Faster than smoke from the Sistine Chapel, the revelation that Pope Benedict XVI will stand down at the end of this month billowed round the world.
“If you follow the news at all, you probably heard about the Pope’s resignation within the first few hours of the news breaking.” writes the Atlantic‘s Rebecca J Rosen. “As long as you had an internet connection, a TV, or a radio, where you were was of little significance.”
The last time a pope quit, in 1415, the news travelled less quickly, and via one large multinational.
“This is the big thing about the Middle Ages,” George Ferzoco, a medievalist at the University of Bristol, tells Rosen.
“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 … In some cases, they really did serve as kinds of newspapers.”
The mass medium was congregation at church – or, if you prefer, mass.
The task of distribution fell to mendicant friars, roaming preachers who couriered both gospel and gossip by foot, adds historian Donald Prudlo.
“[They] were sort of the mass media of the age. If you take the internet and Twitter and television and radio, they were it.”
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 …
From Constance, news travelled 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.”) …
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.
Did the shape of modern communication play a part in the resignation? Mario Calabresi of the Italian paper La Stampa thinks so.
“Benedict had tried, not without difficulty, to follow the global agenda and its rhythms as dictated by 24/7 media broadcasting,” writes the columnist (translated at WorldCrunch), noting the outgoing pope’s willingness to join, for example, Twitter.
“It is an agenda that, each day, slides further away from his ethical and social conventions – a seemingly unnatural race for a man who consecrated his life to study, reflection and silent meditation.”
Benedict’s decision will resonate in all corners of the world, but one place has particular reason to fret. Another southern German town, Bavaria’s Marktl am Inn, has seen tourist numbers surge since its most famous son got the big job. And a market has developed for papal goodies, reports the German paper Die Welt (again, thanks WorldCrunch).
The tourism office in the home town of the pontiff formerly known as Ratzinger has a large supply of pope-themed candles for purchase. At the bakery you’ll find “Papsbrot”, aka pope bread. And the local brewery has been doing a storming trade with its “Papstbier”.
But the local mayor is refusing to be disheartened – in public at least.
“He doesn’t think the tourist interest and the money it brings Marktl will dry up now that Benedict is stepping down,” reports Die Welt. “He’s done his research. He says that visits to the birth town of John Paul II in Poland actually went up after the pontiff’s death.”
Marktl isn’t the only place alert to a local angle on the resignation.
In the hands of the UK Birmingham Post, the headline went like this: