Book review: The Popes, a history by John Julius Norwich

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The stories are glorious: after all, there are almost 2,000 years of them. Here's Arius, the heretic who got his heresies sung and whistled in the streets (he wrote songs about them); and Marozia, who was remarkably the lover, mother and grandmother of (different) popes, not to mention the woman who decided who would be pope; and Boniface, the pope accused of idolatry because he put up so many statues of himself.

The stories are glorious: after all, there are almost 2,000 years of them. Here's Arius, the heretic who got his heresies sung and whistled in the streets (he wrote songs about them); and Marozia, who was remarkably the lover, mother and grandmother of (different) popes, not to mention the woman who decided who would be pope; and Boniface, the pope accused of idolatry because he put up so many statues of himself. The legendary Pope Joan passes through, although Norwich is properly sceptical that any woman in full canonicals would give birth unexpectedly in the Rome streets.

Pope Formosus dies but gets dug up, dressed up and put on trial for wanting to be pope, after which the body is thrown in the Tiber, and earthquakes follow; John XXIII is tried live for "piracy, murder, rape, sodomy and incest", but as Edward Gibbon wrote with his usual dust-dry wit, "the most scandalous charges were suppressed". A bit more Gibbon would, as always, have been fun.

Celibacy doesn't always seem to have been much of an issue, whatever a pope's sexual tastes; by the 1490s the friar Savonarola denounced the whole church as a "prostitute who sits upon the throne of Solomon and signals to the passers-by… " Neither does piety seem to have been at a premium. Julius II, Michelangelo's patron, presided over the surrender of Venice's diplomats, which was serious business, but skipped the mass that followed because he "never attended these long services".

The story of the papacy is stuffed with monsters, absurdities, wonders and politics, just as you would expect from any human institution. John Julius Norwich promises lovely big books: a long fireside read, decent erudition, a fluid and elegant style, wit and the intriguing kind of detail.

It worked for Byzantium, for Venice, for Norman Sicily and, perhaps a bit less well, for the Mediterranean; but the popes are a different matter. There are so many, their stories so various that at times history goes by like a Disneyland ride: beautifully lit, cleverly detailed, comfortable, but so brisk we only glimpse what we want to know.

For the story of the papacy is part history of a kingdom and at least three empires, part philosophy class, a strong line in urban renewal and patronage of the arts, and touches of sodomy, incest, Italian politics, French politics, fraud, murder and diplomacy.

Norwich, who says he's an "agnostic Protestant", with "absolutely no axe to grind", doesn't really have a point of view on all this, beyond wonder that it all survived so long.So he's written an essentially political history when his subject demands at least a bit of attention to theology, world view and belief: so we see the world through the Pope's eyes. That alone makes them something more than megalomaniac medieval princes.

Popes have variously tried to run the church in Rome, to run the church from Rome, to run the church from Avignon, to run the Papal States in Italy, to run all other churches, to deny all other churches are churches at all (the line of the present incumbent), to run the world on behalf of the church (and God) and to establish that disagreement or disobedience is mortal sin. Gregory VII in the 1070s reckoned he could make and unmake emperors, and he also told the world that all popes are by definition saints. This does seem to be taking the notion of apostolic succession a bit far, all things considered.

There have been austere popes, pious popes, but also the appalling John XII who discouraged lady penitents from visiting the tomb of St Peter by raping them as they prayed (he didn't seem to think they would find this off-putting.)

Then there were popes who seemed to think they were God's Sultans: Clement VI (1342-52) for example. His Avignon court cost ten times the French king's court at Paris, the poet Petrarch said "prostitutes swarmed on the papal beds" and he bought friends with cash or favours like a Saudi princeling; "A pope," he wonderfully said, "should make his subjects happy".

The parade is endlessly interesting, but sometimes worrying. John Julius Norwich does libraries, but he doesn't do archives; and as the Vatican archives are organised and opened, a laborious process, the story very often changes. Here are the Templars, riding through to their doom: accused of Satanism, cat worship, and riding pillion on another knight's horse. Norwich seems to think the French king wanted their money, which is true, and the Pope might have saved them, which is more doubtful. Deep in the papal archives, Barbara Frale found papers which suggest what was actually happening: a French king threatening to do a Henry VIII but 200 years early, to create a French church that did not answer to the Pope. To stop that, the Pope had to do what the king wanted.

And as for all those dubious accusations, the Pope had already absolved the Templars; he knew their more bizarre rites were a kind of hazing, to make sure the knights would obey instantly in the field. Or so the archives suggest. The trouble started when newcomer knights went to confess to priests outside the order. Templars told Templars they had not done mortal sin, even spitting on the cross, if they were properly repentant. Franciscans, however, were judgmental.On this roller-coaster ride there's hardly time to stop for that kind of detail, but the details sometimes do change the whole story.

Enter the Borgias, going to extremes: a Borgia doesn't just ravage and debauch, a Borgia ends up with a face so ruined by syphilis he has to wear a mask. A Borgia pope, mind you, had to bluff from a position of great weakness - Borgias were Catalans and so foreigners in Rome, although a family friend did say that Spaniards were "most like Italians of all barbarians" - and the family's sulphurous reputation owes everything to being succeeded by a mortal enemy.

Still, it would be a great pity not to include all the variegated, multicoloured sins of which the clan was accused, even if they're not exactly proven.

Here's Galileo, going to trial because he offends the dignity of Urban VIII by giving all the official papal arguments about the sun revolving round the earth to a bona fide idiot, and in print. A furious Pope gets him banned under a kind of theological control order. The church resists science, and the Pope, once Galileo's friend and protector, turns against him.

The trouble is, since Pietro Redondi started shuffling through the Vatican archives, the story doesn't seem quite so simple. It now seems the real issue was between Pope on one side and the Black Pope, the Jesuit leader, on the other. They'd been scrapping for a long time over assorted issues, including the castrati that Urban loved to hear in the Sistine Chapel choir and which the Jesuits said, moralistically, made Rome "just like Constantinople".

The Jesuits had a grievance against Galileo which was, in some ways, even more fundamental than discussing the place of the Earth in the universe: they disapproved of his tendency to atomic theory. Start doubting the nature of matter, and you never know where the arguments will lead; but probably not to transubstantiation. So the Jesuits wanted Galileo tried and Urban, far from being insulted by his friend, tried to protect him by insisting on the minor charges which wouldn't take him to the stake.

And here's Pio Nono (1846-78), the pope who lost the Papal States to the rushing flood of the Risorgimento and Italian unification: who started off so liberal that his predecessor said even his cats were liberals and ended condemning the notion that the pope should ever compromise with "progress, liberalism and recent civilisation". To him we owe the doctrine of papal infallibility, toned down to cover only the most important statements about dogma; and not, on the face of it, entirely unreasonable. Most religions reckon their spiritual leader, when laying down dogma, is likely to be right.

But Norwich is tactful about Pio Nono and the Jews, and too much so. He says the Pope stopped the idiotic notion of making all Rome's Jews attend a Christian lecture once a week, presumably on the off chance of conversion. And so the Pope did.He also had a run-in with the Rothschilds when he needed money, became convinced the Jews thought "they have already become masters of the world" (the proof was that they didn't have to go back to ghettoes every night) and by the end of his life was calling Jews variously "dogs" and "the synagogue of Satan".

David Kertzer found all this in the Vatican archives. This matters because Norwich comes eventually to the Vatican and the Holocaust, after saying that of course the church and the Papacy can't be blamed for anti-Semitism in general. Kertzer would disagree. He says the Church didn't see Jews as equal citizens, thought they should be kept apart from the rest of society, but at least "Christian charity and Christian theology forbade good Christians to round them up and murder them". A few pages on the 1940s, and what the Pope could and couldn't do, and what he refused to do, aren't all the story, or even most of it.

As entertainment, as a book of cues to find out more, The Popes is sharp, fun and wonderfully energetic through its many, many pages. The history, though, is in the archives still.