|A Brief Review of
By Edwin Mullins
Reviewed by Alex Joyner.
Plague! Soaring cathedrals and palaces! Corrupt clerics! Glittering excess! When I teach Reformation history to United Methodist pastors I try to avoid this tabloid summary of the Church in the medieval period. Instead I focus on the deep and pervasive spirituality of the European populace, the real theological achievements of the Scholastics, and the radical commitments of the monastics. It feels important to acknowledge that there were losses as well as gains in the transition to the modern world.
Edwin Mullins’ book The Popes of Avignon: A Century in Exile is not going to disabuse students of too many of the prejudices formed by looking at church history through the lens of the Protestant reformers, but it provides an interesting tour through a neglected period when the center of Western Christianity shifted to a small city in Provence. From 1308 until 1378, as central Italy devolved into instability, the popes made their home in what is now southern France. The period coincided with a time of French ascendency and the first of the Avignon popes, Clement V, was a virtual puppet of the French monarch.
Later popes, particularly the extravagant Clement VI (1342-1352), developed a greater sense of autonomy and built Avignon into one of the grandest cities in Europe, attracting (and repelling) the likes of Dante and Petrarch. Clement VI also helped establish the image of medieval popes as hedonistic rulers with aspirations to worldly glory. His elaborate banquets and reported dalliances with mistresses lent a materialistic bent to his statement that “My predecessors did not know how to be pope” (93). But ascetics rose to the papal throne in Avignon as well. Urban V slept on a bed of bare boards and wore “a simple black monastic habit” (182). Even Clement VI contradicted the stereotype of universal anti-Semitism in the Middle Ages by issuing two bulls declaring the innocence of the Jews in bringing about the Black Plague and “forbidding all victimization of them on pain of excommunication” (130).
Mullins brings a local’s enthusiasm to his subject. An English journalist and filmmaker, Mullins lives part of the year in Avignon and he often pauses in the narrative to note what structures and landmarks from the period survive. In fact, the title under which the book was published in Great Britain, Avignon of the Popes, gives a better sense of who the main character in this book is. Theologians and historians may leave this slim book thirsting for more insight and connections with contemporary issues but most readers will leave with a desire to visit a place the author describes with such well-articulated affection.
Alex Joyner teaches Reformation history at the Course of Study School at Perkins School of Theology, SMU, and is pastor of Franktown United Methodist Church on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. He is the author most recently of Hard Times Come Again No More: Suffering and Hope [Abingdon, 2010]
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com