[Sunflower logo of the Kansas Heritage
Group]Lectures in Medieval History

The Great Schism, 1378-1415

1. There was a general failure of leadership in 14th-century Europe.

A. The Monarchy and Aristocracy

A. The aristocracy and the monarchies seemed unable to defend their lands in any effective manner. The monarchs involved their subjects in conflicts such as the 100 Years' War. The military strategist von Clauswitz stated that war is politics carried out by other means. There is a good deal of validity in this view. For the most part, warfare can be viewed as a means of settling conflicts that could not be settled by more peaceful means. But leaders must be able to extricate themselves from a war that is no longer directed at accomplishing its original purpose. The warfare between France and England, involving most of the rest of western Europe at one time or another, dragged on and on with no clear resolution in sight. The people who paid heavy taxes to support the monarchies and aristocracies could not have helped but wonder why these groups could not meet their responsibilities and perform the functions for which they claimed the right of taxing the people.

In addition to this difficulty, with the increasing use of "new" weapons, the ruling classes - "those who fight" - were losing their traditional superiority on the field of battle. Time after time, armored aristocrats were slaughtered by peasants and urban militia using longbows, crossbows, pikes and gunpowder. The aristocracy of France and England had very little effect on the progress of the conflict and were relegated to the position of paying taxes to the monarchs to support the mercenary armies who now seemed to dominate warfare.

Neither the monarchy nor the aristocracy seemed able to provide effective leadership in this matter. The uprising of the Jacquerie in France and the Peasants' Revolt in England were both radical rebellions. Although they failed in their purpose, their leaders demanded nothing less than uprooting of the entire feudal system.

B. The Middle Classes

The gilds, the basic unit of organization of the middle class, were designed to operate non-competitively within a general framework of economic expansion. They were unable to adapt to the stagnant or shrinking markets of the fourteenth century. In an effort to maintain their status and standard of living, gild masters across Europe began to cut labor costs by exploiting their own workers, reduce production by limiting access to gild membership, and to reduce incidental costs by reducing or eliminating their traditional social contributions. were slowly replaced by capitalist organizations. The "greater" gilds fought the "lesser" for political control of the cities, all the while that both great and lesser gilds were being supplanted by new, capitalist forms of production. In the process, workers and artisans found their compensation and political power steadily shrinking.

These conflicts were already underway at the spread of the Black Death. Both capitalists and gild masters, the leading members of the middle class, were confronted with a situation in which laborers were in short supply and in which they nevertheless did not wish to increase their labor costs by paying higher salaries. They solved this by allying with the nobility in support of measures to freeze salaries at pre-Plague levels. This alliance created a class that might be termed "the wealthy" that was isolated from the mass of the population and that, far from leading the way to a restored general prosperity, seemed intent on increasing their own wealth and power at the expense of everyone else.

C. The Church

Far from providing leadership during the difficult times of the fourteenth century, the Church steadily lost power and prestige. In effect, it tied itself into an ecclesiastical knot that the popes were powerless to unravel. In their efforts to do so, the popes actually contributed significantly to the ills of the age. The failure of the Church to provide spiritual and moral leadership and example during this time affected all elements of society.

The process can be viewed as having consisted of four stages.

1. The Avignon Papacy (1305-1378)

(Note that this is only a summary review of the lecture notes for the Avignon Papacy

a. The Church in Avignon was seen as a French puppet, was driven into corruption by its need for money, diminished social services, did not condemn the excesses of the 100 Years' War, and failed to meet its responsibility of providing sacraments to all the dead and dying during the Black Death.

b. It was attacked by various groups.

1. Some demanded that the Church give up its wealth and property because Jesus and the Apostles were without property.
2. Others claimed that the state should police the Church.
3. Or that an organized Church was unnecessary because God dwells in each person.
4. Or that sacraments were unnecessary because they were not supernatural and the individual could reach God through meditation.
5. Or that the Church consists of the members and not the head.

C. The papacy responded by a stubborn defense of its righteousness and an energetic attack upon its critics. It relied upon its monopoly of the sacramental system, used the Inquisition to silence its critics, and accused many of its detractors of heresy.

D. Generally speaking, the Church lost much moral authority during the period.

3. The Great Schism (1378-1415)

a. At the death of Gregory XI in Rome, the cardinals were forced by a Roman mob to elect an Italian pope. They chose Urban VI in hopes that he would be compliant to their advice. They were mistaken in this hope. Urban decided that both pope and papal administration should resume its residence in Rome, and threatened to reform the college of cardinals to increase Italian representation up to a majority in the body. Unable to control their new paper as they had hoped, the French cardinals fled Rome. The Italian cardinals, naturally, remained with Rome's new champion. When the French cardinals reached a point where they were safe from the pope's power and the pressure of the Roman mobs, they assembled and declared that the election of Urban was invalid and void because they had acted under duress. They held another, rump, election, chose a Frenchman and returned to Avignon.

b. This created a knotty problem. The clergy had worked long and hard to establish the principles that the Church was independent of the State and immune from secular sanctions for its actions, and that the pope, once selected as bishop of Rome by the College of Cardinals, held absolute and supreme power within the Church. Since there was no secular power or person superior to the pope in churchly affairs, it followed that there was no power or person competent to judge the pope's actions. This meant that neither was there any power or person qualified to determine which of two claimants to the bishopric of Rome, was the true Vicar of Christ.

c. The financial situation of the Church as a whole grew even worse than it had been during the Avignon papacy. There were now two papal capitals for which it was necessary to provide upkeep; there were two entire papal administrations to be maintained in a style befitting their dignities. When the two papal claimants began competing with each other in matters such as pomp, lavish gifts, patronage, and bribery, the drain on ecclesiastical resources increased still further.

2. There were other forms of competition available and the rivals soon made use of them. Not only did each papal administration declare the other and its clergy to be heretical, but they reached the point of declaring that anyone accepting sacraments from a heretical - for which you may read "rival" - cleric would be considered excommunicate. It didn't take a genius to figure out that, since the rival popes each enjoyed the support of about half of Europe, half the population might be receiving the sacraments from a true priest, but the other half were being attended by a heretic, were dying excommunicate. While all of the population were making perfect acts of contrition, being absolved of their sins, receiving the sacrament of Extreme Unction and dying in certain hope of a Glorious Resurrection and Life Everlasting, the souls half of them were descending directly into the first of Hell to suffer the unspeakable torments of the damned for all eternity.

This was obviously a difficult matter for the faithful to accept, and it was clear that the true pope, whichever of the claimants he might have been, was powerless to save many thousands of believing Christians from being cast into Hell. As a matter of fact, it was at the command of the true pope that they were being so cast. There were two ways to solve the dilemma. One was to have the real pope stand up and so be able to reunify the Church. The other was to conclude that the Church was an ineffective institution as it had been operating and to reorganize it, or, if that proved impossible, to toss the Church hierarchy and established doctrine aside as being unnecessary for individual salvation. Naturally enough, the established leaders of society chose to pursue the first option and to find the real pope.

Several secular rulers were asked to exert their power and influence in settling the matter, but the secular rulers had already entered the game and chosen to support whichever of the claimants it was more advantageous for them to support. They were in no mood to support their opponents' man, and so did nothing to solve the problem. Distinguished figures called upon both popes to abdicate for the good of Christendom, but failed to persuade the rivals.

The theological faculty of the University of Paris was asked the decide the issue, but could come to no clear decision. One must note, however, that the realization that, if they opted for either one, the other would excommunicate them collectively and individually may have affected their logical powers. The question they had to decide, though, was not really which of the claimants to the Throne of Saint Peter was truly God's choice as exercised through the College of Cardinals but whether they had any right to pass upon the qualifications of the Vicar of Christ. One of the claimants, you see, must have been the true pope, and for the theology faculty to have presumed to pass judgment on his worthiness would have been a grievous sin.

Some people went so far as to poll those people - and it was not all that small a body - who were generally considered to be saints in all things save the final requirement of being dead. Unfortunately, of those who were willing to offer an opinion, there was not clear majority for either claimant. The pope himself, the king and princes, the wealthy and famous, the learned, and the holy - none of them provided the leadership needed in what was far from a minor difficulty.

While members of the establishment were trying, and failing, to distinguish the true pope from the false claimant, others were approaching the matter in more basic ways. On the principle that the bishopric of Rome would not be such a bone of contention were it not for the wealth and taxes that accrued to the position, some people revived the call for the Church to accept "apostolic poverty," in emulation of Jesus and his disciples. Influential thinkers and writers began to claim that the authority of the monarchs was superior to that of the pope and, in its role as protector of the people, the state had the responsibility of overseeing the Church's discharge of its functions. Generally speaking, the radical reformers of the Avignon period regained strength, but at too slow a pace to suggest to anyone that their resolution of the problem could be expected in the near future.

Popular responses to the situation arose -- critics of the Church and its practices that neither papal administration found easy to silence. Some of these critics addressed some of the basic beliefs that underlay the power and prestige of the Church. Wyclif and Hus, after all, claimed that the sacraments - which the ecclesiastical administrations recognized as essential to the Church's continued existence - were simply memorial rituals --

"For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it, and said, This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me" (1Cor.11:23-24).
without supernatural power.

The response of many members of a population that found itself without leaders and, to a certain degree without restrictions, was to embrace mystic movements such as the Rhineland Mystics of Meister Eckhardt. The "Pietist" movements that spread among the peasantry stimulated a new sense of personal religiosity. All of these movements were similar in their tendency to circumvent - even without intending to do so - the entire Church hierarchy by placing priestly powers in the hands of the individual. In many ways, this was the foundation of the concept of "the universal priesthood of all true believers" that would form an important element in the Protestant Reformation of the next century.

Over time, the situation only grew worse. There were still two papal claimants, and their rivalry led to increased corruption within their administrations and a decrease of interest in anything other than gaining advantage over their opponent. As time passed, the various reformers managed to settle on common principles and upon the way in which those principles might be put into action. They agreed upon the principle that the sovereignty of the Church rested in a body representative of its members. On this basis, they claimed that a general council would have the power to depose popes and address the other problems facing the church. Because of their insistence on the power of a council, they were known as the Conciliarists, and the group soon included virtually everyone committed to ecclesiastical reform.

They supported their position that general councils held supreme power within the church by numerous arguments:

1. Scriptural: In order to gain approval of his conversion of non-Jews to the Christian faith, Paul felt it necessary to gain approval of the Council of Jerusalem.
2. Historical: When the Emperor Constantine wanted Christians to formulate their common set of beliefs, he called the Council of Nicaea into session.
3. Parallels: Other monarchs, even though claiming supreme authority "By the Grace of God, shared their power with representative assemblies on matters of general import.
4. Philosophical: Nominalism, acceptance of which was growing, held that truth is what has been established and accepted by common will -- that justice is superior to law and that justice is a social construct.

4. The Council of Pisa

One should not assume that all leaders were oblivious to their responsibilities or that all clergy were interested only in papal politics. Many were in fact acutely aware of the situation and passionate in the search for a solution. Indeed, several cardinals, members of each of the rival papal administrations had embraced the principle of Conciliarism. They joined together to act as a council to deal with the problem posed by rival popes. I suppose that the logic of this solution was that, if a College of Cardinals could act as a vehicle for the voice of God in choosing the Vicar of Christ from among many likely candidates, it could also act as a vehicle for the voice of God in separating the wheat from the chaff, the sheep from the goats, and Vicars of Christ from mere pretenders. The logic is appealing and if the men who met at the Council of Pisa in 1408 had followed through on that principle, everything might have turned out well. They made the serious error, however, of trying to please all sides and deposed both claimants and selecting a new, compromise, candidate as pope.

It was pointed out, and not too gently, that, by deposing both claimants, they had assuredly assumed the right to dethrone a true pope. This logical failing made little difference, however, since neither papal claimant would obey the decision of the council, but excommunicated the participants and their electee along with anyone who would support or work with him. There were now three papal claimants, and the situation had grown even worse.

It was clear to the Conciliarists that they would need organized secular force and the threat of withholding papal taxes and renders if they were to accomplish their aims. By 1415, the problems raised by the triple popes, Czech (Hussite) heresy and revolt, Church corruption, and popular concern had become so pressing that the Holy Roman Emperor threw his support behind the Conciliarists and arranged for a new council to meet at the imperial city of Constance.


Lynn Harry Nelson
Emeritus Professor of
Medieval History
The University of Kansas
Lawrence, Kansas

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