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The Catholic Historical Review 88.2 (2002) 356-359

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Book Review

Reginald Pole:
Prince and Prophet

Cardinal Pole in European Context:
via media in the Reformation

A Reluctant Author:
Cardinal Pole and His Manuscripts

Reginald Pole: Prince and Prophet. By Thomas F. Mayer. (New York: Cambridge University Press. 2000. Pp. xv, 468. $74.95.)
Cardinal Pole in European Context: A via media in the Reformation. By Thomas F. Mayer. [Variorum Collected Studies Series: CS686.] (Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Co. 2000. Pp. xii, 334. $105.95.)
A Reluctant Author: Cardinal Pole and His Manuscripts. By Thomas F. Mayer. [Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Volume 89, Pt. 4.] (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society. 1999. Pp. viii, 115. $15.00 paperback.)

Thomas Mayer has spent the better part of twenty-five years studying Reginald Pole, and it shows. Beyond the works listed above, Mayer has more on the way, namely, a four-volume calendar of Pole's correspondence. But the books here reviewed themselves constitute an enormous contribution to early modern European history and to a re-thinking of the traditional understanding of Pole, a central figure in the story of the Reformation both in Italy and in England.

Surely the greatest attention given to these new books will be focused on Mayer's biography of Pole. Such is only fair: Mayer's work will be considered the standard on this English cardinal for many years to come. There is too much in this fat tome to adequately analyze in a brief review, however. Mayer based this biography on vast archival research in Italy and in the United Kingdom. He attempted to do what Paolo Simoncelli (in his Il caso Reginald Pole: Eresia e santità nelle polemiche religiose del Cinquecento [Rome: Edizioni di storia e letteratura, 1977]) said could not be done: to describe the historical Pole separate [End Page 356] from the myth of sanctity that has been woven around him. In my opinion, Mayer has succeeded. To begin with, he found that the problem was larger than Simoncelli suggested, since before a myth was woven by his followers and later historians, Pole consciously fashioned a self-image through his own writings. Mayer presents Pole in this study as a man who operated amid considerable tension. For Mayer, Pole was uncomfortably suspended between notions of authority and was personally not much inclined to the obedience he recommended to others. Mayer goes so far as to assert that his subject faced a permanent internal tension between personal ambition and a desire for self-abnegation. Because of these tensions, Pole fashioned two images of himself: as prince and prophet.

Mayer found that the legend of Pole, the one for which both he and his followers were responsible, differed substantially from the historical record. Mayer uses the old term spirituali to refer to Pole and his followers, but argues that the term "reform tendency" is better. While Pole was a central figure in whatever one might call this group, however, he also played a substantial role in its disintegration. Mayer has showed that Pole's oft-noted closeness to Gasparo Contarini, Gregorio Cortese, Alvise Priuli, and Giovanni Morone is irrefutable, but also that Pole often ignored their advice. Mayer found that Pole, when addressing clerics as a bishop and legate, emphasized obedience to superiors—like himself—and laid down the law for them. He even discouraged excessive reading and study of the Scriptures. These are attitudes we associate not with him and his circle, but rather with Gian Pietro Carafa and the more "intransigent" of reformers.

Indeed, Mayer has persuasively demonstrated that Pole's relationship with Carafa was far more complex than has commonly been thought. The historical record just will not allow regurgitation of the simple confrontational relationship so often presented. Yet such a relationship is closely linked with the myth of Pole's sanctity. To call the relationship between Pole and Carafa on again/off again is putting the case mildly. Pole...


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