The Popes
John Julius Norwich
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The Popes

3.51 of 5 stars 3.51  ·  rating details  ·  999 ratings  ·  223 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 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
May 14, 2013 Caroline marked it as did-not-finish  ·  review of another edition
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...more
Justin Evans
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
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...more
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...more
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...more
Dave Holcomb
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
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...more
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
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 -...more
Colin 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

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...more
Carroll Winn
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...more
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
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...more
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
Mark Leonard
The first part of the book is hard to follow as it is:
1) Germans invade Rome and set up their pope
2) Germans go home because the summer is too hot
3) Romans revolt and set up their own pope
4) Germans invade again

Repeat until Renaissance.

Once you get past that, the rest of the book is quite interesting, and as usual, the villains are much more interesting than the saints, especially the Borgias. The recent history with Pius XII and WWII, Vatican II, the alleged murder of John Paul I, the fact tha...more

This is yet another difficult book for Catholics to read. Writing in a fair, evenhanded prose, John Julius Norwich outlines a biting description of papal history as he runs through every pope since Peter (apparently, 'Cephas' was a perfectly normal word for a rock until Jesus went and called him that). Most people who pay attention know that the popes were warlords, that many times there were rival popes engaged in actual war over the papacy (at one point there were 3 recognized popes), that the...more
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...more
A fascinating if not wholly reverent look at the individual men who have sat on the throne of St. Peter. Highly recommend fed for those looking to get a feel for the key figures in church history. Not recommended for those who are sensitive to criticism and frank speaking about the Catholic Church.
Wow, the entire history of the papacy in 465 jam packed pages. I decided the only way to get through was to keep going at all costs, because to try to stop and think or connect with my own body of world history knowledge would mean to get completely bogged down. This includes popes all the way back, and all the antipopes, and even the little evidence for Pope Joan. It was interesting to trace world history in this way, seeing something like Henry VIII's English church splitting off as a blip on...more
A difficult task to write a history of the papacy from the 1st century to the present day. Even more so to do it in a single volume, without lots of theology and so that believers and non-believers alike can read it. This book does a pretty good job of doing that whilst the view of that history is a 20,000 feet view from above (but a very comprehensive bibliography to guide the reader to get more in depth where you want to). It's also a very readable history and avoids being overly dry and acade...more
Good book. I started out looking for a book on the papacy where each chapter covered a Pope. This came close with each chapter covering a papal period; from the beginning thru the 1980's. A bit acedemic in it's presentation, it still covered the "Good" guys and the very bad, who wore the papal crown and claimed their lineage to Christ; what a band!

Think of a personality with extreme prejudice and dark vices. Think of the pure at heart and the gentle souls that are the best of mankind. That just...more
More a catalog of the popes than anything else, this book has its anecdotal moments. Don't look to it for any transformative insight into the importance of the papacy, nor even for a real thesis, which to his credit the author forewarns the reader in the introduction. He does not, however, mention his rather tiresome habit of keeping score, calling out "good pope," "bad pope," in almost as many words, after each one. There are strange deficiencies, too, in his coverage. For example, John Paul II...more
This is a good read for helping you understand the evolution of the papacy and how it's actions and inactions have shaped the course of western civilization.

If you understand that this book is a popular history that seeks to track an integral piece of western civilization over the course of two millennium, then you won't be disappointed.

With that in mind, it should be understood that the author glosses over and omits much of the story of related actors before or after their interaction with the...more
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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...more
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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.” 0 likes
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