This week’s Avignon pope was born Jacques Fournier in the 1280s. He was the son of a baker and he became pope in 1334.
Before becoming pope, he was a Cistercian monk and a member of the Inquisition. He was very active against heretics and, in 1321, during his tenure as Bishop of Pamiers, he captured Guillaume Bélibaste, the last Cathar Goodman. The Cathars were a heretical group based mainly in the south of France. Their beliefs included the existence of two deities, one good and one evil. The spiritual world was good and the physical world was carnal and corrupt. The Goodmen (or Parfaits) were the senior members of the sect and were considered pure, as far as it was possible to be whilst inhabiting flesh. The heresy had its last gasp in the village of Montaillou in the early years of the fourteenth century. Montaillou was in Fournier’s diocese and he devoted himself to destroying the Cathars, in which he succeeded. His inquisitional court interviewed many men and women (on the whole without torture) and the records of his activities there were carefully recorded and preserved. Eventually they formed the basis of Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s book Montaillou which was very popular in the early 80s.
Compared to the time it had taken to elect his predecessor, Benedict’s election was unbelievably fast. It took just sixteen days. It seems his election was accidental, as the first vote in a conclave tended to be a way of sounding out opinion. The man everyone assumed would be elected wanted to return to Rome, which was unpopular with the mainly French cardinals. They were still trying to work out who they should support during the first vote and voted for the candidates least likely to be successful. So many voted for Fournier that he was elected.
Benedict also wanted to return the papacy to Rome and paid for the restoration of the Lateran and St Peter’s. He was, however, persuaded that it was too dangerous to live in Rome and he agreed to stay in Avignon, beginning work on the Palais des Papes, the papal residence, in 1339.
Unlike many of the fourteenth century popes, Benedict despised luxury and nepotism. He occupied himself with creating strict constitutions for the Cistercians, Franciscans and Benedictines and he continued to be obsessed with rooting out heretics. His strengths were his intelligence and his organisational skills. He tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade Edward III to establish the Inquisition in England.
One of his ambitions was to bring the war between England and France that had recently started to a halt so that their respective kings could join in a crusade to the Holy Land, but he failed. The war was to continue on and off for another hundred years and more. He also tried to make peace with Louis IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, in which he was thwarted by Philip VI, King of France. His peace-making also extended to the Franciscans.
He was mostly occupied with theological questions and corresponded with William of Occam, whom we met last week, and Meister Eckhart, a Dominican theologian who was often accused of heresy.
Although French, Benedict was not an unthinking supporter of Philip VI and relations between them were cool. Despite his intelligence, however, Benedict was not good at politics and Philip frequently outmanoeuvred him.
He died in 1342.