The Corruption and Illegitimacy of the Church - Bale’s salty and scandalous exposé of the Papacy and Monasticism

Bale, John (1495-1563)

Les vies des évesques et papes de Rome, depuis la disper- sion des Disciples de Iesus Christ, iusques au temps de Paul quatrieme, qui a present regne tyranniquement en l'Eglise, prinses du grand Catalogue des escrivains d'Angleterre,... Nouvellement traduites de Latin en François...

Geneva: Conrad Badius, 1561


Octavo: 17 x 11 cm. (56), 705, (63) pp. Collation: *-***8, ****4, a-z8, A-Z8, aa-bb8


Title page within a woodcut border with the printer's device at the center. A fine, fresh copy in contemporary limp vellum with overlapping edges, manuscript title on the spine and lower edge, remnants of ties, light stain on the back panel, inked-out ownership's entry dated 1606 on the title page, with a few old marginal annotations and underlining and several reading marks and numerous underlining in pencil. Light damp stains in sigs h and k, S-T, and again towards the end. On the recto of the back fly-leaf is a manuscript note in Latin and Greek in a contemporary hand; at the verso of the same leaf and on the pastedown several notes in pencil, a few scattered pale marginal stains, otherwise a very good, genuine copy. Rare. 1 copy located in North America (Duke.)

FIRST EDITION of Conrad Badius’ French translation of John Bale’s “Acta Romanorum Pontificum”(1558). In his “Acts of the Roman Pontiffs” Bale sought to prove that the popes are not the successors of Peter and expressed the belief that it was the Antichrist himself who controlled the papacy. He devotes considerable space to demonstrate that Peter never was a bishop of Rome and that there was considerable doubt among chroniclers about the identity of Peter’s immediate successors. Bale also uses church history to demonstrate England’s independence from Rome.

Bale enumerates the vile abuses of the popes, monks, and clergy, revealing scandal after scandal ripped from secret archives that had become available to him during his forays into defunct libraries after the dissolution of the English monasteries. “Bale’s insistence on including all the scandal he could find –and as a diligent researcher he found a great deal- ought not to obscure the main lines of his argument. It was the facts that monks and popes were lecherous, that popes were ever guilty of pride, that helped prove both the monastic and papal system uncanonical, although of course the crucial point could be proved by Scripture.” (Levy, Tudor Historical Thought, p. 92)

Like Bale’s earlier experiments in writing Church history from the Protestant perspective, his “Acts of the Roman Pontiffs” is of great importance in English Protestant historiography. Bale was a thorough researcher, well versed in the standards and framework of history writing, yet he brought to his work an important innovation. Bale rose above his predecessors “in his vision of a pattern of Church history. But this very pattern, (derived from the Bible rather than historical data) reinforced his inclination to interpret his evidence in the light of the revealed Truth… The Bible became the lens through which he viewed the past.”(Fairfield, John Bale: Mythmaker, p. 105)

In the “Acts of the Roman Pontiffs”, Bale developed his mature view of a “normative period” of Church history, i.e. a period during which the Church remained uncorrupted by non-Scriptural innovations and abuses. He did this in large part to support and promote the new Book of Common Prayer of 1552, which retained ceremonies that are known to have existed very early in the Church’s history but after the Scriptural period. 

Bale rejected Catholic accounts of Church history, such as Platina’s influential “Lives of the Popes”, in which innovations in Church doctrine (that were seen by Protestant writers as blasphemies and corruptions) were attributed to early Christian figures, such as Pope Felix. [However], Bale used the accounts of Platina and others as proof of the spuriousness of the ceremonial innovations and doctrinal changes instituted by these false vicars. For Bale, the millennium marked the point at which the full evil of the Church became apparent. For it was then that Pope Sylvester II, using black arts that he had learned in his Asian forays unleashed Satan.

Bale established the death of Sylvester I (324 A.D.) as marking the end of the age of true gospel preaching. When we look at Bale’s “pageant of Popes” as a whole, we see that “he divides the history of the papacy into three periods, over which he superimposed the first four seals of Revelation 6. The first period extended to the death of Sylvester I in 324 and was represented by the first seal and the white horse. During the second period, from Sylvester’s successor Marcus through the pontificate of Sabinianus who died in 606, the papacy experienced the second seal-opening and embodied the red horse. The third period of the institutional Church was the longest, stretching from the traditional villain Boniface III up to the beginning of Julius II’s papacy in 1503, at which point Bale thought that the papacy had begun to crumble. This lengthy age was subdivided, the first period (from Boniface III through Gregory V, just before A.D. 1,000) stood for the third seal-opening and the black horse, and the latter half (Sylvester II through Pius II in 1503) for the fourth seal and the pale horse named Death.” (Fairfield, John Bale: Mythmaker, p. 100)

Adams, B-133; Index Aureliensis 112.015; Universal STC, no. 210