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The Column of Lasting Insignificance: January 17, 2009

[the columns that follow were posted here in January 2007]

THE WILCOCK WEB: In an innovative experiment ostensibly to examine the role of genes, researchers at the University of Buffalo used a laser to install a fluorescent advertising logo on the wings of a butterfly…..After a spate of “fratricidal incidents,” the Indian army has enlisted yoga instructors in an attempt to bring down stress levels in its ranks…..“Wrongly translated or bizarre” English is so common on Shenzhen street signs that the local newspaper has launched a “spot the errors” contest….. Thailand’s zoo has found an eager market for bookmarks, paper fans, key chains, and notebooks crafted from the poo of its two pandas…. Russia is planning to erect a statue of Sherlock Holmes… Rotterdam’s new sustainable Dance Club will feature rainwater toilets, “biological beer” and a dance floor whose surface contains crystals that generate electricity when trodden or danced upon…. A study in which CFO magazine asked air travelers for their biggest complaints found 75% listed cramped seating….After yet another gibe from the British press about the expected influx of immigrants when Romania joins the EU next month, the country’s biggest paper, Libertea, fired back by accusing the Brits of exporting “pedophilia, drunkenness, and hooliganism… Undeterred by the weak dollar, affluent American tourists are still flooding into London prompting the flagship of the Inter-Continental chain to charge $9,000 a night for the best suites in its newly refurbished hotel….. “No one traveling on a business trip would be missed if he failed to arrive.” —  Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929)

Finally bowing to international pressure, China has agreed to ban transplant tourism — the practice of selling rich Westerners organs harvested from executed prisoners….Calling it “a disgusting cruel and unregulated business, animal rights organizations claim that as many as two million cats and dogs are slaughtered in China each year to provide furs for coats, boot linings, and toys…. The British condom company Durex has created a new condom to contain Zanifil, a Viagra-like chemical that is rubbed directly onto the penis….“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity,” runs the adage known as Hanlon’s Razor….Saudi Arabia claims it spends $800million a year treating smoking-related diseases (with 22,000 deaths) and has threatened to sue the tobacco companies unless they pay the bill in future ….Using plastic resin instead of wood pulp for the pages, London publisher Charles Melcher will produce a series of waterproof books for reading in the bath or at the beach….Some Brazilians have launched an internet campaign to boycott the movie Turistas in which a group of young travelers to that country are pursued “by a gang seeking to harvest their organs” …. Overwhelmed by road-clogging traffic congestion, Taiwan is investigating a plan to integrate cell phone users into a system that would charge tolls whenever a driver crosses into a region away from his home area….If hydrogen can so easily be extracted from water (H20) why can’t supplies of hydrogen and oxygen be delivered to barren regions to make water?….The only existing first copy of the Los Angeles Times (Dec 4, 1881) will be on show at the Huntington Library’s exhibition from Feb 4 to June celebrating the paper’s 125th anniversary…. The Hackett Group, a business advisory firm, says that if Fortune 500 companies sent many of their back office activities offshore they could save a combined $58 billion a year — with the attendant loss of 1.47 million U.S. jobs….“Behind every great fortune is a great crime.” — Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850).

All About the Popes

By and large, the late John Paul II got pretty good reviews and it may be still too early to assess Benedict XVI. But what of their 263 predecessors? How do they measure up? After thoroughly researching them via 50 reference works my conclusion is that they’re comparable with pretty much any random collection of powerful men selected from 2,000 years of our Christian era. Which is to say that they included both saints and sinners, with some at the extreme of both categories.

     Last year I paid Xlibris to publish my book, Popes & Anti-Popes and next week the entire book will be posted on my website ( for anybody to access without charge. The complete book can be ordered by clicking on the bookstore section at The ISBN number is 1-4134-8122-1.

For centuries the Pope was numero uno in the Western world, the arbiter of whether or not the life you were leading deserved to end up above or below — a matter of grave concern to religious folk (which is to say almost everybody) at the time.

Domination of the papacy and the election of popes by autocratic Roman families was a feature of the 10th and 11th centuries, a period of suspicious and mysterious papal deaths. Between 890 and 931,  a dozen popes died suddenly, half of them of suspected poisonings.

First, the “good” guys, beginning with St. Gregory II, a blacksmith’s son who became a Benedictine monk and was described by the Oxford Dictionary of Popes as “one of the most impressive figures of the medieval world.” After King Henry IV tried to depose him, Gregory declared that ”the devil has invented the monarchy” and excommunicated him. The king came humbly to apologize. This battle between the spiritual and the secular lasted for centuries, power see-sawing between pope and king.

According to Edward Gibbons Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Innocent II (1198-1216) “exercised a despotic command over emperors and kings whom he raised and deposed.” Crowning Germany’s Otto IV as emperor he boasted that ”the priesthood is as much superior to royalty as the soul is to the body.”

This was echoed by Boniface VIII (1294-1303) who declared “it is altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman pontiff” (France’s King Phillip responded by calling him “an arrant blockhead,” maxima tua fatuitas).

An earlier Gregory (“the Great”) who had left his aristocratic family to join a monastery financed by the sale of his ancestral home, battled with Emperor Leo III for whom he had scant regard. “We can only address you in rough and uneducated style,” he sneered, “because you yourself are rough and uneducated.”

But, of course, as history instructs us, for every Gregory XVI (1831-46) who renounced slavery as “unworthy of Christians,” and Benedict XIV (1740-58), a skilled diplomat who was much admired by Voltaire, there were some real rogues.

     John XII (955-64) lived surrounded by slaves and eunuchs, made a 10-year-old boy a bishop, died in the home of his married lover, and was tagged “a Christian Caligula.”

     Benedict IX was 12 years old when elected in 1032 by a prominent aristocrat.  The Oxford Dictionary of Popes calls his life “scandalously violent and dissolute.” Forced out of office at 25, he was back in two months and alleged to have turned the Lateran Palace into a brothel. After two intervening popes, he returned for a third time following Clement II who died of poisoning. This time, Benedict lasted one year, evicted by the emperor, and retiring to a monastery where he died aged 35.

The young Cardinal Roderigo Borgia, then 29, was rebuked by Pius II (1458-64) for an orgy in Siena. “Shame forbids mention of all that took place…a cardinal should be above reproach,” boomed Pius. Twenty-eight years later, after buying votes, Borgia became Pope Alexander VI, who declared: “The pope is as far superior to a king as a man is to an animal.” He produced five children with his mistress Vanozza Catanei, one of whom was Lucretia Borgia. The Dominican monk Savronola outraged, tried to persuade France’s King Charles II to invade Rome, where he said the clergy was “steeped in shameful vices.” The pope excommunicated Savronola who was subsequently tortured and hanged.

     Formosus (891-906) was so hated by his enemies that nine months after his death, Pope Stephen VI, had him exhumed, dressed in papal clothes, tried, and flung into the River Tiber. Overthrown the following year, Stephen was imprisoned and strangled in jail.

So, in my Popes and Anti-Popes, a useful reference work, there are a few surprises. By the way, that rumor about a legendary Pope Joan dates from an anonymous Dominican chronicle (1250) and which historian Eamon Duffy says was to “prove a godsend to enemies of the papacy” was just that, a rumor.

[John Wilcock is currently cruising through the Panama Canal]