May 26


William of Ockham escapes Avignon

The fourteenth century was one of the worst eras in human history. Those hundred years would see the end of the Medieval Warming Period that had brought an increase in agricultural production and population, and the start of the Little Ice Age. With this change in climate would come the massive famine of the Great Hunger and the Great Drowning when an Atlantic gale claimed tens of thousands of lives and the sea swallowed land in the Netherlands. To add to the misery would be the Black Death, six successive waves of the plague that would cut the population of Europe in half by 1400. This demographic disaster provoked peasant and urban rebellions all across Europe. Tragically, the Christian Church was in no shape to respond positively: it too was in a state of corruption and disarray.

One of the problems wracking the church was the question of poverty. In the previous century, two new orders of friars, the Dominicans and the Franciscans, espoused lives of poverty and a close association with the poor. When the papacy began to employ these mendicant brothers as professors in the new universities, as itinerant preachers, and as administrators of the Inquisition, their rejection of material goods proved a hindrance. How could the friars serve the Church and beg for their daily bread at the same time? Calls were made to ease their financial situation; if they could not own property, could they not perhaps enjoy the earnings — the usufruct — from property dedicated to their use? The Franciscans divided over this issue with hard-liners and moderates engaged in heated debate. The traditionalist, or Spritualist, Franciscans argued that “To say or assert that Christ, in showing the way of perfection, and the Apostles, in following that way and setting an example to others who wished to lead the perfect life, possessed nothing either severally or in common, either by right of ownership and dominium or by personal right, we corporately and unanimously declare to be not heretical, but true and catholic.” This position embarrassed the Church, whose rulers were far, far removed from poverty, and the pope in a series of bulls forced the Franciscans to accept ownership of property and declared heretical the notion that Christ and the Apostles had no possessions.

Michael of Cesena, the Franciscan Minister-General and William of Ockham, the English theologian, objected to this line. Ockham called the pope’s thinking “heretical, erroneous, silly, ridiculous, fantastic, insane and defamatory”. Little wonder that they eventually ended up under arrest in Avignon. While they were languishing in durance vile, a quarrel had broken out between the papacy and the King of Germany, Louis the Bavarian. Louis backed the Spiritual Franciscans (in part because Ockham went as far as to deny the papacy any kind of secular overlordship), declared that he had deposed the Avignon Pope John XXII and recognized a Franciscan as his candidate for the papal throne. Taking advantage of this split, Ockham and Cesena escaped from Avignon and made their way to Louis’ court, where an anti-papal coterie argued for a separation of secular and religious powers.

In the short run, the papacy would prevail, but Ockham’s political thought and his philosophical contributions (e.g., “Ockham’s Razor) would endure.

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