episode, of course, suggested strongly to some of his contemporaries that one could not be particularly like Christ and occupy the papal throne. It acted as a negative commentary on more successful popes, and was used as such by their enemies. The problem was exacerbated by Celestine’s successor who, recognising the difficulty of having a former pope living as a hermit in the hills, kept Peter prisoner for the rest of his life. The new pope, Boniface VIII, was a very different kind of man. It was he who made the provocative claim that: ‘it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff’. As Celestine had, perhaps, represented the yearning for a more ‘apostolic’ form of Christian government, Boniface represented the tendencies towards assertive involvement in worldly affairs with all the consequent dangers for the good reputation, autonomy and security of the church. How this played out during the fourteenth-century ‘Babylonian captivity’ of the church is another story.

Concerns have already been expressed about how the Catholic Church will deal with the difficulties arising from the co-existence of an influential former pope and a new, possibly non-European pontiff. It will be interesting to see how events unfold. Benedict XVI will doubtless be hoping that the past does not repeat itself.

Amanda Power is Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Sheffield. She is the author of Roger Bacon and the Defence of Christendom (2012).

You can find other History Matters posts on papal history and the Pope’s resignation here.


  1. Jon M. Sweeney, The Pope Who Quit: A True Medieval Tale of Mystery, Death, and Salvation (2012)
  2. Sophia Menache, Clement V (1998), pp. 191-205
  3. Dante, Inferno, transl. R. M. Durling (1996), canto 3. Dante did not name Celestine, but his son and other commentators on the Divine Comedy made the attribution and it is generally accepted by historians.]
  4. Gary Macy, The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination: Female Clergy in the Medieval West (2007)
  5. Roger Bacon, Opus tertium, in J. S. Brewer (ed.), Fr. Rogeri Bacon Opera Quaedam Hactenus Inedita (1859), pp. 86-7.
  6. McGinn, B., ‘Angel Pope and Papal Antichrist’, Church History, 47 (1978), 155-73, p. 161
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