What Happened in Avignon during the Spread of the Black Death

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

By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D., Purdue University

When the Black Death spread through Europe, it was only a matter of time before it found its way to Avignon in France. Many fled the city, and many of those who stayed later died. One person who stayed was the pope’s personal physician, Guy de Chauliac. The papacy was situated in Avignon at the time.

Painting of people in a town square suffering from the plague.
Many people fled from Avignon, but many who stayed later died. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

The Doctor Who Didn’t Want to Stay

Guy de Chauliac wrote detailed descriptions of the symptoms of the Black Death, including the nature of buboes, which he called apostemes. At the end of his account of the plague in Avignon, he added a startling personal anecdote:

And I, in order to avoid a bad reputation, did not dare depart from Avignon, but with a continuous fear, I preserved myself as best I could… Nonetheless, toward the end of the mortality, I fell into a continuous fever, with an aposteme on the groin, and I was sick for nearly six weeks. And I was in such great danger that all of my friends believed that I would die. And the aposteme ripened and healed, as I have described above, and I escaped by God’s command.

De Chauliac lived on until 1368, and his case is fascinating in that it is absolutely clear that he had contracted the bubonic form of the plague, and it confirms what other sources and scientific research have indicated—this form of plague was survivable, although the odds were not particularly good. Still, it could, and did, happen.

So, in Avignon from 1348 to 1349, half the population were dead, and another good chunk—especially those at the top—had fled the city for the plague-free environs to the north. There was anti-Semitism and religious fervor. Whole sections of the city lay empty, and daily life ground to a halt. A few people, like Guy de Chauliac and the pope, chose to remain and yet survived the plague.

This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

What Made Avignon Special?

Panoramic aerial view of Avignon.
Queen Joanna chose to enter Avignon not only despite the plague but in some sense because of it. (Image: Kiev.Victor/Shutterstock)

Avignon was the seat of the papacy, and people came to town precisely because it was ravaged by the plague. 

In the case of Princess Joan of Bordeaux, the royal entourage simply didn’t understand the threat, and thus they paid the price. But in March 1348, when the plague was approaching its peak, another royal named Joan—Queen Joanna of Naples and Sicily, who was also Countess of Provence—chose to enter Avignon not only despite the plague but in some sense because of it.

Learn more about Europe on the brink of the Black Death.

A Murder Mystery in the Time of the Black Death?

In a series of events that hopefully someone will make a historical novel out of someday, Joanna was accused of arranging and perhaps participating in the murder of her husband, Prince Andrew of Hungary, in 1345. 

While his wife supposedly slept nearby, someone tied a noose around Prince Andrew’s neck and then threw him over the balcony. He was discovered hanging there—and still struggling to stay alive—by a maid. When this maid approached to offer assistance, a black-cloaked figure leaped out of the shadows, yanked down hard on the prince’s ankles, and broke his neck, thereby ending his life.

Although Joanna was reportedly distraught and wept when told the news, Prince Andrew’s family was suspicious, and they held her responsible for her husband’s death. Thus, Joanna traveled to Avignon for a hearing in the papal court to clear her name. 

The fact that the plague was well known to be ravaging the city actually acted in her favor, as she and her supporters continually pointed out that her willingness to go there was a further testament of her innocence. She trusted that God would protect her and show the rest of the world that she had been falsely accused.

Now, the evidence presented at the trial did seem pretty incriminating, but in the end, Joanna was not only found not guilty but also declared above suspicion of guilt. The pope embraced her before the entire gathering. The Hungarians gritted their teeth and bore it, but they did not forget.

Learn more about the epidemiology of plague.

Moving the Papacy Back to Rome

A few months after the trial, Clement cut a very favorable deal to take possession of the city of Avignon itself, purchasing it from the titleholder—Joanna, Queen of Naples and Sicily and Countess of Provence—for the bargain price of 80,000 gold florins. 

Portrait of Pope Gregory XI.
In 1377, Pope Gregory XI moved the pontificate back to Rome. He died shortly after. (Image: Lewis Sergeant/Public domain)

Afterward, the papacy and Avignon were even more tightly connected. But, as is well known, since the pope currently resides in Rome, this connection was not to last. In 1377, Pope Gregory XI moved the pontificate back to Rome.

He died shortly thereafter, however, and this led to a struggle for power during which there might have been two or three rival popes in existence at the same time.

Two of these antipopes held their positions in Avignon in a sort of last-gasp effort to cling to what had been established there, but how that eventually turned out is well known.

So, in the example of Avignon, it can be seen how a small provincial town, as the religious capital of the European world, was in a unique situation when the Black Death made its appearance in early 1348. If anything, the example of Avignon shows the range and complexity of responses to the Black Death.

Common Questions about What Happened in Avignon during the Spread of the Black Death

Q: Why did Guy de Chauliac stay in Avignon during the plague?

Guy de Chauliac confessed in his writings that he stayed in Avignon because he feared getting a bad reputation. He contracted the bubonic form of the Black Death and survived.

Q: What happened after the papacy was moved back to Rome?

In 1377, Pope Gregory XI moved the pontificate from Avignon back to Rome. After he died, there was a struggle for power during which there were two or three rival popes in existence at the same time.

Q: Why did Queen Joanna enter Avignon during the spread of the Black Death?

Queen Joanna traveled to Avignon despite the spread of the Black Death to clear her name of any bad reputation because of her deceased husband’s family’s accusations of her killing him.

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