It is all too easy to read the history of the Middle Ages as an extended chronicle of rank hypocrisy. The philosophy and theology of the epoch harped ceaselessly on the den of pollution that was the material world, of the need of the faithful to renounce it in order to avoid eternal hellfire. Yet the actual events on the ground, as it were, show all too plainly that the hearts of men — not least the men of the Catholic Church — were as consumed as ever with worldly status, riches, and pleasures. Confronted with this contradiction, we naturally want to assume that no one is acting in good faith. Edward Gibbon devoted hundreds of pages to skewering the discrepancy between the words and the actions of the powerful, lecherous, and self-serving of the Medieval Christian establishment in his delicately merciless eighteenth-century prose. Karl Marx was inspired by the example of the Medieval Catholic Church to label organized religion as a whole the “opiate of the masses,” an elaborate sham cooked up by the bourgeoisie to keep the proletariat who did all the real work around the place fearful and docile.
Such interpretations are made still more tempting by the difficulty we moderns have in wrapping our minds around the Medieval worldview in general. When the people of the Middle Ages attempt to tell us through their surviving documents how palpably real the Heavenly Father and His Son, Heaven and Hell were for them, we think they must be putting us on. Even the genuinely devout of today don’t live so close to these things — don’t really believe that there are witches weaving sinister Satanic plots in our midst, potential miracles around every corner, and a good chance that the apocalypse described in the Book of Revelation could arrive tomorrow. But the people of the Middle Ages really did.
In light of this, it may be better to understand the Middle Ages in terms of human spirits that are willing in conflict with flesh that is weak. People wanted to renounce the pleasures of the world, but, as the twentieth-century historian Barbara Tuchman put it, “the generality of mankind is not made for renunciation. Economic man and sensual man are not suppressible.” The gap between word and deed was filled by the familiar coping devices of human psychology, with their near-infinite capacity to convince us that that which we most want to be the case is in fact the case, and that which will most benefit us personally is also the will of God.
Still, if flagrant, knowing hypocrisy is what we’re after, no period seems to offer more evidence of it than the strange one of the Avignon papacy, when the popes left Rome entirely for a life of leisure near the French Riviera.
The chain of events that would cause them to abandon their traditional home began in 1295 with the election of Pope Boniface VIII, about whom even the most committed Catholic historians struggle to find much good to say. “By all accounts, he was a man of exceedingly irascible temperament, given to outbursts of impatience and rage, and a person bent on the acquisition of wealth and power for himself and his family,” writes Richard P. McBrien. “Other popes were more inept and more corrupt, but none made claims for the papacy that were further removed from the spirit of the Apostle Peter, not to mention the Lord himself.”
Boniface’s papacy started under murky circumstances. He was a noted canon lawyer, who was consulted by the previous pope, whose name was Celestine V, about the question of voluntarily resigning the office prior to death, something only one pope before him over nearly 1300 years of Church history had done. Boniface urged Celestine to heed the call which the latter believed he had heard from God, telling him to leave his lofty position and take up the life of a simple monk. He shepherded him through a process which many deemed to be of dubious legality and then stepped neatly into the role of pope himself, placing the erstwhile Celestine V under armed guard in a chamber that was little better than a prison cell thereafter to ensure that he wouldn’t cause any trouble. (Celestine had said that he wanted to live an austere, hard life…)
Boniface’s early tenure was marked by an extended wrangle with King Philip IV of France over the very worldly question of money. The Church’s clergy and institutions had long been exempt from most forms of secular taxation. But Philip was strapped for cash and was convinced that unscrupulous nobles of his kingdom had long been using the Church for, for lack of a less anachronistic term, money laundering. Boniface responded to his attempt to begin taxing the Church with the opposite of enthusiasm, threatening everyone involved in the scheme with an all too familiar hammer from the papal toolbox.
Antiquity reports that laymen are exceedingly hostile to the clergy, and our experience certainly shows this to be true at present. With the counsel of our brethren, and by our apostolic authority, we decree that if any clergy shall pay to laymen any part of their income or possessions without the permission of the pope, they shall incur excommunication. And we also decree that all persons of whatever power or rank who shall demand or receive such taxes, or shall seize or cause to be seized the property of churches or of the clergy, shall incur excommunication.
King Philip actually won this round by blocking exports on which the Papal States were dependent, forcing Boniface to back down and accept some types of taxation in September of 1295. But the die of enmity was cast; dispute after petty dispute between the two men followed. Philip kept trying to turn the local bishops against the Holy Father in Rome, to which Boniface reacted with predictable righteous fury. On November 18, 1302, he issued a truly extraordinary declaration, which made the most extreme claim to authority ever mounted by any pope, before or since.
It is for the spiritual power to establish the earthly power and to judge it, if it be not good. Thus, in the case of the Church and the power of the Church, the prophecy of Jeremiah is fulfilled: “See, I have this day set thee over the nations and the kingdoms.” Therefore, if the earthly power shall err, it shall be judged by the higher. But if the supreme power err, it can be judged by God alone, and not by man, the apostles bearing witness, saying, “The spiritual man judges all things, but he himself is judged by no one.” Hence this power, although given to man and exercised by man, is not human, but rather a divine power, given by the divine lips to Peter.
Whoever, therefore, shall resist this power, ordained by God, resists the ordination of God. It is altogether necessary for salvation for every human being to be subject to the Roman pontiff.
In effect, Boniface declared himself to be the king of the world, with the fate of every one of its souls in his hands, a divine monarch not just unquestioned but made unquestionable by the will of God.
Philip wasn’t buying it. He responded with a long list of charges against Boniface, accusing him of everything from murder to embezzlement, idolatry to sodomy. Still, he was nervous of the writ of excommunication that he knew would inevitably follow from the pope, having learned from the experiences of Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV and England’s King Henry II how potent such a writ could be with the peasantry and the rank and file of a Christian kingdom. And probably as well he felt more than a little bit of fear for the fate of his own soul; again, religion was very, very real during the Middle Ages. So, he sent some henchmen to abduct Boniface from his summer residence in the Italian village of Anagni, thereby to physically prevent the excommunication. Boniface was not treated overly well by his captors, and died within a few weeks, on October 12, 1303.
There was just one more pope in Rome after Boniface VIII. Benedict XI was a frail man more fond of books than politics. He tried to de-escalate with Philip, rescinding all of the numerous condemnations and penalties his predecessor had issued against the French king and his kingdom. But when Benedict died after just nine months in office, Philip saw his opening. He used military pressure on the Papal States and every other sort of leverage he could think of to force the election of one of his own French countrymen as pope. This Pope Clement V was crowned not in Rome but in Lyon. Nor did he go to Rome thereafter; he set up shop instead in the French town of Avignon. He said he did so because the foes of his patron Philip made it too dangerous for him in Rome, and this may have been true. Rumor said that he wanted to stay in France because his beautiful French mistress refused to move; based on what we know of him, this may very well have been true as well. It didn’t ultimately matter where he was, he said, because “Rome is wherever the pope happens to be.”
Will Durant labels the century that followed Clement V’s election as pope the absolute “nadir” of the Church, and it is hard to argue with him; in decline in terms of moral authority ever since the death of Pope Innocent III, the Church had now hit rock bottom. Some called the Avignon papacy the “Babylonian captivity” — so obviously were the Avignon popes, who were themselves Frenchmen one and all, at the beck and call of the kings of France. All of the questionable practices the Church had engaged in intermittently in earlier times came back with a vengeance. Prominent among them was the selling of indulgences. No sin, whether already committed or planned for the future, was incompatible with a seat in Heaven, so long as the Church’s representatives saw their palms crossed with sufficient quantities of silver. Illegitimate children — often of priests and monks — could be made legitimate; stolen goods could be received on a sliding scale of Church fees corresponding to their value; monks and nuns could pay to be allowed to keep maids, servants, and lovers. Positions within the Church were themselves bought and sold, so that services were frequently conducted by unschooled priests who stumbled through the Latin rituals with no more awareness of what they were actually saying than the peasants sitting in the pews. The popes dressed in coats of ermine and slept on silk sheets imported at enormous expense from distant China, and built a sprawling palace complex for themselves in Avignon which required a staff of 400 to attend to its ballrooms and gardens and indoor plumbing and even a steampunk sauna heated by an underground boiler. (The palace’s toilets drained into the streets of Avignon proper, which struck some as a rather fitting metaphor for the Church’s role in society.)
Christianity, at least at these rarefied levels, turned into a kind of ironic burlesque. Pope Gregory VII’s rules about clerical celibacy became a joke, as lecherous priests became stock comic characters, the stars of countless ribald tales. We have an unusually complete picture of how the Church was seen during this period thanks to two uproariously entertaining books that were written in the second half of the fourteenth century. The Decameron by the Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio and The Canterbury Tales by the Englishman Geoffrey Chaucer both present themselves under the guise of stories swapped by passing groups of travelers, and probably really did have their origin in the oral yarns the common people told one another around hearth fires and campfires at a time when books were bespoke objets d’art and the vast majority of the population was illiterate anyway. Their earthy humanity makes a welcome contrast to the solemn prudery of Roland and Arthur; tellingly, both were written in the vernacular of the people rather than the lofty language of Latin.
Nunneries, which had become places for parents to quietly dispose of daughters whose dowries they couldn’t afford or who had disgraced themselves with premarital liaisons, were another constant source of hilarity. Boccaccio, for example, tells of a young man who falls for a nun in the local convent, and finds his interest is reciprocated: “Their desire for one another being equally acute, the young man thought of a way for him and his nun to foregather in secret, and with her willing consent he visited her not only once but over and over again, to their intense and mutual delight.” Unfortunately, they are a bit too vocal in their revels one evening, and attract the attention of some of the other nuns. After espying the couple’s exertions through the keyhole of the door, these other nuns run to fetch the abbess of their convent.
But as they knock on her door the abbess is in the midst of a frolic of her own, with a local priest. Panicking, she grabs the priest’s trousers in the dark and puts them on her head in lieu of the coif she was looking for. She answers her door while the priest hides under her bed, and she and the other nuns then proceed to burst into their holy sister’s room and drive out her energetic young beau. Now the abbess commences giving the girl a right proper tongue-lashing, while the recipient of her ire is scrambling to pull on her own habit and make herself decent. But the girl soon notices that something is amiss with the abbess’s garb as well.
Realizing what the abbess had been up to, she took heart and said, “By the grace of God, Mother Abbess, tie up your bonnet, and then you may say whatever you like to me.”
The abbess, having no idea what she meant by this, said to her, “What bonnet, you little whore? Are you going to have the effrontery to stand there making witty remarks? Do you think it funny to have behaved in this disgraceful manner?”
And so, for a second time, the girl said, “I would ask you once again, Mother Abbess, to tie up your bonnet, and then you may address me whatever way you please.”
Accordingly, several of the nuns looked at the abbess, and the abbess likewise raised her hands to the sides of her head, so that they all saw what [the young nun] was driving at. Whereupon the abbess, recognizing she was equally culpable and that there was no way of concealing the fact from all the nuns, who were gazing at her with their eyes popping out of their heads, changed her tune and began to take a completely different line, arguing that it was impossible to defend oneself against the goadings of the flesh. And she told them that, provided the thing was discreetly arranged, as it had been in the past, they were all at liberty to enjoy themselves whenever they pleased…
Stories such as this are precious for the way they help to balance our view of the Middle Ages, showing that the wonderful human attribute of humor has always been around to skewer the pretentious and the hypocritical in high places. We can only wish we had more texts like these — more pictures of the real life of the people in place of the tedious doggerel that issued from the pens of Medieval monarchs and clergymen.
But, however much the peasantry laughed at the antics of promiscuous priests and nubile nuns, it would be a mistake to extrapolate from this that they didn’t believe in Jesus Christ, Heaven, or Hell. The same goes for the clergy. For every priest who got drunk on his village’s best ale every day and lent money to his flock at interest every evening, there were at least two others who endeavored earnestly and devotedly to be a good and humble shepherd of Christ. These were as appalled as anyone by what they saw going on in Avignon. A treatise by the bishop of Mende, a town in southern France not far at all from the new seat of the papacy, is a cry of despair.
The whole Church might be reformed if [she] would begin by removing evil examples from herself, by which men are scandalized and the whole people, as it were, infected. For in all lands the Church is in ill repute, and all cry and publish it abroad that within her bosom all men, from the greatest even unto the least, have set their hearts upon covetousness. That the whole Christian folk take from the clergy pernicious examples of gluttony is clear and notorious, since the clergy feast more luxuriously than princes and kings…
“Wolves are in control of the Church, and feed on the blood” of the people, said a Spanish prelate. Even King Edward III of England felt obliged to send a pointed note to Avignon, reminding the pope that “the successor of the apostles was commissioned to lead the Lord’s sheep to pasture, not to fleece them.”
A series of natural disasters struck Europe during the time of the Avignon papacy, and these many were quick to attribute to God’s displeasure over the behavior of his highest representatives on earth. The winters were unusually severe in the first decade of the fourteenth century; the Baltic Sea froze over completely twice during this period, an event which has occurred less than 25 times in all of recorded history, and the shorter growing season caused by the long winters brought famine in some places. Then, in 1315, it rained so long and heavily that even the most secular modern soul would have been tempted to think about a repeat of the story of Noah and the Flood. More and more severe famines followed this crop-destroying inundation; lurid stories spread of parents killing and eating their babies, of people cutting down hanged criminals from the gibbet and eating them instead of burying them.
Meanwhile man’s inhumanity to man continued apace. With the popes so thoroughly under the thumb of the French kings, the Inquisition turned into a political weapon, to be deployed against anyone who fell out of royal favor. Most infamously, the Knights Templar, the greatest of the surviving chivalric orders from the time of the Crusades, were targeted in 1314 by King Philip IV, who was jealous of the respect and wealth they commanded. At his behest, Pope Clement V declared them to be Satan-worshiping heretics, whereupon they were all thrown in dungeon cells without food or water and subjected to the whole range of sadistic Medieval torture techniques: the rack, thumbscrews, pliers to the teeth and fingernails, finally burning at the stake. Legend has it that one of them called down a curse on the king and his pope as he burned — and, sure enough, both men died before the year was over, albeit not before splitting the treasure they had found in the Knights’ coffers between them.
In the absence of a strong independent pope to corral them or any foreign Crusades to distract them, Europeans turned their swords and arrows more enthusiastically than ever against one another. In 1337, a complicated dispute over royal bloodlines and succession rights led England to attack France. There followed the so-called “Hundred Years War,” which actually went on in France for 116 years by most reckonings. As such, it has a claim to being the longest single war in human history, although the waters are somewhat muddied by the fact that it was fought only intermittently. Nevertheless, it would remain something between a piercing foreground agony and a dull background ache for the peasantry of France throughout that astoundingly long period of time.
But the worst tragedy of the fourteenth century — in fact, the worst of the entire Middle Ages — did not stem so directly from the folly of men. At the height of the Black Death, the most terrible plague in recorded history, it seemed that the Armageddon promised in the Book of Revelation and once predicted for the year 1260 had well and truly arrived at long last.
The horror began in October of 1347, when a pair of Genoese trading ships arrived at the island of Sicily from the Crimean port of Caffa (modern-day Feodosia). Half of their crews were already dead, the other half dreadfully ill almost to a man, their armpits and groins covered with black, oozing pustules, the skin all over their bodies discolored by internal bleeding. The Sicilians watched in shock as the sailors died in an agony that seemed downright Biblical, spewing black blood from the mouth, nose, and ears, even from the eyes. People said that “death is seen seated on the face” of the bubonic plague’s victims. It was an apt premonition: within days, more were dying of it, all over Caffa and beyond.
Just as the plague was reaching the Italian mainland, a violent earthquake struck like the clap of doom, cutting a swath of destruction between Naples and Venice. The pestilence that followed this strike spread rapidly through the devastated countryside and then beyond, reaching France within a month, reaching as far as Iceland and Greenland within a couple of years. Its luckiest victims died almost instantly; there were stories of healthy people going to bed at night and simply never waking up the next morning. Others endured as much as a week of unimaginable torment before finally succumbing. Some few survived, but were left so scarred and weakened that they often died of starvation or of some other disease shortly thereafter. The world really did seem to be ending; the plague left whole counties denuded of their population, houses standing vacant and still, pigs and cows running feral with packs of hungry dogs on their heels, crops rotting in the fields.
Although no one understood the science of how an infectious disease like this one was transmitted, it was obvious enough that personal contact with its victims increased one’s own chances of getting sick enormously. This made the bubonic plague a cruel as well as a deadly illness, given that few healthy souls dared to enter a sickroom to provide aid or comfort to those within. Its victims rather tended to die alone, shut up in sweltering houses with doors and windows barred, outcasts from the world of the living already well before their deaths. Villages with the plague running wild through their streets were simply written off by the authorities, ordered to fly black flags from their church steeples so that everyone else would see and keep away. “Father abandoned child, wife husband, one brother another, for this plague seemed to strike through breath and sight,” wrote a nobleman of the Italian town of Siena. “And so they died. And no one could be found to bury the dead for money or friendship. I buried my five children with my own hands, and so did many others likewise.” The pope’s physician wrote bluntly from Avignon that “charity was dead.”
The doctors of the time had no solutions to offer beyond telling the healthy to douse themselves daily in vinegar and rosewater; they were on the right track in a way, but their disinfectants were hopelessly inadequate for the purpose. Where medicine failed, there remained only God to turn to. Thousands walked the roads in rags like the Flagellants of 100 years earlier, scouring their flesh with whips tipped by iron spikes and begging God to reverse the judgement he was inflicting on his creations, however richly deserved it may be. But, as the English poet William Langland wrote, “God is deaf nowadays and deigneth not hear us, and prayers have no power the plague to stay.” Some decided that God was angry because Christians still allowed Jews to live among them; Jewish massacres and expulsions swept across Europe as a result. The Christians of Mainz killed 6000 Jews in one night, those of Erfurt 3000. But the killings changed nothing, beyond increasing the plague’s death toll that much more.
Slowly the Black Death burned itself out, leaving behind not the earthly paradise for God’s chosen predicted in the Book of Revelation, but just a sadder, emptier, shabbier version of the same old world. Some historians estimate that 150 million or more people perished in the plague, half or more of the entire population of Europe. Life for the survivors was transformed. Healthy laborers were scarce, and the knowledge of planting and harvesting that had been carried in the heads of the older generations of the peasantry was in many places lost entirely. Despite its greatly reduced population, Europe would totter on the ragged edge of famine for decades to come, frequently sliding over that line. Those peasants who survived were more desperately needed than ever, and thus felt empowered to make new demands on the landowning classes. These tensions led to major peasant rebellions in France in 1358 and in England in 1381, both of which were brutally crushed in the end. The king’s knights “flung themselves upon hamlets and villages, putting them to the flame and pursuing poor peasants in houses, fields, vineyards, and forest to be miserably slaughtered,” reads one French chronicle.
In its effects and its aftereffects, the Black Death was quite simply the most calamitous thing ever to happen to Europe, an event against which even such colossal modern tragedies as the First and Second World Wars pale. Thanks to the plague, the total population of the world probably declined over the course of the fourteenth century; it still stands as the only century in history in which such a thing is believed to have happened.
Through it all, the corrupted popes of Avignon provided little aid and less comfort. In 1375, the Italian republic of Florence organized a rebellion in the name of returning the papacy to Rome, thereby to end God’s displeasure, which had so literally, it was widely assumed, brought a plague down upon Christendom. The Papal States themselves joined most of their Italian neighbors in rejecting any pope not based in Rome as illegitimate, a blasphemy against the intentions of Peter and through him God himself. Gregory XI, the current pope in Avignon, first tried to put down the rebellion by force. He sent an army of mercenaries to Italy under the command of Robert of Geneva, a cardinal who also happened to be a cousin of the current king of France. Robert was responsible for an infamous incident in the town of Cesena. He asked the citizens there to lay down their arms preparatory to a parley, swearing a solemn oath that no harm would come to them. As soon as they did so, he let his soldiers run amok among them, until “all the squares were full of dead.” His army left everything in the town “burned, made unfit for use, or spilled upon the ground.”
Yet the pope’s mercenaries were less effective on the open field of battle, where they were roundly defeated by the armies of the rebel states. In January of 1377, faced with the very real prospect of the Italians electing their own pope and going their own way with much of Europe behind them, Gregory XI reluctantly returned the papacy to Rome. But as it happened, the rupture in the Church he was trying to avoid by doing so would take place anyway.
The trouble began upon Gregory’s death in March of 1378. His successor Urban VI was the first Italian-born pope in many years. Unfortunately, Urban was also, in the words of Will Durant, “not urbane.” He lambasted his underlings and his flock daily in spittle-flecked tirades, answering their attempts at remonstration with “Rubbish!” and “Shut your mouth!” and waving blank writs of excommunication in their faces like daggers. At one point, six cardinals languished in his personal dungeon for offending him in one way or another. While it is always problematic to diagnose anyone’s mental health over a span of centuries, his behavior evinces every sign of paranoid schizophrenia, aggravated by malignant narcissism.
The French-dominated wing of the Church, which had never wanted an Italian pope in the first place, saw opportunity in Urban’s crazed intransigence. Trying their enemies’ recent tactics on for size, they declared Urban to be a false pope, and elected one of their own back in Avignon. The man they chose for the office was a provocation to all of Italy: Robert of Geneva, the cousin of King Charles V of France and the mastermind of the rape of Cesena. He now took the name of Pope Clement VII. And now the kings of Europe had to decide which of the two popes to support — a decision which came to have far more to do with temporal politics than theology, especially given that both of them were such uninspiring, debased characters. France naturally opted for Clement, as did Naples, Scotland, and the Christian kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula, with the exception only of Portugal. Meanwhile the Holy Roman Empire, England, Flanders, Poland, Hungary, Portugal, and the rest of Italy supported Urban. There were now two separate popes leading what amounted to two separate Catholic Churches. Each incarnation of the Church declared the other to be a nest of heretics and blasphemers destined for eternal hellfire, and each European king added these charges to his list of justifications for the wars against his political enemies that he would probably have fought anyway.
For the ordinary people of Europe, the situation must have been nothing short of terrifying. Two separate popes were each telling them that, if they didn’t place all of their faith and trust in him and him alone, they were going straight to Hell. Their kings may have been ordering them to choose one pope or the other, but how could the people know their monarchs were correct, given that other kings, claiming likewise to be God’s chosen rulers, believed the opposite? After blizzard, famine, war, earthquake, plague, and now this schism within the heretofore universal religion, institutions and power structures that had held firm in Western Europe since the time of Charlemagne were unraveling. Europe stood on the verge of outright social and economic collapse, even as other parts of the world were going from strength to strength. The wealthy Ming dynasty in China, for example, was sending its awe-inspiring “dragon ships” all over Asia and Africa on voyages of discovery and trade. And the most magnificent single city in the world was almost as distant from poor and provincial Europe: the great Muslim capital of Cairo was a flourishing center of art, commerce, and learning, beside which the depopulated, shell-shocked cities of Rome, Paris, and London looked downright pathetic.
Europe was in the worst disarray it had known in hundreds of years as the fourteenth century lurched to a close, a laughingstock for any Chinese or Muslims who deigned to notice its existence at all. And yet by the end of the next, it would be poised to dominate the entire world, including two whole continents that no one yet suspected to exist, as the Middle Ages faded into history.
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