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The Lives of the Popes,
B. Platina

Volume I.

From the Renaissance Vatican Library to you! Bartholomew [aka Baptista] Platina [aka Bartolomeo de Sacchi de Piadena] was the superintendent of the papal library until he died of the plague in 1481. During that job, he rummaged around, in the 2500 volumes the library held, to write the first history of the papacy in many centuries. His boss was Sixtus IV, who asked him to do it. Platina's life and career is ably discussed in the Biographical Preface by Rev. William Benham.

Platina has written very brief accounts of each Pope, in chronological order,. They include: each pope's life and work, as far as it was known, and any controversies surrounding them. Along with this, and often in more detail than that of the pope, is a summary of the international events that occurred during that pope's life and rule. Mention is made of the current world rulers and their actions during that period, especially as it affected the Catholic church and even more especially if it affected the papacy. Additionally, he often mentions who the most famous scholars and celebrities who lived at the same time. In brief, these are little capsules of the history of Europe, pope by pope, with a little scandal and gossip thrown in.

Online now is Volume I, which starts at the beginning with St. Peter the Apostle, and ends with Pope Alexander II, who died in 1073. The sheer number of popes in that time, 162 by Platina's reckoning, demonstrates how volatile and dangerous the papacy could be. Often, the election of the pope was a bloody affair in Rome, accompanied by riots, murder and assorted mayhem. Some of the Popes only reigned a few months. About 36 were popes less than a year. Platina's list is not the 'official' list since the numerical ranking, which i have added in the footers and contents, includes some controversial popes, including the fabulous Pope Joan, and a few popes who were ousted or assumed the purple by skulduggery.

The English translation used is that published by Sir Paul Rycaut in 1685, who found the translation. But he stated that he did not know who the translator was. Benham has modernized the English and corrected the typos, most of them, at least, but not all. He also added some notes as well as the Biography of Platina and a General Introduction: both of which are excellent reading all by themselves.

Volume I is all that is online at present. This is a book that is easier to read than to type!

I have added a few notes, as well as actually assigning numbers to the popes themselves, which seemed to be a useful idea, for various reasons. A little line at the bottom of each pope's page shows, with links, who the previous pope was and the name of the pope who succeeded him.

Any typos in the text have been amended, and there were a few, some relatively significant. The original error in the text is noted in the source code for that page. I have added a few notes and links, but there are many more that I could, and may, add later.

Much of what Platina has written is found nowhere else, and no one knows if the sources he used were lost for those statements, or he added them on his own. However that mey be, his task was an important one and his book was the first comprehensive account of the history of the rulers of Latin Christianity that had been done in a long, long time.

It is interesting to note that the very expedient, blatantly political and self-serving "Doctrine of Papal Infallibility" is clearly a late development. However late, it has been a wondrously successful bit of propaganda that is still succeeding. I can testify to that. When I hung around in the Boston area for several years at the start of 2000 or so, I talked to a lot of middle class Catholics, who were astounded when I mentioned that I had been reading about some very early, very bad popes. They just looked at me with bewilderment and said "But the Pope is always right!" They believe this as firmly as most of us believe in "America the Great" and the glorious version of American history we are still taught today.

Nevertheless, it is very clear that from the very beginning, the papacy and all its clergy, along with its often brilliant employees, like Platina, did much for the world. In fact, the Catholic Church was the only career path for a person not born into the noble class until modern times. If an ambitious man wanted to rise from an impoverished or obscure background to fame, prestige, honours, and wealth, he could only do so through ecclesiastical channels: either by becoming a high-ranking churchmen himself, or working for one (like Platina), or winning the patronage of one (here Titian, Rafael, and Michelangelo come to mind).

As with anything and everything else, this democratic principle has led to much good as well as much that is shameful. The organized Catholic church was the first and biggest international bureaucracy since the fall of the Roman Empire. Until the Reformation, the Catholic church held power, influence and wealth in all the Christian countries; whereas kings and emperors only ruled their own patch of land. Laws for Catholics by the only religion that existed, often superseded the laws of princes. How that power developed is shown through Platina's history, if only by inference and deduction.

Anyway, this is an interesting and very condensed way to read of the rise of the papacy and its international power from the beginnings of Christianity through the first thousand years of its existence.

About Reverend William Benham, from The New International Encyclopædia, Edited by Talcott Williams, and Frank Moore Colby. Second Edition, Volume III, New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1914; p. 139:

. An English clergyman and author. He was born at West Meon, Hampshire, where both his father and his grandfather had occupied the position of village postmaster. He was educated at King's College, London, and in 1864 became editorial secretary to the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, and professor of modern history at King's College. In 1865 he was selected by Archbishop Longley as his private secretary, and in 1872 was appointed one of the six preachers of Canterbury and vicar of Margate by Archbishop Tait. He became vicar of Marden in 1880, rector of the Church of St. Edmund the King in 1882, and honorary canon in Canterbury Cathedral in 1888. In 1897 Bishop Creighton appointed him Boyle Lecturer. From 1903 to his death he was rural dean of East City. He was editor of Griffith and Farran’s Library of Ancient and Modern Theology and published the following, writing for some time under the pseudonym of “Peter Lombard”; English Ballads, with Introduction and Notes (1863); Readings on the Life of Our Lord and His Apostles (1880); Companion to the Lectionary (1872); A New Translation of Thomas à Eempis’s “Imitatio Christi” (1874); Memoirs of Catharine and Craufurd Tait (1879); A Short History of the Episcopal Church in America (1884); The Dictionary of Religion (1887); Life of Archbishop Tait, in collaboration with the Bishop of Winchester (1891); Mediæval London (1901); Tower of London (1906). Consult Letters of “Peter Lombard,&8221; with a memoir by his daughter (1911).

Get started, you won't be sorry.

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