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Image of the title page of volume 2 of Lea's History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages. Photo by Nathan Dorn.
Title page of volume 2 of the first edition of Lea's History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages. Photo by Nathan Dorn.

Philadelphia’s Gilded Age Medievalist: Henry Charles Lea

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In a recent post, we highlighted Francis Hilliard, an author of many law books who flourished during the booming book trade of mid-19th century America. Hilliard, whose father was the well-known Boston printer and bookseller William Hilliard, was in a literal sense born and raised in the printing business. The subject of this post is another son of 19th century American printing: the publisher, activist and historian Henry Charles Lea.

Image of Henry Charles Lea in his old age, seated in high-backed partially upholstered Victorian-era chair.
Portrait of Henry Charles Lea, from the frontispiece of the 1905 German edition of The History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages. Photo by Nathan Dorn.

Henry Charles Lea (1825-1909) was the son of the naturalist Isaac Lea, and the grandson of the Philadelphia-based printer and publisher Mathew Carey. Carey’s publishing house, which became one of the most important American publishers of the era, was called by a variety of names throughout the 19th century as the cast of characters involved in the business changed. They were Carey, Stewart & Co.; M. Carey & Sons; H. C. Carey & I. Lea; Carey, Lea, & Carey; Carey, Lea & Blanchard; Lea & Blanchard; Blanchard & Lea; Henry C. Lea; and Lea Brothers & Co. In the early 19th century, Mathew Carey brought his son, Henry Charles Carey, and Isaac Lea (his son-in-law) into his publishing business. From 1825, the year of Henry Charles Lea’s birth, onward, Isaac Lea and Henry Charles Carey took over the firm and brought it to new levels of prosperity and influence. It published in many fields, including history, fiction, and religion. Mathew Carey is well-known for printing the Catholic bible (the Douay Bible) for the first time in the United States. By mid-century, the company specialized in science.

Henry Charles Lea grew up in the atmosphere created by the firm’s successes and the intellectual achievements of his family. His father, Isaac Lea, published widely on scientific subjects, especially geology and conchology; and his maternal uncle Henry Charles Carey enjoyed a successful career as an economist, eventually serving as an economic advisor to the President and the secretary of the treasury during the Lincoln administration. Henry Charles and his brother (who they called Carey) were deeply involved in science at an early age. Lea had his first scientific publication at the age of 13. He was an energetic and devoted student. While still in his teens, he worked in a chemical laboratory. Shortly afterward, he took up his part in the management of the family business. But he had a penchant for overwork. In 1849, at the age of 23, he suffered from a sort of a breakdown – he later described it as neurasthenia – that left him physically and mentally unable to continue with his obligations. It was during his period of convalescence that his interests began to turn to history. (O’Brien, pp. 104-105.).

The focus of his reading began with the reign of Napoleon and its world-changing results in Europe, but soon his interest in European history deepened to include the institutional history of the European governments before the French Revolution, and finally the legal institutions of the Middle Ages. Within a few years, he returned to work at the family business and restricted his reading to evenings and weekends. During that time, he continued to publish works on scientific topics, especially conchology, following in his father’s footsteps. But in his mid-30s he turned to publishing works on European history.

Following the publication of a few journal articles on medieval history, Lea completed in 1866 his first book length work, Superstition and Force. (O’Brien, pp. 104-105). That book is a compendious and comprehensive view of the law of proof in the Middle Ages, covering the methods that were used to determine the truth or falsehood of the claimants in a legal dispute from the end of Antiquity through the 17th century. The focus of the book is on modes of proof that would have struck people of his age (and of ours, for the most part), as lacking all credibility: wager of law; judicial combat, judicial ordeals and torture. In the book, he traces the various forms of judicial ordeals from their appearance in Europe at the end of Antiquity to their abolition; and the use of torture from its appearance after the Fourth Lateran Council renounced clerical support for judicial ordeals in the year 1215 onward.

Lea followed this publication with nine subsequent studies on topics in the history of the legal institutions of the Middle Ages, including An historical sketch of sacerdotal celibacy in the Christian church (Philadelphia, 1867); A history of auricular confession and indulgences in the Latin church (Philadelphia, 1896); and The dead hand; a brief sketch of the relations between church and state with regard to ecclesiastical property and the religious orders (Philadelphia, 1900). Chief among his efforts both in impact and influence over time was his three-volume work History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, which at least one professional historian of his age had deemed a project that was, in scope, impossible to complete. Lea also gathered resources for a study on witchcraft and the law, but he did not live to see it to completion. That material is published as Materials toward a history of witchcraft (Philadelphia, 1939).

What is so extraordinary about Henry Charles Lea is that he emerged in the 1860s, with no particular training and in isolation from the direct influence of any professional scholar, as a fully formed world-class historian of the legal institutions of Europe in the Middle Ages. There were some criticisms of his work, in particular of his manner of citation and a complaint of anti-Catholic bias in his writing. (Cheney, pp. xvi-xvii; Baumgarten, passim.) His books were, nevertheless, well-received by British and European medievalists. This was simply unexpected from an American scholar of his time – since the Protestant-oriented historical outlook of most American intellectuals disfavored a deep engagement with the historical details of the Catholic world; and it was certainly unexpected from a layman to amass such erudition. After the success of Superstition and Force he began what became lifelong correspondences with important scholars in the United States and Europe. (O’Brien, 109-110.)

Image of the title page of volume 2 of Lea's History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages. Photo by Nathan Dorn.
Title page of volume 2 of the first edition of Lea’s History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages. Photo by Nathan Dorn.

Lea took advantage of his wealth to acquire from Europe the books he needed for his research, establishing an unprecedented network of agents and buyers in various locations on the continent. Over time, he amassed a very significant collection of books on the European Middle Ages; and especially on the history of the Inquisition. At the time of his death, his collection included scores of bound manuscripts and between 10 and 15 thousand printed books. After his death, his personal library was transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, which continues to house the collection, along with his personal and family papers.

As an historian of periods whose ethical and political vision differed significantly from his own, he adopted an interesting, limited version of relativism about public morals and standards of right and wrong. On the one hand, he realized that how people perceive right and wrong can and does change from place to place and from age to age. On the other hand, he thought that human progress – change in the direction of improvement – was possible.

“It may perhaps be urged that in thus asserting the temporary and variable character of morals, we are destroying the foundations of morality and the eternal distinction between right and wrong. This is begging the question, for it presupposes that there is a universal and inflexible standard of morals. Such there may be, like the so-called law of nature of the scholastic theologians, but the history of mankind fails to reveal it, and the truest test of any period is the standard which it made or accepted, for this shows, better than aught else, whether it was a period of progress or one of retrogression.” (Lea, Ethical Values in History, p. 58).

As for retrogression, Lea made clear throughout his works his opinion that the Middle Ages and its institutions were irredeemably backwards. (O’Brien, pp. 110-112.) But he also reveals in Superstition and Force what he means by progress. Namely, humanity’s growth from the law of the jungle – force against force alone as the adjudicator of all contests of will – to the universal voluntary submission of all under the rule of right.

“When the strong man is brought, by whatever means, to yield to the weak, a great conquest is gained over human nature; and if the aid of superstition is invoked to decide the struggle, it is idle for us, while enjoying the result, to contemn the means which the weakness of human nature has rendered necessary to the end … If, therefore, the fierce warrior, resolute to maintain an injustice or a usurpation, can be brought to submit his claim to the chances of an equal combat or of an ordeal, he has already taken a vast step toward acknowledging the supremacy of right and abandoning the personal independence which is incompatible with the relations of human society.” (Lea, Superstition and Force, p. 101-102).

Lea sees history as a contest of forces pushing toward and pulling away from consent around governing norms. Legal history is, therefore, where you find critical insight into any historical age. “Whatever stands foremost in any given period will be apt to receive special recognition from both the ethical teacher and the lawgiver. It is to legislation that we must look if we desire to understand the modes of thought and the moral standards of past ages.” (Lea, Ethical Values in History, p. 57.) Lea made the search for that insight his entire intellectual vocation.

This post was enriched by correspondences with John H. Pollack, Curator, Research Services, in the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries and with Richard L. Kagan, who is the Academy Professor of History and Arthur O. Lovejoy Professor Emeritus of History at Johns Hopkins University. Mistakes are my own.


Armstrong, William M. “Henry C. Lea Scientific Historian.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 80, No. 4 (Oct., 1956), pp. 465-477.

Baumgarten, Paul Maria, 1860-1948. Henry Charles Lea’s historical writings: a critical inquiry into their method and merit. New York: J. F. Wagner, 1909.

Cheyney, Edward Potts. “On the Life and Works of Henry Charles Lea.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 50, no. 202 (Oct. – Dec., 1911), pp. v-xli.

Kagan, Richard L. The Inquisition’s Inquisitor: Henry Charles Lea of Philadelphia. [Forthcoming] Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2024.

Lea, Henry Charles. Superstition and Force: Essays on the wager of law–the wager of battle–the ordeal–torture. Philadelphia: H.C. Lea, 1866.

Lea, Henry Charles. Ethical values in history. [n. p.] 1904.

O’Brien, John M. “Henry Charles Lea: The Historian as Reformer.” American Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Spring, 1967), pp. 104-113.

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