Early Modern Studies, Vol. 13
In December 1495, the Tiber River flooded the city of Rome causing extensive drowning and destruction. When the water finally receded, a rumor began to circulate that a grotesque monstrosity had been discovered in the muddy detritus—the Roman monster. The creature itself is inherently fascinating, consisting of an eclectic combination of human and animal body parts. The symbolism of these elements, the interpretations that religious controversialists read into them, and the history of the image itself, help to document antipapal polemics from fifteenth-century Rome to the Elizabethan religious settlement.
This study examines the iconography of the image of the Roman monster and offers ideological reasons for associating the image with the pre-Reformation Waldensians and Bohemian Brethren. It accounts for the reproduction and survival of the monster’s image in fifteenth-century Bohemia and provides historical background on the topos of the papal Antichrist, a concept that Philip Melanchthon associated with the monster. It contextualizes Melanchthon’s tract, “The Pope-Ass Explained,” within the first five years of the Lutheran movement, and it documents the popularity of the Roman monster within the polemical and apocalyptic writings of the Reformation.
This is a careful examination and interpretation of all relevant primary documents and secondary historical literature in telling the story of the origins and impact of the most famous monstrous portent of the Reformation era.
Of all the curious, horrifying cast of monstrous characters known to early-modern Europeans, the Papal Ass was certainly one of the strangest. Word of its “dredging up” from the River Tiber in 1496 traveled a circuitous route through sixteenth-century Europe, helping to make the famous images that Cranach and others fashioned to depict it into readily recognizable pieces of the era’s mental furniture. Lawrence Buck’s dogged attempts to cast light upon the trail that knowledge and exploitation of this event followed reveals a great deal about the ways in which religious, scientific, and preternatural knowledge got around in pre-modern society.
This book is a fascinating and meticulous study of antipapal polemics from the early Reformation to the Elizabethan religious settlement. Lawrence Buck skillfully analyzes the iconography of the various images of a grotesque monstrosity that had been discovered after the Tiber River flooded Rome, and traces the uses they were put to by reformers including Philip Melanchthon’s 1523 pamphlet, “The Pope-Ass Explained.” With abundant illustrations, Buck’s monograph delineates the various elements used to illustrate the monster and its connection to the papal antichrist. Buck also ties the Roman Monster into the discourse of the Reformation including Luther’s use of it, its appearance in Wonder-book literature, its use in polemics as part of the French Wars of Religion and the Elizabethan Reformation. This intriguing book should attract widespread interest from Reformation scholars. It is one of the freshest and most original books to have appeared in several years.
Introduction: The Roman Monster: Historical Context
Chapter 1: The Roman Monster of 1496
From Pious Portent to Political Pasquinade
The Roman Flood, 1495/96
Iconographic Meaning of the Ass
Iconography of Papal Authority
The Donation of Constantine
The Bohemian Brethren
Chapter 2: The Roman Monster in the Kingdom of Bohemia 1498–1523
The Waldensians and Bohemian Brethren in the Kingdom of Bohemia
Persecution of the Bohemian Brethren
Wenzel von OlmÃ¼tz’s Reproduction of the Roman Monster
Luther Receives the Roman Monster Illustration
Chapter 3: The Papal Antichrist
The Received Tradition: Abbot Adso
Joachim of Fiore and the Joachimites
The Papal-Franciscan Controversy
The Czech Reform—The Collective Antichrist
The Antichrist Antitheses
The Anatomy of the Antichrist
Chapter 4: Philip Melanchthon’s The Pope-Ass Explained (1523)
Reformation Narrative to 1523
The Leipzig Disputation of 1519
Luther and the Papal Antichrist
The Publication of The Pope-Ass Explained
The Pope-Ass Explained: An Explication of the Text
The Animalized Monstrosity of the Papal Antichrist
Chapter 5: The Diffusion of the Roman Monster within the Discourse of the Reformation
Editions and Translations of The Pope-Ass Explained
Luther’s Vocabulary of Asininity
The Roman Monster in Wonder-Book Literature
The Roman Monster in the Polemics of the French Wars of Religion
The Roman Monster in the Elizabethan Reformation: The Pedegrewe of Heretiques
The Roman Monster in the Elizabethan Reformation: Of two VVoonderful Popish Monsters: A Declaration of the Monstrous figure of a Popish Asse
Conclusion: The Pope-Ass as a Trope of Antipapalism in Reformation Politics
Appendix: The Pope-Ass Explained (1523) by Philip Melanchthon
"... meticulously uncovers the origin of the stores...The detective work demonstrated in this section is to be lauded. ...Masterfully and deftly, Buck finally has given us the answers..."
David M. Whitford, Catholic Historical Review, Spring 2016, Vol. 102, No. 2
Throughout, Buck displays fluency across a number of topics, from the relationships between groups of late medieval dissenters to the polemics of the Lutheran Reformation.
—Susan Royal, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 66, No. 4, 2015
The Roman Monster is a significant new addition to scholarly work on Reformation propaganda.
—Roberta Dykema, Sixteenth Century Journal,
Through the history of an image of great polemical power, interpreted metaphorically and eschatologically, the author traces the continuing diffusion of the Roman monster in antipapal criticism intrinsic in Protestant fervor.
—Sara Vannozzi, Revue d'Histoire Ecclesiastique, 2015
The volume interweaves both the medieval backgrounds and the relevant narrative of the Protestant Reformation, rendering it accessible to the non-specialist. For the specialists, it offers an important glimpse of how Reformation polemic availed itself of visual images and why those symbols resonated with people.
—Richard J. Serina, Jr.,
Lutheran Quarterly, 28.4, 2014
This is a very good book, and the work Buck has done to trace the early history of the image is impressive…It is well illustrated and rounded out with a translation of Melanchthon’s 1523 text.
—Richard Raiswell,Renaissance and Reformation,
Volume 37.3, 2014