HIS101 logo Background to
How to Recover the Holy Land
by Pierre Dubois

by Jim Jones, West Chester University of Pennsylvania (c.2012)
Return to the Syllabus


Pierre Dubois (died after 1321) was an advocate (legal representative) for King Philip IV of France. Although little is known about him, historians believe that he was born into a bourgeois family from northern France. He prospered in the second half of the 13th century and received an appointment as the king's advocate in his region. Although he exercised no political power, he wrote about issues that concerned the powerful people of his day. This excerpt is his best known, and concerns the reforms needed to make Europe strong enough to win a crusade. In brief, he recommended bringing an end to papal corruption so that European Christians could unite against Islam.

Pierre Dubois presented this plan at a time when eight previous crusades had failed. At the time, the European population was larger than ever before, thanks to the expansion of trade and several decades of relatively good weather for farming. Finally, it was a also period in which the authority of the popes and Holy Roman Emperors was low due to their bickering and various corrupt acts.



By the early 1300s, the French monarchy was the strongest power in Catholic Europe. French kings appointed their own bishops and French cardinals promoted the election of French candidates each time there was a need for a new pope. This caused a great deal of resentment, especially in Rome, and one result was the "Babylonian Captivity." The was the Roman name for what happened after a pope favored by the French king moved to Avignon to escape the wrath of the population of the city of Rome. Eventually, that move led to the "Great Schism" of 1378-1415, during which time a "French pope" ruled in Avignon while an "Italian pope" ruled in Rome.

Avignon, seat of the French popes from 1305-1415
Avignon. on the Rhone River, was home to Catholic Popes from 1305-1415.

The move to Avignon came about because Pope Benedict XI, a favorite of the French cardinals, was elected in 1303. The population of Rome rejected him and humiliated him publicly, so he left Rome for the safety of the Italian town of Perugia, but died under "suspicious circumstances" in 1304. This inflamed the animosity between French and Italian cardinals, and when they tried to pick a replacement, the College of Cardinals was unable to agree on candidate demanded by the French (Boniface). After ten months of debate, Boniface withdrew and the cardinals finally agreed to select the archbishop of Bordeaux (located in southwestern France). He became Pope Clement V, but refused to live in Rome. Instead Clement went to Avignon where he could be protected by the King of France, Philip IV (ruled 1285-1314). That angered the Italians, and began a period in church history known as the "Babylonian Captivity" (1305-1378) when the pope no longer lived in Rome.

With support from the French king, Clement and his successors were able to reassert their authority in Italy and Germany by confirming friendly church officials, and they also restored the finances of the Roman church. But as the Avignon popes made political gains, they also made enemies among Europe's Christian nobility. The Catholic Church also came in for criticism as a result of a great plague (the "Black Death") which killed as many as one third of all Europeans between 1347-1350. Although many priests and church officials behaved heroically, others fled to save themselves, their successors were frequently less qualified, and the heavy burden of Church taxes became unbearable for the survivors.

In 1377, a new pope named Gregory XI decided to yield to public opinion and go back to Rome. Unfortunately, he died in 1378, and his successor, an Italian named Urban VI, quarreled with the College of Cardinals, which was still dominated by French interests. When the cardinals tried to replace Urban with a Frenchman named Clement VII, Urban replaced the French cardinals with Italians. Clement returned to Avignon with the French cardinals, and his authority was recognized by France and her allies, Aragon, Castile and Scotland. The Italians selected an Italian pope who remained in Rome, leaving the Catholic Church with two popes and two sets of cardinals. In 1409 they agreed to hold a council of bishops in Pisa to resolve the dispute, but unfortunately, after the council chose a third person to become the new pope, neither Clement's successor (Benedict XIII) nor Urban's successor (Gregory XII) would step down. Instead, the Roman church wound up with three popes. The issue was finally settled by a new council that met in the German city of Constance (on the upper Rhine River) from 1414 to 1417. The delegates to the Council of Constance elected Martin V as pope and convinced all of the others to step down.

The council also decided a more fundamental issue about the distribution of power within the Catholic Church, by establishing the principle that popes were subject to the authority of councils of church officials, but the victory of the church councils was short-lived. Power returned to the Italian papacy after 1417 and the papacy was further strengthened by the failure of the Council of Basel to create a constitutional structure for church government in 1431. To gain the support of kings and nobles, popes granted the power to recommend candidates for religious appointments. In that way, popes consolidated their political authority in Italy, but it declined in other parts of Europe, especially the German territories, as we shall see in the reading by Martin Luther.


  1. What were the details of Dubois' proposal?
  2. What effect would Dubois' proposal have on the power of the Pope?
  3. According to Dubois, under what circumstances was war justifiable?
Return to the Syllabus