Monday, February 27, 2012

The Glory and the Power: Heavenly Daze and Worldly Ways in Avignon

The glory and the power: Avignon Cathedral (left) sits beside -- and is dwarfed by -- the formidable Palace of the Popes.
 Character assassination, mudslinging, Machiavellian machinations, and ruthless power plays: I’m talking about the current U.S. presidential primaries, right? Not exactly, but more on that in a minute. I’m talking—mainly—about the deadly struggles that sent the 14th-century papacy scurrying from Rome to Avignon, France: Avignon, the spectacular walled city where medieval mystery meets modern-day murder in The Inquisitor’s Key.

 At the end of the 13th century, Rome—like other Italian city-states—was torn between two powerful factions, the Ghibellines and the Guelphs. To oversimplify shamelessly—nay, proudly (hey, it’s a blog, not a history book!)—the Ghibellines supported the Holy Roman Emperor, while the Guelphs backed the Pope: rival leaders, each claiming to be God’s Main Man here on Earth. In 1298 Pope Boniface VIII destroyed two entire towns, Colonna and Palestrina—he even spread salt on the surrounding lands to ruin them—because they were strongholds of the Colonna family, nobles who sided with his enemies, the Ghibellines. Then Boniface took on an even mightier foe: King Philip IV of France. When King Philip imposed a tax on Church revenues, Pope Boniface excommunicated him, declaring in a 1302 proclamation that it "is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman pontiff." 

King Philip IVof France
  King Philip was not amused; in fact, he was royally vexed. In 1303, a 2,000-man army sent by Philip IV and the vengeful Colonna family captured the Pope, beat him, and nearly executed him. A month after the assault, Boniface died. His successor, Pope Benedict XI, reigned for just eight months before he, too, died—poisoned, rumors said, by the same French agent that King Philip had sent gunning for Boniface. The following pope, Clement V, was careful not to antagonize the French king; in fact, Clement V—the first in a series of seven French popes—was virtually a puppet of King Philip. In a shameful act of cowardice and collaboration, Pope Clement V helped King Philip destroy the Knights Templar, the warrior-monks to whom Philip owed a fortune. (More on that in a future blog! And watch out for King Philip IV in The Inquisitor's Key.)

So when King Philip “suggested” that Clement V relocate someplace nearer and more convenient than Rome, Clement settled in Avignon—technically outside of France in those days, in territory that was part of the Holy Roman Empire—but just across the Rhone River from a massive French fortress, from which the king’s forces could keep a watchful eye on the papal court.  

When Clement V arrived in 1309, Avignon was small, just a few thousand people. But the three popes who followed him—John XXII, Benedict XII, and Clement VI (“Clement the Magnificent”)—transformed Avignon into the crossroads of Europe, a booming, cosmopolitan city of 50,000. When Clement VI was crowned in 1342, he threw a coronation banquet for 3,000 guests. On the menu: 1,023 sheep, 118 cattle, 101 calves, 914 kids (young goats, not children!), 60 pigs, 10,471 hens, 1,440 geese, 300 pike, 48,856 cheeses, and 50,000 tarts. At its height, Clement VI’s court cost ten times as much as the French king’s. “Magnificent” indeed!

Such splendor—and the flood of gold florins that funded it—attracted nobles, artists, and musicians from throughout Europe. But not everyone approved. Indeed, a branch of Franciscan monks—the Franciscan “Spirituals”—harshly criticized Pope John XXII  for not living in poverty as Jesus and his disciples had. In retaliation, John XXII charged a number of Franciscans with heresy—and had four burned at the stake.

But one fierce critic of papal luxury managed to survive—and to thrive—for years. In fact, despite the fact that he called the Avignon papacy “the Babylonian Captivity” (and called the papacy itself “the Whore of Babylon”), a cleric named Francesco Petrarca—in English, we call him Petrarch—became a celebrated historian, poet, and philosopher … all while living on the payroll of the Church he condemned. Petrarch—who appears in The Inquisitor’s Key—reminds me of Beltway politicians who spend years campaigning as “outsiders.”

As for the popes who sought authority over all earthly affairs: Anybody besides me see a parallel in today’s megachurch televangelists who want to gain control—“dominion,” as they call it—over government, business, education, the media, and other spheres of worldly influence? In The Inquisitor’s Key, a present-day Dominionist preacher, Reverend Jonah Ezekiel, plays a prominent part. The book is fictional … but Rev. Jonah is, at least to my mind, frighteningly close to fact. What was it Winston Churchill said? Something about failing to learn from history, and being doomed to repeat it …

Next time: Petrarch, the Celebrity Poet Who Loved to Hate Avignon


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