I was turned on to the history of the papacy through my college art history classes. It is simply impossible to separate the stories of some of the great European artists from the happenings of their contemporary leaders of the Catholic Church. When I heard about John Julius Norwich’s new book, Absolute Monarchs: a history of the papacy, I immediately put a hold on it. Norwich gives us a chronological history of the popes (and antipopes) throughout the two thousand year history of the church, detailing many of their endeavors and challenges such as struggles with secular rulers, church reforms, family scandals, monumental building projects, and much more. The earliest popes, of whom there remains little information, have rather short sections dedicated to them while some of the most influential popes receive much greater discussion.
When I think about Pope Benedict XVI or Pope John Paul II, I have a hard time imagining them leading armies of soldiers in order to conquest new regions of Italy as Pope Julius II did, or holding romping parties at the Vatican as Pope Alexander VI did for his daughter Lucrezia. (Wait, did you catch that…daughter of a pope…that’s not supposed to happen! For another interesting read though, take a look at Lucrezia Borgia’s biography.) These two late 15th to early 16th century popes fall in Norwich’s chapter titled The Monsters. What is evident from the book, though, is that the number of popes who took on this position in hopes of genuinely spreading the Word of Christ and making the world a better place, far outnumbers those who saw it as simply a position of wealth and power. But this task is not a simple one and the political upheaval that the popes were often involved in could be debilitating.
I appreciate Norwich’s work for its broad coverage of people and events. In understanding the evolution of the papacy and how it has become what it is today we must first recognize the influence of people outside of Rome such as the emperors of the Byzantine Empire and the Cistercian abbot St. Bernard of Clairvaux, as well as the political climate of places such as 14th century Avignon. Norwich does not limit his discussion to just those who have been elected to the papacy but also grants discussion to the number of antipopes who have tried to get their hands on the papal tiara over the years and the myth that there was once a female pope named Joan. Pope Joan, myth tells us, disguised herself as a man and made an illustrious career for herself in Rome before being unanimously voted pope. Her disguise was apparently given away when she gave birth to a child one day when mounting a horse for a papal procession. An interesting discussion, it seems unlikely that Pope Joan ever truly existed. What seems even more unlikely, though, is that she could have given birth to a child while mounting a horse!
All in all, this is a very interesting book. You can read just the chapters you find most interesting, or you can read the book in its entirety. The stories of these men (and possibly one woman!) will shed new light on this illustrious position that you are sure to find captivating.
Absolute Monarchs: a history of the papacy