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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)
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VINE VOICEon August 23, 2011
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.
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on August 20, 2011
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.
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on January 7, 2014
I often enjoy reading historical non-fiction and the biggest pitfall is that these books often read like textbooks. This was not the case for Absolute Monarchs as John Julius Norwich wrote this in a very easy to read way. The author doesn't dwell on every little detail of 2000 years worth of popes, instead he spends very little time on the mundane and focuses on the noteworthy or interesting points. This is by no means an all inclusive tome detailing the complete papacy of 265 popes. Some popes are mentioned very briefly (Urban VII, Gregory XIV and Innocent IX are all covered in a few paragraphs) while others are mentioned in much more detail (Leo X and Clement VII get an entire chapter).

The subject matter was far more interesting than I would have originally thought. As an artist I knew a bit about some of the renaissance popes from their patronage of Raphael and Michealangelo but I had no idea how "unholy" some of these popes were (popes enriching themselves, attending orgies and openly homosexual popes). Its easy to forget that while the papacy now rules over the small area of the Vatican, they were once rulers of the a large territory of Italy (Papal States) and behaved more like European princes than spiritual leaders. The book begins with the building of the church and the consolidation of power under the pope. Then you get to the "monsters" which include Rodrigo Borgia (now made popular the Showtime and Canal+ TV series), then the reformation and finally the post WW1 modern era.

I think those interested in history will enjoy this more than those interested in religion. My interest lies in both so I really enjoyed this read.
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on December 4, 2011
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.
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on August 18, 2014
Viscount Norwich has undertaken a monumental task in distilling 2000+ years of complicated history into 500 pages in a palatable manner, and for that he must be commended. That the book becomes a confusing blur of empty names at times is hardly his fault - papal history was pretty ordinary for vast majority of the time.

What I appreciated the most in this book is Norwich's clear delineation of various eras - the pornocracy, reformation, counter-reformation, renaissance and so on. Individual popes might have been undistinguished and/or unremarkable (and some outright corrupt, especially by modern standards), but when grouped together in eras, we get a clear sense of the evolution of the papacy, both as a spiritual and as a political institution. It is interesting to see that the institution wasn't always as austere and as highly regarded as today, but was often contested as any other political office. Rival Italian factions would often resort to underhanded tactics like bribery and violence to install their favorite candidate, and many popes would openly favor their family members by appointing them to influential offices.

I do have an issue with the title, however. One thing this book makes clear is the popes may have been a lot of things, but absolute monarchs they absolutely were not. Again and again we read lengthy descriptions of various emperors and dictators bullying the popes into giving up more and more land and more and more power. It seems as if the Holy Roman Empire was almost perpetually at war with the papacy over any number of things, some serious, some petty. Later European power-brokers, like the French kings, Napoleon etc. too continued this tradition of jostling with the pope. Often this ended very badly for the Holy See, and there are numerous instances where His Holiness was physically assaulted.

Norwich has some very stern words for Pope Pius XII, who reigned during WWII. He calls him an outright anti-semite and harshly condemns what he feels was a lack of action on part of the Vatican when the Holocaust was occurring. This, I understand, is a contentious topic because there are scholars who have praised Pius as well.

While you may not come away remembering the minutiae of the reigns of various popes after reading this book, you will get a nice panoramic view of European history over 2000 years, which is a great added bonus.
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on September 27, 2011
Keeping all the popes in order soon became of secondary importance as the lives of "God's Representative on Earth" showed them to be "men" (with the exception of Pope Joan) of pride, venality, selfish ambition with a few good deeds thrown in for good measure. These were revelations I could have lived without, but perhaps the truth is merited. Saints for sale at bargain prices, facts of the Virgin Birth and Mary's ascension into heaven, infallibility of the Popes seem to have been decreed at will. I would not expect those of the Roman Catholic faith to find much solace from this book. I couldn't put it down as I read with mouth agape and belief suspended.
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on August 11, 2011
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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on July 3, 2014
From the initial description you are led to believe that the author is going to concentrate on four or five of the Popes that made the greatest impact on the church. However he has a cast of characters that would dwarf a DeMille epic. A reader should (must) have a good command of European history from the dark ages onward to really enjoy this work, as it involves popes, anti-popes, politicians, church officials, the royal houses of Europe and various and sundry others that has anything to do with the history of the papacy.
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on September 8, 2014
This book was simultaneously fascinating and boring. There was a lot of interesting stuff in it, things I didn't know and didn't expect from the papacy. They were sprinkled in just frequently enough to keep me going. Three popes at one time? Who knew? Popes who actually lead armies into battle? Who knew that? Popes who apparently didn't believe in Christianity? Popes who were homosexual? Orgies with the cardinals? Well, that's all in there. But the book is also cursed with the scourges of history: dates, places and names. They all sound alike after a while. The places are frequently no longer in existence and it was hard for me to imagine where they were or what they were like. And the names, well let's just say that popes tend to have the same name. A lot. A whole lot. Who can remember the difference between Pope Paul the XIX and Pope Paul the XXI? (I'm not sure those are real popes, but you get the picture.)

The book is certainly worth reading although I don't know how anyone could take the Roman Catholic Church seriously afterward.
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