William of Ockham Fled Avignon

William of Ockham Fled Avignon

Glancing over his shoulder, William of Ockham breathed a sigh of relief. He was well outside the white stone walls of Avignon. He and his two companions had moved quickly in the last hour, only too glad to be in fresh air, rather than locked in a musty prison within the pope's fortress palace. They had almost come to that.

William of Ockham was in trouble. A scholar--one of the greatest of the Middle Ages--he had spoken his mind too freely.

William was an Englishman who had joined the Franciscans. The friars or "brothers" were supposed to live in poverty like St. Francis, their founder, preaching and doing good. Some also studied. Ockham taught at Oxford University while he studied for a higher degree. But Ockham's teaching didn't suit everyone. John Lutterell, who had been a top man at Oxford, complained to Pope John XXII that Ockham's ideas disagreed with teachings of the church. "They are heresy," he said.

At that time, the popes lived in Avignon, not Rome, because Rome had grown so dangerous. Pope John ordered Ockham to come to Avignon. For four years, Ockham lived there under house arrest. He had to remain in the convent at Ockham. Six scholars studied his teachings and declared that some of them were indeed wrong. However, Ockham was not condemned or punished. Some of his errors were considered to be minor. At any rate, he always agreed with the most important teachings of the church such as salvation and resurrection and he believed the Bible was God's word.

At that time, the Franciscans were arguing among themselves whether they had to remain poor or not. Their general (Michael Cesena) said they should. The pope disagreed. Cesena asked William to answer the pope. Although it put him in deadly danger, because his position could not please everyone, William wrote the reply. He accused the pope himself of holding false ideas and teaching heresy.

William, Michael Cesena and another friend learned the pope was about to condemn them. This could mean imprisonment or even death. On this day, May 26, 1328, they escaped from Avignon and fled to the protection of King Louis IV, the Bavarian.

At the court of King Louis, William kept on writing. He said that the pope only had authority over the church and its beliefs, not over kings and their kingdoms. This went against Catholic teaching. But because William was a great thinker, his ideas influenced his age. Reformers like Wycliffe, Hus and Luther who came after him, listened to his views.

But we remember him now mostly because he developed the tools of logic. He insisted that we should always look for the simplest explanation that fits all the facts, instead of inventing complicated theories. This rule is called "Ockham's razor."


  1. Adams, Marilyn McCord. William Ockham. University of Notre Dame, 1987.
  2. Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy, III; Ockham to Suarez. Westminser, Maryland: Newman Press, 1953.
  3. Guillen, Michael. Bridges to Infinity. Los Angeles: Tarcher, 1983. pp. 121 - 122.
  4. McGrade, Arthur Stephen. The Political Thought of William of Ockham. London: Cambridge, 1974.
  5. McKeon, Richard. Selections from Medeival Philosophers, I; Roger Bacon to William of Ockham. New York: Scribners, 1930.
  6. "Ockham, William of." Dictionary of Scientific Biography, edited by Charles Coulston Gillespie.
  7. "Ockham, William of." Edwards, Paul, editor. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. New York, Macmillan, 1967.
  8. Various histories or collections of philosophy, such as Durant, Runes, Russell.

Last updated May, 2007.

Originally published April 28, 2010.