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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Friday, 25 November 2016

"The Popes" by John Julius Norwich

Written in 2011 and therefore missing out the resignation of Benedict XVI and the new Pope Francis, this covers 265 men over 2000 years in 450 pages; few popes receive more than a few paragraphs and judgements necessarily lack nuance. The overall impression is that the incumbents of the papacy are either holy men, wholly unsuited to the tasks of leading a church, or that they believe the propaganda about infallibility and become authoritarian despots with no ability to understand that alternative perspectives from their own might exist let alone be valid, or that they are crooks and probably corrupt to boot. It seems that out of 265 only a handful have managed a consistently good job.

The other impression is that, certainly in the days before antibiotics and decent medical care, electing an old man to a job was a recipe for instability. Given the average papal reign is less than eight years long and given the human predilection for voting next time for the opposite of what you have got, it seems miraculous that the church still exists.

But these are superficial impressions. The other thing about this book is that there are a lot of fascinating characters and papal history is a lot of fun. Although some of the theological disputes are so abstruse and difficult to understand that even JJN finds it difficult to explain them. Has Christ two separate natures, one human and one divine or only one and if so is it human or divine and if not can the two both coexist or does one (and which one) predominate? I'm still confused as to what 'monophysite' means and what the doctrinal differences are between the Catholic and the orthodox, not to mention Copts, Nestorians and the rest.

There was one moment which I hated: "Attila, like all his race, was incorrigibly superstitious": even if you can assign a 'race' to Attila it can surely not be correct that every last member of that 'race' is superstitious let alone incorrigibly so. Please lose this lazy thinking if another edition is to be prepared.

I also found the numbers for the coronation feast for Clement VI inbelievable. There were three thousand guests. According to the quoted source they ate, each one, on average, one third of a sheep, three hens, half a goose, fifty cheeses, and seventeen tarts and cattle, calves, kids, pigs, and pike as well and drank at least four litres of wine. I just don't believe that possible.

But there were moments of wonder.

  • French King John II was captured by the English at Poitiers and released pending ransom in exchange for hostages including his son; when his son escaped he voluntarily returned to captivity. That's chivalry!
  • Deposed as ruler of Naples by Urban VI, Joanna was imprisoned by her replacement, papally sponsored Charles, and suffocated.
  • Once there was a pope and an antipope, one in Rome and one in Avignon, some cardinals decided to resolve the situation by declaring them both deposed and electing another. This led to three popes. The new one (JohnXXIII) was an ex-pirate who, while papal legate to Bologna, "seduced 200 matrons, widows and virgins, to say nothing of an alarming number of nuns". "As Edward Gibbon delightedly noted, 'the most scandalous charges were suppressed: the Vicar of Christ was only accused of piracy, murder, sodomy and incest." Having eventually been deposed they made him a Bishop!
  • Pope Pius II as a young man was caught in a storm on a voyage to Scotland; having pledged a pilgrimage to the nearest Virgin Mary shrine if he was spared "he duly trudged over the frozen earth to the holy well at Whitekirk" which, although only 5 miles "he found that he had lost all sensation in his feet" and suffered arthritis for the rest of his life.
  • Sixtus IV, a Franciscan monk who loved poverty, changed completely on becoming Pope. "He spent money like water" and to fund it had to sell offices: "He bestowed the see of Milan on an eleven-year-old and the archbishopric of Lisbon on a boy of eight." But he was the one who built the Sistine chapel.
  • A church council in Milan in 1511 "was openly ridiculed to the point where a local chronicler forbore to record its proceedings because, he claimed, they could not be taken seriously, and anyway he was short of ink"
  • Leo X had a catamite who was a singer, the son of a Turkish Prince. This Prince had lived for years in the Vatican having fled Istanbul after attempting a coup against his brother, the Sultan. Gay Leo was the Pope who gave Henry VIII the title of Defender of the Faith, a title the British monarch still flaunts.
  • There were two expeditions to reclaim Crete from the Turks in 1668 and 1669. The first "consisted largely of aristocratic young Frenchmen who fought only for their own glory; in their opening battle they showed considerable courage, but when it was over the survivors could not get out fast enough" The story of the second was "much the same, but without the courage."
  • Gregory XVI's (1831- 1846) "mind was totally closed to progress, or indeed to any innovation"; he "banned the new railways - which he called chemins d'enfer"
  • John Paul II "surprised everybody ... in his berserk canonisations of everything in sight ... he canonised no fewer than 483 new saints, more than had been made in the previous five centuries."
An interesting book. November 2016; 450 pages

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