I have continued my excursion into readings on history, but whereas the two books on which I have recently written were — as their titles make obvious — studies on a particular time (1861) and a particular historical figure (Bismarck: A Life), the book I just finished is about an institution, and indeed one which is still with us.
Written by the brilliant British historian John Julius Norwich (whose book on the history of Venice is a particular favorite of mine) it is called Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy (Random House) and tells the entire story, from the dubious beginning at the hand of St. Peter to Benedict XVI in the present day.
As I think all of us were vaguely aware, it is frequently a bizarre and often hilarious history, especially in Norwich's ever urbane and witty writing. Over the centuries there appear to have been two general varieties of popes: one was bawdy and licentious, interested in maximal pleasure by way of lavish feasts and more or less unconstrained sexuality, the other indeed strictly religious but often very limited in outlook and harsh and bigoted in their actions. To the first group we owe the eventual introduction of the arts and the creation of the Vatican as we now know it. Both groups, however, seemed very comfortable with issuing favors to their family members, promoting them to be bishops and cardinals, the difference being that the families of the first group could include their own children and grandchildren.
It must also be remembered that although the papacy was nominally based in Rome, the local population was often quite hostile and individual popes often had to flee to other locations; for political reasons there was also a long period when the popes lived in Avignon in France; there were also period where "antipopes" existed, in diverse locations. In addition Rome seems to have been frequently afflicted by plague which led the pope and his entourage to hide out elsewhere, an option obviously not available to the ordinary populace.
One of my favorite stories in the book describes a chaotic succession of popes at the beginning of the 10th Century, following a period which had featured six popes in seven years. Pope Leo V, only a month into his reign, was the victim of a "palace revolution" led by a "cleric called Christopher" who had himself consecrated as Pope only in turn to be overthrown after four months by an "aristocratic Roman" who became Pope Sergius III, who sent Christopher to join Leo in jail. "Not long afterward — moved, as he claimed, by pity — Sergius had them both strangled."
There then appears "the ravishingly beautiful but sinister figure of Morozia, senatrix of Rome", who became "lover, mother and grandmother of popes" leading the entire enterprise of the papacy into what is known as the "Pornocracy" especially in the reign of her grandson Octavian who took the name of John XII. "He allowed the city — indeed he encouraged it — to slide into chaos, using its wealth as well as that of the Papal States to gratify his own passion for gambling and every kind of sexual license."
Another favorite story is that of the elderly hermit who became Pope Celestine V at the end of the Thirteenth Century. Utterly unsuited to the position to which he had been elevated he was undone by a Cardinal Caetani "who is said to have introduced a secret speaking tube into Celestine's cell through which, in the small hours of the night, he would simulate the voice of God, warning him of the flames of Hell if he were to continue in office." The stratagem seems to have worked in that Celestine abdicated after just five months, apparently the only abdication in the entire history of the papacy. The story doesn't end there, however. Caetani became the next pope, taking the name Boniface VIII, but feared that his predecessor--who in reality wanted nothing more than to return to his hermitage--could become a rival with a great deal of support from the population at large and therefore had him arrested and imprisoned.
It seems to have only been around the time of the Napoleonic wars that the institution of the papacy started to think of itself as something that should be providing moral guidance to its subjects and became something like the papacy as we know it today. Of course there were bumps along the way, most noticeably the promulgation in 1870 by Pius IX of the doctrine of papal infallibility which sent shock waves throughout Europe and contributed directly to anti-Catholic campaigns in many countries (including Bismarck's Germany). Norwich also provides a sober discussion of the still-controversial reign of Pius XII during World War II, in which he seemed noticeably to tilt towards the Nazis (notwithstanding which efforts towards his canonization are still proceeding).
Norwich is the most elegant guide through this tumultuous history, from which I felt I learned a great deal all the while being vastly entertained. This is a formidable combination and I strongly recommend the book.
— Jeremy Nussbaum