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Heroes and rogues

Absolute Monarchs examines the history of popes

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November 22nd, 2011

There have been heroes and rogues. Good guys and not so good ones. Starting with St. Peter, the papacy has endured for almost two thousand years and is the oldest continuing absolute monarchy in the world. Holding sway over millions worldwide, the Pope is known as the Vicar of Christ on earth, the infallible interpreter of divine revelation. In Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy (Random House, 2011), accomplished British historian John Julius Norwich recounts the fascinating and little known tale of popes through the ages. As Norwich states in the introduction, he is not Catholic and his book is a historical look at the history of popes rather than a theological one. Not for the faint-hearted, Absolute Monarchs is a bold, brassy account of politics, scandals, sex, and violence. While the colorful escapades of power-hungry pontiffs did not always serve the church well, they do make for some interesting stories.

Pope Joan

One of the most interesting accounts concerns the possibility of a woman pope. The historical records are a bit sketchy and Norwich contends that the story is most likely pure fiction, but there is some evidence of her existence. Some time around the year 855, an Englishman named John was unanimously elected pope. As the story goes, John was actually a female disguised as a man and brought to Athens by her lover. There she was educated and soon her keen intellect distinguished her among the bishops and scholars who championed her ascent to the papacy. During her reign, however, she became pregnant and not knowing that the birth was imminent, she delivered the child while riding in a papal procession. She died soon after giving birth, but her legacy lived on. The exact spot of the birth was in a narrow lane in Rome where for centuries a statue in her likeness holding a child stood. Because of the scandal and the subsequent embarrassment to the church, papal processions avoided that particular narrow lane. And for nearly four hundred years after her death, part of the ritual of selecting a pope included an anatomical check to ensure that all successive popes were male.

Scoundrels and champions

Anyone who enjoyed the Showtime mini-seriesThe Borgiaswill recognize the characters described in the chapter entitled The Monsters. As Norwich tells it, Rodrigo Borgia was an intelligent and charismatic man who became Pope Alexander VI. What he lacked, says Norwich, was the slightest glimmering of religious feeling. He made no secret of the fact that he was in the Church for what he could get out of it and he got a very great deal. Not everyone inAbsolute Monarchsis a scoundrel. Norwich gives equal time to the champions of the papacy like Vincenzo Gioacchino Raffaele Luigi Pecci who became Pope Leo XIII in 1878. Considered to be the first modern pope, Leo s reign saw the impact of the industrial revolution on society. Best known for his encyclicalRerum Navarum, Leo reached out to the working class and introduced programs of social action. The oldest Pope, Leo died at the age of 93, lucid as he had ever been and very nearly as energetic, says Norwich. He had given the papacy a new image and a prestige greater than it had enjoyed for many centuries.

Modern intrigue

Not until the final chapter does Norwich bring the focus ofAbsolute Monarchsinto modern times; but like a skilled playwright, he saves one of his most interesting plot twists for the very end. In his account of the brief reign of Pope John Paul I, Norwich posits the possibility that the quiet, gentile pontiff who reigned for just 33 days may have been murdered. It s easy to conclude that a nearly 500-page book of this sort would be academic in other words dry and boring butAbsolute Monarchsis nothing of the sort. As Norwich plainly states in the introduction, I am no scholar, and my books are not works of scholarship. He goes on to say that Absolute Monarchs is for the average reader who would simply like to know a little more about the background of what is, by any account, an astonishing story. michele.harris@erickson.com

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