In Troubadour-Land/Chapter XIX

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In Troubadour-Land by Sabine Baring-Gould
Chapter XIX: Avignon

AVIGNON.

How Avignon passed to the Popes—The court of Clement VI.—John XXII.—Benedict XII.—Their tombs—Petrarch and Laura—The Palace of the Popes—The Salle Brûlée—Cathedral—Porch—S. Agricole—Church of S. Pierre—The museum—View from the Rocher des doms—The Rhone—The bridge—Story of S. Benezet—Dancing on bridges—Villeneuve—Tomb of Innocent VI.—The Castle at Villeneuve—Defences—Tête-du-pont of the bridge.

We leave Languedoc and are again in Provence, or what was Provence, till the Popes by a fraud obtained it. Avignon belonged to Provence, which was claimed by Charles of Anjou in right of his wife, and it had descended to his son, Charles II. of Naples. On the death of the latter it fell to Robert of Naples, and from him to his grand-daughter, Joanna, the heiress of the Duke of Calabria.

The Papal residence was now at Avignon, and there it remained for a century and a quarter. Joanna fell into trouble, her kingdom of Naples was invaded by Louis, King of Hungary, who asserted his right to her throne. She fled to Provence—to Avignon—where at once Pope Clement VI. seized the occasion to purchase this portion of her Provençal inheritance of her at the price of eighty thousand gold crowns. He kept the principality, but never paid the money.

The Popes have left their indelible mark on the place in the glorious palace, a vast castle, of the boldest structure, wonderful in its size and massiveness.

The Papal court at Avignon, under Clement VI., "became", says Dr. Milman, "the most splendid, perhaps the gayest, in Christendom. The Provençals might almost think their brilliant and chivalrous counts restored to power and enjoyment. The Papal palace spread out in extent and magnificence; the Pope was more than royal in the number and attire of his retainers; the papal stud of horses commanded general admiration. The life of Clement was a constant succession of ecclesiastical pomps and gorgeous receptions and luxurious banquets. Ladies were freely admitted to the Court, and the Pope mingled with ease in the gallant intercourse. The Countess of Turenne, if not, as general report averred, actually so, had at least many of the advantages of the Pope's mistresses—the distribution of preferments and benefices to any extent, which this woman, as rapacious as she was handsome and imperious, sold with shameless publicity."

Under the Papal rule, with such an example before it, Avignon became the moral sink of Christendom. To see what its condition was, and how flagrant was the vice in all quarters, the letters of Petrarch must be read. He speaks of the corruption of Avignon with loathing abhorrence; Rome itself, in comparison, was the seat of matronly virtue.

But I must step back for a moment to John XXII. because of the lovely monument to him in the cathedral, and because thereon we have his authentic portrait.

This Pope was a cobbler's son of Cahors; he was a small, deformed, but clever man: the second cobbler's son who sat on the seat of S. Peter. He had gone, when a youth, to Naples, where his uncle was settled in a little shop. There he studied, his talents and luck pushed him into notice, and he became bishop of Fréjus. But he preferred to live on the sunny shores of Naples, and to keep within the circle of the king, where lay chances of higher preferment, and he troubled his diocese little with his presence. He became a cardinal, and in 1316 was elected Pope at the conclave of Lyons. He at once dropped down the Rhone, and fixed the seat of his pontificate at Avignon. Able, learned though he was, he was not above the superstitions of his age. He had been given a serpentine ring by the Countess of Foix, and had lost it. He believed that it had been stolen from him wherewith to work some magic spell against his health. The Pope pledged all his goods, movable and immovable, for the safe restoration of his ring: he pronounced anathema against all such as were involved in the retention of it. It was rumoured that one of those involved in the plot by witchcraft to cause his death through this serpentine ring was Gerold, bishop of his own native city, Cahors. The alarmed and angry sovereign Pontiff had the unhappy bishop degraded, flayed alive, and torn to pieces by wild horses.

John XXII. issued an edict of terrible condemnation against all such as dealt in magical arts, who bottled up spirits, made waxen images and stuck pins into them, and the like. He died at the age of ninety, having amassed enormous wealth by drawing into his own power all the collegiate benefices throughout Christendom, and by means of reservations, an ingenious mode of getting large pickings out of every bishopric before the institution of a new bishop. The brother of Villani the historian, a banker, took the inventory of his goods when he was dead. It amounted to eighteen millions of gold florins in specie, and seven millions in plate and jewels. His face, on his monument, is indicative of his harsh, grasping, and cold character.

Now look at this other face, it is that of the successor of John, of James Fournier, who took the name of Benedict XII. He lies in the north aisle of the cathedral.

On the death of John XII. twenty-four cardinals met, mostly Frenchmen, and their votes inclined to a brother of the count of Comminges, but they endeavoured to wring from him an oath to continue to make Avignon the seat of the Papacy. He refused; and then, to his own surprise, the suffrages fell on the Cistercian abbot, James Fournier.

"You have chosen an ass!" he said, in humility or in irony.

But he did himself an injustice: he was a man of shrewdness and sagacity, he lacked only courage and strength to have made a great Pope. His whole reign was a tacit reproach against the turbulence, implacability and avarice of his predecessor. The court of Avignon was crowded with fawning courtier bishops seeking promotion: he sent them flying back to their sees. He discouraged the Papal reserves, the iniquitous system whereby Pope John had amassed his wealth; he threw open the treasury of his predecessor, and distributed some of the coin among the cardinals, the rest he spent in the erection of the huge castle-palace that is now the wonder of all who visit Avignon, and the construction of which made the money circulate among the poor and industrious artificers.

When Benedict died, after a brief reign of eight years, his reputation was disputed over with singular pertinacity by friends and foes.

"He was a man wiser in speech than in action, betraying by his keen words that he saw what was just and right, but dared not follow it. Yet political courage alone was wanting. He was resolutely superior to the Papal vice of nepotism. On one only of his family, and that a deserving man, he bestowed a rich benefice. To the rest he said, 'As James Fournier I knew you well, as Pope I know you not. I will not put myself in the power of the King of France by encumbering myself with a host of needy relatives.' He had the moral fortitude to incur unpopularity with the clergy by persisting in his slow, cautious, and regular distribution of benefices; with the monks by his rigid reforms. He hated the monks, and even the Mendicant Orders. He showed his hatred, as they said, by the few promotions which he bestowed upon them."[1]

The bitter hatred begotten in return was displayed in the epitaph set up over him, describing him as a Nero, as death to the laity, a viper to the clergy, a liar and a drunkard.[2] But malignity of disappointed ambition and repressed vice did not go so far as to caricature his face. The graver had to copy the epitaph given him, but the sculptor reproduced the face of the man himself, and that face, sweet, gentle, and pure, tells its own tale. It is quite another face from that of John XXII. John has a magnificent shrine of incomparable Gothic pinnacle-work; but Benedict is laid in a very humble tomb, yet over it is the best of monuments, his own good face. Of this "Nero" there is not recorded one single act of cruelty; and he was guiltless of human blood shed in war.

Here, at Avignon, and writing of the very epoch in which he lived, it is not possible to withhold the pen from some lines relative to Petrarch, and I feel the more disposed to write about him, for I think that the words used relative to him and Laura in Murray's Handbook are not quite just. Speaking of Vaucluse, the author says: "It is more agreeable to contemplate Petrarch in these haunts, as the laborious student retired from the world, than as the mawkish lover sighing for a married mistress."

Petrarch was an exile, living at Avignon in exile, when he saw his Laura in a church there, and lost his heart. He was then aged twenty-one, and she was twelve or thirteen; she belonged to the illustrious family of Sade. Now it so happens that the chief authority for the history of Petrarch is the Abbé de Sade, who set to work with a determination to show that his family were lineal descendants of Petrarch's Laura, and he ingenuously left out such particulars as militated against his doctrine. The great family of Sade, who had their castle between Avignon and Vaucluse, had not the smallest intention of suffering a daughter of the house to become allied to an exile of no great birth and prospects; accordingly every impediment was put in the way of a meeting. Petrarch's love for her was well known, indeed his imprudence was great, he allowed his poems in her honour to pass from hand to hand. It was impossible for her relatives to suffer this to continue. She was placed with her aunt Stephanette de Romanie; and died unmarried. Her father was Hugo de Sade, and her mother Laura de Neves; and the Abbé de Sade, and all who follow him, suppose that Petrarch was in love with the mother, whereas there is abundant evidence that the object of his passion was the daughter.[3]

Whether Petrarch's love for Laura was as pure as he represents it in some of his sonnets—whether the unhappy Laura did not suffer from his pursuit in honour as she certainly lost in repute, is uncertain. Petrarch in some of his poems exalts his passion for her into the most pure platonic affection, but other verses addressed to her have a very different complexion.

The vast fortress-palace of the Popes at Avignon has stood a siege. It was at the time of the Great Schism, when three grey-headed claimants to be representatives of S. Peter and Vicegerents of Christ were thundering anathemas against each other and the supporters of their rivals. Benedict XIII. was then Pope in Avignon, but there was a general desire in Christendom that the scandal should be terminated. All his cardinals except two deserted Benedict, and the King of France required his renunciation of the tiara. "Pope I have written myself; Pope I have been acknowledged to be; Pope I will remain to the end of my days," was his answer. Then he was besieged in his palace and forced to capitulate, and thrown into prison, where he lingered under the jealous ward of the cardinals for five years.

The palace has been restored, and is now a barrack. In it is shown a hall, the principal dining hall, called now la Salle Brûlée, as in 1441 the Papal Legate brought together into it the burghers and nobles of Avignon, and in the height of revelry withdrew himself, and had fire applied to barrels of gunpowder under it, and blew the guests into the air. This was done in revenge for the murder of his nephew, a young libertine who had dishonoured a maiden of good family in the town.

Adjoining the palace, on higher ground, the Rocher des doms, is the cathedral of Nôtre Dame, small and early. With barbarous taste, the fine Romanesque west tower has been finished off with an octagonal structure supporting as apex a gigantic figure of the Virgin, leaning against a lightning conductor that is screwed into her head and back, and looks much like the apparatus of a photographer to steady her for a successful carte. To the cathedral ascent is made by flights of stone steps, and it is entered by a porch that is made up of Corinthian pillars taken from a Classic temple. Some have thought the whole porch to be of Roman architecture, but it is not so. For some time Provençal architecture was much influenced by the remains that covered the soil, and from which the builders of churches not merely drew their ideas but also appropriated materials.

The dome of the cathedral is noticeable within from the bold and effective manner in which it is sustained on four successive receding arches. There is a fine north aisle, the vaulting of which starts as though it were about to spread into the fan-tracery of English Perpendicular. It is curious as showing French architects on the eve of reaching the same marvellous development attained in England.

There is a fine church at Avignon, S. Agricole, of noble proportions, the vaulting and arcades springing from the pillars without capitals. In the south aisle is a curious fourteenth-century shrine. The west front of the church is of very poor design.

S. Pierre is a flamboyant church, the details passing into Renaissance. In the north aisle is a superb Renaissance altar-piece, representing Christ between S. Peter and S. Paul. Underneath is the Last Supper. It was too fine and good to be appreciated, and a modern vulgar altar and altar-piece have been erected at the side for use. The choir-stalls are really wonderful. They are also of Renaissance woodwork, with painted panels in the back representing architectural scenes alternating with vases of flowers. They are separated by Corinthian columns gilt, and very sumptuous, yet the whole effect is subdued and pleasing, not gaudy. In this church also the arches spring from the pillars without capitals. Altogether this church deserves careful study.

The museum of Avignon is the richest in antiquities in the south of France. Unfortunately the substance of the collection was gathered by a M. Calvert who made no note as to where he got the various articles he collected, and this naturally deprives much that is there of its value. However, there is a great deal there to be seen; notably a bronze cavalry standard, Roman, in admirable preservation; a stamp in bronze with the letters

    A I
    V N

and the seven-branched-candlestick between, clearly a Jewish stamp. A magnificent gold necklace and gold bracelets with a large medallion of a Roman Empress in gold in the midst. The head is said to be that of Orbiana, third wife of Severus Alexander, unknown to history, and known only by her coins.

Among the statues preserved there is the Venus Victrix found at Pourrières, and a very rude but interesting Gaulish warrior, discovered at Montdragon in 1834, cut in sandstone. He is leaning on a huge shield. There are several busts of Roman emperors, a good one, but with nose broken, of the Elder Drusus, Lucius Verus, Tiberius, Trajan, a Plautilla—and some that are doubtful.

Of the paintings in the Musé I cannot say much, as I looked at two only—two perfectly delicious Brueghels, a Flemish Fair, and, I think, a wedding. I won the heart of the concierge by studying them. He found me careering about the gallery, like an owl in sunlight, looking for Brueghel, and when he found what I was after, led me back to them, one on each side of the entrance door. "Why do you want to see Brueghel?" he asked. "Why? because I love his oddities." "Are you a Belge?" "No." "But you seem to know the Flemish artists. I am by ancestry a Belge. My grandfather came from Brussels." So we talked over dear, delightful Belgium for half-an-hour, and I had the most eager, amiable guide to all that was of interest in the museum, after that. And it is a collection! The mediæval and Renaissance sculptures alone deserve a visit.

One can hardly bear to think of the amount of good work that has perished in Avignon. The city possessed before the Revolution sixty churches, and of these only eighteen remain; of between two and three hundred towers and spires, not one-tenth are left standing. There is, however, a very fine tower and east end in S. Didier, a church of the fourteenth century, another in the Hôtel de Ville built round with a tasteless Classic structure that obscures it from view. The Musée Requien is in an old convent, the chapel of which is given up to the Protestants; it has a rich flamboyant window to the north, unfortunately blocked.

A quaint and picturesque tower stands by itself in the Rue Carréterie; it is machicolated and has a delicate little spire. It is all that remains of the church of the Augustinians. Nearly opposite is a rich flamboyant portal.

Avignon is completely surrounded by its old walls and towers. Much of the space inside is now occupied by gardens and vineyards; apparently in the time when Avignon was the seat of the Papacy, it was far more populous than at present. I should like the clergy of Rome to see Avignon with its fifty-two desecrated churches and its thirty-five abandoned convents, and compare it with Rome where nearly everything is left them; then perhaps they would be inclined to salute their king and queen.

What a lovely view that is from the gardens on the Rocher des Domes! To the east rises Mont Ventoux, a spur of the Alps thrown out into the plain, and in April veiled in snow. To the west the chain of the Cevennes, and the plain gleaming with water from the many windings of the Rhone, and from its branches, as it splits and circumvents islands clothed with willow and poplar.

Above Avignon is a very large island, and below it the Durance enters the Rhone through a lacework of rubble-beds with scanty growths upon them, the water flickering in a thousand silver threads between. Then, immediately under the Rocher des Domes is the mighty river sweeping on with strong purpose, and half-bridged by a quaint old structure, built between 1177 and 1185 under the direction of S. Benezet. On the second pile is a little chapel, erected in honour of the founder, in which Mass is still said on his day, April 14th. S. Benezet was a shepherd, he was baptised by the name of Benedict, but, being a very little man, he received the diminutive that has adhered to him. He heard of the accidents that happened to those who crossed the rapid Rhone in boats, and he considered in his mind that it were well if the prelates and burghers of Avignon would devote their wealth to making a good bridge, instead of squandering it in show and riotous living. So he came into the city, and adjured the Pope and the bishop of the see to construct a bridge. The haughty ecclesiastics scoffed at him, and, as he would not desist from his urgency, sent him to the city governor to be chastised. Unshaken by this treatment, the shepherd persisted. He went among the citizens, he sought out the clergy, he collected knots of men to listen to him in the market-place, preaching the advantage of a bridge. It was his one idea. He was ignorant, perhaps foolish, in other matters, but he was possessed with the belief that God had sent him to induce the Avignonese to build a bridge. After a while, nothing was talked of in the place but the great question of this same bridge. Its advantage was apparent to all. Finally it was decided by acclamation that they must have a bridge, and when it was built, and the shepherd died, "Really," said the good people of Avignon, "he must have been a saint to have roused us out of our apathy."

The poor shepherd's body was not respected by the revolutionists, though he was a sans-culotte, but he was a sans-culotte who was a constructor and not a destroyer, therefore—to the dogs with him.

There was a saying—

  "Avenio ventosa
  Cum vento fastidiosa,
  Sine vento venenosa."

That may be rendered in French—

  "Avignon venteuse
  Avec vent ennuyeuse,
  Sans vent pernicieuse."

Windy it was when I was there, and when I went out on the broken-down bridge of S. Benezet I was nearly blown off it. This bridge in French nursery rhyme takes much the same place as does London Bridge in English children's jingles. We have:—

  "London Bridge is broken down,
  Dance over my Lady Lee."

And the French have:—

  "Sur le Pont d'Avignon tout le monde danse, danse;
  Sur le Pont d'Avignon tout le monde danse en rond."

Why dancing should be associated with bridges I cannot tell for certain, but there is probably some mythologic origin. It was customary in Pagan times to sacrifice a human being when the foundations of a bridge were laid, by burying the victim alive under it, and every year an offering of a life was made to the river to propitiate it, and ensure the stability of the bridge. Our nursery games of children dancing in a round, and one being taken by the casting of a kerchief, is a relic of an old heathen sors, by which a victim for immolation was selected; and it is very probable that the dancing on bridges had something to do with this. One out of the chain that danced over the bridge, or the ring that wheeled on it was chosen, and cast over the parapet as an offering to the river.

This superstition lingered on through the Middle Ages, in spite of Christianity. We say in Devon:—

  "The River Dart
  Every year demands a heart."

Anciently the Dart was given his victim; now, however, he takes it.

The bridge of S. Benezet is broken down and abandoned, but a suspension bridge unites Avignon with the farther bank of the Rhone, and this must be crossed to reach Villeneuve, which stood to Avignon as Beaucaire to Tarascon. Villeneuve was French, and Avignon Papal down to the Revolution, when in 1791 it was annexed to France. At Villeneuve the army was assembled that besieged Pope Benedict XIII. in his palace.

Villeneuve is full of picturesque points. It was originally well fortified, and was a frontier fortress of Languedoc. The old Hôpital contains the tomb of Pope Innocent VI., which may be compared with that of John XXII. in the cathedral. Innocent was a native of Limoges. There was a strange struggle at his election.

On the death of Clement VI. a conclave of cardinals assembled to consider about choosing John Borelli, Carthusian superior, but, when Cardinal Talleyrand warned them that a man of such stern simplicity would in a very few days order their stately caparisoned horses to be turned to toil at the plough, they were alarmed, and looked elsewhere. But first of all they passed a law by unanimous vote that the College of Cardinals should become a dominant, self-elective assembly, superior to the Pope, and that one-half of the revenues of the Papacy should be diverted into the pockets of the cardinals. Then they proceeded to elect, and chose Stephen Aubert, a distinguished canon lawyer, who assumed the title of Innocent VI., and his first act was to emancipate himself from the oath he had taken, to rescind and declare null this statute of the Conclave. He was a severe disciplinarian. He drove away a great portion of the swarm of bishops and beneficed clergy, who passed their time in Avignon in luxury and indolence, on the look-out for rich emoluments. One story is told of his conduct with regard to preferments. A favourite chaplain presented his nephew, a boy, and asked for him a rich benefice.

"You are already the holder of seven," said the Pope, "give him one of those." The chaplain looked discouraged. The Pope compelled him to choose three of the best. "These must suffice thee and the boy," said Innocent, "I will give the others to poor and deserving clerks."

It was under Cardinal Albornoz, the martial legate of this Pope, that Rienzi was subdued, and Rome recovered to the Papal chair.

The castle of Villeneuve was built by Philip the Bold in the thirteenth century, and is interesting in many ways. It contains a little chapel of an earlier date with a small apse and little round-headed windows. The whole of the body is under a very low-pitched roof supported on an almost Classic cornice. The fortifications of the castle are an example of a stage of defence carried beyond what was attained at Aigues Mortes. There, as we saw, the upper portion of the walls was covered with a balcony of wood on to which the besieged stepped through the doorways left in the battlements.

When, in sieges, the catapults were made to fling barrels of flaming tar over these balconies, and set them on fire, recourse was had to structures of stone, and the wooden hourdes, or balconies, disappeared. Then came the machicolated galleries. But even these were deemed insufficient, and échauguettes were erected, sentry-boxes between the towers standing forward beyond the curtains, and with double slits in the floor, through which two streams of flaming combustible or of stones could be sent down on the besiegers. The palace of the Popes at Avignon exhibits these on piers standing forth from the wall. They are also to be seen at Villeneuve.

The fine Gothic church of the Chartreuse is ruinous; in that stood the tomb of Innocent VI. A grand tower, erected by Philip the Fair, formed the Tête du Pont of the bridge of S. Benezet. It was erected after the bridge had been constructed, as a protection against the troops of the Papacy. Thereupon the popes raised a tower of defence at their end of the bridge. There were originally seventeen arches in the bridge, resting on eighteen piers.


Footnotes[edit]

  1. Milman: 'Latin Christianity.'
  2. "Ille fuit Nero, laicis mors, vipera clero, Devius a vero, cuppa repleta mero."
  3. The whole matter has been thoroughly discussed, and I think the story of his love for the wife of Hugo de Sade refuted by Bruce-Whyte ('Hist. des Langues Romanes,' t. iii. c. 38)