Post-classical history


For almost seven decades of the fourteenth century the papacy resided not at Rome on the banks of the Tiber but at Avignon on the banks of the Rhone, north of the Alps, in what has been called (wrongly) the Babylonian Captivity. Far from Rome at Avignon, the bishops of Rome became the most flagrant absentee churchmen in medieval history, yet it was an absence which they plausibly – to themselves and to many others – felt they could justify. The question of their subservience to the wishes of the king of France also needs to be explored. The return of the papacy to Rome prompted the worst schism in the history of the Western Church, which was to last till 1415.

The Popes and Avignon

From 1309 to 1376 the popes lived at Avignon on the east bank of the Rhone River in what is now France. Seven popes lived there until the last, Gregory XI, at great personal risk, returned the papacy to Rome, fomenting a schism with a pope at Rome and a pope at Avignon. The story of that schism will be told in the next chapter. But now Avignon.

At the outset several points need be made. In the first place, the popes did not leave Rome with the intention of establishing themselves permanently or even quasi-permanently at Avignon or, indeed, anywhere else. After the tragic circumstances of the attack on Boniface VIII by henchmen of the French king, Philip IV (the Fair), in 1303, the papacy was in near disarray. In the turmoil following Boniface’s death the cardinals quickly elected Benedict XI, who ruled less than eight months. A long interregnum of nearly a year followed. The pro-French cardinals cleverly secured the election of a non-cardinal, the archbishop of Bordeaux, Bertrand de Got, a Gascon, who took the name Clement V (1305–14). In retrospect, it can be seen as a mistake. He never got to Rome nor did any of his successors for decades. Clement planned to be crowned pope at Vienne, but, bowing to Philip the Fair’s wishes, he was crowned at Lyons in the king’s presence. For several years he wandered about southern France, a few months here and a few months there. In 1309 he was at Avignon, another stop in his wandering, and resided there at the Dominican friary. Cancer struck the pope, and he remained at Avignon, where the friars nursed him, although he occasionally left the city for months at a time. Clement did not move the papacy to Avignon: he took with him merely those papers needed to carry on the daily affairs of the church as a provisional arrangement at this temporary residence. Why his successors remained there will be visited shortly.

Second, the absence of the pope from Rome was nothing new. Many of Clement V’s immediate predecessors lived for long periods outside of Rome. For example, Urban IV (1261–64) was never in Rome; neither were John XXI (1276–77), Martin IV (1281–85) nor the hapless Celestine V (1294). And others spent but short periods there. Innocent IV (1243–54) was at Rome a very short time as were Alexander IV (1254–61) and Gregory X (1271–76). It has been calculated that for the period from 1100 to 1304 the popes spent 60 per cent of their time away from Rome. The residence at Avignon should be seen in this context. That having been said, what marks Avignon out is the prolonged residence of the popes in one place and in a place outside Italy.

The third matter that needs stressing is that the seven popes who resided at Avignon were still bishops of Rome. The pope by definition is bishop of Rome: the pope is pope because he is bishop of Rome. When each of these seven popes was installed, he was installed as bishop of Rome. The actual see of Rome was provided with a vicar general, who acted in the pope’s name. While at Avignon, the pope was not bishop of Avignon. The popes at Avignon were simply absentee bishops of Rome.

Something must be said about Avignon itself. It was not within the kingdom of France: it was situated on the eastern bank of the Rhone with France on the opposite side, the two banks joined by a bridge known to schoolchildren. The city was situated in the Comtat-Venaisson, which had been in papal control for 100 years before Clement moved there, although the city itself belonged to the counts of Provence. For most of the papal years there, Avignon was a peaceful place. Excellent water routes made communication with Italy fairly easy, and it was more accessible than Rome to all parts of northern Europe. The convenience is undoubted, but Avignon was not Rome.

Why did the popes remain there for nearly 70 years? Each pope avowed his desire to return to Rome, but, except for the last two, failed to act decisively on that intention. Italy was in near anarchy, they argued persuasively. The political factions that had long plagued the peninsula had erupted into open, almost continuous violence. The Papal States, over which the popes ruled as temporal lords, had as their purpose the insulation of the popes from civil disruption, but they no longer gave that insurance, as these lands were persistently in turmoil. What happened to Boniface VIII at Anagni (see pp. 245–46) cast a long shadow over the fourteenth century, and the not unreasonable fear of the violence of Anagni being repeated on another pope gave reason for pope after pope to hesitate to return to Italy. Clement V lived at the Dominican priory at Avignon. His successor, John XXII, lived there for a while but moved to the bishop’s palace, his home when he had been bishop of Avignon. That the popes were to remain at Avignon for some time became clear when John’s successor, the reforming Benedict XII (1334–42) constructed a mighty palace. It was this papal palace, soon to be enlarged, that the popes made their residence: a fortress-like structure, its walls 13 feet thick. Just as importantly, Benedict brought the papal archives from Italy to Avignon. And Clement VI, his successor, bought the town of Avignon from the countess of Provence. The papal court was clearly at Avignon for the indefinite future. In addition, during much of their stay at Avignon England and France were at war, and pope after pope attempted to reconcile the two warring nations so that they could combine their efforts in yet another crusade. This preoccupation, it was said, served as another factor in delaying their return to Rome.

What can be said of the popes, all Frenchmen, who lived there? Often reviled and vilified, the Avignon popes have been condemned by contemporaries and by later historians. The poet Petrarch in his Book without a Name refers frequently to Avignon as the modern Babylon, ‘the cesspool of crime and scandal, a living hell’, which led subsequent writers to call the papal period there the ‘Babylonian Captivity’, the church, like the ancient Hebrews, taken captive in a sybaritic, immoral place. The same poet describes the labyrinth of Avignon:

The one hope of salvation is gold. Gold satisfies a wrathful king and defeats the fearful monster. Gold is the thread that guides. Gold reveals forbidden passages, rids the way of barriers and stones. Gold it is that bribes the harsh gatekeeper and opens the gates of heaven. In the end, Christ is sold for gold.

In another place, Petrarch reaches an exceedingly righteous tone and attacks on a broad front:

Here virtue does not give one protection. Justice has vanished. Freedom has perished. Fairness has been eliminated. What rules is lust. What runs unabated is greed. What boils over is envy … The wondrous temple built by Jesus Christ, once the invincible fortress against enemies of holy religion, has now in our times become a den of heartless thieves.

There was more than a hint of the Italian patriot speaking in Petrarch, yet his judgement stuck. Ferdinand Gregorovius (1821–91), historian of the city of Rome, declared that the Avignon popes were enslaved to the king of France. The great German historian Ludwig von Pastor (1854–1928) in his memorable history of the popes accused the Avignon popes of being responsible for a decline in religious fervour by their turning the papacy from a universal institution to one that was French. And so it went, the accepted opinion that the period of the popes at Avignon was one of the darkest in the history of the church. Thanks principally to the researches of the French School at Rome another picture, more complex and more reflective of the historical reality, is emerging. We can now get a better view of the popes themselves, and it is to them that we now turn.

Some historians dispute whether Clement V (1305–14) should be called an Avignon pope. Although it is true that he went to Avignon in 1309, was taken ill there and resided at the Dominican priory, it was not even then his fixed residence. The summer months, for increasingly longer periods, were spent in the cooler hills outside Avignon. In 1313 he spent not only the summer but the winter at a castle near Carpentras, where the curia joined him. With life ebbing from his body in the spring of 1314, Clement decided to return to his native Gascony and left Carpentras but hardly crossed the Rhone before he died. ‘Avignon pope’ or not, what can be said of him?

Within weeks of his being elected, long before the idea of moving to Avignon, even temporarily, surfaced, Clement named 10 new cardinals, one English and the rest French, four nephews among them. More cardinals were created in 1310 and 1312, leaving the college clearly in the hands of the French. Not only did he accede to the wishes of Philip the Fair in moving the place of his installation to Lyons from Vienne, he acceded in much more. Philip, not willing to let his feud with Boniface VIII be buried with that pontiff’s bones, demanded that Boniface be tried posthumously for heresy. Clement gave in, and the trial began in February 1309. That it lapsed in 1311 had nothing to do with Clement’s intervention, only with the intervention of political exigencies for the French king. Beyond that, in 1311, Clement absolved Guillaume de Nogaret, Philip the Fair’s henchman who had led the attack on Boniface at Anagni, and, at the same time, praised Philip for his handling of the problem of Boniface, stating that the king and his men ‘were not motivated by any prior malice but only by a praiseworthy and honest devotion for justice … and we declare that they were not and are not guilty of the malicious charges made against them’.

Moreover, at the Council of Vienne (1311–12) Pope Clement yielded again to the interests of the French king, who wished to legitimize his seizure of the property of the Knights Templar. This military religious order had come into existence to protect the crusader states in the East. The Templars had grown wealthy, and their properties in France created an irresistible temptation to Philip’s voracious appetite. He seized them in 1307, alleging irregularities. Specifically the Templars were charged with spitting and urinating on the crucifix, rejecting Christ, whom they called a false prophet, indulging in homosexual behaviour and worshipping idols. Under torture many members of the order confessed. While the council was sitting, King Philip, accompanied by an armed force, was at Vienne. An English eye-witness noted,

Virtually all the prelates held in favour of the Order of the Templars, except those prelates from France, who, fearing their king, dared not to act otherwise.

Without discussion, on 3 April 1312, Clement V, with Philip at his right hand and Philip’s son at his left, suppressed the Knights Templars. It was a decision forced on the council without debate, or even discussion, about the merits of the charges: a weak pope, suffering from what appears to have been colon cancer, was unable or unwilling to oppose a bullying king. Two years later Clement was dead, and a two-year interregnum followed.

The cardinals were required by canon law to meet at Carpentras, the site of the papal curia at the time of the pope’s death. They were divided but not, as might be presumed, into a French and a non-French party. In fact, there were three parties. The largest comprised the 10 cardinals from Gascony in the south-western region of France, who were distinctly more Gascon than French and not known for excessive deference to the French king: many were loyal to their duke, who, in fact, was the king of England. Also there was an Italian faction of seven cardinals, who, while united in resenting the presence of the papal court outside of Italy, were themselves split into three subgroups. A third party of six cardinals came principally from parts of France outside Gascony. The need for a two-thirds vote and the unwillingness of the parties to compromise in the early stages led to a hardening of attitudes. Armed mobs attacked the Italians at Carpentras, even burning and looting the houses where the Italian cardinals lived. A mob besieged the conclave, shouting, ‘Death to the Italians’. Fearing for their lives, with some justification, the Italian cardinals escaped through a narrow passageway behind the place of the conclave and fled Carpentras. The Gascons also left, returning to Avignon to continue the election without the Italians. Were it not for the flight of the cardinals from Carpentras, there is every reason to think that Carpentras rather than Avignon would have been the place of residence of the popes for decades to come. In response, the Italians threatened to proceed to an election on their own if the Gascons were to proceed without them. The deadlock lasted two years, until June 1316, when the local count locked the cardinals in the Dominican priory at Lyons. The matter was soon resolved, when one group of Italians allied with the Gascons and elected Jacques Duèse, the former bishop of Avignon, who took the name John XXII. He was, at about 70 years old undoubtedly seen as a caretaker. In the event, he reigned as pope for 18 years.

Pope John XXII (1316–34) made Avignon the normal residence of the popes and, for many, remains the creator of the attributes connected with the Avignon papacy. Two characteristics, universally acknowledged, marked his pontificate: centralization of the church apparatus and a fiscal policy that greatly enriched the papal court. The two were interrelated. Pope Clement V had all but emptied the papal treasury by generous, even exorbitant, bequests to members of his family. The new pope recognized the need to restore papal finances to the level adequate for the efficient conduct of papal business. John XXII, as did other popes after him, increased the number of appointments (or ‘provisions’ as they were called) to benefices reserved to the Holy See, not only to bishoprics but also to lesser ecclesiastical offices. The death of benefice-holders at the papal curia gave the pope the right, so he claimed, to appoint a successor independently of the wishes of local collators. It is now recognized that the papal appointees tended to be better qualified, frequently university graduates with advanced knowledge of theology, than those provided locally. All prelates (bishops and abbots) appointed by the pope were required to pay ‘common services’, a fee equal to about one-third of the annual income to be derived from the bishopric or abbey. In addition, clerical appointees at lower levels had to pay ‘annates’, roughly equal to the first-year’s income. As the number of papal provisions to benefices grew in the fourteenth century, the income from these taxes came to constitute a substantial part of the papal income. John XXII had a genius for administration. Although papal bureacracy had long existed, he reorganized with a new efficiency the apostolic camera (or chamber) to deal with finances, the papal chancery to manage the large volume of correspondence, a judicial system to consider petitions, appeals, complaints and the other kinds of litigation coming to Avignon and, also, the apostolic penitentiary, which considered matters of ecclesiastical penalties such as excommunication. And each of these institutions had its subdivisions. Avignon was bursting at the seams, and new suburbs were built outside the old ramparts. Avignon had become second only to Paris in size in ‘Greater’ France.

Pope John XXII is accused of extravagance with papal revenues. Incidents are not wanting to support this view. For example, on 22 November 1324, he gave a banquet for his great-niece’s wedding, quite probably a mass meal for the town, at which was consumed

over 4,000 loaves of bread

9 oxen

over 55 sheep

8 pigs

4 boars

a large volume of fish

200 capons

690 chickens

580 partridges

270 rabbits

40 plover

37 ducks

50 pigeons

4 cranes

2 pheasants

2 peacocks

292 small birds

3 hundredweight of cheese

Such excess disturbed the friars, particularly the Spiritual Franciscans, who held to a rigorous, extreme poverty of life.

The dispute about the nature of poverty for the Franciscans escalated under John XXII when the minister general of the Franciscans espoused the view that neither Christ nor any of his apostles had possessions. In 1328, the same general was summoned to Avignon, where he was detained in house arrest. He fled the city but was deposed by friars loyal to the pope, and the observant friars, probably the vast majority, followed the pope. This long festering controversy over the nature of poverty, dating from the last years of the life of St Francis, would continue to trouble the order and the church for centuries to come.

It should be noted, in fairness, that John ensured that a significant portion of papal revenue be spent in alms to the poor. He established the Pignotte to administer almsgiving. Its accounts survive and show that meals were cooked each day for the poor. In the course of an average week the Pignotte distributed 67,500 loaves of bread. In addition, clothing and medication were supplied to those in need. It should further be noted that in his personal life John XXII lived in simple frugality, almost to the point of austerity. Also, in his last years he began active moves to return the papal court to Italy, not to Rome, still considered unsafe, but to Bologna, where he felt he might be able to live in security. In December 1334 the caretaker pope, who had been elected as a compromise candidate in 1316, died aged about 90.

The cardinal electors quickly elected a successor, a Cistercian monk from the south of France, who took the name Benedict XII (1334–42). He was to be a reforming pope. Although he had not lived in a monastery for some time, having served as a bishop and, later, as a curial cardinal, he set about to give new life to the religious orders. One of his first acts was to assist the return of apostate religious, those men and women who had fled the religious life, to return to their houses, where, he insisted, they should be received in a spirit of kindness. His own order he endeavoured to reform by insisting on regular visitations. But it was the Benedictines who received his full attention. In 1336 he issued a long, comprehensive bull, which instituted provinces to an order hitherto based on independent houses, reduced the liturgical services and ordered the teaching of grammar, rhetoric and logic – the university subjects – to monks in their monasteries. And in 1339 he issued new constitutions for the Augustinian canons in 39 articles. The Dominican order resented his attempts to restrain their begging and to curb their communal lives of luxury. Also, he found Avignon crowded with secular clergy, who were there seeking personal advantage. Benedict ordered them to return to their benefices.

In the curia itself Benedict reacted so severely to the corrupt conditions that some curialists fled Avignon to avoid punishment. Bribery, threats, intimidations, inflated fees and other behaviour, against rich and poor alike, had been a way of life. He quickly punished those responsible and established firm rules. Unlike his two predecessors, Benedict XII abhorred nepotism. No family members were made cardinals, and, when his niece married at Avignon, the pope forbade any ostentatious display. His nephew was warned not to come to Avignon: ‘our master shows no preference to natural feelings’. Benedict XII was the most austere of the Avignon popes.

Yet Benedict did not return the papacy to Rome. Early in his pontificate, he considered the Bologna option, as had his predecessor. Although he expended money to restore St Peter’s Basilica and the papal palace at the Lateran, he remained at Avignon, citing the near anarchy in Italy as barring his return. He directed his attention towards a crusade, as had predecessors and successors, and, to that end, towards effecting a peace between England and France. Benedict failed in both. Early in his reign he ordered the construction of the fortress-palace for the popes (Le Palais des Papes) and the transfer of the papal archives from Italy to his new palace. It was this most attractive of the Avignon popes who entrenched the papacy on the banks of the Rhone. His policy of appeasement towards the rebellious factions in Italy proved a failure: he was taken advantage of and laughed at. The pope who followed him, though no more successful in Italy, at least eluded ridicule.

Those observers who view the Avignon popes as worldly, self-indulgent and ostentatious would see in Pope Clement VI (1342–52) the embodiment of those traits. Clement’s court, without doubt, was the most sophisticated, resplendent and civilized

Plate 22 Palais des Papes, Avignon. Reproduced by permission of the Courtauld Institute of Art.

court in Europe. Like a great secular prince, he delighted in the company of artists and scholars and lavished gifts on all petitioners with an unprecedented benevolence: ‘my predecessors did not know how to be pope’. The same generosity, less spectacularly, showed itself when the Black Death struck Avignon in 1348. While, elsewhere, great men fled the towns, Clement remained for much of the plague season at Avignon, where over 60,000 reportedly died. Moreover, he secured the services of doctors to tend the ill and the dying, purchased a cemetery for the decent burial of plague victims and welcomed into Avignon Jews who were fleeing from the fury of maddened mobs who claimed that they had poisoned the wells.

Early in his reign (January 1343) a deputation came from Rome, conferring on him the rank of Roman senator and entreating him to return to Rome. They were politely received by this aristocratic French pope, but their pleas went unheeded. Clement, in fact, further entrenched the papal court at Avignon by enlarging the papal palace and adorning it with a richness of decoration. His efforts to bring peace to Italy and, particularly, to regain control of the Papal States proved ineffective.

It was his successor, Innocent VI (1352–62), who took the drastic measures needed to pacify the papal lands in Italy. With a stroke of near genius he named the Spanish cardinal, Gil Albornoz, as his legate to Italy with his mission to pave the way for the pope’s return. Descended from kings of Leon and Aragon, Albornoz accomplished by war and diplomacy what nearly half a century of vague hopes and half measures had failed to do. The mission of this warrior-cardinal was not fully accomplished during the reign of Innocent VI but, with starts and stops, was well under way. Urban V (1362–70) did, in fact, return the papal curia to Rome, but unsuccessfully. This devout, even ascetic, Benedictine monk within eight months of becoming pope wrote to the Romans that he intended to return the papacy. Against the protests of the French cardinals and the French court, Urban V left Avignon on 30 April 1367. He landed at a port in the Papal States on 3 June, where Cardinal Albornoz greeted him. On 16 October 1367, at last, the pope entered Rome: it was over 60 years since a pope was there. The emperor, Charles IV, came to Rome to be crowned. The Byzantine emperor, John V Paleologus, came to Rome to enlist papal support against the Turks. The humanist Coluccio Salutati told Petrarch:

If you were now in Rome, you would see temples which lay in ruins now being raised again. I know it would give you joy and your pious soul would praise him who has rebuilt the Lateran, restored St Peter’s and given new life to the entire city.

Yet Urban V stayed in Italy for just less than three years. Threats of attacks, the reaction of Romans to his appointing only one Italian cardinal among the eight whom he appointed, the insinuations and rumours of vicious conspiracies against his person – all seem to have contributed to his decision to return to Avignon. And so he sailed for Marseilles on 5 September 1370. When he arrived at Avignon, a triumphant welcome greeted him. Within three months he was dead, but his courage, even if not enduring, meant that the days of the popes on the banks of the Rhone were surely numbered.

Almost immediately the cardinals elected the nephew of Clement VI, the brilliant Gregory XI (1370–78). It was his conviction that, putting aside all opposition, he had to return to Rome. He wrote to the English king:

From the time that we became pope, it has been our deeply held desire, as indeed it still is, to go to the Holy City, the city that gives us our authority, where, in its environs, we shall establish our residence and the residence of our apostolic court.

Yet he was delayed for various reasons. Peace negotiations between France and England, in which Gregory expected to play a part, were to be conducted at Bruges. Renewed hostilities broke out in Italy, even in the Papal States. He persisted in his plans and eventually announced a date for his departure, but it was postponed, and then he set another date, which was also postponed. The duke of Anjou spoke for many, almost certainly the overwhelming majority of the cardinals, curialists and French nobility, especially the king, when he said,

You are travelling to a country and to a people, where there is little love for you. You are turning away from the source of faith, that is, that kingdom wherein the holy church has greater authority and perfection than anywhere else in the world. You may indeed cause great harm to the church, for, were you to die there, which your doctors say is quite likely, the Romans – those alien and treacherous people – will control the Sacred College and will elect a pope who suits them.

The duke’s words were to prove prophetic. Yet Gregory heard another view delivered with force by St Catherine of Siena:

Do not delay, for delay has been harmful. The devil is using all his trickery to bar your path … Do not resist the will of God any longer: your starving sheep await your return to Peter’s see.

Her voice, however powerful, was but one among many and certainly not determinative. Pope Gregory XI knew his own mind and needed neither the encouragement of an Italian partisan nor the counsel of a French nobleman. To the people of Avignon, who urged him to stay, he responded:

Last year I feared I would die, and it is my belief that the sole reason for my illness was my not living in Italy.

On 13 September 1376 Gregory left Avignon for Rome. Nature seemed to support the nay-sayers: violent storms at sea forced his ship to return to Marseilles and, later, to seek safety in other ports on the way. It was not till 17 January 1377 that the papal ships landed at Rome. The papacy was back at Rome and, save for forced departures at the hands of Napoleon, it was there to stay. There are reports, however, that, like his predecessor, Gregory XI was dismayed by the state of affairs in Italy and was contemplating a return to Avignon. How much truth these reports contain is difficult to say, but the French cardinals who accompanied him continued in their opposition to the move. What the duke of Anjou feared, in fact, happened: the sickly Gregory XI died on 27 March 1378 and was buried at Rome. Like the duke, Gregory himself had feared what would occur after his death. What occurred was the Great Schism.

The phrase ‘Babylonian Captivity’ deserves a much too delayed burial. The seven popes who lived at Avignon from Clement V to Gregory XI constituted a remarkably able line of popes, unlike any since the late eleventh–early twelfth century. Three (Benedict XII, Urban V and Gregory XI) were known, even in their own times, for undoubted piety of life, and one of these (Urban V) was subsequently beatified. To none of them can personal scandals be assigned. Even John XXII, the great administrator, lived a simple, sober life, and Clement VI, who lived like a Renaissance prince, showed exceptional compassion and generosity to the victims of the Black Death. But what of their subservience to the French king? While it can be said that the popes while at Avignon were not in French territory and that many of the popes often showed remarkable independence of the French king, it must be added that the desire to please the French king was often present. Consistent papal policy urged the ending of hostilities between France and England in the Hundred Years War, yet the popes were Frenchmen and generally sympathetic to French interests. Clement V, by any reckoning, was subservient to the wishes of Philip the Fair, and Pope John XXII and King Philip VI were friends. The popes, particularly John XXII and Clement VI, allowed the French kings to use ecclesiastical revenues in their wars against the Flemish and the English, an allowance not extended to the adversaries of the French. The popes no doubt thought it a small price to pay for living in a stable place in prolonged peace. For the most part the popes acted independently and often in opposition to the wishes of the French monarchy. Nonetheless, the perception to many contemporaries, particularly to Italians, was that the popes were puppets of the French kings, and, although the reality differed from the perception, that perception itself created the context for what followed after the death of Gregory XI at Rome.

This long line of able popes, acting more or less independently of the French monarchy, had one incontrovertible characteristic: these bishops of Rome lived continuously outside Italy, hundreds of miles from Rome. It was a state of affairs that could not last forever. The historian must ask the question: how justified were the Avignon popes in claiming that the anarchic conditions in Italy made it impossible for them to live there in peace? Near anarchy accurately describes the situation it Italy at this time, but why would that inhibit the popes from living in the city of Rome? Even if the popes might have been able to control the disputes within the city of Rome itself, the problem of the Papal States might still remain. What good would it be to control Rome but not the Papal States? It was a long-held principle of papal policy that these papal possessions needed to be under papal control in order to give the popes the independence which they felt they needed. (This principle was to continue as the basis for papal policy in Italy until 1870.) The Avignon popes felt that they could not be assured control of the Papal States, a position which can be historically justified, and that, therefore, they could not return to Rome. In a sense, they had become prisoners of their own perceived need to be secular rulers of a large part of Italy.

Two elections and the coming of schism

The return of Pope Gregory XI from Avignon to Rome in January 1377 presaged a return to normalcy after nearly 70 years of the popes living at Avignon. Normalcy was not to be. A long, peaceful reign which overcame early settling-in problems would have acted to solidify the papacy in Rome and to win over those cardinals and curialists longing for the attractions of Avignon. But the pope’s health did not cooperate, and 14 months after his return Gregory XI died. The chronology of events can briefly be summarized and demands more than our usual attention. The pope died on 27 March 1378. On the next day his body was buried in the church of Santa Maria Nuova (now Santa Francesca Romana). By the canon law of the time the conclave to elect a successor could not convene until 10 days after the pope’s death: it met on 7–8 April and elected the archbishop of Bari, who took the name Urban VI. He was enthroned and crowned on 18 April, Easter Sunday. Five months later, on 20 September, the cardinals, declaring Urban’s election invalid, elected another pope, Clement VII. The church was in the throes of a schism. Now the details.

Sixteen cardinals were at Rome when Gregory XI died. Six others had remained at Avignon, and one was away on a papal mission. Of the 16 who were to elect the new pope, four were Italians, 11 were French and one was Spanish. The political lines were not as clearly drawn as this statement of nationalities might imply. Two French parties, antagonistic to one another, made a clear ‘French vote’ unlikely. The Limousin region had produced three of the last four popes, and the five Limousin cardinals in Rome wanted still another. A Gallic party of four cardinals wanted a non-Limousin cardinal and were led by the ambitious Cardinal Robert of Geneva, 36 years old and cousin of the French king; they were supported by Peter de Luna, a Spaniard. Both of these cardinals were to play major roles in the schism. With such divisions selecting a new pope might not be easy. Added to these difficulties was the temper of the Roman people. They made their desires known by their officials and by mobs in the streets: they wanted a Roman or, at the least, an Italian.

During the days before the cardinals met in conclave, canvassing, not unexpectedly, was quite probably taking place. At its centre may have been Cardinal Robert of Geneva. He was so opposed to the Limousins that he allied with the Italians in order to avoid the election of a Limousin. A close friend of Cardinal Robert later alleged that, in the time before the election, the cardinal, with his hand resting on the scriptures, said to him, ‘We shall have no one else as pope but the archbishop of Bari.’ The archbishop, Bartomoleo Prignano, was not a Roman, but, at least, he was an Italian, a native of Naples. Moreover, Prignano, as an absentee bishop, had served as a diplomat at the papal curia at Avignon for 14 years. He had travelled to Rome with Gregory XI, who made him his vice-chancellor for Italy. He was an insider and not an unknown quantity, not a token Italian snatched from a remote, southern diocese. Although not a cardinal himself, he was known to all the cardinal-electors who gathered in conclave on the evening of 7 April 1378.

As they processed into the Vatican palace, the cardinals heard a crowd shouting repeatedly, ‘Romano lo volemo’ (‘we want a Roman’). Once shut in, they could still hear the clamour from outside. The cardinal-electors proceeded with their business on the following morning. The Limousin cardinals lacked sufficient votes for their candidate; the cardinal of Limoges rose and said to the others,

I propose the election of a man to whom the people cannot seriously object and who would show himself favourable to us … I elect the archbishop of Bari to be pontiff of the holy and catholic church, and this I do willingly and freely.

The others followed suit, first the French and finally the Italians, including Cardinal Orsini, a Roman ambitious for the papal office, who simply said, ‘I elect the person elected by the majority’, who was Prignano. The cardinals had done what they had come together to do and what had been agreed upon in advance: they elected the archbishop of Bari as pope.

One further matter still had to be dealt with. Since Prignano was not a cardinal, he was not present at the election to give the necessary consent to his election. He had to be sent for and his assent received before the election was complete and before the announcement could be made. Still very mindful of the noisy Roman mob, the cardinals summoned a number of prelates, Prignano among them, to appear. Before they arrived, the rumour spread among the Romans that a non-Roman had been elected. At the palace the summoned prelates were kept waiting, while the cardinals repaired to the chapel and there, again, unanimously elected Prignano as pope. The electors delayed informing Prignano and announcing his election to the Roman people. The crowd grew increasingly agitated and soon burst into the palace. In the conclave chamber cardinals, fearing for their lives, put papal vestments on an aged, feeble Roman cardinal and set him on the papal throne, and then they disappeared. The man on the papal throne protested,

I am not the pope, and I do not want to be an anti-pope. A better than me has been elected, the archbishop of Bari.

Some of the fleeing cardinals sought safety in the Castel Sant’Angelo, others went to fortified places outside the city and still others simply went to their residences unbothered. The pope-elect, not yet having consented to the election, hid in an innermost room in the papal palace.

The morning of 9 April saw Rome a quiet place, and Roman officials, now informed of the election, were pleased and went to pay honour to the new pope. He said that they should not address him as pope but only as archbishop of Bari. That afternoon the cardinals, realizing there was no threat to them, drifted back to the Vatican palace. They asked Prignano to accept his election. He did and took the name Urban VI. Clad as pope, he was presented to the Roman people: ‘habemus papam’ (‘we have a pope’). A strange election it surely was, but it was its validity that would eventually be questioned, even to this day.

The cardinals, far from raising any objection to the election, treated Urban as pope. Within a day of Urban’s accepting the election three French cardinals asked for favours in the pope’s gift: a cardinal’s hat for the nephew of the late pope, his intercession for the release of a prisoner and preferential treatment for friends. In view of later events, what Cardinal Robert of Geneva wrote to the German emperor bears rehearsing here:

The ten days after the death of the late pope required by canon law having passed, the other cardinals and I were enclosed in conclave. The name of the archbishop of Bari (as he then was) was suggested … The other cardinals and I unanimously gave our votes to him.

On Palm Sunday, 11 April, just days after the election, the cardinals took their palms from Urban VI, dressed in papal vestments and seated on the papal throne, and on Holy Thursday, four days later, they gathered with the pope while he issued a papal bull. Enthronement occurred on the following Sunday (Easter), and all cardinals were present and took part in the ceremony. Later that same day one of the French cardinals said to a friend,

In all my life I have not known such joy as the joy I have today: we have completed this task peacefully. I did have doubts whether the Romans would be satisfied.

The next day all 16 cardinals sent a letter to their brother cardinals still at Avignon, notifying them of the election. What happened to change their minds?

Almost immediately after his enthronement Urban VI began to alienate the members of his curia. On Easter Monday he condemned churchmen who derived their income from benefices from which they were perpetually absent. A fortnight later he preached on the same subject, berating the cardinals who were present for living luxurious lives: the cardinal of Amiens, he said, should live simply and not beg money from foreign ambassadors, and Cardinal Orsini is a sotus (a sot). Urban was soon to strip Amiens of his cardinal’s rank. The pope came close to physically assaulting the cardinal of Limoges. The cardinals asked the pope to return the papacy to Avignon, but, not unexpectedly, he refused. Summer was approaching, and, on the pretext of escaping the heat of Rome, the cardinals one by one went to Anagni in the hills south-east of Rome, first the French, then three of the four Italians. (The other lay dying at Rome.) Sixteen cardinals had elected Urban in April, and in August thirteen of them were at Anagni, troubled by Urban’s behaviour. Of the other three, one by then had died and the other two had returned to Avignon. The pope refused to join them at Anagni, fearing, with some justification, that he would become their prisoner. There, at Anagni, on 9 August 1378, the cardinals issued their Declaratio: the election of Urban was null and void and the papal throne was consequently vacant. Their argument, quite simply, was that they acted out of fear of the Roman mob and that such fear invalidated their action. The 13 cardinals proceeded to a new conclave, which met at Fondi under the protection of the local count. They entered the conclave on 19 September, observed all the appropriate canonical procedures and, on the following day, announced the unanimous election of Cardinal Robert of Geneva, who took the name Clement VII. There were now two popes or, rather, two claimants to the papacy.

We must pause and ask about the canonical probity of the cardinals’ actions. How justified were they in what they did? Conveniently for us they laid out their reasons in the document Declaratio of 9 August 1378:

The ultramontane cardinals agreed to the election of an Italian for no other reason than to escape the danger of death, as they then averred … Some of the Italian cardinals stated that, were they to be elected, they would decline because of the evident coercion. All the cardinals, eager to escape the perils facing them, quickly nominated the archbishop of Bari without any further discussion, and they immediately elected him to be pope. He was known to them, and they trusted in his considerable experience in the affairs and customs of the curia. Later experience proved them wrong. In addition, some cardinals said that they elected him as true pope, but this was done solely out of fear for their lives.

Several cardinals, it was argued, had demurred in one way or another and some spoke of retiring to a safe place for a new election. This brief went on to describe an attempt at a second election, which was broken up by armed men who surrounded the cardinals. While acknowledging that all the cardinals took part in Urban’s enthronement and subsequently treated him as pope, both in consistory and in liturgical ceremonies, they claimed that they did so only in Rome, where they still felt in danger. The Declaratiostated,

They believed that, if they were to cast doubt on the election, they would have been murdered.

This, then, was their argument: since actions performed out of excessive fear are null and void, the election of Urban VI was not a true election and Urban was not a true pope.

Neither the presence of a huge crowd at the time of the election should be surprising – after all, there had not been a papal election in Rome since the thirteenth century – nor that it had an exuberant, carnival flavour nor that the Romans wanted a Roman pope. That some of the Roman people became boisterous and even unruly and a few, at least, positively threatening seems clear enough. The question must be: how influenced were the cardinals by the Roman mob and was that influence sufficient to invalidate their actions? On the face of it, while admitting the presence of the vociferous Romans, one still wonders why the cardinals proceeded as they did, if they were under such constraint. If they merely wanted to placate the Romans, why not elect a Roman such as the aged Cardinal Tebaldeschi, whom some later clothed as pope in a woeful pantomime? Why did they ratify the election by electing Bari again after an interval of several hours? Why did they ask favours of him, assist at his enthronement and generally treat him as pope for three months, if they felt the election invalid? If there were serious doubts, we would expect that at least one or two of the cardinals would have had the personal integrity and moral courage to disown the election, but none did, not until months later. Although we can never be entirely sure, it is diffi-cult to escape the conclusion that what turned the cardinals against Urban VI was his bizarre, hostile, irrational behaviour after his enthronement on Easter Sunday, 1378. Several cardinals admitted as much. One of the French electors remarked, ‘If he had behaved prudently, he could have remained pope.’ And the Spanish cardinal, Peter de Luna (later pope in the Avignon line), in a moment of candour, allowed,

If his behaviour had been different, we would have stayed with him. His violence turned everything upside down.

(Ullman, p. 174)

Either Urban VI after his enthronement revealed a part of his character hitherto unknown to his electors, all of whom knew him, or, quite probably, he experienced a mental breakdown. His rantings against bishops and cardinals exceeded mere intemperance and seemed to know no restraint, leading, in one instance, to his nearly striking one of the French cardinals. Later, in 1384, when Urban learned that six of his new cardinals were so disturbed by his rages that they were seeking a remedy, he imprisoned them, and five were never heard of again, presumably murdered; the sixth, the Englishman Adam of Easton, was saved by the intervention of King Richard II. On another occasion, while the aged cardinal of Naples was being tortured by being repeatedly lifted to a ceiling and dropped to the floor, Urban walked outside in the garden, reciting his office as he listened to the cardinal’s screams.

Separated as we are by over 700 years from these events, we are in no position to render a clinical judgement about the sanity of the pope, but the evidence that we do have must give us pause to wonder. Whether hidden personal characteristics became apparent or a mental breakdown had occurred, the cardinals by the summer of 1378 recognized that they had made a grievous error in electing Urban. This posed a problem of monumental proportions for them. The easiest solution would be for them to convince Urban to resign. But Urban would never resign, and the cardinals knew this full well. That being the situation, what could the cardinals do? At the heart of the problem thus facing them was a defect in contemporary canon law: there were no provisions for removing a pope, even one who had lost his sanity. Yet the cardinals knew that it was a long-standing principle of that law that actions performed by force and fear (vi et metu) had no legal standing and were invalid. Their solution was to claim that the election itself was radically compromised and vitiated by reason of fear; then they could proceed to a fresh election. In doing this the cardinals created an even greater problem by plunging the church into a schism, which was to last almost 40 years. The argument can be made that, in a real sense, the Great Schism occurred because of the inadequacy of canon law to provide a remedy for an incapacitated pope. (It may be noted that in the United States it was not until 1967 that constitutional provisions were made for dealing with a president unable to discharge the duties of his office.)

The newly elected Clement VII almost immediately created new cardinals and was anxious to return the papacy to Avignon, yet he did not arrive at the Palais des Papes until 20 June 1379. In the eight months between his election at Fondi and his arrival at Avignon, Clement VII was busy in Italy. He recruited mercenary forces to help establish himself in Italy. He tried to lay siege to Rome, but his men were driven from Castel Sant’Angelo, and Clement and his court fled to Naples, where they were welcomed by the queen of Naples but not by Urban’s fellow Neapolitans. On 20 June 1379 Clement set sail on the queen’s ships for Marseilles, whence he sailed up the Rhone to Avignon.

King Charles V of France, cousin of the new electee, did not rush to his support. Before the election of Clement VII the cardinals had sent two envoys from Anagni to elicit the king’s support. Charles summoned a number of the higher clergy to the royal palace in Paris to listen to the envoys: six archbishops, 30 bishops, several abbots as well as doctors of law and theology from the universities of Paris, Orléans and Angers. On 13 September 1378 they reported to the king that the matter needed more clarity before a judgement could be made and that the king would be advised to take a posture of neutrality. At their meeting, opposition to Clement was expressed by some of the clergy from Normandy and from Provence. Charles V then called a smaller assembly of prelates and university doctors, some suggest, hand-chosen to support Clement. On 16 November they listened to Clement’s envoys and advised Charles to support Clement. This he did. The king had also approached the University of Paris for its opinion, which was slow in coming. Disagreement was apparent among the masters, some, instead of supporting one or other of the claimants, suggesting a general council be convened, but in May 1379 a majority of the university declared for Clement VII. The call for a general council would be heard again. The support of the king of France was crucial to Clement’s claim of legitimacy. It may not be too much to say that without this early support of Charles V the schism might have been but a minor footnote in the history of the church. It became much more.

Support for the rival claimants now took on a geographical and a decidedly political dimension. Looking for wider support, Urban, abandoned by his curia as well as his cardinals, in September 1378 created 24 new cardinals, 4 of whom were non-Italian. He began in earnest to look for political support. Italy, then and for centuries after, was a patchwork quilt of political entities. The kingdom of Naples went briefly into Urban’s camp but then went over to Clement, where it remained till Urban’s death (1389), when it reverted to the Roman claimant. Throughout the rest of the schism, while there was some vacillation of loyalties, most of Italy remained obedient to Rome. Also in what became known as the Roman Obedience was England, long a foe of France. The position in Ireland was more ambiguous, but Clement certainly had some support in the province of Tuam in the west and Urban had support elsewhere in what, at best, was a fluid situation. Wenceslaus IV, the German king and emperor-elect, opted for Rome, and most of Germany followed his lead. Scotland, traditional ally of France, chose the Avignon Obedience as also did Savoy, Burgundy and Portugal, although Portugal, under pressure from England, switched to the Roman Obedience. The other Iberian kingdoms maintained their neutrality at first, but they eventually went over to Avignon: Castile in 1380, Aragon in 1387 and Navarre in 1390. Scandinavia, Poland and Hungary came into Urban’s camp. Some dioceses were represented by two bishops (e.g. Breslau, Constance, Mainz, Basel), but too much should not be made of this: the major divisions were national. Political considerations alone – not canon law, not theology, not piety – dictated these decisions. Europe was now divided between the nations supporting Urban VI and the nations supporting Clement VII. In an expression of the time, the world was at sixes and sevens.

Further reading

The two essential English language works on Avignon are G. Mollat, The Popes at Avignon (tr. Janet Love; New York, 1963) and Yves Renouard, The Avignon Papacy, 1305–1403 (tr. Denis Bethell; Hamden, CT, 1970). A judicious summary by Patrick N.R. Zutschi is found in vol. 6 of The New Cambridge Medieval History (ed. Michael Jones; Cambridge, 2000). The views of Petrarch can be found conveniently in Norman P. Zacour’s translation of Petrarch’s Book without a Name (Toronto, 1973). The trials of the Templars have elicited much historical commentary. A book of singular good sense is Malcolm Barber’s now classic The Trial of the Templars (2nd edn.; Cambridge, 2006). He has also written the introduction to a series of studies on the subject: J. Burgtorf, P.F. Crawford, H.J. Nicholson, eds, The Debate on the Trial of the Templars (1307–1314) (Farnham, Surrey, and Burlington, VT, 2010). Geoffrey Barraclough, Papal Provisions: Aspects of Church History Constitutional, Legal and Administrative in the Later Middle Ages (Oxford, 1935) is the standard work on that subject.

The narrative of the elections of 1378 is related in John Holland Smith, The Great Schism, 1378: The Disintegration of the Papacy (London, 1970). Although sometimes criticized for being pro-Urban, Walter Ullmann, The Origins of the Great Schism: A Study in Fourteenth-Century Ecclesiastical History (London, 1948) is a gem of a book. Joëlle Rollo-Koster presents a new view of the papal election at Rome in 1378 in Raiding Saint Peter: Empty Sees, Violence, and the Initiation of the Great Western Schism (1378)(Leiden and Boston, 2008).

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