Assassins, Girl Pope Enliven Papacy Book: Manuela Hoelterhoff

The cover jacket of "Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy" by John Julius Norwich. Source: Random House via Bloomberg

It’s hard to forget Pope Joan, who makes a cameo appearance in John Julius Norwich’s marvelously entertaining “Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy.”

“One day, while mounting her horse, she gave birth to a child.”

What’s weirder? Being a girl pope or giving birth in such a casual way?

Against a busy backdrop of anarchy, assassination, extreme bloodshed and very nice art, Norwich presents a papal cavalcade, starting with St. Peter on whose martyred bones rests the immense structure of the Roman Catholic Church.

Over the next few hundred pages, vast numbers of people murder each other, often to assert the primacy of the faith or get themselves another pope. The “love thy neighbor” sermon was apparently not heard by many.

Page 76 is a treasure trove of bad behavior in the year 882. That’s when John VIII became the first pope to be assassinated, “and, worse still, by priests from his own entourage,” notes Norwich, citing the Annals of the Abbey of Fulda.

“(T)hey first gave him poison; then, when this failed to act quickly enough, they hammered in his skull.”

Soon a naked widow is whipped along the streets, and another pope is exhumed and subjected to a mock trial on the next page.

Jailing Mother

Not much later, Norwich recalls the triumphs of the ravishingly appalling Marozia, the lover, mother and grandmother of popes, before concluding his summation with one of his funnier lines: “She had forgotten another one of her sons.”

Bad! This was Alberic, the pope’s half-brother and a decent sort who went on to rule Rome for 20 years -- after jailing mother in 932.

Unbelievably complicated family lives are on constant display. Norwich wears his learning lightly and adeptly works in his sources. On Marozia’s trifecta, for instance, he provides Gibbon’s acidly amusing comment: “a rare genealogy.”

Which brings me back to Pope Joan, who supposedly disguised herself as a man sometime in the Middle Ages -- the accounts vary according to which salivating monk was imagining her transgressions and terrible end. Conceivably the real Marozia spiced up a taste for a fake Pope Joan.

‘Diaconal Grope’

Advocates of the popess like to point to a mysteriously pierced porphyry seat in the Vatican supposedly used during papal enthronements after the Joan confusion. A junior cleric would crawl underneath and prove the pope-elect’s masculinity with a cry of “He has testicles!”

Studying the seat -- whose back is angled at an uncomfortable 45 degrees; perhaps it was a birthing chair? -- Norwich must reach a regrettable conclusion: “It cannot be gainsaid ... that it is admirably designed for a diaconal grope; and it is only with considerable reluctance that one turns the idea aside.”

These darkly entertaining medieval times give way to the Renaissance. More familiar names step into view, most dramatically Julius II, the glowering patron of Michelangelo. Or Paul III, the reformer, who gazes out from a Titian portrait looking like the wise wizard he was.

As with the temporal princes, power begat greed, money and overindulgence. “God has given us the papacy, now let us enjoy it,” said Leo X, a cultivated homosexual, though his enjoyment was darkened a lot by Martin Luther.


They lived in a time when great wealth was expected to express itself in great art and architecture -- hardly the case for today’s Vicars of Christ or latter-day Medicis. And so we are thankful that the venal Sixtus IV built himself the Sistine Chapel, because Michelangelo got to paint the ceiling.

By contrast, the dubious Pius XII, who repeatedly refused to speak out against the murder of the Jews during World War II, leaves no significant monument (except perhaps the berobed bronze in St. Peter’s Basilica, notable for its Harry Potter spectacles). How astonishing that he’s being fast-tracked for sainthood by Benedict XVI, whose performance in the child-abuse scandals has been poor.

A self-described agnostic Protestant, Norwich writes with evenhanded lightness and often with such exuberance that important information must sink to the footnotes:

“It is somehow typical of her time that her sister Galswintha, who had married Sigebert’s half brother Chilperic I, King of the Western Franks, was subsequently murdered by her husband at the instigation of his mistress.”

“Absolute Monarchs” is published by Random House in the U.S. and by Chatto & Windus in the U.K. under the title “The Popes” (512 pages, $30, 25 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, Bloomberg’s arts and culture section. Any opinions expressed are her own.)

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