Benedict XII - Jacques Fournier (circa 1280-1342)


Little is known of the origins of Jacques Fournier. He is believed to have been born in Saverdun in the Comté de Foix around the 1280s to a family of modest means. He became a Cistercian monk and left the countryside to study at the University of Paris. In 1311 he was made Abbot of Fontfroide Abbey and quickly became known for his intelligence and organizational ability. In 1317 he was made Bishop of Pamiers. There he undertook a rigorous hunt for Cathar heretics, such as Guillaume Bélibaste, which won him praise from religious authorities, but alienated the local people.

His efforts against the Cathars of Montaillou in the Ariège were carefully recorded in the Fournier Register, which he took to Rome and deposited in the Vatican Library. This has been documented by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's pioneering microhistory, Montaillou, village occitan. In 1326, upon the successful rooting out of the last – it was believed – heretics of the south, he was made Bishop of Mirepoix in the Ariège. A year later, in 1327, he was made a cardinal.

Fournier succeeded Pope John XXII as Pope in 1334, being elected on the first ballot of the papal conclave. A common practice at the time was for Cardinals to vote for a Cardinal who was not considered a real possibility for the papacy on the first ballot, in order to see how the other Cardinals were leaning. However, this time, an unusual thing happened: every Cardinal except Cardinal Fournier independently voted for Fournier. The Cardinals had not planned this, so the accession of the obscure Fournier on the first ballot was an entirely accidental affair.

Benedict XII was a reforming pope who did not carry out the policies of his predecessor. He chose to make peace with Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV, and as far as possible came to terms with the Franciscans, who were then at odds with the Roman See. He tried to curb the luxuries of the monastic orders, though without much success. He also ordered the construction of the Palais des Papes in Avignon. He spent most of his time working on questions of theology. He rejected many of the ideas developed by John XXII. In this regard, he promulgated an apostolic constitution, Benedictus Deus, in 1336. This dogma defined the Church's belief that the souls of the departed go to their eternal reward immediately after death, as opposed to remaining in a state of unconscious existence until the Last Judgment.] Though some claim that he campaigned against the Immaculate Conception, this is far from clear. He engaged in long theological debates with other noted figures of the age, such as William of Ockham and Meister Eckhart.



The arms at the top of this post are those of Benedict XII and are not (entirely) blank.The blazon is simple: Argent a bordure Gules.However, the anniversary of his death is just an excuse to write about his most intriguing Coat of Arms. Why indeed would he have arms that look like a blank?To be honest, when I first saw them, I thought that they were just a placeholder denoting that this particular Pope did not have arms. But, when I probed a bit more, I discovered that he did and these are indeed his arms!
Though I didn’t find a definitive reason why he had these arms, I can only speculate.
Born Jacques Fournier sometime around 1285, he came from a humble family and was the son of a baker or mill worker. His uncle was a Cistercian monk and Abbot (who incidentally became a Cardinal later) and took charge of young Jacques’ education.
It was his exposure to the life in the monastery that attracted Jacques to the cloth. As he rose in prominence, he took on more and more responsibilities.
He was one of the key players in the persecution of the Albigensians (aka Cathars) and was known for his zeal in this pursuit.
For his work in the purge of the heretics, he was rewarded by Pope John XXII with a cardinalate of Prisca on December 18, 1327. Since he maintained the white robes of the Cistercian Order he was known from then on as the “White Cardinal”.
This is the reason, I believe, he chose those very simple arms. The Argent (white) field as a pun on his nickname and the Gules (red) bordure (border) to denote his rank as Cardinal (from the red galero Cardinals use).

If true, it was a stroke of heraldic genius!




Sources: Benedictus Deus  , IDTG