Gregory XII: the last pope to resign

Council-of-Constance gregory XII

Pope Benedict XVI announced Monday that he would resign at the end of February because of health concerns. The move is exceedingly rare; the last time a pontiff stepped down for any reason was nearly 600 years ago amid one of the most turbulent periods in church history.

The last pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII, who abdicated in 1415 in a deal to end the Great Western Schism, which at one point saw three men lay claim as head of the Roman Catholic Church.

At the time of Gregory’s election in 1406, the church was in the midst of a split that had rent it since 1378, an outgrowth of the Avignon Papacy. Various men from two rival camps simultaneously claimed to be the true pope during the period.

Also called the Papal Schism, the split was driven by politics rather than any theological disagreement. It would prove a turning point in church history.

Gregory was born Angelo Correr in Venice, the son of a nobleman, according to the Oxford Dictionary of the Renaissance. He was successively appointed bishop of Castello (1380), Latin patriarch of Constantinople (1390), cardinal-priest of San Marco (1405), and papal secretary.

Gregory was elected in November 1406 in Rome by a conclave consisting of just 15 cardinals, with the express condition that should rival Antipope Benedict XIII, who was based at Avignon, France, renounce all claims to the Papacy, Gregory would do likewise. That would enable a fresh election to take place, bringing the schism to an end.

A meeting was set on neutral turf in northwestern Italy. Not surprisingly given the nature of medieval Christian politics, the two pontiffs were wary to open negotiations. Before long both began to have second thoughts about giving up power, and each feared capture by his rival’s allies.

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‘Vampire’ skeleton found entombed in Bulgaria

Evidence that funerary rites have evolved considerably over the past several centuries was made unmistakably clear last month when a “vampire-proof” skeleton was found in Bulgaria.

Found entombed among church ruins in the Black Sea town of Sozopol was a 700-year-old skeleton that had been stabbed in the chest with an iron rod and had also had its teeth pulled.

“Scholars believe the rod and tooth-pulling were techniques villagers used to prevent dead men from turning into vampires,” according to National Geographic.

The iron rod, which was in the tomb next to the body, is visible in the above photo.

The idea of vampires dates back far before Bram Stoker’s famous 1897 horror novel Dracula.

In fact, vampire myths go back millennia around the world, particularly in countries across Europe.

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UK scientists: Mass grave holds Vikings

The south English county of Dorset is noted for being home to Thomas Hardy, the famed writer who used bucolic descriptions of the region in many of his novels, including Tess of the d’Urbervilles and The Return of the Native.

It’s also the site of a mass burial ground for dozens of Viking mercenaries, decapitated en masse and placed in shallow graves a millennia ago.

The burial site features the bodies of 54 men who were decapitated and their heads piled to one side. It was discovered in 2009.

Carbon dating and isotope tests revealed the bodies were Scandinavian and dated from the 11th century, according to the BBC.

This coincides with the period in which Vikings were constantly attacking Anglo-Saxons on the English south coast. It is believed the men were captured during an attempted raid into the area.

The skeletons are all of males, with almost all aged from their late teens to around 25 years old, with a handful of older individuals.

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Scientists work to reconstruct plague genome

Efforts to reconstruct the genome of the bacterium that killed nearly half of Europe in the mid-14th century are nearly complete, according to a team of international researchers.

Reconstruction on more than 99 percent of the genome of the Yersinia pestis strain responsible for the plague that devastated Europe beginning in 1348 and killed at least 100 million people over the next four years in nearly finished.

“A phylogenetic analysis of the reconstructed genome revealed that the plague pathogen is just two substitutions away from the common ancestor of all modern strains of Y. pestis, Johannes Krause, PhD, of the University of Tübingen in Germany, and an international team of colleagues wrote online in Nature,” according to the online publication MedPage Today.

“It’s extremely closely related” to strains circulating today, Krause said on a Tuesday conference call with reporters.

Krause and his colleagues’ work marks the first time a historical pathogen has been reconstructed from skeletal remains – in this case from Black Death victims interred at the East Smithfield mass burial site in London from 1348 to 1350, MedPage Today reported.

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Claim: London plague was spread by humans

An English archaeologist claims that humans – not rats, as has long been believed – spread the plague that ravaged London in the mid-14th century.

“The evidence just isn’t there to support it,” Barney Sloane, author of ‘The Black Death in London,’ told The Telegraph. “We ought to be finding great heaps of dead rats in all the waterfront sites but they just aren’t there.

“And all the evidence I’ve looked at suggests the plague spread too fast for the traditional explanation of transmission by rats and fleas,” he added. “It has to be person to person – there just isn’t time for the rats to be spreading it.”

Sloane added that he’s not even certain whether the disease was bubonic plague, as is believed by many.

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Rare 500-year-old book pops up in Utah

 A Utah book dealer got the surprise of his career recently while visiting a small museum just south of Salt Lake City.

Ken Sanders, who specializes in rare books, was attending the event as a volunteer, appraising books for museum visitors. At one point during the event, a man pulled a book out of a garbage bag, telling Sanders he had something that was very, very old, according to the Deseret News.

“According to Sanders, the man said, ‘Well this here, I got this, it’s the Nuremberg Chronicles,'” according to the publication. “Sanders exclaimed, ‘What?’ in astonishment because he knew of the book’s lofty historical reputation. ‘And sure enough,’ Sanders said, ‘lo and behold, it was!'”

The paper said that assuming the editon found in Utah is authentic, it was actually printed in 1493, barely 50 years after Gutenberg invented the movable-type printing press.

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Bickering neighbors from 700 years ago

Robert Frost once made the wise observation that good fences make good neighbors. Apparently, in medieval England, good relations between neighbors was dependent to a large degree on one’s ability to dispose of one’s waste, at least according to a 700-year-old English document which details a list of grievances made against fellow residents. 

Take case No. 214 in the Assize of Nuisance (above), a list of grievances made against irksome neighbors in London between 1301-1431.

It involved Alice Wade, a 14th century London resident who, in an era when many of her fellow citizens relieved themselves in chamber pots and then dumped the contents out the window, had a toilet of her own in a small room.

It involved a hole cut in a wooden platform over a cesspool, according to the BBC.

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