Christ's Faithful People
1276 - 1277 AD
John XXI is unique in two things: he is the only Portuguese pope, and he is the only pope placed in Paradise by that fierce Ghibelline, Dante.
Peter Juliani, the son of Julian a physician, was born probably in Lisbon in 1215. Like so many thirteenth-century leaders, he went to the University of Paris. He became proficient in philosophy, theology and medicine. Indeed, he became a doctor of medicine and wrote treatises in the fields of philosophy and medicine. Dante calls him, "he of Spain in his twelve volumes shining."
Peter became a professor of medicine at the University of Siena. At first, it seems, he was hard pressed to make a living, but later the Sienese seem to have done well by their illustrious professor. The date on which he became attached to the papal curia is not known, but his rise was swift. His services were generously rewarded by a number of benefices, and finally he was made cardinal-bishop of Albano.
Hadrian V had died at Viterbo and it was there that the cardinals gathered for the conclave. The people of Viterbo wanted to enforce the regulations of Gregory X concerning papal elections. These called for an election ten days after the pope's death in the city where the pope had been in residence with his court. The cardinals were to remain secluded from all outside contacts, even their food being passed through a little window or drum. After three days their food was to be cut to a single dish, morning and night for five days. After that it was bread and water for the cardinals until they could give the Church a new shepherd.
Now since Hadrian V had suspended these regulations, the cardinals objected very strenuously to being compelled to observe them. The Viterbese unmoved by Their Eminences' protests, closed them up and relentlessly cut down their diet as the days dragged on.
Highhanded the Viterbese may have been, but they got results. The cardinals soon agreed on a candidate--the Portuguese physician-philosopher, Peter Juliani. He took the name of John XXI.
One of the new Pope's first acts was to repeal the election decree of Gregory X. This, it seems, caused great scandal, but in view of the harsh treatment just undergone by the Pope and his cardinals, the action, if regrettable, is quite understandable.
John XXI worked hard during his short reign to promote peace among Christian princes. He took measures to correct any abuses in the collection of papal taxes in England. In answer to complaints about this, he ordered his chief collector to look into the matter and punish any offenders. All the papal tax collectors in England were ordered to go to London and there take an oath to perform their duties properly.
Always a man of science as well as a priest, John built for himself a room in the papal palace at Viterbo where he could study the stars, a sort of observatory. This observatory was to be the death of the Pope. One night in the spring of 1277, the roof collapsed on the student Pope. The great beams crushed him horribly. For a while he lingered, conscious and fortified by the last rites of the Church, but on May 20, 1277, the sixth day after the accident, Pope John XXI passed away. He was buried in the Cathedral of St. Lawrence at Viterbo.