A review of The Popes: A History by John Julius Norwich

Reviewed by Joshua Drake

The Popes: A History
by John Julius Norwich
ISBN-13: 978-0099565871, Paperback, 2012

In The Popes: A History John Julius Norwich examines the 2,000 year history of the bishops of Rome, beginning with the traditional (if not historical) founder St Peter. To tackle the World’s oldest continuing institution, which has had 265 office holders (to say nothing of the various usurpers, antipopes, kings and princelings the narrative must entail) is a dizzyingly monumental task. But Norwich dishes out his great character assassinations with remarkable economy. Read too much in one go, however, and it becomes an interminable chronicle of geriatric health concerns, a parade of piles, gout, and arthritis – one damned pope after another. Indeed, it seems there was a large part of the middle ages where no-one could hold down the office longer than a couple of years. But this was always going to be a pitfall of such a task, and is by no means the fault of Norwich’s style. 

As a self-professed “agnostic protestant”, Norwich claims he has “no axe to grind”; he steers clear of theology and achieves a style which is anecdotal, witty, and irreverent. A story less sacred than profane, he relishes with morbid fascination the unpleasant details of the institution’s sinners, while displaying undisguised admiration for its saints. For example, he recounts the story of an early Pope, Formosus, who after death was disinterred, robed in papal vestments, tried for and found guilty of perjury, then thrown in the Tiber. When describing the character of Paul II (1464-71), Norwich writes: “He seems to have had two weaknesses, for good-looking young men and for melons; the stroke that killed him was said to have been brought on by a surfeit of both.” When discussing the deposition and trial for heresy of the antipope John XXIII (1410–1415), he takes obvious delight in quoting Gibbon: “The most scandalous charges were suppressed; the Vicar of Christ was only accused of piracy, murder, rape, sodomy and incest.” When relating the ignominious fate of Boniface VII, who was thought to have murdered two popes and blinded a cardinal deacon, Norwich explains how: “his body was dragged naked through the streets and exposed beneath the statue of Marcus Aurelius. There, left to the mercy of the mob, the remains of the antipope Boniface were trampled on and subjected to nameless indignities – and serve him right.” The unbridled power of popes exerts the same magnetic pull on the imagination as do worldly emperors and kings, but with an added degree of metaphysical mystery and grandeur. Although, It really is amazing that respect and obedience to the papacy has lasted after instances of such unspeakable iniquity.

As one can sense from these few excerpts, Norwich keeps the narrative alive by dropping snippets of trivia. He devotes a whole chapter to the supposedly female Pope Joan (855–857) who fooled everyone into thinking she was a man. Her deceit was only uncovered, apparently, after she gave birth in the streets of Rome during a procession. Unfortunately, Norwich casts eviscerating doubt on the existence of Joan, but the episode has given rise to the enduring myth of the chaise percée (pierced chair) upon which each newly incumbent pope had to sit before their coronation for a quick groping session. The groper was then to affirm “He has testicles!”. Equally disappointing, Norwich concludes: “It cannot be gainsaid… that it is admirably designed for a diaconal grope; and it is only with considerable reluctance that one turns the idea aside.”

Pietro Perugino Christ Handing the Keys of Heaven to Peter

From the debauched ‘Pornocracy’ of the early middle ages, to the Renaissance where some popes were little more than temporal princes – Julius the II (1503-1513), who commissioned works by Michelangelo and Raphael, headed armies into battle wearing full armour, and Leo X (1513-1521), the first Medici pope, is alleged to have said “Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it” – what shines though in Norwich’s account is how each papacy has been shaped both by the individual pope’s personality and the times they lived in. Norwich weaves anecdotes into a broader exploration of the role of popes in the wider geopolitical scene. He explores the enduring schism with the east, the fragile balance of power in the Italian city-states, the jostling of the larger powers France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire, as well as the assorted wars, revolutions, attempts at reform throughout the Catholic Church’s history. One may even be surprised to learn that, in the midst of all this swirling ambition, there were actually some true spiritualist popes who had both integrity and ability, and were loved by the people.

About the reviewer: Joshua Drake is an Edinburgh University biology graduate from South Africa. He reviews books on history and popular science. Find out more at: https://joshuadrakeblog.wordpress.com