The Popes: A History

Jonathan Wright on a rewarding narrative of papal history that is brimming with saints and sinners

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Reviewed by: Jonathan Wright
Author: John Julius Norwich
Publisher: Chatto and Windus
Price (RRP): £25

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It takes a brave soul to write a history of the papacy – a famously vast and confusing subject. If anyone is up to the task it is John Julius Norwich whose reputation as a fine narrative historian will only be enhanced by this charming and learned book.

The prose is elegant, the witticisms are plentiful, and the volume’s enthusiasm is addictive. It might be suggested that the author spends too little time on the papacy before AD 1000 (summed up in less than 90 pages) and he takes the post-1700 period at something of a gallop.

Editorial decisions have to be made, however, and we’d have to admit that the papacy was especially interesting during the medieval era. It is the punchy, proud popes (Gregory VII in the 11th century, Innocent III in the 13th, Boniface VIII at the cusp of the 13th and 14th) who are always most likely to grab and sustain the reader’s interest.

Norwich’s book captures many of the crucial points about papal history. First and foremost, we get a real sense of the staggering diversity of those who have held this mighty office.

There have been rascals and geniuses, debauchees and saints, men who were in it for the power and men who were dragooned into service and who would have been much happier living out their clerical lives in the study or the monastery. Norwich does not shy away from praising or denouncing incumbents but he is keenly aware of how muddled the papal past has been.

He concentrates on telling the stories which, as old-fashioned as this might sound, is one of the principal reasons why historians were invented.

The book does not position itself as a radical new analysis of the subject, but it will provide the general reader with a first-rate primer. All the internecine rivalries, all the anti-popes, and all the clashes between supreme pontiffs and secular rulers are here. There are a few sections (notably on the counter-Reformation period and the 18th century) that would have been improved by deeper engagement with some of the more recent literature but this does not diminish Norwich’s achievement.

It’s easy to become frustrated with the whirligig of papal politics. In the 13th century, the people of Viterbo grew tired of the ridiculously lengthy conclave that had been depleting the Italian town’s resources for far too many years. The citizenry reportedly locked the doors, enforced food rationing, and ripped the roof off the building in which the church’s indecisive dignitaries were sitting.

They hoped that the imposition of inconvenience might put a spring in the electors’ steps.

The historian of the papacy can grow frustrated, too. It is hard to keep track of all the facts and conflicting sources, and harder still to negotiate a course between woefully partial analyses of this most befuddling of subjects.

John Julius Norwich has made a valiant and richly rewarding attempt. His book will remind the well-versed of stories they’d forgotten and it will delight anyone who simply wants to learn the facts. In his gentle way, Norwich has also removed the roof and allowed a little more light to illuminate the scene.

There’s nothing spectacularly ground-breaking here, but if you are in the market for an informative and beautifully written single volume history of the papacy, then your problems have just been solved. 

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Jonathan Wright’s Heretics: The Creation of Christianity from the Gnostics to the Modern Church is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt