Chronicle of the Popes

 PG Maxwell-Stuart, Chronicle of the Popes: the Reign-by-Reign Record of the Papacy from St. Peter to the Present, (London, Thames & Hudson, 2006)

This handsomely-illustrated book is an updated and expanded version of a popular history of the papacy previously published in 1997. For those interested in the detail of papal history it offers a feast of information, weaving a remarkably clear and coherent path through some fearsomely complex events. The author, a lecturer in the department of history at the University of St Andrews, favours narrative over analysis, but is a born story-teller who treats his subject with an understated wit. The lay-out of the book helps to keep the bewildering array of names, places and times in order, with timelines, data files and sidebars offering further illustrations of artistic, archaeological or legendary details about a given pontiff.

There is a sure-footed account of papal policies against the shifting background of power-plays across Europe in both church and state. Kingdoms and empires rise and fall and we see popes resisting or supporting attempts to subordinate the church to other interests. While the politics are being played out there is also a parallel account of theological developments within the church including the history of relations between East and West and, later on, with Protestantism.

This is not a book for the faint-hearted, or those whose faith depends on a rosy view of those who have occupied the see of Peter down the ages. The author is even-handed, and is not out to do a hatchet job on the papacy, but he is dealing with some sorry parts of history. The personal stories of many popes makes disedifying reading. Honorius I's Christological views were later condemned as heretical. Stephen VII exhumed the corpse of Pope Formosus and placed it, dressed in pontifical vestments, on the papal throne in order to stand trial. Deposed by a popular uprising, he was later imprisoned and strangled by a mob. John XII was said to have died from a blow to the head delivered by Satan during an act of adultery. Popes who led disastrous military campaigns succeed popes famous for nepotism, violence or political ineptitude. We find popes fascinated by magic and horoscopes, insane popes, popes who have their rivals murdered, a pope who wrote a novel and an erotic comedy and one rumoured to take sapphires and rubies to bed with him.

Despite the often chaotic background to papal reigns, this is nevertheless also an account of men who did good, sometimes almost despite themselves. They protected Jews from mob violence, slaves and the poor from the worst oppression, supported and instigated some of the great movements for ecclesial reform and established key theological milestones in the church's understanding of itself. Yet this is balanced against the papal preaching of the Crusades, the condemnation of Galileo, the pastorally disastrous Chinese Rites controversy and the extensive period in the nineteenth century when the papacy appeared to stand for all that was most politically and socially reactionary.

Two things stand out in this account. The first is the astonishing vigour and survival of the church when one looks at it in this less than auspicious perspective. The other is the remarkably recent view of the Roman pontiff as a world religious leader widely assumed to be both holy and capable in his office. The book's chief weakness is its disappointingly spare treatment of early twentieth-century popes, with Benedict XV and Pius XII rating only two brief paragraphs apiece, while the section on John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council is ludicrously thin. This is set against the extensive coverage given to John Paul II's reign and the emphasis on Benedict XVI's opposition to the abolition of the Tridentine Mass. Despite this imbalance, the book is lively, informative and well worth having as a reference text.

first posted LONDON - 5 March 2007 - 530 words

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