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Friday, November 2, 2012

“The Popes of Avignon: A Century in Exile”, by Edwin Mullins

256 pages, Bluebridge, ISBN-13: 978-1933346151

The Popes of Avignon: A Century in Exile is a must-read for anyone interested in Church history, especially that seventy-year period (1308-1378) in which the papacy took flight from Rome and set up residence in Avignon, France. Edwin Mullins does a tremendous job of explaining the many factors at work during this period including the late medieval feudal system, shifting political tides, the Hundred Years War between France and England and the scourge of the black death. He describes the reasons for the move to Avignon and the effect on the town as it grew exponentially in wealth and population. Mullins also offers very balanced portraits of each of the popes (and anti-popes) who would attempt to reign over the Church during this tumultuous period.

The story begins in 1308 when Pope Clement V announced the new home or seat of power of the papacy would no longer be in Rome but outside France in small city of 5,000 named Avignon. The following year the exile from Rome began, an exile that would not be fully completed until September, 1370. The small city of Avignon grew from a small population of a few thousand to reach at its apex 30,000 souls. It was witness to, among other events, an influx of great wealth, great building, the Hundred Year's War, brigandage and outright blackmail, and the Black Death in 1348 with renewing outbreaks every 5 years thereafter.

Some individuals saw improvement in all this while some others such a Petrarch saw Avignon as the new Babylonian Whore. He fervently desired a return to Rome and the Holy Roman Empire. Avignon, once a sleepy, backwater area of the Provence (Province of Rome) had now become an international community with over 40 banking and money handling institutions, money poured in from all over the known world. Kings, queens and other potentates visited the city, spending days and weeks as guests of the ruling pope. Artists and artisans from around the world also rushed to Avignon for commissions and golden florins, with many having to live and sleep in streets or fields. In the early years, there simply was not enough room for the Cardinals and Pope, let alone workmen. Eventually things evened out a bit but the city was always cramped and crowded until the Black Death when fully 40% of the inhabitants died and left property. Land and buildings not taken over by the church was then available for any with the money to buy.

Between the years 1308 and 1422 (counting the anti-pope years) there were a total of 9 popes each with his own approach to being ruler. The Avignon popes by 1363 could be 'described in simplistic terms as puppet, miser, monk, emperor, and bookkeeper. With the descriptive indicating how each ruled. Though he had many flaws both human and spiritual one pope that stood out from the rest was Clement VI. Two desires almost all the popes held was a return to the Holy Land, or a final crusade (which never happened) and an end to the Hundred Year's War that raged between England and France. All of the popes of this period were Frenchmen speaking little or no Italian and seemed to owe more allegiance to the French kings than to God or Italian city states. Again all of the these intelligent and capable men prior to being elected pope had diligently trained in both civil and canon law. A few such as Clement VI were truly men of both exceptional ability and I.Q., with several of the popes serving as legal adviser to the kings of France.

To study these men and this period of time (marking the division between end of the Medieval years and beginning of the Renaissance years) rises above and beyond just faith, religion or most items of church. It is not a book of religion therefore as much as it is one of rulers and politics with the years of 1308 through 1422 being examined and studied.

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