15th Century Pope Wrote Erotic Novel

Turns out Pope Pius II had an interesting side gig.

Illustration from future Pope's novel
An illustration from "The Tale of Two Lovers."
Metropolitan Museum of Art/Creative Commons

The great French writer Gustave Flaubert made a memorable comment about the importance of a writer’s personality relative to the words they put onto paper. “Be regular and orderly in your life … so that you may be violent and original in your work,” Flaubert famously said, and it’s something that a host of notable writers have taken to heart, including the oft-transgressive J.G. Ballard

A new report suggests that one author who lived centuries before Flaubert may have taken this maxim to its logical end point. The writer’s name was Aeneas Silvius Bartholomeus, but history knows him better by the name he adopted in 1458: Pope Pius II. 

At Narratively, Julia Métraux explores this decidedly unexpected overlap of literary and theological history. It begins before Bartholomeus’s time at the Holy See; in the 1440s, he was named poet laureate by King Frederick III of Germany. While handling his duties in this role, however, Bartholomeus was also writing erotic poetry — and, in 1444, the novel The Tale of Two Lovers.

Métraux describes The Tale of Two Lovers as a “tale of forbidden lust,” and notes that “it details a passionate affair between Lucretia, a married woman, and Euryalus, a man-in-waiting to the Duke of Austria.” Bartholomeus’s prose is accompanied by a series of illustrations, which apparently left little to the imagination.

Bartholomeus was a fascinating figure even before he became Pope: he conducted a series of affairs and fathered several children. Unfortunately, there’s evidence that he wasn’t simply a charming libertine leading a double life: one of the texts Métraux cites suggests the future Pontiff sexually assaulted a woman who has previously expressed her disinterest in him. 

Métraux’s account of the life of Pope Pius II before and after he took office makes for a fascinating read, abounding with contradictions and hypocrisy. It’s a thrilling and at times unsettling glimpse into a particular corner of history.

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