(Dec. 983–20 Aug. 984)
On the death of Benedict VII (10 July 983) Emperor Otto II (973–83) seems to have first offered the papal throne to Maiolus, saintly fourth abbot of Cluny (965–94), who declined it. He thereupon nominated his former arch-chancellor for Italy, Peter Canepanova, from 966 bishop of Pavia, his birthplace. The time-taking negotiations he had to conduct explain the length of the vacancy. Otto appears to have imposed Peter without consulting the Roman clergy and people; there is no evidence of a regular election. As a result the new pope, who took the name John so as to avoid that of the Prince of the Apostles, had no allies in any section of Roman society and depended wholly on his patron's protection.
No doubt Otto looked for loyal cooperation from his trusted former minister, and in fact John's only surviving bull is one bestowing the pallium, in furtherance of the emperor's south Italian policies, on Archbishop Alo of Benevento. Unfortunately he had scarcely been installed in the Lateran when Otto, who had returned to Rome from the south stricken with malaria, died in his arms after receiving absolution (7 Dec. 983). Empress Theophano was obliged to return at once to Germany to defend the interests of her 3-year-old son Otto III (980–1002). Without friends, regarded by the Romans as forced upon them, John was then defenceless and fell an easy prey to Boniface VII, raised up as antipope by the powerful Crescentii family in 974, excommunicated by Benedict VII, but now biding his time in Constantinople. In Apr. 984 he returned, and John was seized, brutally assaulted, formally deposed, and flung into gaol in Castel Sant'Angelo; no details of the charges or trial survive. Four months later he died in the fortress of starvation; according to some reports, he was poisoned. His epitaph in St Peter's, which records 20 Aug. as the date of his death, was engraved during Boniface's lifetime and, significantly, did not describe the circumstances of his end.
LP ii. 259JW i. 484 f.ZPR 250–55PL 137: 357Mann iv. 330–38DBI lv. 582–5 (W. Huschner)DTC viii. 628 (É Amann)NCE vii. 926–7 (S. McKenna)Z1: 102Z2: 223 f.Levillain ii. 842 (H.-H. Körtum)Seppelt ii. 380 f.