BlackRabbit’s #CBR5 Review #3:The Bad Popes by E. R. Chamberlin.

I’ve gone to religious schools all of my life, and over time my interest in it has only increased. From the myths of the ancient Greeks to Scientology, I’m fascinated by any system of organized belief you could mention, because of the foibles and innate complexity of people and the way that drives us try to make sense of a sometimes senseless world. If that sounds pretentious, it’s not meant to be.

This book is one of my favorites, and is #3 on my Books To Save From A Fire. (I’ll have to make a list someday.) It has a snazzy red cover, quality paper inside (trust me, there’s a difference once you feel it) and even golden edging on the pages. Packaging is important, after all, and this book just screams “venerable.” I’m sure the newer prints have done away with all of that, and it’s fine, but there’s few books on history I’ve seen that just looked “historical”. Nor is this a “hard” historical book. I have only an amateur knowledge of history and political science, and I found it very smooth going. He doesn’t talk down to you, but neither does he require that you know anything before starting.

Once you get into it, though, the true fun begins. Chamberlin’s writing style is clean and serious, and yet vivid and not above the details in the lives of the various popes. He makes their lives and the deeply complex tangles of politics that they encountered both inside and out of the Vatican comprehensible without dumbing it down or being disrespectful to the office, which could have been very easy considering the behavior of some of it’s holders.

Likewise the issue of religion is not often mentioned, except as the force that gave the Popes their power and influence. Indeed, the point made by Chamberlin and reinforced by the later pontiffs was that the Pope was indeed a temporal prince in many respects, commanding armies and playing the political game with as much skill and getting his hands as dirty as anyone else, often with more fervor because he could not pass it on to his children.

The famous Borgias are among the folks who make an appearance, which should spark the interest of any fans of the BBC and Showtime series. But there’s so much more here; the backdrop of their lives is examined in such a way that the Borgias are seen as being products of their time, not unusually amoral or sadistic but just trying to be “the bigger fish.” Cesare Borgia himself knew perfectly well that he was making enemies, and worked to make himself able to resist their attacks when his patron (and father) Pope Alexander VI eventually died, simply because he was the son of a powerful man. Had they been secular Italian nobles, it would have been much the same.

This book has much to offer, in other words. It’s not just a desription of a “murderer’s row” of bad (and sometimes sad) men, not just a historical narrative, or even, as I’ve said before, particularly pro- or anti-Catholic. It’s a refreshing dip into a time and place that continues to affect the modern world, as well as a reminder that things don’t really change in politics. And the cover is spiffy as well.

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