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Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy [Deckle Edge] [Hardcover]

John Julius Norwich
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

July 12 2011
Critical praise for ABSOLUTE MONARCHS

Absolute Monarchs sprawls across Europe and the Levant, over two millenniums, and with an impossibly immense cast: 265 popes, feral hordes of Vandals, Huns and Visigoths, expansionist emperors, Byzantine intriguers, Borgias and Medicis, heretic zealots, conspiring clerics, bestial inquisitors and more. Norwich manages to organize this crowded stage and produce a rollicking narrative. He keeps things moving at nearly beach-read pace.”
—Bill Keller, New York Times Book Review, Cover review
 
“Renowned historian Norwich offers a rollicking account of the men who held the papal office, their shortcomings and their virtues, and the impact of the papacy on world history. He conducts us masterfully on a tour of the lives of the popes from Peter to Benedict XVI. . . . Entertaining and deeply researched, Norwich’s history offers a wonderful introduction to papal lives.”
—Publishers Weekly
 
“Historian, travel writer, and television documentarian Norwich presents an excellent, often surprising history of that 2,000-year-old institution….he focuses on political history as he traces the evolution of the papacy as an institution, while at the same time providing entertaining profiles of the most historically significant popes….An outstanding historical survey.”
—Booklist
 
“When Norwich writes, I read; this member of the House of Lords is a notable and engrossing historian, perhaps best known for his monumental study of Byzantium. Here he offers a history of the nearly two-millennia-old papacy that should be popular with many readers.”
—Library Journal
 
“A spirited, concise chronicle of the accomplishments of the most noteworthy popes. . . . Norwich doesn’t skirt controversies, ancient and present, in this broad, clear-eyed assessment.”
—Kirkus Reviews
 
 A SWEEPING CHRONICLE OF ONE OF THE MOST SIGNIFICANT—AND CONTROVERSIAL—INSTITUTIONS IN HISTORY
 
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 heroes to rogues, admirably wise to utterly decadent. Norwich, who knew two popes and had private audiences with two others, recounts in riveting detail the histories of the most significant popes and what they meant politically, culturally, and socially to Rome and to the world.

Norwich presents such brave popes as Innocent I, who in the fifth century successfully negotiated with Alaric the Goth, an invader civil authorities could not defeat, and Leo I, who two decades later tamed (and perhaps paid off) Attila the Hun. Here, too, are the scandalous figures: Pope Joan, the mythic woman said (without any substantiation) to have been elected in 855, and the infamous “pornocracy,” the five libertines who were descendants or lovers of Marozia, debauched daughter of one of Rome’s most powerful families.

Absolute Monarchs brilliantly portrays reformers such as Pope Paul III, “the greatest pontiff of the sixteenth century,” who reinterpreted the Church’s teaching and discipline, and John XXIII, who in five short years starting in 1958 “opened up the church to the twentieth century,” instituting reforms that led to Vatican II. Norwich brings the story to the present day with Benedict XVI, who is coping with a global priest sex scandal.

Epic and compelling, Absolute Monarchs is the astonishing story of some of history’s most revered and reviled figures, men who still cast light and shadows on the Vatican and the world today.

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Review

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.

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Paradoxical power. Sept. 4 2011
Format:Hardcover
This is a history of the papacy, from what is known of its obscure origins right up to the present day (last references are to 2010). It is a very good read: massive amounts of information delivered with Norwich's characteristic lightness of touch, wit, humour (even the footnotes are funny) and brilliant thumbnail sketches of his protagonists: the successive heirs to the throne of Peter. Written without hostility or adulation, Norwich sketches the rise and influence of the paradoxical power of the 'servant of the servants of God', tracing out the bizarre combination of spiritual authority and territorial imperialism from its beginnings to the loss of most of its temporal powers in the last century. The process by which the various popes, from the debauched teenager John XII to the saintly John Paul I, came to their office is immensely varied: by election, fraud, nepotism, force and the power of kings and emperors; the backgrounds of the popes varies similarly: some were the offspring of other popes, others were princes, aristocrats, lawyers, and occasionally peasants. The antipopes are not forgotten either: I had no idea there were so many of them.

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.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Well Writen History of the Papacy Sept. 11 2012
By James Gallen TOP 100 REVIEWER
Format:MP3 CD
Reporting the history of a two-thousand year old institution in a single volume is a daunting task that can only be accomplished by skimming the highlights. In "Absolute Monarchs" author John Norwich has done an excellent job. Knowing when to skim and when to dive in is a knack that he demonstrates with aplomb. From St. Peter to Benedict XVI this book introduces us to the men who have led the Church.

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.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Difficult book to read, and review... Sept. 8 2011
By Jill Meyer HALL OF FAME TOP 10 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
John Julius Norwich as written 500 page book, "Absolute Monarchs", which he subtitles, "A History of the Papacy". While he doesn't cover in detail - or even mention - many of the hundreds-odd pontiffs who've ruled the Catholic Church, he does write about 50 or so of the more important ones. Now, the problem with this book - and it is billed as being for "readers" and not "historians" - is, "how much will the reader actually read?" Is it proper to pick-and-choose the pontiffs the reader wants to know more about - and thus review it on that basis - or should the reader be responsible for reading - and reviewing - the entire book?

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".
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 3.8 out of 5 stars  88 reviews
175 of 189 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Some say "this author is without peer"- well in this case, the author *is* a peer! July 13 2011
By Wulfstan - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
John Julius Cooper, 2nd Viscount Norwich CVO is a well known British historian, author of The Normans in Sicily, A History of Venice, A Short History of Byzantium, etc.

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)
42 of 46 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A History of the Papacy Aug. 23 2011
By Timothy Haugh - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Some years ago, Mr. Norwich wrote a book called Shakespeare's Kings where he laid out the history behind Shakespeare's history plays. I really enjoyed that book. Now he's back with a history of the papacy, and I enjoyed this one as well.

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.
34 of 42 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Well written, even entertaining, but how accurate? Aug. 20 2011
By R. J. Karris - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Norwich writes well and with wit and provides an abundance of information. These factors ease the reader's burden through 512 tightly-packed pages.

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.
19 of 24 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An "agnostic Protestant" history of the Papacy. Pretty good, but pretty biased. Dec 4 2011
By J. Michael - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, although as some reviewers have noted, the subject matter is too broad for thorough treatment in a popular work. However, the author manages to delve deeply into certain papal reigns, resulting in an informative and entertaining book. Unfortunately, one of the reigns he focuses on is that of Pope Pius XII (1939-1958). As a self-described "agnostic Protestant", the author betrays himself as an unabashed liberal when he arrived at the modern Popes. He slanders Pope Pius XII with all the usual blather about anti-Semitism and his supposed omissions when it came to the Holocaust. Such nonsense has been so well debunked time and again, that the author's position can only be attributed to invincible ignorance or pure malice. When dealing with Pius' successors, the author naturally is greatly enthusiastic about the changes introduced by Second Vatican Council and expresses his frustration with the Church for not going further, by allowing abortion, contraception, female priests, blessing homosexuality and all the rest of the panoply of liberal demands. It is for these reasons that I cannot whole-heartedly recommend this book. In addition, there were some rather curious errors, some of which were:

*...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.
16 of 21 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Quick Run Through Aug. 11 2011
By M. Brown - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book runs through so many popes and so many centuries that it left me breathless and remembering almost nothing. I came away thinking that he should have organized it by topic. Some popes were holy but ineffective. Some were effective but not very holy. Some were debauched to an astonishing degree. Chapters could have been devoted to Italian families that controlled the papacy. Other chapters could have focused on the efforts of kings and emperors to bend it to their wills. Antisemitism would make an appropriate topic. Patrons of art another. The popes and scholarship would have been interesting. A different organization would have helped me to sort it all out.
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