Generation 467, 1320-1340. Two worlds, two natures

In this generation, the Mediterranean was dominated by two powers.  But the exchange of ideas only went one way, so far as I can tell, with consequences that are still felt today.

The world of islam to the south and east of the Mediterranean carried the flame of learning, particularly in the sciences. Scholars from the roman north learned what they could from the rich culture of islam (although they rarely acknowledged their debt, as we have already seen). But the world of islam did not take similar advantage of the strengths that were finding expression in the roman north.

A bit of background. In the previous generation the pope had been unable to get to Rome because of the political instability there. So he had made a temporary base on the way to Italy, in the south of France. In this generation the paraphernalia of the papacy established itself in Avignon on the bank of the river Rhone, transforming a muddy village into a thriving town in the process.

Three men who were involved with Avignon in this generation demonstrate the spirit of the times.

First, from Padua in northern Italy, a scholar called Marsilio. He wrote a book called ‘Defensor Pacis’  (Defender of the Peace). In it he outlined a separation of powers between the church and the state, and proposed that both should be subject to the rule of law. As the pope was engaged in a political power struggle with the holy Roman Emperor at the time, these ideas were not welcome. But it says something of the intellectual climate that he was unable to prevent its publication.

Second, from Ockham in the south of England, a scholar called William was a Franciscan friar who went on to study at Oxford University. He is mainly known today because of ‘Occam’s razor’: his principle that the simplest hypothesis is likely to be the most correct one. He first fell out with the pope because of his independence of thinking, and was summoned to Avignon on charges of heresy.

Once in Avignon, he found a second area of disagreement. The order set up by St Francis a century earlier had renounced material possessions. The pope overruled a decision by his predecessor and declared that the principle that Franciscans used things but did not possess them was invalid. Henceforth the Franciscans had to take ownership of what they used. William of Ockham said this was nonsense. When a person is invited for a meal, they make use of the food provided by eating it, but they don’t own it.

Thirdly, William also made contributions to the discussion of the separation of church and state. He questioned the infallibility of the pope, as the pope was as human as the rest of us. Instead, he placed his trust in the infallibility of the church, sometimes expressed through someone other than the pope. For this, he was excommunicated and he moved to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor (who had also been excommunicated ) in Bavaria.


The work of these two men shows that good governance was a subject for discussion. This is in strong contrast to the experience of the muslim world. The Koran, as the words of the angel Gabriel given to the prophet Mohammed, provided the basis for the law. The tradition there was that despite its well-developed legal code, the ruler had absolute power and could override the law. If the ruler designated himself a caliph, then he could claim the authority of successor to the prophet. Islam was a way of life, and so religious and secular life were not separable. The concept did not exist.The roman world had its instabilities and power struggles, but a country did not usually fall apart in a power vacuum at the end of a ruler’s life, as was often the case in the muslim world.

Some muslim countries found a way around this weakness. The Mamelukes, the slave-sultans  in Egypt had a steady influx of new slaves from north of the Black Sea. That kept everyone on their toes. In later centuries, the Ottoman Empire in what is now Turkey found an even more extreme solution. On accession, the new sultan had all of his male relatives put to death. The Ottoman Empire lasted for over 500 years, so the system could be said to work. But it does sound like a way of avoiding a fundamental flaw rather than addressing it, as William of Ockham and Marsilio of Padua were able to. As we continue on our backwards journey, I look forward to finding out where this robust political pragmatism in western Europe had its origins. It clearly wasn’t in the roman church, with its pope aiming for caliph-like omnipotence.

The third influential man of this generation was the Italian poet Francesco Petrarch, who spent much of his life in Avignon. He was clever, accomplished and well-informed. He rediscovered some lost works of the Roman orator Cicero. He was one of the handful of people in the roman west who learned Greek, so that he could read the classics in the original version.  He was employed as a diplomat by his patrons. His work demonstrates a joy in life, a belief and faith in the human ability to improve itself that has led some to call him the father of humanism: the cheerful, upbeat philosophy that took root in Europe up to the Reformation 150 years later.  Like later humanists such as Erasmus, he valued his own independence, and refused offers of bishoprics from the pope.


He also fell in love, the weird unrequited unattainable love of the roman world at this time. It is believed that the object of his affections, and subject of hundreds of sonnets, was Laura de Noves, who lived in Avignon. She was married to Hugues de Sade and had eleven children with him. Petrarch saw her in the town and spoke to her from time to time, but that was the extent of their relationship. She died of the plague in 1348. He himself never married (but that was because he was ordained as a priest) but he did father two children with a woman whose name he never told, and who died giving birth to their second child.

laura de noves


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