Saturday, 26 May 2012

More Good Christian Love

Pope Clement V, the first Avignon Pope
In a previous blog on the brutal suppression of the Cathars of southern France I showed an example of the huge gap between what the Christian Church tells us to do and what it does itself. One might expect a Church which teaches love, compassion, ascetic poverty, giving to the poor and the sanctity of life, and which claims to be based on sound philosophical reasoning and the teachings of 'perfect' Jesus, to show these qualities itself when discussing differences of opinion amongst its followers.

But not a bit of it. Throughout history, the normal response has been a resort to armed power, to brutal suppression, grotesque methods of mass destruction and rigidly enforced dogma from a position of obscene wealth and splendour. Maintenance of this wealth and power seems to have been the primary motive for the Church, rather than spreading the 'Love of Jesus' and the elevation of all of humanity above the level of the humble peasant and toiler for the landed gentry which was the lot for the vast majority of medieval Europeans whose poverty and labour were the source of the Church's and the small powerful ruling elite's wealth.

The Christian religion was clearly the means to an end rather than an end in itself and it could be moulded and bent into whatever shape suited the rich and powerful at the time.

Another example from the same area of France as the brutal crusade against the Cathars and in neighbouring Italy, and only a few years later, illustrates this rather nicely. It is centred round the brief Avignon papacy, when the Pope moved to Avignon in Provence, France for some 67 years during which seven French Popes ruled the Western Christian church. The palace in which they lived, the Palais des Papes can still be seen. It's worth a visit if only to be reminded of the obscenity of vast wealth and untrammelled greed and avarice of a church leadership in the midst of poverty.

To understand what happened at this period you need to understand the basic political organisation of Western Europe in the 14th Century:
  • Italy was a collection of rival city states and papal possessions sometimes working with one another and sometimes against, and often in dispute with the Pope.
  • Germany was similarly fragmented and disorganised with only a nominal central authority in the form of the politically weak Holy Roman Emperor, who also laid nominal claim to parts of Northern Italy.
  • England held a claim to parts of Western France because Henry II was also Duke of Normandy, Count of Anjou and married to Eleanor of Aquitaine, however, he was preoccupied with putting down revolts and plotting by all his and Eleanor's many sons and by Eleanor herself. The Angevin or Plantagenet dynasty was asserting its succession to the collapsed Norman dynasty and was still technically a fief of the French King at least over its Continental possessions, so establishing the basis for centuries of enmity between England and France.
  • Spain was only recently partly unified, having been a polyglot collection of independent, often warring, states such as Aragon, Castile and Navarre. Aragon, with it's Catalan possession was becoming a major Mediterranean power. Grenada remained Islamic until 1492.
  • Only France had anything resembling a stable government able to produce a native army of anything like the size needed to control a large territory and so guarantee the 'loyalty' of local town burgers and barons, having recently asserted its control over southern France by suppression of the Cathars in the Albigensian Crusade.
It was against this background that the French Crown, in the person of Philip IV who had recently been in dispute with Pope Boniface VIII was able to influence the election in 1309 of Pope Clement V, a Frenchman and Archbishop of Bordeaux and whose brother was Cardinal-Bishop of Albano. Knowing which side his bread was buttered, and having weighed the options, Clement V decided that, though he was undoubtedly possessed of the Holy Spirit which had descended to him from St. Peter, the prudent thing to do was to stay in France rather than risk a move to the Vatican in Rome in Italy where the various powerful ruling families of the medieval North Italian city states like Pisa, Venice, Milan and Padua had their power bases.

Palais des Papes, Avignon, France
The world's largest Gothic construction
So, Clement V set about building a home fit for himself and his coterie of assistants, together with the sumptuous rooms in which to receive visiting dignitaries, crowned princes and other power-brokers on whom his reign over Western Europe was dependent, and to whom he and his bishops could sell indulgences, i.e. a pardon for past and future 'sins' for an appropriate (usually very large) consideration. The kitchens alone were suitably huge, as was the dining room, in order to prepare and serve the vast quantities of food and wine the papal household needed to consume in order to minister to the spiritual needs of the people and reveal God's truth unto them.

Burning of the Knights Templar
One of the first things Clement V did was to organise the brutal suppression of yet another branch of Christendom, this time the Order of the Knights Templar. The Knights Templar was a Crusading Order established in 1129 to bring the 'Love of Jesus' to the Muslims of the Holy Lands by killing them with ruthless military efficiency, having failed no doubt to convince them by philosophical theology and reasoned discourse - or maybe not. Having been successful at raising large funds as a charity, the Knights Templar had built fortresses across Europe and had moved into banking. One of their clients had been Philip IV of France who owed them a considerable fortune.

Having effectively lost the Second Crusade by being defeated and driven from the Holy Lands by a united Islamic army under Saladin, the Knights Templar fell into disfavour and, with perfect timing from Philip IV's point of view, rumours about secret initiation rights began to gain traction. Clement V dutifully ordered their suppression and the leaders were arrested, tortured into false confessions and then burned at the stake as heretics. Of course, debts owed to them were cancelled. The Knights Templar were effectively removed from the European political establishment of which they had been an integral part, almost overnight, and the money they had lent to Philip IV, raised by charitable donations at the behest of the Pope to help 'rid the Holy Lands of Muslims', was transferred to Philip IV's pocket to help pay for the army which guarded the Pope and kept him in the luxury to which he had become accustomed.

Over the lifetime of the next seven Avignon Popes, the Papacy was transformed into a money-making operation to which wanabee priests, even illiterate people with enough money, could buy a priesthood (and the huge income that came with it) for merely a year's income. Price rationing replaced the tedious need for education to enter the clergy and the more you could afford, the higher up the clerical hierarchy you could progress. Taxes were levied to finance Crusades which never materialised (but at least they called it a war on Islam rather than a war on terror), indulgences were sold and tithes were levied, all to pay for expensive wardrobes, and the gold and silver plates off which the Pope's household and visiting dignitaries consumed their meagre rations laid out before them on groaning tables.

And the Papacy came more and more under the control of the French Crown which had discovered that the simplest way to occupy the moral high-ground was to own the person who mapped the terrain. Meanwhile, outside the walls of the Palais des Papes, the Black Death was killing between a quarter and a third of the population and for the average European paysant, life continued to be much as it had ever been - nasty, brutish and short.

Eventually, and partly in disgust at the ever more ostentatious and flagrant immorality of the clergy and the disparity between the way they behaved and they way they were telling other people to behave, and partly as a reaction to the random nature of the Black Death which killed both the godly and ungodly alike, several 'heresies' arose which went to the heart of the Papacy and what it had come to stand for. They also encouraged a particularly disturbing tendency to refuse to pay tithes and taxes to the Catholic clergy just as those nasty Cathars had done. These heresies, of course, were brutally suppressed in their turn but not before gaining some influence, such as John Wycliffe's inspiration of Lollardy and the Hussites which many see as the fore-runner of Lutheranism and the Protestant Reformation.

And eventually, with the Papacy being seen more and more as merely an arm of the French State, so driving a wedge between it and the Papal possessions in Italy and between it and the English State which was growing in power, the Avignon Papacy decided it was better off in Rome after all, where it was better able to keep a close eye on it's estates, so, in 1376 Pope Gregory XI made a successful bid for independence from France and moved the Papacy back to the Vatican.

That was not the end of the matter however. France continued to 'elect' a couple more Popes at Avignon whilst the rest of the Catholic Church selected their own in Rome, so, until 1423, Western Christendom had two Popes with the French supporting the Avignon-based Pope and just about everyone else supporting the Rome-based one. In 1403 The Avignon-based Benedict VIII was expelled from Avignon and fled to Perpignon, then in Aragon. He was succeeded by Pope Clement VIII who was recognised by the Kingdom of Aragon but no one else. There followed two more alternative 'Popes', the successors of Clement VIII, who don't appear to have been recognised by anyone at all. If only they had been able to raise a large enough army with which to bring the 'Love of Jesus' to enough rich and powerful people, like the one in Rome managed to do...

In the long term, probably the most significant result of this saga was that, with the French supporting the Avignon Popes and the English supporting the Rome Popes, France and England had emerged as the two leading powers in Europe - and the French, having started out what looked like the clear winners in the process with the papacy safely under her control, had ended up on the losing side.

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