John XXII, Pope (ca. 1244-1334)

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John XXII, Pope (ca. 1244-1334)

Jacques Duèse, subsequently Pope John XXII, was born at Cahors, France. His parents were affluent, and it has even been suggested that they belonged to the nobility. Jacques was educated first at a Dominican priory in his native village and afterward at Montpellier. He then proceeded to Paris, where he studied both law and medicine.

Leaving the Sorbonne, Duèse was still at a loss as to what profession to follow, but, chancing to become intimate with Bishop Louis (a son of Charles II, king of Naples) the young man decided to enter the church, doubtless prompted to this step by the conviction that his new friend's influence would help him advance in his clerical career.

The future pontiff was not disappointed, for in the year 1300, at the request of the Neapolitan sovereign, he was elevated to the episcopal see of Fréjus, then in 1308 he was appointed chancellor of Naples. He soon showed himself a man of no mean ability in ecclesiastical affairs. In 1310 Pope Clement V summoned him to Avignon, anxious to consult him on the question of the legality of suppressing the Templars and also on whether to condemn the memory of Boniface VIII. Duèse was in favor of suppressing the Templars but rejected condemnation of Boniface. In 1312 Duèse was made bishop of Porto, and four years later was elected to the pontifical crown and scepter as Pope John XXII.

From that time on he lived at Avignon, but his life was by no means a quiet or untroubled one. Early in his papacy the throne of Germany became vacant. Louis of Bavaria and Frederick of Austria both contended for it, and Pope John offended many by supporting Frederick. Later he raised a storm by preaching a somewhat unorthodox sermon purporting that the souls of those who die in a state of grace go straight into Abraham's bosom and do not enjoy the beatific vision of the Lord until after the Resurrection and the Last Judgment. This doctrine was hotly opposed by many clerics, notably Thomas of England, who had the courage to preach against it openly at Avignon. So great was the disfavor Pope John incurred that for several years after his death he was widely regarded as the Antichrist.

Pope John was frequently accused of avarice, and it is true that he made stupendous efforts to raise money, imposing numerous taxes unheard of before his papacy. He manifested considerable ingenuity in that regard, and so the tradition that he dabbled in hermetic philosophy (alchemy ) may be founded on fact. He did issue a stringent bull against alchemists, but it was directed against the charlatans of the craft, not against those who were seeking the philosophers' stone with real earnestness and with the aid of scientific knowledge.

The pope may have introduced this mandate to silence those who had charged him with the practice of alchemy himself. Whatever his reason, it is probable that he believed in magic and was interested in science. His belief in magic is indicated by his bringing a charge of sorcery against Géraud, bishop of Cahors. Pope John's scientific predilections are evident from his keeping a laboratory in the palace at Avignon and spending much time there.

Doubtless some of this time was given to physiological and pathological studies, for various works of a medical nature are ascribed to Pope John XXII, in particular a collection of prescriptions, a treatise on diseases of the eye, and another on the formation of the fetus. But it may well be that the ativities in his laboratory also centered in some measure on alchemistic research. This theory is strengthened by the fact that Pope John was friends with Arnold de Villanova, famous physician, astrologer, and alchemist.

Among the writings attributed to Pope John XXII is the al-chemical work L'Elixir des philosophers, autrement L'art transmutatoire, published at Lyons in 1557.

When he died the pontiff left behind him a vast sum of money and a mass of priceless jewels. It was commonly asserted among the alchemists of the day that the money, jewels, and 200 huge ingots were all manufactured by the late pope. The story of the unbounded wealth amassed in this way gradually blossomed and bore fruit, and one of the pope's medieval biographers credited him with having concocted an enormous quantity of gold.