Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Margaret Meserve's "Papal Bull"

Margaret Meserve is the Glynn Family Honors Associate Professor of History and Arts and Letters Director of the Glynn Family Honors Program in the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of Empires of Islam in Renaissance Historical Thought and the editor and translator of the Commentaries of Pius II.

Meserve applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Papal Bull: Print, Politics, and Propaganda in Renaissance Rome, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Papal Bull drops the reader into the middle of the Pazzi War of 1478. At Easter that year, Pope Sixtus IV had signed off on a plot to assassinate the ruler of Florence, Lorenzo de’ Medici. When the conspiracy failed, the pope excommunicated Lorenzo, forbade the clergy of Florence from celebrating mass, and declared war on the city and its citizens. All in a day’s work for a Renaissance pope.

My book surveys the history of the Renaissance papacy with a particular eye on how the popes communicated with the public in moments like this, especially using the new technology of the printing press. Gutenberg invented printing with movable type in the 1450s. The technology would revolutionize European society and politics and pave the way for the Protestant Reformation. We know a lot about how reforming figures like Savonarola and Luther used the press, but few historians have asked how the ruling authorities of the Renaissance used this revolutionary new technology. My book explores how a quintessentially conservative and authoritarian institution – the papacy – used the printing press not to challenge the status quo, or advance knowledge, or empower the common man, but to suppress dissent, prosecute rivals, and protect its own interests.

The page 99 test works really well here, because the page includes two rare examples of contemporaries talking about what the papacy was doing with the press. Sixtus boasted that he not only excommunicated Lorenzo, but also published the order in print so the whole world would know about it. On cue, one of Lorenzo’s secretaries complained that dozens of copies of the bull of excommunication were circulating throughout Italy, posted up on church doors and set out for sale in the marketplace in Rome. The pope had taken a private quarrel public, making it harder for the Florentines to resolve things in their usual diplomatic way.

About half the chapters of Papal Bull explore a Renaissance conflict like the Pazzi War. Whether at war with other princes, or in dispute with clerical critics, the popes used the press to publish bulls of excommunication, letters to the Christian faithful, and decrees commanding or forbidding military action. Page 99 gives a good sense of how these clashes played out. Other chapters of the book treat what we might call religious publicity -- printed guides to the churches of Rome, devotional texts, catalogues of indulgences, and the like. The papacy printed texts like these to attract visitors to their city, promote the theology of works (which Luther would soon deplore), and raise cash to fund military operations abroad and lavish building projects at home.

Page 99 gives a good sense of the central theme of Papal Bull: the interplay of politics, theology, and public relations in the Italian Renaissance.
Learn more about Papal Bull at the Johns Hopkins University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue