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The Conclave from the “Outside In”: Rumor, Speculation, and Disorder in Rome during Early Modern Papal Elections*

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Abstract The secret politicking of the papal conclaves has fascinated scholars since Ranke first gained access to the Vatican’s Secret Archives. But few scholars have seriously studied what occurred outside the conclave. Early modern papal elections attracted a great deal of attention from both commoners and elites, which beget speculation about its proceedings, rumors, and even disorder. Everyone in Rome had their own agenda for wanting to know more about the conclave: brokers needed to be informed when accepting wagers on the election; French and Spanish ambassadors wanted information on the direction of the election; and crowds eagerly anticipated pillaging the pope-elect’s cell and palace. Writers of newssheets kept this attentive audience fed with information, but their activities also contributed to the circulation of rumors during the conclave. The conclave thus created a unique but ephemeral public sphere, one that was very different from Habermas’s classic bourgeois model. The public only dimly learned the secrets of the conclave. Misunderstanding and disorder reigned supreme. Nevertheless, the papal election opened a privileged time in Rome in which the public expressed its opinion about high politics, an activity normally forbidden to it by living popes.

Affiliations: 1: Utah Valley University


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