Absolute Monarchs by John Julius Norwich

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Popes behaving badly.

Quick synopsis: It’s about the Pope. All of them.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Pope Stephen VI put Pope Formosus on trial. The catch? Formosus was dead for 7 months. They exhumed him and had him sit there during the trial. It’s called the Cadaver Synod for hilariously obvious reasons.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: You would think an antipope would be a rare occurrence. An antipope is someone who claimed to be the pope and had followers but was not the “real” pope. There was probably at least 30 or so. My favorite? Innocent III. Obviously, you weren’t, bro.

My Take: John Julius Norwich was a very revered historian before his death in 2018. I had never heard of him before reading this book. When I finished it, I realized how great he was with massive pieces of history.

There are many ways to go wrong when taking on something as massive as the papacy. There is a lot of material obviously, but also uncountable situations where your personal feelings can sneak it. The popes were not all saints.

Norwich pulls this off (and as an Englishman, no less!). He sticks to the history and never editorializes and spends what I consider the right amount of time on each pope based on their importance. Norwich’s own introduction greatly downplays his skills as he makes this interesting but informative throughout.

The papacy is an amazing story with its fair share of heroism and villainy. Norwich gives you all of it and you don’t need to be a Catholic to enjoy this.

Verdict: The best book on the subject. May not be “fun” enough for non-history folks but comes close. A must read.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Hubert Wolf, The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio
  • Antonia Fraser, The King and the Catholics
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Absolute Monarchs by John Julius Norwich
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