Nick Havely

By the mid fourteenth century papal Avignon  had grown to be one of the greatest cities in Western Europe, and even after the depredations of the Plague it remained,  with a population of 30,000 or so, the second largest city in France. Papal finance, diplomacy, administration and building projects required its population to be diverse in its skills and origins, thus linking Avignon  with major commercial, political and cultural centers such as  Paris, Lombardy, Florence, Rome and Naples. The mid-century transformation of the city into ‘Nuova Roma’ under Clement VI (1342-57) drew artistic talent from, for example, England, the Ile de France and Italy, including the painter Matteo Giovannetti, some of whose frescoes for the papal chapels still survive (see illustration). 

Clement VI’s activities as a collector of manuscripts resulted in the further  expansion of the Avignon library, which  from 1316 onwards had been drawing in books from clerical libraries all over Europe, through the exercise of the papal  ius spolii. His literary interests also led him to extend patronage to Petrarch, who was resident at Vaucluse during much of Clement’s pontificate.   Petrarch’s therapeutic dialogues with S. Augustine in  the Secretum (c. 1348-53)  include advice from the saint to leave Avignon for Italy, as he finally did in 1353. The poet’s fulminations against Avignon/Babylon  became well known; and at least one copy of his vituperative  Sine nomine letters is known to have been in the papal library. 

A number of the major works written at or about Avignon in the later fourteenth century are in several ways controversial, and their implications for the political culture of the period must be addressed. Richard Fitzralph’s anti-mendicant Proposiciones were preached at the curia in 1350 and 1357, and much of his contribution to the debate about the poverty of Christ (De pauperie Salvatoris) was written at Avignon.  As the Avignon popes themselves made serious moves to return to Italy in the late 1360s and 1370s, two notable women’s voices (those of Bridget of Sweden and  Catherine of Siena) were raised on behalf of Rome, the city that Dante had called  ‘widowed and abandoned’. Some of the papacy’s own key political concerns on the eve of the Great Schism are reflected in the English Benedictine, Adam Easton’s Defensorium ecclesiastice potestatis, composed at Avignon and presented to Urban VI at Rome in 1378.    

Effects of the Schism (1378-1417) on Avignon  culture around the turn of the century were considerable. These include: the dialogue around the Councils of Paris in the 1390s; the degree of contact with countries still supporting the Avignon Pope, Benedict XIII, after the Council of Pisa in 1409 (Scotland, Aragon, Castile and some principalities in S. France); and finally the dispersal of the papal library, with evidence (from the catalogues of 1407-23) of what was happening to it around the time of the Council of Constance.