Papal History Comes Alive In “Absolute Monarchs” By Julius Norwich

In early July I read a review for Absolute Monarchs, A History Of The Papacy by Julius Norwich.  The review hit every button for me with the promise of a grand narrative, a sweeping scope of history, intrigue about the Catholic Church, and the understanding that I would be learning along the way.

With a gift certificate from a small local bookstore on the Madison isthmus I placed my order.  Never have I felt more rewarded in making a selection based on one single book review.  From the placement of this book on the bestseller lists these past weeks others must have had the same reaction.

From my reading of history I have long viewed most popes over the centuries as being more consigned to hell than heaven.   Many of them have done horrid things that history holds them accountable for.  While reading this latest book on the papacy I have no reason to alter my thinking. If anything, if only emboldens it.

In no way am I anti-Catholic, nor is the book.  At the end of the day the Catholic Church, the popes, and history is what it is.  That it is laid bare in the book might be disconcerting for true followers of Rome, but that is not for me a point to try to counsel about.

The book is nothing short of a scholarly romp by Norwich who uses the huge canvass of time to showcase the themes of papal history by concentrating on important, unusual, heroic, or monstrous popes from the ages.  For those not familiar with Norwich, I think the best way would be to say he is the Brit’s version of our David McCullough.  Not bad, indeed.

I was going to wait until the book was finished to post a note on my blog, but in all truth I am bursting with enthusiasm on chapter 11 and the conflicts of Pope Hadrian IV and King Frederick.  Roughly in 1156 the two meet for the first time. 

The pomp and circumstance that was to have been undertaken, such as the king leading the pope’s horse by the bridle and holding the stirrup while the rider dismounted was not done.  Therefore the pope would not confer the kiss of peace on the king.   Frederick protested that he was not beholden to be the pope’s groom.  The friction between the Roman Empire and the papacy was showing a growing public tension.

For long-term purposes Frederick will give in, move the meeting of the two men to another site the following day, and will lead the pope’s horse in by the bridle.  The papal kiss is given.

There is no way in this short post to showcase the grand tale of the papacy within the pages of this book.  The raw thirst for power, some that is used appropriately such as with Gregory the Great, and others such as Pope Urban II who launched the First Crusade and will forever be marked.  There is no way to translate briefly the themes that run through the book with the evolving role of the popes, their attempt to master their own domain, and control the minds of restless people through the centuries.  There is no way to shorten the story of the love some in Constantinople had for philosophical discussions while the papacy held to a rigid lifeless structure of prescribed thinking.

As Bill Keller in The New York Times notes in his review the book is amazing–“with an impossibly immense cast: 265 popes (plus various usurpers and anti­popes), feral hordes of Vandals, Huns and Visigoths, expansionist emperors, Byzantine intriguers, Borgias and Medicis, heretic zealots, conspiring clerics, bestial inquisitors and more.”

The writing of the text is exquisite, and Norwich is often using dry wit to make the reader aware of the craziness of the times of which he writes.

“Queen Eleanor had accompanied her husband, Louis VII, on the (Second) Crusade.  It had not improved their marriage.”

In time she will divorce the French king,  marry Henry II of England, and will give birth to Richard the Lionheart.

The sweep of history pours off these pages, keeping me enthralled.

There are also countless pieces of strange trivia contained in the book, such as the cardinal that leaves a  conclave for the selection of the next pope as he does not wish to miss his dinner.

Nearly 500 pages of papal pride, avarice, hypocrisy, world history, enormous egos, battles and crusades, wars and peace combine to make this a must read for anyone that loves history.

I ask my readers to trust me on this one.

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