Avignon was the hub of the universe for most of the fourteenth century. Or at least the hub of Western European Christianity.
What happened was that in 1309 Pope Clement V settled in Avignon with his Cardinals and the entire Papal Court, because Rome was in constant turmoil. Seven (or nine) successive Popes lived and ruled in Avignon for the next sixty-eight (or ninety-six) years, but the last two were of doubtful validity and are now usually referred to as “Anti-Popes”.
In just a few decades, the presence of the Papal Court changed Avignon from a quiet town of four thousand people to a teeming city of forty thousand, making it one of the largest cities in Europe at the time. It was a wealthy, cosmopolitan city with numerous merchants and scholars and even a university — but it was also severely crowded, with festering slums, a huge housing shortage and inadequate sanitation.
The Italian poet Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca, 1304-1374), who had a day job in the Papal bureaucracy, described Avignon in the fourteenth century as the most foul and stinking city on Earth.
In a letter to a friend, Petrarch wrote:
The sun in its travels sees nothing more hideous than this place on the shores of the wild Rhone, which suggests the hellish streams of Cocytus and Acheron. Here reign the successors of the poor fishermen of Galilee; they have strangely forgotten their origin. I am astounded, as I recall their predecessors, to see these men loaded with gold and clad in purple, boasting of the spoils of princes and nations; to see luxurious palaces and heights crowned with fortifications, instead of a boat turned downward for shelter.
Later in the same letter, Petrarch went on:
Instead of holy solitude we find a criminal host and crowds of the most infamous satellites; instead of soberness, licentious banquets; instead of pious pilgrimages, preternatural and foul sloth; instead of the bare feet of the apostles, the snowy coursers of brigands fly past us, the horses decked in gold and fed on gold, soon to be shod with gold, if the Lord does not check this slavish luxury. In short, we seem to be among the kings of the Persians or Parthians, before whom we must fall down and worship, and who cannot be approached except presents be offered. O ye unkempt and emaciated old men, is it for this you labored? Is it for this that you have sown the field of the Lord and watered it with your holy blood? But let us leave the subject. I have been so depressed and overcome that the heaviness of my soul has passed into bodily affliction, so that I am really ill and can only give voice to sighs and groans. (Quoted from The Internet Medieval Sourcebook)
On a Saturday afternoon in April 2014 I took a guided walking tour, organized by the city tourist office, called Avignon au temps des Papes (Avignon in the time of the Popes). This was a tour not only of the Old Town of Avignon, but also of the Palace of the Popes. Entrance to the Palace was included in the price of the tour.
Our guide, Christine, spoke very clearly, without a microphone, and was easy to understand despite the wind. We were in the second day of a Mistral, a strong cold wind which she explained could last anywhere from one or two days up to a week or more. (As it happened, this one only lasted two days. The next day was rainy but not windy.)
Starting at the city tourist office on Cours Jean Jaurès, she led us through the narrow streets of the Old Town, pointing out buildings that had been started in the time of the Popes, such as the livrées cardinalices that served as luxurious residences for the wealthy cardinals.
At Place Saint Didier, an inscription on the wall reminds us that in medieval times this was the site of a market for wood and pigs.
On this square there is a church, also called Saint-Didier, which was built between 1356 and 1359 during the reign of the fifth Avignon Pope, Innocent VI. The church was built in the style called gothique méridional or even gothique avignonnais. (Location, aerial view and photo of the Church of Saint-Didier on monumentum.fr)
Adjoining the Place Saint-Didier there were two livrées, the mansions of the two richest and most powerful cardinals in the city, Pampelone and Ceccano.
(Our guide didn’t say this, but I got the impression that being a cardinal was a sure way to get rich in the fourteenth century, sort of like being the CEO of a hedge-fund today.)
The Church of St. Pierre, on the square of the same name, was also begun during the reign of Pope Innnocent VI. (Location, aerial view and photo of the Church of St. Pierre on monumentum.fr)
Entrance to the Palace of the Popes was included in the price of our guided walking tour, so we could enter with no delay.
In one of the courtyards we had a break from walking and sat down on the steps for a few minutes while Christine gave us some background on the history of the Palace and why the Popes resided in Avignon for sixty-eight years in the fourteenth century. It’s a long and complicated story, but the short version is that Rome was a dangerous city in those days, and the Popes feared for their lives.
Here in the High Kitchen was where they prepared those “licentious banquets” that infuriated the poet Petrarch. Our guide did not quote Petrarch to us, but she did read us the shopping list of the huge quantities of food that the Pope’s cooks had to buy each day.
The roof of the High Kitchen was shaped like a huge stone funnel with a hole at the top, for the smoke from the cooking fires to escape.
The Chambre de Parement was like an antechamber in front of the Pope’s private rooms. Armed guards (huissiers) were constantly on watch here. Sometimes the Pope held audiences here for individuals or small groups.
At this doorway of the Grande Chapelle, the statues were all beheaded during the French Revolution.
The next day was Easter Sunday. The Mistral was over, so there was no longer a strong wind blowing. But there was a long line of people queuing in the rain to get into the Popes’ Palace, so I was glad I had gone in the day before as part of our guided walking tour.
From the outside, the Palace of the Popes really does look more like a fortress than a palace — especially the older half, which was built starting in 1335 on orders of the third Avignon Pope, Benedict XII.
Evidently they were expecting a major attack on the palace, because many of the walls are crenellated and there are embrasures everywhere, even facing inwards. As I learned on this trip, embrasures are slits in the wall which enabled archers using the latest technology (bow and arrow) to shoot arrows through the slits while remaining under cover themselves.
In the newer part of the palace, built under the fourth Avignon Pope, Clement VI, there are some (sparse) Gothic windows and decorations, so he was apparently not so concerned about being attacked.
In the evenings the Palace is lit up in pink, presumably to make it look less forbidding.
Location, aerial view and photo of the Palace of the Popes on monumentum.fr
This monstrous building is said to be the largest Gothic palace in all of Europe, with fifteen thousand square meters of floor space, which is the equivalent of four Gothic cathedrals.
My photos in this post are from 2014. I revised the text in 2017.