Ludwig von Pastor & the History of the Popes

Joseph de Maistre once wrote that “The scepter of science belongs to Europe only because she is Christian. She has reached this high degree of civilization and knowledge because … the universities were at first schools of theology, and because all the sciences, grafted upon this divine subject, have shown forth the divine sap by immense vegetation.” We have in recent years become increasingly familiar with the notion that the birth and flourishing of science in the Christian West, rather than in some other historical civilization or corner of the world, most probably had something to do with the Logocentric nature of Christianity. Non-Christians themselves are increasingly inclined to admit this. But while Pierre Duhem illustrated the idea of the theological matrix of modern science by tracing the background of the so-called Scientific Revolution, Maistre was thinking along broader lines in his conception of science.

We do not usually consider historical studies when we think about science and its growth, although we do sometimes consider history a social science. Probably closer to Maistre’s general view, however, was Leibniz, who considered historical consciousness and the development of historical criticism as one of the chief glories of Christendom. “I believe,” he wrote, “that if this art [of historical criticism] has reappeared with brilliant effect, and has been so carefully cultivated in the last two centuries … it is an act of Divine Providence, which had chiefly in view to spread more light on the truth of the Christian religion…. I believe that the great obstacle to Christianity in the East is that these nations are completely ignorant of universal history, and do not therefore feel the force of those demonstrations by which the truth of our religion is established.”

ludwig_von_pastorLeibniz explicitly linked the development of historical studies with the phenomenon of theological debate. “The disputes on religion,” he writes, “encouraged and excited this sort of study, for there is no evil that does not give birth to some good.” The notion that theological conflict had at least one beneficial effect in Europe was expressed more recently by Momigliano, who concluded: “A new chapter of historiography begins with Eusebius [in the fourth century] not only because he invented ecclesiastical history, but because he wrote it with a documentation which is utterly different from that of the pagan historians … we have all underestimated the impact of ecclesiastical history on the development of historical method.” A secular Jew, Momigliano cannot be suspected of special pleading here. Of course the historical claims of the Gospels (cf. 1 Cor 15:14) and the authenticity (or not) of apostolic traditions had from the beginning been points of contention; perhaps it is not implausible to think that traditional Christian notions of orthodoxy and heresy could not fail to stimulate historical consciousness and investigation.

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After being eclipsed by rhetoric and speculation in the eighteenth century, historical studies made a strong comeback in the nineteenth century, a revival often associated with Leopold von Ranke, widely regarded as the most influential historian of the nineteenth century. Although Ranke himself was a moderate in that age of nationalism, he nevertheless did his part to buttress a Prussian version of history that was marked by a strongly anti-Catholic prejudice. In the typical Prussian view, Luther was seen as not only a great religious reformer, but as a national hero, a “Founding Father,” as it were, who had literally brought the German people out of the darkness of the Middle Ages.

Even among German Protestants there were critics of this view. One of the sharpest was the Frankfurt medievalist Johann Friedrick Böhmer (1795-1863), whose considered view was that the so-called Reformation had been an epic disaster for Germany and for Europe and that Prussia’s recent rise constituted one of the greatest contemporary threats to European civilization. Böhmer himself became the mentor of Johannes Janssen (1829-1891) who, largely inspired by him, would come out with a multi-volume History of the German People that became one of the best-selling and most widely discussed historical works in Bismarck’s Germany.

Janssen expanded the scope of Ranke’s highly empirical method to include cultural history, and in so doing turned the “Prussian view” of history on its head. After establishing his reputation with earlier works in which he skillfully exploited the riches of German archives, especially those of Frankfurt, the first volume of his magnum opus was dedicated to showing how highly developed and flourishing German culture had become in the fifteenth century, that is, prior to the Reformation. Subsequent volumes documented the post-Reformation decline into darkness and chaos, ultimately culminating in the devastation of the Thirty Years’ War. Coming as it did from the pen of a staunchly Catholic author in the midst of the Kulturkampf, this view could not fail to attract attention, much of it hostile. But it was so solidly buttressed, employing such a vast range of primary documents that its author had spent a lifetime collecting, that critics were hard pressed to dismiss it. A wealthy German-American offered a prize of $5,000 for the best refutation of Janssen’s work. The prize was never awarded. As the great Swiss cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt (who had been offered and declined Ranke’s chair in Berlin) quipped to his students in Basel: “Believe me, gentlemen, whoever wants to confute Janssen will have to get up pretty early in the morning.” (Ja ja, meine Herren, wer Janssen widerlegen will, der muß früh aufstehen.) As subsequent volumes appeared Janssen would even be hailed by Georg Waitz, the most prominent disciple of Leopold von Ranke, as “the greatest living German historian,” an assessment he gave while Ranke himself was still alive. Burckhardt himself would later say that Janssen “has finally told us the truth about the so-called Reformation. Up until now we’ve had only the pious stories of Protestant pastors.”

Janssen’s most distinguished student was Ludwig von Pastor (1854-1928), remembered today as one of the greatest ecclesiastical historians of all times. Pastor had been born into a well-to-do family in Aachen, Germany. His sincerely Protestant father and Catholic mother had agreed that their sons would be raised as Protestants and daughters as Catholics. The future historian of the papacy was thus duly baptized as a Protestant and, as the eldest son, was being groomed to take over the sizable family business. His father died, however, while Ludwig was still young, and partially under the influence of his mother’s friends and acquaintances in Frankfurt, where the family had relocated, but especially because of his history teacher, Johannes Janssen, his life would take a different path.

Janssen himself had declined more prestigious posts (and would eventually even decline the cardinal’s hat offered him by Leo XIII) in order to stay at the Frankfurt gymnasium, where he was charged with teaching the Catholic students. He immediately recognized the young Pastor’s gifts and aptitudes, and became a close friend of the family. As Pastor later recounted: “Janssen visited us every week at our house. Whenever possible, I accompanied him on his walks. When Janssen lived in Niederrad in 1870, I visited him every Sunday after Mass and stayed with him the whole day in the woods. These were precious hours. First, the events of the day were discussed. Then we read classics together. Janssen introduced me to all his work. Through him I got to know the historical journals. He gave me in 1871 a copy of Burckhardt’s Culture of the Renaissance and in 1873 Ranke’s Popes, and thus the impetus for my life’s work.”

This last sentence is especially important in showing that Pastor’s entire work can be seen in a way as a reply to Burckhardt and Ranke. And in fact, Ranke’s The Roman Popes in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (1834-36) would serve as a stimulus to the 19-year-old Pastor in much the same way as Ranke’s History of the Reformation in Germany (1845-47) had been an impetus to his mentor, Janssen.

Pastor was twelve years old as the Prussians defeated the majority of the German states and Austria in the German Civil War of 1866, and his family was compelled to flee temporarily to Cologne. Triumphant Prussia’s subsequent introduction of the Kulturkampf would only intensify his dedication to the vision of Catholic history to which Janssen had introduced him.

Graduating from the gymnasium in 1875, Pastor would go first, on Janssen’s advice, to the University of Louvain, and then would continue his studies at Bonn, Berlin (where he was introduced to Leopold von Ranke himself), Vienna, and finally Graz, where he obtained his doctorate in 1878 with a dissertation on Church reunion attempts during the reign of Charles V. It was during this doctoral work that he became convinced that certain important problems could only be solved by an examination of original documents which he surmised were in the papal archives, at this time closed to researchers. With a zeal that was characteristic of his entire career, he wrote to various churchmen, penned two petitions, and finally sought an audience with the pope himself. Eventually he became more responsible than any other single scholar for persuading Leo XIII to open the papal archives to all, regardless of religious affiliation, in 1883. In an audience granted to a select group of historians the next year, the pope indicated both the opportunity and the responsibility that now faced Pastor, telling him: “Owing to this decree you have good advantages over Ranke…. Naturally it will also spread your fame as an historian. However, our highest aim in this grant was the honor of God and the glory of his Church.” Then addressing all present he continued: “True history must be written from the original sources. Therefore we opened the Vatican Archives to the historians for investigation. We have nothing to fear from the publication of documents. (Non abbiamo paura della pubblicità dei documenti.) Every pope, more or less, worked, some even under the greatest difficulties, for the propagation of the kingdom of God on earth and among all nations, for the Church is the mother of all…. Work courageously and perseveringly, not only for earthly reward and worldly honor, but for the glory of Him that He may crown these labors with heavenly bliss.”

History of PapacyThe opening of the Vatican Archives reoriented Pastor’s project. He had been interested above all in the golden age of what Ranke had dubbed the “Counter-Reformation,” that is the Catholic revival of the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, hence his dissertation on the reign of Charles V. With the massive amount of documentation now available for the first time, combined with the important recent work on the Renaissance by scholars such as Burckhardt and Müntz, he felt obliged to start earlier than Ranke had, convinced that a good understanding of the sixteenth century was impossible without a firm grounding in the fifteenth.

Despite his solid training and the best references, it was made clear to Pastor that someone with his views would have no chance of obtaining a university post in his homeland while the Kulturkampf still raged. “Here you’d have better chances of becoming a bishop than a university professor,” a German friend told him. It was only with difficulty that he managed to find a position in 1880 at the small university of Innsbruck, Austria, where he would spend the next twenty years. Even here, opponents would strain every nerve to prevent his advancement to a professorship. Only with the fame following the publication of the first volume of his History of the Popes in 1886 would his academic career be secure. With a succession of volumes of equally high quality it would not be long before he would receive numerous honorary degrees, and finally be raised to the rank of hereditary nobility by the emperor Franz Josef. In 1900 he was appointed the Director of the Austrian Historical Institute in Rome. This gave him an uninterrupted fourteen years to explore Roman archives and to enrich his history, which he continued to revise until his death. Although forced to leave the Eternal City during the Great War, he returned again in 1920 as the Austrian Ambassador to the Holy See.

Pastor’s first volume was dedicated to Leo XIII and, after an overview of the period of the Avignon papacy, the Great Schism, and the reunification at the Council of Constance, it began in earnest with the pontificate of Martin V in 1417. In Pastor’s lifetime 13 thick volumes (29 in the English version) would be delivered to the printer, covering the papacy in the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Catholic revival up through the pontificate of Urban VIII and the middle of the Thirty Years’ War. The manuscript bringing the history down to 1799 was essentially finished at his death and was brought out posthumously. In all, 16 volumes would appear (40 in the English version) covering a period of 400 years. Pastor himself was convinced that he was only able to reach his goal, despite failing eyesight, because of a blessing received by Pius X, to whom he dedicated volume two.

Astonishingly, he also managed to write other works. The most ambitious of these was his continuation of Janssen’s History of the German People, a work that had “opened up a new world” for the young Pastor himself. At Janssen’s death in 1891 only six volumes had been published. Janssen had appointed Pastor his literary executor, and the latter not only finished the last two volumes, but he revised and expanded the previous volumes so extensively that it is now conventionally cited as “Janssen-Pastor.” In addition to editing a series of monographs dedicated to elucidating themes touched upon in Janssen’s volumes, he also found time to write biographies, editions of letters and documents, and many other special studies.

The work for which he is and will remain best known, however, is the massive History of the Popes. In directing an almost superhuman energy steadily over a period of fifty years, during which he pushed himself to nervous exhaustion at least four times, he succeeded in forging a monumental and permanent achievement, solidly built on the best methods of German historical scholarship when that scholarship had reached its highest level of perfection.

Pastor’s first volume appeared in the same year that Ranke died. It could not fail to be noticed that it was, in a certain sense, a reply to Ranke’s classic work using Rankean methods. Yet it was not merely a political history. It was rather a Kulturgeschichte as seen from the central vantage point of Rome, and in that sense too it was clearly connected with Janssen’s project. Pastor’s volumes found an almost universally sympathetic reception in most of the German world. “Never before,” reported the Illustrierte Rundschau, “has material of such abundance been brought together and made use of in such a way that the unbiased Protestant can fully rely on its deductions.” Jacob Burckhardt himself wrote appreciatively to Pastor for correcting his (Burckhardt’s) unbalanced picture of Renaissance religiosity in the Culture of the Renaissance, and a mutually respectful friendship ensued. A passage from the Jesuit journal Stimmen aus Maria Laach can be taken as representative of Catholic reaction:

Neither Macaulay nor Ranke gave a satisfactory answer as to why so many millions left the Church during the sixteenth century. It is indeed true, Ranke did not, like the first Reformers in their first anger, look upon the papacy as an institution of the Antichrist. He valued it only as a great political power that contributed much to the progress of the world. Still it is for him merely a government founded on the quicksands of deception. In a similar manner Macaulay calls it a great civilizing agent. Pastor proves or corrects these statements and adds another most essential point: the spirituality of the papacy. Thus we get a more complete picture of that entire period.

Although initially slow to find favor in the English-speaking world, by the time his last volumes appeared even Pastor’s critics in the American Historical Review would come to concede: “His volumes are of inestimable worth to men of every faith.” Likewise the British historian G. P. Gooch, who in penning his classic History and Historians in the Nineteenth Century (1913) had declined to list Pastor among historians of the first rank, when revising his book four decades later would change his tone significantly. Then he would conclude with a judgment that we are certainly justified in sharing: “Pastor’s gigantic History of the Popes since the end of the Middle Ages, based on the Vatican and other Italian archives, the first volume of which had appeared in 1886, reached its thirteenth volume in 1928, the year of his death…. No work of our time—perhaps of any time—in the domain of Church History has made such an opulent and enduring contribution to knowledge.”


  • Thomas J. Mauro

    Dr. Thomas J. Mauro holds advanced degrees in Classics and in European History and writes from Valsolda, Italy.

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