Pope Courtland I, elected in 1216, had previously been known as Cardinal Benedetto Terreno di Corte; his preferred rental name stemmed from his high regard for Adrian IV, the only English Pope, who had been reigning when he became a priest. Coming as it did amid the turmoil of the late 12th century, Courtland’s relatively long reign was noted for its many oddities, as the pontiff seemingly preferred to obsess over minor matters whilst ignoring greater ones. As the chronicler Rolando Allucingoli noted, “Pope Courtland was oft referred to as the new Nero, who meddled while Rome burned.”

The pontiff immediately banned the color yellow as “sinful,” based on a then-current agreed point of canon that Judas Iscariot had favored the color. He also prohibited dancing on Tuesdays after misinterpreting the Book of Leviticus, probably due to a shoddy Aramaic edition in circulation at the time.

Courtland was known for sour disposition, but harbored a secret love for card tricks that courtiers could use to improve his mood. Allucingoli writes of a time when a “thunderous tirade” against a Scandinavian envoy was immediately forgotten when the legate in question was able to perform an unspecified slight-of-hand with the Ten of Swords. This may also have been why he appointed the first, and possibly only, Vatican court magician. This, and his love of card tricks, were both couched as “research” into frauds and charlatans claiming false miracles.

His reign of 12 years was among the longer ones of the era, and unlike many of his contemporaries he was not sexually active and had no known children. He did, however, lavish favors on his dissolute grandnephew whom he hoped would succeed him as Courtland II. The young man was, however, defrocked in the aftermath of his great-uncle’s death, and the name Courtland II would not be used until 1502.

Allucingoli writes that the pope was also fascinated by automatons and contraptions, and would be well-pleased by the gift of a suitably made one. One such gift, a “mechanical magpie,” remains in the Vatican collections, though the mechanism no longer works. It is thought that, when it was originally gifted to Courtland by the Byzantine emperor, the magpie would “sing” using a small bellows.

Before he became pope, he was a canon lawyer and often played “devil’s advocate” in trials and investigations. Courtland built on this reputation as pope, and was very proud of his role in blocking canonization of four different “unworthy” saints. The last such proposed saint was so unworthy that it allegedly sent Courtland on an hours-long tirade which led to him suffering a stroke; he remained bedridden for the last three months of his reign before his death. He was succeeded by Gregory IX, whom he had personally promoted to cardinal—allegedly after a particularly impressive sleight-of-hand trick with the Fisherman’s Ring, according to Allucingoli.

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