Pontifacts is not the only podcast that focuses on the popes, but it is certainly the most entertaining.
It is presented by Bry and Fry, two very funny women who obviously have a great time creating the show, and their enjoyment rubs off on the listener.
Having been best friends for now well over a decade, when Bry, a history buff and podcast fan, decided she wanted to create a history podcast of her own, she naturally turned to her old chum Fry to co-host.
The popes as a subject matter were a natural fit with Bry’s historical interests, and the pair decided to follow a similar format to that used by the already successful Rex Factor Podcast, which rates all the Kings and Queens of England.
While developing Pontifacts, Bry had the opportunity to gain valuable podcasting experience by co-hosting The Lesser Bonapartes—one of the great lost masterworks of historical podcasting lore.
Interestingly, while Bry seems to be the keeper of knowledge about the popes and surrounding theology, it is Fry who has the Catholic background—not only is her father a deacon, but most of her family works for the church in one way or another, as well. Personally, though, Fry describes herself as “lapsed.”
Bry sees the popes mostly through an historical lens. History has been her passion from an early age, and she has studied it all her life. Her particular enthusiasm is for The Renaissance, specifically Florence and The Medici–she even got married in Florence in a beautiful, Renaissance-themed wedding. Bry does like dressing up!
Fry claims to be “just here for the ride.” This is not quite true, as she acts as the voice of the audience by expressing bewilderment at the mad goings-on of those crazy, crazy popes. Bry also points out that there is quite a clear division of labor—while she does most of the research and talking, Fry is the one making it all happen behind the scenes. Beyond that, Fry is the comic foil to Bry’s onslaught of deep research and illuminating quotes. Her humor is as dry as a well-made martini, and she never fails to amuse with her wry interjections.
The office of the pontiff holds fascination for anyone interested in history regardless of religious inclinations because, as Bry points out, “It is one of the longest-standing institutions in the entire world and one of the only roles in history that has survived every era… since antiquity. Kingdoms come and go… countries have come and gone… we have had empires and republics and nation-building… but the pope remains and continues to be a massively important figure. There’s no way to look at history and not wonder, ‘Hey, what was the pope doing?’ Because they were doing something.”
The all-important ratings
One of the most popular aspects of the show is its scoring system, which provides for a great deal listener engagement. The categories they use to rate each pope in what they describe as their invented “Harry Potter Latin” are:
- Papatum Infallium: Holiness
- Fructus Prohibitum: Scandals and Misdeeds
- Seculari Impactum: Worldliness and Mass Appeal
- Each provides up to 10 points each from both Bry and Fry. Popes can pick up extra points from other categories, including:
- Faciem Sanctus: Appearance. Here, the scores are divided by four, because… well, a pope shouldn’t really be judged on his looks.
- Tempus Pontificus: Length of papacy.
Popes also earn a “Cannon Bonus Point” if they have been made into a saint, and finally, the truly exceptional can earn themselves a Papal Bull:
“Popes who achieve a Papal Bull will go to the Pearly Gates and eventually be rated against one another in the ultimate showdown, to decide which was the popiest pope who ever poped. Will someone be popey enough to take the keys away from St. Peter himself? Time will tell,” Bry explains.
Pope Damasus is currently topping the leaderboard. His is a juicy story, as he presided over a slaughter of his rivals’ supporters when he took office, and he was also reputed as a bit of a lady’s man. But more crucially, he presided over the council that decided which books are included in the Bible as we know it. So, we can see that he would have scored highly in Papatum Infallium for his work on the Bible, in Fructus Prohibitum for the scandals, and in Seculari Impactum for the slaughtering.
Pope Honorius, from the seventh century, sounds great. He repaired aqueducts, fortified the city, and nourished the city, but unfortunately, has been excommunicated.
One of the very best episodes is Episode 137: Johannes Anglicus. In it, Bry ambushes Fry with the tale of Pope Joan. Bry keeps it very straight while describing how Johannes suddenly, mysteriously, started to get very fat. Fry’s screams of outrage upon discovering that he wasn’t fat, but rather pregnant, as Johannes was in fact Joan are much like those of the people of Rome at the time!
Fry might profess to be a non-expert, but when asked how many popes there have been, she quickly responded with 266. Each is included in the Apostolic Succession and in the main Pontifacts feed.
What will follow on for Pontifacts? Saints? Patriarchs? Bry and Fry don’t know yet for sure, but as they still have over 1,000 years of popes to cover, there will be plenty of Pontifacts to come, which surely keeps their devoted listeners happy.
Pontifacts came storming back after a hiatus in March this year and have got straight into some of the juiciest bits, well not so juicy in the case of Cadaver Synod (Episode 115). And as of Episode 121, they have just got into the “Pornocracy”–a period when the papacy became dominated by women, which does promise to be juicy. This should run to at least ten episodes, which will see us through to the end of the year pretty much.
Pontifacts has paid back the lead that they took from existing RexyPod podcasts in spades and have been a benevolent presence in the history podcasting community generally and specifically within the RexyPod set, where Bry has been a great support to many of the next wave of RexyPods. Last year at Intelligent Speech, we had a great RexyPod Panel featuring, Pontifacts, Totalus Rankium, and Rex Factor. This year there will a new set of RexyPodders on the Child of Rexypanel Panel, covering French Monarchs, Tsars, Tudors, and The American West.
Pontifacts will be speaking at IS and The History of the Popemobile––Responses and Innovations for Changing and Challenging Papacies, we will see where that takes us if you will excuse the pun. What we can be sure about is that it will be a lot of fun, like everything Pontifacts do and well worth coming along for the ride.
From the outset I should say that interviewing Sebastian Major was the absolute pleasure that I expected it to be. He is certainly one of the most affable history podcasters on the scene.
For those of you unlucky enough not to have yet listened to Our Fake History, and I urge you to remedy that situation promptly, this is the podcast that looks at historical myths and tries to “determine what’s fact, what’s fiction and what is such a good story that it simply must be told”. As a long-term listener and fan of the show, your correspondent did very much enjoy hearing Sebastian speak the tagline live and up close.
Including extras, Our Fake History boasts over 200 episodes and is now into its eighth season. The fake history approach allows Sebastian to delve into the great stories of history, right from the outset in Season 1, we had The Trojan War, Joan of Arc and Napoleon. As it became obvious that this podcast was going to run for a while, Sebastian has rationed his menu of biggies, so he managed to avoid The Knights Templar until Season 7, Galileo until Season 8 and he is only just got to Christopher Columbus and he very much enjoyed it even though he has had to research some fairly grim events.
The inception of Our Fake History has a legend of its own. At the time, Sebastian was a high-school history teacher in Toronto. As any good history teacher does he wanted to hook his students into the period that they were studying and thought that he would tell them the tale of Rasputin in all its salacious detail. He told them the well-known tale of how the mad monk survived poisoning, shooting and being thrown into a frozen Russian river wrapped in a blanket only to die from exposure. But on finishing, hoping to have inculcated these young minds with a life-long love of learning, he saw that one student had a hand up and said, “That’s not true. That’s a total myth. That didn’t really happen. Why are you lying to us in our history class?”
And sure enough, Sebastian went back to do his research and found that this tale though fantastical was widely believed but when he looked into it further he found that it was essentially based on one man’s account. And this man, Felix Yusupov, had skin in the game, he was the classic unreliable narrator, and unreliable narrators who would go on to become a stock character of the podcast.
So, Sebastian went back to the class with an entirely different Rasputin-based lesson, where the focus was reading multiple sources and questioning all of them. “What should we believe? How do we use these different sources? How do we weight them? How would we come to trust one over another?” And thus was born Our Fake History.
What became of that student who stood up and questioned his teacher, like so much of the historical record, is lost to the mists of time. But you can find the answer to his protests in the Who Killed Rasputin series as Season 2, Episodes 28-29.
Sebastian loves fake history because it tells us so much about real history. All myths are constructs of their time. Sebastian cites the example of the Titanic myth (Season 7, Episodes 151-153) as being a window on the British Edwardian cultural perspective and the expectation that the captain had been heroic, had shown the stiff upper-lip and had gone down with his ship as he should have done. Whether this is true or not is less interesting to Sebastian than what the belief in this myth tells us about those British Edwardians. Sebastian’s recent series on Christopher Columbus is worth checking out if you want to delve further into how myths evolve over time and what they tell us about the tellers of those myths.
As for those who actually invent the myths, those unreliable narrators, over the years Sebastian has built up a bit of Rogue’s Gallery who keep popping up that would include Geoffrey of Monmouth, Heinrich Schliemann and Graham Hancock. Schliemann even has his own guitar sting when he crops up yet again committing one more crime against archaeology. But for all his wanton destruction of the ruins of Troy, undoubtedly his greatest discovery, Sebastian confesses to a certain fondness for Schliemann… Hancock not so much. I sense that Sebastian has slogged through the collected works of Graham Hancock as an act of true altruism. He has done it so that we don’t have to – taken one for the team if you will.
Sebastian might be a lover the fakers and fakery, but he does believe that there is such a thing as real history. He says, “And so real history is when you look at all of the sources that you that you have in front of you and you go, okay, all of these sources agree on a certain number of things and where there is consensus and where there is agreement and where the things that are written match up with what’s in the archaeological record. Those are the things we can say are true. Those are the things we can say really happened or those are the places we can say there is no disagreement on this.”
So Our Fake History focuses on the historical events where these criteria are not met, where things are contested, where there are multiple perspectives that we cannot, from our distance in time say for certain which is correct. Over the years Sebastian has learnt to smell out fishiness, “I’m always suspicious of something that comes up in a historical source that that sounds a little too much like a fairy tale. Or sounds to a little too much like a story trope that we’ve heard before.”
That said, this does not mean that there is no truth in fairy tales. In fact, when asked to recommend a single episode for new listeners, he proposes the Was There A Real Pied Piper?(Season 4, Episode 77). He feels that it is a nice, concise introduction to what he does.
When it comes to recommending a whole series, he goes for something more personal to him as a Canadian, namely The War of 1812 (Series 6, Episodes 133-135). And he can’t help himself steering people towards the various episodes he has done on music, including Who Invented Rock ‘n Roll? (Series 3, Episodes 53-54).
Music is very important to Sebastian, and Our Fake History always opens with a fine, and supremely rock and roll, “1, 2, 3, 4” intro from a band called Dirty Church. But it was only after a few years that we found out that Dirty Church is one of a number of bands that Sebastian has been part of over time. He plays all the melodic interludes between sections of the podcast too.
And with his band background, Sebastian really enjoys suggesting concepts from history as potential band names, undoubtedly the best of these being the Boudiccan Destruction Horizon (a line in the substrata of London that marks the time that Boudicca burnt the city to the ground). He got into a bit of hot water with this recently when he thought there should be a Scandinavian band called The Ultimate Thule, after the mythic northern island, but it turns there is already a Swedish band of this name, unfortunately they turn out to be neo-Nazis.
Behind the scenes
As ever at Intelligent Speech, we do like to find out a little about the whole business of podcasting, this is particularly true of independent podcasters like Sebastian, who have taken the plunge and gone full time. Sebastian has given up his regular teaching work, though he is keeping his hand in with some supply teaching and envisages himself going back into it at some point.
It might not be the most profitable, but the Our Fake History merch really is exceptional and this is thanks to the input from Frank Fiorentino, an artist friend of Sebastian’s. Frank designs unique artwork for each episode of OFH. Originally Frank volunteered his services but Sebastian is now able to reward for his work, which he does diligently by insisting that Sebastian shares the topics and focuses beforehand, so that he can create a piece of art that really does reflect the episode in question. Your correspondent is the proud owner of a Plague Doctor covid mask, which felt all too apposite at the time.
Our Fake History also has a Patreon page with various rewards for different tiers, including bonus episodes, and the opportunity to vote on future episodes.
Sebastian is also now exploring the wilder shores of social media, well YouTube and something called TikTok, in order to bring the gospel of Fake History to the younger generations.
Then there is the advertising, Sebastian does sound a little sheepish about this, like so many podcasters but he recognises that this income helps him feed his family and to be a full-time podcaster, so he is actually quite comfortable with it. And if listeners are rabidly anti-advertising, they can join the ranks of the “beautiful people” on a tier of Patreon and get the ad-free versions. Seems very much fair enough!
- Hellfire Clubs
- Professional wrestling
- Buffalo Bill and the Wild West Shows (For the non-fake history of Sitting Bull’s involvement with Buffalo Bill, see History on Fire, episodes 55-56 from fellow Intelligent Speech Keynote, Daniele Bolelli)
- Lope de Aguirre (of Klaus Kinski’s Wrath of God fame)
We are very glad to be able to include Sebastian as one of our Keynotes at Intelligent Speech 2023.
He’s working on a contingencies-based topic around the idea of No Contingencies, i.e. when there was no back-up plan. He’ll be exploring questions along the lines of:
- Did Cortes really burn his boats?
- What to do when you are Columbus and you’ve told everyone, including two very bellicose monarchs, that you were going to be coming back from Asia laden with gold and you are clearly not in Asia?
- Did Tesla really deliver what he said he had?
Sebastian and Daniele Bolelli of History of Fire will be appearing together on one of Intelligent Speech’s Roundtables. Details are still to be firmed up but they are looking into discussing storytelling and history, which promises to be a great session.
So roll up to Intelligent Speech in November to hear a truly beautiful person speak and in the meantime feast yourselves on the riches that are available at Our Fake History.
If you are reading this, you are probably into history podcasts and if you are into history podcasts, then you will already know Daniele Bolelli. Daniele has been a much-loved, leading light in history podcasting for a good few years now and has, of course, one of the most distinctive voices of our genre.
Daniele has been in the game since 2015 and is one of the few history podcasters to be able to carry an Apple-approved “Best of…” on his podcast logo since the year he launched. Eight years and 90+ episodes later, Daniele and his History on Fire podcast, certainly continue to be one of the best of…
As is abundantly clear from his accent and his name, Daniele is Italian but he has been in the US since he was 18 years old and is proud to call it his home.
When we met, he was bailing his home out after an unseasonal deluge had hit California. It was surprising for your British correspondent to be dryer than a Californian but these are strange times when it comes to the climate. It was a great privilege that we could have a quick chat and get some insight into the man behind the microphone.
His introduction to podcasting was from appearing on shows by Adam Carolla and Joe Rogan while he was promoting a book that he had written. Daniele has written a number of books, including Not Afraid: On Fear, Heartbreak, Raising a Baby Girl, and Cage Fighting; 50 Things You’re Not Supposed to Know: Religion; and Create Your Own Religion.
He would eventually appear eight more times on the Joe Rogan show, which definitely helped him a lot to initially grow his audience when he made his own move into podcasting.
These promotional appearances were back in 2011 when podcasting was in its infancy but his interest was piqued in this new media and people encouraged him to start his own podcast. This he duly did and launched The Drunken Taoist, a chatty podcast that covers all sorts of topics and is still going strong with 233 episodes available, the most recent one about the hot topic of our day: AI and the end of Humanity!
From his books and that podcast, we can see that Eastern religions and martial arts are a massively important part of Daniele’s world but by profession he is a history professor so branching into history podcasting was, of course, a natural move.
First he had to come up with a name (all good podcasts need an impactful name) and he freely admits that he stole the idea of History on Fire from a friend who had an HBO programme called Sports on Fire and the “On Fire” bit seemed to chime with what Daniele loves about history, meaning that it would fit well with the podcast he was planning to launch. It conveys the intensity he has always striven for and has the epic quality that matched the epic topics he covers. As he says, History on Fire as a show is “not happy, mellow and peaceful”. It’s a show that involves conflict, “not necessarily war but definitely conflict.”
Like a good father who is unable to say which of his children is his favourite, Daniele is reluctant to answer the question about which is his favourite episode. He tells people to visit his website to search the archive and find a topic that they find interesting. That’s the advantage of this kind of podcast that does not chronologically follow one historical thread but jumps around, so listeners can just go for whatever takes their fancy.
One recurring topic of History on Fire is Native American history. His theme tune is an Ennio Morricone track from a Spaghetti Western, which works oh so well. He can’t remember what first got him into this topic but he has been fascinated with the history of the American West since he was a tiny child.
So when the opportunity to cross the Atlantic arose, his mum getting a job writing for an Italian magazine about life in the US, Daniele grabbed it. Thus in 1992, at the age of 18 he found himself going through college in the States. After initially loving it, after a while he felt that he had not established any true relationships and was considering returning to Italy.
But then he had an experience that convinced him to stay. He went to a Lakota Sundance Ceremony, and all of a sudden he was in a better frame of mind, something clicked, and began to see the US as home.
That said, he has an outsider’s objectivity at being able to look at the country he now calls home. “The US is an extremely lonely society. That was back then, today I think it is ten times worse than it was.” It’s not that he looks at his home country of Italy through nostalgic, pink-tinted sunglasses and longs for some imagined communal spirt of Italy but feels that friendships in the US can often only skin-deep and fleeting. The way he puts it is that your phone book might be filled with people’s numbers but you don’t really interact with a great many people on the list.
He hasn’t in fact covered Italy a lot in History on Fire, maybe surprisingly given that Italy is quite famous for being somewhat heavy on the history and Daniele admits that when he was in Italy he “could not care less for Italian history because it is shoved down your throat at every turn,” and only began to appreciate it from a distance and enjoy Italian and European history much more from a distance than he ever did when he lived there.
As well as the episodes that cover the American West, another recurring topic is Martial Arts. He started training when he was 17 and has been practising ever since. He has read a lot about it and it makes sense for him to explore topics in History on Fire, around this world. He will be leading a tour to Japan in 2024 if plans stay on track, so if that tickles your fancy, keep following Daniele to get the details on that – it should be fascinating.
Behind the scenes
Daniele is very appreciative of the help and inspiration he got from some of the pioneers in podcasting like Joe Rogan or Dan Carlin. And he pays this all back in spades through his support of the podcasting community. Over the years, he has done some excellent collaborations and recently he has been working with fellow Intelligent Speech Keynote, Sebastian Major of Our Fake History.
Life as an independent history podcaster is not generally a viable career choice and Daniele has experimented with various ways to make it sustainable, advertising, a subscription-only model, and now Patreon.
We discussed his time behind the Luminary paywall. He says he would do it again while recognising that it might be financially rewarding but not so good for the podcast itself if the goal is to reach as many people as possible.
It’s great to have Daniele back from behind the paywall. He is releasing the episodes that had been exclusively behind the paywall.
Like many podcasters and other creatives, Daniele has a Patreon account and unlike all podcasters, he uses it really well to play with different formats and also to share something of the person behind the microphone. Patrons can find releases covering everything from deliciously simple Italian recipes, to mini-episodes that cover topics that didn’t match the strict Bolelli research criteria but that are nonetheless fascinating, and to songs by his very talented daughter.
The scope of History on Fire allows Daniele to be able to pick topics from pretty much anywhere. He sees a story that piques his interest and then goes off to see what sources are available – is there enough for him to weave a tale around? His criteria are: It needs to be an epic story, ideally with powerful characters, and with enough written about it to create a two-hour podcast out of. He will structure the episode or series around one principal source and then flesh it out with a variety of other sources to bring the story alive.
And that is what Daniele does best, he brings history alive and throws the listener into the muddy field of some ghastly battle.
Daniele was reluctant to choose his own favourite episodes, here are some that come highly recommended by Intelligent Speech.
- Sitting Bull
- Joan of Arc
- Taiping Rebellion
- The Conquest of Mexico
The list above neatly demonstrates why Daniele’s podcast is called History on Fire.
And there certainly seems to be a lot more History on Fire in the upcoming episodes that Daniele shared when we spoke:
- US in El Salvador
- We vs Them
- Cangaço (Brazilian bandits)
We are very much looking forward to hearing Daniele speak at Intelligent Speech in November. It will be very interesting to hear what take Daniele has on our conference topic of Contingencies.