Trent: What Happened at the Council

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The Council of Trent (1545–1563), the Catholic Church’s attempt to put its house in order in response to the Protestant Reformation, has long been praised and blamed for things it never did. Now, in this first full one-volume history in modern times, John W. O’Malley brings to life the volatile issues that pushed several Holy Roman emperors, kings and queens of France, and five popes—and all of Europe with them—repeatedly to the brink of disaster.

During the council’s eighteen years, war and threat of war among the key players, as well as the Ottoman Turks’ onslaught against Christendom, turned the council into a perilous enterprise. Its leaders declined to make a pronouncement on war against infidels, but Trent’s most glaring and ironic silence was on the authority of the papacy itself. The popes, who reigned as Italian monarchs while serving as pastors, did everything in their power to keep papal reform out of the council’s hands—and their power was considerable. O’Malley shows how the council pursued its contentious parallel agenda of reforming the Church while simultaneously asserting Catholic doctrine.

Like What Happened at Vatican II, O’Malley’s Trent: What Happened at the Council strips mythology from historical truth while providing a clear, concise, and fascinating account of a pivotal episode in Church history. In celebration of the 450th anniversary of the council’s closing, it sets the record straight about the much misunderstood failures and achievements of this critical moment in European history.

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post - Michael Dirda
Trent: What Happened at the Council is written with the clarity and learning one expects of a Jesuit scholar. Its introduction and epilogue are especially cogent expositions of the basic accomplishments of Trent…The bulk of the book…comes across as both fascinating and somewhat disillusioning, as we observe the constant tug of earthly powers in the formulation of spiritual doctrine.
Robert Trisco
In Trent: What Happened at the Council, distinguished author John O'Malley disentangles for us the complicated history of one of the most important ecumenical councils ever held, extracting for us the essential issues from the often animated discussions and the technically formulated decrees on doctrine and reform. Written in a lively literary style without recondite terminology, this compendious account of the Council of Trent will be useful not only to students of church history, theology, and canon law, but also to anyone interested in the religious and cultural developments of the early modern Western world.
Jill Ker Conway
Despite my diligent efforts, the Council of Trent has always been something of mystery to me. Thanks to John O'Malley, I now know the principal characters and the doctrinal and political issues about which they were so passionately concerned. And O'Malley's narrative skills make us see the scene, the weather, even the problems of stabling and feeding the hordes of horses necessary to bring the carriages of the participants to a smallish town. A major contribution to the history of the Church.
Anthony Grafton
At last, a contemporary history of the Council that made the modern church. And what a history: learned, lucid, and rich in historical insight.
Maclean’s - Brian Bethune
O'Malley's lively narrative shows how so much was accomplished despite the chaos and difficulties: Trent, even when it didn't enact legislation itself, set Catholicism on the road to reforming its late medieval abuses.
Washington Post - Michael Dirda
Trent: What Happened at the Council is written with the clarity and learning one expects of a Jesuit scholar. Its introduction and epilogue are especially cogent expositions of the basic accomplishments of Trent...The bulk of the book, however, comes across as both fascinating and somewhat disillusioning, as we observe the constant tug of earthly powers in the formulation of spiritual doctrine. There are no angelic doctors, as Thomas Aquinas was called, among the council's deeply savvy leaders. The dark ascendancy of party politics must, I suspect, be counted one further consequence of Original Sin.
Times Higher Education - Alec Ryrie
[O'Malley] has written what is, amazingly, the first one-volume, scholarly narrative history of the council in English...This is a history that is engaged and committed as well as being critical--sometimes searingly so...It is important to remember what actually happened at the council. And that is why this little book, this readable masterpiece of compression, is going to be so indispensable.
The Tablet - Hilmar Pabel
John O'Malley has done it again. In 2008, he published his splendid What Happened at Vatican II, the best one-volume history of the Second Vatican Council, at least in English. In producing the best one-volume history of the Council of Trent (1545-63), he has rendered equal service to the history of Catholicism...O'Malley's new history of Trent will be just as influential as his history of Vatican II...Readers of What Happened at Vatican II will enjoy this new conciliar history...In exposing the myths about and elucidating the realities of Trent, O'Malley reconstructs a dramatic event in the history of Catholicism...Anyone interested in the development of the Church's modern history can now readily engage O'Malley as a guide to what happened not only at Vatican II but also at the Council of Trent.
Literary Review - Peter Marshall
The very considerable achievement of John O'Malley, an immensely learned American Jesuit and academic, is twofold: he strips away these accumulated layers of myth to provide a balanced and convincing account of the Council in its proper historical context; and, more impressively still, he manages to conjure a compelling narrative out of potentially dry-as-dust procedural deliberations and abstruse doctrinal formulations. What emerges most strongly from this account is the sheer unlikeliness of the Council ever having been convened in 1545, and the yet more unlikely circumstance of its successful conclusion 18 years later... O'Malley's beautifully crafted short account gives readers as much as most of them will need to know about the course and conduct of the Council, while somehow managing to fit in sensitive evaluations of key achievements (the decree on justification and the reform of marriage law) and lively pen portraits of unlikely heroes, such as the can-do papal legate Giovanni Morone, and Charles de Guise, Cardinal of Lorraine, the debonair aristocrat who was also a serious-minded reformer. The abiding impression is of a more rounded, nuanced and less monolithic Catholicism than the brisk syllable 'Trent' usually manages to convey.
America - Denis R. Janz
Every historian of early modern Christianity that I know would agree: in 1993 John O'Malley, S.J., put us all in his debt with the publication of The First Jesuits. This year he moves us deeper into the red with his new book Trent: What Happened at the Council...It is quite simply the most engaging book on the council that I have read.
London Review of Books - Diarmaid Macculloch
[A] superb new history of the Council of Trent...Thanks to John O'Malley, a veteran Jesuit historian of the Counter-Reformation, we now have a beautifully clear and honest reappraisal of the tangled story of Trent, in all its complexity, paradox, achievement and lost opportunity. It is the first time that English-speaking readers have had this privilege, for all other accounts of Trent have been either too short, or too long for non-specialists...The great impression left by this excellent book is that Trent settled much less than people think.
New York Review of Books - Eamon Duffy
John O'Malley is the doyen of historians of the Catholic reformation...His new history of Trent sets out to bring the cold light of historical scrutiny to bear on the legends that surround the council itself and its achievements. There is, astonishingly, no modern study of the Council of Trent in English...[so] O'Malley's lively one-volume survey is to be welcomed on that score alone. But his scrupulously researched and balanced book is also an intervention in fraught and sometimes acrimonious controversies within the modern Roman Catholic Church...His concern is to deconstruct the myth of Trent and 'Tridentinism' as a timeless encapsulation of the unchanging continuities of a Catholicism immune to history. Trent, in his view, was no monolith but a straggling historical event, stretched out over two decades and often at the mercy of the European politics that had delayed its convening until all realistic hope of a reconciliation with Protestantism had passed.
Choice - J. W. McCormack

This comprehensive account of the 16th-century Council of Trent is the first book of its kind to appear in English, weaving together a detailed narrative of the politics and deliberations of the council with a careful analysis of the decrees that reshaped early modern Catholicism in often subtle and unintended ways...The result is an engaging,

accessible treatment of this watershed episode in church history that thoroughly contextualizes both its successes and its failures.

The Australian - John Carmody
O'Malley gives a shrewdly judged amount of the quotidian details of [the bishops'] debates, the background machinations and theological context, yet never overburdens us with arcane details or allows his account to resemble corporate minutes. Nor does he resile from the inevitable conclusion: the timorous participants, overawed by theological pedantry and fear of papal sanctions, squibbed almost every moral or reform challenge that confronted them during the 18 years of the council's intermittent activities. The cost to Christendom was enormous...[An] engrossing history.
Times Literary Supplement - Jonathan Wright
The decrees of Trent would define the Catholic Church for the next four and a half centuries. Understanding what happened at the Council has never been easy, so John O'Malley is to be congratulated for providing this detailed and elegant account of one of the era's most important and puzzling events...The astonishing thing is that it has taken so long for a scholar to write an excellent short account of this most crucial of events.
London Review of Books - Diarmaid MacCulloch
[A] superb new history of the Council of Trent...Thanks to John O'Malley, a veteran Jesuit historian of the Counter-Reformation, we now have a beautifully clear and honest reappraisal of the tangled story of Trent, in all its complexity, paradox, achievement and lost opportunity. It is the first time that English-speaking readers have had this privilege, for all other accounts of Trent have been either too short, or too long for non-specialists...The great impression left by this excellent book is that Trent settled much less than people think.
The Catholic Times - David Gibson
Provides a concise yet no less scholarly overview of the ups and downs of this frequently name-checked Council…Trent: What Happened at the Council is written with comfortable, accessible authority and really is a vital and intriguing overview of a Council that still casts such an influence some 450 years later.
Library Journal
Jesuit historian O'Malley (theology, Georgetown Univ.; What Happened at Vatican II) goes beyond the myths to study what actually happened at the Council of Trent (1545–63), at which the Catholic Church codified its teachings. In clear, crisp prose, he clears up misconceptions about the Church at the time (e.g., that Catholics did not read the Bible and priests did not give sermons), shows that many ideas widely considered "Tridentine" actually arose after Trent, and corrects misconceptions: that the council mandated the Mass be in Latin, and that it established a "Tridentine" liturgy. Using the Acts of the council as his source, O'Malley gives an almost day-by-day account, putting the council's debates in political and religious context of the issues of the day, especially the counter-Reformation and the battle between Pope and princes. VERDICT Making use of telling details about the very human men who made up the council, O'Malley deftly weaves the story of reformers and traditionalists, to offer an enlightening view of this most influential Church council that will appeal to those interested in church history or in the history of modern Europe.—Augustine J. Curley, Newark Abbey, NJ
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674066977
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 1/15/2013
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 208,522
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

John W. O’Malley is University Professor at Georgetown University.
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Read an Excerpt

From Chapter Four: The Middle Years, 1547-1562

Were it not located in the Papal States, Bologna would have been an ideal city for the council. Although often oppressively hot in the summer, it had a milder climate than Trent. Then as now it was noted for its good food. A large city by sixteenth-century standards, it had a population of about 50,000, roughly the same as Florence and Rome. Lodging was plentiful. The Palazzo Campeggi (today Bevilacqua), where the General Congregations were held, was a spacious and beautiful Renaissance building from the late fifteenth century. The church of San Petronio, located right at city-center, was perfect for the Sessions, at which large crowds were expected.

Bologna boasted one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in Europe, whose only rival for such claims was Paris. Unlike Paris, renowned especially for its theology faculty, Bologna was renowned for its faculty of law, both civil and canon, which attracted students from all of Europe. The university did not have a theological faculty until 1364. That faculty, altogether different in structure from its Parisian counterpart and of lesser repute, consisted essentially in a consortium of the studia or “houses of study” of the many and important convents of the mendicant orders in the city. The influx into the council of experts from these institutions made the size of the Congregations of Theologians at Bologna considerably larger than at any other time in the history of the council. On April 29, 1547, Massarelli counted more than eighty present that day.

These institutions also boasted extensive libraries with just the kind of collections the Council needed for its work. The Dominican convent was especially important because to it were sent talented young members of the order from all over Europe to complete their studies. These and other students were admitted as auditors to the Congregations of Theologians until their numbers grew so great—over 300 on April 2, 1547—that the practice was stopped.

“The Council of Bologna”


Charles received the news of the translation to Bologna at Nördlingen on March 15, 1547, just a few days after it happened. Furious, he held the legates, especially Cervini, responsible. He hoped Paul III would repudiate what they had done and hold true to his promise of a council “in German lands.” Just as the legates felt the council’s freedom threatened in Trent, Charles felt it threatened in a city of the Papal States. To acknowledge Bologna would be to betray his promise to the German Protestants and offend even many German Catholics.

The two legates arrived in Bologna five days later, on March 20. Meanwhile in Rome news of the translation caused misgivings, and Paul was notably perturbed when he received word from Charles in effect demanding return to Trent. On March 27, however, the legates got reassurance that the pope not only approved the translation but in consistory had told the gathered cardinals that no more was to hoped for from Trent. The Germans had been awaited there for two years and had never shown up.

That same day, a happy one therefore for the legates, Cervini celebrated mass in San Petronio to mark the council’s coming to the city. Del Monte, suffering from one of his recurrent attacks of gout, could not attend, but present were the governor of the city, other civic officials in great number, and a large congregation, which constituted an embarrassing contrast with the meager contingent of prelates come from Trent—two archbishops and ten bishops. A month later the Session on April 21, though solemnly celebrated in San Petronio, was forced to publish a decree admitting that because so few bishops had shown up the matter scheduled for promulgation had to be deferred until the next Session, set for June 2.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

1 The Fifteenth-Century Prelude 23

2 The Struggle to Convoke the Council 49

3 The First Period, 1545-1547 77

4 The Middle Years, 1547-1562 127

5 The Council Resumes, 1562-1563 168

6 The Council Concludes 205

Epilogue 248

Appendix A The Twenty-Five Sessions of the Council of Trent 279

Appendix B The Tridentine Profession of Faith 283

Abbreviations 287

Notes 289

Acknowledgments 325

Index 327

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  • Posted November 22, 2013

    Tridentines take note

    A readable account of a confusing era. We sometimes think it was a totally holy gathering of a major event in the counter-reformation. The fact is it is lucky to have happened at all and even more so that the bishops were able to resolve anything.

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