Lectures for A Medieval Survey
Lynn H. Nelson
The Great Schism
- There was a general failure of leadership in 14th-century Europe.
- Politically, the aristocracy and the monarchies seemed unable to defend
the lands and subjected their people to the long drain of the 100 Years' War.
The longbow, crossbow, pike, and gunpowder demonstrated the vulnerability of
traditional political authority.
- Economically, the guilds were unable to adapt to shrinking markets. They
exploited their own workers, limited access, cut social contributions, and
were slowly replaced by capitalist organizations. The "greater" guilds fought
the "lesser" for control of the cities, while the middle class allied with
the nobility after the Black Death to hold down wages.
- In the area of religion, the power and prestige of the church almost
- The Avignon Papacy (1305-1378)
- 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 do its job during the Black
- It was attacked by various groups.
- Some demanded that the church give up its wealth and property because
Jesus and the apostles were without property.
- Others claimed that the state should police the church,
- Or that an organized church was unnecessary because God dwells in each of
- Or that sacraments were unnecessary because they were not supernatural and
the individual could reach God through meditation;
- Or that the church consists of the members and not the head.
- The papacy responded by stubbornness, reliance upon its monopoly of the
sacramental system, use of the Inquisition against clerics, and accusing
detractors of heresy.
- Generally speaking, the church lost much moral authority during the
- The Great Schism (sih-zuhm) (1378- 1415)
- At the death of Gregory XI in Rome, the cardinals were forced to elect an
Italian pope, Urban VI. Urban decided to remain in Rome and threatened to reform
the college of cardinals. The French cardinals fled Rome, declared the
election void because of duress, elected a French pope and returned to
- The church had established that the pope was supreme within the church, so
there was no accepted method of judging or dismissing
invalid claimants to the papal throne.
- The financial situation grew worse than during the Avignon papacy. There
were now two papal capitals, two entire papal administrations, and the two
popes each tried to gain wealth at the expense of the other.
- The theological situation became unbearable when each papal
organization condemned the other and its followers as heretics and
excommunicates. This meant that no one could be sure whether the sacraments
saved or damned the recipient.
- Secular leaders supported one or the other popes and were unable to
present a united front to solve the situation. For a time, the church was
left to solve the dilemma.
- There were various attempts made to resolve matters as the radical
reformers of the Avignon period gained strength.
- The theological faculty of the university of paris was asked the decide
the issue, but could come to no clear decision.
- A poll was taken of saintly figures, with mixed results.
- Distinguished figures called upon both popes to abdicate for the good of
Christendom, but failed.
- Influential writers began to claim that the monarchy was superior to the
- Heresies arose, such as those of Wyclif and Hus, mystic movements such
as the Rhineland mystics of Meister Eckhardt, and the "pietist" movements
that spread a new sense of personal religosity among the peasantry; such
movements were similar in their tendency to circumvent 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.
- The situation grew worse with the continuation of the dual popes, the
expansion of heresy, the increasing corruption in both papacies, and a
church [or, rather, churches] without any real leadership or discipline.
- A number of intellectual leaders and reformers began to argue 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:
- Scripture: Paul and the Council of Jerusalem.
- History: Constantine and the Council of Nicaea.
- Parallels: the monarchs' sharing of power with representative assemblies
on matters of national import.
- Philosophy: the growing acceptance of nominalism -- that truth is what has
been established by common will -- that equity is superior to law.
- The Council of Pisa
- Many cardinals from both papal organizations embraced conciliarism and called
for a council to end the schism. Such a council met in Pisa in 1408, deposed
both pontiffs, and elected a third. Neither the Roman nor the Avignon pope
would obey and excommunicated the cardinals. The Council of Pisa had
succeeded only in creating a third pope and making the situation even
- It was clear that the conciliarists would need organized secular force and
the threat of the end of financing to accomplish their aims. By 1415, the
problems of the triple popes, Czech 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 city of Constance.