Pope Urban VIII's Bizarre Reasoning Behind Banning Sneezing

Some people simply can't stand to be around second-hand smoke. They find the pungent aroma of burning tobacco — and whatever else they put in cigarettes these days — offensive and unbearable, and as soon as someone lights one up, they're scurrying off in the other direction like the Road Runner. Of course, there are various other options for smokers these days that provide a nicotine fix without invading any one else's personal space (vaping, nicotine patches, and so on), so the world of tobacco use is a little less overbearing as of late. 

Once upon a time, you could still get your daily fill of nicotine without igniting those seductive dark leaves rolled up in paper. According to Swedish Match, snuff — a powdered form of tobacco that could be ingested orally or nasally — was invented sometime in the 16th century, and it became wildly popular among the general public and upper classes alike. However, the use of snuff was often accompanied by a pesky little side-effect in those who administered it through their nostrils: sneezing. While sneezing seems like a small price to pay for a satisfying nicotine buzz, one pope of the old world simply wouldn't have it (via The Vintage News). 

Pope Urban VIII banned sneezing

It's strange to think about sneezing suddenly arising as a problem in any given society, but as snuff became more popular across the world, there seemed to be a significant uptick in nasal expulsions. To this day, people still say "bless you" when somebody sneezes. It's just a polite gesture, but according to the International Students Office, the phrase was originally introduced because a sneeze was believed to expel a person's spirit from their body and leave it exposed to demonic forces inhabiting the outside air. Better safe than sorry, right?

In 1623, Maffeo Barberini was elected pope and took the name Urban VIII (per Britannica). The Vintage News reports that the new pope took major issue with the use of snuff and the sneezing it caused and decided to outlaw it. However, it wasn't because he feared that an army of demons might be flying around after escaping through peoples' nostrils; rather, he thought that sneezing was far too sexual. 

The pope thought sneezing was too sexual

Apparently, some of snuff's most devout consumers lived in the Vatican, so Pope Urban VIII was constantly reminded of the fact that the substance made people sneeze violently. According to The Vintage News, he felt that the safest course of action was to ban sneezing altogether because it looked as though somebody was experience sexual "ecstasy" when they did it. Of course, it's hard to properly combat a problem unless you attack its source. 

It was in 1642 that Pope Urban issued a worldwide ban on the use of tobacco and snuff in an effort to eradicate the new common enemy of purity: sneezing. Anyone who disobeyed his decree was doomed to face excommunication and essentially being cast out of the church, so you can bet that people took it pretty seriously. The anti-tobacco/sneezing clause endured for another 100 years until it was overruled by Pope Benedict XIII in 1779. Perhaps to show he really meant it, Pope Benedict went a step further and opened a Vatican tobacco factory. Once again, people were allowed to snuff and sneeze at will (per The Vintage News).