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Publisher's Summary

Well known for his histories of Norman Sicily, Venice, the Byzantine Empire and the Mediterranean, John Julius Norwich has now turned his attention to the oldest continuing institution in the world, tracing the papal line down the centuries from St Peter himself – traditionally (though by no means historically) the first pope – to the present Benedict XVI. Of the 280-odd holders of the supreme office, some have unques­tionably been saints; others have wallowed in unspeakable iniquity. One was said to have been a woman – and an English woman at that – her sex being revealed only when she improvidently gave birth to a baby during a papal procession. Pope Joan never existed (though the Church long believed she did) but many genuine pontiffs were almost as colourful: Formosus, for example, whose murdered corpse was exhumed, clothed in pontifical vestments, propped up on a throne and subjected to trial; or John XII of whom Gibbon wrote: 'his rapes of virgins and widows deterred female pilgrims from visiting the shrine of St Peter lest, in the devout act, they should be violated by his successor.’
Others earned respect, including Leo the Great who protected Rome from the Huns and the Goths, and Gregory the Great who struggled manfully with the emperor for supremacy. After calamitous crusades, and 70-year exile in Avignon, came the larger-than-life pontiffs of the Renassiance – the Borgias and the Medicis ('God has given us the papacy; let us now enjoy it'). Pius VII had to contend with Napoleon, Pius IX to steer the papacy through the storm of the Risorgimento. John Julius Norwich brings the story up-to-date with lively investigations into the anti-semitism of Pius XII, the possible murder of John Paul I and the phenomenon of the Polish John Paul II. From here the glories of the Byznatium to the decay of Rome, from the Albigensian Heresy to sexual misbehaviour within the Church today, the pace never slackens. John Julius Norwich, an agnostic with no religious axe to grind, has a thrilling and important tale to tell – and in this rich, authoritative book he does it full justice.
©2011 John Julius Norwich (P)2011 Random House Audio Go
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful
4 out of 5 stars
By Clare on 09-22-12

Good overall

Much of this book was interesting and would serve as a good introduction, though, as I have studied the Popes at some length, I am not really this books stated audience. Norwich didn't appear to desire to emphasis some of the more ridiculous aspects of the Medieval Popes (Popes and anti-Popes, Kings and anti-Kings, let me show you them), which, if I'm honest, are some of my favourite parts of Papal history. The ridiculousness of the medieval Church is rather fun for obvious reasons and also as, ironically, it is the point at which the Papacy begins to establish itself as a temporal power.

I disagreed with some of his conclusions with regards to the Renaissance Popes however. For better and more specific information on the Borgias for instance, try Christopher Hibberts book and the biographies of Lucrezia and Cesare by Sarah Bradford. Hibbert also has a decent book on the Medici, which I would recommend over Paul Stratherns which is, in my opinion, a bit homophobic. The Medici family had a number of gay men, including Leo X, so this is significant.

However, it was a good overall summary of Papal history, but one should always read (or listen) with an open and critical mind.

The performance of Michael Jayston was very, very good and kept the attention very well. I will certainly go through and look for more of his work.

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1 of 1 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars
By Neil Chisholm on 12-10-11

A fascinating history for all history lovers

Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

Yes. It puts into context many historical events

What about Michael Jayston’s performance did you like?

Michael Jayston read clearly and with liveliness but always maintaining a certain learnedness appropriate for the nature of the book

Any additional comments?

This history puts into context many historical events although by its very nature covering such a huge amount of time it glosses over many things. It is however a great read for catholics and non-catholics alike.

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1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful
5 out of 5 stars
By R on 09-15-11

A Stroll through 2,000 Years of European History

Regardless of one's opinion of the office of Pope, what cannot be denied is that over the course of the last two thousand years or so, the long list of saints & sinners, the devout & the debauched, the rogues & villains & heroes who have occupied the position have, in one way or another, had a huge influence on European history.

John Julius Norwich's 'History of the Popes' is a wonderful introduction to the main points of interest and provides a nice perspective on aspects of European history that you might not be aware of; the circumstances in Rome at the time of Henry VIII's petition for divorce from Katherine of Aragon being a fine example (the surprise wasn't that the Pope turned him down but, given the circumstances in Rome, that Henry even bothered trying in the first place!).

Covering, as it does, such an enormous expanse of time, it is necessarily brief in respect of some of the more dull or brief pontificates, but most of them seem to get at least a name check.

The whole thing trundles along at a very nice pace and, what with most Popes seemingly having been elected when they were on their last legs, there are plenty of places for the listener to take a convenient pause between listening sessions.

Michael Jayston, of course, has a splendid voice and reading style (which I am sure should rightfully be mine!) and which makes the audiobook a wonderfully easy listen. Thoroughly recommended!

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9 of 9 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars
By Barry on 06-08-11


This is a wonderfully written and superbly performed book. John Julius Norwich sets his cloth from the start in that this will not be a dry, erudite history but one written for reasonably intelligent, interested people. Frankly it has it all; intrigue, politics, murder. It is proof that fact can be stranger - and more compelling - than fiction. It is immensely listenable and keeps the attention. Like the best of thrillers, one is left waiting to see what on earth can come next.

I found this a hugely satisfying and compelling listen and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in this sort of history.

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6 of 6 people found this review helpful

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