chapter  18
History of the Popes, their Church and State (Leopold von Ranke, 1795–1886)
Pages 8

Ranke was born in Thuringia, part of the kingdom of Saxony acquired by Prussia during the Napoleonic wars. His father was a

lawyer and the family, noted for its pastors, devoutly Lutheran, which accounts for Ranke’s long-term fascination with Martin Luther’s historical influence. His early education was shared by home study and attendance at a respected, private Protestant school. Thereafter he went to universities in Leipzig and Halle, where he sharpened his talent for philology and knowledge of classical literature. For a time he taught classics at a gymnasium in Frankfort. That experience edged him in the direction of historical studies. He admired the Roman History of Barthold Niebuhr and his pioneer efforts to unfold the past with empirical rigor and disciplined objectivity. In later years, he kept a bust of Niebuhr in his study. Ranke married and enjoyed a stable, affectionate family life. He was a handsome man and a good speaker with much charm, all of which helped with access to private libraries and state archives. His first book, A History of Latin and Teutonic Nations, was written

in Frankfort and published at age 29. The volume included an added section that expounded his philosophy of historiography, which was to reconstruct without moral judgment specific periods of the past from facts embedded in original sources. He was suspicious that authors of secondary works merely repeated one another’s information and errors. The cure for such uncritical history was eye witness narratives and original documents. In 1825 the Prussian minister of education appointed him to a

beginning professorship at the University of Berlin, which became a tenured full professorship in 1837. In 1841 he was appointed Prussian historiographer. During that interval he attracted the attention of Prince Klemens von Metternich of Austria, the most powerful man in Europe at the time. He opened the doors of archives nearly everywhere except for the Vatican, and Ranke was launched on an unprecedented career of research and publication that encompassed the political development of most European countries and made him a byword for “historian” in the nineteenth century. His university seminars institutionalized the Rankean code of stay-

ing with facts from primary sources. He sent into the world a considerable number of fine historians who continued his methods of inquiry and instruction. At the age of 91, despite serious eye problems, Ranke was at work on a multi-volume world history as the capstone of his career. Before he died he had completed nine volumes that left the tale in the fifteenth century. The most influential part of Ranke’s vast corpus of writing dealt

with major European powers in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, to which must be added a remarkable history,

by a Lutheran no less, of popes and the Papal States in the last four centuries (Die romischen Papste in den letze vier Jahrhunderten).2 His strategy was to research and write about states most important to the development and character of European civilization. Usually beginning with origins, his narrative strategy expanded until it reached a crucial point of historical change. With France it was the reign of Louis XIV, with Germany the Reformation era, with England the two revolutions in the seventeenth century, and with the popes, formation of the Papal States. In the introduction to History of the Popes he explains where he got

his sources and how the project was mapped out. The text is a formidable three volumes comprising 914 pages of narrative, each volume divided into “books,” 274 pages of archival documents, and a number of illustrations. This level of effort was typical of Ranke, a prolific, versatile, innovative historian whose career of scholarship, publication, and teaching spanned more than 60 years and dominated much of his century. But why did he choose papal history?