CHAPTER XIX. AVIGNON.
How Avignon passed to the Popes - The court of Clement VI. - John XXII. - Benedict XII. - Their tombs - Petrarch and Laura - The Palace of the Popes - The Salle Brulee - Cathedral - Porch - S. Agricole - Church of S. Pierre - The museum - View from the Rocher des doms - The Rhone - The bridge - Story of S. Benezet - Dancing on bridges - Villeneuve - Tomb of Innocent VI. - The Castle at Villeneuve - Defences - Tete-du-pont of the bridge.
We leave Languedoc and are again in Provence, or what was Provence, till the Popes by a fraud obtained it. Avignon belonged to Provence, which was claimed by Charles of Anjou in right of his wife, and it had descended to his son, Charles II. of Naples. On the death of the latter it fell to Robert of Naples, and from him to his grand-daughter, Joanna, the heiress of the Duke of Calabria.
The Papal residence was now at Avignon, and there it remained for a century and a quarter. Joanna fell into trouble, her kingdom of Naples was invaded by Louis, King of Hungary, who asserted his right to her throne. She fled to Provence - to Avignon - where at once Pope Clement VI. seized the occasion to purchase this portion of her Provencal inheritance of her at the price of eighty thousand gold crowns. He kept the principality, but never paid the money.
The Popes have left their indelible mark on the place in the glorious palace, a vast castle, of the boldest structure, wonderful in its size and massiveness.
The Papal court at Avignon, under Clement VI., "became", says Dr. Milman, "the most splendid, perhaps the gayest, in Christendom. The Provencals might almost think their brilliant and chivalrous counts restored to power and enjoyment. The Papal palace spread out in extent and magnificence; the Pope was more than royal in the number and attire of his retainers; the papal stud of horses commanded general admiration. The life of Clement was a constant succession of ecclesiastical pomps and gorgeous receptions and luxurious banquets. Ladies were freely admitted to the Court, and the Pope mingled with ease in the gallant intercourse. The Countess of Turenne, if not, as general report averred, actually so, had at least many of the advantages of the Pope's mistresses - the distribution of preferments and benefices to any extent, which this woman, as rapacious as she was handsome and imperious, sold with shameless publicity."
Under the Papal rule, with such an example before it, Avignon became the moral sink of Christendom. To see what its condition was, and how flagrant was the vice in all quarters, the letters of Petrarch must be read. He speaks of the corruption of Avignon with loathing abhorrence; Rome itself, in comparison, was the seat of matronly virtue.
But I must step back for a moment to John XXII. because of the lovely monument to him in the cathedral, and because thereon we have his authentic portrait.
This Pope was a cobbler's son of Cahors; he was a small, deformed, but clever man: the second cobbler's son who sat on the seat of S. Peter. He had gone, when a youth, to Naples, where his uncle was settled in a little shop. There he studied, his talents and luck pushed him into notice, and he became bishop of Frejus. But he preferred to live on the sunny shores of Naples, and to keep within the circle of the king, where lay chances of higher preferment, and he troubled his diocese little with his presence. He became a cardinal, and in 1316 was elected Pope at the conclave of Lyons. He at once dropped down the Rhone, and fixed the seat of his pontificate at Avignon. Able, learned though he was, he was not above the superstitions of his age. He had been given a serpentine ring by the Countess of Foix, and had lost it. He believed that it had been stolen from him wherewith to work some magic spell against his health. The Pope pledged all his goods, movable and immovable, for the safe restoration of his ring: he pronounced anathema against all such as were involved in the retention of it. It was rumoured that one of those involved in the plot by witchcraft to cause his death through this serpentine ring was Gerold, bishop of his own native city, Cahors. The alarmed and angry sovereign Pontiff had the unhappy bishop degraded, flayed alive, and torn to pieces by wild horses.
John XXII. issued an edict of terrible condemnation against all such as dealt in magical arts, who bottled up spirits, made waxen images and stuck pins into them, and the like. He died at the age of ninety, having amassed enormous wealth by drawing into his own power all the collegiate benefices throughout Christendom, and by means of reservations, an ingenious mode of getting large pickings out of every bishopric before the institution of a new bishop. The brother of Villani the historian, a banker, took the inventory of his goods when he was dead. It amounted to eighteen millions of gold florins in specie, and seven millions in plate and jewels. His face, on his monument, is indicative of his harsh, grasping, and cold character.
Now look at this other face, it is that of the successor of John, of James Fournier, who took the name of Benedict XII. He lies in the north aisle of the cathedral.
On the death of John XII. twenty-four cardinals met, mostly Frenchmen, and their votes inclined to a brother of the count of Comminges, but they endeavoured to wring from him an oath to continue to make Avignon the seat of the Papacy. He refused; and then, to his own surprise, the suffrages fell on the Cistercian abbot, James Fournier.
"You have chosen an ass!" he said, in humility or in irony.