The Roman Monster: An Icon of the Papal Antichrist in Reformation Polemics

Lawrence P. Buck


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. (EMS 13)

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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.

—Philip Soergel

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.

—Jonathan Zophy





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 Waldensians

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 Olmütz’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

John Wyclif

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




Lawrence Buck is professor emeritus of history at Widener University. After serving as provost and academic vice president for twenty years at Widener, he returned to full-time teaching from 2004 to 2013. He co-edited The Social History of the Reformation, a festschrift in honor of Professor Harold Grimm, and translated Monemvasia: The Town and its History. He received his PhD from Ohio State University.


"... 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,
Fall 2015

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

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