The subtitle is a more accurate guide to the content of book than the headline. Although there is plenty of military material here, don’t expect to find much detailed analysis of various Papal armies, at least until you reach the final siege of Rome during the unification of Italy. At this point the level of military detail increases greatly, and we get a good account of this siege, but until then campaigns are dealt with in fairly limited detail (apart from the battle of Lepanto). What we get instead is a very readable political and military history of the Papacy, looking at its place in the secular world over the last two millennium.
I do have a few quibbles with this book. At the start of the book there is a brief discussion of the contradiction between the peaceful message of most of the Gospels and Papacy’s involvement in warfare and possession of an army. One Biblical passage is used to support the Pope’s involvement in warfare, coming from the Gospel of Luke. Taken out of context Jesus appears to be instructing his disciples to take up arms ‘he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one’. However, if one reads the full passage it becomes clear that this was in no way a call to arms, but instead part of a desire to satisfy one of the prophecies about the Messiah found in the Book of Isaiah – he will be ‘numbered with the transgressors’. When the disciples are able to produce two swords between them, they are told that two are enough.
There are some contradictions. One that does stand out is that after repeatedly describing Papal conclaves that were violent, partisan or simply corrupt, the first intrusion of the modern media is described as intruding into a process that was ‘once quietly serious’! This really doesn’t ring true after so many accounts of conclaves ending in riots, with bands of cardinals departed for different parts of Europe to declare rival Popes or dominated by various secular powers.
One thing that does stand out when one skims through Papal history at this pace is just how many terrible popes there have been over the centuries! Instead we get a parade of the incompetent, the arrogant, and the corrupt, political puppets of various Catholic monarchs, mixed in with a surprisingly large number of very short lived non-entities. Many of the conflicts described in these pages appear to have been triggered by various over-reaching claims to political power made by various Popes, unsurprisingly resisted by the secular rulers whose powers were being claimed. Excommunications were thrown around with such freedom that they eventually lost all power – after the unification of Italy the next few Popes appear to have indulged in a lengthy sulk about the loss of their own secular possessions, only really relenting under Mussolini!
Overall this is a very entertaining read, moving at an impressive pace through the lengthy history of the Papacy, looking at how the Popes coped with the ever changing European political scene, after losing its original protector with the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Given all of the problems detailed here, one does have to be impressed that the institution managed to survive intact.
1 – To Fight or Not to Fight?
2 – Fortifying the Papacy
3 – Who’s the Boss in Europe
4 – ‘Dieu li volt!’
5 – The Fair Land of France
6 – The Papacy Unleashed: Alexander and Julius
7 – ‘Quare de vulva eduxisti me?’
8 – The Pope’s Navy
9 – Digging In
10 – The Humiliation of Pius VII
11 – St Patrick’s Crusaders
12 – Pius IX versus Italy
13 – Farewell to Arms
Author: John Carr
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military