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  • The Medieval Papacy by Brett Edward Whalen
  • Brendan McManus
The Medieval Papacy. By Brett Edward Whalen. [European History in Perspective.] (New York: Palgrave. 2014. Pp. xi, 227. $33.50 paperback. ISBN 978-0-230-27283-5.)

At the beginning of this concise volume, Brett Edward Whalen recounts the myth of the Donation of Constantine: that the emperor Constantine was cured of leprosy by Pope Sylvester, upon whom he then bestowed imperial power and the rule of the western provinces of the Empire. This myth was fabricated in the later eighth century, in all likelihood, by clerics intent to defend papal independence and authority in Italy from the growth of Frankish power. In the following centuries, popes and their advocates made great use of the Donation to assert papal authority and to justify interventions in secular politics, including the control over the lands that became the Papal State. This strategy was paired with the use of St. Peter’s legacy, which similarly served papal efforts to gain control over the institutional Church. As Whalen writes,

… 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.

(p. 2)

… [T]he medieval papacy created and recreated a continuous tradition that connected present-day popes with their predecessors all the way back to Saint Peter.

(p. 4)

And indeed, Whalen’s book traces how the Roman bishopric separated itself conceptually from Roman imperial power, gained pre-eminence over other bishoprics in the Western half of Europe, and then translated that pre-eminence into power both spiritual and temporal. But over the long sweep of the Middle Ages, power was always shifting and evolving. The popes played various roles, and Whalen describes them: head of the universal Church, the bishop of Rome, and the ruler of the Papal State, among others. The justifications and the priorities of these roles sometimes complemented and sometimes conflicted with one another.

Although there were many instances when popes took bold stands and were successful, it is striking how frequently the papacy stumbled and things turned out well nonetheless. Pope Gregory VII’s defeat and exile in the early phase of the Investiture Conflict was followed by a further defeat in 1111 when Pope Paschal II was forced to concede the right of investiture to Emperor Henry V. But only eleven years later, Pope Calixtus and the emperor agreed to the Concordat of Worms that would prove to be a major victory for the independence of the Church from secular control and for papal power.

The text is fairly short and accessible for non-experts, and these would appear to be among its greatest strengths. Chapter 1 on the early history of the papal claims of pre-eminence is also particularly good. Whalen has written an evenhanded narrative that reviews how a long series of popes faced with challenges to their pre-eminence used the idea of that pre-eminence and shifting versions of history [End Page 152] to enhance their office and to motivate Christians to act as they thought best. As political realities changed, papal goals and policies changed with them. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the papacy fought for and gained a high degree of independence and immunity for the Church from secular powers along with the capacity to intervene in secular affairs openly. By the sixteenth century, popes, in concordats concluded with the most powerful European monarchs, were willing to relinquish some control over parts of the Church and to limit overt secular interventions. Whalen’s book demonstrates how the papacy used and repeatedly reshaped its reputation and history, adjusting policies to achieve objectives over a dozen centuries.

Brendan McManus
Bemidji State University
Bemidji, MN


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pp. 152-153
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