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The Avignonese Papacy


The Catholic Church endured a prolonged period of crisis that lasted from 1305 until 1416; some would extend the date even later. During these years, the Church found its authority undermined, openly challenged, and divided among rivals. Although it emerged at the end of the period with its authority seemingly intact, the struggle brought significant changes to the structure of the Church and sowed seeds that would later be harvested in the Reformation.

The century of crisis divides into two periods of unequal length. In the first phase, the popes were resident not in Rome but in Avignon, in southern France. Because of bishop is supposed to reside in his see, this circumstance, which lasted from 1305 to 1378, undermined the authority and prestige of the papacy.

No sooner did the popes finally return to Rome than there was a disputed election. For the next 38 years there were two popes in Christendom, each with his own college of cardinals and curia. This state of affairs scandalized pious Christians and further diminished the prestige of the papacy.

Oddly enough, in response to these events, individual popes extended themselves to bolster papal authority and draw to themselves more tightly the reins of power. Consequently, we see a concurrent development in which papal government was rationalized, centralized, and made more efficient. This lead to an increase in revenues and in claims to authority. Once the crisis was over, the popes that followed were among the most magnificent and splendid the Church has ever seen.

The long crisis of the Church began with a confrontation between two powerful and determined figures: King Philip IV of France, and Pope Boniface VIII.

Philip IV of France - Background

Philip IV is one of the most important of the medieval French kings. He was proud, arrogant, and determined that the king should have his way. He was no respecter of tradition or rights and was greedy and unscrupulous. He appointed men to his court who were well trained in Roman law and  who believed in royal supremacy. They found the legal and historical precedents to justify his actions.

One of the great dangers to Philip's position was the authority and privileges of the Church in Rome. French bishops were powerful men who had command of large tracts of land and vast quantities of money, all of which were technically outside royal authority. In practice, this bishop was more or less under royal control while that one was more loyal to Rome, with many sitting the fence and ready to go with whomever seemed likely to grant them the better position and favors. Who controlled the Church in France was therefore a very pressing matter indeed.

Philip IV of France - Immediate Circumstances


This was a trend that other French kings had either agreed to or had been unable to oppose effectively. Philip was determined not only to oppose but to counteract and reverse the trend.

It was made more pressing by war. France and England fought two wars in the early part of Philip's reign and war always created a serious financial burden. Philip saw assertion of royal authority over the French Church (sometimes called the Gallican Church, after Gaul, the old name for France) as at one and the same time a matter of royal dignity and a matter of pressing fiscal and national concern. Unfortunately, the Roman Church was at the same time asserting its rights and privileges with a new energy.

The specific issue was over clerical exemption from royal taxes. Where the clergy held non-Church lands, Philip argued they should pay royal taxes. Of course, the clergy sought diligently to have as much land as possible be considered as Church land. Even more, though, Philip claimed the clergy should also contribute to direct taxes, arguing that they were benefitting from royal protection from the English and so should contribute to the expense of that defense.

These were not new battles, but were the same sorts of issues that had caused clergy and kings to squabble for two hundred years. But there was a new pope in Rome, and he proved to be every bit as determined as Philip in defending and extending the rights of his position. 

Boniface VIII

Boniface was in some ways a man of similar temper and ambitions as Philip. He had an exalted view of the role of the pope as a kind of clerical monarch. He had been trained as a lawyer and knew how to use the law as a weapon as effective as any sword to get what he wanted. And, like Philip, he wanted a very great deal.

 Boniface was stubborn, ambitious, intelligent, vain, and unscrupulous. He believed deeply that the pope was literally the vicar of Christ on Earth and that he held extraordinary powers. Anyone who opposed him opposed God and therefore must certainly be wicked.

Boniface also had a notorious temper and he specifically despised the French, saying that he would rather be a dog than a Frenchman.  In one incident, he kicked a royal envoy in the head as the man bowed at the papal throne, because he was angry with him. His vanity can be seen in that he had statuettes of himself distributed through Rome.

This was not the sort of fellow to sit by while the French king claimed novel and extensive powers over the Gallic Church.

Whereas Philip was threatened by the strong English king (Edward I), Boniface was threatened by internal enemies, going back to the circumstances of his election as pope. 

Pope Nicholas IV had died in 1292. The city of Rome was at this time split between two powerful families: the Colonna and the Orsini. The College of Cardinals consisted mainly of Italian prelates and most of these belonged or were under the influence of one or the other of these two families. Between them, they deadlocked negotiations for a new pope.

Two years went by and still no pope had been elected. It was causing something of a scandal among the faithful. Various compromise candidates had been proposed, but none were acceptable until July 1294, when someone suggested a hermit of some note who was living in a cave near Naples. The fellow was old, utterly devout, and clearly could not be regarded as the man of either party. So the cardinals traipsed up the mountain and delivered the good news to the hermit, who was utterly devastated. He did not want the honor, but saw it as his duty, and took the name of Celestine V.

It was a disaster. The man was unfit for the office and within weeks administrative chaos broke out. Humiliated and ashamed, within a year, Celestine resigned his office and returned to his cave, leaving the cardinals back where they'd started. One of the men who had encouraged him to resign was Benedict Gaetani, who was soon after elected pope himself. He took the name of Boniface VIII.

The Gaetani were enemies of the Colonna family, and Boniface immediately set about hounding them out of town and out of their wealth. They were behind many of the plots against him that would come later. Not only they, but others as well, murmured that a pope could not resign and that Boniface's election was therefore invalid.  

Up in France, as Boniface began making trouble there, King Philip was inclined to agree with that position.

The Dispute

King and Pope quarreled early, in 1296. Over money, of course, but in reality over who would have ultimate control over the clergy in France.

Boniface claimed that no cleric was to pay taxes to a king without papal consent. He made this claim in a famous bull, Ad clericos. Philip counteracted this move by issuing a royal edict to the effect that no hard currency was to leave the kingdom without royal permission. Let the clergy pay their papal tithes. The money could not be delivered!

In the face of this, Boniface had to retract. Moreover, other kings objected strenuously to Boniface's claims, and if they all pulled Philip's trick, the papacy would be bankrupt.

But Boniface tried again. This time, feeling even stronger, Philip not only refused to cooperate, he went on the offensive. He took up the claim that the pope had been elected illegally and was no true pope at all (and therefore his demands could be ignored). Even more, Boniface was accused of all sorts of horrible crimes, including murder and heresy.

Boniface, exasperated, threatened Philip with excommunication, in 1303. Once again, Philip decided to protect himself by taking the offensive. 

The Capture of a Pope

Philip was unwilling to face excommunication, for that could easily give his enemies within France the excuse they needed to foment open rebellion. So he again went on the offensive in order to forestall Boniface.

Still claiming to be acting in the interests of Christendom, Philip sent one William, Bishop of Nogaret, to Italy along with a small band of armed men. Once there, they raised a force of local Italians, greatly aided by the Colonna, and they together went to the village of Anagni, near Rome, where the pope was staying at the time.

There, they arrested the pope. Anagni was Boniface's ancestral home, and the moment word came that the holy father had been arrested by his enemies, the entire town turned out to stop it. A tense few days past in a stalemate, but Nogaret finally released Boniface because he realized he would never be able to get the pope out of the town.

Although Boniface was free, the ordeal took its toll on the old man, and he died about three weeks later, at Rome. 

The Pope Moves to Avignon

The College of Cardinals had been for some time increasingly dominated by Frenchmen. Upon Boniface's death, they elected a Frenchman, the archbishop of Lyons, as the new pope. He took the name of Clement V. Clement was still in Lyons when he received the news that he was now pope. As you might imagine, he was immediately besieged with problems and crises. For one thing, there was the matter of all the charges against Boniface: Philip wanted the case prosecuted so he could be justified in his actions, but many of the cardinals wanted the matter left alone.

A second matter was the question of who was the legitimate Holy Roman Emperor. There were rival claimants in 1305. Boniface had favored one side, but Philip had favored the other and brought what pressure he could to bear on Clement. The issue was pressing and demanded immediate attention.

There were other matters, no less important. In short, Clement found that he could not even travel to Rome that year of his election. Many of the cardinals had gone to France, the political climate in Italy being inimical to Frenchmen just then, to put it mildly.

Clement was very concerned not to appear that he was merely a puppet of the French king, and he could no more remain in France than he could go to Rome. So he chose a compromise: Avignon. This was a respectable city in southern France, just across the Rhone River from French territory. Avignon was, technically, in imperial territory.

The year passed and still a trip to Rome seemed out of the question. More and more clerks and administrators came from Rome to Avignon, and there were a thousand things to do, and Clement remained. And never left. Clement spent his entire pontificate in Avignon. By the time he died, most of the curia was resident in the city, and the College of Cardinals elected another Frenchman and he too remained at Avignon. 

The Papacy at Avignon

The French popes at Avignon were not the first to work for a centralization of power within the Church, but many of the trends of the preceeding century find culmination here, so this is a convenient place to talk about the formal structure of papal government. Working from many of the same motivations as lay lords, and facing many of the same sorts of obstacles, the 14th century popes worked hard to gather power into their own hands.

Centralization was, however, one of the hallmarks of the popes at Avignon. They had a number of capable administrators, especially Pope John XXII (1316-1334), who worked tirelessly to organize and exploit the bureaucracy.

The papal household itself grew tremendously and was the true center of power within the Church, even as a royal household was the true center of power within a kingdom. The papal court numbered three to four hundred people and included such interesting offices as the keeper of the papal plate and the keeper of the papal zoo. 

Every bit as important as the papal household was the College of Cardinals. The cardinals were viewed as the Senate of Christendom; they were the barons of the Church advising their lord. The pope consulted them in all important matters and used them to fill high administrative offices. And, of course, one of their most significant functions was to elect a new pope.

Each cardinal was was a prince of the Church, with scores or even hundreds in his household. There were twenty or thirty cardinals at Avignon, so even the pope with his cardinals accounted for literally thousands of new residents in the city.

Papal Government  

The government as a whole was referred to as the curia. As with royal governments, what had been the papal household grew into distinct divisions, and four main departments gradually became discernible.

Chancery: Its primary concern was correspondence. Here were drafted letters, proclamations, legal documents, judgments and bulls; also all routine administrative correspondence. The chancery received petitions, examined the qualifications of candidates for benefices, and had offical custody of the records of the curia (the Vatican Library had not yet been created).

Camera apostolica was the financial arm of the Church. Its treasurer was the head of the administration, but the chamberlain made financial policy. The chamberlain was effectively the papal prime minister, for he controlled the papal mint and most administrative officials reported to him. He was the judge in legal disputes concerning papal revenues and he supervised the tax collectors.

Datary: This area heard petitions that did not require a decision in law. It also held dispensations from canon law (like marriage problems).

Judiciary: There were several offices in this area; papal justice was always a maze of overlapping jurisdictions. The Consistory was the highest court of appeals. Special courts could be assembled for specific cases. The Rota heard most of the routine cases. The Audientia determined technical legal points and investigated documentary evidence. And the Penitentiary administered canon law with respect to ecclesiastical penalties.

Papal finance

The papacy had numerous sources of revenue. Bishops and abbots paid an annate (first year's income). The spolia was the collection of the revenues until a new official was appointed. Popes could only collect from those whom they had appointed, so they tended to extend their powers of appointment, at the expense of local rulers.

The papacy also sold "expectancies": a hopeful candidate would pay for the right to be considered for provision to benefices when they became vacant. 

The Return to Rome

Clement V had intended to return to Rome, but the trial of the Templars, then his conflict with Emperor Louis sidetracked his efforts. Conditions in Italy were chaotic and any pope who hoped to return to Rome had to make sure the city was at least somewhat secure.

As the Hundred Years' War more serious, and especially as more and more routiers spread warfare everywhere, it became more desirable to leave Avignon. And, as the years passed, the absence of the Bishop of Rome from his see became ever more scandalous. Every pope proclaimed his desire and intention to return, though some were less sincere than others.

Urban V (1363-1370) actually returned to Rome for three years, but the situation there was too dangerous and he was forced to return to Avignon for his own safety. This was so lamented that the next pope, Gregory XI (1370-1378), immediately vowed to try again.

He, too, failed. Rome was too violent and too dangerous for the pope to govern effectively. Gregory gave up after less than a year in the Holy City, but on the eve of his departure he fell ill and died.

Just as Clement V had come to Avignon intended to leave, so Gregory came to Rome intending to stay, and the result in both cases was both unforseen and untoward. Part of the papal government was at Avignon and part was at Rome. The pope had died in Rome, however, and Rome was where the election of the next pope would take place. 

The Great Schism

Political conditions in 1378 were far different than in 1304. France was preoccupied with war and internal strife, and Charles VI was no Philip IV. The College of Cardinals was still dominated by Frenchmen, but the Italian faction was strong. Moreover, the long residence of the papacy at Avignon had stirred ever stronger calls for a general reform of the Church.

When Gregory died, the Roman people took to the streets, demanding the election of an Italian. The cardinals elected Urban VI, who was indeed Italian but who was a life-long functionary within the Church, guaranteed to keep the status quo.

Urban VI (1378-1389), however, unexpectedly turned zealous upon his election, and began active reforming with the College of Cardinals his especial target. The cardinals were dismayed his sudden change in behavior. One faction, largely French, fled to Anagni where they declared Urban's election invalid, because it was forced on them by the Roman mob. This, despite the fact that an entire summer had elapsed before they discovered this irregularity.

The faction at Anagni elected Clement VII (1378-1394) as a rival pope. With Clement they returned to Avignon. Urban at Rome excommunicated Clement, who returned the favor.

Thus began the Great Schism. Coming as it did on the heels of the Babylonian Captivity, the Schism caused an even greater scandal. There were now two popes, two Colleges of Cardinals, two entire religious governments. They appointed rival bishops, collected double taxes, issued conflicting penances, and excommunicated one another's supporters. 

Effects of the Schism

All the abuses of the Babylonian Captivity were likewise doubled, as each pope unabashedly bid for power. Each hurled anathema at the other, their canon lawyers finding numberless precedents to prove the justice of their side.

The pious of Christendom were shocked and dismayed, but most everyone was forced to choose sides. France and her allies (Scotland, most of Spain, and various German princes) supported the Avignon pope. England, Flanders, Portugal, the Emperor, Bohemia, Hungary and most German princes supported the Roman pope. Italy was divided, as ever, with the cities changing sides frequently.

Adherence to one side or the other meant supporting the appointment of bishops and abbots by one pope while rejecting those from the other. It meant ensuring that tithes and contributions went to Rome rather than Avignon, or vice versa. It did not mean war, however; neither pope resorted to the calling of a crusade against his rival.

Indeed, almost from the first, both sides at least talked about resolving the conflict. The issue was a most delicate one, for earlier medieval popes had been largely successful in asserting that no one and no authority could sit in judgment upon a pope. Therefore, in this matter, who was qualified to choose?

Attempts at Resolution

The first and most obvious was to wait for one rival to die--to let God choose. But this was not a case so much of rival popes as of rival factions. The Great Schism was the result of a split within the College of Cardinals, and so long as those two factions remained strong, there was really no hope of resolution.

Therefore, when Urban VI died in 1389, the Italian cardinals immediately elected Boniface IX, and the Schism went on. When Clement VII died in 1394, the French cardinals elected Benedict XIII and the Avignonese papacy persisted. In Rome, Boniface IX was succeeded by Innocent VII (1404-1406) and then by Gregory XII (1406-1415). It was soon clear enough that God was not going to resolve the Schism.

A second course was proposed, fairly early, and continued to have favor in some circles: both popes would voluntarily resign, clearing the way for the election of a compromise candidate. At one time or another, the rival popes even agreed to this arrangement, but then the difficult matter of timing arose. Neither would be the first to resign, so both had to resign together. But agreed dates came and went, no rival could be induced to meet in the same city with the other, and this course, too, seemed to be barren of results.

Some began to argue that the whole Church together might have authority to judge in this matter, and that a Council might represent the Church and choose a pope. It had long been recognized that a general council could speak on matters of faith, but never had it been suggested that a council might choose a pope. As the Schism dragged on, though, pressure for a General Council grew.

By the early 1400s, even cardinals were urging this last course, but one great problem remained: only a pope could call a General Council. 

The Council of Pisa

In 1409, cardinals on both sides managed to arrange a General Council at Pisa. It was an imposing affair, with over 500 prelates in attendance. Both popes were deposed as schismatics and heretics, and the Council elected a new pope, Alexander V (1409-1410).

Gregory XII and Benedict XIII had opposed the calling of this council, though, and they promptly denounced and excommunicated Alexander. The Council refused to back down.

So, now there were three popes.

Alexander was succeeded by John XXIII (1410-1415), and the situation remained unchanged. The failure of the Council of Pisa led immediately to calls for another Council, but the question of authority was now worse than ever.

From all quarters came the call for another council. The spectacle of three popes, three Colleges of Cardinals, three bodies of curia, was too much to bear. The only figure within Christendom with sufficient prestige, if not authority, was that of the Emperor.

Emperor Sigismund was not an especially strong or dynamic ruler, but he was as concerned as any Christian with the miserable state of affairs. With the failure at Pisa, he at last responded to entreaties and called another general council at the Imperial city of Constance. It is a nice irony that the rivalry among popes was solved only upon the instigation and authority of their ancient rival, the Holy Roman Emperor. 

The Council of Constance

The Council met from 1414 to 1418 and accomplished a great deal. The first order of business was the Schism, which it accomplished by deposing all three popes. There were even more prelates at Constance than at Pisa, and, more importantly, many of the cardinals were working actively for a resolution. The rival popes found themselves with few supporters.

Pope John went to Constance thinking to cow the attendees. Their temper was so stern, however, that he actually left town in disguise, fearing arrest. He accepted and ratified his own deposition.

Gregory went through the fiction of summoning the council, even though it had had already met, then voluntarily abdicating. Benedict refused to recognize the Council or his deposition. He retired to a castle in Spain where he held out until his death in 1423, excommunicating just about everyone.

The Council elected a new pope, Martin V (1417-1431), who was a good and effective pope. His election ended the Schism, though a few pathetic remainders lasted until as late as 1429. Martin Martin returned to Rome and rebuilt papal power there and began rebuilding the city itself.

The Council was called as much to address other issues as to settle the Schism, for by this time many people believed that reform of the Church was necessary to prevent another catastrophe like the Schism.

Suppression of heresy The most pressing issue after the ending of the Schism was that of heresy; specifically, John Hus of Bohemia. Hus had ignited a controversy over the Eucharist, claiming the right for the laity to receive both the bread and the wine at Mass.

Hus had already been condemned, but he was invited to Constance to defend his views and to answer charges. Sigismund gave him an imperial safe conduct, but Hus was arrested almost immediately upon arriving. He languished for months in prison before even being allowed to speak. He was condemned by the Council as a heretic and burned at the stake in 1416.

Reform of the Church The Council did attempt to reform the Church, but most of its actions were little more than calls for the new pope to do something. Its most significant reform concerned councils in general.

The Council of Constance affirmed the supremacy of a General Council within Christendom. It went on to require the calling of a new council every five years. The Council was clearly trying to create a kind of parliament for Christendom, an assembly to act as a counterweight to papal authority.

In fact this did not happen, as the popes quickly regained control of the Church. Martin V used a variety of tactics to avoid calling another council, and was so successful that in fact no council met during his pontificate. He also ignored most of the reforms of Constance, largely because they tended to circumscribe papal power. 

The Council of Basle

A council was called at Ferrara, but Pope Eugenius effectively side-tracked council business and nothing lasting was accomplished. The next council of note met at Basle. This council began well, being attended by hundreds of prelates. It re-affirmed the power of councils and turned to the issue of reform, but when it did so it came into conflict with the pope. As the struggle progressed, the council became increasingly radical and began to unravel around the edges. Conservative members, distressed by the direction matters were taken, began to leave Basle and go home, leaving the radicals increasingly in charge.

In 1439, the Council of Basle was so frustrated with the pope that it deposed him and elected an anti-pope, Felix V. Once more there was a schism in the Church, but conditions now were far different than in 1378. The Council was only a fraction of its former size and few people supported the anti-pope. In fact, his election discredited the conciliar movement as being schismatic.

The conciliar movement was also gradually losing secular support, the source of its original strength. Felix was generally ignored in Europe, and the Council of Basle trickled away into oblivion. There was no more talk of councils and, in fact, there would not be another one for over a century.

The failure of conciliarism is significant. Because reform was associated with conciliarism, and the whole business was so discredited, the papacy went into the later 15th century believing that the matter was closed. The question for these popes was not reform but the re-assertion of papal authority and power. The need for reform was ignored and reform-minded Christians thought of the papacy not as a power to save the Church but a power that threatened the Church.

Summary: The Effects of a Century of Crisis

Centralization Through the efforts of popes like John XXIII, power within the Church was more centralized than it had ever been. More bishoprics were under papal authority, more sources of revenue flowed directly to the curia, and the College of Cardinals was firmly in control as the senate of Christendom, holding all the major curial offices. At the same time, however, the kings of Europe had demonstrated once and for all that they could defy the Church with relative impunity.

Anti-clericalism Both the crisis and the innovations that resulted from it fueled the sentiments of anti-clericalism at every level of society. For the crisis involved more than just the central power, it involved bishops, abbots, and even common priests. The excesses of the papacy at Avignon, and even more the spectacle of the schism, caused many thoughtful Christians to lose faith not in their religion, but in the priesthood. The most significant development was that of lay piety, movements all over Europe (but especially strong in the cities) in which laymen sought God not through the agency of their priest and the sacraments, but through Bible study and common prayer.

Conciliarism The conciliar movement did not lead to any permanent change in the Church--the popes triumphed over it. The writings of the conciliarists, however, had a lasting impact on political thought in Europe. In their criticisms of the papacy, and in their exaltation of royal power, they laid the foundations on which later thinkers drew. Some chose the royalist arguments and developed theories of absolutism; others chose the anti-papal emphasis and developed theories justifying the resistance of a free people against a tyrant.

Loss of leadership The Renaissance popes were the most magnificent in the history of the Church. They held more territories, enjoyed more wealth, and claimed almost limitless powers. Ironically, these same popes had lost almost completely the spiritual leadership of the Church. Everywhere one looks in 15th century Europe, movements of reform and spirituality were taking place outside the confines of the Catholic Church; indeed, we find the popes condemning and even excommunicating some of these reformers. The last place an ardent Christian looked to for leadership in the 15th century was to Rome. 

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