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Pope John XXI (1215 – May 20, 1277), born Pedro Julião (Latin, Petrus Iulianus), a Portuguesemarker also called Pedro Hispano (Latin, Petrus Hispanus, was Pope from 1276 until his death about eight months later. He was the only Portuguesemarker Pope, although Damasus I can also be considered Portuguese, as he was born in territory that is nowadays in Portugal, and Paul IV also had a Portuguese maternal grandmother.

Pope John XXI was also a physician, being the only pope ever to be so.

Note that the previous Pope named John was Pope John XIX (1024–32) and there is no Pope John XX (see article above for explanation).

Pre-papal life

Pedro Julião, born between 1210 and 1220, was probably born in Lisbonmarker. He started his studies at the episcopal school of Lisbon Cathedral, and later joined the University of Parismarker, although some historians claim that he was educated at Montpelliermarker. Wherever he studied, he concentrated on medicine, theology, and Aristotle's dialectic, logic, physics and metaphysics.

From 1245 to 1250 he became known as Pedro Hispano (because he came from Hispania, the Iberian Peninsula) and taught medicine at the university of Sienamarker, where he wrote the Summulae Logicales, a reference manual on Aristotelian logic that remained in use in European universities for more than 300 years (see Peter of Spain for some controversies). He became famous as a university teacher, then returned to Lisbon. In the courts of Guimarães he was the councilor and spokesman of the king Afonso III of Portugal (1248–79) in church matters; later, becoming prior of Guimarães. He tried to become Bishop of Lisbonmarker, but he was defeated. Instead, he became the master of the school of Lisbon. A notable philosopher, he was also the responsible for the creation of the Square of opposition.

Pedro became the physician of Pope Gregory X (1271–76). In March 1273 he was elected archbishop of Braga, but did not assume that post because on June 3, 1273 Gregory X created him Cardinal-Bishop of Frascati.

Papal Arms of Pope John XXI

Papacy and death

After the death of Pope Adrian V, on August 18, 1276, Pedro Hispano was elected Pope at the conclave of cardinals on September 13, and he was crowned a week later. One of John XXI's few acts during his brief rule was to reverse the decree recently passed at the Second Council of Lyon (1274), which not only confined cardinals in solitude until they elected a successor Pope, but also progressively restricted their supplies of food and wine if their deliberation took too long.

Though much of John XXI's brief papacy was dominated by the powerful Cardinal Giovanni Gaetano Orsini (who succeeded him as Pope Nicholas III), John attempted to launch a crusade for the Holy Land, pushed for a union with the Eastern church, and did what he could to maintain peace between the Christian nations. He also launched a drive to convert the Tatars, which came to nothing.

The Pope had a new wing added to his palace at Viterbomarker; it was poorly built, and while he lay sleeping part of the roof fell in and he was seriously injured. John XXI died eight days later, probably as the only pope to end his life by an actual accident, on May 20, 1277. He was buried in the Duomo di Viterbo where his tomb can still be seen.


After his death, it was rumored that John XXI had actually been a magician (a suspicion frequently directed towards the preciously few scholars among medieval popes even during their papacy; see e.g., Sylvester II), and that he was writing a heretical treatise in the room that collapsed on him, by an Act of God, it was inferred.

In The Divine Comedy Dante sees John XXI (referred to as "Pietro Spano") in the Heaven of the Sun with the other spirits of great religious scholars.

Medical works

Surprisingly, one of the most comprehensive recipe books for pre- and post-coital contraception was written by Pedro Hispano, who offered advice on birth control and how to provoke menstruation in his immensely popular Thesaurus Pauperum (Treasure of the Poor). Many of Peter’s recipes have been found surprisingly effective by contemporary research, and it is believed that women in antiquity had more control over their reproduction than previously believed (Riddle, 1994). It is not clear, however, if the author of Thesaurus Pauperum was indeed the same person as Pope John XXI.


  • Maxwell-Stuart, P. G. Chronicle of the Popes: The Reign-by-Reign Record of the Papacy from St. Peter to the Present, Thames & Hudson, 2002, p. 119. ISBN 0500017980.

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