In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Medieval Papacy

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Resources
  • Journals
  • Letters, Documents, Councils, Sermons
  • Biographical Sources
  • Studies of Individual Popes: Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages
  • Studies of Individual Popes: The High Middle Ages
  • Studies of Individual Popes: The Late Middle Ages
  • Central Government and Institutions
  • Patrimonies and Finances
  • Legates
  • Ceremony and Celebration
  • Ideology and Ecclesiology

Medieval Studies The Medieval Papacy
Thomas F.X. Noble, Atria Larson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0067


The papacy is the world’s oldest continuously functioning institution. A full history of the papacy would have four aspects. First, it would take account of the “Petrine Idea,” the legitimation of papal leadership in both church and world based on the text of Matthew 16:16–18. The essential idea is that because Christ granted leadership to Peter, Peter’s successors inherit that leadership. This central doctrine, which began emerging in the 3rd century, has been both powerful and controversial. Second, the papacy is an institution; papal history must therefore treat the bureaus and offices by means of which the popes have exercised their authority. Third, as a quasi-state, the papacy has entertained complex relations with numerous political entities—empires, kingdoms, principalities, and cities. Fourth, papal history is the serial biography of the 328 men who have held the office (as of 2018), not counting a few dozen “antipopes” and the rival claimants during the Great Schism (1378–1417). These themes are always but somewhat differently evident in the major periods into which papal history can be divided. The papacy emerged as a self-conscious institution in the 3rd century but functioned openly only after 313, when Constantine I granted Christianity toleration in the Roman Empire. In the 4th and 5th centuries the papacy began to elaborate both a theology of leadership and a set of institutions, both of which proved controversial. With the disappearance of the western Roman Empire, the emergence of a Byzantine Empire, and the sudden eruption of the Islamic caliphate, the papacy’s effective zone of authority shrank to western Europe. The popes opened relations with various Germanic kingdoms and in the 8th century allied with the Franks. With the decline of Frankish authority in the 9th century, the popes were entangled in the tumultuous politics of Rome, and the western church was increasingly brought under lay control. In the 11th century, reform-minded popes struggled to improve clerical morality and free the church from lay control. The “Investiture Controversy” presented the papacy with both challenges and opportunities. In the 12th and 13th centuries, the so-called Papal Monarchy emerged. The popes of this era were powerful and confident. They both built and reformed institutions while also newly articulating the ideology of papal leadership. In the late 13th century, a conflict between France and the papacy opened a host of challenges to traditional forms of papal rule. For several decades (1309–1378) the popes were resident in Avignon. The Avignon period was damaging to the papacy’s prestige and authority. Worse was yet to come. When the papacy attempted to return to Rome, factions among the cardinals disagreed, and during the Great Schism there were rival claimants to the papacy in both Rome and Avignon, and occasionally elsewhere too. The Schism further weakened the ideological and practical bases of papal authority. The Council of Constance brought the Schism to an end in 1417, but the subsequent Renaissance papacy proved to be a kind of institution very different from its predecessor.

General Overviews

The writing of papal history emerged in the ferocious polemics of the Reformation era. For many years, such histories tended to be confessional and partisan. Massive papal histories (Haller 1950, Mann 1902–1914) were fairly common years ago but they have been rare in recent decades. Several single-volume treatments (Duffy 2002, Schimmelpfennig 1992, Seppelt 1932, Ullmann 1972, Herbers 2012, Whalen 2014) can be recommended and have, not surprisingly, different strengths and weaknesses. The sheer scale of the subject has tended to result in studies of specific reigns, periods, and problems. Many of these books are included in the chronological sections of this article. Noble 1995 constitutes a historiographical reflection on late antique and early medieval papal history. Sisson and Larson 2016 presents a topically arranged companion to various aspects of the papacy with a focus on the High Middle Ages and the late Middle Ages.

  • Duffy, Eamonn. Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes. 2d ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002.

    Lavishly illustrated and beautifully written, the first half of this book is the best place to start an exploration of papal history.

  • Haller, Johannes. Das Papsttum: Idee und Wirklichkeit. 5 vols. Urach, Germany: Port Verlag, 1950.

    Protestant and sometimes polemical, this elegant work was published posthumously (Haller died in 1947) and then edited and reprinted many times. It covers the period from papal beginnings to the early 15th century.

  • Herbers, Klaus. Geschichte des Papsttums im Mittelalter. Darmstadt: Primus, 2012.

    Concise volume covering Leo I to Leo X, 440–1521, stressing structural aspects of both continuity and discontinuity with careful attention to religion, law, and politics.

  • Mann, Horace Kinder. The Lives of the Popes in the Early Middle Ages. 10 vols. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, and Trübner, 1902–1914.

    Readable and written very close to the sources, Mann’s work remains unmatched as a massive narrative history for the period from 590 to 1198.

  • Noble, Thomas F. X. “Morbidity and Vitality in the History of the Early Medieval Papacy.” Catholic Historical Review 81.4 (1995): 505–540.

    Reflections on how changing historiographical interests have diminished the papacy as a subject of research.

  • Schimmelpfennig, Bernhard. The Papacy. Translated by James Sievert. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.

    Covering the entire medieval period and running down to 1534, this volume is clear and readable, but it is sometimes slightly idiosyncratic in coverage and interpretation.

  • Seppelt, Franz Xaver. A Short History of the Popes. St. Louis, MO: Herder, 1932.

    A substantially abridged translation of Seppelt’s massive general history originally published in German in 1931. Balanced and comprehensive.

  • Sisson, Keith, and Atria A. Larson, eds. A Companion to the Medieval Papacy: Growth of an Ideology and Institution. Brill’s Companions to the Christian Tradition 70. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2016.

    Among the many companion volumes recently published by scholarly presses, this is as yet the only one devoted to the medieval papacy. Individual chapters provide overviews of content and historiographical perspective on several of the categories below. Includes extensive bibliography.

  • Ullmann, Walter. A Short History of the Papacy in the Middle Ages. London: Methuen, 1972.

    Still perhaps the best single-volume history, this book reflects the vast learning and pointed interpretations of its famous author.

  • Whalen, Brett Edward. The Medieval Papacy. European History in Perspective. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

    A concise history that is aimed at a general audience and attempts to mediate between earlier competing visions of what the medieval papacy was.

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