Babylonian Captivity of the Church and the Decline of Papal Authority

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  • 0:05 The Babylonian Captivity
  • 0:45 The Avignon Papacy
  • 3:37 The Schism
  • 5:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Elam Miller

Jessica has taught college History and has a Master of Arts in History

In the Middle Ages, the power of the papacy began to decline. A French pope chose to move his court to France. This lesson explores this event, its background, and its impact on Catholicism.

The Babylonian Captivity

The Babylonian captivity was an important event in Jewish history. In the 6th century BCE, the Jews were exiled to Babylon. They were forced to stay there for several decades until a Persian king, Cyrus the Great, allowed them to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their destroyed temple.

So, how does this relate to the Papacy in the 14th century? In 1309, the Pope moved his court from Rome to Avignon in France and remained there until 1376. Francesco Petrarch, an Italian scholar, referred to this event as the 'Babylonian captivity.' Petrarch believed the popes during this time lost their spiritual integrity and became enslaved to the ambitions of the king of France.

Petrarch referred to the move of the Papacy to Avignon as the Babylonian captivity.
Francesco Petrarch

The Avignon Papacy

In the Middle Ages, there were two people who argued over who was the leader of all Christian people: the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor. Popes had become important in secular ruling matters during the Crusades beginning in the 11th century. However, in the 14th century, popes began arguing more frequently against royalty regarding their secular policies.

Pope Boniface VIII was elected pope in 1294 and argued strongly with the king of France (Philip IV) over taxes that he wanted to impose on clerics. He excommunicated the king in 1303 and died soon after. Pope Benedict XI became pope after Boniface. He released the king of France from excommunication. The next seven popes who succeeded Benedict XI were heavily under the influence of the French ruler.

In 1305, Clement V was elected pope. Clement was French, and his first act was to create nine French cardinals. Cardinals voted on who would be pope, so this meant the next popes were more likely to be French. Clement's nationality and appointment of French cardinals were unpopular in Rome. To escape the conflict, Clement made the decision to move his residence and base of Catholicism to Avignon, France.

Aside from Clement V, there were six other popes in Avignon. They were Pope John XXII from 1316-1334, Pope Benedict XII from 1334 to 1342, Pope Clement VI from 1342 to 1352, Pope Innocent VI from 1352 to 1362, Pope Urban V from 1362 to 1370 and Pope Gregory XI from 1370 to 1378. We will learn later in the lesson that Pope Gregory was responsible for moving the Papal court back to Rome.

The popes in Avignon are known for being under the influence of the French ruler. One of the first examples is the suppression of the Knights Templar, a Christian military order that began to protect Christians who traveled to Jerusalem. On October 13, 1307 (a Friday), King Philip IV ordered the Knights Templar to be arrested.

King Philip IV suppressed, and ultimately executed, members of the Knights Templar.
Knights Templar

Hundreds were arrested and tortured into confessing to crimes. This is why Friday the 13th is considered unlucky. In 1310, the king had many of the knights burned at the stake. The king threatened military action against the Pope if he didn't join him in destroying the order, and the Pope finally had the order disbanded.

As England and France began fighting over English territories in France, each pope tried to mediate between the two. English rulers did not trust the popes since they lived so close to the French kings, claiming they were too heavily influenced by France to remain neutral.

Still under the influence of France, Pope Urban V supported the marriage of the French king's son to Margaret of Flanders. Marriage to Margaret meant the power to rule over more territory. The Pope's choice to support the French prince over an English prince was viewed as a biased decision.

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