Well known for his histories of Norman Sicily, Venice, the Byzantine Empire and the Mediterranean, John Julius Norwich has now turned his attention to the oldest continuing institution in the world, tracing the papal line down the centuries from St Peter himself - traditionally (though by no means historically) the first pope - to the present Benedict XVI. Of the 280-odd holders of the supreme office, some have unquestionably been saints; others have wallowed in unspeakable iniquity. One was said to have been a woman - and an English woman at that - her sex being revealed only when she improvidently gave birth to a baby during a papal procession. Pope Joan never existed (though the Church long believed she did) but many genuine pontiffs were almost as colourful: Formosus, for example, whose murdered corpse was exhumed, clothed in pontifical vestments, propped up on a throne and subjected to trial; or John XII of whom Gibbon wrote: 'his rapes of virgins and widows deterred female pilgrims from visiting the shrine of St Peter lest, in the devout act, they should be violated by his successor.'
Others earned respect, including Leo the Great who protected Rome from the Huns and the Goths, and Gregory the Great who struggled manfully with the emperor for supremacy. After calamitous crusades, and 70-year exile in Avignon, came the larger-than-life pontiffs of the Renassiance - the Borgias and the Medicis ('God has given us the papacy; let us now enjoy it'). Pius VII had to contend with Napoleon, Pius IX to steer the papacy through the storm of the Risorgimento. John Julius Norwich brings the story up-to-date with lively investigations into the anti-semitism of Pius XII, the possible murder of John Paul I and the phenomenon of the Polish John Paul II. From here the glories of the Byznatium to the decay of Rome, from the Albigensian Heresy to sexual misbehaviour within the Church today, the pace never slackens. John Julius Norwich, an agnostic with no religious axe to grind, has a thrilling and important tale to tell - and in this rich, authoritative book he does it full justice.
©2011 John Julius Norwich (P)2011 Random House Audio Go
"A Stroll through 2,000 Years of European History"
Regardless of one's opinion of the office of Pope, what cannot be denied is that over the course of the last two thousand years or so, the long list of saints & sinners, the devout & the debauched, the rogues & villains & heroes who have occupied the position have, in one way or another, had a huge influence on European history.
John Julius Norwich's 'History of the Popes' is a wonderful introduction to the main points of interest and provides a nice perspective on aspects of European history that you might not be aware of; the circumstances in Rome at the time of Henry VIII's petition for divorce from Katherine of Aragon being a fine example (the surprise wasn't that the Pope turned him down but, given the circumstances in Rome, that Henry even bothered trying in the first place!).
Covering, as it does, such an enormous expanse of time, it is necessarily brief in respect of some of the more dull or brief pontificates, but most of them seem to get at least a name check.
The whole thing trundles along at a very nice pace and, what with most Popes seemingly having been elected when they were on their last legs, there are plenty of places for the listener to take a convenient pause between listening sessions.
Michael Jayston, of course, has a splendid voice and reading style (which I am sure should rightfully be mine!) and which makes the audiobook a wonderfully easy listen. Thoroughly recommended!
This is a wonderfully written and superbly performed book. John Julius Norwich sets his cloth from the start in that this will not be a dry, erudite history but one written for reasonably intelligent, interested people. Frankly it has it all; intrigue, politics, murder. It is proof that fact can be stranger - and more compelling - than fiction. It is immensely listenable and keeps the attention. Like the best of thrillers, one is left waiting to see what on earth can come next.
I found this a hugely satisfying and compelling listen and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in this sort of history.
"The Popes - warts and all"
The popes have enbodied some of the best features of mankind, and some of the worst. Their colourful story is at least as entertaining and disgraceful as that of any line of monarchs, and this book tells it all rather well. The author shows no sign of giving the popes more respect than they are due, and for many that is almost no respect at all. Their often sordid story is told with understandably distaste but without sensationalising it or trying to apologise for it. Although a fairly long book it deals with a very long story, and seemed to pace things about right, so when (all too rarely) a pope concerns himself with matters of doctrine and nothing more, the narrative does not go into long tedious discussions of the points in question. In short, this is a very accessible history for the general reader. Michael Jayston as the narrator is brilliant, so of the whole package I can have nothing but praise.
Not only is this book packed full of authoritative knowledge and research but it also contains many humourous and outrageous passages of Papal misbehaviour and very 'un Christianlike' conduct. It is a book you can dip into or listen to straight through. Personally I began with the middle of the book and I am now discovering the beginning of the book. This is history made enjoyable and a book you can listen to over and over again.
"Fascinating but not enough depth"
I enjoyed the stories of the early popes and the way that the development of the papacy as we know it was portrayed. Against the background of various corruptions and perversions the good people in the church begin to hone their understanding of the place of the church in upholding and protecting the faith. It is necessarily brief in some cases but there is enough information to keep the listener engaged as the history unfolds. It is a book for a specialist listener rather than a casual one.
A beautifully balanced history of Christianity in the West. The narration by Jayston is exemplary, and the matter never anything but gripping. It can be a little confusing, and having a map of Italy to hand will help.
I'm not religious but I find Christian mythology and ecclesiastical history interesting. The papacy has been involved with many important events over the last 2000 years so this book gives a fascinating viewpoint on European history. Well researched and narrated.
"an endless series of facts"
Too much information crammed into these audio books. I guess that is inevitable with so many popes. A book focusing on a particular shorter period in history would work better for me.
"You couldn't make this stuff up"
What a mad, BONKERS epic story - no wait, it's all true! Such a thorough-going, painstaking super-long book, which, if you submitted it as a novel or screen play would be laughed out of the office. Wittily written, beautifully read. In fact, in the hands of another reader, it might have dragged a bit but MJ is masterful and brings it to life. It is quite hypnotising in fact
"Too many names!"
While much of this book was interesting, I had trouble following all the Popes, Kings and Emperors because of their repetitive and interchangeable names! Not the fault of the author, just my ability to concentrate.
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