The Last Time a Pope Resigned, Mass Media Was Called ... Mass

A pope hasn't stepped down from office for 600 years. What was the "media frenzy" like in 1415?

Ulrich von Richental's Chronicle of the Council of Constance/Wikimedia Commons

Within minutes of the Pope's Monday announcement of his resignation, The New York Times reports, #Pontifexit was trending on Twitter. Certainly by the time the sun shone on the Eastern shore of the United States, every major news site had His Holiness up on their homepages, with stories full of analysis and context beginning to roll in. Not quite instantaneous, but not all that far behind.

For the first time in six centuries, we all quickly learned and then knowingly repeated, the Pope was stepping down. This made me wonder about those Europeans six hundred years ago, on their farms or in their burgeoning cities: How did they hear the news? How long did it take for word to reach them?

The answer is, roughly, it really depended. Today, mass media's distribution is pretty even, at least relatively speaking. If you follow the news at all, you probably heard about the Pope's resignation within the first few hours of the news breaking. As long as you had an Internet connection, a TV, or a radio, *where* you were was of little significance.

But in 1415, mass media happened not on a TV but at, well, Mass. "This is the big thing about the Middle Ages," George Ferzoco, a medievalist at the University of Bristol, told me. "We tend to think that they had no such thing as a mass medium. The fact is they did. And that mass medium was the sermon, because everyone would regularly be at one. Priests would not only talk about what people should doing in order to lead a good life, but in some cases, they really did serve as kinds of newspapers. They would announce what was happening, the major news that came in from abroad."

Historian Donald Prudlo echoed that framework: mendicant friars -- preachers who brought the gospel to the people by foot, opting out of monastery life -- "were sort of the mass media of the age. If you take the Internet and Twitter and television and radio, they were it. These were the men who traveled all around Europe. And in addition to their preaching, which sometimes lasted several hours, they would intersperse their religious material with news of the Holy Land, news of England, news of the Spanish succession."

The clergy were, in a sense, the 15th-century's TV screens, the displays that conveyed the news. But just as information does not begin in your TV set, 15th-century friars and preachers got their news from somewhere -- and that somewhere, in the case of the 1415 resignation, was Constance, the town in what is now southern Germany where the council had convened to negotiate who would lead the church. Of course, those at Constance were the first to know any news. "Probably about 900 of the greatest minds of Christianity are there, and the city would be packed with I don't know how many times that number feeding them and housing them and clothing them. So that is to say that there is also a huge rumor mill around," Catholic historian Christopher Bellitto told me. 

" is just the latest version of people wondering what is going on and who is going to be the next pope," he added.

"These were major, major events," said Ferzoco. "Almost every principality and republic in Europe had representatives there; bishops were there with their retinues." And, he added, "On top of that you've got a lot of people hired for the occasion. They would have shipped in scribes from all over the place, so that they could make copies of all the documents."

"Imagine," he continued, "what it's like to have a major international meeting lasting a few years, and you've got to discuss written texts. Well you've got to have an army of people writing this stuff out, nonstop, day and night. So all of these people together would have been potential news sources. They would have sent news back to their home cities, or indeed to people who they deem are important or interested."

From Constance, news traveled outward through a network of messengers on horseback. Couriers "would take documents out of Constance, go to a town 20 or 30 miles down the road, transfer things there to a fresh person and a fresh person and so on," said Ferzoco. Medievalists I spoke with estimated that this sort of "Pony Express" system could have conveyed the news of Gregory XII's resignation to major European cities such as Paris in something like a week. (One said "within a week or so"; the other put it at "at least a week.")

From the monarchs and other nobles, information would then "trickle down," as Don Prudlo put it. "The upper echelon of nobility would have been the first to know -- certainly the kings who have an interest in this matter. From that, because the cities were becoming so important by this time, news would travel fast in the cities, just as it does today. By word of mouth, news would have been around a city within a day or two of the nobility knowing."

In rural areas, the story is a lot less clear, though there's little question that news would have taken longer to arrive than to the cities. Likely, Ferzoco speculated, the route "would have been from the council to the seat of a diocese -- that is, a cathedral city -- via horse in most cases, I would think. And from there, copies would be made for the churches within that diocese." And then, to the masses, "normally through the sermon at the next Mass," Ferzoco said.

(That said, it's not so clear whether rural peasants would have been all that interested in the news. "Until 1900 most people on the planet didn't even know what the pope looks like," Bellitto noted. He continued, "The person in the pew really doesn't know and probably doesn't care, except for that there's great confusion in their diocese. You might have two or even three popes trying to tax them, and that's what they're going to get annoyed at." People in cities, he guessed, would have known the pope's name. But a peasant in a Scottish field? Maybe not so much.)

But even given that, people of the time weren't as isolated as we might imagine. "Something that it's important to realize is how interconnected Europe was at this point," Prudlo emphasized. "They had that international language -- Latin -- that all of the upper classes could understand, and they had this system of communication. People were already traveling. Even the lower classes were traveling through pilgrimages. They're going to Canterbury, or to Rome, or to the Holy Land. They are traveling with the Mendicant order, they're traveling militarily, with things like the Crusades."

He went on: "This was a really mobile and connected population -- something that we don't think of, sometimes we have our preconceptions of a more primitive Medieval period."

Mass media? A mobile, globe-trotting population? News that spread along the fault-lines of power and proximity to it? Certainly some of the echoes come not from the history itself but from our own tendency to impose modern terminology on another time. But some of those echoes are genuinely present -- a reminder that when you sand down the details of history far enough, the underlying wooden grain of human history has some recognizable features.