Before Luther spoke of the Roman sacramental system as the “Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” late medieval thinkers had already applied the description to the Avignon papacy of the fourteenth century. From 1309 until 1377, pope and curia resided in the French city of Avignon. Though it was not uncommon for popes to reside outside of Rome for periods of time, or even in France, the decision to relocate papacy, curia, and all the papal archives permanently was unprecedented. In 1305, the Frenchman Clement V was elected through the influence of his native country after intense conflicts between the papacy and the French king, Phillip IV. Clement never visited Rome and after residing in various French cities eventually settled on Avignon in 1309. He was followed by John XXII, whose successor Benedict XII built the papal castle in Avignon where pope and curia would remain until the last quarter of the century. Urban V returned to Rome briefly in 1367 and Gregory XI promised to relocate the curia back to Rome upon his election in 1377, but died a year later. It was only with the election of Urban VII in 1378, under much pressure from the Italians who wanted the papacy to remain there, that a Roman line was reestablished. It would also result in the Great Western Schism between Roman and Avignon lines that lasted until the Council of Constance (1414—1418).
There were several notable features of the Avignon papacy. Of the seven popes residing at Avignon, all were Frenchmen by birth. Likewise, the French cardinals named during this period outnumbered those from all other nations 112 to 22. Under John XXII, the six-hundred man central administration in Avignon required an elaborate system of taxation for its support that came to depend inordinately upon the French church. The French residence of the papacy drew much scrutiny from various quarters. The Hundred Years’ War between England and France began during this period and the English were suspicious of the papal financial and political alignment with its enemy. The Italians were critical of the absence from Rome, especially in the wake of the decreasing tax base of the Papal States in contrast with the more affluent French constituency upon which the curia depended fiscally. The Germans too were at odds with the Avignon papacy, which intervened in imperial politics to support its preference for emperor and did not elect a single German cardinal during the French residence. As a result, the respective territorial churches grew increasingly more independent of one another, both in their financial base and their administration. For its own material and political dependence upon France, the Avignon papacy was dubbed the “Babylonian Captivity of the Church” by critics.