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The last time the pope stepped down? It's been a while

Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. Look back at his life from childhood through his papacy.
Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. Look back at his life from childhood through his papacy.Javier Barbancho / AFP - Getty Images

When Pope Benedict XVI announced Monday morning that he would step down at the end of the month, the news spread around the world in minutes.

The last time this happened, things were a bit different.

When Pope Celestine V abdicated in December 1294, five months after being elected, just 37 years had passed since the first recorded meeting of the seven electors of the Holy Roman Empire, according to Ohio State University’s History Timeline.

Only three years had passed since the Crusades had ended, and a scant 79 years —a single human lifetime — had gone by since King John of England signed the Magna Carta.

A few scratches with a pencil will tell you Celestine abdicated 719 years ago. But let’s have some more context. That same year, Kubla Khan, the last of the great Mongol rulers, died.

The next year, Marco Polo returned from China, full of all sorts of stories about the Far East and its exciting products. Accounts vary, but he is widely credited with introducing Europe to the ideas of paper money, coal and eyeglasses, among other things.

The Knights Templar were still riding around. They wouldn’t disband for another two decades.

It would be another 30 years before iron cannons were first forged in France; 31 until the Aztecs settled their capital in Tenochtitlan; 53 years before bubonic plague, or the Black Death, first struck Europe.

Seventy-four years would pass before Zhu Yuanzhang threw the Mongols out of Beijing and established the Ming Dynasty, whose objects we now consider almost unfathomably old.

A schism, and a resignation

There would be another resignation of sorts in 1417, when Gregory XII stepped down at the end of the Great Western Schism, according to the Encyclopaedia Brittanica. But there were also two rival popes with their own followers, cardinals and administrators, and all quit or were forced out (the records are a bit sketchy), so it wasn’t quite the same as Celestine V’s simple act, and many historians simply don’t count the whole episode as a proper resignation.

That would still be a long time since the last papal resignation. It was less than a decade after the first windmills were built in Holland, according to the OSU history timeline, and just two years after the English army, under King Henry V, defeated the French at the famed Battle of Agincourt.

That was during the Hundred Years’ War. Remember that one from history classes? It’s not a problem if you don’t: William Shakespeare memorialized Henry’s bravery in “Henry V,” so there’s a relatively recent account. Mind you, Shakespeare died 397 years ago, which was 199 years after Gregory XII resigned and 322 years after Celestine.

But maybe even that doesn’t properly emphasize enough how long it has been since a pope resigned. A lot of things have happened since. Pretty much all of them, some would say.

That might be a stretch, but from an American perspective let’s look at it this way: In 1294, America was -- well, it wasn’t, as far as Europeans were concerned, except perhaps for some Vikings who are thought to have popped in once or twice.

That would change, of course. A mere 157 years after Celestine’s resignation, Christopher Columbus was born (Leonardo Da Vinci would be born a year later), and we all know that he went on to discover America. Except that many scholars say he didn’t.

Ah, well. He at least came close enough to get the credit in Europe, where a more modern culture that would eventually give rise to ours was forming.

Not terribly modern, of course. Pope Nicholas V would give his blessing to slavery 161 years after Celestine resigned. Printing presses would eventually come along, too.

In case you still don’t appreciate the rarity of Benedict’s announcement, consider this: 181 years after the last time this happened, Michelangelo was born, which meant the Sistine Chapel could get a proper paint job.

And just eight years after the great artist’s birth, Martin Luther was born, so Protestants would eventually have a stronger voice and a whole new schism would erupt for people to talk about.

But that’s been a while. And not much of note has happened since, unless of course you count the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.


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