There are very few full-length books on the council of Trent. There is an historical reason for that, in that the pope forbade any commentaries from being written about the council, since he wanted to control the reception and implementation of the council. With the opening up of the Vatican archives in the twentieth century, Trent is finally fair game for historians. In this regard, John O’Malley has done it again, and the scope of his achievement is rather mind-blowing to me, especially when one considers how much research he also has done on Vatican II. In both cases, he not only read the complete series of books that document the councils, but also most of the secondary literature as well. This may not seem huge until one realizes that in both cases (Trent and Vatican II), the documentary series of books runs to over 30 volumes. O’Malley certainly seems to have read everything of importance, and the result is a highly compact, incredibly fact-dense, but also very readable history of Trent. I thought I was going to run out of the world’s supply of lead, I underlined so much. Now, his being Roman Catholic means, of course, that I am not going to agree with him in many places. However, that does not take away from the fact that this is an incredible book. It will give you an excellent handle on what happened at Trent. Given the situation of the RCC at the moment, which is in large part determined by Trent, Vatican I, and Vatican II, it is exceedingly important that we know not only what happened at Trent, but also what did not happen.
He does an especially good job making distinct the actual acts of the council from the reception and perception of the council. His delineation of the political situation was a real eye-opener. The reason why the council took so long and was interrupted, was due to the highly volatile political situation involving the two most powerful political entities (France and the Holy Roman Empire) in their various relations and machinations with the popes of the day.
The only thing I wish he had done was to analyze the Joint Declaration that the Lutherans did with the Roman Catholics. O’Malley seems to think that the entire discussion of whether the anathemas of Trent still apply is to be referred to those ecumenical discussions. I’m not so sure about that, to put it mildly, and I would have liked to see his own evaluation of that in the light of his own mastery of the history of Trent. Still, this is only a minor blemish on a work of fantastic historical value. If you want to know what happened at Trent, you really need to read this book.