Absolute Monarchs (Vatican City)

by John Julius Norwich

courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore

I wasn’t going to count Vatican City as a country. (I mean, it’s a religion inside a city, right?) I thought Popes were about religion rather than power and politics. Not always, according to this book. In fact, not often.

I thought that Vatican City was analogous to Salt Lake City, where the head of the Mormon religion resides. But it’s actually more like the nation of Israel, which once upon a time had more territory too (the Pope used to possess the Papal States).

Popes have fought battles, won and lost territory; made and broken alliances; maintained a standing army not to mention the personal bodyguard known as the Swiss Guard; spoken a variety of languages; strangled, suffocated, hung, and poisoned their rivals; had illegitimate children; issued currency, borrowed money, squabbled over the succession; and in general done everything that Kings do and then some. Very few Popes reminded me in any way of Jesus Christ. (I got almost physically ill reading how a leading light of the Jesuit Order, itself persecuted in Portugal and eventually suppressed by the Pope, owned 500 slaves in Martinique.) Not to say that ordinary Catholics can’t be good people. Most ordinary people of any faith are. But power, as they say corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

I am reminded of the metaphor of God as an elephant, and people of faith as blind men feeling only the tail, or the trunk, and proclaiming their discoveries as complete and absolute truth. My previous forays into history were like this.

But I’m a true crime aficionado. After reading this book, I felt like I’d FINALLY been given the background for lots of historical events that never made sense before. Means, motive, opportunity. Motives: Money, lust, revenge. Who benefits?

Round Up the Usual Suspects

And just who were the Popes before they ascended to the Papal Throne? If you’ve read Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons you know a little something about the Convocation, or how Popes are chosen. Don’t watch that or sausage-making if you like either.

Absolute Monarchs is THE best history book. Readable, with juicy scandals. Familiar figures. Frederick Barbarossa, a vicious Holy Roman Emperor (redundancy mine) who is said to sleep in a cave, his red beard ever-growing, guarded by crows, until Germany needs him again. (Germany  may need him but Rome sure didn’t.) Also:

  • Otto of Wittgenstein, founder of the house of Wittlesbach, the ancestor of my King Ludwig II of Bavaria, whose dynasty endured for 700 years, quite undeservedly.
  • Eleanor of Aquitaine, portrayed in the fantastic film The Lion in Winter. “The wife of one of England’s greatest Kings, and the mother of two of the worst.” (You have to wonder if the asshole in the room is actually her.) The two worst kings, her sons, are Richard “the Lion-Hearted” and John I, signer of the Magna Charta.
  • The doomed Cathars, a “heretical” sect in France that, like the original inhabitants of the British Isles, believed in reincarnation. Read more about them in the fantastic horror series Angelus Trilogy by Jon Steele.
  • King Canute of England, who made a pilgrimage to Rome to see one of the earliest Pope’s investitures.
  • King William of Normandy, who killed Harold of England with an arrow through the eye at the Battle of Hastings–while flying a banner the Pope had sent him. And his short-lived son William Rufus, killed “accidentally” while hunting in the New Forest. I read about this in the hilarious cozy mystery Missing Susan by Sharon McCrumb.
  • Sultan Mehmet II, whom I first read about in the fantastic historical novel And I Darken, by Kiersten White. Mehmet was allegedly bisexual and fell in love with two hostages at his father’s court–the timid brother and fierce sister sired by Vlad Drakul of Wallachia.
  • The legendary Pope Joan, (aka Pope Agnes), possibly the reason for the Papal Throne with its keyhole cutouts. Is it a leftover Roman Empire birthing chair, or does it have those egg-shaped holes so a junior Cardinal can feel the Pope’s testicles to be SURE he’s a man…?
  • Henry VIII–NOT the first King who wanted the Pope to let him divorce his wife and marry his mistress.
  • Cardinal Richelieu and the Protestant King of Sweden, Gustavus Adolphus (I know of these 2 and the 30 Years War through the excellent alternative history series by Eric Flint and David Weber, starting with 1632.)
  • Maria Theresa of Austria who sacrifices the Jesuit Order in France for the chance of marrying her daughter into the Bourbon Line. Her daughter was Marie Antoinette and this was a terrible idea.

Big Enders or Little Enders?

In 865 Khan Boris I of Bulgaria converts to Catholicism, mainly because the Byzantine fleet is lying off his Black Sea coast, and his country is in the grip of the worst famine of the century. He gets upset with finding his country overrun with Greek and Armenian priests, “frequently at loggerheads with each other over abstruse points of doctrine incomprehensible both to himself and his bewildered subjects.” He knows the Church split between Rome and Constantinople can be used to his advantage, so he petitions Pope Nicolas with 106 points of Orthodox doctrine and social custom which conflict with Bulgarian traditions, and the Pope makes concessions.

  1. Trousers and turbans can be worn by men and women alike, but you have to take off your turban in church.
  2. When the Byzantines maintain that it is unlawful to wash on Wednesdays and Fridays, they are talking nonsense, nor is there any reason to abstain from milk or cheese during Lent. (A PBS documentary just showed a Bulgarian family making their own buttermilk and yoghurt, and suggested the reason Bulgarians are so long-lived is their protein-rich diet.)
  3. Bigamy, says the Pope, is out (to the disappointment of the Bulgarians), as is the Greek practice of divination by the random opening of the Bible.

Don’t Sack the Pope. Just. Don’t.

In 1167 Frederick Barbarossa sacks Rome, setting fire to Saint Peter’s Basilica. Never had there been such a desecration of the holiest shrine in Europe–the high altar stained with Christian blood, the marble pavements of the nave strewn with the dead and the dying. And this time the outrage was not the work of infidel barbarians, but of the emperor of Western Christendom. The author says with incredible irony, “The Christians discriminated against the Jews, but they persecuted each other.”

Frederick got his comeuppance, however, and despite my non-religiosity a little part of me kept shouting Divine Retribution, what?! Less than a week later, the imperial camp got struck with the Plague. “Within days it was no longer possible to bury all the dead, and the rising piles of corpses, swollen and putrefying in the merciless heat of a Roman August made their own grim contribution to the pervading horror.”

Casomir the Great
Casomir III, aka Casomir the Great

Casomir the Great–Actually Was

On a side note to the Plague: I Googled a plague map, and it shows the inexorable advance of the disease from the East across Western Europe, but it makes a circle around Poland. Why? One theory is that King Casomir was very forceful with his quarantine of traders and travelers, and of course Poland is landlocked so no plague ships. Also, the King gave sanctuary to huge numbers of Jews, whose religious books, especially Leviticus, forced them to wash their hands several times daily and bathe at least once per week. Hmmmm

Pope v.s. Antipope

Black AdderAlthough copiously footnoted, with a lengthy bibliography, which I always appreciate, the author made some assumptions about terms that I would know, and I didn’t. One was “antipope”. What the hell is an antipope? Is it like “the Antichrist”? Depends on who you ask. At one point in the late Medieval, or possibly early Renaissance, French clerics elected one pope and Roman clerics another. An antipope was like a pretender to the throne. The Sacred College of cardinals eventually declared those two popes not popes, and elected a third. Of course, the first two refused to step down.

The author then quotes the TV series Black Adder, in which Rowan Atkinson’s character is excommunicated. He asks which Pope has excommunicated him and is told, “All three of them.” Good times.

Other Interesting Facts

Just one year prior to the American Revolution of 1776, the last Protestant galley slaves were freed in Europe. The last Protestant pastor to be tortured for his heresy died. And in 1792, along with the French nobility dying on the scaffold, so did tons of Catholics–religion was put on trial just like the aristocracy. Guy Fawkes in England  a century prior was a Catholic trying to make England not Protestant anymore, not just revolting against the rulers.

And So Forth and So On

By the end of this book, I felt absolutely drunk with Popes. In just listing all their names, the author took up NINE PAGES. Well, he had to. There were that many. If I had a criticism it would be that from 1700 on, not as much time was spent on the later Popes, especially the “Nazi Pope,” formerly German Cardinal Ratzinger. To be honest, I skipped through the last portions of the book. I was exhausted.

The author spends a lot of time on the Papacy’s legacy of anti-Semitism. The Hitler years are fascinating, as well as what the Pope did and didn’t do, and how individual priests rescued Jews. There is the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul in 1981, which took place during my childhood. (I was startled to read that some experts the Bulgarian government may have been involved.)

Unfortunately the book stops with Pope Benedict, and his reign is given as 2005–. Since I am a big fan of the current Pope, (Pope Francis, year anno domini 2017) with his scientific background and his tolerance and kindness, I hope the author will publish and updated version of this book. I am also planning to read Pope Francis’s treatise on climate change, very soon.

Rating: Five Red Hats!

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