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Papal States in the Renaissance: Definition & Overview

Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

Learn all about the Papal States, a group of mostly Italian provinces that actually had the Pope as their lord and commander. After you've read the lesson, take the quiz!

A Brief History of the Papal State

Popes weren't always just religious leaders who wore funny little hats and walked around blessing people in Rome and abroad. During the Middle Ages, they actually owned some sizeable territories throughout Italy and into France. Then, through some intelligent decisions and lucky alliances, they actually built a small empire.

In 751, Pope Zachary had Pepin crowned as King of the Franks over Childeric III, who was the legitimate king but just a figurehead. Pepin responded to his elevation by defeating the Lombards of northern Italy and giving the pope his own territories. This was known as the Donation of Pepin.

In 781, Charlemagne codified the papacy's territories as the Duchy of Rome, Ravenna, the Duchy of the Pentapolis, parts of the Duchy of Benevento, Tuscany, Corsica, Lombardy, and several other Italian cities. At that point, the Papal States officially came into being.

The Papal States
Papal States

A Big Change

In 1309, a Frenchman was elected pope to settle issues that the papacy and the French crown had been fighting over. But the new pope decided to stay at Avignon in France rather than go to Italy. His successors (all French) stayed in France, too, until 1377. The period has been called the Babylonian Captivity, even though the French kings never force the popes to stay there.

But while the popes were in France, they lost a lot of power in Italy. Most of the major cities, like Rome and Bologna, came under the control of local despots. The religious leaders who were stationed in Italy worked to keep the Italian states under papal control with mercenaries and diplomacy, but the Pope's absence made their jobs very difficult.

The Return

Pope Gregory XI finally left for Italy in 1376, and that's really when the Papal States entered the Renaissance. Their presence would help strengthen the papacy's hold on the Papal States. They remained as central religious figures to all of Western Europe.

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