Plague, Papacy and Power: The Effect of the Black Plague on the Avignon Papacy
By Heather Para
Saber and Scroll, Vol. 5: Iss. 1 (2016)
Introduction: Beginning in 1346, the plague killed an estimated one-third of the inhabitants of Europe. The Black Death arrived among the invading Mongols of the Golden Horde. It spread along the trade routes to the lower Volga and the Black Sea, and from there it moved quickly across the Mediterranean and into Europe by way of merchants, sailors, and travelers. Avignon, the seat of the papacy at the time, succumbed in 1348. The coming of the plague was part of a series of events that reduced the papacy from the height of its power to its lowest point in centuries. The plague came at a critical moment for the Church, and the papacy at Avignon did not adequately rise to the challenge. Inevitably, the poor response led to intense criticism, general distrust of the Church, heretical movements, and eventually, the Reformation. Perhaps the papacy was headed along that road already, but the Black Death certainly sped it on its way
By the thirteenth century, the Roman Curia was a robust and efficient institution, and the papacy was at the height of its influence. Powerful popes such as Innocent III and IV operated much like kings of powerful nations. The Church maintained its power amid the growing strength of Europe’s monarchies. People were Christians first, before they were French, English, or Saxon, and therefore, still answered to the Church’s authority. While most kings compromised as necessary in their dealings with the papacy, those who did not “were likely to find that the spiritual power of the pope was accompanied by earthly power asserted with force of arms.”
Much of the pope’s power depended on his alliances with powerful secular leaders. The growing nation-states of the fourteenth century eventually overshadowed papal power, and many popes subsequently found themselves pawns in European politics. The papacy’s legal and financial dealings garnered criticism across Europe, especially from churchmen who were taxed heavily by Rome. Although the cardinals were excellent administrators, they developed a reputation for being corrupt.