The Popes in Avignon



IN 1309 Pope Clement V removed the papacy from Rome to Avignon. He was a Frenchman, the former bishop of Bordeaux; he owed his elevation to Philip IV of France, who had startled all Christendom by not only defeating Pope Boniface VIII but arresting him, humiliating him, and almost starving him to death. Clement’s life would be unsafe in a Rome that reserved to itself the right to maltreat a pope, and resented the insolent irreverence of the King; moreover, the French cardinals formed now a large majority in the Sacred College, and refused to entrust themselves to Italy. So Clement stayed awhile at Lyons and Poitiers; then, hoping to be less subject to Philip in a territory owned by the king of Naples as count of Provence, he took up his residence in Avignon, just across the Rhone from fourteenth-century France.

The immense effort of the papacy from Gregory VII (1073–85) to Boniface VIII (1294–1303) to form a European world state by subordinating the kings to the popes had failed; nationalism had triumphed over a theocratic federalism; even in Italy the republics of Florence and Venice, the city-states of Lombardy, and the Kingdom of Naples rejected ecclesiastical control; a republic twice raised its head in Rome; and in the other Papal States* military adventurers or feudal magnates—Baglioni, Bentivogli, Malatestas, Manfredi, Sforzas—were replacing the vicars of the Church with their own swashbuckling authority. The papacy in Rome had wielded the prestige of centuries, and the nations had learned to do it homage and send it fees; but a papacy of continuously French pontiffs (1305–78), almost imprisoned by the kings of France, and lending them great sums to carryon their wars, seemed to Germany, Bohemia, Italy, and England a hostile power, the psychological weapon of the French monarchy. Increasingly those nations ignored its excommunications and interdicts, and only with rising reluctance yielded it a declining reverence.

Against these difficulties Clement V labored with patience, if not with fortitude. He bowed as little as he could to Philip IV, who held over Clement’s head the threat of a scandalous post-mortem inquest into the private conduct and beliefs of Boniface VIII. Harassed for funds, the Pope sold ecclesiastical benefices to the highest bidder; but he lent tacit approval to the merciless reports that the mayor of Angers and the bishop of Mende presented on the subject of clerical morals and Church reform to the Council of Vienne (1311).1 He himself led a clean and frugal life, and practised an undemonstrative piety. He protected the great physician and critic of the Church, Arnold of Villanova, from persecution for heresy; he reorganized medical studies at Montpellier on Greek and Arabic texts, and tried—though he failed—to establish chairs of Hebrew, Syriac, and Arabic in the universities. To all his troubles was added a painful disease—lupulus, probably a fistula—which compelled him to shun society, and killed him in 1314. In a better environment he would have been an ornament to the Church.

The chaotic interregnum that followed revealed the temper of the times. Dante wrote to the Italian cardinals urging them to hold out for an Italian pope and a return to Rome; but only six of the twenty-three cardinals were Italian; and when the conclave met in a locked room* at Carpentras, near Avignon, it was surrounded by a Gascon populace that shouted: “Death to the Italian cardinals!” The houses of these prelates were attacked and destroyed; the crowd set fire to the building that housed the conclave; the cardinals broke a passage through the rear wall, and fled from the fire and the mob. For two years no further attempt was made to choose a pope. Finally at Lyons, under the protection of French soldiery, the cardinals raised to the papacy a man already seventy-two years of age, who might reasonably be expected to die soon, but who was destined to rule the Church for eighteen years with rugged zeal, insatiable avidity, and imperial will. John XXII had been born at Cahors in southern France, the son of a cobbler; it was the second time that a cobbler’s son had risen, by the remarkable democracy of an authoritarian Church, to the highest place in Christendom; Urban IV (1261–4) had shown the way. Employed as a teacher for the children of the French king of Naples, John studied civil and canon law with such aptitude that the king took him into favor. On the king’s recommendation Boniface VIII made him bishop of Fréjus, and Clement V raised him to the see of Avignon. At Carpentras the gold of Robert of Naples silenced the patriotism of the Italian cardinals, and the cobbler’s son became one of the strongest of the popes.

He displayed abilities rarely combined: scholarly studies and administrative skill. Under his leadership the Avignon papacy developed a competent, if corrupt, bureaucratic organization, and a fiscal staff that shocked the envious chancelleries of Europe with its capacity for gathering revenues. John undertook a dozen major conflicts that called for funds; like his predecessor he sold benefices, but without a blush; by sundry devices this scion of the banking town of Cahors so fattened the papal treasury that at his death it held 18,000,000 gold florins ($450,000,000), and 7,000,000 in plate and jewelry.2 He explained that the papal Curia had lost much of its income from Italy, and had to build its offices, staff, and services anew. John seems to have felt that he could serve God best by winning Mammon to his side. His personal habits tended to an abstemious simplicity.3

Meanwhile he patronized learning, shared in establishing medical schools at Perugia and Cahors, helped universities, founded a Latin college in Armenia, fostered the study of Oriental languages, fought alchemy and magic, spent days and nights in scholastic studies, and ended as a theologian suspected of heresy. Perhaps to check the spread of a mysticism that claimed direct contact with God, John ventured to teach that no one—not even the Mother of God—can attain to the Beatific Vision until the Last Judgment. A storm of protest arose among the eschatological experts; the University of Paris denounced the Pope’s view, a church synod at Vincennes condemned it as heresy, and Philip VI of France ordered him to reform his theology.4 The crafty nonagenarian eluded them all by dying (1334).

John’s successor was a man of gentler mold. Benedict XII, the son of a baker, tried to be a Christian as well as a pope; he resisted the temptation to distribute offices among his relatives; he earned an honorable hostility by bestowing benefices for merits, not for fees; he repressed bribery and corruption in all branches of Church administration; he alienated the mendicant orders by commanding them to reform; he was never known to be cruel or to shed blood in war. All the forces of corruption rejoiced at his early death (1342).

Clement VI, born of a noble house in Limousin, was accustomed to luxury, gaiety, and art, and could not understand why a pope should be austere when the papal treasury was full. Almost all who came to him for appointments secured them; no one, he said, should depart from him unsatisfied. He announced that any poor clergyman who should come to him within the next two months would partake of his bounty; an eyewitness reckoned that 100,000 came.5 He gave rich gifts to artists and poets; maintained a stud of horses equal to any in Christendom; admitted women freely to his court, enjoyed their charms, and mingled with them in Gallic gallantry. The countess of Turenne was so close to him that she sold ecclesiastical preferments with careless publicity.6 Hearing of Clement’s good nature, the Romans sent an embassy inviting him to reside in Rome. He did not relish the prospect, but he appeased them by declaring that the jubilee, which Boniface VIII had established in 1300 for every hundred years, should be celebrated every half century. Rome rejoiced at the news, deposed Rienzo, and renewed its political submission to the popes.

Under Clement VI Avignon became the capital not only of the religion but of the politics, culture, pleasure, and corruption of the Latin world. Now the administrative machinery of the Church took its definitive form: an Apostolic Chamber (camera apostolica)in charge of finances, and headed by a papal chamberlain (camerarius) who was second in dignity to the pope alone; a Papal Chancery (cancelleria) whose seven agencies, directed by a cardinal vice-chancellor, handled the complex correspondence of the See; a Papal Judiciary composed of prelates and laymen learned in canon law, and including the Consistory—the pope and his cardinals acting as a court of appeals; and an Apostolic Penitentiary—a college of clergy who dealt with marital dispensations, excommunication and interdict, and heard the confessions of those seeking papal absolution.

To house the pope and his aides, these ministries and agencies, their staffs and servants, Benedict XII began, and Urban V completed, the immense Palace of the Popes, a congeries of Gothic buildings—living chambers, council halls, chapels, and offices—enclosing two courts, and themselves enclosed by mighty ramparts whose height and breadth and massive towers suggest that the popes, if besieged, would rely on no miracle for their defense. Benedict XII invited Giotto to come and decorate the palace and the adjoining cathedral; Giotto planned to come, but died; and in 1338 Benedict summoned from Siena Simone Martini, whose frescoes, now obliterated, marked the zenith of painting in Avignon. Around this palace, in lesser palaces, mansions, tenements, and hovels, gathered a great population of prelates, envoys, lawyers, merchants, artists, poets, servants, soldiers, beggars, and prostitutes of every grade from cultured courtesans to tavern tarts. Here, for the most part, dwelt those bishops in partibus infidelium who were appointed to sees that had fallen into the hands of non-Christians.

We, who are inured to colossal figures, can imagine the amount of money required to support this complex administrative establishment and its entourage. Several sources of income were nearly dried up: Italy, deserted by the papacy, sent hardly anything; Germany, at odds with John XXII, sent half its usual tribute; France, holding the Church almost at its mercy, appropriated for secular purposes a large part of French ecclesiastical revenues, and borrowed heavily from the papacy to finance the Hundred Years’ War; England severely restricted the flow of money to a Church that was in effect an ally of France. To meet this situation the Avignon popes were driven to develop every trickle of revenue. Each bishop or abbot, whether appointed by pope or secular prince, transmitted to the Curia, as an inaugural fee, one third of his prospective income for a year, and paid exasperating gratuities to the numerous intermediaries who had supported his nomination. If he became an archbishop he had to pay a substantial fee for the archiepiscopal pallium—a circular band of white wool, worn over the chasuble as the insignia of his office. When a new pontiff was elected, every ecclesiastical benefice or office sent him its full revenue for one year (annates), and thereafter a tenth of its revenue in each year; additional voluntary contributions were expected from time to time. On the death of any cardinal, archbishop, bishop, or abbot, his personal possessions and effects belonged to the papacy. In the interim between such death and the installation of a new appointee the popes received the revenues, and paid the expenses, of the benefice; and they were accused of deliberately extending this interval. Every ecclesiastical appointee was held responsible for dues unpaid by his predecessors. As bishops and abbots were in many cases feudal proprietors of estates received in fief from the king, they had to pay him tribute and provide him with soldiery, so that many were hard pressed to meet their combined ecclesiastical and secular obligations; and as the papal exactions were more severe than the state’s, we find the hierarchy sometimes supporting the king against the pope. The Avignon pontiffs almost completely ignored the ancient rights of cathedral chapters or monastic councils to choose bishops or abbots; and these by-passed collators joined in the accumulating resentment. Cases tried in the Papal Judiciary usually required the expensive help of lawyers, who had to pay an annual fee for license to plead in the papal courts. Every judgment or favor received from the Curia expected a gift in acknowledgment; even permission to be ordained had to be bought. The secular governments of Europe looked with awe and fury upon the fiscal machinery of the popes.7

Protests arose from every quarter, and not least vigorously from churchmen themselves. The Spanish prelate Alvaro Pelayo, though thoroughly loyal to the papacy, wrote On the Lamentation of the Church, in which he mourned that “Whenever I entered the chambers of the ecclesiastics of the papal court, I found brokers and clergy engaged in weighing and reckoning the money that lay in heaps before them…. Wolves are in control of the Church, and feed on the blood” of the Christian flock.8 Cardinal Napoleone Orsini was disturbed to find that nearly all the bishoprics of Italy were the object of barter or family intrigue under Clement V. Edward III of England, himself adept in taxation, reminded Clement VI that “the successor of the Apostles was commissioned to lead the Lord’s sheep to the pasture, not to fleece them,”9 and the English parliament passed several statutes to check the taxing power of the popes in Britain. In Germany papal collectors were hunted down, imprisoned, mutilated, in some cases strangled. In 1372 the clergy of Cologne, Bonn, Xanten, and Mainz bound themselves by oath not to pay the tithe demanded by Gregory XI. In France many benefices were ruined by a tragic combination of war, the Black Death, pillage by brigands, and the exactions of papal collectors; many pastors abandoned their parishes.

To such complaints the popes replied that ecclesiastical administration required all these funds, that incorruptible agents were hard to find, and that they themselves were in a sea of troubles. Probably under duress, Clement VI lent Philip VI of France 592,000 gold florins ($14,800,000), and 3,517,000 more ($87,925,000) to King John II.10 Great outlays were required to reconquer the lost papal states in Italy. Despite all taxes the popes suffered dire deficits. John XXII rescued the papal treasury by paying into it 440,000 florins from his personal funds; Innocent VI sold his silver plate, his jewelry and works of art; Urban V had to borrow 30,000 florins from his cardinals; Gregory XI owed 120,000 francs when he died.

Critics retorted that deficits were caused not by legitimate outlays but by the worldly luxury of the papal court and its hangers-on. Clement VI was surrounded by male and female relatives attired in precious stuffs and furs; by knights, squires, sergeants at arms, chaplains, ushers, chamberlains, musicians, poets, artists, doctors, scientists, tailors, philosophers, and chefs who were the envy of kings—all in all, some four hundred persons, all fed, clothed, lodged, and salaried by a lovably lavish Pope who had never known the cost of money. Clement thought of himself as a ruler who had to awe his subjects and impress ambassadors by “conspicuous consumption” after the custom of kings. The cardinals too, as the royal council of a state as well as the princes of the Church, had to maintain establishments befitting their dignity and power; their retinues, equipages, banquets were the talk of the town. Perhaps Cardinal Bernard of Garves overdid it, who hired fifty-one dwellings to house his retainers; and Cardinal Peter of Banhac, five of whose ten stables sheltered thirty-nine horses in comfort and style. Even bishops fell in line, and, despite remonstrances from provincial synods, kept rich establishments with jesters, falcons, and dogs.

Avignon now assumed the morals, as well as the manners, of royal courts. Venality there was notorious. Guillaume Durand, Bishop of Mende, reported to the Council of Vienne:

The whole Church might be reformed if the Church of Rome would begin by removing evil examples from itself… by which men are scandalized, and the whole people, as it were, infected…. For in all lands… the holy Church of God, and especially the most holy Church of Rome, is in evil repute; and all cry and publish it abroad that within her bosom all men, from the greatest unto even the least, have set their hearts upon covetousness…. That the whole Christian folk take from the clergy pernicious examples of gluttony is clear and notorious, since the said clergy feast more luxuriously and splendidly, and with more dishes, than princes and kings.11

And Petrarch, a master of words, exhausted his vocabulary of vituperation to brand Avignon as

the impious Babylon, the hell on earth, the sink of vice, the sewer of the world. There is in it neither faith nor charity nor religion nor the fear of God…. All the filth and wickedness of the world have run together here…. Old men plunge hot and headlong into the arms of Venus; forgetting their age, dignity, and powers, they rush into every shame, as if all their glory consisted not in the cross of Christ but in feasting, drunkenness, and unchastity…. Fornication, incest, rape, adultery are the lascivious delights of the pontifical games.12

Such testimony, from an eyewitness who never veered from orthodoxy, cannot be entirely disregarded, but it has the ring of exaggeration and personal resentment. Some discount must be made from it as the cry of a man who hated Avignon for snatching the papacy from Italy; who begged for benefices from the Avignon popes, received many, and asked for more; who consented to live with the murderous and antipapal Visconti, and had two bastards of his own. Morals in Rome, to which Petrarch importuned the popes to return, were then no better than in Avignon, except as poverty is an aid to chastity. St. Catherine of Siena was not as vivid as the poet in describing Avignon, but she told Gregory XI that at the papal court “her nostrils were assailed by the odors of hell.”13

Amid the moral decay there were many prelates who were worthy of their calling, and preferred the morals of Christ to those of their time. When we reflect that of the seven Avignon popes only one lived a life of worldly pleasure, and another, John XXII, however rapacious and severe, disciplined himself to ascetic austerity, and another, Gregory XI, though merciless in war was in peace a man of exemplary morals and piety, and three—Benedict XII, Innocent VI, and Urban V—were men of almost saintly life, we cannot hold the popes responsible for all the vice that gathered in papal Avignon. The cause was wealth, which has had like results in other times—in the Rome of Nero, the Rome of Leo X, the Paris of Louis XIV, the New York and Chicago of today. And as in these last cities we perceive that the vast majority of men and women lead decent lives, or practise their vices modestly, so we may presume that even in Avignon the lecher and the courtesan, the glutton and the thief, the crooked lawyer and the dishonest judge, the worldly cardinal and the faithless priest, were exceptions standing out more vividly than elsewhere because surveyed, and sometimes condoned, by the Apostolic See.

The scandal was real enough to share with the flight from Rome in undermining the prestige and authority of the Church. As if to confirm the suspicion that they were no longer a world power but merely the tools of France, the Avignon popes named 113 Frenchmen to the college of cardinals in a total of 134 nominations.14 Hence the connivance of the English government at Wyclif’s uncompromising attacks upon the papacy. The German electors repudiated any further interference of the popes in the election of their kings and emperors. In 1372 the abbots of the archdiocese of Cologne, in refusing the tithe to Pope Gregory XI, publicly proclaimed that “the Apostolic See has fallen into such contempt that the Catholic faith in these parts seems to be seriously imperiled. The laity speak slightingly of the Church because, departing from the custom of former days, she hardly ever sends forth preachers or reformers, but rather ostentatious men, cunning, selfish, and greedy. Things have come to such a pass that few are Christians in more than name.”15

It was the Babylonian Captivity of the popes in Avignon, and the ensuing Papal Schism, that prepared the Reformation; and it was their return to Italy that restored their prestige and deferred catastrophe for a century.

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