Sunday, July 24, 2011

"There's some religion in here somewhere"

When preeminent British historian John Julius Norwich tells us in the introduction to his sweeping history of the Catholic papacy that his job is to give us "a straightforward single-volume history" of the world's "most astonishing social, political, and spiritual institution ever created," he's hit the nail on the proverbial head. The centuries-old Roman papacy truly is a universally unrivaled institution, and in dense detail, Norwich's book shows us the historic playbook.

As Norwich says upfront, "Absolute Monarchs" is a political history more than anything, and with his unstuffy and sometimes witty writing style, he walks us through what could otherwise be a stifling couple of thousand years of popes, antipopes, endless political power struggles, war, greed, torture, inquisitions, egomania, incest, fornication, bastard children and orgies. . Reading page after page of this cacophony of temporal sin, one begins to wonder whether this is a history of a religious institution at all.

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