The full title of the work is Ecclesiastica Historia, integram Ecclesiae Christi ideam, quantum ad Locum, Propagationem, Persecutionem, Tranquillitatem, Doctrinam, Hæreses, Ceremonias, Gubernationem, Schismata, Synodos, Personas, Miracula, Martyria, Religiones extra Ecclesiam, & statum Imperii politicum attinet, secundum singulas Centurias, perspicuo ordine complectens: singulari diligentia & fide ex vetustissimis & optimis historicis, patribus, & aliis scriptoribus congesta: Per aliquot studiosos & pios viros in urbe Magdeburgicâ.
The originator of the idea and the moving spirit of the organization which produced the work was Matthias Vlacich (latinized Flacius), also known as Francovich, and, from the country of his birth (Istria), Illyricus. Born in 1520, the influence of his uncle Baldo Lupertino, an apostate friar, prevented him from becoming a monk and directed his steps in 1539 to Germany, where, at Augsburg, Basle, Tübingen, and Wittenberg, he became fanatically anti-Roman. The Augsburg Interim of 1548 led to the Adiaphoristic controversy, in the course of which he wrote numerous harsh criticisms of the Reformer Philipp Melanchthon; the bitter feeling generated gave rise to the hostile parties of Philippists and Flacians. All attempts to restore peace failed, and the University of Jena, where Flacius was appointed professor of theology in 1557, became a centre of rigid Lutheranism in strong opposition to Melachthon. His wanderings after 1562, and the numerous domestic controversies between the Reformers, in which Flacius took part until his death (11 March, 1575), did not prevent him from becoming the most learned Lutheran theologian of his day, while, in addition to numerous minor controversial works, his untiring energy led him to devise the vast historical work known as "The Centuries".
After Martin Luther's death in 1546, anti-Catholic controversy tended to lose its dogmatic character and to become historical. Flacius critiqued the history of Catholicism, and in that spirit wrote his once famous and influential catalogue of anti-papal witnesses, Catalogus testium veritatis, qui ante nostram aetatem reclamarunt Papae (Basel, 1556; enlarged ed., Strasburg, 1562; ed. by Dietericus, Frankfort, 1672). Some four hundred anti-papal witnesses were cited, Pope Gregory I and Thomas Aquinas being included in the number of those who had stood up for truth against "the Papal Antichrist". As early as 1553, Flacius was seeking patrons whose financial support should enable him to carry out his plan of a comprehensive church history which was "to reveal the beginnings, the development and the ruthless designs of the Antichrist." The German princes, and the burghers particularly of Augsburg and Nuremberg, helped him generously, but no support was forthcoming from the followers of Melanchthon. He travelled through Germany in search of material while his co-worker, Marcus Wagner (from Weimar near Gotha), searched the libraries of Austria, Bavaria, Scotland, and Denmark for the same purpose.
Research has emphasized the importance of the assistance given by the crypto-Protestant, Caspar von Nydbruck, imperial counselor, and head of the Imperial Library of Vienna, whose influence was exerted throughout Europe on behalf of the work. The editorial board, Gubernatores et Inspectores institut historiæ Ecclesiasticæ, was composed of Flacius, John Wigand (1523–1587), superintendent at Magdeburg, Matthew Judex (1528–1576), preacher at Magdeburg, Basil Faber (1525–1576), humanist, who collaborated in the first four Centuries, Martin Copus, a physician who acted as treasurer, and Eblinek Alman, a burgher of Magdeburg, each of whom had his own assistants. Seven junior assistants were appointed to compile extracts from early Christian writers and historians in accordance with a fixed plan; two more mature scholars acted as "architects", grouped the material, and submitted it to the editors. When approved, the materials were worked up into chapters and again submitted before the final form was fair-copied.
An analysis of the Quarta Centuria, which appeared in 1560, will give an idea of the contents:
This method was applied only to the first thirteen centuries, which were published separately in folio volumes at Basel; I–III in 1559; IV in 1560; V and VI in 1562; VII and VIII in 1564; IX in 1566; X and XI in 1567; XII in 1569; and XIII in 1574. The three remaining centuries were completed in manuscript by Wigand (who was largely responsible for all the work done between 1564-74), but never published, and the various attempts made in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to continue the work came to naught. In 1624 a complete edition of the Centuries in six folio volumes was issued at Basel by Louis Lucius, who omitted the authors' names and dedications, and introduced various modifications of the text in a Calvinistic sense. A third edition appeared at Nuremberg 1757-1765, but did not get beyond the fifth century.