Pope statistics

With Benedict XVI set to retire in a few days, I spent some time poring over Wikipedia’s pages on various popes in order to perform a basic statistical analysis for my own amusement, which I offer here in the hope that somebody might find it interesting or valuable.
Before I go on, I must address shortcomings in the data.


Due to incomplete records , only ranges are known for the dates of coronation and death of the early popes. If a range of dates is gives for coronation, resignation, death, or birth, I took the midpoint. This is an arbitrary decision, but I figure it will probably result in the smalles degree of error on average when precise dates are not known.

If Wikipedia gave two possible dates for an event with the certainty that said event happened on one date or the other, I chose the one that looked subjectively the most likely. This is tremendously arbitrary, but it was all I could do to keep the data sensible.

Benedict IX screws up the counting by having officially served three terms as pope. Since he never formally relinquished the papacy to Sylvester III, I have counted his first two official terms as one big term, lasting from 1032 to 1045, including Sylvester III’s entire term. See below for just what the heck happened in the mid-11th century.

When listing popes’ places of origin, I assigned them the modern country corresponding to their birthplace. Borders and national identities have shifted since the Roman Empire, but for the most part I think I have gotten popes’ ethnicities reasonably correct.

When looking at origins of Italian popes, I assigned to each one the region in modern Italy best corresponding to the ancient or medieval state they came from. In some cases, a town has passed from one region to another as the Italian states jostled for power and later united Italy moved borders around. In these cases, I assigned a town to the territory it was in at the time, which may not be the region it is in now. For towns that were part of the Papal Sates, I have assigned them to Lazio, which appears to be that area’s successor in modern Italy. Popes born in Rome are counted seperately due to their sheer numbers.

Things I learned about the papacy

The papacy has been corrupt for a long time

Medieval popes were, more often than not, absolute nutters. Since the pope was both the boss of Christianity and secular ruler of a major Italian state, he was invested with considerable power. As a result, powerful Italian families constantly jostled to get their members appointed cardinals, and used their connections to have their cardinals made pope in order to extend their own families’ power. This was possible because the position of pope has never officially been hereditary – in the early days, the pope often named his successor; this changed to the pope being appointed by the Holy Roman Emperor at the suggetion of the college of cardinals in the middle ages, before finally changing to explicit election by cardinals by Nicholas II. When popes appointed their own successors, many wouls appoint their nephews as a way of establishing a dynasty, which suited the Italian noble families very well.

Several popes were openly married, however, albeit before taking holy orders. Adrian II’s wife and daughter lived with him at the Vatican, and Hormisdas’ son, Silverius, went on to become pope himself.

Benedict IX was nuts

The life of Benedict IX would make for a really interesting historical fiction novel.

He was elected as normal in 1032, but was the most notoriously insane and corrupt pope of all time to the extent of allegedly holding gay orgies in the Vatican, though this might be an exaggeration by one of his many enemies. He was expelled from Rome in 1044 by the cardinals; Sylvester III was elected in his place. However, Benedict continued to act as pope, and publicly excommunicated Sylvester. 

The next year, Benedict retook the throne by force, but Sylvester continued to act as pope. However, Benedict wasn’t very good at being pope, and began pining after a woman. His uncle Gratian, hoping to get rid of him, persuaded him to resign in exchange for money, which Benedict accepted; Gratian became Gregory VI.

However, Benedict couldn’t get the woman he wanted, and he soon missed the power and riches that came from being the head Christian. He took a force to attack Rome, around the same time as Sylvester also attempted to retake the throne. By now, things had gotten so bad that Emperor Henry III had to come down to sort things out. Cutting the knot, he officially declared that none of the three claimants were eligible for pope deposed all three, ordering the cardinals to elect a new pope, Clement II.

Clement died in 1047 and Benedict, not happy with being forced from the throne, brought troops to Rome to retake it that same year. He was driven out by German troops within the year and replaced with Damasus II. Benedict seems to have eventually repented of his sins and died a humble monk.

Weird numberings

There was no pope John XX. John XI thought that the name John XIV had accidentally been used twice. In fact, he misread an earlier list of popes which seperately listed the time during which John XIV had been actually in power, and when he had been imprisoned by Antipope Boniface VII. Also, John XVI, Benedict X, Boniface IX, and Alexander V were antipopes who nonetheless managed to get into the official numbering.

A priest named Stephen was elected Stephen II in 752, but he died of a stroke just three days later, before he could actually fulfil any of his popely duties. According to some numberings, including Wikipedia, he therefore doesn’t count; others think he does. Since my research was done on Wikipedia, I have ignored him.

There is an unwritten rule that a pope will not take the name Peter, due to it being a bit presumptuous to name oneself after Jesus’ friend. Both John II and John XIV chose the name John because they felt their birth names were inappropriate – John II, the first to change his name, because he was named Mercurius after a Roman god, and John XIV because he was named Peter. The last pope to use his birth name was Marcellus II.

Pope Pius XII was crowned on his 63rd birthday in 1939. Heck of a present.

And now, statistics!

The average length of a pope’s reign in 7.31 years (standard deviation: 9.77 years). The longest ever reign belongs to Pius IX, who reigned for 31yrs 8 months (13/05/1792 – 16/06/1846). The shortest reign was that of Urban VII, who reigned for just 12 days in 1590 and was never properly crowned.

When graphed, the length of the pope’s reigns actually show a slight decrease before an increase in recent years. This difference is more starkly seen when the cumulative average of pope’s reigns are graphed.

The oldest person ever to be elected pope was Celestine III, who was 85 when he was elected in 1191 and died in 1198. The youngest person ever appears to have been, John XII who was apparently just 18 when he became pope (though questions about his parentage suggest he may have been up to 25). There are rumours that our old friend Benedict IX managed to become pope at the age of 12, but I think this is a bit implausible even for medieval Italian politics.

The oldest pope ever was Paul V, who was over 98 when he died in 1621. Also, he was crowned on 16/05/1605, which is pretty cool.

Based on the ages of popes whose births are known, the average age at which a pope is elected is 58 (standard deviation: 30.48). If we look at only popes from Innocent IV onwards (the time at which consistently reliable age records are available), the average age is 63yrs 3 months (standard deviation: 9.51); this reflects a trend towards electing older popes.

Looking at a graph of all popes, there does not appear to be any particular trend, though this seems to be due to excessive noise. Looking at a graph of the cumulative averages from Innocent IV onwards, however, we see a small but steady increase in the average age of the man elected pope as time goes on; it should also be borne in mind that later popes on the second graph will skew the result less than earlier ones.

Based on the same samples, the average age of death or resignation of a pope is 68.38 (standard deviation: 34.55) when taking all popes, or 73.33 (standard deviation: 10.15) for popes from Innocent IV onwards. This appears to reflect an increase in living conditions, medicine, and food quality, allowing everybody, including the pope, to live longer. The graphs of the age of the pope on death or resignation are very similar to those for age of coronation.

John is the most popular papal name, with 21 out of 263 popes choosing that name.

Of 263 popes, 198 (75%) so far are known to have been from Italy. France is in second place for spawning popes, having contributed 17 (6.5% total, 44.73% of popes know to have not been Italian).

Of the Italian popes, 85 (42.5%) were born in Rome. That makes 32.3% of all popes ever!

If you want to double-check my calculations, here is the original spreadsheet: CSV | PDF | ODS | XLS (Note: Due to Microsoft not conforming to ISO standards, I can’t guarantee the dates will be correct in the XLS version).

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