Google Penance: Why did medieval popes all have the same name?

Why did all medieval popes have the same name?

Short answer: they didn’t. Duh.

Long answer…

In the early days of the church, popes just used whatever name they were already known by, be it a birth name or a baptismal name. So pope Sixtus II, the first pope to re-use a predecessor’s name, was probably Sixtus long before he got to wear the big pointy hat.* The same goes for the next recidivist, Sixtus III.

After Sixtus III, the next pope to bear a predecessor’s name was Felix III. Wait, what about Felix II, you say? He was an anti-pope, so he doesn’t count.**

So, though there was an Anastasius II, the first pope to choose a new name for himself was John II, born Mercurius. John II changed his name when he became pope because he didn’t want to give the Roman god Mercury, who he was named after, free advertising. It would have been like McDonald’s having a clown named Ronald McBurger King.*** It’s unlikely that John II was honoring John I specifically by choosing the name, since John I was an old man who ruled only three years and spent most of that time imprisoned by Theodoric the Great.

John II probably didn’t establish a tradition of taking a new name, but it’s hard to be sure, since most of the information we have about the early popes amounts to a length of time in office and a description of their death. Certainly, though, after John’s time, the number of roman numerals after popes’ names starts to increase dramatically, and it’s hard to believe that all of those Bonifaces were just coincidental.

Medieval historians had their own story about why popes were allowed to take whatever name they wanted. Godfrey of Viterbo tells us in his Pantheon that the first pope to change his name was Sergius II.

This Pope Sergius, was first named “Hog’s Snout” and because of that changed his name and was called Sergius in his papacy. From that time on, every pope has been allowed to choose his own name for his papacy.

The weirdest thing about this story is that, while the moral drawn is almost certainly a just-so gloss, the germ of the story is true. There actually was a Sergius born with a terrible name. Sergius IV was born “Petro Bucca Porci,” or “Peter Pig Snout.”**** The medievals had just as much trouble as we do keeping their Roman numeraled popes straight, especially with all those anti-popes, and thus the confusion.

As odd as it may sound, it was the Peter in Mr. Pig Snout’s name that was objectionable. Popes just don’t name themselves after Peter. Like Jackie Robinson’s 42, that number is retired throughout the league. Pope John XIV, also born Peter, had changed his name for just that reason. So if Sergius IV had been born “Johnny Pig Snout,” we might have a pope Johnny Pig Snout III today.

It’s been suggested that the name changing really got underway at the end of the tenth century, when two foreigners, Bruno of Carinthia and Gerbert d’Aurilllac, a German and a Frenchman, became pope successively. They were worried that their provincial names didn’t sound Popish enough, so they became Gregory V and Sylvester II. Sadly, Gerbert could not forsee that his name would sound increasingly less popish and increasingly more cartoon catish during the twentieth century. Suffering Succotash.

Still, for one hundred years before the two foreign electees, the popes’ names drew from the already established stock, with roman numerals everywhere. The only exception in that span is Pope Lando, elected pope in 913, who ruled for only six months before he was needed elsewhere.***** Pope Lando was the last pope until Pope John Paul I to bear a name not borne by an earlier pope. And John Paul cheated by picking two previous names.

So, anonymous Google-searcher, I hope this answers your question. Popes didn’t all have the same name, but they started using a very small supply of them in the eighth century, for reasons that nobody’s clear on, but possibly related to a guy named Peter Pig Snout. There’s no official rule stopping a pope from keeping his own name, or from taking a name from some of the lesser-used popes.

I hope that during my lifetime we see popes dipping deeper into the papal reserves. Sixteen Benedicts, twenty-three Johns, twelve Piuses, thirteen Leo’s, sixteen Gregories, fourteen Clements, and thirteen Innocents is just starting to look a little desperate. We haven’t had a II since Marcellus II, who incidentally, was the last pope to keep his name when he became the pontiff.******

Who would want to be Benedict XVII when they could be Zosimus II? Hormisdas II? Agatho II? And since there have now been five Sixtuses, the name Sixtus the Sixth is up for grabs. And finally, let’s not forget poor Pope Saint Hilarius, the patron saint of this blog:

Doesn’t this man deserve a namesake?

*A figure of speech. Popes didn’t start wearing the pointy hat until after 1000. Sixtus II died by beheading, so it’s all moot, and probably best not to ask him what hat he was wearing when he was beheaded when you meet him in heaven.
**I’ve already made the obvious joke in another post, that anti-popes explode upon coming into contact with popes. So, instead, some information: Felix II was made pope while another pope, Liberius, was exiled by the Roman emperor. When Liberius returned, Felix II was forced out. Since you can never have more than one pope, the loser always becomes, retroactively, an anti-pope. Poor Felix III didn’t know his numerical predecessor was an anti-pope, though, so had to lug around that extra minim for nothing. Think of what he could have saved on engraving fees had he known.
***Little known fact: The Burger King’s real name is Hardee’s New Double Thickburger Available at All Participating Locations.
****It’s important not to confuse your Sergii. Sergius III is the first pope who ruled during the “pornocracy,” or the Rule of the Harlots. I would discuss this at greater length, but as I’ve said, I’m trying to decrease the proportion of hits I get from people looking for porn.
*****Presumably, a galaxy far, far away had a job opening for a cape-wearing smooth-talking smuggler.
******I’m not counting John Paul II, who, as John Paul I before him, cheated by taking two popes’ names.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Steve

    1. I think I heard somewhere that there’s a legend that the last Pope will be named Peter, which could be another reason for retiring the name.

    2. There was a joke in the 1991 Robbie Coltrane movie ‘The Pope Must Die’ where they discuss the name of the next Pope, and in response to the someone saying ‘How about Innocent?’, someone replies ‘The days of Innocents are over.’

    3. John Paul I took two previous names, but John Paul II took three.

  • Brendan M

    When we studied Palestrina’s Pope Marcellus Mass in music history, back in the early days APF (after pulp fiction), we jokes that it should be the Pope Marcellus Wallace Mass.

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