Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

"I Have Neither Silver nor Gold": An Explanation of a Medieval Papal Ritual

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

"I Have Neither Silver nor Gold": An Explanation of a Medieval Papal Ritual

Article excerpt


A medieval pope's post-coronation ceremonies usually included two forms of coin tosses.1 One type, performed for the pope by a member of his cavalcade, took place during the procession to the Lateran Palace. The pope, on the other hand, personally performed the second type of toss: at the Lateran during his ritual possession (possessio) of the palace.2 During his possessio a pope cast coins once at the marble seat (sedes stercoraria) located at the palace's entrance, and again at the two porphyry seats located at the door of the basilica Sancti Silvestri.3 All of the liturgical prescriptions (ordines)4 for the conduct of the possessio (twelfth to fifteenth century) mention coin tosses at these two locations.5 Ceremonies extra Roman-for example, the consecration of Popes John NMI and Martin V (at Lyons and Constance, respectively)-did not duplicate the casts connected with the sedes of the Lateran palace.6

The sources are unanimous on the conduct of the ceremony at the series stercoraria. The procession having arrived at the Lateran, the pope is led to the sedes stercoraria and sits down.7 The cardinals then raise him up so that (according to the sources) these words could be fulfilled:"He raised the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the dunghill to give them a place with princes and to assign them a seat of honor" (I Kings 2:8, cf. Psalm 112:7-8).8 Standing, the pope removed from the folds of his chamberlain's garb ("de gremio camerarii") three handfuls of denarii and threw them to the assembled crowd while reciting, sometimes verbatim, Acts 3:6: "1 have neither gold nor silver, but what I have I give to you" (Argentum et aurum non est mihi; quod autem babeo, hoc tibi do).9 It is not specified whether the pope proclaimed these words once or with each cast. The silence of the sources regarding the seeming incongruity of the biblical passage with the dispersal of wealth has generated the most fanciful modern reconciliations-the Subject of the present analysis.

The sources basically agree on the ceremony connected with the casts performed at the porphyry seats.The cardinals led the pope to the two porphyry seats placed at the entrance of the basilica Sancti Silvestri.10 The pope sat first in the chair on the right.11 At this point, the prior of the Saint Lawrence basilica handed the pontiff a rod (ferula, a symbol of the pope's authority) and a set of keys to the Lateran's basilica and palace (a symbol, moreover, of the pope's power of binding and loosing). The pope then rose and proceeded to the second porphyry seat. Before sitting down, the pontiff restored both the rod and the keys to the aforementioned prior. Ibis individual then girded the sitting pope with a red silk belt (cingulum, or zona) from which hung a purple purse filled with twelve seals (sigillae) of precious stone and perfumed powder (muscus).12 The pontiff then received the reverence of the palace officials "ad pedes et postea ad osculum." Still sitting, the pope took, three times, from the hand of his treasurer (camerurius), a fistful of silver coins and tossed them to the crowd. With each cast the pope recited the words of 2 Cor. 9:9 (which refers to the words of Psalm 111:9): "He dispersed his wealth to the poor, his righteousness will live forever and ever" (Dispersit dedit pauperibus, justitia ejus manet in seculum seculi). The harmony of biblical passage with ritual action required no medieval (or modern) commentary.

The Coin Casts at the Sedes Stercoraria

The meaning of the initial coin casts at the first palatial seat is clear. Eduard Eichmann views the coin tosses performed here as similar to those conducted by the Byzantine emperor upon his accession." The purpose of the casts was, therefore, the distribution of largess. This is a reasonable explanation in the light of the place of the toss within the ceremony as well as another previously ignored piece of evidence: Cardinal Stefaneschi's poem on the coronation of Pope Boniface VIII. …

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