With the papacy embattled in recent years, it is essential to have the perspective of one of the world's most accomplished historians. In Absolute Monarchs, John Julius Norwich captures nearly 2,000 years of inspiration and devotion, intrigue, and scandal. The men (and maybe one woman) who have held this position of infallible power over millions have ranged from heroes to rogues, admirably wise to utterly decadent.
Norwich, who knew two popes and had private audiences with two others, recounts in riveting detail the histories of the most significant popes and what they meant politically, culturally, and socially to Rome and to the world. He presents such brave popes as Innocent I, who in the fifth century successfully negotiated with Alaric the Goth, an invader civil authorities could not defeat, and Leo I, who two decades later tamed (and perhaps paid off) Atilla the Hun.
Here, too, are the scandalous figures: Pope Joan, the mythic woman said (without any substantiation) to have been elected in 855, and the infamous "pornocracy", the five libertines who were descendants or lovers of Marozia, debauched daughter of one of Rome's most powerful families.
Absolute Monarchs brilliantly portrays such reformers as Pope Paul III, "the greatest pontiff of the sixteenth century", who reinterpreted the Church's teaching and discipline, and John XXIII, who in five short years, starting in 1958, "opened the church to the the twentieth century", instituting reforms that led to Vatican II. Norwich brings the story to the present day with Benedict XVI, who is coping with a global priest sex scandal.
Epic and compelling, Absolute Monarchs is the astonishing story of some of history's most revered and reviled figures, men who still cast light and shadows on the Vatican and the world today.
©2011 John Julius Norwich (P)2011 Tantor
"Norwich doesn't skirt controversies, ancient and present, in this broad, clear-eyed assessment." (Kirkus)
This must have been a hard book to write, and it's therefore something of a hard book to review. There are a lot of Popes, over a long time, and this is not ultimately that long of a book. Something had to be sacrificed, and I supposed the author should get credit for not sacrificing any of the Popes. They are all here, and they all have their moment. They all get a biography and a judgement of their reign, even if it only lasts a few lines. Choices are then made about which Popes are the more important and/or interesting Popes, and these Popes get a little more attention. How were these greater Popes chosen? Not difficult, as they are the same Popes every historian considers important and/or interesting. The author makes no attempt to be neutral, as he is not a Catholic and is unapologetically modern in his outlook, but the judgments never take over. If a Pope kept mistresses, built palaces for each of his twenty nephews, started a few wars, and killed some Jews, the author goes ahead and calls that a "bad Pope" and moves on, although such a Pope might get some grudging respect for building a fine library or reorganizing some bureaucracy. If a Pope does warrant a lot of contextual history, that history is almost invariably an account of the wars in which they were involved. And that is the book, pretty much: Names, dates, wars, and the judgments of an elderly British aristocrat. No wonder The Economist reviewed it favorably! It is a fascinating story. It would take a hamfisted historian indeed to make a history of the Papacy seem dull. But couldn't we have had a little less completeness? Couldn't some of the Popes been clumped together in their insignificance, freeing up space for the better ones? There are occasions where you wish he would just let loose with a little more of the dry wit, and stray a little further from century after century of the relentless succession of very old men. When he does do these things, this is a fantastic book. The accounts of the creation of the Holy Roman Empire, the lengthy and unexpected discussion of the myth of Pope Joan, and the delicate, merciless vivisection of Pius XII are worth the price of admission alone. These are but some of the many brilliant parts. The rest, unfortunately, is just history.
I am a bilingual high school teacher. I mostly read non-fiction, especially history, but I am also a sucker for science-fiction and fantasy novels.
I really enjoyed this book. I am a huge history buff and just finished listening to Mike Duncan's podcast series The History of Rome, which gave me little tantalizing bits of the early history of the Christian church and this audiobook was my chance to learn more.
And I got exactly what I came for. I cannot believe how much information there is in this book. I'm already considering listening to it all over again just to absorb more of it. It covers literally every pope ever, from the most obscure to most well-known, from anti-popes (yes, that is a real thing) to the genuinely pious to the most despotic and decadent rulers, and, most importantly, it covers them with a real air of neutrality and academic distance. This is not a pro-church book, but it's not an anti-church book either. It provides perspective that is painstakingly fair, even when that makes a famously "good" pope look bad, or, in some cases, finds reason to redeem even the most notorious popes. Of course, everyone goes into reading this book with their own biases and that colours their feelings about how the author portrays the church. But as an outsider myself but someone very interested in church history nonetheless, I found it dealt with something that is an emotional subject for some people in a very fair way. There was no attempt to be nice just because the truth might offend some people, but there was also clearly no agenda to smear the church either. Like any human beings, the popes all had both their faults and their strengths and this book makes sure to tell you about all of them. It holds nothing back. I can see why that has created some unhappy listeners and negative reviews, but it is the reviewers' own biases about the church being challenged that they find offensive, not the reality of history that the book provides.
The historical perspective is excellent. I would say that it would help immensely to have some background knowledge of European politics and history to understand what was going on at the time, but the author goes to great lengths to explain things directly related to the popes' reigns when necessary (a major example being the politics surrounding Napoleon Bonaparte and the unification of Italy, among others), so it's not required. Being a frequent student of history but mostly studying Britain, France, and their overseas colonies, this was a whole new perspective for me and I learned a lot about German, Austrian, and Italian history that I only knew snippets of before. I would have liked more details on the Crusades, but it does explain them in the context of the popes. This book gave me exactly what it advertised.
I did not rate the narration 5/5 only because being a French speaker I noticed some mispronounced words that bothered me. However, I admit it could be a North American/British difference, since the narrator is British and I am Canadian.
I could not have asked this book to provide any more than it did. It had not only the overall information, which I expected, but also smaller details that were fascinating and kept me interested all the time. I am a constant consumer of non-fiction, so I suppose I don't bore easily either way, but I found I was listening to the book in the car on my commute and then coming home and telling my husband things I had heard that had stuck in my head as interesting enough to share. Overall, I found the fact that the papacy never really functioned as a religious institution - rather, it was another political player vying for power in medieval Europe - to be the biggest take-home from 20 hours of listening. Learning about it is like learning about the kings of England or France, or the emperors of China. It's a political story - the only difference is that it held its power through religion rather than through military strength.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone looking to learn more about the history of the Catholic church. However, don't go into it thinking it will tell the history the same way the church would, or that it will tell the stories of the saints without questioning the mythology's authenticity. It won't. It's a history book, and it does an excellent job telling the historical truth in a remarkably neutral, detailed, and honest way.
Member Since 2006!!
I think I should have known better; I have a hard time keeping track of names so why did I think I could follow along with the history of the papacy? That’s over 200 people!
I didn’t think the pre-renaissance era would interest me that much - and I was right - still, I was hoping for some interesting tidbits or factoids while waiting for the stories of the Borgia Pope and Julius II etc to come around. Sadly, I didn’t find that section much better.
Disappointed by the renaissance Popes, I thought the era of the enlightenment would be better – nope.
I then looked forward to the modern era, including Italy’s unification, WW2, Nazi sympathizing Pope, murder of JPI, the amazing strides taken by JPII etc … all underwhelming.
It was all just too jumbled for me. I am not going to retain ANY of the information and that’s too bad because I am interested in the subject! Reading about it all was just too dry; I would have retained much more information had it been a multi-part TV documentary series.
Historically accurate while providing an interesting story.
I enjoyed the Renaissance popes the most of all the stories.
Since there are many popes being covered in the book, it is easy to listen to over several periods of time.
Very true to the author's intent from the foreward.
The book covers a lot of time and a lot of people, but it never drags and is always interesting. I burned right through it, learning and enjoying (and being appalled by bad papal behavior) all the way through.
There was no life to this book. There were just facts and facts and facts.
I am cognizant that it took him a long long time to collect the data. But it is so boring. Listening to the straight facts with no humanity or life to the stories is just very hard to take in. He would indicate that this was a great pope, example Gregory, but then it was just a few dry paragraphs of facts and he was on to the next one? I don't get it.
Yes. It wasn't his fault that what he was reading was as dry as the desert. He did as good of a job as he could with what he had. I can't imagine what it must have been like for him to read hours and hours and hours of plain history.
Lots of facts. If someone was looking for straight facts, although it would be hard to pin point where anything was if you were looking for a specific pope.
What a marvelous read! So far, I have listened to portions of this book four times. It does just what a good overview book should. It piques the reader's interest and sends him scrambling for another book to flesh out information. At the moment, I am waiting for more information on the Jesuit Order and have ordered two other books about the popes.
If you are, like me, lacking in your knowledge of Medieval History, I strongly recommend this listen.
As an example, I have often heard of the Borgia family ... poisoners, plotters, politicians ... and now, I learn, Popes. There will be more books to read.
This history of the papacy covers almost all of them -- right from St. Peter up to Benedict.
The excellent performance kept my interest all the way through. But I kept waiting for a bigger picture of the papacy and analysis of historical trends. It never came. The book is a series of mini-biographies with little more analysis than, "If Pope So-and-so had been a less bigoted, he might have had a great impact on XYZ."
Still, it was informative and worth listening to. If you want to learn more about the history of the papacy, this isn't a bad place to start.
I am a practicing Catholic (and I hope to keep practicing until I get it right!) and I started this book with some trepidation, expecting an attempt to challenge or ridicule my faith. But the author, who is not religious himself, does not attempt to draw conclusions about the Faith because of misbehavior by its leaders.
It was a fascinating history of how the Church evolved during some very complex periods in European history. The history of the papacy is, at times, a Rogue's Gallery. What I heard sounded to me like wave after wave of evil flung at the Church and the Gospel - often aided by the Church's leaders. Yet the evil does not prevail. A priest once laughingly told me that among the proofs that Catholicism is the true Faith is that it has survived for 2,000 years, despite its clergy! Now I know what he meant! Some of our Popes were AWFUL. None of them was perfect. But the Gospel stands the test of time. This book may actually have strengthened my Faith!
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