How the Papacy Was Moved from Rome to France in the 14th Century

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE BLACK DEATH: THE WORLD'S MOST DEVASTATING PLAGUE

By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D., Purdue University

In the early 14th century, the French King Philip IV became embroiled in a feud with Pope Boniface VIII that led to the papacy moving to France. The feud was mostly about Church powers versus state powers. So, did the king dictate to the clergy, or did the clergy only answered to the papacy?

View of a medieval bridge in the sunset.
All the infrastructure of the papacy suddenly had to be moved to Clement’s home base of Avignon. (Image: TK_Taiwan/Shutterstock)

The Feud between the Church and State

King Philip IV thought it was he who should be the overlord of members of the clergy in France. Pope Boniface VIII thought that the papacy and its concerns overrode those of any secular ruler.

Philip was the king who famously rounded up the Knights Templar, tortured them to confess to hideous acts they certainly never committed, confiscated their considerable wealth, and then executed them. Meanwhile, Boniface was interested mostly in power and money, and to that end made a brisk business selling Church appointments and indulgences.

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The French Pope Moves the Papacy

In 1305, following the death of Boniface’s successor, who was pope for only a few months, the papal enclave met and, after a deadlock and some tense negotiations, finally elected Pope Clement V, who was French, and who decided that he was not going to go to Rome—instead, he would stay in France.

An image of Rome skyline on a partly cloudy day.
Pope Clement V decided that he was not going to go to Rome—instead, he would stay in France. (Image: Blue Planet Studio/Shutterstock)

It might have been because of the influence of the French king, who certainly thought it would be to his advantage to have the leader of the medieval Church in his own backyard, as it were.

So, all the infrastructure of the papacy suddenly had to be moved and overlaid and worked into the infrastructure of Clement’s home base of Avignon. 

While the new pope was French, many of the papal officials who would be continuing their service to the Holy Father were Italian. And not all of these officials were technically clergy—some were laypeople who served as lawyers, advisors, and politicians, and indeed, artists, musicians, household staff, and so forth. So pretty quickly, the population of Avignon more than doubled.

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The Popes of Avignon

None of the Avignon popes were fans of the monastic virtues like poverty and chastity. Scholar John Kelly notes that, in addition to an obscenely lavish and hedonistic lifestyle, the papacy in Avignon under the first 14th-century French pope, Clement V, had “transformed the Church into a spiritual Pez dispenser”. And of all the Avignon popes, Clement VI was particularly notorious in this regard.

Working conditions were difficult because of the infamous mistral wind of the south of France, which blew papers around and covered everything in fine dust.  

At the end of the day, pretty much every Church official alleviated this stressful situation by going drinking or to a brothel or usually both. It’s instructive to note that Avignon had 11 whorehouses at this time while Rome only had two.

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How Avignon Influenced the Renaissance

One frequent visitor to Avignon was the father of the Italian Renaissance, Francesco Petrarch, and he was just one of many Florentines who made their way west to France while the papacy was located in Avignon. For seven popes (1309–1377), the seat of the Church in Western Europe was in Avignon.

And in one of those moments that is a fascinating coincidental convergence of personalities and events, the death of one of the citizens of Avignon would help usher in the Renaissance.

Monument of Petrarch.
The world has benefited from the beautiful love poems that Petrarch composed to express his love and longing. (Image: Stepniak/Shutterstock)

This was the death of Laura de Noves, wife of Hugues de Sade, whose family members were important figures in Avignon. The de Sade coat of arms graced the bridge of Avignon as early as the 12th century—a testament to their status and power in the community.

Petrarch spotted Laura during church services in Avignon one day in 1327 and fell immediately and deeply in love.

Because she was already married to another man, he could not fulfill any of his amorous desires—all the better for the rest of the world who have benefited from the beautiful love poems, the Canzoniere, that Petrarch composed to express his love and longing.

Laura’s death continued to inspire Petrarch to compose still greater works of literary genius. Petrarch had left Avignon and returned to Italy, and when word reached him of Laura’s death, he picked up his own personal copy of Virgil and wrote on one of the pages:

Laura, illustrated by her virtues and well-celebrated in my verse, appeared to me for the first time during my youth in 1327, on April 6th, in the Church of Saint Claire in Avignon, in the first hour of the day; and in the same city, in the same month, on the same sixth day at the same first hour in the year of 1348, withdrew from life, while I was at Verona, unconscious of my loss…. Her chaste and lovely body was interred in the evening of the same day in the church of the Minorities: her soul, as I believe, returned to heaven, whence it came.

Common Questions about How the Papacy Was Moved from Rome to France in the 14th Century

Q: What was the feud between King Philip IV and Pope Boniface VIII about?

The feud was mostly about the power of the church against the power of the state. King Philip IV thought it was he who should be the overlord of members of the clergy in France. Pope Boniface VIII thought that the papacy and its concerns overrode those of any secular ruler.

Q: Why did Pope Clement V not go to Rome?

The French king might have influenced Pope Clement V’s decision in moving the papacy to France because it would be to the king’s advantage to have the papacy in his own country.

Q: How was Petrarch inspired when he visited Avignon?

After the papacy was moved to Avignon, artists like Petrarch went there, too. He saw Laura de Noves there and fell in love with her even though she was married. This unrequited love eventually led to great pieces of art.

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