October 15, 2010

The Primate of Rome

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The Primate of Rome
by Elizabeth Creith


On the evening of August the eighteenth, 1559, Pope Paul IV ate his supper of stewed lamprey in wine sauce and retired to bed. In the morning his valet found him cold and stiff. The valet crossed himself and breathed a quick prayer of thanks; His Holiness had been a peevish, querulous and exacting master on his good days, of which there were fewer and fewer.

The College of Cardinals was convened to elect a new Pope, which it did with remarkable speed, unanimously deciding upon the late Pope's pet squirrel monkey, Philip.

This decision had much to recommend it, as Philip had lived his entire life in the Church, having been presented to then-Cardinal Paul by the Spanish King some fifteen years before. Philip was celibate, circumspect and not given to the vices of envy, sloth, pride, avarice lust or greed, although he had been known to bite in anger. However, his bite was judged less harsh than his master's had been. Furthermore, he was unallied to any of the great houses, and free of the taint of worldly attachments. Surely a better choice could not be made.

Philip was immediately invested with the office of Pope. He kept largely to his chambers in the company of his confessor, no doubt in prayer and meditation. Having little interest in politics, he did not interfere in the cardinals' plans and schemes; nor did he institute awkward investigations into the households of the clergy or ban the selling of indulgences or demand to be kept informed of the state of the papal treasury or the papal winecellars. He was sparing, not to say abstemious, in his diet (although the kitchens and winecellars nevertheless found demand upon them undiminished).

The people loved the new Pope, who did not press them with demands for money or rail at them for their evil ways. His infrequent appearances to bless them, orbi et urbi, always inspired enthusiastic cheering. His reputation for piety and gentleness was legend.

Alas, Pope Philip, like most popes, was closer to the end of his life than the beginning when he was elected. Within a few months his little body began to fail. Despite the best care of the Papal physicians, despite bloodletting and leeches and physicks, midway through Advent he died.

Those who were present at his deathbed spoke of throngs of white squirrel monkeys, clothed in light, who bore Pope Philip's soul aloft on their dove wings. A swirling brightness appeared in the canopy above the bed, and the saintly Pope Philip ascended into heaven.

Afterwards the College of Cardinals elected Pope Pius IV. He was a Medici, and turned out about as one would expect.

* * *


Elizabeth Creith draws on her familiarity with history, myth and folklore to write her fiction and poetry. Her children's book "Erik the Viking Sheep" was published by Scholastic Canada, and for ten years she wrote humour and commentary for CBC radio. She has had stories published or accepted by The Linnet's Wings, New Myths, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Silver Blades and THEMA. Her flash "Companion Animal" placed twelfth in the Writers' Union of Canada 2008 Postcard Fiction Contest and is the seed of a novel currently in progress.

Elizabeth lives, writes and commits art in Wharncliffe, Northern Ontario, distracted occasionally by her husband, dog and two cats.

What do you think is the attraction of historical fiction?

We always regard romance - romance in the broad sense - as having existed in some earlier age. There's lots around us, but we don't see it. We also tend to idealize any place or era in which we don't live, and that's a powerful attraction, too.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

"physicks" - the perfect touch and such a clincher of the archaic - and the color of your piece would have changed to dramatically if you had used a Bonobo - [I imagine I would have used it] - but then the term even today sounds like an anachronism - tho far from it - it's not - good shot - I like it

langsandy said...

love your pun on primate and the suitability of the arcane 'physicks' - quite humorous - what you would have done with a Bonobo I can't even guess

Anonymous said...

Those who were present at his deathbed spoke of throngs of white squirrel monkeys, clothed in light, who bore Pope Philip's soul aloft on their dove wings. A swirling brightness appeared in the canopy above the bed, and the saintly Pope Philip ascended into heaven.

Afterwards the College of Cardinals elected Pope Pius IV. He was a Medici, and turned out about as one would expect.


this is one of the best endings of ANYTHING i have read lately, and the image of throngs of white squirrel monkeys as papal psychopomps will stay with me for a long time.
~gabe