Papal court at Avignon summary




Papal court at Avignon summary


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Papal court at Avignon summary


In 1309, the seat of the papacy was moved from Rome to the southern French town of Avignon as a result of a coup by Philip IV of France. This began a 70-year period known in papal history as the Babylonian Captivity. The Avignon popes seemed to be interested only in their own comforts, and in time the papal court became more luxurious than any of the secular courts of Europe. In the excerpt below from Volume 3 of Translations and Reprints From the Original Sources of European History, the Italian poet Petrarch records his reactions to the papal court at Avignon. As you read the excerpt, note the comparisons Petrarch made between the apostles and the Avignon popes.

I have a double Parnassus [the mountain sacred to Apollo], one in Italy, the other in France…. I was very happy in my [Italian one]…. But now I am living in France, in the Babylon of the west. The sun, in its travels sees nothing more hideous than this place on the shores of the wild Rhone, which suggests the hellish streams of Cocytus and Acheron [the rivers of Hades]. Here reign the successors of the poor fishermen of Galilee; they have strangely forgotten their origin. I am astounded, as I recall their predecessors, to see these men loaded with gold and clad in purple, boasting of the spoils of princes and nations; to see luxurious palaces and heights crowned with fortifications, instead of a boat turned downwards for shelter. We no longer find the simple nets which were once used to gain a frugal sustenance from the Lake of Galilee, and with which, having labored all night and caught nothing, they took, at day break, a multitude of fishes, in the name of Jesus. One is stupefied nowadays to hear the lying tongues, and to see worthless parchments, turned by a leaden seal, into nets which are used, in Christ’s name, but by the arts of [the Devil], to catch hordes of unwary Christians. These fish, too, are dressed and laid on the burning coals of anxiety before they fill the insatiable maw of their captors. Instead of holy solitude we find a criminal host and crowds of the most infamous [hangers-on]; instead of clerks and scholars, likewise their servants, trusting in the folly of the same clerks, unmindful of their salvation, not having God before their eyes, who, under pretense of leading the scholastic life, more and more often perpetrate unlawful and criminal acts, relying on their arms: namely, that by day and night they atrociously wound or kill many persons, rape women, oppress virgins, break into inns, also repeatedly committing robberies and many other enormities hateful to God. And since they attempt these and other crimes relying on their arms, we having in mind the decree of the supreme pontiff in which it is warned that clerks bearing arms will be excommunicated, also having in mind that our predecessors excommunicated those who went about thus, and in view of the fact that this is so notorious and manifest that it cannot be concealed by any evasion and that their proclamation was not revoked, wishing to meet so great evils and to provide for the peace and tranquility of students and others who wish to live at peace, at the instance of many good men and by their advice do excommunicate in writing clerks and scholars and their servants who go about Paris by day or night armed, unless by permission of the revered bishop of Paris or ourself. We also excommunicate in writing those who reap women, break into inns,… likewise all those who have banded together for this purpose. No less do we excommunicate all those who have known anything about the aforesaid, unless within seven days from the time of their information, after the proclamation issued against the aforesaid has come to their notice, they shall have revealed what they know to the said reverend bishop or ourselves and have submitted to fitting [correction]. Nevertheless we specially reserve to the lord bishop or ourselves the right to absolve clerks excommunicated for the aforesaid reasons.

Reading Review

  • To what did Petrarch compare the Rhone River?
  • What do you think the “worthless parchments” that Petrarch referred to were?
  • According to Petrarch, how did the Avignon popes compare to the apostles?


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Papal court at Avignon summary