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  • Peter of John Olivi on the Universal Power of the Papacy1
  • Dabney Park (bio)

The city of Montpellier on the river Lez was the commercial and intellectual center of the Languedoc in 1289 when Peter of John Olivi made his way back to his home territory of southern France.2 The city was only a few centuries old, with no ties back to Greece or even Rome. The original settlement at Maguelone received an episcopal see as early as the sixth century, but the destruction of the town in the eighth century moved the community upriver to the area that became Montpellier.3 The city had emerged as a new trading port in the eleventh and twelfth centuries under the leadership of the lords of Montpellier, an unbroken line of eight men named Guillaume who reigned from 986 to 1204. The surviving heiress of all these Guillaumes, Marie of Montpellier, married King Peter II of Aragon, with the result that Marie’s dowries of Montpellier, Roussillon, and their dependencies, including the cities of Béziers and Narbonne, were absorbed into the Aragonese crown.4 These lands were ruled by Marie’s husband Peter II (d.1213) and by their son James I of Aragon (d. 1276).5 In his will, James I awarded the recently-conquered island of Majorca and the lands in Languedoc to his second son, whom he made King of Majorca as James II (d. 1311). His first son, King Peter III of Aragon, was not happy with this arrangement until he was able to force his younger brother to take an oath as his vassal. [End Page 67]

All of these rulers encouraged the development of the new city as a center of trade and commerce. Montpellier received a communal charter in 1204, establishing the merchants as the fourth of the four overlapping powers that controlled the city, the other three being the bishop, the king of Aragon, and the vicar of the king of France.6 By the late thirteenth century it was the second or third most important city in France.7 Among its 30-40,000 citizens were many Cathars, Jews, and Muslims, some of whom were skilled in the medical arts. Cultural life flourished in an atmosphere of tolerance. The university was founded in 1160, and the eighth Guillaume proclaimed freedom for all to teach medicine in 1180. Faculties of law and medicine were established by cardinatial charter in 1220. Pope Nicholas IV confirmed this charter in 1289, the very year of Olivi’s return to the city’s Franciscan studium. That summer Olivi entered a thriving, wealthy, and intellectually vibrant city.

On the ecclesiastical side, Bishop Béranger Frédole l’Ancien, ordinary of Montpellier, served under the archbishop of Narbonne. Many of the archbishop’s territories were held in fief from the king of France, requiring him to tread cautiously between his secular lord and the pope. But the archiepiscopal see was vacant from 1286 until November of 1290, and even when Gilles Ayscelin was elected archbishop, he delayed his entry into Narbonne for at least another five years.8 Distant supervision in both ecclesiastical and secular realms gave Montpellier and the region substantial practical freedom and independence.

When Olivi arrived in Montpellier in 1289, the region had begun to enjoy some degree of peace for the first time since the Sicilian Vespers in 1282. The massacre of the French on the island tempted the ambitious King Peter III to draw on his Hapsburg heritage to claim Sicily for Aragon. Pope Martin IV threatened anyone who would presume to move on Sicily (namely Peter III) with mutilation and even death.9 Peter was already in Tunis. Deciding to ignore the pope, he landed at Trapani on [End Page 68] August 30, 1282, to accept the lordship of Sicily from the perpetrators of the Vespers. The tension between French / Neopolitan / papal vs. Aragonese interests (which included Montpellier) reached a high point when Martin IV excommunicated Peter,10 awarded the crown of Aragon to Charles of Valois, third son of King Philip III (the Bold) of France, and declared a crusade against the Aragonese. King James II of Majorca, Lord of...


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