Letter Criticizing the Avignon Papacy
Petrarch, Letter to a friend, 1340-1353
...Now I am living in France, in the Babylon of the West. The sun in its travels sees
nothing more hideous than this place on the shores of the wild Rhone, which suggests the
hellish streams of Cocytus and Acheron. Here reign the successors of the poor fishermen of
Galilee; they have strangely forgotten their origin. I am astounded, as I recall their
predecessors, to see these men loaded with gold and clad in purple, boasting of the spoils
of princes and nations; to see luxurious palaces and heights crowned with fortifications,
instead of a boat turned downward for shelter.
We no longer find the simple nets which were once used to gain a frugal sustenance from
the lake of Galilee, and with which, having labored all night an caught nothing, they
took, at daybreak, a multitude of fishes, in the name of Jesus. One is stupefied nowadays
to hear the lying tongues, and to see worthless parchments turned by a leaden seal into
nets which are used, in Christ's name, but by the arts of Belial, to catch hordes of
unwary Christians. These fish, too, are dressed and laid on the burning coals of anxiety
before they fill the insatiable maw of their captors.
Instead of holy solitude we find a criminal host and crowds of the most infamous
satellites; instead of soberness, licentious banquets; instead of pious pilgrimages,
preternatural and foul sloth; instead of the bare feet of the apostles, the snowy coursers
of brigands fly past us, the horses decked in gold and fed on gold, soon to be shod with
gold, if the Lord does not check this slavish luxury. In short, we seem to be among the
kings of the Persians or Parthians, before whom we must fall down and worship, and who
cannot be approached except presents be offered. O ye unkempt and emaciated old men, is it
for this you labored? Is it for this that you have sown the field of the Lord and watered
it with your holy blood? But let us leave the subject.
I have been so depressed and overcome that the heaviness of my soul has passed into
bodily affliction, so that I am really ill and can only give voice to sighs and groans.
from J. H. Robinson, Readings in European History (Boston: 1904), p. 502.
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© Paul Halsall, July 1998