Joelle ROLLO-KOSTER. Avignon and Its Papacy (1309-1417) Popes, Institutions, and Society. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. Pp. 300. $74.99 ISBN 978-1-4422-1532. Nathan R. KOLLAR, St. John Fisher College, Rochester, NY 14618.


History is such a wonderful tool for relativizing the present and norming the future. Rollo-Koster provides us with such a tool for understanding the functions of the papacy.  He also attempts to deconstruct the legends describing the Avignon popes as degenerate functionaries of a corrupted ecclesial culture. He does so in seven chapters: Early popes, Papal Monarchy, Returning to Rome, Avignon: Capital and Population, and The Great Western Schism and Avignon. Each of the chapters deals with all the Avignon popes. Thus each chapter’s chronology of popes takes on a life of its own and is repeated chapter after chapter under the principle topic of the chapter.

What stands out, and also is repeated in each chapter, is that these popes were well educated, with degrees is civil and canon law; devoted to the bureaucratic centralization of the Roman Catholic Church demonstrated by their continual  improvement of papal administration and the development of an educated elite to run the diverse papal departments; politicians of the highest caliber enabling them to not only survive but grow the church financially while sustaining their image as a power to be reckoned with; and, as part of that image, to project a personage of high culture in their respective courts whether through the advancement of higher education, the encouragement of the arts, or the type of architectural style chosen to house the Avignon papacy.  Such deconstruction of previous Avignon papal descriptions is summarized by Rollo-Koster in this way “…the Avignon popes were certainly no more venal nor less worthy to claim the papal office than their predecessors and successors.”(p.289)

Many times readers easily read the past in terms of the present. Certainly this is true about any reading of the historical papacy. Relevant to the Avignon papacy is the fact is that throughout the Middle Ages Rome was always at war with itself: the commoners fought the aristocrats and the papacy; the aristocratic families were constantly fighting to take the various estates both within and outside Rome; any pope from one of these families or one from none of the families was immediately caught up in these wars.  The pope’s entourage needed to be equal to or greater than any of the other noble courts in Europe let alone Rome. The papal “brand”, so to speak, needed money to project the power it needed to be independent of the kings, queens, and nobles that constantly threatened to rule the church by ruling its leaders (see Investiture controversy).  The Avignon move enabled the pope to enter into a less bellicose environment, to increase his treasury by refining and centralizing everything associated with the papacy (e.g. taxes on papal lands and payments associated with benefices), and to build palaces and other buildings more easily defensible than those in Rome.  But, this cannot be repeated enough, nearly all of them tried to return to Rome but the turmoil there and in the papal lands prevented such a move.

The Great Western Schism (1378-1417) ended the Avignon papacy through the Ecumenical Council of Constance (1414-1418). The power of the Emperor was needed to sustain the power of the pope; the power of an ecumenical council provided the Catholic Church with a pope – who, with time, became the absolute monarch reflected in today’s papacy. Rollo-Koster provides us with the details of the role of the Avignon popes in all this. We find out how much it cost, for example, to make the red slippers worn by the pope, how many days it took for the head of France to enter into the city, why people were hung in one place and whipped in another, and why the various attempts to return to Rome failed.  When you finish reading this book you will have an excellent tool for understanding the papacy of yesterday and today.