Avignon as Transcultural Hub, Oxford – 8th February 2019

Researcher Christophe Masson reflects on the latest MALMECC study day, an academic tour of Europe in search of the cultural influences of papal Avignon…


Papal Avignon lay at the centre of the third MALMECC study day (8th February 2019). As the papacy was possibly the Western European power most eager to assert its world sovereignty, Avignon, where the pope resided from 1309 to 1376 (and even to 1403 if we consider period of the Great Western Schism), was something of a centre of the world. It is no surprise, then, that some of the greatest minds of the Middle Ages lived and worked there, (Petrarch being just one example). Nevertheless, the objective of the study day was to go further than a catalogue of great names and to look into the role Avignon played in the diffusion of culture.



It all started during the kick-off event, a lecture given by Étienne Anheim (EHESS) for the All Souls Late Medieval and Renaissance Music seminar (7th February 2019), hosted by Margaret Bent. The comparison between the Parisian “Sainte Chapelle” and the Avignon papal palace chapel showed how an appointment at the latter, despite the fact that it was built later, established itself as the ultimate honour for singers, offering them high ecclesiastical position and a shared cultural identity.




The study day in itself started, after the opening remarks delivered by MALMECC PI Karl Kügle, with a second presentation by Étienne Anheim. Studying the social and cultural networks existing between Avignon and Italy, mostly around 1350, he emphasized the role played by Italian cardinals in offering a market to the artists coming from the Peninsula. This was ideally complemented by a presentation from Oxford’s Sarah Griffin on her work on visual diagrams realized by intellectuals (including Henricus del Carretto, latter followed by the more well-known as Opicinus de Canistris) in order to understand the world. Far from being pointless intellectual exercises, they were produced in a context of research for knowledge. What is more, Pope John XXII initially gathered these minds within the Apostolic Penitentiary (i.e. the tribunal responsible of dealing with matters such as weddings and excommunications), in order to provide them with a perpetually stimulating intellectual atmosphere.


The second session of the day led participants to regions less spontaneously associated with the cultural activities of Avignon.  James Hillson (Cambridge) underlined, nonetheless, the active presence of Englishmen in Avignon up until the 1340s, a period during which they appeared to be of sufficient renown to contribute to the tombs of Pope John XXII and cardinal Arnaut de Via. The Holy Roman Empire’s contribution to the culture of Avignon was investigated by MALMECC postdoc David Murray through the case of the Salzburg archbishop Pilgrim von Puchheim. The connections he maintained with major figures including the cardinal-filled Aigrefeuille family, even after he left Avignon, shows how people not only brought their own backgrounds to Avignon but also left the city with new views and aesthetics they then tried, and often managed, to implement in their home regions.


We turned back to musical matters with Karl Kügle, who presented what is currently known about music performed in Avignon. Beyond the list of manuscripts, he highlighted the idea that popes were not to be seen as the only patrons of music. The fact that evidence is missing about their patronage or musical activities during certain periods of time should lead scholars to have a closer look at cardinals. Perhaps something is hiding there which we don’t yet have any idea of. The morning ended with a presentation by Maria Sofia Lannutti (Florence), Antonio Calvia (Pavia), and Chiara Martignano (Florence), of a stimulating new ERC funded project, European Ars Nova: Multilingual Poetry and Polyphonic Song in the Late Middle Ages (Università degli Studi di Firenze). It aims to study the corpus of all the poetic texts performed by Ars Nova musicians between the fourteenth and the early fifteenth centures through a catalogue of extant manuscripts, scientific editions of texts, and a repertory of poetic and musical structures.


After a well-deserved lunch, participants turned back to late medieval scholars. Philipp Nothaft (Oxford) emphasized the scarcity of evidence for any “hard science” (to use a modern label) patronage between the 1270s and the pontificate of Clement VI (1342-1352). He convincingly argued that the latter was more an exception than the norm, the other popes paying less attention to these matters. From a musical perspective, Karen Cook (Hartford) followed the trail of a late fourteenth century music theorist, Johannes Pipardi, who interestingly appears to have been a cardinal’s protégé, and not a pope’s man.  This echoed the question raised earlier by Karl Kügle.


Stefano Cingolani (Barcelona) had the attendees going for a last trip, this time to Aragon. He showed the clear musical dependence of the Catalan kings vis à vis Avignon, and the influence the pope’s chapel had on the king’s musical entourage.

The day was closed by MALMECC postdoc Christophe Masson’s remarks about the cultural importance of the 1378 Great Western Schism, during which two popes, one in Rome, one in Avignon, faced each other. He proposed a working hypothesis that a transnationalist model was fostered in Avignon. This could have made the popes and cardinals willing to continuously attract artists from all over Europe, notwithstanding the fact that some may have come from regions following the Roman pope, rather than that of Avignon.

The day proved extremely thought-provoking, and the discussions went on late after the end of each session. The MALMECC team is thus very grateful to all the speakers and attendees for their invaluable contributions. We now look forward our next event, the Transnationalism at Court colloquium (University of Liège, 21st-22nd March 2019).  More detail on this can be found by clicking here.

Pictures kindly provided by Chiara Martignano

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