Renaissance and Reformation Avignon Papacy
Joëlle Rollo-Koster
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 August 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0391


Throughout the Middle Ages, popes resided outside of Rome in cities like Viterbo or Anagni, often finding temporary refuge from the summer heat or Roman revolts. But Avignon, in Provence near the Comtat Venaissin papal territory since 1274, kept a pope for some four generations between 1309 and 1403, a reminder that “Rome is where the pope is.” There popes founded their legitimacy on reinforcement and centralization of papal authority, grounded on tight fiscal oversight. From 1309 to 1377 seven legitimate popes ruled before returning to Rome and the subsequent Great Western Schism (1378–1417), when two and even three popes ruled their own respective obediences. In 1305 cardinals elected Bertrand de Got, a Gascon, who took the name Clement V after a lengthy conclave that lasted for almost a year. An astute diplomat, traveling in France at the time of his election, the pope was crowned in Lyon and decided to remain north of the Alps to settle pressing matters like the Council of Vienne, the Templars’ affair, and the French-English rivalry. Within a few years, he remodeled the cardinalate, naming a majority of French cardinals, and in 1309 settled his court in Avignon, a city that lay close to French Vienne where its council was ready to open. Over the span of some seventy years, the six popes who succeeded him and chose to remain in the city fought as best as they could secular encroachments on their prerogatives, quite successfully tightening and reforming the ecclesiastical administration and finances, regaining papal territories, and engaging with secular leaders. However, returning the papacy to Rome always remained a pressing concern. After Urban V’s failed attempt in 1367, Gregory XI effectively brought back the papacy to Rome, entering the city in grand pomp in January 1377. He died a few months later in March 1378. A College of still largely French cardinals elected Pope Urban VI in April 1378, but after a few weeks of a disastrous relationship, cardinals reneged on the legitimacy of their April election and named in September a counterpope, Clement VII. Urban never stepped down and the Great Western Schism was consummated. States each followed one of the two popes, who maintained their respective obediences and courts in Rome and Avignon. The schism lasted until 1417 when the Council of Constance, after the deposition of two concurrent popes, elected Martin V unique sovereign of Christianity and first pope of the Renaissance.

General Overviews

Most histories of the papacy will summarize its Avignon phase or, in certain cases, offer a more developed narrative. Readers should beware that before the 20th century most papal histories were generally biased and unflattering with regard to the Avignon popes, often focusing on negative aspects like their subservience to the French Crown (see for example, Mandell Creighton’s History of the Papacy, 1882). Most discussions of the medieval papacy can introduce the topic. See the separate Oxford Bibliographies in Renaissance and Reformation articles the “Renaissance Papacy” and “Papal Rome” by Frederick McGinness, “Cardinals” by Stella Fletcher, and “General Church Councils, Pre-Trent” by Nelson Minnich. Mollat 1963 and Renouard 1970, both translations of earlier works dating back, respectively, to 1912 and 1954, have remained the standard studies for generations. They are still valuable for being the first scholarly analyses and evaluation of the Avignon papacy. Zutshi 2000 offers in a few pages a general overview, focusing on relations with France, crusades and missions, papal court, and administration. The most recent monographs covering the papacy and its imprint on the city of Avignon are Favier 2006 and Rollo-Koster 2015. While earlier works usually ended their survey with the 1377 return to Rome, it is of note that both latter works continue well into the Schism, rendering it an organic part of the Avignon papacy. Since the interpretation in Kaminsky 2000 that the institutional culture that grew from the Avignon papacy was directly responsible for the break, it is now accepted to treat the Schism in continuity with the Avignon papacy. The best overview of the Schism from the point of view of Avignon remains the four volumes of Valois 1896–1902. Even if its title refers to France, the span of the work is large enough to encompass the ramifications of the crisis all over Europe. The initiation of the crisis is covered in both Ullmann 1972 and Rollo-Koster 2008 with the former focusing on a political reading of the crisis and the latter on sociocultural issues.

  • Favier, Jean. Les papes d’Avignon. Paris: Fayard, 2006.

    The first modern reading of the Avignon papacy, this major work offers a thick description of everything related to it: why the papacy moved; how Avignon became a capital; and the formidable political, administrative, and financial machine that grew from there, certainly influenced by the French but not under its control.

  • Kaminsky, Howard. “The Great Schism.” In The New Cambridge Medieval History. Vol. 6, c. 1300–c. 1415. Edited by Michael Jones, 674–696. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    A short but thorough review of the Schism. Kaminsky is the leading historian on the political motivations and expediency of the Schism.

  • Mollat, Guillaume. The Popes at Avignon, 1305–1378. Translated by Janet Love. London: T. Nelson, 1963.

    Originally published in 1912. The renowned abbot offers here his deep knowledge of Avignon papal sources. Mollat focuses on short biographies of the Popes, with an emphasis on external political and papal rapports with European states, especially Italy and Spain. The book was unique at the time of its penning for its overture to sociocultural history, with a section analyzing the curial organization and bureaucracy, including its financial management.

  • Renouard, Yves. The Avignon Papacy, 1305–1403. Translated by Denis Bethell. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1970.

    Written by a specialist in the economic history of the 14th-century papacy, this survey considers the profound consequences of the Avignon sojourn on the ecclesiastical institution and most of all on its modernization of the Church, sometimes done at the price of a certain despiritualization.

  • Rollo-Koster, Joëlle. Raiding Saint Peter: Empty Sees, Violence, and the Initiation of the Great Western Schism (1378). Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1163/ej.9789004165601.i-267

    This work engages the historiography and reframes the interpretation of the schism’s initiation within a sociocultural analysis. The author suggests that the rites of violence common during papal interregna were deployed in 1378, evidence that the cardinals’ claims that fear impeached their free choice need to be mediated with their knowledge of such rites.

  • Rollo-Koster, Joëlle. Avignon and Its Papacy, 1309–1417: Popes, Institutions, Society. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.

    The most recent survey of the topic. The author updates the historiography of each pope, focusing on the administrative and financial development of the papacy and on its impact on the urban development and society of the city of Avignon.

  • Ullmann, Walter. The Origins of the Great Schism: A Study in Fourteenth-Century Ecclesiastical History. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1972.

    This work explores the origins of the crisis, Urban VI’s 1378 election and Clement VII’s counterelection, and the many disputations between Urbanists and Clementists. The work offers translations of the main legal treatises of each obedience, including those of Baldus de Ubaldis and Cardinal Zabarella. The tone is again political, with an explanation of the crisis focused on the pope’s monarchist views versus the cardinals’ oligarchic ones.

  • Valois, Noël. La France et le grand schisme d’occident. 4 vols. Paris: A. Picard et fils, 1896–1902.

    In this somewhat dispassionate analysis of the Schism, Valois’s deep knowledge of the registers of the Avignon and Vatican archives allows him to evaluate France’s role in the crisis. He highlights the hundreds of texts available at the Vatican archives, which at the time of his writing had been recently opened to scholars.

  • Zutshi, Patrick. “The Avignon Papacy.” In The New Cambridge Medieval History. Vol. 6, c. 1300– c. 1415. Edited by Michael Jones, 653–673. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    One of the first surveys that updates Mollat and Renouard’s historiography. Zutshi insists on the close rapport between the French crown and the Avignon pope, and the functioning of the administration and court.

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