What makes this man remarkable is not his systemising of Catholic Canon Law, or founding the University of Rome, or formalising the custom of the Roman Jubilee, a special year of remission of sins and universal pardon, but by being remembered in Dante’s Divine Comedy as public enemy number one!
Born Benedetto Caetani, Pope Boniface has the unenviable notoriety of being named in Dante’s Inferno as an exponent of the black arts. He succeeded to Pope Celestine V to the papacy in 1294 and put forward some of the strongest claims of any pope to temporal as well as spiritual power. He involved himself often with foreign affairs, including in France, Sicily, Italy, and the First War of Scottish Independence. These views, and his chronic intervention in “temporal” affairs, led to many bitter quarrels with Albert I of Germany, Philip IV of France, and Dante Alighieri, who wrote his treatise De Monarchia to dispute Boniface’s claims of papal supremacy and placed the pope in the Eighth Circle of Hell in his Divine Comedy, among the simoniacs, i.e. those who sold church roles and sacred objects to empower them with the power of the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands.
Boniface issued a bull in 1303 declaring both spiritual and temporal power were under the pope’s jurisdiction, and kings were subordinate to the power of the Roman pontiff. Philip disobeyed and had the bull publicly burnt in Paris in 1302. Boniface excommunicated Philip and all others who prevented French clergy from traveling to the Holy See, after which the king sent his troops to attack the pope’s residence in Anagni on 7 September 1303 and capture him. Boniface was held for three days and beaten badly and died from a fever a month later.
His successor Benedict VI undertook to defend his memory but died in the first year of his pontificate -it was said by poison, and the Holy See remained vacant for 11 months, when a Frenchman, the archbishop of Bordeaux was elected to the papal chair under the title of Clement V. There is little doubt he was Phillip’s choice who then pressured Clement V to stage a posthumous trial of Boniface, accusing him of heresy and sodomy. The Pope referred the process to the 1311 Council of Vienne, where two Templar knights challenged the claim to a trial by combat. With no one willing to fight them, the Council declared the matter closed. Boniface’s body was accidentally exhumed in 1605 and was found to be in relatively good condition, dispensing the legend that he had become frenzied, gnawing his hands, and bashing his brains out against the wall.
The French case against Boniface involved many testimonies, which described Boniface as a free thinker, in the habit of mocking, and cynically regarding things sacred to the church, of practising the black arts. It was commonly reported in Italy, according to witnesses, Boniface had communication with and worshipped demons. One, a friar, brother Bernard de Sorano, said that when Boniface was a cardinal and held the office of notary to Nicholas III, he lay with the papal army before the castle of Puraino, and he having been sent to receive the surrender of the castle returned with the cardinal to Viterbo, where they were lodged in the palace. At night looking out of the window with the cardinal’s chamberlain they saw Boniface enter an adjoining garden, where in a mysterious manner, carrying a cock and an earthen pot he made a circle about himself on the ground with a sword. On seating himself therein he created a fire in the pot and killed the cock sprinkling its blood on the fire causing much smoke. He proceeded to read from a book conjuring up demons during which much noise was heard that made them terrified. One voice clearly heard said “Give us our share”. After this ceremony Boniface returned to his room which he slept in alone, but he was heard talking all night and strange voices answering him.
Eventually under pressure to consider ‘other necessities’ Philip IV agreed to drop the prosecution, and at last, in 1312, Boniface was declared in the Council of Vienne, innocent of all the offences he had been charged.
Make of this as you will, fundamentalists, monarchs, and politicians during the middle ages often said there was no smoke without fire. Boniface VIII has not been alone accused of heresy, and that includes the present Pope Francis (2013 -) whose words and actions have been said to be a comprehensive rejection of Catholic teachings on marriage and sexual activity, on the moral law, and on grace and forgiveness of sins. The pontiff has even been accused of using a satanic symbol at the opening mass of the Synod on Youth in 2018, when he “carried a staff in the form of a ‘stang,’ an object used in satanic rituals”.