For personal reasons I have lately been reading about Avignon, primarily in Joelle Rollo-Koster's Avignon and its Papacy, 1309-1417.
The city's chief claim to fame, of course, comes from its having hosted the papacy during most of the fourteenth century, and subsequently having had a hand in the Great Schism, when two, and then three men had colorable claims to the Petrine office.
I first came across the phrase, "Babylonian Captivity of the Church," in Luther's eponymous treatise. He wasn't of course talking about the papacy's sojourn in Avignon, but the sacramental system that he felt shackled the Church and obliterated the gospel. But the phrase had certainly been bandied about in the fourteenth century, most prominently by Petrarca, a bitter critic of this self-chosen exile.
Now Petrarca was himself an exile of sorts. His father was a Florentine, expelled from Florence in the early fourteenth century in the same purge of White Guelfs that got Dante kicked out. The elder Petrarco found employment at the papal court, and the family settled at nearby Carpentras. It was from there that the "Father of Humanism" began his long journey to revive the literary treasures of classical antiquity, to reconcile his desire for fame with his Christian devotion, and to pay his most personal hommage to a secretly-admired lady in the Canzoniere.
The literature of the fourteenth century was undeniably brilliant; think of Meister Eckhart, Dante Alighieri, the afore-mentioned Francesco Petrarca, Giovanni Boccaccio, Geoffrey Chaucer. But life in the fourteenth century was marked with extraordinary crises, most disastrously the arrival of the Black Death in 1348, when perhaps a third of the population of Europe perished in a remarkably few years. Well before that catastrophe the Church endured crisis after crisis: the death of Boniface VIII after being roughed up by Philip the Fair's goons, the destruction of the Knights Templar, the Franciscan schism between the Spirituals and the Conventuals, the almost continuous warfare between France and England in the inception of the Hundred Years War, and of course the almost unintended settling into and then settling down in the city of Avignon by pope after pope.
I have noted before the practical necessity of our thinking in categories, and how focusing on particular places and times can sometimes help us see how conceptually distinct worlds can intersect. Avignon in the fourteenth century is no different. Though crusades were actively promoted at least through the mid-fifteenth century (the last conventionally being the busted crusade called by the great humanist pope Pius II), the crusading spirit was probably broken most decisively when Philip the Fair determined to destroy the Templars, and the first of the real Avignonese popes, Clement V, acquiesced in their fall.
I have always considered John XXII representative of the papacy's dark side. Rollo-Koster acknowledges his spiritual flatness, seeing his significance in the rationalization of the bureaucracy and finances, a lawyer, not a spiritual leader. It was in 1327-28 that Meister Eckhart came to Avignon appealing the findings of heresy lodged against him by the Parisian Dominicans. Eckhart died before the proceedings were completed, and John's In agro Dominico, condemning a limited number of discreet propositions as heretical after Eckhart's death, put him under a cloud for his immediate time and posterity.
(Recent calls for his formal rehabilitation have been met with denials that he needs any such rehabilitation. Eckhart himself was never personally adjudged a heretic, and even such orthodox stalwarts as St. Thomas Aquinas have had particular propositions condemned, some very closely upon his death.)
As is often the case, though, even the limited condemnation tells more about the limitations of John than the orthodoxy of Eckhart. Eckhart was a subtle and often paradoxical writer and preacher. Many of his problems stemmed from having explored ideas, not only in Latin among clerics, but in vernacular sermons as well.
But it was also in 1327 that the young Petrarca first glimpsed his "Laura" in the church of Sainte-Claire in Avignon, composing thereafter, throughout his life, the 366 poems to her of the Canzoniere--poems to which presumably she lived and died entirely oblivious. In this conjunction of the great light of late German mysticism and the harbinger of Italian humanism we find those two great movements of the human spirit surprisingly physically proximate.
John XXII has also been taken much to task for his ham-handed handling of the conflict between Conventual and Spiritual Franciscans. Malcolm Lambert, in his Medieval Heresy, argues that John's typical overreaching and harshness created a heretical movement out of a disciplinary dispute.
Before becoming acquainted with the details of the conflict I had always assumed that the "Spirituals" followed to some degree the extreme mind/body dualism of the Albigensians. In fact that perennial tendency did not enter into the Franciscan controversy, however much, in fact, areas of "Spiritual" resistance roughly coincided, in the fourteenth century, to centers of Albigensiansim in the thirteenth.
But to speak broadly, part of the great problem of the papacy in Avignon strikes me as analogous to the over-stressing of the spiritual to the prejudice of the material and the bodily. There is really no reason that the successor of St. Peter cannot reside wherever it is convenient. There was no great difficulty in moving the curia and the archives; in fact, the administrative side of the papacy was remarkably developed during the sojourn in Avignon. Certainly the entire spirit of the institution could move as readily as any medieval monarch's court.
And yet, the successor of Peter remains the Bishop of Rome, and throughout this period, however convenient it was to be absent from Rome--Rome in ruins, malarial Rome, riot-torn Rome, indefensible Rome--that "body" of the papacy proved irresistible. The permanent return to Rome in the early fifteenh century, and the papacy's continuous residence at all times since, confirms the century away to have been an "interlude," and Avignon to have briefly served, not as a "Second Rome," but as "Babylon."