Borgias Played Critical Role in Protestant Reformation, Renaissance, Colonialism, Columbian Exchange

In this video, Ryan Reeves, (PhD Cambridge) an Associate Professor of Historical Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, explains why the Borgia dynasty is, after more than 500 years, “remembered even today as something of a soap opera.”

Popularized by a three-season TV series on various streaming services, the Borgias had a reputation for sin and immorality. Yet this one-dimensional characterization may be undeserved, the result of 21st century commercial motivations to make the lives of this ostensibly religious family exceptionally scandalous. Nevertheless, the Borgias were critically important in the Protestant Reformation (as symbols of corruption to Martin Luther); in the Italian Renaissance, to which they contributed significantly; Spanish and Portuguese colonization of the New World, and the voyage of Columbus, in which some of the terms of the Columbian Exchange were defined. One of them, Pope Callixtus_III, ordered a new trial for Joan of Arc (c. 1412–1431), at which she was posthumously vindicated.

“The House of Borgia was a Spanish-Aragonese noble family, which rose to prominence during the Italian Renaissance.  They were from Aragon, the surname being a toponymic from the town of Borja, then in the Crown of Aragon, in Spain. The Borgias became prominent in ecclesiastical and political affairs in the 15th and 16th centuries, producing two popes: Alfons de Borja, who ruled as Pope Callixtus III during 1455–1458, and Rodrigo Lanzol Borgia, as Pope Alexander VI, during 1492–1503.”

“Especially during the reign of Alexander VI, they were suspected of many crimes, including adultery, incest, simony, theft, bribery, and murder (especially murder by arsenic poisoning).[6] Because of their grasping for power, they made enemies of the Medici, the Sforza, and the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola, among others. They were also patrons of the arts who contributed to the Renaissance art.” — Wikipedia.

As bad as the Borgias behaved, according to the TV series, Reeves’ video points to an article in History Today: “Give the Borgias a Break. As we soak up television dramas that revel in the scandalous personal lives of popes and kings, we are in danger of losing sight of these figures’ real historical importance, argues Tim Stanley…Rome was a small but significant power in the 15th century; its cardinals played for high temporal stakes, with wealth and influence over kings going to the winner. If Rodrigo had been a saint he wouldn’t have lasted long. We must not conflate the moral-but-powerless Vatican of today with the crusading state of the medieval epoch.”

Another article in History Today by Alexander Lee asks: “Were the Borgias Really So Bad?”

He first paints, by his own admission, a “comprehensively damning portrait.” But charges of incest, poisoning, fratricide, all-night orgies, are without reliable evidence and implausible as well.

And even if the Borgias were guilty of various crimes, especially bribery and nepotism, this wasn’t out of the ordinary during the period, Lee contends. “The Borgias were entirely typical of the families who were continually vying for the papal throne during the Renaissance,” he writes. During the Renaissance, “popes and cardinals were almost expected to have mistresses” and children. Homosexual affairs were no less common. They were also expected to engage in conquest and acquisition.

The Borgias’ reputation was so bad in part because they were foreigners, outsiders — Spaniards in Italy, Lee argues. But mostly they are reviled because they were not ultimately successful. “They were too hasty, too reliant on papal authority and foreign favour, and too unwilling to respect existing patters of landed power. They were building on sand. No sooner had Alexander VI died than Cesare’s proto-kingdom imploded and he himself was betrayed by Julius II. There was nothing left, and there was no-one to turn to for help. Forced to return to Spain, Cesare – and the Borgias – had failed. And in failure, even their former friends had no hesitation in decrying them as scoundrels. Without lasting power or influence, there was nothing either to hold back the criticism or to restrain the exaggerations,” Lee writes.

Alexander Lee is the author of The Ugly Renaissance: Sex Disease and Excess in an Age of Beauty

Further reading on the Borgias:



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