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Publisher's Summary

Well known for his histories of Norman Sicily, Venice, the Byzantine Empire and the Mediterranean, John Julius Norwich has now turned his attention to the oldest continuing institution in the world, tracing the papal line down the centuries from St Peter himself – traditionally (though by no means historically) the first pope – to the present Benedict XVI. Of the 280-odd holders of the supreme office, some have unques­tionably been saints; others have wallowed in unspeakable iniquity. One was said to have been a woman – and an English woman at that – her sex being revealed only when she improvidently gave birth to a baby during a papal procession. Pope Joan never existed (though the Church long believed she did) but many genuine pontiffs were almost as colourful: Formosus, for example, whose murdered corpse was exhumed, clothed in pontifical vestments, propped up on a throne and subjected to trial; or John XII of whom Gibbon wrote: 'his rapes of virgins and widows deterred female pilgrims from visiting the shrine of St Peter lest, in the devout act, they should be violated by his successor.’

Others earned respect, including Leo the Great who protected Rome from the Huns and the Goths, and Gregory the Great who struggled manfully with the emperor for supremacy. After calamitous crusades, and 70-year exile in Avignon, came the larger-than-life pontiffs of the Renassiance – the Borgias and the Medicis ('God has given us the papacy; let us now enjoy it'). Pius VII had to contend with Napoleon, Pius IX to steer the papacy through the storm of the Risorgimento. John Julius Norwich brings the story up-to-date with lively investigations into the anti-semitism of Pius XII, the possible murder of John Paul I and the phenomenon of the Polish John Paul II. From here the glories of the Byznatium to the decay of Rome, from the Albigensian Heresy to sexual misbehaviour within the Church today, the pace never slackens. John Julius Norwich, an agnostic with no religious axe to grind, has a thrilling and important tale to tell – and in this rich, authoritative book he does it full justice.

©2011 John Julius Norwich (P)2011 Random House Audio Go

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  • Clare
  • Glen Waverley, Australia
  • 09-22-12

Good overall

Much of this book was interesting and would serve as a good introduction, though, as I have studied the Popes at some length, I am not really this books stated audience. Norwich didn't appear to desire to emphasis some of the more ridiculous aspects of the Medieval Popes (Popes and anti-Popes, Kings and anti-Kings, let me show you them), which, if I'm honest, are some of my favourite parts of Papal history. The ridiculousness of the medieval Church is rather fun for obvious reasons and also as, ironically, it is the point at which the Papacy begins to establish itself as a temporal power.

I disagreed with some of his conclusions with regards to the Renaissance Popes however. For better and more specific information on the Borgias for instance, try Christopher Hibberts book and the biographies of Lucrezia and Cesare by Sarah Bradford. Hibbert also has a decent book on the Medici, which I would recommend over Paul Stratherns which is, in my opinion, a bit homophobic. The Medici family had a number of gay men, including Leo X, so this is significant.

However, it was a good overall summary of Papal history, but one should always read (or listen) with an open and critical mind.

The performance of Michael Jayston was very, very good and kept the attention very well. I will certainly go through and look for more of his work.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Performance
  • Story

A fascinating history for all history lovers

Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

Yes. It puts into context many historical events

What about Michael Jayston’s performance did you like?

Michael Jayston read clearly and with liveliness but always maintaining a certain learnedness appropriate for the nature of the book

Any additional comments?

This history puts into context many historical events although by its very nature covering such a huge amount of time it glosses over many things. It is however a great read for catholics and non-catholics alike.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • R
  • 09-15-11

A Stroll through 2,000 Years of European History

Regardless of one's opinion of the office of Pope, what cannot be denied is that over the course of the last two thousand years or so, the long list of saints & sinners, the devout & the debauched, the rogues & villains & heroes who have occupied the position have, in one way or another, had a huge influence on European history.

John Julius Norwich's 'History of the Popes' is a wonderful introduction to the main points of interest and provides a nice perspective on aspects of European history that you might not be aware of; the circumstances in Rome at the time of Henry VIII's petition for divorce from Katherine of Aragon being a fine example (the surprise wasn't that the Pope turned him down but, given the circumstances in Rome, that Henry even bothered trying in the first place!).

Covering, as it does, such an enormous expanse of time, it is necessarily brief in respect of some of the more dull or brief pontificates, but most of them seem to get at least a name check.

The whole thing trundles along at a very nice pace and, what with most Popes seemingly having been elected when they were on their last legs, there are plenty of places for the listener to take a convenient pause between listening sessions.

Michael Jayston, of course, has a splendid voice and reading style (which I am sure should rightfully be mine!) and which makes the audiobook a wonderfully easy listen. Thoroughly recommended!

8 of 8 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Barry
  • 06-08-11

Thriller!

This is a wonderfully written and superbly performed book. John Julius Norwich sets his cloth from the start in that this will not be a dry, erudite history but one written for reasonably intelligent, interested people. Frankly it has it all; intrigue, politics, murder. It is proof that fact can be stranger - and more compelling - than fiction. It is immensely listenable and keeps the attention. Like the best of thrillers, one is left waiting to see what on earth can come next.

I found this a hugely satisfying and compelling listen and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in this sort of history.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Dave
  • 07-21-11

The Popes - warts and all

The popes have enbodied some of the best features of mankind, and some of the worst. Their colourful story is at least as entertaining and disgraceful as that of any line of monarchs, and this book tells it all rather well. The author shows no sign of giving the popes more respect than they are due, and for many that is almost no respect at all. Their often sordid story is told with understandably distaste but without sensationalising it or trying to apologise for it. Although a fairly long book it deals with a very long story, and seemed to pace things about right, so when (all too rarely) a pope concerns himself with matters of doctrine and nothing more, the narrative does not go into long tedious discussions of the points in question. In short, this is a very accessible history for the general reader. Michael Jayston as the narrator is brilliant, so of the whole package I can have nothing but praise.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • iris
  • 07-19-11

Preposterous Popes

Not only is this book packed full of authoritative knowledge and research but it also contains many humourous and outrageous passages of Papal misbehaviour and very 'un Christianlike' conduct. It is a book you can dip into or listen to straight through. Personally I began with the middle of the book and I am now discovering the beginning of the book. This is history made enjoyable and a book you can listen to over and over again.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • MR
  • 06-06-13

I knew there were bad Popes,but not this many!

Well written and well read . It was an unexpected treat to find that the book takes one through the swirling storm of the history of Europe since Roman times with the Pontifex Maximus at its vortex. This provides an different and fascinating viewpoint.

I had forgotten the scale of the power and influence the office held ,intertwined with temporal power. I also did not know quite how mad and bad so many of them were. This book does not take a antagonistic stance against the papacy but the careful setting out of the facts reveals an astonishing parade of fools,knaves,lechers,villains and incompetents. This is a rotten barrel of apples with just a few goodish ones in the lot.

The one problem is,that for a history of this type it would be useful to have the written version to thumb backwards and forwards ,to bookmark and note, because the endless succession of Clements,Alexanders , Piuses and Johns along with Kings and Emperors likewise sharing a small list of names is almost impossible to follow on audio. I had to give up the effort to rewind and recall and often lost the thread. I will probaly buy a print copy for my bookshelves because it would be a superb reference book to dip into.

Otherwise - the audio is well worth the effort.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • A. J. McGowan
  • 04-07-13

Excellent

A beautifully balanced history of Christianity in the West. The narration by Jayston is exemplary, and the matter never anything but gripping. It can be a little confusing, and having a map of Italy to hand will help.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • M. Rijnbeek
  • 12-23-12

an endless series of facts

Too much information crammed into these audio books. I guess that is inevitable with so many popes. A book focusing on a particular shorter period in history would work better for me.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • E. Synge
  • 12-14-17

Pure enjoyment

This fascinating book put together all the links in my chain of knowledge about the Roman Church.

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  • Adrian J. Smith
  • 10-02-17

The accomplishment of an almost impossible task

When one considers the truly mammoth task of writing the history of an institution nearly 2,000 years old, covering over 265 heirs of the Throne of St Peter, through truly tumultuous times, and compiling this into one, single, readable volume, John Julius Norwich has achieved an almost impossible task.
Other reviews have characterized this as a history of Europe through the eyes of the Papacy, however, the Papacy is essentially married to the fortunes of Europe, and no serious scholar of European history could deny this.
However, European history is not given at the expense of Papal History. The European history covered is absolutely essential to the history of the Popes. The Popes were in many ways initiators of history, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse (The Crusades), or were the victims of European history (Risorgimento movement, Communism to name a few).
As one may expect, not all 266 Popes are covered, as this would be essentially tedious and serve little purpose, however, every major decision, every major movement, event, and personality are covered, and covered in an evenhanded manner to make this a very well balanced, single volume.
Viscount Norwich does take positions on the more controversial issues surrounding the Papacy, taking a less than favorable view of Pius XII, favorable positions on John XXIII and Paul VI, a position on the death of John Paul I, overall positive views of John Paul II, and mixed views of Benedict XVI (although this was published 2 years before the latter’s resignation).
The Popes is everything a history book should be. Detailed, informative, scholarly, balanced, evenhanded, and most of all, immensely readable.
A superb work of history, perhaps the best history book this reader has read this year.

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  • Sally Barclay
  • 09-30-17

Comprehensive and lively narrative, reading poor

Whilst I enjoyed this in depth, comprehensive book, I was disappointed by the reading. It was laboured and poorly punctuated and stilted.
As with all such books more detail is in the modern 1700s onwards, as data from this time is widely available.
The writer has an honesty and measured style which appears objective. I hope an updated version is under consideration.