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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 disappeared.

  • 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 Death.

    • 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 us.

      • 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 period.

  • 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 Avignon.

    • 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 church.

      • 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 worse.

      • 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.

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