Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy Hardcover – Deckle Edge, Jul 12 2011
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Praise for John Julius Norwich
“As a historian, Lord Norwich knows what matters. As a writer, he has a taste for beauty, a love of language, and an enlivening wit. He contrives, as no English writer has done before, to sustain a continuous interest in that crowded history.”—Hugh Trevor-Roper, author of The Last Days of Hitler and The Golden Age of Europe
“Norwich is an enchanting and satisfying raconteur.”—The Washington Post
“He has put readers of this generation more in his debt than any other English writer.”—The Sunday Times (London)
“Norwich is a historian of uncommon urbanity: scholarly and erudite but never pedantic. His style is as graceful and easy as it is knowledgeable.”—Los Angeles Times
“[Norwich] is certainly the English language’s most passionate and dedicated chronicler of [Venice’s] extraordinary history.”—The Seattle Times
About the Author
John Julius Norwich is one of Britain’s preeminent historians and travel writers. He has written the histories of Norman Sicily, Byzantium, Venice, and the Mediterranean. Other books have been on Shakespeare’s history plays, on music, and on architecture.See all Product Description
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Top Customer Reviews
The book reveals clearly what an astonishing institution the papacy is: its powers in the past were formidable, its influence uncalculable. This history, by showing how it came to be, makes its survival seem even more remarkable.
Above all, I would emphasize that this book is wonderfully informative, while being a delight to read.
I found this book to slow and accelerate depending on my familiarity with the Popes being discussed. During much of the early Church and Middle Ages the names, both of Popes and laity with whom they worked, seem to roll by without making much of an impression. At times though a familiar name, such as Leo or Gregory the Great, Pius V, Henry VII or Napoleon spikes interest.
As a self-proclaimed agnostic Protestant (?), Norwich claims to have no agenda to push. While he does express opinions, he does seem to be true to his word. He critically examines the legend of Pope Joan and concludes that it lacks authenticity. It is mostly with the more recent Popes that the author's opinions can be easily ascertained. He accuses St. Pius X of maintaining a police state to reign in free thinking. I have heard the same from a Church historian in whom I have complete confidence. Norwich comes down hard on Pius XII for alleged indifference to the plight of Jews during World War II. I will only say that there are two sides to this story, both widely presented and which claim to document persuasive support. I caution the reader to recognize that Norwich presents only one side. As he proceeds from John XXIII through Benedict XVI he points out the highlights of each.Read more ›
I chose to read about those popes and times that I am particularly interested in, i.e. - the early Church, certain Medieval periods, the Avignon Papacy, and modern times. I glanced through the other periods and popes that Norwich writes about. I probably read in detail half the book and skimmed the other half. Norwich writes more about history and contemporaneous events in the popes he covers; much less about doctrinal issues. It's a chatty book and he writes well. I was very interested in reading more about several popes and that's the mark of a good non-fiction work - I wanted more!
The point that struck me, I think, about the papacy in its roughly 2000 year period since St Peter, is the short duration of many of the popes' reigns. Elected as relatively old men, they had few years to influence church policy and the world outside the Vatican. Now, that's good if the pope was - as many were - a non-entity or an evil man - but certainly many would-be good or great popes were not given the time to affect changes that might have moved the papacy and the Catholic church forward.
Norwich has written an excellent, and readable, history that can be read in small pieces, or in the complete "pie".
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Again, the author takes us to the Italian peninsula (well, mostly) for his new book "Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy".
Although Lord Norwich is an expert on this period and area, he makes it known to us that this is no hagiography, as a "agnostic Protestant" he "has no ax to grind". He'd have to have a lot of them (axes, I mean) as this book covers over 250 Popes, Antipopes and various non-popes (such as the "hoary canard" of "Pope Joan"). Over a period of about 2000 years.
Some of the author's favorite Papal figures include Innocent I, Leo(s) I & XIII, and Benedict XIV. But the author seems to have the most fun with the "bad boys" of Papal history, of whom there are a rather large number. Norwich also doesn't mind telling us about a good number of (rather scurrilous) rumors, but to give him his due, he also often debunks them. I love one chapter title "Nicholas I and the Pornocracy"! (New word!)
Some portions may be somewhat controversial- for example Norwich speaks out strongly about Pious XII (WWII period).
But other than that- it's fun, fast paced, and very readable (well, mostly, it is over 500 pages)
Mr. Norwich is very smart in the way he organized this book. Having read a number of other books on the papacy, I find that they are often quite difficult to read straight through because there's just so much stuff, both truth and legend. He wisely sticks to what we can be confident is factual (with rare exception--for example, he devotes a chapter to "Pope Joan"; still, he acknowledges that she is most likely completely fictional). This means he gets through the first 1000 years pretty quickly (with some popes barely getting a mention) and devotes more of his energy to later popes. In fact, I feel he's at his best when he gets to the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries. His history of this period is really fascinating.
And, unlike many authors of serious history, Mr. Norwich has a very readable prose style. Occasionally, his asides can be off-putting and, because he's a bit more casual, he turns the idiosyncratic phrase every once in awhile. Still, it's a much better experience than the ponderous prose of most papacy tomes.
If there's anything that I don't like about this book, it's something that cannot really be laid at Mr. Norwich's door. It's that so few popes, at least the ones we know much about, have really been great men. Mr. Norwich takes a balanced approach and it's even clear that he admires a number of the popes; however, this book does not make the papacy shine. Still, Absolute Monarchs is an education, and a readable one at that. It's hard to ask for more.
But from the very first chapter I began to question Norwich's accuracy. Despite what he says on p. 9 n. 6, St. Paul wrote only one letter to the Galatians, not two. On p. 10 n. 10 he incorrectly states that Acts 2:4 attests to Herod's arrest of Peter. In chapter 2, p. 12 he writes this of St. Polycarp, "a champion of St. Paul and the suspected author of several of the Pauline epistles..." Not one in 2,000 scholars of Early Church History would support Norwich's outdated view of Polycarp as the author of several of the Pauline epistles, namely, 1-2 Timothy and Titus. These missteps raised in my mind a doubt about the accuracy of what he says about the remaining centuries.
*...that St. Jerome was Italian. In fact, although he was born in a Roman province, he was from Dalmatia, in modern Eastern Europe.
*...he declared that the Copernican system, as reflected in the Galileo affair, contradicted the Book of Genesis. I could be wrong, but I'm fairly sure that Genesis doesn't deal with the movement of the solar system. I believe that Galileo got in trouble because the theory of the heliocentric universe contradicted the Book of Joshua as well as several verses in Psalms.
*...he states that the Germans only invaded Italy in World War II after Mussolini was killed. That is wrong. Mussolini was killed in the final days of the war. The Germans had occupied Italy in 1943, after Mussolini was overthrown and imprisoned.