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John XI - A Political Pawn

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John XIJohn XI is called the son of Pope Sergius III by the "Liber Pontificalis;" but as has been mentioned in the biography of Sergius III, this is not at all certain. Whoever his father was, John's mother was certainly the famous daughter of Theophylactus, Mary, known to history as Marozia. (Marozia means "little Mary".)

John entered the ranks of the clergy and became cardinal-priest of Santa Maria in Trastevere. His mother Marozia now dominated the political scene in Rome, and when Stephen VIII died, it was small wonder that her son John should be chosen pope. John seems to have been a good young priest. Only in his twenties, he was probably pretty much under his powerful mother's influence. John granted privileges to the great monastery of Cluny. It is interesting to note that at St. Odo's request, John granted privileges not only to Cluny, but to dependent monasteries. Cluny was more than a strict and pious abbey, it was the mother house of a congregation of monasteries. Since in the primitive Benedictine system, the abbot of each monastery was supreme, the dependence of a whole chain of monasteries on a mother abbey is a new departure. It proved very useful in the stormy days of the tenth century when a monastery, left to itself, could easily fall into decay.

Whatever John's gifts as a ruler, he had little opportunity to exercise them. His mother Marozia naturally had strong influence over her young son. Marozia, widowed twice, had married Hugh, King of Provence. Hugh was at first well received by the Romans, but soon it became clear that Marozia's son Alberic II was not happy. Rome was too small for Hugh and Alberic. Alberic struck first. Raising a mob, he rushed in on his mother's headquarters, the Castle of St. Angelo, with such force that Hugh fled. Alberic put his mother in prison. He also made his brother Pope John XI a prisoner. And after this revolution, which took place either in late 932 or early 933, Alberic ruled Rome like a dictator. He called himself Senator, Patrician, and Prince of the Romans. He usurped the temporal power completely and allowed his brother, the Pope, only the exercise of his spiritual duties. Indeed even in spiritual matters he interfered. It was at Alberic's insistence that John granted the pallium to Theophylactus, patriarch of Constantinople, and Artaud, archbishop of Rheims.

John XI died either in December 935 or January 936. His pontificate marks the complete supremacy in Rome of the house of Theophylactus. 

Excerpted from "Popes Through the Ages" by Joseph Brusher, S.J.

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