A few weeks ago I was looking through the manuscript Royal MS 10 E IV where I found a few depictions of Pope Leo having his hand chopped off. After some sleuthing, I discovered that these images were illustrations from a story in The Golden Legend. (More details about that text can be found here.) While Royal MS 10 E IV actually contains The Decretals of Gregory IX (AKA the Smithfield Decretals), I was still rather curious about the context regarding Pope Leo’s hand. Luckily for me, the internet is a big place filled with knowledge, so I was able to find what I was searching for! (I’ve put links to my sources down below in case you’d like to read a few English translations of The Golden Legend too!)
Pope Leo’s entry in The Golden Legend contains four stories. Today I will be focusing on the first one. See, one day when Pope Leo was saying mass in the church of Saint Mary the More (or Saint Mary Major depending on the translation) a woman kissed his hand during communion. This innocent kiss made Pope Leo extremely…well, to put it delicately, it made him rather excited. In theory, men of God are not supposed to be tempted by lusty desires. Especially the pope! (In practice this couldn’t be further from the truth. See Pope Alexander VI for one example.)
So instead of taking a few deep breathes and maybe splashing some cold water on his face, Pope Leo cut his hand off and threw it away instead. While this is extreme, in Pope Leo’s defense he was just following some biblical advice. However, cutting your hand off isn’t exactly practical. Needless to say, it’s painful and you are going to need some recovery time. Because Pope Leo was no longer saying his usual masses, people started to talk. Seeing how not saying masses could be a problem, he prayed to the Virgin Mary for help.
Luckily for him, the Virgin Mary was listening. She popped down from Heaven and put his hand back on his body. She also told Pope Leo to go back to saying masses as well as offer some sacrifices to Jesus. Thrilled by this turn of events, Pope Leo returned to his duties and showed everyone his newly reattached hand.
Based on this text alone, a lot can be said about Pope Leo. Clearly whoever wrote the story had respect for the man, or at the very least had respect for how he dealt with feelings that are inappropriate for a pope. The unnamed woman was simply existing and showing respect. Instead of blaming the woman, Pope Leo knew his lust was all on him. As a result, he dealt with it not by harming an innocent person, but himself. While I certainly do not recommend chopping off any body parts, I do admire Pope Leo’s ability to know when he was in the wrong.