With the cardinals assembling for the conclave to elect a new pope, commentators speculating and bookmakers laying odds, it’s a good time to take a look at a strange medieval text full of prophecies about popes known as the Vaticinia pontificum or Vaticinia de summis pontificibus. A copy is found in CCCC MS 404, a collection of prophetic texts put together by Henry of Kirkstede, the monk-librarian of Bury St Edmunds in the fourteenth century.
The Vaticinia consists of a set of illustrated prophecies about a succession of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century popes, many of which were written after the actual papacies they claim to predict. Both texts and illustrations are opaque, with images of serpents, unicorns and angels alluding to political intrigues among powerful Roman factions. Here, for instance is the first in the series:
The unhappy looking pope under the title principium malorum (‘source of evils’) accompanied by a bear suckling its young is identified by Henry as Pope Nicholas III (1277-80), a member of the Orsini family (orso, bear). In Dante’s Inferno, Nicholas describes himself as the ‘son of a she-bear, eager to advance the cubs’. He appointed several members of his family as cardinals, including his brother Giordano and his nephew, Latino Malabranca.
The Vaticinia manages to be an apocalyptic warning of the end times, a call for spiritual reform and a political propaganda treatise aiming to influence papal elections. It is closely associated with the Spiritual Franciscans who quarrelled with numerous popes over differences in their approach to evangelical poverty. Indeed the only pope who escapes criticism in the text is the saintly Celestine V who has become well-known recently as the last pope to retire voluntarily in 1294.
Henry of Kirkstede fails to identify the bearded, barefooted figure in this illustration as Celestine, though other manuscripts of the work make it clear that he is the intended subject of this prophecy and the one who prefigures the coming of the angelic pope, as indicated by the angel in his left hand. The sickle in his right hand is a sign of renewal.
The combination of text and images lent itself to numerous interpretations and adaptations. Versions of the Vaticinia exist in over one hundred manuscript copies and twenty early printed editions. The text was often incorrectly attributed to the mystical writer Joachim of Fiore; Henry of Kirkstede’s title note reads, ‘Incipiunt prophecie Joachini abbatis de papis’.
CCC MS 404 belongs to the earliest version of the text, which survives in nine manuscripts, including Yale, Beinecke Library, Marston MS 225, ff. 15r-22r (plus images) and Oxford Bodleian Library, MS Douce 88, ff. 140r-146v.
For more on the Vaticinia, see the edition by Martha H. Fleming, The Late Medieval Pope Prophecies: The Genus nequam Group (Tempe, AZ: ACMRS, 1999).
Post inspired by a Beinecke blogpost about their Vaticinia manuscript.