A List of Popes in Book Form

Chatto & Windus published The Popes by John Julius Norwich. The Popes: That amounts to almost 300 individuals for a single book. You might guess that the result is less than impressive. Add some personal idiosyncrasy by the author, and the end product becomes surpassing strange. 




John Julius Norwich’s book The Popes purports to be history. There is one facet of the book that definitely is history: The first trap he falls into is using 19th century historical prejudice to name and number his popes. To follow these prejudices is taking the easy way out of a fix, and the book is all about ease of writing and not about hard to find facts. 


19th century historical convention divides popes (and kings and emperors, too) into the ‘real’ popes and into ‘counter’ or ‘anti’ popes. The line drawn by historians was arbitrary and resided solely on the fact of which one lost or won, or which survived the longer. At the time, though, things tended to be much murkier. These lines of succession don’t do anyone the favor of becoming straight just by imposing a wished for order by hind-sight; they certainly don’t straighten out for Norwich. 


Going by what was accepted history writing 200 years ago has the further drawback of plunging the author into the trap of tamely following the slanderous history writing commissioned by successors and survivors. Instead of originality, the book trudges tamely the way so many others have before it. Reading along lines you already know isn't always the worst thing, especially if a few gems are hidden among the usual suspects. But it doesn't give a thrilling read, either. 


Squeezing in a chapter about each of the popes and ‘counter-‘popes leaves little space for each of them in any informative way. In that little space, the author even manages to include a summary of that pope’s live. It is just unfortunate that the little remaining space leaves no room for him to give the facts upon which he based his summary. 


The book is not all bad: If you are interested in a collection of anecdotes (and sometimes even historically proven anecdotes) about popes across the centuries, it offers amusing reading. Don’t try to read it front to back in one go, though (my fault), it just becomes tedious and repetitious. The amount of slaughter, rape, and murderous succession is just a bit much if taken all in one go. 


Norwich states in his book that he left out any musings on religion from his writing. Huh? How do you write about the leaders of one of the most important Christian sects without writing about their religion? Try describing the conquest of the Americas without referring to religion! As a result, the book is strangely bloodless despite all the slaughter and many an event seems to be coming out of limbo rather than logical or religious thinking (or should that be an Act of God?). 


What you get is a something that is too long for a mere list; the information contained is too general to be a reference book, and for history the content is too anecdotal. Norwich has thereby not only managed a book about the Popes without religion, but also without a purpose.