As cardinals gather to choose Pope Benedict successor XVI, Dr Stella Fletcher, Honorary Researcher at The University of Manchester, uses history to think about how the election will pan out. A historian, she has studied cardinals for over 25 years.
"Between the retirement of Pope Benedict XVI on 28 February 2013 and the election of his successor, the Catholic Church will be led by the Sacred College of Cardinals. They will have one task: to choose the next supreme pontiff. All other ecclesiastical business will be suspended.
"The cardinals come to their task with a wealth of experience in pastoral ministry, scholarship and administration, but they are also conscious of being heirs to traditions that go back centuries.
"Cardinals have been the exclusive electors of popes since the twelfth century and have entered sealed conclaves since the thirteenth century. They have elected by inspiration, delegation and ballots of varying degrees of secrecy. They have collaborated with and had their candidatures vetoed by the secular powers of Europe."
She added: "Aside from the politics and politicking, the practical side of life has had to continue within the walls of the conclave enclosure. Cardinals and their servants required temporary accommodation in dormitories or purpose-built wooden cells, together with furniture and food.
"Sometimes life did not go on. In 1287–8 six cardinals died of malaria during the conclave. Later deaths were less predictable: in 1655 an elderly cardinal died of pneumonia after falling on a cold floor when he was frightened by a young cardinal pretending to be a ghost, and in 1730 another died of shock when he was told as a joke that he had been elected.
"By looking at patterns in the history of papal elections it's reasonable to assume that this year's conclave, which is likely to last only two or three days. Some popes have taken their papal names from the saint on whose feast their election took place.
"If this year's election concludes on 17 March, might the next pope be Patrick I? One precedent that will certainly not be followed is that of the electors being addressed by a woman before they begin voting: that has happened only once."
Explore further: Vatican kicks off countdown to JP2 beatification