In the early fourteenth century, Ptolemy of Lucca (c. 1240-1327) composed his Historia ecclesiastica nova, the last history of the Christian church from the time of Christ to the present to appear before the onset of the Reformation. It is surprising how little attention scholars have paid to this prolific author and his work.  A Dominican friar and later Bishop of Torcello, Ptolemy (also known as Tolomeo Fiadoni) lived much of his life in the shadow of great men at a time when the temporal and spiritual authority of the church seemed very much on the wane. He was a close friend and confessor to Thomas Aquinas and moved gingerly within the circles of Pope Clement V and Pope John XXII. During his long life, he witnessed the conflict between Pope Boniface VIII and King Philip the Fair of France, the fall of the Latin kingdoms of the East, and the events that precipitated the Babylonian Captivity of the papacy in Avignon. Many of these tensions come to play in his writings, which span an impressive number of genres. Ptolemy wrote a long work of exegesis on the early chapters of Genesis (De operibus sex dierum) as well as a treatise on the authority of the emperor and his relationship with the pope (De iurisdictione imperii et auctoritate summi pontificis). His most famous work, a political manifesto on the responsibilities of monarchs (De regimine principum), has drawn attention primarily because some scholars believed that its first book was the work of Thomas Aquinas.  Ptolemy also composed two historical chronicles: the Annales, an account of secular affairs between 1063 and 1303 that focused on events in northern Italy with an emphasis on the local politics of Tuscany, and the Historia ecclesiastica nova, a voluminous history of the Christian church from the time of Christ to 1295 (continuators carried the work to 1329). The latter has recently been treated to an excellent critical edition in the Monumenta Germaniae Historica series (hereafter MGH), which is the subject of this review.
Extant in twenty-five manuscripts, Ptolemy's Historia ecclesiastica nova enjoyed a wide readership in the late Middle Ages and endured for almost three centuries as the standard work of reference for the history of the Christian church until it was superseded by the Annales ecclesiastici of Cesare Baronio (1538-1607). The work is primarily a compilation; Ptolemy gathered his information from a myriad of late antique and medieval sources, both well known (like Einhard's Vita Karoli) and unknown. His model was the much imitated Historia ecclesiastica of Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 263-339), but he also drew on the ancient tradition of cataloguing the lives and works of famous men (De illustribus viris), which in turn inflected the portraits of early medieval popes presented in the Liber pontificalis. Ptolemy organized his history into twenty-four books, and the narrative proceeds chronologically from the time of Christ until the early fourteenth century. Only the final two books, which commence with the papacy of Gregory X (1271-1276), present material contemporary with Ptolemy himself. Although the content of the Historica ecclesiastica nova seems very rich at first, the author's treatment of ancient and early medieval subjects is usually quite laconic and very few topics sustain his attention long enough to provide scholars with something satisfying to ruminate on. Exceptions are the rise of Islam in the seventh century, the process of which runs like a thread through Book 12 of his work, and the events comprising the First Crusade, which he relates at some length in Book 19. It would be worth considering how contemporary concerns about Muslims, particularly in the aftermath of the fall of Acre in 1291, manifested themselves in chronicles like this one. After countless resumés of popes and other fathers of the church, I found the appearance in Book 16 of an early version of the scandal of Pope Joan very refreshing. This tale of a tenth-century cross-dressing female pope whose identity became apparent when she went into labor and gave birth while on procession between the Lateran and St. Peter was popular in Dominican circles in the thirteenth century. Another useful avenue of inquiry would be to follow Ptolemy's narration of the rise of Christian devotional and liturgical practices, which the reader can trace from the first mention of the Pater Noster in Book 1 to the plenary indulgence granted to pilgrims to Rome during the jubilee year of 1300 in Book 24.
This edition meets the critical standards that scholars expect from the MGH: the text is impeccable; the introduction provides a learned tour through the complex manuscript tradition of the work (though there is little orientation on the career of Ptolemy himself); two sets of apparatus (one for textual variations, the other for historical commentary) accompany the Latin text; and the volume concludes with useful indices of proper names, place names and sources. If there is an argument to be made against reading books on handheld devices, spending a long morning with a Scriptores volume of the MGH on your lap is a very compelling one. I hope that this meticulous edition of Ptolemy's Historia ecclesiastica nova stirs new interest in this late medieval prelate and historian; it is clear that there is much more work to be done here.
1. James M. Blythe--the foremost specialist on this author--has written not one, but two, monographs on Ptolemy, neither of which offers a synthetic history of the prelate and his times, but both of which are propaedeutic to such a study. See Blythe, The Life and Works of Tolomeo Fiandoni (Ptolemy of Lucca) (Turnhout, 2009); and idem, The Worldview and Thought of Tolomeo Fiadoni (Ptolemy of Lucca) (Turnhout, 2009).
2. James M. Blythe, Ideal Government and the Mixed Constitution in the Middle Ages (Princeton, 1992), 92-117. Blythe subsequently produced an English translation of this work: Ptolemy of Lucca (with portions attributed to Thomas Aquinas), On the Government of Rulers, trans. James M. Blythe (Philadelphia, 1997).