In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Council of Trent

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Databases
  • Journals
  • Primary Sources
  • The First Historians of Trent (Paolo Sarpi and Sforza Pallavicino)
  • Early Responses
  • Recent Major Scholarly Histories
  • Studies on the Three Meeting Periods
  • Collections of Scholarly Essays on Trent and Its Aftermath
  • Bishops and Episcopal Residency
  • Implementation in the Catholic World
  • Influence on Clerical and Religious Life and Education
  • Influence on the Arts

Renaissance and Reformation Council of Trent
Frederick McGinness
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 March 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0191


Comprised of three major meeting periods between 1545 and 1563, the Council of Trent marks a turning point in the history of early modern Catholicism, one consciously differentiating Roman Catholicism from every Protestant confession. The origins of the Council arise from many diverse events and movements; most immediately was the excommunication on doctrinal grounds of Martin Luther (15 June 1520), which many Christians believed was not final because it had not been confirmed by an ecumenical council. A new general council was seen as an opportunity to resolve controversial theological disputes on matters of faith and morals and come to closure. However, contrary to the aspirations of many Catholic clergy and lay persons who had hoped for a different idea of Christian unity, as well as of many Protestants throughout Europe, by the end of the Council it had rejected that opportunity. Many Catholics, on the other hand, welcomed it for its unambiguous affirmation of Catholic teaching and long-needed reform of ecclesiastical discipline. The Council took up doctrinal and reformatory issues alternately (side by side), giving particular attention to issues raised by Protestant doctrines: the principle of “scripture alone” (sola scriptura), the sources of revelation, the authenticity of the Latin Vulgate, original sin and justification, residence and jurisdiction of bishops, the sacraments (both doctrinal and disciplinary aspects), purgatory, veneration of the saints, monastic vows, Communion under both species, the sacrifice of the Mass, and so on; more briefly it issued statements reaffirming the church’s position on indulgences, invocation of the saints, and the veneration of relics and images at the same time it issued guidelines regulating these practices. Despite enormous challenges, the Council was brought to a close on 5 December 1563, and on 26 January 1564 Pope Pius IV issued the bull Benedictus Deus (published 30 June 1564) confirming all decrees without exception or modification. At the same time the pope directed that the authentic interpretation of the Council’s decrees be reserved to the Holy See and forbad that any commentaries on the Council be published without the authorization of the Sacred Congregation of the Council, which was established for these purposes on 2 August 1564. Finally, the unfinished work of the Council was remanded to Rome, which over the next years undertook a revision of the Index of Forbidden Books; the publication of the Roman Catechism, the Roman Breviary, and the Roman Missal; and a revision of the Latin Vulgate.

General Overviews

O’Malley (2013) is now the primary starting point for all wishing a clear overview of the Council’s complex history, an understanding of the wide range of issues it addressed, and useful scholarly footnotes. Iserloh, et al. 1980–1982 provides an extended though compressed presentation of the Council with broad perspectives on Trent from noted scholars of the Council. Many shorter, though highly useful, overviews of the Council appeared in the past three decades; Jedin 2000–2003, sympathetic to the papal side, gives a very brief but valuable sketch of Trent in its essential outlines. More expanded presentations can be found in Black 2004, Gleason 1995, Bireley 1999, and Hsia 1999. Alberigo 1988 provides a useful bibliographical introduction to scholarship on the Council up to 1988, but this work now needs updating.

  • Alberigo, Giuseppe. “The Council of Trent.” In Catholicism in Early Modern History: A Guide to Research. Edited by John W. O’Malley, 211–226. St. Louis, MO: Center for Reformation Research, 1988.

    Thoughtful overview and introduction to a basic bibliography for the now-revised image of the Council, the problems facing each period of the Council, achievements and limitations of Trent, the struggle over interpretation, the example of Carlo Borromeo as the ideal of Tridentine reform, and the reception of the Council.

  • Bireley, Robert. “The Council of Trent and the Papacy.” In The Refashioning of Catholicism, 1450–1700: A Reassessment of the Counter Reformation. By Robert Bireley, 45–69. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1999.

    Chapter 3 of this informative work sets forth the interaction of the papacy and the Council of Trent; sets the Council against its historical background; looks at key connections between political events, princely ambitions, and doctrinal issues; and provides a brief but clear exposition of theological controversies.

  • Black, Christopher F. “The Council of Trent and Bases for Continuing Reform.” In Church, Religion, and Society in Early Modern Italy. By Christopher F. Black, 19–36. Houndsmill, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

    Brief introduction to Trent’s significance and unappreciated complexity in shaping confessional divisions in early modern Europe. Focuses on the Council’s decrees as guides for the institutional life of Roman Catholicism on “what it taught and believed, [and] how Catholics at all social levels might subsequently behave” (p. 19).

  • Gleason, Elisabeth G. “Catholic Reformation, Counterreformation and Papal Reform in the Sixteenth Century.” In Handbook of European History, 1400–1600: Late Middle Ages, Renaissance and Reformation. Vol. 2, Visions, Programs and Outcomes. Edited by Thomas A. Brady Jr., Heiko A. Oberman, and James D. Tracy, 317–345. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1995.

    Key and highly charged are the concepts in the scholarship of the Council of Trent, the Catholic Reformation, Counterreformation, and Papal Reform. Gleason illuminates their meanings in the context of confessional differences, above all whether there was a true Catholic Reformation or if such was essentially a reaction to Protestantism.

  • Hsia, R. Po-chia “The Council of Trent.” In The World of Catholic Renewal, 1540–1770. By R. Po-chia Hsia, 10–25. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    A general narrative of the Council of Trent from opening day to its close. Brief look at moments of crisis and resolution, popes and other major characters, attendance, and reform and doctrinal matters (justification, obligation of bishops’ residences, Scripture and tradition, clerical reform, etc.). Touches on decrees and matters left unfinished.

  • Iserloh, Erwin, Josef Glazik, and Hubert Jedin. Reformation and Counter Reformation. Translated by Anselm Biggs and Peter W. Becker. New York: Seabury, 1980–1982.

    A comprehensive, detailed survey of the Catholic Church and the crucial issues facing it from the late Middle Ages to the Counterreformation, with rich bibliographical information relevant to every era and major event engaging the papacy. Clearly written, fully documented, well-organized subject matter.

  • Jedin, Hubert. “The Council of Trent.” In The New Catholic Encyclopedia. 2d ed. Vol. 14. Edited by Thomas Carson and Joann Cerrito, 168–176. Detroit: Thomson/Gale, 2000–2003.

    Concise summary by the late doyen of the history of the Council of Trent; presents the Council’s origins and foundations, crucial issues of reform and doctrine, three meeting periods, some leading personalities, implementation, and historical significance (with useful bibliography).

  • O’Malley, John W. Trent: What Happened at the Council. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013.

    Fresh, reliable, indispensable study in English of Trent following upon Jedin 2000–2003; for generalists and specialists: the only extensive “overview of the council” there is (p. 11); reviews conciliar history leading to Trent, its three phrases, and conclusion; offers “a framework for understanding the council as a single, though extraordinarily complex event” (p. 12); extensive, helpful footnotes.

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