Pirate Attacks, Corruption & Treasure Revealed in Vatican Archives
The pirates who stole a dead bishop's treasure aboard the São Vicente ship in the 14th century likely used a galea sotile galley. Shown here, a model of a Galley of the Order of the Knights of St. John (Knights hospitaller), Malta.
Credit: Photo by Myriam Thyes, CC Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported

A medieval tale of a dead bishop's treasure, a pope and a pirate whose name means "fire blast" or "fire fart" has been revealed in newly published documents from the Vatican archives.

The tale may seem more like Hollywood than reality.

"Hollywood could use this story. But Hollywood does not know anything about it because it is buried in the documents edited here," Charles Donahue Jr., a professor at Harvard University, wrote in the preface to the newly published book "The Spoils of the Pope and the Pirates, 1357: The Complete Legal Dossier from the Vatican Archives" (The Ames Foundation, 2014).

Edited by Daniel Williman, a professor emeritus at Binghamton University, and Karen Ann Corsano, a private scholar, the Latin-language documents published in the book bring this pirate tale to light. [See Images related to the Ancient Pirate Tale]

A dead bishop's treasure

In the early months of A.D. 1357, the São Vicente, a ship laden with a dead bishop's treasure, set sail from Lisboa (modern-day Lisbon), according to the Vatican documents.

Its cargo included gold, silver, rings, tapestries, jewels, fine plates and even portable altars. This treasure was formerly owned by Thibaud de Castillon, a recently deceased bishop of Lisboa who had acquired a vast amount of wealth during the performance of his duties.

"He governed and exploited the bishopric through a vicar general for three years while he managed a commercial collaboration with the important Montpellier merchants Peire Laugautru and Guilhem Parayre," Williman and Corsano wrote in their book.His commercial activities in the Mediterranean and Atlantic included speculative trading, buying commodities like wool in hope that its value would increase.

While De Castillon didn't have to take a vow of poverty(not all priests were required to), the ways in which he acquired his wealth were questionablefor someone in his position, Williman and Corsano said. [The 10 Most Notorious Pirates Ever]

"Usury [lending money with a high interest rate] was a mortal sin, and the profit of trading investments was considered usurious," Williman and Corsano said in an email to Live Science.  To get around this mortal sin, de Castillon made "clumsy efforts to pretend that his cash wealth and its profits actually belonged to his agents," such as Laugautru and Parayre, Williman and Corsano said.

The papal administration looked the other way. His "past in Atlantic and Mediterranean commerce may have been viewed by the Camera Apostolica [the organization in charge of papal finances] as desirable experience for a bishop in Portugal, and in any case, the Camera intended to take all Thibaud's wealth as spoils when he died," Williman and Corsano wrote in their book.

Pirate attack

The São Vicente's mission was to deliver the dead bishop's treasure to Avignon, in France, where Pope Innocent VI (reign 1352-1362) was based. In the 14th century, popes often resided in Avignon due to political turmoil in Italy. [Papal Primer: History's 10 Most Intriguing Popes]

While sailing near the town of Cartagena, in modern-day Spain, the ship's crew of about a dozen men was attacked by two pirate vessels. One of them was commanded by a man named Antonio "Botafoc." The word botafocmeans "fire blast" or "fire fart" — his real last name is lost to history. The other ship was commanded by Martin Yanes.

Botafoc's ship was armed to the teeth. Records indicate that his crew carried cutlasses (swords with curved blades used by sailors and pirates) and war pikes, and his galley had at least seven ballistae, which were large, crossbowlike devices capable of launching 9-inch (23 centimeters) stone bullets at high speeds. Two ballistae would have been placed on the bow, one would have been elevated above the deck and the others could have been movable, Williman and Corsano said. 

Faced with this overwhelming firepower, the crew of the São Vicente had little choice but to surrender the treasure.

While Yanes may have made a clean getaway, Botafoc's crew wasn't so lucky. Botafoc'sgalley ran aground near the town of Aigues-Mortes in France. The local garrison captured Botafoc's crew and hanged them on the beach, possibly by the lanteen spar (part of the ship used to rig the sails) of their own galley.

"The poor common sailors were extra-judicially hanged. They were, by tradition, hostes humani generis, enemies of the human race, like highway brigands, and no law protected them," Williman and Corsano told Live Science in an email.

Botafoc and a few of his officers were spared and were sent to prison to await their fate. "Depositing a large amount of gold coin with the bishop of Torino, who happened to be in residence in Montpellier, Botafoc surrendered to the captain of Aigues-Mortes, while his mate and [another officer] went into the custody of the marshal of justice of the papal Curia at Avignon," Williman and Corsano wrote in their book.

Before the authorities could secure the beached pirate vessel, local fishers took items from the ship, claiming right of salvage.

On Feb. 11, 1357, Jean des Baumes, a clerk of a local judge, took inventory of the remaining goods. "Apart from the ship's sail, cordage, oars, armament and rigging, the judge's clerk on the beach listed a great mass of clothing and cloth in odd lots — but also items like books and ecclesiastical vestments," Williman and Corsano wrote.

The recaptured treasure went to the pope and was used as gifts for royalty and to pay soldiers, courtiers and other staff.

Cheating the hangman

While Botafoc's crew was hanged, his officers were let off with a fine, the Vatican records indicate.

It appears that Botafoc himself also managed to escape the hangman's noose, as the fine paid to the Vatican's finance board covered the pirate captain as well, Williman and Corsano told Live Science. However, "the royal sergeants of the Aigues-Mortes garrison could have done anything they wished to him," they said.

The second pirate ship that attacked the São Vicente — the one commanded by Yanes — was never mentioned again in historical records. Yanes' crew may have gotten away cleanly, with a bounty of treasure.

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