Review – The Bad Popes by Russell Chamberlin

Each of the Popes considered in this book, from the gentle hermit pope Celestine V to the degenerate Rodrigo Borgia and the emperor pope Boniface VIII shared one heavy burden. They were not only the spiritual leaders of Europe but, through an audacious forgery (the so called Donation of Constantine), they were also territorial princes – ‘papal monarchs’ – struggling to maintain control over an enormous section of Italy. The careers of these popes demonstrate the disastrous effect of combining religion and politics and led at last to the event which ends this book – the Sack of Rome in 1527. Brought about by the inept attempts of Pope Clement VIV against his rival the King of France, the culmination was the sacking of the Eternal City by 20,000 starving, pitiless mercenaries. It was the end of an era.
Ever since I first started reading about the Borgia family, I have found myself becoming more and more interested in the history of the Roman Catholic church. And more so the history of the corrupt Popes from history. So when I saw this book I knew I just had to have it. And I’m glad I did. 
This book starts with an introduction to Rome and the Papacy and describes briefly the Donation of Constantine, which was a forged document giving the Pope of Rome the principality of the Papal states. I won’t go too much into what it is and what it did here as it would have to be a whole other blog post. Once the introduction is out of the way Chamberlin then goes on to describe in detail the lives and careers of Rome’s most corrupt and decadent popes. Of course Chamberlin does not tell us about each and every Pope as that would just be a bit too much but rather has picked out a selection of those Popes with probably the worst reputations in the history of the Catholic Church. The thing I liked about this though was that Chamberlin doesn’t bash the Popes for their behaviour, far from it. Instead he gives an incredibly balanced view of things, and tells the reader of each Popes pluses and minuses, showing how they can go from quite pious and agreeable men, to sheer corruption and it really allows you to draw your own conclusions.
The book itself runs from the early popes in the Theophylact family, who reigned from 926-1046 right up until the sack of Rome in 1527. That is a huge amount of ground to cover yet Chamberlin does a great job in giving the reader the information that they need about each Pope being looked at. Of course, not every aspect can be written about, as that would end up as an entire library. But Chamberlin makes his point, expands on it and covers it in a brilliantly snappy manner that doesn’t leave you feeling as if you’ve swallowed an encyclopedia. And it works.
Of course, my favourite section of the book was on the infamous Rodrigo Borgia who is often seen as the most corrupt Pope in history. Yet the section on him retains a balanced view, and you really get a sense that Rodrigo Borgia wasn’t really all that bad. Chamberlin also gives Cesare Borgia the benefit of the doubt too, and while he admits that Cesare wasn’t the nicest man in the world, he says he was “probably innocent” of his brothers murder. And this made me smile quite a lot. I must admit that I found the later sections of the book more interesting than the earlier Popes, probably because my area of interest is from the 15th Century onwards, so I did really enjoy the chapters on Alexander VI (Borgia), Julius II (Della Rovere) and the Medici popes. And whilst the chapters give you a fantastic overview of their good points and bad points, it has also given me a thirst to know more about these other Papal monarchs too. And so, I feel incredibly sorry for both my purse and my bookcase!
All in all a fantastic book and highly recommended, especially if you are interested in the history of the Roman Catholic Church and learning a bit more about those Popes who have gone down in history as the worst of the worst.

2 thoughts on “Review – The Bad Popes by Russell Chamberlin

  1. I'd say some of the 'good' Popes were far more horrible and disgusting than what are known as the 'bad' Popes. Pope Innocent (!) is celebrated far and wide, but he started the damn Crusades and sanctioned the murders of so many people.

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