Post-classical history

Chapter Six
The Curse of the Grand Master

ON A WINTRY PARISIAN AFTERNOON IN 1314, SEVERAL DOZEN people stood huddled together on a windswept island in the Seine, awaiting an execution. Against the low gray light, the spectators’ faces looked like petals on a rain-soaked bark. But when the jobbers of Les Halles, the butchers of St. Jacques-la-Boucherie, and the prostitutes of Marché Palu arrived to swell the crowd, the petals would merge into a frenzied pastel mass, two thousand faces whipped to high color by a river wind and the expectation of death in the sharp March air.

The crowd had gathered on the island to witness the execution of Jacques de Molay, former grand master of the Templars, until recently one of the most powerful religious orders in Christendom. Earlier in the day, de Molay had caused a great furor outside Notre Dame. In return for a life sentence, the old man had agreed to publicly confess to “crimes that defile the land with their filth,” including sodomy, idol worship, and spitting on the cross. But this morning in front of the cathedral, de Molay had surprised everyone. With half of Paris looking on, the old man boldly asserted his innocence and denounced the charges against him and the Templars as a lie and a crime against heaven. Emboldened, one of his lieutenants, Geoffroi de Charney, had done the same.

The king was infuriated, the Church embarrassed, the Parisian mob titillated. The Templars affair promised to end as dramatically as it had begun seven years earlier, when agents of the French Crown swooped out of an October dawn and arrested two thousand unsuspecting, mostly elderly Templars in a series of nationwide raids. Dazed members of the order were pulled from their beds and their prayers, pushed into carts, and hauled off to royal prisons. By the end of the day—a Friday the thirteenth, the superstitious noted—if there was a Templar alive in France who had not been charged with having intercourse with demons; spitting on Christ’s image; urinating on the cross; administering the “kiss of shame” to the penis, buttocks, and the lips of the order’s prior; or engaging in other homosexual acts, it was because he was hiding in a haystack or under a bed. The Templars’ crimes were “a bitter thing, a lamentable thing, a thing which is horrible to contemplate, terrible to hear . . . a thing almost inhuman, indeed set apart from all humanity,” declared the author of the charges, the grand master’s former friend, Philip the Fair, King of France and “more handsome than any man in the world.”

Philip’s construction of the Templars affair as a case of odious blasphemers (the Templars) versus a “watch-tower of regal eminence” (himself) was an early example of the Big Lie. Money, not sin, drove the king. The ambitious Philip was an architect of the modern nation-state; his great dream was to transform feudal France, a patchwork of regions with different traditions and practices, into a unified nation, bound by a single set of institutions and laws and answerable to a single authority, the French Crown—which is to say, to himself. To a significant degree, he succeeded. Increasingly in the France of Philip the Fair, the king’s peace became “the peace of the whole kingdom; and the peace of the kingdom . . . the peace of the church, the defense of all knowledge, virtue and justice.”

With tax revenues uncertain, however, the new, assertive French state lacked a firm financial foundation. The Templars, who possessed the largest treasury in northern Europe, could provide the king with a lucrative new revenue stream. As a potential target, the order also had the additional advantage of being both loathed and feared. Part secret society—members were rumored to practice black magic—and part international bank, the Templars were viewed as a sinister organization peopled by powerful, shadowy figures. Everyéminence grisein Christendom was thought to wear a Templar cross. The only thing the order lacked was culpability. The society’s crimes might be legion, but none had been directed against the French Crown. However, Philip and his ministers also anticipated another aspect of the modern nation-state, the false confession. The “august and sovereign house of France” was quite adept at constructing fanciful crimes and torturing the innocent until they agreed to confess.

Templar knight Gerard de Pasagio testified that after his arrest he was tortured by the “hanging of weights on his genitals and other members.” Other Templars were strapped to the rack, their ankles and wrists dislocated by a winching device that—slowly—pulled joints from sockets. Another popular torture was calledstrappado. The prisoner was pulled to the ceiling by a rope that suddenly went slack, his fall broken at the last moment by a violent jerk. Sometimes weights were attached to the testicles and feet to make the jerk more violent and painful. One Templar, Bernard de Vaho, had his feet smeared with fat and placed in an open flame. A few days later, when de Vaho tried to walk, “the bones in his feet dropped out.” Other popular tortures included yanking teeth and tearing out fingernails one by one.

By early 1314 the Templars were in tatters. The order had been disbanded by papal bull, most of its treasury was in the hands of the French Crown, and its leadership either dead, in prison, or gone mad. All that remained was to end the affair on an appropriate note of dignity.

But the only part of the finale that went according to schedule was the date, March 18, 1314. On learning that the grand master and his lieutenant, de Charney, had defied the Crown, Philip overrode the objections of Church officials who wished for a day to deliberate the men’s fate and ordered both “burned to death” immediately.

Shouts of “heretic” and “blasphemer” greeted the condemned men as they arrived at the execution site, the desolate Ile des Javiaux in the Seine, late on the afternoon of the eighteenth. Someone in the mob picked up a stone and threw it. The raw river wind had put the crowd in an ugly mood, but there was also more than a hint of expectation in the air. People were hoping for a last great surprise from the grand master, something like the repudiation in front of Notre Dame that morning. And, according to legend, de Molay did not disappoint. As he disappeared into a plume of flame and smoke, the old man is supposed to have thrown back his head and called down a curse on the King of France and on all the king’s descendants unto the thirteenth generation.

Stories about the grand master’s curse spread as far as Italy—Giovanni Villani mentions it in one his chronicles—but no one seems to have taken de Molay’s words very seriously. And, indeed, why should they have?

Surveying Philip’s France in the year 1314, the chronicler Jean Froissart described it as “gorged, contented and strong.” Foreigners might complain of “prating Frenchmen always sneering at nations other than their own,” but when left alone those foreigners would exclaim to one another, “Oh, to be God in France!” In the early fourteenth century, few would have challenged the assertion of Jean de Jardun that “the government of the earth rightfully belongs to the august and sovereign house of France.”

Stretching from Flanders and Picardy in the north to the Pyrenees in the south, Philip’s France was the largest state in Europe, with the largest population—variously estimated at between 16 million and 24 million. The country had the richest farmland, and its fief, Flanders, contributed the most important industry in medieval Europe: cloth making. Paris, the French capital, had grown into a bustling metropolis of 210,000* souls with a half dozen or more paved streets, including a cobblestoned marvel, the Grande Rue, the city’s main thoroughfare and the axis of Paris’s northward march from the Ile de la Cité and the Seine in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In the military arena, France also stood supreme. No other monarchy in Europe could routinely field armies of 20,000 to 25,000.

Almost everywhere, medieval culture was also by and large French culture. Medieval men and women wore French fashions, emulated French manners, imitated French chivalric traditions, mimicked French troubadours, read French sagas, and prayed in French-inspired Gothic cathedrals. Of another Gallic architectural wonder, the nation’s abbeys, the chronicler Joinville likened them to illuminations of a manuscript in azure and gold. Of the University of Paris, a young Irish scholar exclaimed, it is “the home and nurse of theological and philosophical science, mother of liberal arts, mistress of justice and the standard of the morals, the mirror and lamp of all theological virtues.”

Against all of this, what was the grand master’s curse? Nothing.

And yet . . .

A month after de Molay’s execution, Pope Clement V, Philip’s reluctant ally in the Templars affair, died suddenly. Then, in November, the forty-six-year-old king was killed by a stroke. The following year, 1315, the Great Famine arrived.

In 1316 Philip’s successor and oldest son, Louis X, died after a brief eighteen-month reign. A few years later, the Pastoureaux, a peasant rebel movement, swept through northern France, storming castles and abbeys, burning down town halls, ravaging farms, and killing Jewish moneylenders.

And still worse was to come.

In 1323 Philip’s second son and Louis’s successor, Philip V, died prematurely. A mysterious series of epidemics followed, then more famine and another royal mortality; in 1328 Charles IV, the last of Philip the Fair’s three sons, died; none of his heirs had survived to age thirty-five or ruled for more than six years. And since Charles left no male heir, the Capetian dynasty, rulers of France since 987, died with him. In the succession crisis that followed, Edward III of England, Philip the Fair’s grandson (through Edward’s mother), invaded France to lay title to the French throne, igniting the bloodiest conflict of the Middle Ages, the Hundred Years’ War.

And still worse was yet to come for “the august and sovereign house of France.”

Marseille, November 1347

In Marseille, where a street fight could leave thirty dead and where even the clerical crime rate was a scandal, the plague arrived before the winter rains and may have killed half the population. Yet it failed to shake the city’s resolve or to destroy a centuries-long tradition of tolerance.

Any history of fourteenth-century Marseille would have to include its energetic, sharp-elbowed population of 20,000 to 25,000, its reputation as a medieval Big Easy, and its commercial importance. Marseille was a principal entry point for goods coming from Spain and the Levant, and a principal disembarkation point for Crusaders. This latter role led to the city’s involvement in one of the most notorious incidents of the Middle Ages. In the early thirteenth century, thousands of members of the Children’s Crusade—youngsters who believed that pure prepubescent Christian hearts, not swords, held the key to liberating the Holy Land—descended on Marseille, seeking passage to the Levant. A number of local ships were booked, and the young Crusaders duly taken aboard, but, character being destiny in Marseille, en route to the East, the captains had a change of heart and instead sold the young Crusaders in the slave markets of the Muslim Levant.

Any biography of medieval Marseille would also have to include the sloping hill the city sat on, and its odd three-tiered wedding-cake structure. At the top of the hill was theville-episcopal—bishop’s town; beneath it, the administrative buildings of theville de la prevote—provost’s town; and at the bottom of the hill, theville-bas,or lower town. A rats’ maze of thoroughfares, theville-baswas where medieval Marseille lived and worked and played. Inside the quarter’s shops, drapers, fishmongers, and box and barrel makers bent over workbenches, cutting, tearing, and banging, while outside on sinewy streets illuminated by a sliver of blue sky, money changers shouted out the latest exchange rates, drunken mariners ogled broad-hipped women in dresses cut so low the necklines were called “windows of hell,” and tanners poured vats of steaming hot chemicals into piles of mud and human waste. With ventilation limited to a breeze from the harbor, on most days theville-bashad the pungent odor of a mermaid with loose bowels.

In spring and summer, when the torrid Mediterranean heat settled over the city, making Marseille’s stone buildings sweat on the inside and hot to the touch on the outside, local magistrates, notaries, and lawyers would abandon the gloomy precincts of Hopital du St. Esprit, the center of the municipal legal system, for the outdoor courts of the Place des Accoules. Passing through the plaza on a spring morning in 1338, a visitor could have heard a young woman named Guilelma de Crusols giving testimony in the case of Bonafos v. Gandulfa.

At issue in the case was Madame Gandulfa’s wandering drainpipe. According to M. Bonafos, the madam had moved the pipe, which was supposed to be equidistant between their two homes, closer to his house, so waste would drain onto his property. Young Mlle. de Crusols, testifying on M. Bonafos’s behalf, told the court that she had tried to reason with the difficult Madame Gandulfa. “I went . . . and asked [her] why she had moved the drain. [But] all she would say is that if the drain was moved back to its original place she would move it again.” Mlle. de Crusols also told the court that during the conversation, Madame Gandulfa kept waving a piece of drainpipe back and forth in her hand.

Ten years later, the Place des Accoules makes another brief appearance in Marseille’s history, although in a context that would have been incomprehensible in 1338. A reference to the square appears in an entry a notary named Jacme Aycart made in his casebook on April 30, 1348. The father of Silona and Augeyron Andree had just died of plague, and notary Aycart had been called to the Change, a new outdoor court near the harbor, to draw up a transfer of guardianship for the children. In a dotal act it was customary to record the location as well as the date. Accordingly, M. Aycart wrote down “the Change,” then, realizing that would sound odd since the outdoor court usually met on the Place des Accoules, Aycart added a clarifying note. He wrote that the court had changed venues“ob fecarem mortuorum terribilem de symmeterio ecclesie Beate Marie de Acuis”—“on account of the terrible stench of the dead from the cemetery of Notre Dame des Accoules” (next door to the Plaza).

The plague came to medieval Marseille the way most things did—by sea. The infecting agent was apparently one of the pestilential galleys Genoa had expelled in late October 1347. Marseille’s last day of normalcy was November 1—All Saints’ Day, as it happens. Sometime during the day, the stray galley appeared outside the harbor like a shark fin circling in the water; the iron chain guarding the entrance was lowered, and the ship sailed past La Tourette, a fort manned by the Knights of St. John, and docked. The prompt action of the Genoese authorities suggests that many coastal towns in southern Europe were already on high alert for pestilential ships, but, strangely, the galley, already “driven from port to port,” aroused no suspicion in Marseille. Perhaps the previous expulsions had made the captain crafty. Aware that the physical condition of the crew would cause alarm, he may have waited for evening light or for a thick fog or heavy rain before making a run at the harbor. Whatever ploy he used, it worked; the arrival of the plague seems to have taken Marseille by surprise.

“Men,” says a contemporary, “were infected without realizing it and died suddenly and the inhabitants thereupon drove the galley away.” But, as in Messina and in Genoa, allY. pestisneeded to establish itself was that narrow hour between not knowing and knowing. As the expelled galley vanished back into the Mediterranean, a silvery stream of disease was already slithering thorough the cavernous streets of theville-bas,stopping here and there to admire the piles of waste and refuse in front of the four- and five-story buildings before heading north to La Juiverie, the Jewish quarter, and the Palais de Marseille, seat of government. Meanwhile, outside the harbor, the expelled ship joined two companions, and the three galleys faded into the autumn light somewhere “along the Spanish coast” heading toward the Gibraltar Gap. Of the little fleet, a contemporary wrote, “The infection that these galleys left behind their whole route . . . particularly in coastal cities . . . was so great that its duration and horror can scarcely be believed, let alone described.”*

Marseille’s historic commercial ties to the Levant and to Asia Minor made it a natural target for any disease coming out of the East. In a.d. 543 the Plague of Justinian took a terrible toll on the city, and in 1720 Marseille would become one of the last cities in Europe to experience a major outbreak of pestilence. However, the 1347 outbreak was particularly severe. In April 1348 Louis Heyligen, the musician who lived in the papal city of Avignon to the north, wrote to friends in Flanders that “in Marseille . . . four of five people died.” The true figure was probably closer to one out of two, but that was enough for abbot Gilles li Muisis to describe the city’s suffering as “unbelievable.”†

Another entry in M. Aycart’s casebook captures the casual pervasiveness of death in a city where half the population of twenty thousand to twenty-five thousand disappeared within a year. Dated April 10, 1348, the entry concerns the court appearance of a crafty old peasant named Jacme de Podio. Jacme was trying to get his hands on the dowry of his daughter-in-law Ugueta, a recent plague fatality. The purpose of the hearing was to establish the legitimacy of the old man’s claim. Normally, when a woman died intestate, as Jacme’s daughter-in-law had, her dowry automatically went to her daughter. But it was Jacme’s contention that his granddaughter was dead, too, and despite the cascade of death in the streets, he had managed to talk several of Ugueta’s neighbors into appearing in court to corroborate his claim. One told the magistrate that, yes, she had seen the girl on the streets a few times after her mother’s death; then she vanished, too.

How do you know the girl is dead? the magistrate asked.

The neighbor said that one day, by chance, she happened to see the girl’s corpse in one of the wagons that carry the dead to the cemetery of Notre Dame des Accoules. The next person in the line of inheritance was Jacme’s son, Peire, Ugueta’s husband. The magistrate asked about Peire’s fate. Dead, too, Jacme said. Again, the old man produced a neighbor to corroborate his claim. The neighbor said Peire died right after his wife and daughter, maybe two days later, the neighbor couldn’t be sure—so many people were dying these days, it was hard to keep track. A week after the hearing, M. Aycart made a final note about the case in his ledger: Old man Jacme was dead now, too.

Venality like Jacme’s was not uncommon in Marseille. At a hearing after the plague ended, a young woman named Uga de Bessa gave testimony in the case of a man who had spent hours on the pestilential streets of the city, searching for a notary for his dying wife. At first the story sounded like an act of selfless spousal devotion: a caring husband risks death to give his dying wife the small final comfort of putting her affairs in order. But then the magistrate asked if the victim had indicated how she wished to dispose of her estate. Yes, replied Mme. de Bessa. Since no notary could be found, the dying woman had called several witnesses to her bedside and in their presence testified that “she was leaving a hundred florins to her husband Arnaut.”

Yet this story, like so many other stories about the plague, has a twist ending.

And where is Arnaut now? the magistrate asked.

Dead, replied Mme. de Bessa. He died of the plague, too.

If venality was common in Marseille, so was a kind of dogged, undemonstrative resolve. Though it was struck soon after Sicily, Marseille did not collapse into panic or social breakdown. No doubt, there were cases of desertion—parental, clerical, and civic—but not enough to find their way into local chronicles. There also do not seem to have been many instances of mass flight. City “residents accommodated the effects of the plague,” says historian Daniel Lord Smail, author of an illuminating study of Black Death Marseille. “Municipal institutions . . . did not fold up. . . . [People] stayed by their kinfolk, friends and neighbors.” Sometimes avarice can have a steadying effect. During March, the worst month of the pestilence, scheming old Jacme de Podio, his greed undimmed, was knocking on doors in his daughter-in-law’s neighborhood, looking for witnesses to testify in his court case. April, another terrible month, not only found the wealthy merchant Peire Austria still in Marseille, but he and two colleagues, Franses de Vitrola and Antoni Casse, were planning a new business venture. April was also the month that the solicitous husband, Arnaut, was searching the pestilential streets for a notary to document his dying wife’s wish to leave him a hundred florins. People even continued to marry. In May Antoni Lort attended the wedding of his friend Pons Columbier.

Sharp-elbowed Marseille was also not without its acts of human kindness. Taking pity on a client who had lost everything in the Black Death, Jewish moneylender Bondavin de Draguignan told the man that he could continue to work the garden he had offered in payment of his loan. The moneylender also told the man that when the debt was paid off, he could have his garden back.

“If the plague had a profound impact on the residents of medieval Marseille, it was not a blow that led to despair,” says Professor Smail.

* * *

Marseille’s experience in the Black Death is also noteworthy in another respect.

On Palm Sunday night, April 13, 1348, the Christian residents of Toulon, a quiet seaside village to the east of Marseille, attacked the local Jewish quarter. Doors were smashed, windows broken, furniture overturned; men, women, and children were hauled from beds and hurled into the nighttime streets to be jeered, taunted, kicked, and spat upon. Homes were torched, property looted, money stolen, forty Jews killed. Parents were cut down in front of sons and daughters, husbands in front of wives, brothers in front of sisters. The next morning, the bodies of dozens of dead Jews were hanging from poles in the town square.

Within days the pogrom spread to neighboring villages: to Digne, Mezel, Apt, Forcalquier, Riez, Moustiers, and La Baume. In some places, the Jews were offered the option of conversion; most chose death. “The insane constancy shown by [the Jews] . . . was amazing,” wrote a chronicler. “[M]others would throw their children into the flames rather than risk them being baptized and then would hurl themselves into the fire . . . to burn with their husbands and children.” On May 14 Dayas Quinoni, a La Baume Jew who had been in the papal city of Avignon when the pogroms broke out, returned home to find his family dead and the local Jewish quarter burned and deserted. “There is no one left but me,” M. Quinoni wrote that night. “. . . I sat down and wept in the bitterness of my soul. Would that the Lord in his mercy allow me to see the consolations of Judah and of Israel . . . and permit me and my descendants to rest there forever.”

Easter week violence against the Jews was a tradition in the Middle Ages. The season, with its echoes of Jewish “complicity” in the Crucifixion, perhaps inevitably stirred hatred in Christian hearts. But the outbursts in Toulon and La Baume were quickly superseded by a new and far more venomous form of anti-Semitism. As the plague swept eastward across France, Germany, and Switzerland in the summer of 1348, rumors began to spread that the mortality was a Jewish plot. In the earliest iterations, the rumors were just that: vague accusations. Christians, it was said, were dying because their wells were being contaminated with a Jewish plague poison.*But during the fall, as the pestilence worsened, the rumors grew increasingly elaborate, detailed, and bizarre—until they constituted a medieval version of theProtocols of the Elders of Zion. By November 1348 every well-informed citizen in eastern France understood that the plague was not the act of a vengeful God or of infected air, but of an international Jewish conspiracy aimed at achieving world domination. “It is our turn now,” one well poisoner is alleged to have told his Christian interrogators.

Authorities in the Swiss town of Chillon played an important role in promoting the rumors. The confessions they obtained from local Jews in September 1348 gave the plot a persuasive patina of fact. The confessions spoke of a mastermind, a sinister Rabbi Jacob, formerly of Toledo, Spain, now living in eastern France—and a network of agents who purportedly delivered packets of plague poison to Jews throughout Europe. The Chillon conspiracy theorists even created names and personalities for the agents. There was the bullying Provenzal, the kindhearted merchant Agimetus, the maternal Belieta, the compliant barber-surgeon Balavigny, and a clever youngster known simply as “the Jewish boy.” The theorists also created a list of supposedly “contaminated” sites. One was said to be a certain fountain in the German quarter of Venice; another, a public spring in Toulouse; a third, a well near Lake Geneva.

Even the poison used to contaminate the Christian water supply was described in meticulous detail. It was “about the size of an egg,” except when it was the “size of a nut” or a “large nut,” “a fist” or “two fists”—and it came packaged in “a leather pouch,” except when it was packaged in a “linen cloth,” “a rag,” or a “paper coronet”; and the poison was variously made from lizards, frogs, and spiders—when it was not made from the hearts of Christians and from Holy Communion wafers.

Jews who were questioned in connection with the well-poisoning plot were required to swear to a special “Jewish” version of the interrogation oath. “If what you say is not true and right,” the interrogator would say to the prisoner, “then, may the earth envelop you and swallow you up . . . and may you become as leprous as Naaman and Gehazi, and may calamity strike you that the Israelite people escaped as they journeyed from Egypt’s land. And may a bleeding and flowing come forth from you and never cease as your people wished upon themselves when they condemned God, Jesus Christ.”

Special “Jewish” tortures were also available to interrogators. One technique was to place a crown of thorns on a prisoner’s head, then smash it into the skull with a mailed fist or a blunt instrument. Another was to place a rope of thorns between a Jewish prisoner’s legs and then yank it up into the crotch and scrotum.

Between the summer of 1348 and 1349, an unknown but large number of European Jews were exterminated. Some were marched into public bonfires, others burned at the stake, still others barbecued on grills or bludgeoned to death, stuffed into empty wine casks and rolled into the Rhine. In some localities, the killings were preceded by show trials; in other cases, there were no legal proceedings—sometimes not even an accusation. Jews were killed simply as a prophylactic measure.

The pogroms around Marseille not only pointed to this new form of plague-related anti-Semitism, they also heralded an important change in the nature of French anti-Semitism. Traditionally, Langue d’Oc—roughly, Mediterranean France—was the land of the troubadour; it was cosmopolitan, romantic, poetic, sensual, and tolerant. Jews had a long, mostly happy relationship with the south. Langue d’Oui—roughly, Atlantic France—was the land of the knight; it was ambitious, aggressive, resolute, and intolerant. The pogroms in the southern villages of La Baume, Apt, and Mezel were a signal that this historic division was coming to an end—that the north, which had long had political designs on the tolerant, more cosmopolitan south, was beginning to absorb the southern region culturally as well militarily. The torchbearing citizens of Toulon and La Baume were acting in the grand tradition of Atlantic French anti-Semitism, a tradition that included the 1240 trial of the Talmud—Parisians celebrated its conviction for blasphemy and heresy by burning fourteen cartloads of Talmudic works—a mass expulsion of the Jews in 1306, and the violent pogroms of the post–Great Famine era, which ended with nearly every Jew between Bordeaux and Albi dead.

The singular achievement of Black Death Marseille was to resist the wave of anti-Semitism and remain true to its Mediterranean heritage of tolerance. During the plague, the local Jewish community of 2,500 experienced no harassment or attack. Moreover, as the pogroms mounted in ferocity, Marseille gained a reputation as a haven for Jews fleeing persecution elsewhere.

Avignon, January 1348

In Avignon—where there were seven churches, seven monasteries, seven nunneries, and eleven houses of ill repute—the plague arrived in bitter January of 1348, filled the local cemeteries to capacity, and further damaged the already tarnished reputation of the papacy.

In February 1300, when Boniface VIII, the last of the great medieval popes, stepped onto a Vatican balcony and proclaimed 1300 a Jubilee Year, “in order that . . . [Rome] be more devoutly frequented by the faithful,” the papacy had seemed invincible. But the aura of omnipotence was an illusion. Even as Boniface stood basking in the adulation of the faithful that wintry February morning, history was working against the Church, and if the pope was still oblivious to the fact, his longtime nemesis Philip the Fair was not. Within a decade “the august and sovereign house of France,” the new power in Europe, would humiliate the papacy not once but twice. In 1303 Philip’s agents arrested Boniface at his summer palace, an experience the aged pope found so shocking, he dropped dead a few weeks later. Then, in 1308, Boniface’s successor, the pliant, jolly Gascon Clement V, was bullied into acting as Philip’s surrogate in the Templars affair. After fifty-four members of the order had been executed in the squares of Paris for drinking the powdered remains of their illegitimate children and for other crimes “most wicked” and of a “burning shame to heaven,” Clement, with Philip at his side, announced that the bulk of the Templars’ treasury would be awarded to the French king, in recognition of his efforts in bringing the order to justice.

At his execution, Grand Master de Molay did not forget to thank Clement for his participation in the order’s demise. Legend has it that as he went up in flames, the grand master invited the pope to join him and Philip in hell.

Nothing the French Crown did to the papacy, however, was as damaging as what the papacy did to itself in Avignon. The concept of the pope-out-of-Rome was not new when Clement V fled to the Provençal countryside in 1308. Between 1100 and 1304 popes had spent more time out of the Holy City than in it. But the Avignon exile was different. First, there was the suspicion that Clement would not come to Rome because he was unwilling to leave his beautiful French mistress, the Countess of Perigord. Secondly, there was Avignon itself: full of burned-out houses—a legacy of the thirteenth-century Albigensian Crusades—and crooked little streets, swept by violent winds, and surrounded by crumbling walls, the town had all Rome’s decrepitude, discomfort, and filth, but none of its historic glamour and authority or its infrastructure. The close proximity of the French Crown—Provence was still nominally independent—also enhanced the impression that the pope was becoming a French puppet.

The most damaging aspect of the Avignon papacy, however, was its utter lack of moral seriousness. Clement V and his successors transformed the Church into a spiritual Pez dispenser. The fertile minds at the curia had managed to create an indulgence for every imaginable situation and every imaginable sin. For a price, an illegitimate child could be made legitimate, as could the right to trade with the infidel, or marry a first cousin, or buy stolen goods. Dispensations were also created for special niche markets such as nuns who wished to keep maids, converted Jews who wished to visit unconverted parents, and people who wanted to be buried in two places (a wish that required cutting the deceased in half). The opulent lifestyle of the Avignon popes added further to the air of moral squalor that hung over the town. “The simple fishermen of Galilee” are now “clad in purple and gold,” complained Petrarch.

A dinner party Clement V gave in 1308 is characteristic of the imperial style of the Avignon papacy. Under exquisite Flemish tapestries and silk hangings, a staff of four knights and sixty-two squires served thirty-six papal guests a dinner of nine courses on plates of silver and gold. Each course consisted of three elaboratepieces montées,or centerpieces, such as a pastry castle made of roast stag, roebucks, and hares. Between the fourth and fifth courses, the guests presented the pope with a magnificent white charger valued at 400 florins (one florin could buy a man a good sheep) and two rings, one with an enormous sapphire, the other with an enormous topaz. To show his appreciation, Clement gave each guest a special papal ring. During a second interval between the fifth and sixth courses, a fountain spouting five different kinds of wine was rolled out. The margins of the fountain were garnished with peacocks, pheasants, partridges, and cranes. At an interval between the seventh and eighth courses, guests were treated to an indoor jousting match. Following the ninth course and a concert, dessert was served. It consisted of two edible trees; one, silver-colored, bore gilded apples, peaches, pears, figs, and grapes; the other, garden green, was laden with candied fruits. The evening concluded with another round of entertainment. A pair of hands clapped, and the chef and his staff of thirty came racing out of the kitchen to perform a dance for the papal guests.

John XXII, Clement V’s successor, was more frugal, but only because the spindly, pinch-faced John preferred counting his money to spending it. In an idle moment one scholar calculated that John’s personal fortune of twenty-five million florins weighed ninety-six tons.

Benedict XII, John’s successor, returned the Avignon papacy to the tradition of opulent magnificence. On a country walkabout in 1340, Benedict’s papal party was led by a white charger surrounded by several grooms; next came a chaplain, squires holding aloft three red hats on poles, two pontifical barbers carrying red cases containing papal vestments and tiaras, a subdeacon with a cross, and a mule with the Corpus Christi. In the middle of the procession rode Benedict, mounted on a white horse, shielded from the noonday sun by a canopy held aloft by six nobles, and followed by a squire with a papal mounting stool, should the pope wish to dismount. The tail of the procession was made up of assorted chamberlains, stewards, prelates, abbots, and, at the very rear, like an ambulatory exclamation mark, a papal almoner, tossing coins to the crowd.

However, compared to his successor, even Benedict looked parsimonious.

“No sovereign exceeded him in expenditure, nor bestowed his favors with greater generosity,” wrote an observer of Cola di Rienzo’s former patron, Clement VI. “The sumptuousness of his furniture, the delicacy of his table, the splendor of his court, filled with knights and squires of the ancient nobility, was unequalled.” And that was barely the half of it. Clement VI had a personal wardrobe of 1,080 ermine skins, delighted in games of “chance and in horses,” owned “the finest stud to be procured,” and, despite clucking tongues, kept “his palace . . . open to the fair sex at all sorts of hours.”

On misty mornings, the magnificent papal palace at Avignon rose above a surrounding belt of oak-filled and dew-splashed meadows like a spectral presence: a stately jumble of rocket-shaped turrets, wandering rooftops, and pyramid-shaped chimneys floating atop a pigeon gray cloud.“Valde misterioseum et pulcrum”: very mysterious and beautiful, declared one visitor. “Of solemn and wondrous beauty in its dwellings and of immense fortitude in its towers and walls,” declared another. The solemn magnificence of the palace was enhanced by its setting on a rock above the Rhône and by vast, cathedrallike corridors with vaulted windows, where red-hatted cardinals glided across checkerboard patterns of shadow and light like living chess pieces.

Daily, live saltwater fish from Marseille, freshwater fish from the Rhône, sheep and cattle from the Alpine pastures, and fowl and vegetables from the Provençal countryside flowed to the papal dining table. The palace also had a staff of more than four hundred, who worked in several kitchens, dining halls, money chambers; a papal steam room with a boiler; a zoo for the papal lion and the papal bear; and a large contingent of papal relatives, most of whom dressed in expensive brocade and fur and were usually accompanied by a knight or two.

When asked why he was more profligate than his predecessor, Clement VI replied haughtily, “My predecessors did not know how to be popes.”

If everyone above the rank of bishop lived in opulence in Avignon, nearly everyone below that rank lived in squalor. As scholar Morris Bishop has noted, moving the enormous papal bureaucracy, the curia, to semirural Avignon was akin to moving the United Nations to a small New England town. The almost overnight influx of thousands of new residents strained the local infrastructure, then broke it. Petrarch, a sometime resident, complained that Avignon was “the most dismal, crowded and turbulent [town] in existence, a sink overflowing with all the gathered filth of the world. What words can express how one is nauseated by the rank-smelling alleys, the obscene pigs and snarling dogs, . . . the rumble of wheels shaking the walls, and the carts blocking the twisting streets. So many races of men, such horrible beggars, such arrogance of the rich!” The mistral, the Provençal version of the sirocco, was another bane; it scattered papers, flared up skirts, stung eyes, and left everything covered with a fine coat of dust, but few complained because, as a local saying went:“Avenio, cum vento fastidiosa, sine vento venenosa”—“Avignon, unpleasant with a wind, poisonous without it.”

Papal bureaucrats suffered most from the lack of adequate infrastructure, says Professor Bishop. They shivered through winters in unheated, drafty buildings; sweltered through summers in shuttered rooms—to protect piles of paper from the disruptive mistral; and worked in semidarkness all year round. Beeswax candles were too expensive for routine use, tallow candles smelled awful and required constant trimming of the wick, while oil lamps lacked sufficient illuminating power for office work. Each evening, joints aching and eyes strained, the bureaucrats of the curia would arise from their stools and descend into Avignon’s streets, and, with no sights to see or friends to visit, head for the local taverns to drink and wench. Residents boasted that while the Holy City had only two whorehouses, Avignon had eleven.

“A field full of pride, avarice, self-indulgence and corruption,” declared St. Birgitta of Sweden. “The Babylon of the West,” Petrarch agreed.

If it was fashionable to criticize Avignon, it was also fashionable to come and gawk.

Crossing the bridge at Avignon on a Sunday morning in the spring of 1345, a visitor might encounter any number of celebrities, including Petrarch himself. As his graceful figure emerges from an avenue of oaks near the Rue des Lices, where papal employees and the native Avignonnais live, the poet looks as his friend Boccaccio described him: light and agile of step, cheerful of gaze, and round and handsome of face. Vain about his supposed lack of vanity, Petrarch, inLetter to Posterity,writes, “I can’t boast of remarkable good looks”; then, a few sentences later, he boasts about his “brown, sparkling eyes” and “high complexion neither light nor dark” to the reader.

On such a pretty morning, Petrarch could be thinking about almost anything, but probably he is thinking about Laura, the companion of his soul. The poet may be on his way to the studio of Simone Martini, who is painting a pocket portrait of Laura for him or planning a nocturnal visit to her home to swoon under the balcony—or a stroll through the gardens, where the pair sometimes walked and where once they quarreled.

There is no peace; I am too weak for war,

fear and hope; a burning brand, I freeze.

. . . This is my state my lady; It’s your doing.

Linger on the bridge for a while longer, and a visitor might see Laura herself. Like other fashionable Avignon women, she is wearing abaudea—a silk veil—but her dress, high-necked and loose fitting, is chaste by the standards of the day, which are quite daring. “Watching a woman undress,” complained one contemporary fashion critic, “is like watching a skinning.”

The morning light suits Laura. The sun adds luster to the golden hair on her forehead and a tint of pink to her snowy complexion. Accompanying her this morning is her very proper-looking husband, chevalier Hugues de Sade. In a neat twist of history, M. de Sade is an ancestor of Petrarch’s most eminent eighteenth-century biographer, the Abbé J. F. X. de Sade, who, in turn, is an uncle of the diabolical marquis of the same name. The de Sades are a prominent Avignon family. Wealthy gentry, they own several spinning mills in the region. The Pont d’Avignon has borne the de Sade family coat of arms since 1177.

No doubt, de Sade would be shocked to learn that a few hours earlier the most famous poet in Christendom had crossed the same bridge, fantasizing about his wife. But would the chevalier feel threatened? M. de Sade “cannot have taken [Petrarch] very seriously,” says Professor Bishop; otherwise he would never have tolerated the poet’s relationship with Laura. Besides, adds the professor, “de Sade knew very well the Provençal tradition of the infatuate poet suppliant. Whenever Petrarch went too far, he would lock up poor Laura, but otherwise, if the poet wanted to sigh at dawn beneath his wife’s window, there was no great harm done.”

Linger longer on the bridge, and the visitor might encounter another friend of Petrarch’s, the musician Louis Heyligen. The glamorous Italians regard northerners as crude country bumpkins, but a decade in Avignon has given the Flemish-born Heyligen more than a little southern panache. Emerging from a crooked street in a vapor of cologne, Heyligen looks like an advertisement for Avignon’s most voguish tailors and barbers. His hair is cut fashionably short; his mustaches, which twirl upward like the toes of an elf’s shoe, are fashionably long; and his clothes are fashionably tight. This morning Heyligen has squeezed his upper body into a short, particolored, form-fitting jacket, and his buttocks, crotch, and legs into the male equivalent of the “windows of hell,” a pair of hose so tight they leave hardly anything to the imagination. Head thrown back, chin thrust forward, and shoulders squared, the former scholarship boy from rural Beerigen in Flanders glides across the Pont d’Avignon like the king of France himself. His is the walk of a man who has known success in life. And, indeed, in Avignon, a city full of brilliant musicians, Heyligen is regarded as the most brilliant.

Heyligen, however, would be horrified to hear himself described as “creative.” Personal expressiveness and intuition had no place in medieval music, which was regarded as a branch of mathematics. Like every other aspect of the universe, music was thought to possess inherent structures. Musical structures were the fixed ratios between various notes and chords. The more accurately a musician could calculate the ratios with mathematical formulations, the more likely his music was to duplicate the “aural sound of God.”

Currently Heyligen is employed by the erudite and handsome young Cardinal Giovanni Colonna, one of old Stefano’s sons and a patron of Petrarch. On Sunday mornings the musician can be found conducting the choir in the cardinal’s private chapel. Heyligen is probably coming from there now, going home to prepare next Sunday’s musical program.

As Heyligen disappears behind a shuttling cart, the surgeon Guy de Chauliac lumbers into view. “Guigo,” as his friends call him, bears a passing resemblance to the French actor Gerard Depardieu (if contemporary portraits are to be believed). He is a big swarthy bear of man, with a very French kind of earthy masculinity. The surgeon looks as if he should have dirt under his fingernails, gold under his bed, and garlic on his breath. A casual observer would declare the surgeon a peasant, and the observer would be half right. Guigo is another bright scholarship boy. Born to a poor farming family in the Languedoc, he would still be pushing a plow but for a pair of “magic hands.” Legend has it that when he was a boy, Guigo’s skills at suturing wounds and setting bones earned him a reputation as a medical prodigy; he is said to have once saved the leg of a young noblewoman badly hurt in a fall.

There may be some truth in the story. We know the surgeon’s education was paid for by a local baron; the subsidy may have been a gesture of gratitude for a life-saving act. From Bologna, where he studied anatomy and surgery, Guigo went to France to study and teach at the University of Paris, then south to Avignon to become personal physician to Benedict XII and John XXII, and now to Clement VI, who, true to his belief that his “predecessors did not know how to be popes,” employs a medical staff of eight physicians, four surgeons, and three barber surgeons. As chief papal physician, Guigo has the task of monitoring the papal bowels—stool along with urine analysis was a key diagnostic tool of medieval medicine. Guigo records the number of papal bowel movements made each day and examines the odor and form of each stool for signs of pollutants.

Surgeon de Chauliac could also be thinking about almost anything on this lovely Sunday morning:Chirurgia magna,his masterwork, which will influence medical thinking for the next two hundred years; an irregular papal bowel movement; the pretty blond woman who passed by a moment ago. But what the surgeon could not be thinking about—what he could not even imagine on this fine spring day in 1345—is what Avignon will look like three years hence.

No one could.

Plague! The word conjured up . . . fantastic possibilities . . . Athens a charnel-house reeking to heaven and deserted even by the birds; Chinese towns cluttered with victims silent in their agony, the convicts at Marseille piling rotting corpses into pits; men and women copulating in the cemeteries of Milan; London’s ghoul haunted darkness. . . . A picture rose before him of the red glow of pyres mirrored on a wine dark slumberous sea, battling torches . . . thick, fetid smoke rising toward the watchful sky. Yes, it was not beyond the bounds of possibility.

Unlike Dr. Rieux, the hero ofThe Plague,Albert Camus’s novel of modern pestilence, the people of Avignon knew nothing about the history ofY. pestisin 1347. But in the fading weeks of the year—as rumors floated up the Rhône from Marseille, Sicily, and Genoa about sulfurous rains and poisonous winds and great walls of fire, and about a contagion so supple it spread by glance—in some dark recess of the mind the Avignonnais, too, must have thought: “Yes, it was not beyond the bounds of possibility.”

“From the outlying districts . . . a gentle breeze wafted a murmur of voices, of smells . . . a gay perfumed tide of freedom sounding on its way”: in the modern Oran ofThe Plague,the pestilence arrives gently, inconspicuously, like an odorless, tasteless poison. But the disease that Camus described was already old and enfeebled, drained of its most virulent poisons by centuries of battles in the streets of Sicily, the towns of China, and soot-stained cities of Renaissance Europe. The pathogen that struck Avignon in 1348 was still in the full vigor of youth.

Emerging from the half light of a January dawn, the pestilence fell upon fleshy, wicked Avignon, killing relentlessly, unceasingly, with skills honed on the windswept plains of Mongolia, the shores of Lake Issyk Kul, the twisted olive groves of Cyprus, and the tormented roads between Messina and Catania.

“They say that in the three months from 25 January to the present, 62,000 people have died . . . ,” musician Heyligen wrote to friends in Flanders on April 27. “Within the walls of the city [there are] more than 7,000 houses where no one lives because everyone in them has died, and in the suburbs one might imagine there is not one survivor.” In Avignon people fell in the streets, in churches, in homes, and in palaces; they fell from workbenches and under carts, and they fell in such astonishing numbers that throughout the cold wet winter and spring of 1348, the thud of the gravedigger’s shovel never ceased. The dying was so furious that the rustics who buried the dead—“half-naked men with no fine feeling,” Heyligen called them—could hardly keep up with the work. By March 14, eleven thousand people were already interred in the new cemetery that Clement VI had bought the city, and, said Heyligen, this was “in addition to those buried in the churchyards of the Hopital de Saint-Antoine and the religious orders and in many other church yards.” When Avignon ran out of ground, Clement consecrated the Rhône; each morning that plague spring, hundreds of rotting corpses would flow down the stream like a mysterious new species of sea creature. Passing Aramon, Tarascon, and Arles, Avignon’s dead would flood out into the open Mediterranean, where, under the low gray light of a sea dawn, they would gather in communion with the dead of Pisa and Messina, Catania and Marseille, Cyprus and Damascus.

Bonfires were set to ward off the pestilence and guards were posted to keep strangers out of the city. “If powders or unguents were found . . . the owners . . . were forced to swallow them,” wrote surgeon de Chauliac. However, little was done to protect the hastily buried dead from the twitching snouts of Avignon’s pigs. Each night, as the city slept a fretful pestilential sleep, the pigs would gather in the darkness and descend on the local graveyards, rooting through the loose, damp, corpse-laden ground until dawn; then, satiated, sleepy, and caked with cemetery mud, they would return home in the morning light.

In local churches, preachers did what preachers do when confronted with inexplicable, senseless human tragedy. They told the faithful that the pestilence was a blessing from God, part of the “small still flame in the dark core of human suffering [which] reveals the will of God in action, unfailingly transforming evil into good.” But in the winter streets outside, another kind of transformation was taking place. As the plague wore on, along with the snorts of “the obscene pigs and the snarling dogs,” increasingly Avignon echoed with the shouts of pursued Jews, the crackle of streetcorner bonfires, and the harsh, hacking sound of hemmorhagic lungs. Residents were quick to recognize the uncontrollable cough of pneumonic plague, the violent, spasmodic tattoo that threw people against walls or doubled them over in the streets, left chins and shirtfronts stained with bloody mucus, and produced a rattling noise in the lungs that sounded like a heavy iron chain being dragged across cobblestone. In April, only a few months afterY. pestisarrived, Heyligen wrote, “It [has been] found that all those who died suddenly had infected lungs, and had been coughing up blood. And this form is the most dangerous . . . which is to say that it is the most contagious.”

In Avignon, as elsewhere, the plague also illuminated the complexity of the human condition. There was the familiar story of abandonment, of people dying “without any mark of affection, piety or charity. . . . Priests do not hear confession . . . or administer sacraments. . . . Everyone who is still healthy looks only after himself,” complained Heyligen. There was also an alarming new series of attacks on the Jews. “Some wretched men . . . were accused of poisoning the wells,” the musician wrote to Flemish friends. “Many were burnt for this and are being burnt daily.” Avignon, however, was not bereft of heroism. The monks and brothers of La Pignotte, the municipal almshouse, displayed selfless devotion, feeding the hungry and tending the sick, swabbing oozing pustules, cauterizing painful buboes, bandaging cracked, gangrenous feet, washing bloodstained floors. But, alas, in a time of pestilence almost no good deed goes unpunished. The sick and dying who flocked to La Pignotte with contagious pneumonic plague made the almshouse a death trap. “Whereas at La Pignotte, they normally [go] through 64 measures of grain a day with one measure making 500 loaves of bread,” Heyligen noted, “now no more than one measure and sometimes only half is needed.”

On May 19 Petrarch, who was in Parma, received a letter from Heyligen. After reading it, the poet made a notation on the flyleaf of his most beloved book, a copy of Virgil. “Laura,” he wrote, “illustrious for her virtues and long celebrated in my poems, first appeared to my eyes, in my early manhood, in the Church of St. Clare in Avignon, in the 1327th year of Our Lord, on the sixth of April, at the early morning service. And in the same city in the same month of April, on the same sixth day, at the same hour in 1348 her light was subtracted from the world. . . . That very chaste and loving body was laid to rest in the church of the Franciscan brothers on the very day of her death at evening. But her soul has, I am persuaded, returned to heaven whence it came. . . . I have decided to make this record in this place . . . which often falls under my eyes . . . that I may reflect that there can be no more pleasure for me in this life . . . now that the chief bond has been broken.”*

The same day—May 19, 1348—Petrarch may have written these lines:

She closed her eyes; and in the sweet slumber lying

her spirit tiptoed from its lodging place.

It’s folly to shrink in fear, if this is dying;

for death looked lovely in her face.

In the early stages of the pestilence, Avignon attempted every imaginable protective measure. People stopped eating fish, maintaining that they have been “infected by infected air,” and spices, “for fear they had been carried on Genoese galleys.” They tried making bonfires, and then they burned Jews—until Clement issued a bull denouncing the murders. Next, Avignon took to the streets in bloody, semihysterical candlelit marches. Some were “attended by 2,000 people from all the region . . . ,” says Heyligen, “men and women alike, many barefoot, others wearing hairshirts or smeared with ashes . . . [some] beat themselves with cruel whips until the blood ran.”

After all alternatives had been exhausted, Avignon did what other pestilential towns did: it fell into the state of stuporous resignation Camus described inThe Plague. “None of us was capable of exalted emotion [any longer] . . . ,” says the narrator of the novel. “People would say, ‘It’s high time it stopped.’ . . . But when making such remarks we felt none of the passionate yearning or fierce resentment of the early phase. . . . The furious revolt of the first few weeks had given way to a vast despondency. . . . The whole town looked like a railway waiting room.”

In the midst of its suffering, Avignon did have one miraculous moment.

On March 15, 1348, as dawn broke over the city, cooks from the papal palace; scribes from the Holy See; chamberlains from Cardinal Colonna’s palace; and stewards, clerics, and servants from everywhere jostled one another in Avignon’s crooked, malodorous little streets. Above the excited crowds, walls and windows were decorated with flowers and silk drapings, and on terraces above the walls stood the “most fair and noble ladies . . . dressed in those costly garments of ceremony which are passed from mother to daughter for many generations.”

Around nine a.m. a chorus of silver trumpets sounded, and the wintry morning burst into glorious Technicolor. As a thousand excited spectators oohed and aahed, a parade of brilliantly dressed notables marched through the city. Leading the procession were the smiling bishop of Florence and the cap-waving chancellor of Provence. Behind them marched eighteen cardinals dressed in scarlet robes of the finest cloth, and behind the cardinals marched the most magical couple in Christendom and the reason the crowd got up early this morning. There was Luigi of Taratino, dressed in the latest Spanish fashion—short hair and tight jacket—and looking “as beautiful as the day,” and, walking a few paces ahead of him, twenty-three-year-old Queen Joanna of Naples and Sicily, draped in a gold and crimson robe and bearing a scepter and orb. The queen’s lovely blond head was protected from the pale winter light by a brilliantly colored canopy held aloft by nobles of the highest rank. The crowd was rapturous. “Her figure,” says one admirer, was “. . . tall and nobly formed, her air composed and majestic, her carriage altogether royal, [and] her features of exquisite beauty.”

Joanna’s fair skinned, blond beauty—a combination troubadours called “snow on ice”—was one of the great wonders of the medieval world. “Fair and goodly to look upon” is how Giovanni Boccaccio described the young queen. “Exquisite and enchanting,” declared Petrarch. “More angelic than human,” added the chevalier de Brantome. For the gallant young cavalier Galaezzo Gonzaga of Mantua, words alone failed to describe Joanna’s loveliness. After a single dance with the Neapolitan queen, the cavalier fell to his knees and vowed to “go through the world until I have overcome in battle two knights whom I swear I will present to you in recompense.” Presently, two Burgundian knights arrived in Joanna’s court, accompanied by a note from ardent young cavalier Galezzo.*

In character, the young queen was typically Neapolitan, which is to say that both her subjects—who believed Joanna to be kind and good-hearted—and her brother-in-law, King Louis of Hungary—who called Joanna that “great harlot that . . . ruleth over Naples”—had a point.

The queen’s visit to pestilential Avignon was occasioned by her involvement in one of the most sensational celebrity murders of the Middle Ages. On a late summer evening three years earlier, Joanna’s husband—and Louis’s younger brother—eighteen-year-old Prince Andreas of Hungary, was found hanging from the balcony of a Neapolitan abbey. According to contemporary accounts, the young prince was still alive when a maid discovered him, but when she let out a scream a mysterious figure suddenly emerged from the darkness, grabbed the dangling prince by the ankles, and yanked down hard, breaking his neck and killing him.

On hearing of the murder, Joanna was reportedly inconsolable. The next morning, whenever Andreas’s name was mentioned, she would sob, “My murdered man!” Declaring, “I have suffered such intense anguish at the murder of my husband . . . I well nigh died of the same wounds,” a few days later the queen offered a reward for any information pertaining to the crime. The Neapolitans were touched—the queen was so young and lovely and her grief so great. The Hungarians were suspicious—the circumstances surrounding Andreas’s death were unusual. There was first of all the fact that on the night of the murder, Andreas was summoned from the royal bedchambers by one of Joanna’s maids, a young woman named Mabrice di Pace. Mabrice knocked on the bedroom door late in the evening and told the prince an adviser wished to speak to him. There was the added circumstance that when Andreas left the bedroom, where Joanna was supposedly asleep, someone locked the door from the inside. And there was also the fact that one of the men who assaulted the prince in the darkened abbey hallway outside the royal bedchamber was Raimondo Cabani, husband of the queen’s childhood tutor. After wrestling Andreas to the ground, Cabani and two accomplices shoved a glove into the prince’s mouth, slipped a noose around his neck, then dragged him to a balcony and threw him over the rail.

The Hungarians were also quick to point out that Joanna had good reason to desire Andreas dead. There was the queen’s semipublic affair with the handsome Luigi, rumored to be the father of the child she was carrying at the time of the murder. Added to that was the queen’s well-known dislike for Andreas, who was said to have been a plump, dull boy, and for Andreas’s older brother King Louis, who Joanna believed to have designs on her Kingdom of Naples and Sicily. “I am a queen in name only,” she told Petrarch one day.

For months after the murder, informed opinion in Europe was divided about the queen’s complicity. Luigi predictably insisted that Joanna was innocent, and Petrarch, a relatively unbiased observer, came to the same conclusion. Boccaccio could not make up his mind. In the first of several thinly disguised accounts of the murder, he described a Joanna-like character as a “pregnant she-wolf.” But in a later version of the story, the author changed his mind and transformed the queen’s character into a beautiful maiden in distress. Louis of Hungary suffered no such agonies of doubt. Shortly before the plague arrived, he wrote to Joanna, “Your former ill faith, your impudent assumption . . . the vengeances you have neglected to take [on Andreas’s alleged assassins], the excuses made for it, all prove you to have been accessory to the death of your husband. . . . Be sure, however, that none ever escape vengeance for such a crime.”

When Joanna visited Genoa in March 1348, she was fleeing the armies of the avenging Louis, who had just celebrated his conquest of Naples by decapitating a cousin of Luigi’s on the balcony where Andreas was hanged.

To Joanna’s supporters, her decision to risk the pestilential papal city to clear her name in a Church trial wasprima facieevidence of her innocence. “To quietly triumph before the world, would for her, outweigh the risk of a hundred pestilences,” an admiring biographer wrote later. To detractors, however, the visit only proved that the queen was more afraid of ending up like Luigi’s cousin than she was of the plague. Joanna, they charged, was driven to Avignon by the need to cut a deal with Clement VI, one of the few figures powerful enough to protect her from the vengeful Hungarians. Both views would find support in the queen’s trial, which was held the same day as her arrival in Avignon, March 15, 1348, in the great Hall of the Consistory.

As Joanna and Luigi took wine and refreshment in an antechamber, the court assembled inside the hall. Seated on a papal dais that put him two steps above everyone else was the presiding judge, Clement VI, who was wearing a bejeweled triple tiara, white robes of exquisite hand-woven silk, and linen slippers with delicate little gold crosses embroidered on the toes. Seated below the pontiff were a semicircle of cardinal-judges, and standing in front of the cardinals were Joanna’s accusers, the glowering prosecutors of the Hungarian Crown. Leaning against the walls of the consistory was the most fabulous audience in Christendom. Ignoring the plague, “prelates, princes, nobles, and ambassadors of every European power” had gathered in Avignon to witness the trial.

The evidence against Joanna was incriminating in the extreme, and the Hungarians made the most of it. They reminded the papal court of the deep and well-known animosity that had existed between the queen and her prince consort, of the many plots Joanna’s advisers had launched against the unsuspecting Andreas, and, most incriminating of all, of the queen’s proximity to the young prince the night of the murder. Only a few inches of bedroom door had separated the royal couple; surely the queen must have heard her husband’s cries for help? Though the Hungarian case was powerful—perhaps even overwhelming, as one historian later noted—“The Queen of Naples could seduce the Areopagus itself.”

Entering the all-male court, Joanna “came pale and slowly in her beauty, the open crown of Naples set softly upon her bright wavy hair; her long fur-fringed azure mantle . . . strewn with fleur-de-lys.” Advancing through an avenue of glittering nobles and cardinals, the Neapolitan queen fell to her knees in front of the papal dais and kissed the papal feet. Clement VI ordered Joanna to rise, kissed her on the mouth, then invited the young queen to sit by his side.

When called upon to answer the charges against her, Joanna rose; one admirer wrote: “a woman, a mother, and a queen, three voices in one.” The queen conceded that, yes, her marriage to Andreas had been lacking in sentiment, but she insisted that shortly before the prince’s murder, a reconciliation had been effected. Joanna also reminded the court that when the prince was slain, she had lost not only a dear husband but a dear childhood companion; the royal couple had played together as boy and girl. The young queen then spoke movingly of the horrors of widowhood and exile, and passionately about the cruelties of her horrid Hungarian in-laws, who had snatched away her infant son. “Proclaim to the world at large, the innocence of a persecuted orphan and injured queen,” Joanna begged the court.

The papal court did that and more. The judges pronounced Joanna not only innocent but “above suspicion of guilt.” Embracing the exonerated queen, Clement declared her his “blameless and beloved daughter.” As Joanna and Luigi exited the great Hall of the Consistory, church bells echoed through the pestilential streets of Avignon.

A few months later, it was announced that Clement had purchased Avignon from the queen, who, as countess of Provence, held title to the city. The selling price, eighty thousand gold florins, was deemed very reasonable by most observers—indeed, perhaps even a bit low for what was, after all, the capital of Christendom. Nonetheless, rumors persisted for years that no money ever changed hands in the sale.*

As March turned to April and April to May, Avignon continued to die. Shops and businesses shut down; people fled to the countryside; astrologers warned that the pestilence would last a decade. In April Heyligen told friends that the departure of the pope was expected daily, and if Clement left Avignon, he would leave, too. “They say that my lord [Cardinal Colonna] follows the Pope and that I am to go with him. Since that place looks towards Mount Ventoux, where the plague has not yet come, it is the best place to be, or—anyways—so they say.”

Clement’s departure in May did not arouse much public comment. Almost anyone who could was fleeing the city, and the pope had done what he could for Avignon. He had bought the city a new cemetery, granted a blanket absolution to the dying, waived the ban on autopsies so that physicians could explore the cause of the disease, condemned the attacks on the Jews in a strongly worded bull, even appointed a commission to calculate the number of plague fatalities worldwide—the commission came up with a figure of almost twenty-four million dead. But the pestilence wore Clement down, as it did nearly everyone else. Between Joanna’s trial in March and late spring, when he fled to the papal retreat at Etoile-sur-Rhône, the pope spent a great deal of time seated between two roaring fires in the papal chambers. The fires were the idea of surgeon de Chauliac, who believed heat would cleanse the papal chambers of infected air, thought to be the cause of the pestilence. And the treatment worked, though for reasons that would have surprised the surgeon: the fires kept the papal chambers free of infected fleas.

It would be unfair to heap obloquy on Clement; if he can be accused of anything, it is the sin of being ordinary in an extraordinary time. The pope did what he thought he ought to do, and some of what he did was meritorious. He marched with the fearful and purchased cemeteries for the dead. It can even be argued that Clement was a bolder defender of the Jews than Pius XII, the pope who presided over the Church during World War II. However, in a situation that called for a leader with a Gandhi-like spiritual authority—someone who could both give comfort and inspire—Clement acted like a head of state. He was responsible but, in the end, unimaginative and self-preserving. Surgeon de Chauliac is a more inspiring figure. When the pope fled to Etoile-sur-Rhône, taking Cardinal Colonna and Heyligen with him, the surgeon chose to stay behind in Avignon. One sees Guigo walking through the wintry streets, a big lumbering man, calm of manner, with observant eyes and oversized peasant hands so gentle they could make a feverish child stop trembling. “To avoid infamy I dared not absent myself,” de Chauliac wrote of his decision to remain in Avignon, but he never explained whose infamy he feared. Indeed, the surgeon was generally reticent about his personal experiences during the plague. “Toward the end of the mortality,” he says, he was stricken himself. “I fell into a continuous fever, with a tumor in the groin. I was ill for nearly six weeks and in such great danger that all my associates thought I would die, but the tumor being ripened and treated . . . I survived.”

Surgeon de Chauliac’s only other reference to his personal experience comes in the context of a scientific observation. He noted that between winter and spring, the plague changed character in Avignon, altering from a pneumonic to a bubonic form. “The mortality,” he wrote, “began with us in January and lasted for seven months. It had two phases. The first was for two months and with continuous fever and the spitting of blood, from which victims died within three days. The second phase lasted for the remainder of the period [that is, spring and early summer] and patients also had continuous fever. In addition, abscesses and carbuncles—i.e., buboes—formed in the extremities, namely in the armpits and groin.”

It is only a conjecture, but perhaps the infamy the surgeon feared was the infamy of scientific conscience, of failing to stand in the whirlwind and try to understand and tame it with human reason.

How many people died in Avignon?

A contemporary puts the mortality in the city at 120,000, but this figure is as suspect as Marseille’s death toll of 56,000. Whenever a medieval observer used large numbers, what he meant to say was not, “This is the how many bodies were counted,” but “A great many people died.” Given the lethality of pneumonic plague and the number of contemporary accounts that describe Avignon’s losses as severe, Philip Ziegler’s estimate of a mortality in the 50 percent range sounds about right.

InOn Thermonuclear War,another landmark of Cold War literature, theorist Herman Kahn describes a casualty rate of 50 percent in a nuclear exchange as unacceptably high. In little Avignon in the year of 1348, one out of every two people died.

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