- Avignon and Its Papacy, 1309–1417: Popes, Institutions, and Society by Joëlle Rollo-Koster
"It has been the intent of this book to rehabilitate for the English-speaking reader the Avignon papacy from its 'black legend'" (p. 289). Thus Joëlle Rollo-Koster summarizes her new study, one rooted in the author's thorough knowledge of the relevant sources and perceptive readings of modern scholarship. The "black legend" in question refers to the notion, already articulated in the fourteenth century and repeated thereafter, that the Avignon papacy was a venal, nepotistic, spiritually barren plaything of the French monarchy. To a very large extent, Rollo-Koster's rehabilitation succeeds.
Avignon and Its Papacy consists of six chapters. The first three provide a brisk yet thorough narrative of the Avignon papacy from its origins through Gregory XI's return to Rome in 1377. Chapter Four examines the administrative structures that Avignon popes developed, while Chapter Five discusses with engaging warmth Avignon's urban life. The concluding chapter treats the period of the Great Papal Schism (1378–1417), and also contains the author's views on the extent to which the schism resonated among the laity.
Rollo-Koster debunks some accusations levelled at the Avignon papacy and disarms others by placing them in their historical context. Although subjected to the influence of the neighboring Kingdom of France, the Avignon popes were not mere instruments of French royal policy; they worked conscientiously (if not always effectively, and partly to divert martial efforts elsewhere) for the establishment and maintenance of peace between England and France. That "venality and nepotism were rampant among all members of the high society" (p. 289) might be a less-than-inspiring defense, but the point is a fair one: Avignon popes were not unique in their staffing practices and pursuit of income. Rollo-Koster also rightly emphasizes the Avignon papacy's administrative complexity, especially its "archiving and financial capability" (p. 185). The papacy's diplomatic and financial challenges were enormous, and larger than those faced by any single European kingdom; consequently, the papal governing apparatus developed a high level of sophistication.
To Rollo-Koster's credit, she does not shy away from those facts that fueled the rise of the "black legend" in the first place. Cardinal Albornoz's bloody subdual of the Papal States in the 1350s and 1360s is fully acknowledged. Some cardinals were as extravagant and high-handed as critics alleged. Sinecures and expectative collations were commonplace and, especially in the case of multiple expectative collations for the same benefice, difficult to justify as anything other than revenue-generating devices.
Only at rare moments does Rollo-Koster's enthusiasm for her subject lead to her to go perhaps a bit far. John XXII multiplied offices, but whether that makes him an "administrative genius" (pp. 154, 175) is questionable. As the author notes [End Page 571] regarding those who petitioned the papacy for appointments, "Vatican registers illustrate a lag of some five years between requests and responses" (p. 157), which suggests strain and inefficiency. As for the schism's popular impact, Rollo-Koster points to a pilgrimage of youths to Mont Saint-Michel in 1393 and to the spontaneous veneration of Peter of Luxembourg following his death in 1387. But events such as these were not peculiar to the period of the schism; movements of youthful pilgrims and the spontaneous veneration of recently deceased individuals with a reputation for sanctity had precedents predating the years 1378–1417. Rollo-Koster does not adduce evidence that those who flocked to Peter of Luxembourg's tomb or the youths who went to Mont Saint-Michel had the schism in mind as they did so. As for those who wrote about these events, they linked them to sinfulness and religious malaise in the most general terms, rather than linking them directly to the schism. (Or, at least, that is what they do in the quotations that Rollo-Koster includes.) These episodes, therefore, do not...