three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
55-Nov-Dec-2011
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A History of the Papacy

A-Absolute MonarchsBesides being the author or editor or more than two dozen books, as well as the host of many historical television documentaries, John Julius Norwich is a member of Britain's House of Lords.

The Topic: For Roman Catholics, the papacy is simply the symbol of apostolic succession, an unbroken tradition handed down from Christ to St. Peter and through the ages to Benedict XVI. But over the past two millennia, the papacy has been represented by many kinds of popes: masters of armies, bureaucracies, and a more-or-less secular state; inspiring writers and obtuse buffoons; French and Italian; Medicis and Borgias; sinners and saints. They're all here--some at greater length than others--in Absolute Monarchs, which not only chronicles some of the more interesting occupants of St. Peter's Chair but explicates the forces of history that led them to behave the way they did.
Random House. 528 pages. $30. ISBN: 9781400067152

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Absolute Monarchs sprawls across Europe and the Levant, over two millenniums, and with an impossibly immense cast: 265 popes (plus various usurpers and antipopes), feral hordes of Vandals, Huns and Visigoths, expansionist emperors, Byzantine intriguers, Borgias and Medicis, heretic zealots, conspiring clerics, bestial inquisitors and more. Norwich manages to organize this crowded stage and produce a rollicking narrative." Bill Keller

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Moving briskly from ancient times through the Dark and Middle ages, the Renaissance, and thence into the changes (and horrors) of the modern age, what emerges is a sense of history's broad themes and patterns--a perspective on the whole often missing in more specialized histories. ... This ‘History of the Papacy' could easily have been two or three or 18 times longer, but the blessing is that it's not--that in our age of specialization, a historian can still grasp a subject whole and present it in the all-in-all." David Walton

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"As Norwich says upfront, Absolute Monarchs is a political history more than anything, and with his unstuffy and sometimes witty writing style, he walks us through what could otherwise be a stifling couple of thousand years of popes, antipopes, endless political power struggles, war, greed, torture, inquisitions, egomania, incest, fornication, bastard children and orgies." Janet Kinosian

Christian Science Monitor 3 of 5 Stars
"This is a valuable book but so densely crowded with historical events and historical figures--most of whom will be unknown to readers--that it poses a challenge. Reading two thousand years of history with this enormous cast of characters is hard work. But for those sincerely interested in religious history, Lord Norwich is worth the effort." Richard M. Watt

Providence Journal 3 of 5 Stars
"What makes Absolute Monarchs a worthwhile read is not simply those occasional dynamic popes--Urban II or Innocent III--or even that bloody sequence of six popes in seven years in the late ninth century, or the plethora of arcane facts (John VIII, the first pope murdered, or John XXII, who founded Chateauneuf-du-Pape), but rather the entire wide-screen sweep of the book. All of Western Europe, Byzantium, Arabia are here in a time frame that encompasses the Reformation, Renaissance ‘monsters,' both World Wars and Communism, dictators and democrats right up to the front pages of today's newspaper." Tony Lewis

Critical Summary

Critics (and probably anyone who would be interested in this book's topic to begin with, believers and agnostics alike) enjoyed the historical sweep of Norwich's work. After all, if you want to tell a story that spans millennia, there are few better institutions to focus on than the Catholic Church and the papacy. Reviewers also enjoyed Norwich's witty, accessible writing. But a few felt that the decision to include all 285 popes (plus assorted also-rans) was just too much and that the author should have focused on the main heroes and villains of the Vatican. Another common quibble: the popes were never literal absolute monarchs: the American title seems to have been chosen by Norwich's publisher. Overall, critics recommended the book but felt it was less compelling overall than the author's popular volumes on Venice and Byzantium.