One man who lived in Avignon at the time of the Avignon papacy was the writer and thinker Petrarch, whose summary of the Avignon popes and their city was by no means flattering: “Instead of holy solitude we find a criminal host and crowds of the most infamous satellites.” Modern historians are more nuanced in their assessments, and in general Catholics tended to view the Avignon papacy as an aberration, as did even some of the popes themselves. The arrangement was understood by many as an encroachment of the French The Church had lived through “bad popes” before. The office of the papacy was tarnished, but at least not to the point where the damage could not be repaired. The most aggrieved, not surprisingly, were the Roman families whose cardinals had been electing popes for several centuries before Avignon and the French dominance of the college cardinals.
However, the resolution of the Avignon problem brought with it a greater problem that few people foresaw in 1377, the year that Pope Gregory XI (r. 1370-1378). Gregory’s return to the Eternal City was prompted by a complex number of political, military, and trade considerations. Theology, ironically, was not an overarching factor, although St. Catherine of Siena and others argued strenuously for the pope’s return to the site of the bones of Peter. Gregory, a Frenchman, made the determination of his own accord. He could not claim a strong political backing for his move. The Romans took the attitude that Gregory belonged in Rome; the French remained committed to the idea that the papacy belonged within its borders. Complicating matters was the death of Gregory XI shortly after his return.
In the vacuum of the papacy, Roman Cardinals quickly elected a successor, Urban VI (r. 1378-1379) in a conclave conducted under constant threat of violence from Roman mobs. The irony here is that Urban was neither French nor Roman. His loyalties rested with Queen Joan of Naples, and the cardinals at this conclave are said to have “fled to the hills” before the mobs in Rome learned of “their” new pope’s true lineage. The new pope immediately demonstrated significant defects of character (Madigan even suggests “madness.”) The cardinals, except for the Italian cardinals, gathered in Anagni, southeast of Rome, where the French king had captured Boniface VIII a century earlier. Claiming that the recent election of Urban VI had been coerced due to mob threats, the college of cardinals without the Italians but with plenty of French ones, elected the first of the “anti-popes,” Clement VII (r. 1378-1394), while Urban VI remained in office. The Great Schism had begun.
Clement tried for several years and various means to gain control over the Church in Rome and his seat upon the throne of Peter, but the Italians continued to elect popes to succeed Urban VI, who died quickly in 1379. Having despaired of winning the Roman See, Clement VII returned to (where else?) Avignon, where French cardinals continued to elect his successors. The nations of Europe lined up between the Avignon or the Roman popes. For Avignon: France, Spain, Scotland, Naples, and Sicily. For Rome: most of Italy, Germany, Bohemia, Poland, Hungary, Scandinavia, and England.
Kevin Madigan explains the dimensions of the problem well. “The same College of Cardinals had properly elected two different popes. Now both popes proceeded to appoint rival colleges of cardinals and curiae [administrative agencies]. Churchmen and secular leaders pleaded with both to resign individually or at the same time, but to no avail…. Existing resentment was deepened when taxes had to be increased to support two colleges of cardinals and two popes. Again, the damage to the papacy’s popular reputation was considerable.” The only thing that could prove worse was a third line of popes. Madigan brings us the bad news: “The tragedy took on elements of farce when the Council of Pisa , called to heal the schism, created yet a third line of popes.
It would take forty years to untangle this Gordian knot; the most critical question being the identification of who had the jurisdiction to decide on the precise exercise of the Church’s authority when there was no pope recognized by the universal Church. I hinted last week that the answers would be found in in the great universities and the force of an ecumenical council. I had hoped to get that far today, but we will look at that the next time around.
For an overview of today’s material, I again recommend Kevin Madigan’s Medieval Christianity: A New History (2015), particularly Chapter 18. This work is a little pricey, so you might be better off borrowing it where you have privileges. For next week you can outpace our output by thumbing through Jean Gerson and the Last Medieval Reformation (2005). Gerson was Chancellor of the University of Paris and very much at the heart of the solution of the Great Schism. It may be easier to just look at my review of this text here.