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This must have been a hard book to write, and it's therefore something of a hard book to review. There are a lot of Popes, over a long time, and this is not ultimately that long of a book. Something had to be sacrificed, and I supposed the author should get credit for not sacrificing any of the Popes. They are all here, and they all have their moment. They all get a biography and a judgement of their reign, even if it only lasts a few lines. Choices are then made about which Popes are the more important and/or interesting Popes, and these Popes get a little more attention. How were these greater Popes chosen? Not difficult, as they are the same Popes every historian considers important and/or interesting. The author makes no attempt to be neutral, as he is not a Catholic and is unapologetically modern in his outlook, but the judgments never take over. If a Pope kept mistresses, built palaces for each of his twenty nephews, started a few wars, and killed some Jews, the author goes ahead and calls that a "bad Pope" and moves on, although such a Pope might get some grudging respect for building a fine library or reorganizing some bureaucracy. If a Pope does warrant a lot of contextual history, that history is almost invariably an account of the wars in which they were involved. And that is the book, pretty much: Names, dates, wars, and the judgments of an elderly British aristocrat. No wonder The Economist reviewed it favorably! It is a fascinating story. It would take a hamfisted historian indeed to make a history of the Papacy seem dull. But couldn't we have had a little less completeness? Couldn't some of the Popes been clumped together in their insignificance, freeing up space for the better ones? There are occasions where you wish he would just let loose with a little more of the dry wit, and stray a little further from century after century of the relentless succession of very old men. When he does do these things, this is a fantastic book. The accounts of the creation of the Holy Roman Empire, the lengthy and unexpected discussion of the myth of Pope Joan, and the delicate, merciless vivisection of Pius XII are worth the price of admission alone. These are but some of the many brilliant parts. The rest, unfortunately, is just history.
14 of 14 people found this review helpful
I really enjoyed this book. I am a huge history buff and just finished listening to Mike Duncan's podcast series The History of Rome, which gave me little tantalizing bits of the early history of the Christian church and this audiobook was my chance to learn more.
And I got exactly what I came for. I cannot believe how much information there is in this book. I'm already considering listening to it all over again just to absorb more of it. It covers literally every pope ever, from the most obscure to most well-known, from anti-popes (yes, that is a real thing) to the genuinely pious to the most despotic and decadent rulers, and, most importantly, it covers them with a real air of neutrality and academic distance. This is not a pro-church book, but it's not an anti-church book either. It provides perspective that is painstakingly fair, even when that makes a famously "good" pope look bad, or, in some cases, finds reason to redeem even the most notorious popes. Of course, everyone goes into reading this book with their own biases and that colours their feelings about how the author portrays the church. But as an outsider myself but someone very interested in church history nonetheless, I found it dealt with something that is an emotional subject for some people in a very fair way. There was no attempt to be nice just because the truth might offend some people, but there was also clearly no agenda to smear the church either. Like any human beings, the popes all had both their faults and their strengths and this book makes sure to tell you about all of them. It holds nothing back. I can see why that has created some unhappy listeners and negative reviews, but it is the reviewers' own biases about the church being challenged that they find offensive, not the reality of history that the book provides.
The historical perspective is excellent. I would say that it would help immensely to have some background knowledge of European politics and history to understand what was going on at the time, but the author goes to great lengths to explain things directly related to the popes' reigns when necessary (a major example being the politics surrounding Napoleon Bonaparte and the unification of Italy, among others), so it's not required. Being a frequent student of history but mostly studying Britain, France, and their overseas colonies, this was a whole new perspective for me and I learned a lot about German, Austrian, and Italian history that I only knew snippets of before. I would have liked more details on the Crusades, but it does explain them in the context of the popes. This book gave me exactly what it advertised.
I did not rate the narration 5/5 only because being a French speaker I noticed some mispronounced words that bothered me. However, I admit it could be a North American/British difference, since the narrator is British and I am Canadian.
I could not have asked this book to provide any more than it did. It had not only the overall information, which I expected, but also smaller details that were fascinating and kept me interested all the time. I am a constant consumer of non-fiction, so I suppose I don't bore easily either way, but I found I was listening to the book in the car on my commute and then coming home and telling my husband things I had heard that had stuck in my head as interesting enough to share. Overall, I found the fact that the papacy never really functioned as a religious institution - rather, it was another political player vying for power in medieval Europe - to be the biggest take-home from 20 hours of listening. Learning about it is like learning about the kings of England or France, or the emperors of China. It's a political story - the only difference is that it held its power through religion rather than through military strength.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone looking to learn more about the history of the Catholic church. However, don't go into it thinking it will tell the history the same way the church would, or that it will tell the stories of the saints without questioning the mythology's authenticity. It won't. It's a history book, and it does an excellent job telling the historical truth in a remarkably neutral, detailed, and honest way.
6 of 6 people found this review helpful