The Schismatic Papacy at Avignon sat like a Mandelbrot swirl of fractal suspicion and intrigue. As you stare into the complexities of the situation, you see recurring patterns spiralling into infinity. Yeah, admittedly I might be looking for it, but I’m sure it was in there somewhere to begin with.
At the highest level, intrigue at a macro scale between monarchy and noble houses allowed the very Schism itself to fester and persist. The power at the heart of the Roman Catholic faith split when the unexpected death of the reigning pope led to the necessity of a sudden election in Rome that rankled the French cardinals residing in Avignon, from which the Pope had travelled out of many years of self-imposed exile. Two popes existed at the same time and the division of interests across Europe meant that some countries supported one, while the rest supported the other. Clement VII led from the Papal summer residence in France, while Urban VI led from the traditional seat in Italy.
The Popes relied on the support of the cardinals who elected them and the good will of the monarchs and noble who endorsed their right to rule. The nobles and monarchs bickered and quarrelled, seeking to outdo and outmanoeuvre through guile and diplomatic one-upmanship. Those on the right side of the Pope in ascendence might take to the high ground and claim some measure of morale superiority, as such displays of support brought the ear and forgiveness of the highest representative of God on Earth.
At a more local level, within Avignon itself, the potential for friction and back-stabbing expanded as the population did the same, property grew scarce, and the Papal household made increasing demands for goods and services. The importance of Avignon grew with the presence of the Pope, as did it’s size. The once large village the Pope moved to in the early fourteenth century grew to support a population of some 30,000 by the close of that period, a fifth of whom represented the varied ranks of the Papal household. The tradesmen, landlords, farmers, craftsmen, prostitutes, servants, and varied underclasses jockeyed for favour and good fortune in their attempts to garner some small part of the Papal wealth. Quite often such attempts to advance meant engaging in less than legal activities of over-charging, over-promising, under-supplying and out-right blackmail.
The elite within the community, lives heavy with sin and thoughts firmly set on an everlasting future in Heaven, also looked to impress and compete against their peers. The increasing importance of the town within Europe meant any with the wherewithal could forge a very promising future – though, for certain, not without clambering over the heads of those less able.
Within the walls of the Papal household itself, the ranks of the Curia – the support structure cascading downwards beneath His Holiness, the Pope – manifested like the varied strata of ancient rock, layer upon layer upon layer at once supported by and crushing those below. The household depended on accountants, administrators, quartermasters, archivists, scriveners, lawyers, scholars, guardsmen, gaolers, cooks, cleaners and servants, all vital within their own sphere of influence, and all with good reason to feather their own nests. Specialist contracts, personal favouritism and increasing rights of access within the Papal Court all represented goals of considerable worth to attain – and, ideally, to hold on to.
Beyond the lay-people, the Curia also included the monks, deans, bishops, deacons, and cardinals, all intertwined in varied duties and members of different, and often conflicting, Orders who sought to attain precedence in the eyes of God for the sanctity of their belief and the purity of their souls; not to mention the many worldly treasures, possessions and properties that come with maintaining the expansive Papal influence across all of the Holy Roman Empire and the furthest reaches of Christendom.
At a yet lower level within the swirling pattern of intrigue, Avignon served as the base of one of the many priories of the Knights of St John (otherwise, more commonly, known as the Hospitallers). The Crusades had given form and purpose to the Order, like so many others in the period, but over time the drive of the Hospitallers moved from engaging heathens and seeking divine support to something far less – it would seem – crusading and contemplative. By the time of the Schism, most members of the Order engaged in largely administrative activities managing the Hospitaller’s many holdings and the thankless pursuits of petty bureaucracy. Brothers sought to rise above the rabble given any opportunity, working hard to find their way into the upper echelons of the Brother Knights should the chance arose. Occasionally, a brother might find such actions necessitated treading – ever so lightly and with the greatest of reverence – on the toes, and egos, of those around them. However, even those few who rose to positions of seniority found themselves at odds with others seeking esteem, power and financial reward.
At every level, the Papal Schism provided room for those with a purpose to find their place, preferably as close to God as possible with comfortable furnishings, lavish meal-times, and forgiveness on tap. And, for each individual who found such a desirable position, another dozen or two found good cause to bring them down, to bring their good-nature into question, and to have them sent off for some soul-cleansing pilgrimage in the dominions of the unbelievers.
Belief, of whatever form, can be a great motivator.