Edwin Mullins, who previously authored a volume dedicated to the Benedictine monastery in Cluny, France, is an Oxford-educated writer, journalist, and filmmaker. His latest publication is a concise history of the seventy-year period known as the “papal exodus” to Avignon, France. A part-time resident of nearby Provence, Mullins describes the surrounding area as “the papal county—the Comtat Venaissin—even though no pope to my knowledge has set foot in the region for over six hundred years, and considerably more than two hundred years have elapsed since the Vatican exercised any authority over the county whatsoever” (p. ix). This work serves a dual purpose—it would make a fine companion piece for anyone traveling through the south of France. It would also provide a basic history for anyone seeking to understand the events surrounding the creation of a “new Babylon” in Avignon during the Middle Ages, and how “within a few decades it came to grow larger than Rome itself and become one of the wealthiest and most glittering cities in Europe” (p. 1). What unfolds are tales of debauchery, murder, and papal avarice, or what Mullins likens to a city built upon the “overwhelming presence of mammon: it was a city that dripped gold and jewels, a place of unmatched glamour and splendor. Hence to more severe observers the city was an object of loathing and contempt, a place where unholy opulence was coupled with greed, rapacity, nepotism, corruption, a shameless abuse of its power and wealth, and above all an outrageous moral laxity” (p. 1).
The papal schism began during the time of Boniface VIII, born Benedetto Gaetani of Anagni, Italy, and “whose family were Roman nobility of considerable influence and power” (p. 2). Boniface managed to run afoul of Philip the Fair (1268-1314), the King of France, by the issuance of two papal bulls concerning the predominate status of the Bishop of Rome. Mullins reports that “both [bulls] had the same aim, to demonstrate the supremacy of the pope as God’s representative on earth over any mere monarch” (p. 2). The result of this conflict was a French king who was about to be excommunicated, and a pope who would soon be sent to his heavenly reward. Mullins recounts that “in what has become known as ‘the Outrage of Anagni’ they [a mob assembled by the Colonna family, who also held a grudge against Gaetani] seized and bound the horrified Boniface, then led him away on horseback, humiliatingly—it has been claimed—set facing the rear of the horse in a manner commonly reserved for thieves and petty criminals” (p. 6). Although the citizens of Anagni, loyal to their hometown hero, later rescued Boniface, he died shortly thereafter. This atrocity would set the stage for the election of a new pope (Clement V, born Bertrand de Got in Aquitaine, France), who would move the papacy to a fortress in Avignon to be closer to, and ruled by, the French monarchy.
Mullins’ latest work is highly recommended, and would be best suited as a supporting source for an undergraduate college course relating to Church History. It is well thought out, and contains numerous maps, paintings, and pictures of the surviving buildings and churches of Avignon—making it an ideal traveler’s guide as previously mentioned. The only flaw in Mullins’ thinking concerns his minimization of the role that Catherine of Siena played in exhorting Pope Gregory XI to return the papacy to Rome. Although a beautiful portrait of Catherine and Gregory (painted by Giovanni di Paolo) adorns the cover of his book, Mullins devotes scant attention (less than one page) to the future Saint Catherine, and what might have occurred had Gregory lived longer. One might wonder whether Mullins truly views the Avignon debacle with the pride of a French nationalist, or whether his earlier comments concerning the avarice and greed of a few individuals are closer to his own.