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The Bad Popes

3.71  ·  Rating details ·  287 ratings  ·  50 reviews
Let yourself be swept up by this colorful, panoramic story of seven men who ruled the Church of Rome at seven critical periods in the 600 years leading up to the Reformation. During this age of grandeur & corruption, popes led armies, made love & war, conspired for power, & armed themselves with the techniques of assassination & seduction while clothed with ...more
Hardcover, 322 pages
Published November 28th 1986 by Barnes & Noble (NY) (first published 1969)
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Mar 01, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfic-misc
I started reading this over two years ago, and put it down for a very long time before deciding to pick it up again. That isn't necessarily a reflection on the quality of the book, which is -- at least -- well-written on the sentence level and told with an appropriately wry sense of humor. But it is a reflection on my unexpectedly low level of interest in the subject matter. Or, anyway, in the aspects of his subject matter that Chamberlin focuses on, to the notable exclusion of others.

What I was
Apr 22, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2009
What makes a Pope a bad Pope? That, of course, is a question open to debate; but the author of this work (published in 1969, several Popes ago) makes it fairly obvious that power and spirit do not go well together, and that it was when a given Pope was acting both as the Spiritual Leader of Christendom and as the Temporal Monarch of the Papal States of Italy (with heavy emphasis on the latter role) that the Papacy and Rome would run into significant problems. (And, I loved this book, and I am gl ...more
Aug 03, 2013 rated it did not like it
Nobody is more disappointed to be forced to give an one-star review than I am. I almost never pick up a book that I think I might not enjoy -- reading time is just to precious to squander on duds! -- but due to my high interest in this topic I soldiered on through prose so disjointed and obtuse that it nearly broke my brain.

Hoping that someone more well-read than I am in such matters can recommend a book along the same lines that might be a bit easier to digest.


(On a completely unrelated
Andrew C.
Mar 13, 2013 rated it it was amazing
I found this book a decade ago at a musty used book store. When Pope Benedict retired I pulled the book back off the shelf and read it over again. A decade of medieval study have passed since my first reading, and in many ways the book not only holds up, but has improved for me. While the sections on the Borgia Pope, Alexander and the Gaetani Pope Boniface were still the most thorough (due to the prevalence of primary source material I should think), Chamberlin's psychological picture of Emperor ...more
Nov 11, 2015 rated it really liked it
Interesting history, though the author spares no time with any pomp and circumstance. The subject matter is spicy, but bring your own background knowledge in Catholicism, a pot of coffee, and sheer determination because he spits the facts out rapid-fire and with no particular fanfare for the first part of the book.

As the history references become easier to find for the author, so does the writing become more entertaining. In other words, hang in there through the first few chapters.

By Pope Bon
Sep 01, 2007 rated it really liked it
Sex, sin, greed, a bit of the 'ol ultra-violence, and that's just before 1400! Read The Bad Popes and learn of historical figures such as Marozia and her sister Theodora, the Roman women whom Pope Joan is most likely based upon (created as political satire). In the opening chapters of The Bad Popes Russel Chamberlin traces similarities to the Joan story and the real life Theophylact ladies, it is a deliciously scandalous story. Case in point: their rivals invented the lovely term "Pornocracy", a ...more
Timothy Urban
Jul 31, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a huge, unwieldy subject, the Popes and their naughtiness, and this book has a heroic go at covering it. Man, they was baaaad. Cash for honours, nepotism, orgies, incest, deceptions, murder are among the milder things these wicked pontiffs get up to. I deduct half a star for the perhaps inevitable need to compress chunks of background information preceding the gritty detail. Mitres off to ER Chamberlin.
Jan 14, 2015 rated it liked it
Those lying, corrupted rascals! Oooooh, if my hardcore Catholic mother knew about all the shenanigans these guys, AND GIRL, were up to! Reminds me of the time I took her to see The Godfather part 3 and she kept saying over and over that it was the devil who made the film makers portray the Vatican in such a bad light.
Jan 14, 2009 rated it it was ok
I enjoyed the subject but did not enjoy the author.
Nathan Albright
Aug 09, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: challenge2017

What makes a pope bad?  Any institution that goes on for any length of time is going to end up at times with some questionable leadership at the top, but what makes some popes particularly poor choices involves a look at the varied responsibilities and demands that are placed on the papal office as well as the question of how such leaders are chosen.  This book is a restrained and balanced look at the failures of some half a dozen popes over the period between 900 and 1550, and the popes chosen
Sep 03, 2018 rated it really liked it
I read the UC Davis library copy in the 1970s and later picked up a copy of my own. Gossipy and detailed, the book is a treat for people fascinated by political intrigue. A Catholic background helps, but is not mandatory. It's less about religion than the use of religious authority in power politics.
Jonathan Gallardo
Mar 21, 2017 rated it liked it
I love the start of the book with the historical view of Rome however it is a bit difficult to follow through all the bad popes. It has great detail on the lives of these bad popes, something I appreciated. Fairly exhaustive so be ready to commit.
May 23, 2018 rated it liked it
Recommended to Mer by: Calendar of Books
Shelves: history
Interesting read, had some good info but there seemed to be chunks of time left out that I'd've liked to have known about.
Nov 01, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: english, non-fiction
Subjective, sexist, vaguely sourced, but occasionally very insightful as well.
Aug 03, 2018 rated it really liked it
This book really shook me at my core and has made me question my connection to Catholicism.
Jason Frazier
Mar 21, 2017 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed this book. It was easy to stop & start (which I did repeatedly). It is a good overview of six different "bad Popes," what they did that was so bad & the overall state of the papacy during their reign. I would recommend this to someone needing material for a summary of one of these popes, as their good deeds are mentioned as well.
Jun 10, 2015 rated it liked it
There is a series out now under the umbrella title of Dark Histories (A Dark History: The Popes, A Dark History: The Kings and Queens of Europe, Dark History of the Tudors, and so on) that seems to me (without investigating them) to be intent on cashing in on the sensational side of history. Nothing wrong with that, I don't think--it's not really what I want to read, but different strokes and so on.

The Bad Popes strikes me as the same vein, except it precedes the Dark History series by about 40
Aug 05, 2008 rated it really liked it
Why did I take such perverse pleasure in reading this book! I'm not even Catholic - ex, recovering or otherwise. Maybe it's just my dislike of all organized religion. This book is all about power politics of the nasty kind engaged in by the so-called spiritual elite of the church. These leaders put personal advancement, greed and nepotism foremost and use the power of church office to do so. Now I truly understand the significance of excommunication, which for someone raised Protestant, never ma ...more
Jan 11, 2009 rated it really liked it
This is an interesting account of a string of "bad" popes during the middle ages. Partly reflecting the turbulence of the times, these popes strayed far from the saintly standard of the early apostles -- they were guilty of fomenting wars, simony (buying and selling church offices), intrigue, adultery, and almost any other offense you care to name.

A frontispiece quote from the writings of a historian in 1350 AD says it all: "It were in truth better before the eyes of God and the world that these
Chris Laskey
Apr 09, 2013 rated it really liked it
I would offer this volume up as an introductory reading of some very complex history exploring the unfortunate relationship of papal and empiric power during the first half of the second millenium.
As such it is informative and highly entertaining, without bowing to vulgar elements which in our day would be all too common. Certainly the corruption of the papal seat has a long history and this volume can only delve into the basic elements of such human vanities, but it is quite clear, by the finis
Curtis Chamberlain
Feb 28, 2013 rated it really liked it
Great resource material in this book! A phenomenally accurate history of leadership of the Catholic Church, reminding us that "For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God." (Romans 3:23, KJV).

This book is an honest compendium of the vastly sinful and deceitful leadership of the largest apostate church in the world today; it shuld remind us that it wasn't to be trusted then, and it definitely should not be trusted now.

Once you read this book, you will be convinced of the wretched evil
Sep 04, 2009 rated it it was ok
Chamberlin's 1969 history is a study of seven popes, the three most important ones being the renaissance popes, Roderigo Borgia, (Alexander VI), Giovanni de Medici (Leo X, and Giulio de Medici (Clement VII). The emphasis is on not their personal morality, deplorable as it was in their addiction to wealth and pleasure, but on their involvement in the political struggles of the time which tainted any spiritual good the church might have achieved. They sought temporal as well as spiritual power and ...more
Judith Geary
Aug 13, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
This is a political history of the Catholic Church from Constantine to the 16th century reformation concentrating, as the title says, on the "bad guys." The Borgias and the Medicis, among lesser known families, used the papacy as a dynasty-building tool. Despite the title, Chamberlin has given us what seems to be a balanced account. Of course it ends too soon to include my personal favorite villians, the Barbarinis.
Jen Sunderland
Nov 15, 2015 rated it liked it
This book is a virtual goldmine of information, sadly delivered rapidfire and blandly by an author determined not to stop for anything as boring as readability.

It had its moments. But most of the moments lead me to suggest strong coffee, a lot of background knowledge of the Catholic Church (or a dictionary), and mulish determination. The subject matter itself is very interesting. Shame Chamberlin couldn't pep it up more.
Eric Polli
Feb 22, 2012 rated it it was amazing
While I greatly enjoyed the subject matter of this book, I have given it a rare 5 stars because of the immensely beautiful, almost musical prose and turn of phrase used by Chamberlin. This alone makes the book a worhwhile read. I read it every couple of years and it is like reuniting with a treasured friend. This book has been in the innermost circle in the pantheon of my favourites for years now.
Aug 21, 2007 rated it liked it
Shelves: read_2008
This book gets a lot of flack for reading like a text book. I wish my text books had read like this. I was riveted. Why only 3 stars? Well, after the first few popes following the VH1 Behind the Music-esque timeline (i.e. selected as pope, abuses power, total decadence, loses mind, dies), it got kinda old.

Storm Chase
Jan 11, 2016 rated it really liked it
I picked this up in a clearance sale. It's useful for fixing dates and events of important events, and it's a lot of fun to "pull threads" and see common approaches to consolidating power but to make the most out of it, you have to read around it and take in European history because the context is too big for this slim book. Still, it's a great read. Worth buying!
Peter De
Feb 19, 2014 rated it really liked it
A very well written book about all the power hungry popes, cardinals and what that brought on for the church. It is especially interesting to compare the book with the TV series "The Borgia's" because it is the "papal" family that is using the papal post to the fullest to increase their influence and power.
Aug 04, 2011 added it
Written in 1969, the language of this book is extremely overblown. The seven Popes that Chamberlain chooses probably aren't the worst of the lot, but they were ineffectual as spiritual and temporal leaders. It would be interesting to see what a more modern interpretation would be of their tenures as the leader of the Catholic Church and perhaps compare and contrast them more with the Good Popes.
Christopher Roth
Jan 04, 2016 rated it really liked it
Highly informative and entertaining. Especially Pope Constantine the hermit. Why isn't that a movie? (To be fair, he was a bad pope, but a very good person.)

Not surprisingly, there is no companion volume called "The Good Popes."
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Eric Russell Chamberlin (1926-2006)
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