John Norwich, The Popes: A History (2011) RRP $20.00
Lord Norwich, famous for his epic histories of Venice and Byzantium, has taken on another daunting subject – the Papacy. The Byzantine Empire lasted, with some interruptions, about 1000 years. But there has been a Pope for twice that long – about 265 of them in direct succession from St Peter.
While lavishing 3 volumes on the rise and fall of Byzantium, Norwich limited himself to one fairly short book on an institution caught up in the main currents of Mediterranean and European history since about 60AD.
The results are somewhat modest. I expected an evocative narrative glittering with accounts of the early Christians, their rise to power under the Emperor Constantine, the hubris of the medieval popes slowly melting before the Reformation and ending with their successors’ efforts to negotiate the Enlightenment and modernism.
But Norwich’s heart just wasn’t in it. He clearly loved Venice and was enthralled by Byzantium. But the Popes get treated like freaks in a badly-run asylum. To be fair, some of them were greedy, evil or mad. Stephen VI had the body of his predecessor, Formosus, exhumed and put on trial (they had not been on good terms). Serguis III had his two predecessors executed. John VIII was bludgeoned to death by a relative because his attempt to poison him worked too slowly. John XII ran a brothel in the Papal Palace. Pius XII did nothing about the Holocaust. But I digress.
Norwich tells us nothing about the stability the Papacy offered at times when western Europe seemed on the brink of collapsing, the employment opportunities if offered or the communities it supported. It is true many popes appeared more interested in power and money than saving souls. But institutions cannot be run on love alone. Wielding spiritual and political power is expensive. Norwich ignores these lessons in “realpolitik” and dwells far too often on trivia. So I was disappointed. What other area history offered so much but received so little ? This book deserves an audience. But not a very big one.