The Year of the Popes
from the book, "Petrified Lightning"

Book: 
Petrified Lightning

The Year of the Popes

Petrus Hispanus (Peter of Spain), born in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1215, was a prominent physician during the Middle Ages. He had studied in Paris and later taught at Siena, Italy. He was the author of a number of medical treatises, including the important and popular Treasury of the Poor (Thesaurus Pauperum). This medical compendium, written so that common folk could easily understand it, offered remedies that were easy to obtain and use. For example, the author recommended lettuce leaves for a toothache, lettuce seed to reduce the sex drive, and the topical application of pig dung to stop nosebleeds.

The writings of Petrus Hispanus were widely read, and his medical treatments and advice were much sought after. Some of his treatments were based on his own discoveries, such as the application of sulfur to cure scabies. Others merely confirmed the medical practices of the 13th century, an age when remedies seemed to be valued according to their unpleasantness. For a woman in a hysterical faint he recommended that the best therapy was to blow salt and pepper up the patient's nose and she would come around promptly.

Although he was the source of many valuable speculations, Petrus Hispanus, as did his medical contemporaries, believed in demons and witchcraft. He advised epileptics to carry a parchment inscribed with the names of the Three Wise Men, and anyone who desired to be popular and wealthy to wear the heart of a vulture. In 1276 Petrus Hispanus was appointed physician to the Vatican, and he ministered to Popes Gregory X, Innocent V, and Adrian V. Under his undivided attention, the three popes died within seven months. The Church ignored the coincidence and, because the prime requisites for the next pontiff were youth and good health, Petrus Hispanus became Pope John XXI. His knowledge of hygiene, his medical skills, and his prediction of a long life for himself were sufficient guarantee that he would last longer than aged and decrepit cardinals.

Unfortunately, neither youth nor good health nor medical skill was an effective defense against a prophecy of longevity that goes awry. Within seven months of his ascent to the papacy, Pope John XXI was killed when the roof of the palace that had been built to his specifications fell on him. His death came as a relief to orthodox clerics, who considered him to be a heretic, an Antichrist hostile to God and the Church, and a man of science at a time when popes were not supposed to be distracted by scientific thought.

By some medieval logic, the death of Pope John XXI and three other popes within 14 months seemed to carry a warning to the Church to avoid electing a physician to the papacy. To this day no other pope has been a man of medicine.