The Medieval Papacy, by Brett Whalen

medieval papacyThe Medieval Papacy

By Brett Whalen

Palgrave Macmillan, 2013
ISBN: 9780230272835

During the Middle Ages, the popes of Rome claimed both spiritual authority and worldly powers, vying with emperors for supremacy, ruling over the Papal States, and legislating the norms of Christian society. They also faced profound challenges to their proclaimed primacy over Christendom.

The Medieval Papacy explores the unique role that the Roman Church and its papal leadership played in the historical development of medieval Europe. Brett Edward Whalen pays special attention to the religious, intellectual and political significance of the papacy from the first century through to the Reformation in the sixteenth century.


Ideal for students, scholars and general readers alike, this approachable survey helps us to understand the origins of an idea and institution that continue to shape our modern world.

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An Excerpt from the Introduction:

The Donation of Constantine reveals the inherent tensions at play in the subject of this book, the history of the Roman papacy and its claim to universal authority across the European Middle Ages.


During the earliest centuries of Christianity, the title of pope, from the Latin papa meaning “father,” could be applied to any bishop, the overseer of a Christian community. In time, however, Rome’s bishops successfully claimed unique status as the popes, the leaders of the catholic or universal Church. In this regard, the true source of their power came not from Constantine or any other secular ruler but rather from Jesus Christ, transmitted to them through his chief apostle, Peter, possessor of the keys to the kingdom of Heaven, who had founded the Apostolic See of Rome. The pope’s primacy thereby derived from a divine mandate, a pastoral mission to care for the souls of all believers and act as shepherd for their eternal salvation. In certain instances, however, popes tried equally to command emperors, kings and queens, princes and others in the here-and-now, demanding the obedience of everyone in Christian society. For much of the Middle Ages, the bishops of Rome acted as landlords and rulers in their own right over territories in central Italy and beyond.

Popes set armies in motion not just for holy wars, but also to protect their possessions, sometimes personally leading troops into battle. Indeed, one can argue that the papacy’s assertion of sacred authority and worldly dominion – combining, as it were, the legacies of Saint Peter and Constantine – formed the distinguishing characteristic of the medieval papacy…. To reconcile the medieval papacy’s majesty and mundanity, its aspirations and limitations, we might consider the Roman Church’s constant act of historical self-invention, underwritten by Christian believers close to and far from the city of Rome. As one scholar of the period recently reminded us, “The Middle Ages placed little emphasis on the objective reconstruction of past events. Instead, recollection was an interpretive act, a selective process that chose what was thought to be valuable and worthy of remembrance.” In the realm of remembrance if not fact, the medieval papacy created and recreated a continuous tradition that connected present-day popes with their predecessors all the way back to Saint Peter. Remembering Constantine’s pious act of devotion toward Peter’s heirs, popes and their supporters laid claim to the dignity of empire and lands that accompanied it. Papal reformers harked back to better times, when the Church and clergy stood in a state of pristine freedom, enjoying the devotion and obedience of earthly rulers. Popes who called for crusades did so in the name of restoring Jerusalem to Christian hands, recalling the biblical events that sanctified the holy places.

Viewed from this perspective, the success of Rome’s bishops at translating the theoretical principles of papal primacy into actionable forms of power effectively depended upon their ability to convince
Christians – enough of them, anyway – about a certain interpretation of history.