Absolute Monarchs

The institution of the Pope – irrefutable source of dogma for Catholics – has over the ages, enjoyed more reverence and better press than in modern days, and has at times been the focus of fiction. Kate Mosse cleverly uses the Pope’s role in medieval tales of torture and Crusades against the Cathars in her mystery – The Winter Ghosts. But, John Julius Norwich’s nonfiction historical perspective across the centuries from Peter through Vatican II in his chronicle of the papacy – Absolute Monarchs – examines the facts behind the stories. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

Norwich’s book reads like a text – not quite the “beach-read” described by Bill Keller in his review for the New York Times – 2000 Years of Popes, Sacred and Profane - but Norwich does insert some humor with his own irreverent commentary, and shows no mercy with some of the “idiotic” politics. If you are a fan of exploring family trees or the evolution of dynastic power, Norwich’s study of the popes delivers the longest running line in history – some pious, some crazy, most power-hungry – some great.

Gregory the Great (590-604), a former wealthy civil servant who gave away his lands to the church (a practice that continued through the ages to increase the church’s coffers and influence) had the distinction of being the first monk to become a pope. Although reluctant to take the mantle, preferring the quiet of the monastery, Gregory accomplishments were “great” – from reorganization to foreign relations, along with the famous Gregorian chant (not the calendar; that came with Gregory XIII in 1582).

As I continued to study the popes by Norwich, I came across John Anderson’s article for the New York Times – Who Died and Made You Pope? - describing a new film “We Have a Pope,” scheduled for release on Good Friday this week. Pope Celestine V is the focus, another monk elected in 1294. Never to be designated “great” – Norwich describes him as

“…one of the most unsuitable men ever to occupy, however briefly, the papal throne…an eighty-five year old peasant who had lived for more than six decades as a hermit…he lasted for five months, then wisely announced his abdication – the only one in papal history.”

Popes are elected for life, but they can quit, and the film promises an Italian comedy.

I am still reading Absolute Monarchy (and will be for a while – it can only be taken in episodes), but future chapter titles are motivating me onward: “The Monsters” with tales of those ludicrous Borgias; “The Jesuits and the Revolution”; “Pope Joan” – now I want to read the Donna Woolfolk Cross novel.

The Winter Ghosts

On his twenty-first birthday, six years after the death of his older brother in World War I, Freddie Watson finally succumbs to his grief and goes mad. Years later, released from the sanitarium, as he drives into the French Pyrenees for a holiday, his car crashes in a snowstorm.  He finds shelter in a small village where he connects with his soul mate, a young beautiful ethereal girl, Fabrissa, who disappears after one night.  Is his experience real or imagined? Is he reverting to madness or privy to another world? Kate Mosse’s The Winter Ghosts will immerse you in Gothic romance and mystery, while revealing the commonality of war – whether in the 14th or 20th century.

The story has a maddeningly slow start, with elaborate descriptions and flashbacks. Once Fabrissa appears, the action reverts to ghostly secrets that are not too difficult to unravel, but Mosse offers a different spin on the obvious.

Mosse uses the Cathar persecution in medieval France as the historical premise for the mystery; zealot Catholic Crusaders had the Pope’s blessing to plunder villages and kill, in the name of salvation. When villagers hid in caves in the hills, the soldiers sealed them in with boulders, creating a living tomb. In the story, Fabrissa wears the yellow cross, the Catholic church’s symbol for heretical Cathars; Mosse alludes to the similarity of the labeling of Jews. The historic references led me to explore more about the Cathars, their beliefs and struggle in the Rene Weis book – The Yellow Cross: The Story of the Last Cathars.

Freddie finds salvation through Fabrissa – finally able to lay aside his own torment and ghosts by exposing hers. Although the mystery is easily solved in the first 100 pages, The Winter Ghosts offers more in its historical education, if you know what you are reading.