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4.4 out of 5 stars
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4.4 out of 5 stars
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 18 March 2011
This book would be best described as a short history of the position of Pope and some of the personalities who have held it. If you compare it to a book about the Roman Emperors say, or the British Royal Family, then you'll get some idea of the vastness of the subject matter and the difficulty of distilling it into 500 odd pages then becomes obvious. So it is not exhaustive, it is not particularly detailed but it is very, very readable and engages one's interest throughout. The author is apparently a well known agnostic and so has given, at least to my non-catholic mind, a reasoned and fair assessment of the various, disparate men who have held the post. There are one or two jarring moments however that pass without further reference or source quoted because although there is a bibliography there are few footnotes and no endnotes with specific reference to many of the statements made.

Some of the author's own comments such as, "A strong vein of anti-Semitism had always run through catholic thinking" when discussing the Vatican's response to the Holocaust while being backed up by a list of organisations that apparently professed such views, will no doubt be questioned by some.

Obviously some popes get more attention than others, especially if there has been some scandal attached, but all in all this serves as a decent introduction to the office of Pope and will ignite interest in seeking out some more detailed works.

I do hope that potential readers will not let their religion (or lack of same) prevent them reading this book as this would be like not reading a book about American Presidents because you are not from the USA.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 23 August 2012
This is almost as much a history of the last 2000 years, particularly of Europe, as it is a history of the Papacy. John Julius Norwich has taken a chronological approach to this work, starting with St Peter, and proceeding through each Pope, and anti - pope, to the present day papacy of Benedict XVI. Whilst enjoyable and informative reading, this book made it rather clear to me how much of European history is vague or unknown to me, and has definitely prompted further reading for the future. Inevitably in a book of just over 450 pages, each Pope and each period only receives a few pages at the most. For example the period of the French Revolution, and the advent of Napoleon, both with enormous implications for Catholicism and for the Popes of the time, is covered in just 10 pages.

There were of course, all kinds of Popes - over 280 to date - and they are nearly all described in these pages - some were concerned primarily with the spiritual, some were much more interested in temporal power and diplomacy. Some were treated abominably, or as puppets, by the Kings, Emperors and Princess of the day, some were held in reverence and awe. Norwich does not have a particular axe to grind and from my limited knowledge of European history it appears that he is being fair throughout - generally sympathetic to Catholisism, and admiring of many individual popes, whilst not failing to criticise those whose actions weakened the Roman Catholic Church's moral or political standing.

This is a an interesting book, which for me at least, will open up further lines of study - just ordered a book on the italian Renaissance as a result.
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on 18 March 2011
I would highly recommend this book as I think it is a readable and very enjoyable introduction to the subject. The conflicts and difficulties in establishing the primacy of the Vatican are brought out particularly strongly. The authorial voice is lively and engaging, and the coverage of topics cannot be detailed, but I would say is adequate and well-balanced. It is written in a fast-paced narrative style - and it has really sparked my interest in the topic.
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on 22 June 2012
I'd been looking for a book that would give me a gentle introduction to the Papacy and the Popes that have occupied the highest seat in the Vatican and found this gem. It is a beautifully written account of the history of the Papacy and a brief introduction to the Popes. The writer has created a beautifully written narrative that is well informed, and in places humourous, to provide the reader with a fascinating, succinct account of this most fascinating institution.

What I liked about this book was that it was not a turgid read, it was quite easy going, thoroughly readable and gave enough information about most of the occupants of the seat of St Peter to whet you're appetite. The other thing I liked about it was that you did not need to have a religious background to engage with the book. the author is clear in the introduction that he has not written in detail about each and every Pope, that would be a heavy going read, but that he has selected information of interest about the more remarkable Popes; some were enlightened thinkers who took the Papacy forward in great leaps, others were narrow of mind and paralysed the Papacy. The author delights in telling the stories of the good, the bad and the ugly and some of the stories will certainly cause an eyebrow or two to be raised.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and learnt a tremendous amount from it. I would heartily recommend this book, and hope you will enjoy it as much as I did.
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on 17 June 2011
This is a great book full of information, This book taught me so much about the Popes and religion in general. The book is well researched and contains all the information needed. John provides great insight into every Pope, however the main chapters focus on the most influential Popes and those that have really provided some historical importance. The book overall is great and has inspired me to look into more books by John Julius Norwich who seems to be a great author and has some great historical books.
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on 24 April 2011
Viscount Norwich has written many history books, and his skill as a writer is evident in all of them.
In this work, he is writing more as a compiler than as a direct researcher: he is very dependent on the works of others for his facts - something he fully acknowledges-, and though he overlays these with his own views and his great narrative skill, that dependence on others shows in this book more than usually. Given the range of material he has had to work through, it would be astonishing if he had time to assess the value of everything he uses, and to check the facts that he passes on. Sad to say, too many factual errors have slipped through for comfort.
The following are chosen just for illustration, rather than with any aim of completeness. Luke is not regarded as the first evangelist by any reputable scholar. Nor is Polycarp "suspected" of writing the Pauline epistles, or any of them. Norwich writes that he can find no church in Perugia dedicated to S. Lorenzo; it's the duomo (cathedral), as thirty seconds with Google will reveal.
Then, he says that Victor II is buried in the Mausoleum of Theodoric at Ravenna. This is an interesting one, because it is repeated over and over as a "fact" by multiple authors, all of whom rely on a single report that his body was laid there to avoid trouble - which may just mean a temporary stay. So one can't totally blame Norwich for repeating it: but none of these scholars have checked what is available about the Mausoleum. If they had, they'd soon find the truth: the Mausoleum of Theodoric is empty, and has been for some hundreds of years. It has got a beautiful porphyry coffin, true; but the absence of a lid means any visitor can see for themselves that the guidebooks are right. It's not clear if anyone has ever been buried there, but there's no-one at home now, nor is there any clue I'm aware of as to where Victor II's body is.
This lack of care is uncharacteristic of Norwich, but it does mean that the book can't be relied on. He's generally fine on the Popes that he writes about at length, but those he skips over he did skip over, so to speak.
For a reliable and very readable book, one can do worse than do as he did, and read Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes (Yale Nota Bene) which is one of his sources.
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on 9 April 2011
The Popes: A History

Beautifully written, lively and extremely readable without sacrificing authenticity, what a difference from so many books these days. Whatever one thinks of popes,the limpid prose (so easy to read)and the unobtrusive research are a real joy. Marvellous.
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on 29 January 2013
A while ago I read "Saints & Sinners" which was a history of the Papacy written by a Catholic. It was interesting, but all too often refused to mention anything negative and to do a proper history of the Holy See you have to accept that for every Gregory the Great you have someone underwhelming like Benedict IX. No one but the most myopic believer can seriously believe the medieval papacy was whiter than white, some Popes bought their position, many had a string of mistresses and others led armies- the muddling of spiritual and temporal matters led to corruption that simply cannot be whitewashed away.

But to write exclusively on the dark politics of the Papacy would be just as wrong as making out that it's always been run with nothing but the noblest values in mind. What this book does is show the good and the bad. Add to that some wry asides and a story that is masterfully summarised (most Popes could warrant their own books) and you have an essential book that covers 2,000 years of Western history.

If you liked this review, you can find me on Twitter as @HistoryGems
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VINE VOICEon 7 August 2012
I can't find fault with this book. It is just what I was looking for - a popular history of the papacy. The author doesn't attempt to hide his mistrust of that organisation or its incumbents, but I tend to agree with him. This book is a series of potted biographies of notable popes - some very wicked ones, too. But it never gets boring. One would think it might get repetitive, but surprisingly it didn't. From an atheist's point of view the papacy is still fascinating due to its rich history if nothing else. There are many juicy anecdotes, too, and I fancy reading this may help in pub quizzes!
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 10 September 2011
I'm not qualified to say whether the author's interpretations of history are correct but this book certainly seemed so to me. There is an immense about of detail with many references and footnotes listed. It's a credit to the author's lively writing that I found the book so engaging as I have little interest in popes as such, except that, rather like the lives of monarchs, they provide a framework for telling history across the millenniums. Rather like monarchs many of the popes were despicable and did more harm than good, but one has to acknowledge that they have had a great influence in shaping history for good or ill. I found the parts about the early and more recent popes more interesting, particularly the period from the beginning of the 20th century to the present day. There is an audio version of the book, but I think either a printed-copy or eBook is probably preferable as one can skim the bits that aren't so personally interesting and, with so many unfamiliar names, I found actually seeing the words helped me take in the information better.
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