Book Review: Unn Falkeid, The Avignon Papacy Contested

Unn FALKEID. The Avignon Papacy Contested: An Intellectual History from Dante to Catherine of Siena. Cambridge, MA; London, England: Harvard University Press, 2017. pp. 269. $49.95 hc. ISBN 9780674971844.

Unn Falkeid is Associate Professor of History of Ideas at the University of Oslo. In this excellent book, she offers a great contribution to the study of six thinkers from the fourteenth century, who developed their theories in light of the most important political events of their times: the Avignon papacy. Thus, Falkeid masterfully brings together the work of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), Marsilius of Padua (ca. 1275-ca. 1342), William of Ockham (ca. 1287-ca. 1347), Francis Petrarch (1304-1374), Birgitta of Sweden (1303-1373), and Catherine of Siena (1347-1380). Even though in the group there are two forerunners of Humanism, two men branded as heretics, and two women considered as saints, Falkeid shows how all of them shared a kind of unity that went unnoticed in previous scholarship, for in their works they share a kind of political resistance to the Avignon papacy. At the same time, Falkeid’s contribution is proof that political thought is found in a more varied way than traditionally assumed. Sometimes, histories of political theory have failed in pointing out the connection between historical events and the elaboration of political theories that addressed those events. Falkeid escapes this danger by offering a very valuable methodological insight, stressing that we cannot separate the theory from its historical context. In this case, the context that motivated the innovative solutions of the characters analyzed in the book was a specific political and ecclesiastical crisis of their time: the Avignon papacy.

From 1309 to 1377, the pope and the Roman curia resided in the city of Avignon in Provence in southern France. The period was also marked by an extraordinary process of centralization of the Roman church. Since Pope Gregory VIl’s series of reforms from the eleventh century, which were designed to free the church from lay control and increase the central, administrative power of the papacy, the popes had assumed moral leadership of Christendom, strongly supported by the canonists of the thirteenth century who defended the pope’s supremacy. This process of centralization intensified strongly in the fourteenth century, especially in an attempt to prevent secular states from appropriating church revenues without the pope’s permission. In 1302, Pope Boniface VIII confronted his opponents with his bull Unam Sanctum, the most extreme assertion of the pontiff’s political and juridical primacy over secular rulers that had ever been promulgated. In 1305, Pope Clement V was crowned in the presence of King Philip in Poitiers in France, and soon after he settled in Avignon. The following six popes resided there as well, marking a period in which the papacy grew in authority and wealth, and became the most powerful and prosperous court in Europe. This rise of the papal curia aroused mixed reactions, which set the historical context for the work of the authors presented in the book.

Thus, each chapter of The Avignon Papacy Contested presents in a masterful way a case study showing how these six characters questioned the legitimacy of the pope’s secular power while appealing for a profound reformation of the church.

In the first Chapter, Falkeid uncovers Dante’s conviction that only a secular emperor with unlimited temporal power could create peace and bring citizens universal liberty. She also identifies within Dante’s Commedia, his political letters, and his treatise Monarchia, a sophisticated argument for the separation of church and state, which implied a complete transfer of secular power to the emperor and leaving spiritual matters under the jurisdiction of the pope. This was the precondition for establishing peace.

In the second Chapter, Falkeid compares Dante’s Inferno VI and Monarchia, and Marsilius of Padua’s treatise Defensor pacis, in order to show how both authors differed greatly in their interpretations of legitimate authority. For Dante, both secular and ecclesiastical power had a divine origin. Marsilius, on the contrary, emphasized the unrestricted power and freedom of citizens to elect their ruler, so that authority rested on the authority of the body of citizens. In doing so, Masilius strongly delimited the pope’s power to religious affairs.

Marsilius’s theory of citizen agency found richer expression in William of Ockham’s philosophy of subjective rights and individual freedom, which is presented in the third Chapter. In Ockham’s Breviloquium, the main focus is the fundamental liberty granted to all human beings by both divine and natural rights. Thus, Ockham labeled the pope’s theocratic claims to supremacy as heretic.

In the fourth Chapter, Falkeid presents Petrarch’s call for a return to the glorious culture of the classical past. He argued that Rome was the only ground for legitimate authority, and that, as a consequence, the move to Avignon meant a perversion of authority according to both divine and natural laws.

In the last two Chapters, Falkeid presents what we can call the “political thought” of Birgitta of Sweden and Catherine of Siena. In Birgitta’ visions and in Catherine’s Dialogo, as well as in the multiple letters they both addressed to different popes, there is enough material to elaborate a theory of papal ethics and church governance. They both claim that Rome is the spiritual capital of Christendom, and that in order to reform the church as an ecclesiastical institution the pope had to return to Rome, for that is where the legitimacy of his power was to be found. For both of them, the stay at Avignon was illegitimate in itself.

To conclude my review, I would like to highlight Falkeid’s contribution and ability in bringing together these six authors. All of them did in fact have a decisive influence on the political events of their time, and have hardly been explored in the context of the Avignon papacy. Falkeid points out that they share a commonality by responding in their own creative way to the implications of the Avignon papacy, and by sharing a concern for the breakdown of secular order implied by the expansion of papal power. At the same time, Falkeid makes a long-due presentation on the indisputable contributions by Petrarch, Birgitta of Sweden, and Catherine of Siena to contemporary intellectual and political debates. Falkeid effectively warns against “narrow-minded definitions of what a political ‘thinker’ or ‘philosopher’ is (p. 8). Finally, Falkeid opens up new frontiers of scholarship and research by pointing out that the literary work of these six authors not only dominated the agenda of the contemporary political and intellectual debates, but certainly had far-reaching effects for the political discourses of early modern Europe. Even more, what influence the work of Birgitta of Sweden and Catherine of Siena had on political thought, on the Renaissance, and on reform movements, and on humanists, poets, and writers, is uncharted territory, and calls for more research on the subject.

Pablo M. Iturrieta


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s