Located in the South of France, the city of Avignon was devastated by the plague. Why it is important as a case study is because at the time of the plague, Avignon was the seat of the papacy.
Ultimately, before the plague abated, the death toll would be around 60,000.
Around the time of the plague, France was embroiled in a legal conflict between King Philip and Pope Boniface; history recalls that Philip was the king who arrested the Knights Templar while Boniface was mostly interested in power and money (by selling various holy trinkets thought to help the bearers with sin). After Boniface’s death, however, the clergy elected Clement, a Frenchman who decided to stay in France.
Almost overnight, the population of Avignon doubled. When Clement decided to stay in France, the whole infrastructure of the papacy needed to be relocated which, as professor Armstrong recounts, was akin to shifting the whole of the U.N. to a small New England town.
The years 1309-1377 was the period in which the papacy was in France. The so-called “Babylonian Captivity.” Why it is called so relates to the working conditions in which monks would be forced to spend much labor in the dark working to escape the powerful gusts of wind which the south of France was known for. Plus, everyone was smelly. To alleviate the situation, many church officials went drinking or to brothels (sometimes both). To illustrate, Avignon had eleven whorehouses while Rome only had two.
One of the important things to remember when thinking about the Pope’s at this time were hedonistic in their lifestyle often surpassing those of kings. Dr. Armstrong recounts one historian who described the situation was the church acting like a spiritual Pez dispenser in exchanging mercy for money.
When the plague struck, it is thought to have been the pneumonic form though later the bubonic form also arrived; this suggests that Marci rats brought the plague a little later.
Because Avignon was home to many people who could read and write, often in several languages, ample documentation survives as to the happenings of the city during the plague.
Some things which we know from various documentations: spices weren’t eaten or handled unless they were in stock for a year lest they came from plague-infected ships; the usual sort of plague occurrence (neighborhoods being abandoned, people dropping dead in the streets, etc.); scapegoating and witchcraft hysteria; the pope granted, at certain times, wide-ranging mercies for the dying even allowing in some instances for those dying to confess their sins to anyone and be saved; the Flaggerance Procession emerged as a movement and a spectacle until 1349 when Clement issued a papal bull which was distributed to all the bishops in Western Europe that had condemned the practice; the Pope himself, it seems, didn’t necessarily believe that the plague was a scrouge sent by God; Petrarch, the great Renaissance poet, was inspired by a woman in Avignon but because she was already married, he could only express his desires through the form of poetry; some people even came to the city because of the plague, such as princess Johanna to vindicate herself of murder.
Though Pope Clement spent a considerable amount of time addressing the plague, even writing a special mass that gave 260 days of indulgence to whoever heard it sung (something which was used by the papacy into the 20th century), Clement was intensely interested in the medical and scientific reasoning behind the plague. Clement also issued a bull that attempted to quell some of the hostility directed toward the Jews by reminding people that they were one of God’s chosen people and that they too were dying in comparable numbers to Christians. Clement also listened to his doctors who recommended that the Pope position himself between two huge bonfires at either end of the room, the thought being that the flames would destroy any bad air causing the disease; this is likely was allowed him to survive as no-one with the pneumonic form were allowed near him (since such people could be identified from the cough and fever), while the heat drove away the rats and their carriers.
In 1377 pope Gregory the 11th moved the papacy back to Rome though died soon after. His death brought on “The Great Schism” which saw several popes vie for control of the papacy. Two of the popes resided in Avignon and tried to cling to what had been built there though they ultimately failed.