Although Browning presents the Pope as only one of several people judging the murder case in The Ring and the Book, the Pope’s opinion is the only one that will actually harm or save Guido. He appears uninvolved with the case (although his own words later raise questions about how emotionally invested he is in it). But Browning begins the Pope’s monologue with ruminations on past misjudgments by the Vatican, where a pope’s corpse was put on trial by his successor and alternately condemned and redeemed by the following popes until the matter finally petered out.

"Here is the last pronouncing of the Church,
"Her sentence that subsists unto this day.
"Yet constantly opinion hath prevailed
"I' the Church, Formosus was a holy man."

Which of the judgments was infallible?
Which of my predecessors spoke for God?
And what availed Formosus that this cursed,
That blessed, and then this other cursed again?
"Fear ye not those whose power can kill the body
"And not the soul," saith Christ, "but rather those
"Can cast both soul and body into hell!"

his uncertainty — both about the past pope’s holiness and in the current pope’s faith in his office — transforms what the reader would expect to be an authority into yet another suspect voice. His lack of trust in his own reading of things and terror at the power he holds make the Pope human and likeable, but remove him from the possibility of giving a supposedly true account of the murder.

                                      You stand outside,
You artist women, of the common sex;
You share not with us, and exceed us so
Perhaps by what you're mulcted (?) in, your heart
Being starved to make your heads: so run the old
Traditions of you. [p.79, book 3, lines 406-11]

Questions

1. How does the Pope’s recounting of his predecessors’ turmoil affect his credibility? Does it give the reader more faith in him (remembering his “ancient self” of Antonio Pignatelli that he feels he must answer to) or less because the authority of the Pope is so clearly flawed?

2. Despite his view on the matter and ability to do so, the Pope does not officially redeem Formosus and his soul, even though his statement suggests that that would weigh far larger than Guido’s bodily execution. Does Browning include this to limit the Pope’s intellectual capacity and humanize him, or for another reason?

3. Many of the Pope’s worries about his fallibility stem from Christ’s looming judgment of him, and the worry that “I must plead/This condemnation of a man to-day.” How does his mortality play into his decision?

4. The film Rashomon and The Ring and the Book both set up seemingly irreproachable viewpoints that prove to have some bias (the dead man and the Pope) within other viewpoints even more impeccable (the narrators). Rashomon reveals that the narrator skews his facts; in The Ring and the Book, the narrator emphasizes repeatedly that “substance of me interfused the gold.” Is the device of layering narrators used the same way? Is Browning’s account somehow more accurate and impartial than the woodcutter narrator’s, or does Browning’s narrator also have a stake?


Victorian Overview E. B. Browning Leading Questions

Last modified 22 February 2011