Brief Book Review: Rome and the Invention of the Papacy

Rome and the Invention of the Papacy: The Liber pontificalis
by Rosamond McKitterick

Who should read this? This is a carefully researched, well-written, and highly readable history of “Rome and the popes in late antiquity and the early middle ages through the prism of the narrative known as the Liber pontificalis.” That book, a “chronologically ordered serial biography of the bishops of Rome from St Peter to Pope Stephen V (+891), . . . was composed within the papal administration in Rome in the early sixth century, with continuations added in the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries” (p. xi). Anyone interested in the development of the papacy over these centuries, especially in its interrelation of Roman culture, developing theology, ecclesiology, and liturgy, should read this book.

Why should it matter? McKitterick illustrates the complex development of the papacy through the pages of the Liber pontificalis in a way that makes that complexity comprehensible and illustrates how that development depends on much more than theological reflection or ecclesial politics. While one goal of the Liber was to represent the popes “as the unfaltering champions of orthodoxy” (p. 15), it does so in the historical tidal changes of the seventh and eighth centuries within Rome and Italy and between the Church in Italy and Byzantium, driven on the one hand by military attacks from Byzantium and invasions by Germanic tribes, on another hand by political developments within Rome, and further by doctrinal challenges over issues like the acceptance or rejection of Chalcedon or the use of images in worship (see pp. 20-25).

What will get you thinking? Readers particularly interested in liturgical history and the role of the papacy in liturgical development in the Middle Ages will be especially intrigued by Chapter 5, “Bishop and Pope” (pp. 132-170). McKitterick points out how the Liber creates a historical framework for the liturgy that embraces borrowings from Greek practice and all the developments taking place in Frankish lands as reflected in the documents reaching Rome from those ecclesiastical jurisdictions while emphasizing “the pope’s responsibility for the organization of the church and the maintenance of orthodoxy” (p. 133). The Liber illustrates such practical aspects of papal responsibility as the provision of ministers for liturgical life in Rome and its neighboring dioceses, while it freely attributes to various popes the incorporation into liturgical practice additions borrowed from the Greek churches or Frankish practice. Individual popes are also credited with setting dates for such key events as Easter and the celebrational structure of feasts, such as the inclusion of midnight Mass for Christmas. Of course, as McKitterick notes, “recent scholarship has vigorously debated the nature and extent of Roman textual and musical contributions to the liturgy . . .” (p. 137).

Next steps. Students of medieval liturgy will find it fascinating to read this book along with their examination of sources such as the ordines Romani and the later pontificale Romanum. The interplay of church practices and liturgical understandings (and occasional misunderstandings) read against the developing understanding and increasingly centralized role of the papacy offers students a rich field of events, claims, and sources to explore as they seek to understand how and why the ritual and liturgical theology of the Roman Catholic Church developed in these centuries. They will also discover reasons, as McKitterick suggests, to dispute claims for papal authority and approval of liturgical developments. And once more, as is the case in so much of contemporary scholarship, they will discover “how difficult it is to pin anything down in terms of chronology or sources, given the patchy evidence” (p. 138).

Rosamond McKitterick. Rome and the Invention of the Papacy. Cambridge University Press, 2022. 288 pages. ISBN: 9781108872584

REVIEWER: Gordon E. Truitt
Dr. Gordon E. Truitt, now retired, served for thirty years as editor for publications of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians.