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Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy

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In a chronicle that captures nearly two thousand years of inspiration and intrigue, John Julius Norwich recounts in riveting detail the histories of the most significant popes and what they meant politically, culturally, and socially to Rome and to the world. Norwich presents such popes as Innocent I, who in the fifth century successfully negotiated with Alaric the Goth, a In a chronicle that captures nearly two thousand years of inspiration and intrigue, John Julius Norwich recounts in riveting detail the histories of the most significant popes and what they meant politically, culturally, and socially to Rome and to the world. Norwich presents such popes as Innocent I, who in the fifth century successfully negotiated with Alaric the Goth, an invader civil authorities could not defeat; Leo I, who two decades later tamed (and perhaps paid off) Attila the Hun; the infamous “pornocracy”—the five libertines who were descendants or lovers of Marozia, debauched daughter of one of Rome’s most powerful families; Pope Paul III, “the greatest pontiff of the sixteenth century,” who reinterpreted the Church’s teaching and discipline; John XXIII, who in five short years starting in 1958 instituted reforms that led to Vatican II; and Benedict XVI, who is coping with today’s global priest sex scandal.


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In a chronicle that captures nearly two thousand years of inspiration and intrigue, John Julius Norwich recounts in riveting detail the histories of the most significant popes and what they meant politically, culturally, and socially to Rome and to the world. Norwich presents such popes as Innocent I, who in the fifth century successfully negotiated with Alaric the Goth, a In a chronicle that captures nearly two thousand years of inspiration and intrigue, John Julius Norwich recounts in riveting detail the histories of the most significant popes and what they meant politically, culturally, and socially to Rome and to the world. Norwich presents such popes as Innocent I, who in the fifth century successfully negotiated with Alaric the Goth, an invader civil authorities could not defeat; Leo I, who two decades later tamed (and perhaps paid off) Attila the Hun; the infamous “pornocracy”—the five libertines who were descendants or lovers of Marozia, debauched daughter of one of Rome’s most powerful families; Pope Paul III, “the greatest pontiff of the sixteenth century,” who reinterpreted the Church’s teaching and discipline; John XXIII, who in five short years starting in 1958 instituted reforms that led to Vatican II; and Benedict XVI, who is coping with today’s global priest sex scandal.

30 review for Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy

  1. 5 out of 5

    Anastasia Fitzgerald-Beaumont

    A Curate’s Egg I’m a huge admirer of the past work of John Julius Norwich, a popular historian in the sense of being widely read and accessible, in the sense of being informative without being weighed down by an intrusive scaffolding of scholarship. He is learned but he wears his learning lightly, which makes him a superlative communicator. I’ve enjoyed and benefited from reading his histories of the Normans in Italy, of Venice and, above all, his three volume history of the Byzantine Empire. He A Curate’s Egg I’m a huge admirer of the past work of John Julius Norwich, a popular historian in the sense of being widely read and accessible, in the sense of being informative without being weighed down by an intrusive scaffolding of scholarship. He is learned but he wears his learning lightly, which makes him a superlative communicator. I’ve enjoyed and benefited from reading his histories of the Normans in Italy, of Venice and, above all, his three volume history of the Byzantine Empire. He is the master of the big subject, not the kind of keyhole history that is more fashionable in academic circles. If anything I would say that Norwich is in so many ways the modern Edward Gibbon, a man who wanders with considerable comfort down the highways and byways of the past. Now he has tackled another big subject with a Gibbon-like verve and commitment. The recently published The Popes: A History is potentially the biggest subject of all, because there are so many of them, all the way back to Peter, because there is so much history, so much theology, so much philosophy and so much politics. In the nineteenth century it took the German historian Leopold von Ranke several volumes to cover a mere two hundred year period; Norwich covers the whole course of the papacy, right up to the modern day in just over four hundred and fifty pages. Is it done well? Yes, in some ways it is, a fascinating discourse seasoned with partisan wit and dry humour. I recall what Gibbon wrote about two of the less saintly occupants of the chair of Peter. Of the unspeakable John XII, a tenth century pontiff at the very centre of a particularly degenerate period known as the pornocracy, he wrote: “We read with some surprise that his rapes of virgins and widows had deterred female pilgrims from visiting the shrine of St Peter, lest, in the devout act, they should be violated by his successor.” Of the fifteenth century anti-pope, another John, he writes: “The most scandalous charges were suppressed; the Vicar of Christ was only accused of piracy, murder, rape, sodomy and incest.” Turning to Norwich this is what he has to say about Boniface VII, twice Pope in the late tenth century, notorious for the murder of two of his predecessors: “But Boniface had gone two far. Even for Romans, to have murdered two popes was too much. He survived on the throne for eleven months – having blinded a cardinal deacon whom he suspected of acting against him – and then, on 20 July 985, suddenly died. Was he assassinated? There is no firm evidence, but his subsequent fate suggests it. Stripped of his vestments, his body was dragged naked through the streets and exposed beneath the statue of Marcus Aurelius. There, left to the mercy of the mob, the remains of the antipope Boniface were trampled on and subjected to nameless indignities – and serve him right.” It’s all such a rollicking good yarn! There is really no escaping the fact that the papacy, for so many centuries, was a succession of sinners as much as saints. When the popes were good they were very, very good and when they were bad they were, well, despicable. Saints and Sinners might have been a better title, but that was already taken by Eamon Duffy, who published Saints and Sinners in 1997, a book that Norwich relies upon quite heavily. Overall Norwich’s account is far more discursive and gossipy than Duffy’s. For example he has a whole chapter on Pope Joan, the legendary female pontiff, whom Duffy deigns even to mention. I should say that I have no particular objection to the exploration of a myth, other than that, for me, this was the first sign that Norwich’s treatment was shaping up to be selective and uneven. Given the number of people, some no more than names on a long list, selectivity is necessary. He certainly gives proper space to people like Gregory VII and Innocent III, the greatest of all of the medieval popes, but others, almost as important, are disposed of in a few paragraphs. Pope Joan, quite frankly, was not worthy of so much effort and so many words I should stress that Norwich’s book is a purely political history and as such it works reasonably well. The history of the papacy, for so many centuries, was the history of a temporal as much as a spiritual power. Innocent III, sitting at the apogee, managed to combine both with consummate ease. But over time spiritual authority increasingly took second place to temporal power. In the early sixteenth century Julius II was in so many ways little different from the temporal princes with whom he made alliances or war, even going so far as to defend and extend the Papal States clad in full armour. There are so many great stories here, so many ups and downs, impossible to cover even those that caught my attention in a necessarily brief review. Witty, intelligent and wide-ranging, Norwich covers his brief fairly well; he likes what he likes and hates what he hates. It’s entertainingly partisan, at its most partisan, possibly, in the treatment of Pius XII, the pontiff of the Second World War, who is made to carry an unusually heavy burden. The Popes: A History is a decent primer, a reasonable introduction to a complex subject. But, sad to say, I detect a falling off; I detect that the historian has lost something of his power. There are some real factual howlers. For instance, he has Marie Antoinette executed on the same day in January 1793 as her husband Louis XVI, whereas she did not die until October; Mussolini and his mistress Claretta Petacci, according to Norwich, were both strung up on the same day as the Allies invaded Sicily in July 1943, whereas they both survived until 1945. The latter struck me in particular simply because the author lived through these events. Small points they may be but they raised bigger questions about the overall accuracy, questions over points with which I am not familiar. As a work of literature I have no hesitation in recommending this book thoroughly, a delight to raconteurs and lovers of trivia everywhere. As I work of history – and it gives me no pleasure to write this – I feel it has to be treated with caution.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Frank Peters

    This was the least entertaining of all of the history books written by Norwich. As a result, it was a letdown from one of my very favourite authors. The author prides himself about having no axe to grind, and this is one his traits that I have appreciated the most. But, when discussing a history of the papacy, Norwich is automatically at a disadvantage, in that he was unable to decide on a methodology used to discuss the popes themselves. Throughout the book, he reflected on: politics, academics This was the least entertaining of all of the history books written by Norwich. As a result, it was a letdown from one of my very favourite authors. The author prides himself about having no axe to grind, and this is one his traits that I have appreciated the most. But, when discussing a history of the papacy, Norwich is automatically at a disadvantage, in that he was unable to decide on a methodology used to discuss the popes themselves. Throughout the book, he reflected on: politics, academics, liberalism, authoritarianism, administration, spirituality, morality as well as following Jesus. The problem surfaces when he starts to make statements on whether or not a pope is a good pope. This is easy when dealing with what he refers to as the “pornocracy”, which was pretty horrible from any perspective. But what about a political and administrative genius who built up the temporal power of the Roman church but had no interest in Jesus? Is this a good pope? How about a spiritual pope, who followed the example of Jesus, but was a poor administrator and an even worse politician? How about a brilliant academic, who was interested in little else? By the end of the book, the author “with no axe to grind” was pretty clear that influence on people (power) and numbers is what really matters. His liberalism also distracted from the history near the end of the book, as Norwich made it clear what the church was supposed to do (i.e. allow women priests, homosexuality, married clergy and contraception), which is to agree with the authors personal agenda. I would have hoped that even he would be able to see that the purpose of the church (Roman or otherwise) is to follow the example and instructions of Jesus, who is the head of the church.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Lyn Elliott

    I read this over several weeks, taking time in between episodes to let what I was learning mull around a bit and try to connect it with what I already know about the patterns of European history and the relationships between western christianity and the Orthodox Christian east. The history of the Papacy turns out to run nearly, but not quite, in line with the history of Christianity. Norwich shows how struggles for power within the Christian community, especially as it established churches with p I read this over several weeks, taking time in between episodes to let what I was learning mull around a bit and try to connect it with what I already know about the patterns of European history and the relationships between western christianity and the Orthodox Christian east. The history of the Papacy turns out to run nearly, but not quite, in line with the history of Christianity. Norwich shows how struggles for power within the Christian community, especially as it established churches with priests, led to the creation of the office that we call the papacy and have dominated its history over the centuries. For most of those centuries the pope was one of the great princes of Europe, wielding power in a way that is almost possible to imagine now, playing the games of real-politik, aiming to control land and wealth. Rome itself was invaded many times in the course of these power struggles - by the French, by the troops of the Holy Roman Emperor, by Normans from southern Italy and others. I knew that the French had invaded and a pope had had to flee for his safety, but had no idea how often that happened. Nor did I know that many popes were so hated by the unruly Roman citizenry, that they had to escape the city in disguise. Sometimes they managed to get away, sometimes they didn't. There were centuries when the papal office was held by men who were not only corrupt but cruel, vengeful, murderers and the occasional pornographer. Reading Norwich gives a wider explanation of why the pressure for Reformation happened than the usual, though I lost track a bit over the ways in which the Roman Catholic church responded to the rise of Protestantism and some events which have warranted whole books in their own right about incidents like the Defenestration of Prague in 1618 are given only a paragraph or so here. I'm ashamed dot say that the Defenestration is one of my favourite historical happenings, in part because of its name and partly because of the particularly action vivid painting that hangs in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. I can't access the site at the moment (surely that can't be the COVID lockdown) but here is a link to a site with a bit more information and a different image https://www.historyextra.com/period/s.... I have a clearer understanding now of why Henry VIII of England needed permission from the pope to make and unmake his marriages, and why the Holy Roman Emperor held such power. And I also see more clearly that the Pope and the Emperor were bound to clash over who was more powerful across Europe and even to Europe's colonies, as indeed they did over centuries. Because Norwich is covering such a great time span he has divided his story into periods, giving more attention to popes whose rules were noteworthy for theology, viciousness, piety (not many), greed and diplomatic successes or failures, resulting in acquisition or loss accordingly of influence, lands and wealth. This means that any area you want to read about in detail will have to be pursued elsewhere, and Norwich has plenty of suggestions about where to look. It's good to be reminded that it was only once the power of the church had weakened seriously in post-Napoleonic Europe that the doctrine of Papal infallibility entered official Roman Catholic doctrine https://www.britannica.com/topic/papa..., something that seems incredible to a non-Catholic, as do many of the doctrinal declarations of the recent past, such as the 1996 affirmation of the perpetual virginity of Mary. Norwich writes wonderfully, as always, and manages to cover the theological, political and social histories connected with this mightily pervasive institution. This is a book I will enjoy coming back to.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Geevee

    The Popes is an attempt to give the "average intelligent reader, believer or unbeliever", as the author says in his introduction, a background - and in some cases depth - to the office and men who have sat at the head of the Catholic church since Saint Peter. The book was a eye opener not just to the sheer number of Popes, some 280, with many of them arriving and departing in months rather than years. There are anti-popes, Holy Roman emperors, kings, queens and a vast cast of supporting character The Popes is an attempt to give the "average intelligent reader, believer or unbeliever", as the author says in his introduction, a background - and in some cases depth - to the office and men who have sat at the head of the Catholic church since Saint Peter. The book was a eye opener not just to the sheer number of Popes, some 280, with many of them arriving and departing in months rather than years. There are anti-popes, Holy Roman emperors, kings, queens and a vast cast of supporting characters. The Popes - certainly in the first 1600 years or so - were far from the righteous and benevolent church leaders that I had expected. As I turned the pages strolling through the decades of early and medieval Europe with a fast changing cast, I encountered murder(ers), debauchery, scheming, bribery, betrayal, siege and warfare and lots of hatred. There are some shining lights amongst these men, but Papal Rome and the states that surrounded it were in a near constant state of war/uprising/invasion and territorial change. The intervention or political ambitions of the early French states, the Holy Roman Empire, Venice and others did little to allow the Papacy to flourish in its spiritual home. In fact the Popes' own poor judgement in diplomacy and strategy saw the Papacy or the incumbents spend considerable periods in France or elsewhere generally in turmoil and always needing money. The story John Julius Norwich weaves is certainly an interesting one and sees many well known historical characters in attendance, if only fleetingly. And fleetingly is where I struggled with this book. The sheer number of popes over such a long period means that many come and go in the space of one or two sentences. This does make keeping up with the changes and their connections challenging - and even with a full listing at the back of the book - at times I battled not just with who and what number Pius, John, Urban and Victor; Fabian, Stephen, Boniface, Gregory and Benedict; Hadrian, Celestine, Julius and Alexander - you get my meaning; and this is without the royalty, cardinals and many others players. Howver, I would not wish to leave people with the impression the book is not enjoyable. It is; it just needs investment, time and some - for me at least - re-reading. The Popes is a fine book that gallops across history and has given me a far better understanding of the institution and the holders of its office - certainly not all saints and many, many sinners.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Justin Evans

    Perfectly good airport history. I'm stuck at around page 150 of Norwich's condensed history of the Byzantines, so I wasn't expecting much from this. But I've learned something very important about Mr. Norwich: if he's writing about things you know even reasonably well (e.g., for me, the early Byzantine emperors), he's almost insufferable. This might just be a by-product of Great Man history in general, which is that it has very little to say about anything. Also, he's very boring in short bursts Perfectly good airport history. I'm stuck at around page 150 of Norwich's condensed history of the Byzantines, so I wasn't expecting much from this. But I've learned something very important about Mr. Norwich: if he's writing about things you know even reasonably well (e.g., for me, the early Byzantine emperors), he's almost insufferable. This might just be a by-product of Great Man history in general, which is that it has very little to say about anything. Also, he's very boring in short bursts. However, if I can settle in for a couple of hours and read about things I don't know all that well (e.g., the Renaissance papacy), he's immensely entertaining. I have no idea how this is possible, but Norwich is somehow more readable over two hour stretches than he is over half an hour. He'll follow every narrative, no matter how tangential, if it promises to be amusing. Other reviewers have complained that he's too much of a liberal, too this-worldly, to do justice to the popes; that's arrant nonsense. He's very even handed, except when dealing with popes who monstrosity leaves no room for even-handedness; or, naturally, when dealing with Pius XII. Pius XII, like almost every other Pope (and non-Jewish person) before him, was a rabid anti-Semite, but had the misfortune of being the last rabid anti-Semite to hold a position of power. Thus, the holocaust is somehow his fault. This is not to excuse his anti-semitism, nor anyone else's. It is to suggest that, as an airport historian, Norwich might be a little too easily swayed by contemporary political imperatives. Anyway, highly enjoyable, provided you know little to nothing about the topic at hand; immensely irritating, however, if you do more than a smidgeon.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Wendy

    I've always been interested in religious history, probably comes from growing up in the Philippines. I think the population (80%+) identify as Catholic/ Christian, the Church there is a strong influence on everyday life. So, when I saw my library have a book on the history of the papacy, it's definitely one I had to pick up. Surprisingly, I enjoy this book quite a bit. People who have no interest on papal history might find this book boring, as it's a bunch of stories regarding the different pop I've always been interested in religious history, probably comes from growing up in the Philippines. I think the population (80%+) identify as Catholic/ Christian, the Church there is a strong influence on everyday life. So, when I saw my library have a book on the history of the papacy, it's definitely one I had to pick up. Surprisingly, I enjoy this book quite a bit. People who have no interest on papal history might find this book boring, as it's a bunch of stories regarding the different popes throughout the ages. Some are more myths, rumors, and stories than historical fact, esp. for the earlier popes where the records are hard to come by. The author shows the good, the bad, and the ugly of the men who had occupied the throne of St. Peter. We also see how for the longest time, the Church is very much at the centre of European civilization. It's an older book, so the history ends with Pope Benedict XVI, before his retirement. Again, if history of the Catholic Church is your cup of tea, this would be a good, informative read.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Karla

    This broad chronological history of the Papacy seemed to go on forever and, to be honest, I didn't get through the whole thing. I bailed around 1860 or so, which means that I did manage to consume about 1800 years of spastic politics and theological wtfery. But around the time the Enlightenment took off, some spark was gone and the goings-on didn't seem as entertaining. However, I did learn butt-tons of bizarro trashiness. Is there an entire book out there on the Saeculum obscurum aka "The Pornoc This broad chronological history of the Papacy seemed to go on forever and, to be honest, I didn't get through the whole thing. I bailed around 1860 or so, which means that I did manage to consume about 1800 years of spastic politics and theological wtfery. But around the time the Enlightenment took off, some spark was gone and the goings-on didn't seem as entertaining. However, I did learn butt-tons of bizarro trashiness. Is there an entire book out there on the Saeculum obscurum aka "The Pornocracy"? Because that era was crazy. Them's my kind of degenerates. Give me that old time religion.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Gareth Parry

    This book was a real eye opener. Basically, you'll read this and 95% of the time, you'll mutter "....What a complete pack of bastards". Seriously, they are that ruthless. The amount of backstabbing, and nepotism, is unbelievable. Then there's the homosexual activity, prostitutes, murders and political "bastardness".....At one point, I thought I was reading about a rappers party, they were that bad. Give it a read though, as it will make you understand what a fallacy religion is, based on the hea This book was a real eye opener. Basically, you'll read this and 95% of the time, you'll mutter "....What a complete pack of bastards". Seriously, they are that ruthless. The amount of backstabbing, and nepotism, is unbelievable. Then there's the homosexual activity, prostitutes, murders and political "bastardness".....At one point, I thought I was reading about a rappers party, they were that bad. Give it a read though, as it will make you understand what a fallacy religion is, based on the head of the RC church.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Jim

    At first blush this might seem like a curious book for an atheist to read. After all I care little about the dogmatic basis of Catholic theology. On the other hand I love history, and to deny the importance of the theological basis of the papacy does not diminish its importance in history. So, wanting to know more about how this institution became the power it is I decided to read this book. Overall I learned quite a bit, though that knowledge is 2015 miles wide and only an inch deep. Reading thi At first blush this might seem like a curious book for an atheist to read. After all I care little about the dogmatic basis of Catholic theology. On the other hand I love history, and to deny the importance of the theological basis of the papacy does not diminish its importance in history. So, wanting to know more about how this institution became the power it is I decided to read this book. Overall I learned quite a bit, though that knowledge is 2015 miles wide and only an inch deep. Reading this book put me in mind of Voyager space probe missions of the 1970s. These craft would fly by a planet snapping as many pictures and taking as many readings as possible before heading off to the next destination. They provided a lot of information about the planets they passed, but not as much as if they had been able to go into orbit, or even land. Here, the author is trying to provide enough information about the men at the head of a 2,000 year old institution to make it interesting and worthwhile, but cannot provide more information than a quick flyby of each can reveal. Overall he does a good job, but by necessity is assuming knowledge of historical events not all readers may have. Since this book didn’t really have an overall theme or thesis this review will be short. A couple of things struck me however. First, from the time of St. Peter until late in the 20th century the Papacy was as much about temporal rule, that is the accumulation of power and land, as it was about spiritual guidance. In every way that mattered, and through most of its history, the Pope was simply another political leader, often a dictatorial one. Popes through history have used war, economics, the threat of excommunication, nepotism, and the auctioning of indulgences (basically a get free pass for sins committed) in order to accumulate and solidify that power. This included not only dominion over the Catholic subjects in the areas they held sway, but all citizens. For most of its history the Catholic church has been virulently anti-Semitic, discriminating against Jews, forcing them to adhere to Catholic rituals, and in some cases, particularly during the middle ages, sanctioning genocidal action against them. The behavior of Pope Pius XII during WWII whose concern was more the physical safety of the Vatican than the holocaust he knew was occurring is the most recent example. In fact, only recently did the church remove references to Jews as the killers of Christ. So, up until the mid 19th century when the Papal states were finally taken from them, the Pope was every bit as much a political as spiritual leader.* Many of the Popes through history have been as sadistic and amoral as any other dictator you can think of. How it retained its hold on the Catholic faithful was baffling to me given this amorality until I realized how powerful an emotion fear can be…particularly the fear of losing God’s grace. More recently of course Popes have moderated these tendencies and have devoted more of their time to spiritual matters. In some cases reforms have been welcomed by many outside the faith as the church began taking a more active role in advocating for social justice. Much of this came out of the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) that took place in the early 1960s. So, the second thing that struck me was how close the Catholic Church came to a true liberalization in the early 1960s. Catholics are familiar with the reforms that came out of Vatican II under Pope John XXIII and Paul VI.These included a modernization of the mass, use of vernacular languages, opening a dialogue with other faiths, and a loosening of the notion that salvation could only be gained from within the Catholic Church. This is also when the church ceased placing blame for the execution of Jesus on all Jews. Being someone who grew up Catholic and who attended a church that took seriously the social justice aspect of Vatican II I can say it certainly did go a long way toward moderating the effects of previous abuses. What surprised me was how close it came to going even further. There was a legitimate effort to loosen restrictions on birth control. In fact the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control returned an opinion that birth control was not intrinsically evil and that married couples should be allowed to decide how to employ them, basically deciding they were merely an extension of the already accepted cycle method. Had Paul VI not been so adamantly opposed this doctrine might have been accepted and the suffering of probably tens of thousands could have been alleviated. I know I have presented a mostly negative view of not only the Papacy but of the Catholic church as well. I have to admit that view is one that I held before reading this book, and one that was reinforced by what I read. This is not necessarily because of its history, or what I view as a colossal waste of time and money that could be put to better use, but rather because the Catholic church, to this day, adheres to a set of dogmas that are clearly harmful and in my opinion immoral. These include its position on birth control and abortion. How the church can insist people don’t use birth control in HIV stricken countries is mind boggling. How it can insist women who have been raped and tortured are nevertheless obligated to bear the child of their attacker is also mind boggling. It’s well known coverup of pedophile priests was certainly a great evil, as is its views on homosexuality and gay marriage. This is especially heinous given its power over a vast swath of the poorest of the poor who follow the teachings of the church out of love of course, but also due to a healthy dose of fear. My sweeping characterization of the Papacy of course has exceptions. As the book carefully points out not every Pope was a tyrant, many were more concerned for the spiritual health of their flock than in the attainment of power for themselves and the church. I also do not intend my criticisms to extend to individual Catholics. I grew up Catholic, many members of my family are Catholic, I have many friends and acquaintances who I admire very much who are Catholic, and I have met many priests who I have admired and still admire. My criticisms are meant for the institution as a whole. I sincerely hope the seemingly tolerant statements coming from Pope Francis are heartfelt and foreshadow a further liberalization of church dogma, and a recognition the world is not the same place it was 2015 years ago! Overall I would recommend this book. It was well written, the narrative transitions from one Papacy to the next were very smooth and you end up with a very coherent overall picture of its history. It does require a level of historical knowledge on the part of the reader that not everyone may possess. For example it recounts the effect of the French Revolution on the Papacy. It notes a monetary crisis in France and a sweeping desire for the application of enlightenment philosophy were at its root. What he does not mention however is that these both had their catalyst in the American Revolution. France nearly exhausted its coffers entering the war on the side of the United States, and many of those who later rose up against the King were inspired by the American example. There are several examples like this throughout the book, so it would be advisable to have Wikipedia handy. What this book is not is an interpretive work. The book does not offer an overall thesis and the author expresses few opinions other than quick hit views on the actions of individual Popes. If you are looking for a deeper view of the Papacy and its place in world history you should look elsewhere.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Caroline

    I'm afraid I had to abandon The Popes after only 30 pages. There is way too much information given my level of interest. The moment I started reading I realised I would have been better off skim reading a Wikipedia article on the subject. Another thing I hadn't appreciated (silly me) is that of course a lot of the book is concerned with Christian doctrinal issues. =_____= Zzzzzzzzz.... I am not awarding it any paucity of stars. The book is probably a great read for anyone wanting an introduction I'm afraid I had to abandon The Popes after only 30 pages. There is way too much information given my level of interest. The moment I started reading I realised I would have been better off skim reading a Wikipedia article on the subject. Another thing I hadn't appreciated (silly me) is that of course a lot of the book is concerned with Christian doctrinal issues. =_____= Zzzzzzzzz.... I am not awarding it any paucity of stars. The book is probably a great read for anyone wanting an introduction to the history of the popes and the Christian church in Rome.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Libby

    I have to say up front that I love John Julius Norwich's books. Thus far, all of them have impressed me as being well written and thoroughly researched. I expected that this one would be a workmanlike job, accurate and entertaining as well as educational. However, this was more than impressive and way above just well written. Let me explain why I am so thrilled with this particular work. Books about the Papacy tend to fall into certain broad types. There are salacious accounts of reprehensible he I have to say up front that I love John Julius Norwich's books. Thus far, all of them have impressed me as being well written and thoroughly researched. I expected that this one would be a workmanlike job, accurate and entertaining as well as educational. However, this was more than impressive and way above just well written. Let me explain why I am so thrilled with this particular work. Books about the Papacy tend to fall into certain broad types. There are salacious accounts of reprehensible hedonists, murderers, nepotists and brawlers who managed to worm their way into Peter's Chair. There is a sub-category here of shrill rants against Papist plots and the Whore of Babylon. Then in return salvos, there are the Catholic Apologists, who prefer to draw a veil over Renaissance excesses and Medieval bloodshed, and shine a spotlight upon the great, good and saintly souls who have warmed the Papal Throne. These often tend to slide from history into hagiography. It's hard to find an even handed account due to the high emotional quotient of religious views. Norwich has manged to maintain a relatively unbiased narrative about all of the pontiffs, telling their fascinating stories without hysteria or fawning. He gives us saints, sinners, lawyers, princes and warriors, all wearing the Triple Crown and wielding Peter's keys. (Modern day Popes have forgone the use of the Papal crown in favor of a bishop's mitre.) I particularly enjoyed the story of Pope Eugenius II, an uneducated hermit who was elected because he had been seen to hang his coat on a sunbeam while praying. He didn't want to be Pope and ran away at least once. Eventually, he was allowed to resign and return to his cave. Norwich also gives us a chapter on my favorite Papal fairy tale, Pope Joan. She didn't really exist but she should have! He tells us her alleged history and explains why "it ain't so, Joan." I would recommend this to any lover of history, Italy, comparative religion or Renaissance politics. The narrative is fluid and easy to read and the stories are outrageous and true. You're gonna love it!

  12. 5 out of 5

    Greg Bailey

    You might imagine this book as a supersonic-jet tour of the papacy--from something like sixty thousand feet high. The author attempts to touch on nearly every single pope, and the centuries zip by with little clarity. The author stays focused on the papacy, refusing to be distracted by the many colorful characters from history who crossed paths with the pontiffs. If you want the sketchiest outline of the papacy, this is the book for you, but I found it ultimately unsatisfying. To his credit, the You might imagine this book as a supersonic-jet tour of the papacy--from something like sixty thousand feet high. The author attempts to touch on nearly every single pope, and the centuries zip by with little clarity. The author stays focused on the papacy, refusing to be distracted by the many colorful characters from history who crossed paths with the pontiffs. If you want the sketchiest outline of the papacy, this is the book for you, but I found it ultimately unsatisfying. To his credit, the author occasionally writes with wry humor (a near-requirement given some of the papal foibles), but in addition to the necessary brevity with which each man is treated, the book is weighed down by the centuries-long confusion of Italian politics, which even the author admits is difficult to understand. The greatest weakness, however, is the author's bias. He clearly sees the papacy primarily as a temporal office (as, indeed, it was throughout much of its history), which leads him to express preferences for the more "enlightened" popes, those who were tolerant and progressive. The more conservative popes (usually the more spiritually minded) tend to be dismissed as despotic and reactionary. Speaking of one pope from the early twentieth century, the author remarks, "His very holiness blinded him to original thought."

  13. 5 out of 5

    Lois

    Extremely and unnecessarily detailed. Surprisingly boring given the subject matter. Understanding how power was established via the catholic church in rome is integral to understanding the rise of Europe and the tyranny, oppression and genocide that followed. This has subtle and annoying sexist, xenophobic and racist undercurrents. Western Europeans are described more favorably than Eastern Europeans, Asians and the ever present and ever generic 'Muslims'. At one point the author goes into great Extremely and unnecessarily detailed. Surprisingly boring given the subject matter. Understanding how power was established via the catholic church in rome is integral to understanding the rise of Europe and the tyranny, oppression and genocide that followed. This has subtle and annoying sexist, xenophobic and racist undercurrents. Western Europeans are described more favorably than Eastern Europeans, Asians and the ever present and ever generic 'Muslims'. At one point the author goes into great detail describing an asian nation as unwashed, eating uncooked meat, etc. I laughed out loud. Europeans during this period and for the next THOUSAND years are famously unwashed and their food is shit. A major driver of colonialism is the hunt for cheaper spices with which to help their nasty ass food. This continues into colonization where in addition to how to swim, grow cash crops for trade and eventually inoculate against illness West Africans and the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas will teach Europeans to wash their nasty asses. In fact we are living out the effects of the carelessness and nastiness of Europeans. As global warming continues to be driven to by colonialism: which equates to theft and genocide. By Europeans of all flavors. Just don't be an asshole dude🤷🏽‍♀️

  14. 4 out of 5

    Iset

    Well, the book definitely is somewhat of a slog to get through, and that’s even after the author has admitted that he has omitted and simplified events. A comprehensive history of the papacy over two millennia is just so dense and complex that you could hardly expect it to be otherwise. As a result I often found myself picking this up episodically – just a chapter at a time, and then putting it down again. It wasn’t immensely readable or a page-turner, so to speak. I admit I skimmed over the mod Well, the book definitely is somewhat of a slog to get through, and that’s even after the author has admitted that he has omitted and simplified events. A comprehensive history of the papacy over two millennia is just so dense and complex that you could hardly expect it to be otherwise. As a result I often found myself picking this up episodically – just a chapter at a time, and then putting it down again. It wasn’t immensely readable or a page-turner, so to speak. I admit I skimmed over the modern times section at the end, since I picked the book up for a historical portrait. But, the book does a good job of presenting the bigger picture and pulling together a great many disparate strands and explaining how, when, and why they fit together. It’s a good book for grounding European history, as a primer to a more specialised focus. I would recommend picking up the appropriate chapter, reading it, and then moving on to more particular concerns, so from that point of view it works well as a reference book. 6 out of 10

  15. 4 out of 5

    Laura

    From BBC Radio 4 Extra - Book of the Week: Well known for his histories of Norman Sicily, Venice, the Byzantine Empire and the Mediterranean, John Julius Norwich has now turned his attention to the oldest continuing institution in the world, tracing the papal line down the centuries from St Peter himself - traditionally (though by no means historically) the first pope - to the present day. Of the 280-odd holders of the supreme office, some have unquestionably been saints; others have wallowed in From BBC Radio 4 Extra - Book of the Week: Well known for his histories of Norman Sicily, Venice, the Byzantine Empire and the Mediterranean, John Julius Norwich has now turned his attention to the oldest continuing institution in the world, tracing the papal line down the centuries from St Peter himself - traditionally (though by no means historically) the first pope - to the present day. Of the 280-odd holders of the supreme office, some have unquestionably been saints; others have wallowed in unspeakable iniquity. John Julius Norwich begins reading The Popes today in suitably sensational fashion, with a 9th century scandal, believed for several centuries and doubted for as many again. The pope reputed to have given birth on a Roman street, who inspired a bizarre and unlikely ritual which was inflicted on future pontiffs to ensure their gender was male... meet Pope Joan. Producer: David Roper A Heavy Entertainment production for BBC Radio 4. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00zlfh1

  16. 4 out of 5

    Norman

    Been reading quite a few books on medieval history lately and the influence of the papacy is a recurring theme. Then I came across this superb potted history of the papacy from how they rose to fill the vacuum left by the collapsing Roman empire, through to the many crises the RC church is in today. Highly recommended as a brilliant book that covers a vast topic yet manages to keep the reader hooked from start to finish...

  17. 5 out of 5

    Dan Lalande

    An epic scorecard of all 265 Popes, a Bacchanalian saga of sex, militarism and ego. Norwich is no ring kisser but neither is he an axe grinder; the corruption of the office is not a matter of commentary but of hard historical record. It's odd episodes of editorializing are reserved for the truly outrageous (the Holocaust included) and for his faint, final hope for the integrity of the office. An epic scorecard of all 265 Popes, a Bacchanalian saga of sex, militarism and ego. Norwich is no ring kisser but neither is he an axe grinder; the corruption of the office is not a matter of commentary but of hard historical record. It's odd episodes of editorializing are reserved for the truly outrageous (the Holocaust included) and for his faint, final hope for the integrity of the office.

  18. 5 out of 5

    K.M. Weiland

    I won’t say I didn’t get anything else out of it (if nothing else, I have a better feeling for the “shape” of the papacy through history), but it felt very two-dimensional. It rushed through its personalities, making the various popes hard to distinguish from one another, much less remember. It focused entirely on the political papacy, with little to no comment on its religious impact and evolution, which was disappointing.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Aditya Pareek

    The most admirable thing about J. J. Norwich is denying that he is a scholar and embracing the narrative historian tag without any reluctance. Yet he insists on factual accuracy, makes him high bro yet anti-pomp. 5/5 ***** indeed. God bless his immortal soul in heaven.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Kirsti

    Whirlwind history of all the popes and antipopes through Benedict XVI (who gets a bad review for his insults to Muslims, Protestants, and I forget who else). One of the reasons that so many popes were Italian was that the German popes kept dropping dead of malaria, but the Italian popes had had time to build up some immunity. There are serious discussions here of theology, policy, power, control, humility, lovingkindness, and grievous sins, such as the failure to battle Nazism. But at times I wa Whirlwind history of all the popes and antipopes through Benedict XVI (who gets a bad review for his insults to Muslims, Protestants, and I forget who else). One of the reasons that so many popes were Italian was that the German popes kept dropping dead of malaria, but the Italian popes had had time to build up some immunity. There are serious discussions here of theology, policy, power, control, humility, lovingkindness, and grievous sins, such as the failure to battle Nazism. But at times I was more interested in gossip about which dead pope's nose fell off after a botched embalming job (Pius XII).

  21. 4 out of 5

    Jack

    The concept drew me to this book, but perhaps it was too ambitious. Not much better than reading Wikipedia, and since the author was an agnostic he fails to provide adequate context or intrigue into doctrinal affairs. Things just happen and a lot of popes were shit. Norwich is one of those pop-history writers who thinks he’s much wittier than he is, and doesn’t use quotes as illustratively as I would’ve liked. Not a recommendation for anyone.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Andie

    A history of the Papacy is not an easy chore as the institution has been in existence in one form or another for 2000 years, but author Julius Norwich manages to do so in a coherent and entertaining fashion. The first 1000 years of the Papacy focused on getting the church established, its rivalry with the Eastern Orthodox Church and squabbles over arcane issues of doctrine that no one would care about today, but which often led to warfare between rival factions in the church. The next 500 or so A history of the Papacy is not an easy chore as the institution has been in existence in one form or another for 2000 years, but author Julius Norwich manages to do so in a coherent and entertaining fashion. The first 1000 years of the Papacy focused on getting the church established, its rivalry with the Eastern Orthodox Church and squabbles over arcane issues of doctrine that no one would care about today, but which often led to warfare between rival factions in the church. The next 500 or so dealt with the Pope trying to establish his power over the temporal powers of Europe with decreasing success as nation states became steadily more powerful than the church. The same period saw the rise of Islam and the Crusades against its power in the MidEast (highly unsuccessful) and the battle against its incursion into Europe (ultimately successful) And finally the last 400 or so years dealt with the rise of Protestantism, the Church's loss of temporal power and it's battle against modernism in almost any form. With few exceptions, the Popes were mostly poor leaders and venal in the extreme. They were constantly looking to line their own (and their families') pockets with wealth and high office. Nepotism and simony were accepted practices, and vows of celibacy were largely ignored. Matters of faith seemed to take a decidedly second place to matters of temporal power. Once the 19th Century was underway, the Papacy quickly lost any influence it once had over international events. Napoleon started things off with his Empire at the beginning of the century and the unification movements in both Germany and Italy finished the job, with the Papacy just left with Vatican City at the beginning of the 20th Century. Is it any wonder, the Popes weren't fond of the modern age? Norwich does not spare the Popes of the last 100 years. Pius XI legitimizes Mussolini and Pius XII did virtually nothing to protest Hitler's extermination of the Jews. The one bright spot was Pope John XXIII who instituted the Second Vatican Council and Pope Paul VI who carried on its work after the death of Pope John XXIII in 1963. Pope John Paul I in 1978 gave every indication that he would extend the reforms of Vatican II even farther, but he died just 33 days after taking office and Norwich heavily suggests that he was murdered by reactionary elements in the Curia. Certainly the next two Popes were far more traditional in their doctrinaire outlook. The book, written in 2011 ends with Pope Benedict XVI, so we will have to leave it to another historian to judge the influence of Pope Francis. This is an interesting book that peels away the holy pomposity that surrounds the Papacy and shows the Popes as the men they were - warts and all.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Mike

    Fascinating history of the papacy. A surprising page turner. I knew there were plenty of scandals and interesting stories related to the Catholic Church through history but didn't have a grasp of just how outrageous the pontificate has been over the years. Inevitably with so many reused names it is easy to get confused and lose track of who is who, but the greater heroes and villains of the papacy are memorable indeed. After several long-tenured popes in the 20th century there was some surprise Fascinating history of the papacy. A surprising page turner. I knew there were plenty of scandals and interesting stories related to the Catholic Church through history but didn't have a grasp of just how outrageous the pontificate has been over the years. Inevitably with so many reused names it is easy to get confused and lose track of who is who, but the greater heroes and villains of the papacy are memorable indeed. After several long-tenured popes in the 20th century there was some surprise at the relative shortness of Benedict's tenure. But the book offers some perspective in this regard - through much of the middle ages and the renaissance Rome was an utter revolving door, sometimes with two (or more!) popes stuck in the turnstile at once. Norwich's writing style is what makes the book so edible. Far from academic, he is easy to consume and quite entertaining. Some phrases are overused and that becomes a minor annoyance (you'll know which ones by about halfway through) and the footnotes I found to be somewhat uneven. In his treatment of the church and the popes I think Norwich did well letting the stories speak for themselves. It is certainly no apologia for the Holy See, but we learn as much about the good popes as the bad ones. He leaves us before Benedict's resignation, so hopefully an updated version will be forthcoming at some point with a more conclusive assessment of his time.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Siria

    This is a very ambitious project—attempting to cover some 2000 years of history and more than 250 pontificates in less than 500 pages. While it's very readable, and Norwich did fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge (pretty much from the end of the Middle Ages to Vatican II), Absolute Monarchs isn't a successful book overall. Norwich writes well and with occasional bursts of the wry humour which made his history of Byzantium so enjoyable to read, but perhaps unsurprisingly given its scope, the This is a very ambitious project—attempting to cover some 2000 years of history and more than 250 pontificates in less than 500 pages. While it's very readable, and Norwich did fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge (pretty much from the end of the Middle Ages to Vatican II), Absolute Monarchs isn't a successful book overall. Norwich writes well and with occasional bursts of the wry humour which made his history of Byzantium so enjoyable to read, but perhaps unsurprisingly given its scope, the book does drag at points and is very much confined to considering the papacy as a political institution. That this isn't an area of Norwich's particular expertise is also evident just from looking at the bibliography, which relies heavily on older scholarship, largely English-language monographs. Why does Norwich use the Cambridge Medieval History (1911-36), one wonders, rather than the New Cambridge Medieval History (1995-2005), its updated successor, which would provide him with much more up-to-date scholarship upon which to draw? Why Kantorowicz on Frederick II, and not Abulafia? I was left with the impression that Norwich's research for Absolute Monarchs was confined to whichever books he had to hand in his own private collection and didn't stray very far from that. So a relatively quick read if you're interested in the history of the papacy over the longue durée, but not one which can be regarded as authoritative.

  25. 4 out of 5

    David

    So many popes, so few pages! If you ever wanted to learn the history of the papacy, from Peter to Benedict XVI, this book is the place to go. Norwich begins at the beginning. He is not interested in arguing for the validity of the papacy, nor does he get into much theological discussion. This is a book of history. So if the idea of reading theology bores or frightens you, then you're in luck. If the idea of hundreds of names and dates bores and frightens you, then you are out of luck. Every pope So many popes, so few pages! If you ever wanted to learn the history of the papacy, from Peter to Benedict XVI, this book is the place to go. Norwich begins at the beginning. He is not interested in arguing for the validity of the papacy, nor does he get into much theological discussion. This is a book of history. So if the idea of reading theology bores or frightens you, then you're in luck. If the idea of hundreds of names and dates bores and frightens you, then you are out of luck. Every pope lived in a context filled with kings and bishops and dukes and all sorts of other people. I am not sure that this is a knock at the book as the names are essential to the history. You can't talk about Pope Leo without mentioning Attila the Hun any more than you can talk about Pius XII without mentioning Hitler. That said, the names became a blur to skim over. After reading this book you realize there were lots of great popes who truly had strong faith and wanted to help people. There were just as many, perhaps more, who were complete jerks. They were either conniving power-hungry maniacs, or inept and pompous morons or just plain arrogant. There were also many who had mistresses and children, some who were gay, others who possibly did not believe in God and possibly one who was a woman. So yeah, pretty interesting.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Simone

    I think I should have known better; I have a hard time keeping track of names so why did I think I could follow along with the history of the papacy? That’s over 200 people! I didn’t think the pre-renaissance era would interest me that much - and I was right - still, I was hoping for some interesting tidbits or factoids while waiting for the stories of the Borgia Pope and Julius II etc to come around. Sadly, I didn’t find that section much better. Disappointed by the renaissance Popes, I thought t I think I should have known better; I have a hard time keeping track of names so why did I think I could follow along with the history of the papacy? That’s over 200 people! I didn’t think the pre-renaissance era would interest me that much - and I was right - still, I was hoping for some interesting tidbits or factoids while waiting for the stories of the Borgia Pope and Julius II etc to come around. Sadly, I didn’t find that section much better. Disappointed by the renaissance Popes, I thought the era of the enlightenment would be better – nope. I then looked forward to the modern era, including Italy’s unification, WW2, Nazi sympathizing Pope, murder of JPI, the amazing strides taken by JPII etc … all underwhelming. It was all just too jumbled for me. I am not going to retain ANY of the information and that’s too bad because I am interested in the subject! Reading about it all was just too dry; I would have retained much more information had it been a multi-part TV documentary series.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Chronics

    A pretty good read, only problem for me is I kept comparing it to "A history of Christianity" which was an excellent read and naturally had a much larger scope of subjects. At times the book seemed to get a bit repetetive (or maybe it was the popes) but overall it enligthened me to papal history, Roman catholic history and I learned what I expected and wanted from the book. If you would like a general history of the papacy which occasionally goes into the politics,morality and efforts of individu A pretty good read, only problem for me is I kept comparing it to "A history of Christianity" which was an excellent read and naturally had a much larger scope of subjects. At times the book seemed to get a bit repetetive (or maybe it was the popes) but overall it enligthened me to papal history, Roman catholic history and I learned what I expected and wanted from the book. If you would like a general history of the papacy which occasionally goes into the politics,morality and efforts of individual popes and periods without too much judgement then read this book, if your looking for more indepth analysis of particular periods then I'm sure there are better texts, although that wasnt what I was looking for and so I cant quote any specifically. Next up is Saints and Sinners from which this book refers to quite a lot.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan

    The amazing saga of one of the world's oldest institutions, portrayed through the lives of its main characters: the popes themselves, and brilliantly told by one of the most adept of narrative historians, John Julius Norwich. Norwich is not only a master of the source material, he weaves a tapestry that suits the power, mystery and majesty of the Papacy itself, with all of its saints, knaves and fools (and occasional monsters). He is a superb raconteur and, in the best tradition of Gibbon, he do The amazing saga of one of the world's oldest institutions, portrayed through the lives of its main characters: the popes themselves, and brilliantly told by one of the most adept of narrative historians, John Julius Norwich. Norwich is not only a master of the source material, he weaves a tapestry that suits the power, mystery and majesty of the Papacy itself, with all of its saints, knaves and fools (and occasional monsters). He is a superb raconteur and, in the best tradition of Gibbon, he does his best to leave in the naughty bits. But the work is serious history and gives one a good overview of the Papacy, as well as the various issues facing the Church through the ages. Leo X said "God has given us the Papacy. Now let us enjoy it." You could say the same for this fine book.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Ray

    A lovely book, it rattles along through an intriguing history of one of the most important institutions in the world. I found the gossipy asides fascinating - well done!

  30. 5 out of 5

    Czarny Pies

    The title of "Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy" says much about the book and its many grievous problems. It is as provocative as it its misleading. Indeed Norwich makes it quite clear that the power of the Popes was never absolute but in fact consistently shaky. Throughout history, the Popes have always been dependent on friendly kings, emperors and princes to provide the military support necessary to maintain their states. They have been frequently deposed, held captive and murdered. The title of "Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy" says much about the book and its many grievous problems. It is as provocative as it its misleading. Indeed Norwich makes it quite clear that the power of the Popes was never absolute but in fact consistently shaky. Throughout history, the Popes have always been dependent on friendly kings, emperors and princes to provide the military support necessary to maintain their states. They have been frequently deposed, held captive and murdered. . Moreover the Popes generally had very little control over their own bishops who throughout the centuries have taken their orders from the rulers of the countries where their dioceses were located. Given the trouble that Norwich takes to illustrate the true weakness on the Papcacy, his decision to give his book such a lurid title is quite indefensible. A second indication of the shortcomings of Norwich's book is his bibliography which is a modest four pages in length. Norwich neither understood his subject upon setting out nor made any effort along the way to learn anything about it. At least he cannot be criticized for pretending that he did. It must be recognized however that Norwich is a legitimate expert in the areas of Byzantine, Venetian and Normand Sicilian history. Thus the middle of the of the book provides a competent narrative of the diplomatic and military conflicts involving the Papal states during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The worst problems of the book are in the first and the last one hundred pages. Norwich's narrative of the birth of the Papacy during late antiquity is dreadful. Similarly, his account of the actions of the Popes during the unification of Italy is abysmal . His review of the Papacy's struggles with modernism in the 20th century may be even worse. "Absolute Monarchs" does offer certain pleasures. Tourists who have visited the major architectural sites of the Papal states will appreciate the fact that he consistently notes the major building projects of the individual popes. Norwich wisely chooses not to discuss the theological ideas of any of the popes but gives full coverage of their sex lives. It should be understood that Norwich's goal is not to be critical. In fact, he finds the romantic adventures of the Popes to be endearing if not praiseworthy. I consider Julius Norwich to be a truly great historian and am disappointed that "Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy" is so awful. Norwich does not actively distort. He simply has too much trouble distinguishing between what is significant and what is anecdotal.

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