The Popes: A History, John Julius Norwich, ISBN 9780701182908
This book is the most amazing parade of saints, monsters, lunatics, nonentities, warriors, reformers, reactionaries, pirates, jokes, giants, antipopes and so many, many nephews.
It starts, naturally enough, with Peter, taking as read that he existed at all and taking a hard look at the evidence for his presence in Rome (concluding that he was) and foundation of any kind of Church organization (probably not). The author’s interpretation then is that the role attributed to Peter has more to do with later Church politics than anything that may have been in the first century.
For the next couple of centuries there is not all that much to say about popes; only with Constantine and the Edict Of Milan do things really pick up again, in particular with the great popes of the fifth century doing what they could to defend Rome and the Church against invaders and heretics (the two united in the person of Alaric, as it happens). Matters continue badly downhill in the first half of the sixth century, with Byzantine interference in the form of the kidnap of Pope Vigilius. Although he was initially little inconvenienced by this - and able to organize grain supplies for Rome while stopped in Catania - over the course of the subsequent decade Justinian managed to wear him down over the doctrinal questions of the day. A foretaste perhaps of the medieval struggles between Popes and Emperors, with the Greeks playing the part of the Germans, and far worse for the papacy than simple conflict: its prestige, we are told, “lay in tatters”, and it takes Gregory The Great to turn things around.
You may recall that Gregory is depicted in Palermo cathedral, and I alluded to his puns. As it happens Non Angli sed Angeli is apparently spurious; instead, it seems, he said:
He was told that they came form the island of England, and were called Angles. “Right,”, said he, “for they have angelic faces, and it is meet that such should be co-heirs with the Angels in heaven.”
He declines to quote two further Gregorian puns recorded by Bede, but happily I can rectify this omission:
’What is the name’, he asked, ‘of the kingdom from which they have been brought?’ He was told that the men of the kingdom were called Deiri. ‘Deiri’, he replied, ‘De ira! good! snatched from the wrath of Christ and called to his mercy. And what is the name of the king of the land?’ He was told that it was Ælle; and playing on the name, he said, ‘Alleluia! the praise of God the Creator must be sung in those parts!’
The author is clearly very impressed with Gregory, painting him as a superb administrator and an effective missionary, and introducing the reader to the marvellous term dégringolade to describe the state the ancient world amidst which he struggled.
And so it continues, skipping the less interesting Popes the better to focus on the brilliant and the monstrous. The upshot is a coherent history not just of the Popes but to some extent also of Europe and the world tightly focused through the lens of the papacy, enlivened by many anecdotes.
There is a thoughtful chapter on Pope Joan, who didn’t exist, and the curious construction of the sedia curules (papal seats). The discussion of the antipope John XXIII includes one of my favourite quotes from Gibbon: “The most scandalous charges were suppressed: the Vicar of Christ was only accused of piracy, murder, rape, sodomy and incest”. And I cannot resist quoting Norwich on Luther: “Scholars now tell us that Luther never nailed it to the door, but distributed it in the usual way. They would.”
The book is bang up to date, covering Benedict XVI but refusing to draw firm conclusions while his papacy is yet unfinished. The author worries that the book is overlong (declining to add many extra pages discussing in detail the mysterious death of John Paul I) but is never dull, and to my mind is in no need of reduction.