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The Popes
John Julius Norwich
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The Popes

3.61  ·  Rating Details  ·  1,620 Ratings  ·  299 Reviews
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 two thousand 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 her ...more
Published (first published July 12th 2011)
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It seems like a ridiculous, almost impossible task to address the history of a two thousand year old institution in one book. If each pope were addressed individually, Norwich would have to write at the at the rate of just under two pages per pope (not counting anti-popes). Instead, he takes a broader and more sensible thematic approach - he still has time for biographical sketches and a political context, but focuses on those figures who are most notorious or most influential. He paints with a ...more
Anastasia Fitzgerald-Beaumont
A Curate’s Egg

I’m a huge admirer of the past work of John Julius Norwich, a popular historian in the sense of being widely read and accessible, in the sense of being informative without being weighed down by an intrusive scaffolding of scholarship. He is learned but he wears his learning lightly, which makes him a superlative communicator. I’ve enjoyed and benefited from reading his histories of the Normans in Italy, of Venice and, above all, his three volume history of the Byzantine Empire.

Frank Peters
This was the least entertaining of all of the history books written by Norwich. As a result, it was a letdown from one of my very favourite authors. The author prides himself about having no axe to grind, and this is one his traits that I have appreciated the most. But, when discussing a history of the papacy, Norwich is automatically at a disadvantage, in that he was unable to decide on a methodology used to discuss the popes themselves. Throughout the book, he reflected on: politics, academics ...more
Justin Evans
Jul 29, 2014 Justin Evans rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history-etc
Perfectly good airport history. I'm stuck at around page 150 of Norwich's condensed history of the Byzantines, so I wasn't expecting much from this. But I've learned something very important about Mr. Norwich: if he's writing about things you know even reasonably well (e.g., for me, the early Byzantine emperors), he's almost insufferable. This might just be a by-product of Great Man history in general, which is that it has very little to say about anything. Also, he's very boring in short bursts ...more
This broad chronological history of the Papacy seemed to go on forever and, to be honest, I didn't get through the whole thing. I bailed around 1860 or so, which means that I did manage to consume about 1800 years of spastic politics and theological wtfery. But around the time the Enlightenment took off, some spark was gone and the goings-on didn't seem as entertaining.

However, I did learn butt-tons of bizarro trashiness. Is there an entire book out there on the Saeculum obscurum aka "The Pornoc
May 20, 2015 Caroline marked it as did-not-finish  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
I'm afraid I had to abandon The Popes after only 30 pages. There is way too much information given my level of interest. The moment I started reading I realised I would have been better off skim reading a Wikipedia article on the subject. Another thing I hadn't appreciated (silly me) is that of course a lot of the book is concerned with Christian doctrinal issues. =_____= Zzzzzzzzz....

I am not awarding it any paucity of stars. The book is probably a great read for anyone wanting an introduction
From BBC Radio 4 Extra - Book of the Week:
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 day. Of the 280-odd holders of the supreme office, some have unquestionably been saints; others have wallowed in

Well, the book definitely is somewhat of a slog to get through, and that’s even after the author has admitted that he has omitted and simplified events. A comprehensive history of the papacy over two millennia is just so dense and complex that you could hardly expect it to be otherwise. As a result I often found myself picking this up episodically – just a chapter at a time, and then putting it down again. It wasn’t immensely readable or a page-turner, so to speak. I admit I skimmed over the mod
Greg Bailey
You might imagine this book as a supersonic-jet tour of the papacy--from something like sixty thousand feet high. The author attempts to touch on nearly every single pope, and the centuries zip by with little clarity. The author stays focused on the papacy, refusing to be distracted by the many colorful characters from history who crossed paths with the pontiffs. If you want the sketchiest outline of the papacy, this is the book for you, but I found it ultimately unsatisfying.

To his credit, the
I have to say up front that I love John Julius Norwich's books. Thus far, all of them have impressed me as being well written and thoroughly researched. I expected that this one would be a workmanlike job, accurate and entertaining as well as educational. However, this was more than impressive and way above just well written. Let me explain why I am so thrilled with this particular work.

Books about the Papacy tend to fall into certain broad types. There are salacious accounts of reprehensible he
The Popes is an attempt to give the "average intelligent reader, believer or unbeliever", as the author says in his introduction, a background - and in some cases depth - to the office and men who have sat at the head of the Catholic church since Saint Peter.

The book was a eye opener not just to the sheer number of Popes, some 280, with many of them arriving and departing in months rather than years. There are anti-popes, Holy Roman emperors, kings, queens and a vast cast of supporting character
Apr 21, 2015 Andie rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
A history of the Papacy is not an easy chore as the institution has been in existence in one form or another for 2000 years, but author Julius Norwich manages to do so in a coherent and entertaining fashion. The first 1000 years of the Papacy focused on getting the church established, its rivalry with the Eastern Orthodox Church and squabbles over arcane issues of doctrine that no one would care about today, but which often led to warfare between rival factions in the church. The next 500 or so ...more
Dave Holcomb
Dec 22, 2012 Dave Holcomb rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I've always been a fan of John Julius Norwich -- I own his three-volume "History of the Byzantine Empire" and his "History of Venice", and I'm not ashamed to admit it -- and this book didn't disappoint. Few people, in or out of the Catholic Church, have any idea how incredibly colorful the story of the Popes has been; Norwich takes us from Saint Peter right up to the current Pope Benedict XVI in a roller-coaster ride through the most important events and eras in Western history. The gay popes, t ...more
Apr 12, 2013 Mike rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Fascinating history of the papacy. A surprising page turner. I knew there were plenty of scandals and interesting stories related to the Catholic Church through history but didn't have a grasp of just how outrageous the pontificate has been over the years. Inevitably with so many reused names it is easy to get confused and lose track of who is who, but the greater heroes and villains of the papacy are memorable indeed.

After several long-tenured popes in the 20th century there was some surprise
This is a very ambitious project—attempting to cover some 2000 years of history and more than 250 pontificates in less than 500 pages. While it's very readable, and Norwich did fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge (pretty much from the end of the Middle Ages to Vatican II), Absolute Monarchs isn't a successful book overall. Norwich writes well and with occasional bursts of the wry humour which made his history of Byzantium so enjoyable to read, but perhaps unsurprisingly given its scope, the ...more
Aug 19, 2014 Comrade_Bazarov rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Viscount Norwich has undertaken a monumental task in distilling 2000+ years of complicated history into 500 pages in a palatable manner, and for that he must be commended. That the book becomes a confusing blur of empty names at times is hardly his fault - papal history was pretty ordinary for vast majority of the time.

What I appreciated the most in this book is Norwich's clear delineation of various eras - the pornocracy, reformation, counter-reformation, renaissance and so on. Individual pope
Jun 19, 2014 Simone rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: italy, non-fiction, 2014
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 t
Alex Sarll
A promising subject - given the catalogue of monsters, moralists and a midget who've occupied the Papal throne, and given the way their story necessarily also tells much of the story of Europe during those two millennia. But for all the tale's appeal, the teller is the real draw here. Like many of the most readable historians, Norwich is clearly influenced by Gibbon - wry, erudite*, never pretending impartiality but far too classy to lapse into ranting. So the descriptions are evocative, the det ...more
This is a thoroughly researched and comprehensive look at the history of the Papacy, from the start with St. Peter. One of the challenges, as you can imagine, is that there is not much written history of the very early Popes, and so not much to say about them. But when you get to the Middle Ages and beyond, there is much more information available. That's good news and bad. The good news is that the information on many of these popes makes for some fascinating reading, especially about those who ...more
Simon Jones
Nov 24, 2013 Simon Jones rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
One might expect a history of the papacy to be a dull affair filled with endless minutiae about obscure points of doctrine. In this case nothing could be further from the truth. JJN chooses to focus on the personalities and the politics with doctrinal matters very rarely entering the narrative and only when they have a direct bearing on the political theatre. Instead then what we get is history of Europe from the Roman Empire to the present day seen through the eyes of the papacy. Throughout the ...more
The NYTimes reviewed this book back in July so I ordered a copy from the library. I wasn't disappointed, Norwich's book is an intriguing survey of the Roman Catholic Church and her Popes.

I think Norwich had to make a lot of hard choices. Even in earlier historical times that weren't as obsessively chronicled as ours, there's still a wealth of information available. For instance, even though Michelangelo figures centrally in the tales of the Renaissance popes - he did work for several of them -
Colin Williams
Jun 17, 2013 Colin Williams rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Colin by: Janis Williams
Lacks Clear Thesis
In his introduction, Norwich alerts the reader that he is “no scholar,” and that his purpose is simply to tell the story. And indeed, what follows is a narrative, a 2,000-year narrative with a huge cast of characters. However, there is very little to bind such a sprawling story together, and I find myself wishing there were some method beyond “and then there was this pope…and then there was this pope…and then.”

While there is no clear thesis in the text, there is a thesis in th

Carroll Winn
Oct 09, 2012 Carroll Winn rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Norwich writes history with an approach that is enjoyable. Every thing I have read I have come away enlightened and amused. He seems to research in the corners and tells the tales that have been let fall out of focus for the benefit of the reinvention the powerful, in this case the Papacy. This book pulls the wraps of holiness off a kingdom that needs to be shown in its naked quest to become the world power it still struggles to be. This very un-holy organization has been thrown out of every whe ...more
So many popes, so few pages!

If you ever wanted to learn the history of the papacy, from Peter to Benedict XVI, this book is the place to go. Norwich begins at the beginning. He is not interested in arguing for the validity of the papacy, nor does he get into much theological discussion. This is a book of history. So if the idea of reading theology bores or frightens you, then you're in luck.

If the idea of hundreds of names and dates bores and frightens you, then you are out of luck. Every pope
Mar 28, 2014 JodiP rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I had really looked forward to this in order to better understand how the papacy developed over the centuries. I am so disappointed! For instance, I doon't have a really clear sense of how the position really got started; the author just describes early pope-like figures and in one chapter, states, by this time, the papacy was established. He seems to place a high value on being entertaining, afraid of boring his audience. He sacrifices som expostulatory work that would have been helpful in expl ...more
Oct 07, 2013 Kenn rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A fascinating view on the papacy.As a practicing Catholic I was shocked to learn of the lecherous and immoral shenanigans of the earlier popes and their families (yes they were allowed to be married and for a long time did not even have to be clergy!)
The intense rivalries led to two different headquarters, one in France and one in Rome with each faction claiming to be the authentic center of Catholicism. This schism in the church lasted for over 300 years.

There was blackmail, bribery and even ta
Oct 25, 2012 Sparkynyc rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book is at its best when it tells you the really fun and interesting stories about Popes. There was one who liked to eat watermellon while watching boys get tortured, one who may have been a woman, and a bunch who lived like playboys and had iligitimate kids. The book also gives vivid accounts of very awesome Popes, like ones who stood up to despotism and tried to make the world a better place. I cannot recall names, you jsut get lost in a sea of Johns, Leos, and Pius. The narrative does te ...more
Oct 02, 2014 Norman rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Been reading quite a few books on medieval history lately and the influence of the papacy is a recurring theme. Then I came across this superb potted history of the papacy from how they rose to fill the vacuum left by the collapsing Roman empire, through to the many crises the RC church is in today. Highly recommended as a brilliant book that covers a vast topic yet manages to keep the reader hooked from start to finish...
Dan Lalande
Apr 20, 2015 Dan Lalande rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An epic scorecard of all 265 Popes, a Bacchanalian saga of sex, militarism and ego. Norwich is no ring kisser but neither is he an axe grinder; the corruption of the office is not a matter of commentary but of hard historical record. It's odd episodes of editorializing are reserved for the truly outrageous (the Holocaust included) and for his faint, final hope for the integrity of the office.
James Bunyan
Jan 29, 2015 James Bunyan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
So good!
Although he cannot help but champion any popes that reflected his liberal and progressive orientations, Mr Norwich has written a thoroughly engaging and illuminating history of the papal see that is, while written by someone who is not a Catholic, by no means unfair to the Catholic See in its commentary.
Would definitely recommend!
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Norwich is the only child of the Conservative politician and diplomat Duff Cooper and of Lady Diana Cooper, a celebrated beauty and society figure. Through his father, he is descended from King William IV and his mistress Dorothea Jordan.

He was educated at Upper Canada College, Toronto, Canada (as a wartime evacuee), at Eton College, and at the University of Strasbourg. He served in the Royal Navy
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“Charlemagne, however, was predictably furious. He had grown up with the filioque; if the East refused to accept it, the East was wrong. And who cared about the East anyway? He was the emperor now; the pope should nail his colors firmly to the Western mast and leave the heretics in Constantinople to their own devices. When Leo ordered him to remove the word from his liturgies, he took no action and sent no reply; and when, in 813, he decided to make his son Louis co-emperor, he pointedly failed to invite the pope to perform the ceremony.” 1 likes
“Photius even went so far as to propound a new and deeply heretical theory that he had just thought up, according to which man possessed two separate souls, one liable to error, the other infallible. His dazzling reputation as an intellectual ensured that he was taken seriously by many—including, of course, Ignatius, who should have known better; and after his doctrine had its desired effect by making the patriarch look thoroughly silly he had cheerfully withdrawn it. It was perhaps the only completely satisfactory practical joke in the history of theology, and for that alone Photius deserves our gratitude.” 1 likes
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