Don't ask for a cold cut from this one

On the subject of nicknames and history, can I get a quick show of hands on appropriate jobs for the “Butcher of Cesena”? No, no, not “he should sell meat in Cesena, Italy”. He wasn’t that sort of guy. He was Robert of Geneva, son of Amadeus III, Count of Geneva, and he earned the nickname for ruthlessness in authorizing a massacre of between three and eight thousand citizens of the Italian town of Cesena in 1377 during the “War of the Eight Saints”. So, who figures he should be Pope?

Well, I see some hands there at the back. And not just from die-hard anti-Catholics in our own time. In fact they belong to, oh dear, a bunch of 14th-century French cardinals, who raised them on September 20, 1378 to make Robert of Never Mind Cesena into Pope Clement VII. Or rather Antipope Clement VII. I’m not sure whether Antipope is a better title than Butcher but I’m pretty sure you don’t want much to do with anyone who acquired both in the space of two years… or ever.

It seems the French cardinals did not like Pope Urban VI very much. I’m not sure why; after all he was forced on the papal conclave by an angry mob and wasn’t a cardinal. On the other hand he was apparently simple, frugal, arbitrary, violent and imprudent. An odd combination. And in this case batting .400 won’t do. Though the French choice wasn’t any better, and triggered the “Western Schism” in which the French crown tried to control the papacy again, having done so with a heavy hand during the “Avignon Papacy” from 1309-1377, a.k.a. the “Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy” which is another nickname you wouldn’t want especially in context of being Pope.

The ruckus over Urban v Clement quickly drew in all sorts of angry secular rulers. And it resulted in a deal, after they both died and their successors proved equally stubborn, whereby a third, compromise pope was also elected, adding to the chaos.

Finally people noticed that the whole thing was rather embarrassing and tended to discredit the faith. So a papal council got two of them to step down and excommunicated the third and elected Martin V who apparently didn’t have a nickname although maybe privately he was called “thank goodness that nonsense is over” or some such.

Obviously an event of this sort has complex roots. But it can’t help to choose a Pope nicknamed “the Butcher” of anything unless it’s “of farm animals for food” which in this case it definitely wasn’t.

BTW, if you’re thinking a war characterized by that sort of brutality would be lucky to muster eight saints among thousands of wretches, it turns out we’re not quite sure who the “Eight Saints” were but there’s no evidence that they were in any way saint-like. They seem to have been either tax collectors or a war council who had unusually good luck with nicknames, unusually good PR or possibly were the victims of pointed sarcasm.

It happened todayJohn Robson