The Popes: A History by John Julius Norwich

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The Popes: A History by John Julius Norwich

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: This is a fascinating read as it nips through 2,000 years and 280 Popes from the Apostle, St Peter, to today's Pope Benedict, encompassing saints, oddballs and megalomaniacs in all their forms. A book written for history lovers and anyone who has ever marvelled at the audacity and variety of mankind.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 528 Date: April 2012
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0099565871

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Historian John Julius Norwich (or Rt Hon/Viscount John Julius Norwich, to give him his full title) doesn't write the sort of history books one associates with school days. He doesn't do dry and dusty. In fact The Popes: A History isn't just a history book but a romp through the ages with some great trivia nuggets scattered throughout the informative gold.

The first thing the reader will notice is there is no such thing as a single Papal personality type. All the Popes have been as varied in outlook, ethics, degrees of piety (and, indeed humanity and levels of goodness) as any cross-section of society, from St Peter (acknowledged as the first Pope and directly commissioned by Jesus) right up to the current Pope, Benedict XVI.

Just picking a name from the book as random example, let's consider the case of the unfortunate 4th century Pope Sylvester. He didn't exactly have an easy ride putting his foot down and excommunicating the heretic Arius. Unfortunately Arius was such a good self-publicist, that he propagated his heresy, even after his excommunication, by writing the equivalent of pop songs and jingles around it. Even after Arius had forcibly departed the Catholic church, Pope Sylvester heard the catchy ditties where ever he went. Then there was the legendary English Pope John (855-857). He gave everyone a bit of a shock when he gave birth to a baby during a papal procession. Yes, Pope John was actually Pope Joan. Giving birth in public doesn't seem to have been a good career move as it definitely led to his... ok... her downfall and possibly (depending on who you believe) her death. I'll leave you to discover what the author thinks about the accounts of her life. Personally I hope he's wrong but he does write with a certain assurance and authority born out of knowledge, so it's difficult to argue against.

If you're more interested in Popes' saintly deeds, then they're well represented too. Pius X, for example, filled the Vatican with homeless refugees following the Messina earthquake of 1908. Or Benedict XV, perhaps, who exchanged and repatriated 65,000 wounded POWs during the First World War. There's also the Godly first monk Pope, Gregory the Great. He didn't want to be Pope at all (a refreshing change considering the number before and since who have used the title for their own rather than their faith's ends) but was persuaded and ended up as de facto Governor of the whole of Italy too. What was the reason behind his unofficial promotion? Romanius, the true Governor, didn't like him so went into a sulk and refused to do the job.

The list of interesting characters continues, fascinating and fast, each page informally peppered with the author's personality. He even likes a good rant, complaining, for instance, that the Bible's New Testament is a bit hazy where hard evidence for the historian is concerned. (I'm sure many others will agree with that.) He has also come up with a useful touch; each page has the year to which it refers written along the top so that the researcher can just dip in at whatever stage they'd like. So however you enjoy your history, be it rollicking, historically evidenced, to be read at one sitting or just something in which to dangle your metaphorical toe from time to time, this book may well be a good addition to your reading list.

I would like to thank the publisher for giving Bookbag a copy of this book for review.

If you have enjoyed this and would like to read more of John Julius Norwich's brand of accessible history, perhaps you'd like to try A History of England in 100 Places: From Stonehenge to the Gherkin.

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Buy The Popes: A History by John Julius Norwich at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Popes: A History by John Julius Norwich at


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