History of a History Book

In Loyola’s Special Collections rests a history of one of the most important aspects of Catholic history. This large book towers over those that rest beside it, yet bears its age well, considering it dates from 1676. The size of the book reflects not only the breadth of its topic, but the long story of its production and translation. This story is one of Church-State conflict in an old republic, and of ferocious hatred for Catholics from a Protestant kingdom. The History of the Council of Trent is a product of these two themes, while being a history of something completely different.

Paolo Sarpi was a Venetian historian and diplomat who played a heavy role in the “Venetian Interdict”. Between 1606 and 1607, the Holy See under Paul V banned priests from carrying out their spiritual functions in the city and excommunicated the Senate and the Doge as a result of the republic’s refusal to extradite two priests to Rome to face trial rather than face trial in Venice. Sarpi wrote fiercely to defend the republic’s rights over its citizens against interference from the Roman Papacy, arguing that “princes have their authority from God, and are accountable to none but him for the government of their people.” While the Pope looked to Spain for help in crushing Venetian insubordination, the Venetians looked to France and German Protestants for support. A compromise settled the matter, and Venice successfully defended its right to try Catholic clergy before its civil courts. In recognition of his role in the matter, Rome called him to stand before the Inquisition (which he refused) and excommunicated him. Additionally, Sarpi was attacked in the Venetian streets in 1607 and stabbed by an unknown assailant (who he claimed was sent by Rome).

A statue of Sarpi in Venice (conveniently located near where he was stabbed in 1607)

A statue of Sarpi in Venice conveniently located near where he was stabbed in 1607 (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

From this background, Sarpi wrote The History of the Council of Trent. Written between 1610 and 1618, Sarpi’s work was published in London under the false name of “Pietro Soave Polano”. Banned by Rome, the work “criticized the council for not giving bishops more autonomy, for hardening differences with the Protestants, and for increasing the Curia’s absolutism”. Sarpi did not necessarily write an anti-Catholic work, as he himself remained a Catholic his whole life – his conflict was with the government in Rome. Yet his work would be well-read, especially by those whose hostility to the Catholic Church exceeded his own.

Nathanael Brent would become the head of Merton College at Oxford, but in 1620, his primary job was the translation of The History of the Council of Trent into English. The work would be translated that year and dedicated to both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the King of England and Scotland, James I. While the work itself remained roughly the same as the one written by Sarpi under the pseudonym Pietro Soave Polano, Brent added an introduction that set the tone for the work. In it, he decried the popes who served over the council as pretending to be the Vicars of Christ, while instead they “have been the greatest, and most pernicious quack salving [men] that ever the Earth did bear”. Brent hoped that King James would be able to judge how “facetious and unlawful” the Council clearly was, and take note of the errors of the Papists. Brent’s translation would be published into several new editions, including one edition from 1676, the year Loyola’s copy dates from.

Copy of the introduction of Brent's translated version

Copy of the introduction of Brent’s translated version (Image: viaLibri)

Now, you may be wondering why all that history was necessary – in truth, you made decide after I’m done talking that it wasn’t. Yet to me, this history is crucial in understanding why this book was taken into Loyola’s library. How this copy came to Chicago, I do not know. What I do know is that in January 1874, it was given as a gift to St. Ignatius College (Loyola’s predecessor) from “Eastman A. Bartlett” on 132 Clark Street in Chicago. A simple search on Ancestry.com suggests that Eastman A. Bartlett was Eastman & Bartlett, a book shop at 132 S. Clark in the Loop. It would appear that the shop donated their copy of Brent’s translated History of the Council of Trent to Loyola in early 1874, little more than two years after the Great Chicago Fire.

St. Ignatius College Prep in Chicago, formerly St. Ignatius College

St. Ignatius College Prep in Chicago, formerly St. Ignatius College (Image: Chicago Patterns)

Why Loyola was given this book will never be known. Maybe an employee or founder of the bookshop of Eastman and Bartlett had connection to Loyola. Maybe there was sympathy for the small Catholic college, and it was thought a history of an important Catholic event would be useful to the Jesuits. This I do not know. In reflecting on why the Jesuits kept this book though, I can reach a few conclusions. The History of the Council of Trent is more valuable than a regular history of the event. Many books recount with objective clarity the importance of this council. Yet only this text reflects the deep-seated republican ideals of its original author. Paolo Sarpi’s history of the council reflect his animosity towards the Curia. It reflects his anger towards Papal interference in the civil affairs of sovereign states. It offers insight on republicanism as viewed by a leading figure in the Venetian Republic’s fight to defend its sovereignty against Papal involvement.

Furthermore, the book offers insight on the Protestant English view of the Catholic Church’s Counter-Reformation. Nathanael Brent’s condemnations of the Papacy and his hate-filled rhetoric reflect an English court enraged by Catholic power on the continent and within England. This point is exemplified by a brief part of Brent’s anti-Rome introduction in which he addresses the figure of Edmund Campion. Campion was a Jesuit priest who snuck into England and was caught and executed for spreading Catholic pamphlets in 1581. Campion was glorified as a martyr by the Jesuits and by English Catholics alike (he would eventually be canonized in 1970). Brent states that Campion is “overvalued” by the Catholics and mocks his teachings. He brushes aside an important figure in English Catholic history swiftly and without using much ink.

St Edmund Campion

A portrait of St. Edmund Campion (Image: Fr Jack SJ MD)

It seems clear to me that this text would have been valuable to the early Jesuits of St. Ignatius College for all of these reasons. This book is so much more than a history of a Papal conference. It is a reflection of two different episodes in history, and offers valuable historical information on each. For those interested in the history of the struggle between Church and State, or of early republicanism, Sarpi’s text reflects his personal investment in each of these matters. For those looking for a primary source on English perceptions of the Catholic Church or even of the Jesuits as personified by Campion, the book is of great help. The Jesuits of St. Ignatius were likely glad to have received a text that offered so much from a seemingly mundane topic. The History of the Council of Trent is an excellent historical piece, but just one of many books at one of many libraries, highlighting the great potential that lies hidden in plain sight within book shelves. This text symbolizes the multiple different ways a text can be interpreted, and the complex ways in which a book can be produced. The value of this text comes from the unique time period in which it was produced. It is heavily imbedded with the prejudices and personal beliefs of its writer and translator. It may not be the best factual history of a monumental period in Catholic history, but it is one of the more unique histories out there.

For those interested in seeing the book themselves, here is its location in Loyola’s Special Collections:

Loyola’s Copy of The History of the Council of Trent


One thought on “History of a History Book

  1. Pingback: What Is in a Book? | Ramonat Seminar 2015

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