Officially, the Avignon papacy began in the year 1309.
This didn’t mean much to the city itself at the time. True, there were more clerical visits, but such were commonplace for Avignon. It had been a possession of the Church since 1274 when the French king, Philip III, ceded it to Pope Gregory X.
When Pope Clément V established the Holy See in this non-descript city on the Rhône River in the south of France, Avignon had a population of 5,000. It had been bigger; it had been smaller. It had been partially destroyed in 415 A.D. and totally razed in 737 A.D. It had belonged to the Roman Empire, the Goths, and the German Empire. It had been ruled by the Franks, the Capetians, and the comtes of Provence. It had been Pagan under the Romans, Muslim under the Spanish Arabs, and was now Christian.
Its last period of great prosperity had been in the 1100’s as a "free town". Nominally under the control of the Germanic Empire, the city established itself as a republic governed by its knights and prominent citizens. It was during this time (1185) that the Saint Bénezet Bridge was built across the Rhône.
The bridge put Avignon squarely at the crossroads between Lyon and the sea; trade subsequently flourished. Double ramparts were built around the city to protect the solid mansions of rich merchants. In 1226 the city defied the king of France, Louis VIII, locking the city gates against his forces. The city lost the siege and it lost its independence. Louis had the ramparts pulled down and the moat filled in. Avignon became part of the Comtat Venaissin which later became Church property.
The Comtat Venaissin, an area lying roughly between the Rhône, the Durance and Mont Ventox, covering in great part what is now the Vaucluse, was the ancient country of France. The capital was Carpentras, to the east of Avignon. The area is fertile plains, highly agricultural then as it is now.
Clément V, the first of seven popes to rule from Avignon, was French by birth.
Elected by the Cardinals Council in Lyon in 1305, he spent the years before 1309 as a guest in various cities near Avignon – Carpentras, Caromb, and Malaucène shared the honor. In 1309 he established his residence in the Episcopal Palace in Avignon but continued to divided his time between various cities of southern France. He died in Roquemaure on the other side of the Rhône in 1314.
Clément’s reluctance to establish himself in Rome has been attributed to the unstability of that city. While there was unrest and turmoil in the Vatican City, with invasions by "infidels", sacking, pillage and rape, the principal reason was doubtlessly political rather than a question of security and had more to do with France itself than with current events in Italy.
Clément’s election as Pope in 1305 was brought about, in part, by the influence of Philip IV of France. Known as Philip the Fair, the 11th king of the Capetian Dynasty, he had inherited a mountain of debts from his father, Philip III (the Bold). Searching for additional sources of income, he raided the coffers of the Church by taxing parishes in France and by banning the exportation of funds to Rome. Naturally this caused a rift between Philip the Fair and the then-current pope, Boniface VIII.
In addition to the loss of the French monies, a good part of other revenues that would normally go to the Church were being diverted to the Knights Templar. This order began in 1120 under Pope Honoré II as a religious order with vows of poverty and chastity and was answerable only to the Pope. By 1305 the order had become more mercenary than religious and was very powerful.
In France alone the Templars had roughly 1200 command posts. Their Temple in Paris was the center of their financial operations for all of Western Europe and they were about to establish a new base in the Languedoc region in what is now southwest France. This posed a political threat to Philip.
The time frame is self-evident. Clément was elected Pope in 1305. In 1307 King Philip had all the Templars in France arrested. "Interrogations" went on for several years. In 1312 Pope Clément V issued a decree dissolving the Knights Templar. In 1314, after seven years of imprisonment, Jacques de Molay, the Grand Master of the Templars, was condemmed to death by burning. Legend has it that at the instant of being consumed by the flames, he swore that the Pope and the King would both die in less than a year's time. Both men died that year, Clément only a month after de Molay. The Templar order is said to exist, albeit clandestine, in modern-day Europe.
Clément’s successor, John XXII, was not appointed immediately.
Pope Clément’s tenure at Avignon was to have been a temporary measure, which may have had a bearing on the reluctance of a new conclave of cardinals meeting in Carpentras to elect another French pope. The session was tumultuous with relatives of the former pope causing great disorder in the city. Finally, after 18 months, the cardinals were locked in the Dominican monastery by the king and, after six months of deliberation, they elected a Pope. He was Jacques Duèse, a 72-year-old cardinal who was not expected to be in office very long. He took the name John XXII.
John XXII, second pope in Avignon, held the office for 18 years (1316 – 1334). During this time he perfected the pontifical tax system and made the Church much richer. Unlike his predecessor, Clément V, he spent those years in Avignon, although having the papacy there was still considered a temporary measure.
The third Avignon pope, Bendict XII (1334-1342), started construction of the Palais des Papes.
Like his predecessor, John XXII, he first tried to return the papacy to Rome. Unable to halt the revolts in the Church states, he finally decided to remain in Avignon. Under his leadership the Episcopal Palace was razed and construction started on the Palace des Papes.
Four more popes resided in Avignon between the years 1342 and 1378. The seventh and last, Gregory XI (1370-1378), actually did succeed in returning the papacy to Rome.
He died in the Vatican in March, 1378.
His successor, having serious mental health problems, was instantly regretted by the cardinals who elected him. They quickly elected a second pope and the Great Schism began, a period of 25 years during which there existed two popes, one in Rome and one in Avignon. The title "antipope" refers to the Avignon popes during this era (Clement VII and Benoit XIII). Although Avignon was no longer the papal capital, it remained a possession of the Church until 1792, when it was ceded back to France.
Avignon was the center of the Holy Roman Church for less than 70 years.
Considering that the earliest traces of humans on the Avignon site go back 3,000 years before Jesus Christ, this is a blink in the eye of Time. But these 70 years changed Avignon forever and brought the entire area, the Comtat Venaissin, a cultural richness as well as immense economic advantages.
In prior periods of its history Avignon had been invaded by and then assimilated people from Spain and North Africa, as well as Franks of Germanic descent. Now people from the eastern part of the Mediterranean basin were arriving, bring their cultures with them. The construction surge brought a great influx of workers to Avignon : stonemasons, painters, and tapestry weavers were needed – many came from Italy.1 As stated earlier, Avignon had a population of 5,000 in 1309. During the next 50 years this figure mounted to 40,000, an unprecendented growth for that time.
The Italian banking houses, following the money of the Church, moved their head offices from Rome to Avignon. These gentleman bankers and members of the papal court itself commanded special and luxurious goods. Silk production became an industry in Provence and across the Rhône in what is now Ardèche. Mulberry trees were planted to feed the silkworms. This, again, was an area where the Italians were the leaders. 2
The Popes Palace today is one of the largest medieval Gothic buildings in Europe. It was constructed very quickly (1335 to 1364) and very solidly. Avignon’s city walls, pulled down in 1226, were now replaced, but the Palais depended more on its own defenses than that of the ramparts. Built around a central cloister, it had four wings, each flanked by a high tower.
The original building is known as the Palais Vieux (Old Palace) and under Popes Clement VI, Innocent VI, and Urban V (1342 thru 1370) this was expanded with three new towers, the Court d’Honneur and various attached sections. These additions are known collective as the Palais Neuf (New Palace). Today the total floor surface is 15,000 square meters.
A third major building, known as Le Petit Palace (The Little Palace), was built between 1481 and 1495. It was first the Cardinals palace, later the Archbishops residence. Today it is a museum of medieval art.
Other important buildings were constructed as a result of the Holy See being in Avignon, and nearby towns also benefited. The city of Villeneuve-lez-Avignon, on the opposite bank of the Rhône, has always been considered a suburb of Avignon. It contains the former summer palace of the popes and other related structures. The village of Chateauneuf-du-pape, a bit north on the west bank of the Rhône, also had a residence used by the popes, and a clerical residence was erected in the town of Sorgues.
Avignon has, since the papal days, been a center of culture in the region. The Renaissance, coming as it did in the middle of the papal years, flourished there.
Pope Clément VI (1342 – 1352) did much to encourage this. He attracted artists and men of science and of letters. He was responsible for one of the most beautiful parts of the palace, La Chambre du Cerf (The Stag room), his personal study, whose walls are covered with frescoes of staghunting with a richly painted ceiling. It was also Clément VI who dictated the decoration of La Grand Tinel (Grand Dining Room).
Art is still an important element of Avignon culture. The "Petit Palais Museum" contains not only Italian paintings from the 13th to the 15th century but roman and gothic sculpture and paintings from Avignon artists (14th thru 16th centuries). Theatre has been a part of the Avignon scene down through the centuries and the Avignon Summer Festival is renown throughout Europe.
The University of Avignon was established by Pope Boniface VII in 1303. There had been schools of theology, grammatical arts, and medicine from the Early Middle Ages. In 1793 it, like many others, was "supprimée" during French political unrest. Reinstated in 1963, different schools have been established every few years with a new physical plant opened in 1997. Today there are over 7500 students enrolled.
Another interesting aspect of Avignon’s history is that, as a papal city, pardon was granted to any criminals living within its walls. With Avignon a property of the Church until 1792, this meant that for centuries the population of Avignon was regarded as "different" by residents of the surrounding countryside. In effect, it was an outlaw city.
1Matteo Giovannetti painted the decorations in two of the papal chapels : the Chapel of Saint Martial in 1344-1345 and the chapel of Saint Jean in 1347-1348. As well as his work in Avignon, he did other work in the papal summer residence at Villeneuve-lez-Avignon on the other side of the Rhône. In the spring of 1367 he returned to Rome and several months later was at work on the paintings of the Vatican Palace. This was during a period when Urban V tried to return the papacy to Rome. Urban returned to Avignon and died there; there is no further trace of Giovannetti.
2Young women from northern Italy, principally Milanese, continued to migrate to Provence to work in the silk industry until late in the 19th century. My own Italian grandmother had done this work : her expertise was to dip the silkworm cocoons in boiling water to kill the worm before it ate its way out, thus destroying the silk filaments. My village in Provence, just north of Avignon, had a silk mill and pioneered in the construction of cardboard boxes, which were used to transport the silk cocoons between the producer and the mill. The silk mill is no longer in existence but the manufacture of specialized cardboard boxes is still one of the industries of the village.
Part One: Avignon's early history
Part Three: Avignon today