Norwich’s history of the popes spans 265 papacies across 2,000 years. And those are just the “official” ones. There is also a vast cast comprising several antipope impostors, emperors and sultans, cardinals, illicit lovers, bastard children and a roll-call of Rome’s finest and foulest.
What makes things even worse are the names of the popes. So far there have been—and this is just a representative sample—23 Johns, 16 each of Gregorys and Benedicts, and 13 Leos.
So there is little chance you will be able to keep track of things. Therefore you will be happy to know that this does not matter one little bit when it comes to reading this authoritative, amusing and almost continuously engaging book.
The history of the popes is, one would presume, a story of how this supreme religious office handles spiritual and temporal affairs. But soon it becomes clear that in Norwich’s version of events there is little room for the spiritual. There are two reasons for this. One is because the book is meant to be a popular history rather than an academic one. “...as far as possible,” Norwich writes in his introduction, “I have tried to steer well clear of theology, on which I am in any case unqualified to pronounce.”
Grey: Norwich’s popes are no saints. Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The second reason appears in his next line: “In doing so, I have followed in the footsteps of many of the popes themselves, a surprising number of whom seem to have been far more interested in their own temporal power than in their spiritual well-being.”
Norwich is too kind.
A number of popes, barring the early ones and those of the last two or three centuries, would make modern-day greasy celebrities and fraudulent god men blush in shame. Yes, they signed treaties, built chapels, raised cities and commissioned spectacular works of art. But they also fornicated, nepotized, stole, lied, sodomized, massacred and manipulated their way up and down the Italian peninsula for centuries.
For several, the route to the monarchy lay through family and political connections, and often involved lavishing the electoral colleges with astonishing bribes. Once they inveigled their way into the Vatican, many spent the rest of their lives living it up, pope style. When Pope Leo X was elected in 1513, he is reported to have told his brother Giuliano, “Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it.”
In all fairness, Leo was hardly the most enjoyment-prone of the popes. For every shining light like the learned and reformist Gregory I, who was later known as the Great, there was a thorough scoundrel such as John XII. So notorious a womanizer was John that female pilgrims were wary of visiting St Peter’s lest he “violate” them. When John died in 964, at the age of just 27, Norwich says public opinion was divided over the cause. Either John died of a stroke during a bout of vigorous lovemaking, or he was killed by his lover’s husband afterwards.
The Popes—A History: Chatto & Windus, 505 pages, £25 (around Rs 1,840).
Merely a laundry list of debauchery, even those of papal proportions, would quickly become tedious. So Norwich is careful to weave personal profiles with political overviews. Up till the 19th century, the pope’s existence depended on playing one European power against the other, and in placating Rome’s notoriously fickle populace. It is not uncommon to see papal loyalties swing from Spain to France to Germany in a matter of years, if not months.
Occasionally there are moments of theological or doctrinal controversy. As if to remind us that the popes bear spiritual burdens as well.
The history of the popes is not a work of devotion. If you are not prepared to deal with the historical realities of the office and of the Catholic church, this book will revolt more than entertain. But as a sometimes bizarre and always entertaining catalogue of human foibles and treachery, it is a triumph, yet another subtle reminder that fiction sometimes does not stand a chance against fact.
You just can’t make this stuff up.
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