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The Avignon Papacy: Popes, Politics, and Power in 14th Century Europe


The Avignon Papacy (1309-1376) was a critical juncture in the history of the Catholic Church, marked by the relocation of the papal court from Rome to Avignon in southern France. This period saw seven successive popes, all French, ruling from Avignon under the influence of the French monarchy. The Avignon era was characterized by the centralization of papal power, the expansion of Church bureaucracy, and the entanglement of the papacy in secular politics. It was also a time of great cultural and intellectual flourishing, with the Avignon popes as major patrons of the arts and learning. However, the Avignon papacy also faced significant challenges and criticisms, with accusations of corruption, moral laxity, and subservience to French interests. The lasting impact of this period would be felt in the Western Schism, the conciliar movement, and the Protestant Reformation.

Historical Context: The Church in the 14th Century

To understand the Avignon Papacy, it is essential to situate it within the broader context of 14th-century Europe. This was a time of great upheaval and transformation, marked by the rise of powerful monarchies, the decline of feudalism, and the devastation of the Black Death. The Catholic Church, as the dominant religious and political institution of the Middle Ages, was deeply enmeshed in these developments.

The 14th century was marked by ongoing conflicts between the papacy and secular rulers, particularly the French monarchy and the Holy Roman Empire. The Investiture Controversy of the 11th and 12th centuries, in which popes and emperors clashed over the right to appoint Church officials, had set the stage for these power struggles. In France, the powerful Capetian monarchs sought to assert their authority over the Church and resist papal interference in their domains. This tension would come to a head under Philip IV, who clashed with Pope Boniface VIII over taxation of the clergy and the authority of the papacy. Philip‘s victory in this struggle, and his subsequent role in the election of the French Pope Clement V, would pave the way for the Avignon Papacy.

Another key event in the lead-up to the Avignon era was the suppression of the Knights Templar, a powerful military order that had accrued significant wealth and influence during the Crusades. In 1307, Philip IV ordered the arrest of the Templars in France on charges of heresy and immorality. Under pressure from Philip, Pope Clement V reluctantly agreed to disband the order in 1312. The fall of the Templars demonstrated the growing power of the French monarchy over the papacy and foreshadowed the conflicts to come.

The Seven Popes of Avignon

The Avignon Papacy properly began in 1309, when Pope Clement V, born Raymond Bertrand de Got in Gascony, officially moved the papal court to Avignon. Clement‘s election in 1305 had been heavily influenced by Philip IV of France, who saw an opportunity to bring the papacy under French control. Clement, who owed his election to Philip‘s support, proved compliant to French interests. He was crowned in Lyon rather than Rome, and in 1309 he decided to move the papal court to Avignon, citing the instability and violence in Italy as his reasons.

Clement‘s successors, all French, would continue to rule from Avignon for nearly 70 years. The seven Avignon popes were:

Pope Reign Key Events
Clement V 1305-1314 Moved papacy to Avignon, suppressed Knights Templar
John XXII 1316-1334 Expanded papal bureaucracy, clashed with Franciscan Spirituals
Benedict XII 1334-1342 Focused on Church reform, began construction of Palais des Papes
Clement VI 1342-1352 Lavish patronage, purchased Avignon, responded to Black Death
Innocent VI 1352-1362 Attempts to return papacy to Rome, reasserted control in Italy
Urban V 1362-1370 Briefly returned papacy to Rome, known for reforming efforts
Gregory XI 1370-1378 Final return of papacy to Rome, Western Schism began after his death

Each of these popes left their mark on the Avignon era. John XXII, a skilled administrator, expanded the papal bureaucracy and asserted papal authority in disputes with the Holy Roman Emperor and the Franciscan Spirituals. Benedict XII, a reformer, focused on curbing the excesses of the Church and began the construction of the Palais des Papes, the magnificent papal palace in Avignon. Clement VI, known for his lavish patronage and lifestyle, purchased the city of Avignon for the papacy and issued important bulls protecting Jews during the Black Death. Innocent VI and Urban V both attempted to return the papacy to Rome and reassert papal control in Italy, with Urban briefly succeeding before returning to Avignon. Gregory XI finally returned the papal court to Rome in 1376, but his death two years later led to the contested election that sparked the Western Schism.

Centralization and the Growth of Papal Power

One of the most significant developments of the Avignon Papacy was the centralization of Church bureaucracy and the expansion of papal power. Free from the political turmoil of Rome, the Avignon popes were able to focus on strengthening their authority and streamlining Church governance.

The papal chancery, responsible for drafting and issuing official documents, grew significantly during this period. The development of canon law, the legal system of the Church, also accelerated. The Avignon popes issued numerous decrees and constitutions, asserting their supremacy over Church councils and local bishops. They also expanded systems of papal taxation and appointments, which brought significant wealth to the Avignon court. The practice of granting benefices, or Church offices, in exchange for payments became widespread, leading to charges of simony and corruption.

The Avignon popes also asserted their authority through the use of spiritual sanctions such as excommunication and interdict. These powerful weapons allowed popes to exert pressure on secular rulers and assert their supremacy in matters of faith. For example, John XXII used the threat of excommunication in his disputes with the Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV, while Clement VI issued an interdict against the city of Florence for resisting papal authority.

The Avignon Papacy and the Arts

Despite the controversies surrounding it, the Avignon Papacy was also a time of great cultural and intellectual flourishing. The Avignon popes were major patrons of the arts, and the papal court became a center of artistic and scholarly activity.

The most visible symbol of this patronage was the Palais des Papes, the magnificent Gothic palace constructed by the Avignon popes starting with Benedict XII. This sprawling complex, one of the largest Gothic buildings of the Middle Ages, housed the papal apartments, administrative offices, and a host of chapels and halls decorated by the finest artists of the day. The palace was a testament to the wealth and power of the Avignon papacy, as well as its role as a cultural hub.

The Avignon popes also supported musicians, poets, and scholars. John XXII was a notable patron of music, and the papal chapel under his reign was renowned for its polyphonic compositions. Clement VI supported the work of the Italian poet Petrarch, who spent several years at the Avignon court. The Avignon popes also founded the University of Avignon in 1303, which became a significant center of learning.

However, this cultural brilliance was not without its critics. Many saw the luxurious lifestyle of the Avignon court as a sign of the Church‘s moral decay and a betrayal of its spiritual mission. The Italian poet Dante, in his Divine Comedy, placed several Avignon popes in Hell for their corruption and worldliness.

Challenges and Criticisms

Indeed, the Avignon Papacy faced significant challenges and criticisms throughout its duration. Many contemporaries saw the Avignon popes as mere puppets of the French monarchy, and the papal court was widely perceived as corrupt and morally lax.

The Avignon period coincided with the outbreak of the devastating Black Death, which killed millions across Europe. Some critics blamed the catastrophe on the sins and excesses of the Church, seeing it as divine punishment. The Church‘s response to the plague, particularly Clement VI‘s issuance of indulgences for those who died of the disease, also drew criticism.

Intellectually, the Avignon papacy faced challenges from thinkers such as Marsilius of Padua and William of Ockham, who questioned the scope of papal authority and argued for greater limits on the pope‘s power in temporal affairs. The Franciscan Spirituals, who advocated for a strict interpretation of apostolic poverty, also clashed with the wealth and ostentation of the Avignon court.

Perhaps the most enduring criticism of the Avignon period was the charge that it represented a "Babylonian Captivity" of the Church, a time when the papacy was held hostage by French interests and separated from its true home in Rome. This critique would fuel calls for reform in the 15th century and beyond.

Legacy and Impact

The Avignon Papacy came to an end in 1376 when Gregory XI heeded the calls of Catherine of Siena and other reformers to return the papal court to Rome. However, Gregory‘s death in 1378 led to a contested papal election and the outbreak of the Western Schism, which would see rival claimants to the papacy in Rome and Avignon. This schism would last until 1417 and would deeply damage the prestige and authority of the papacy.

    1309 Clement V moves papacy to Avignon
    1378 Gregory XI returns to Rome; Western Schism begins
    1409 Council of Pisa tries to resolve schism
    1414 Council of Constance
    1417 End of Western Schism; Martin V elected

In the aftermath of the schism, the conciliar movement gained ground, with Church councils asserting their authority over the pope. Although the papacy would eventually reassert its supremacy, the challenges of the Avignon and schism periods had laid bare the vulnerabilities of the institution.

In the longer term, the Avignon Papacy would be seen as a precursor to the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. Many of the criticisms leveled at the Avignon popes – corruption, worldliness, and the abuse of power – would be echoed by Martin Luther and other reformers. The centralization of Church bureaucracy and the growth of papal power during the Avignon era also contributed to the rigidity and resistance to change that would fuel the Reformation.

However, the Avignon Papacy also left a significant cultural legacy. The Palais des Papes remains one of the most important architectural monuments of the Middle Ages, a testament to the power and prestige of the institution. The artistic and intellectual flowering of the Avignon court, despite its excesses, contributed to the vibrant cultural landscape of late medieval Europe.


The Avignon Papacy was a pivotal and controversial chapter in the history of the Catholic Church. On one hand, it represented a period of great centralization and growth of papal power, as well as a flourishing of art and learning. On the other, it was a time of crisis and criticism, with the papacy facing charges of corruption, worldliness, and subservience to French interests.

The seven popes who reigned from Avignon left a complex legacy, one that would shape the Church for centuries to come. The Western Schism, the conciliar movement, and the Protestant Reformation can all be seen as responses, in part, to the challenges and contradictions of the Avignon era.

For historians, the Avignon Papacy remains a rich field of study, offering insights into the complex interplay of religion, politics, and culture in the late Middle Ages. It is a reminder of the enduring importance of the papacy as an institution, as well as its vulnerability to the forces of history. As we continue to grapple with questions of power, authority, and reform in the Church today, the lessons of the Avignon era remain as relevant as ever.