Roger Collins is a name I’ve known for many years through his Early Medieval Europe 300–1000, so when I realized that a book I was considering getting was by him, it became an instant first choice.

Covering nearly 2000 years of history in about 500 pages, even if restricted to a single institution (the papacy), is no mean feat, but Collins does it quite well here. There are places where names and titles go by at a dizzying pace, but mostly he picks an issue or a pope, and does a subchapter on it. This breaks the narrative into a large number of discrete chunks that mostly read very cleanly.

He actually starts in 1942, with an excavation under St. Peter’s which eventually turned up what was later announced as the bones of St. Peter himself. Collins points out a number of unresolvable uncertainties about the claim, and moves on to how this this claim ties into the Papacy’s view of itself. The book is well done and informative, for me especially in the period from 1790 to 1850, where the papacy went through it’s toughest struggle, loosing all of its temporal power, only to gain new respect in the spiritual field.

Collins maintains a good even tone throughout, treating the subject evenhandedly, and sceptically (when needed), showing how various policies were (and weren’t) reactions to the times. His final thoughts on the papacy are, “The papacy in the twentieth century was more defensive on its impregnable rock than at almost any other time in its past, and more disturbed by changes in human society and in thought than at any previous period, at least since the Reformation. The latter remains the great turning point in its history. Recent decades have, on the other hand, put the person of the pope at the forefront of the Catholic sense of identity to an unparalleled degree, and focused popular piety upon it. At the same time there have been losses, both of vocations and of faith, more in some parts of the world than others, as expectations of change, reform and leadership have been disappointed. The papacy may need to adapt to the changing circumstances and demands of the new millennium, but if its history suggests anything, this will be done slowly, reluctantly and with a firm denial that anything of the kind is happening.”