The Western Schism (1378-1417)

Between 1378 and 1417, the Church experienced a period of crisis that saw up to three rival popes vying for recognition and legitimacy in Christendom.
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Vincenzo Ferrillo

Vincenzo Ferrillo

04/02/2021 | Last update:


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Between 1378 and 1417 the Church lived a period of crisis, during which up to three rival popes fought for recognition and legitimacy in Christendom. The division in the Church led to the existence of up to three popes: one established in Rome, a second in Avignon, and even a third in Pisa (from 1409).

The Western Schism was the result of divisions for reasons of religious obedience between nations, religious orders and simple faithful. The schism was finally resolved with the celebration of the Council of Constance (1414-1418).

The secularization of political theory: authoritarian monarchies and state power transformations

The crisis of the Church coincided with the hardest moment of the economic and social crisis of the Lower Middle Ages in Europe. The beginning of the disputes within the Church began in 1294, when Pope Celestine V voluntarily resigned a few months after his appointment. His successor was Boniface VIII, a character firmly convinced of the papal prerogatives.

Boniface VIII was a Gregorian pope, who considered that spiritual power should be placed above temporal power (the monarchs). One of the first actions of his pontificate was the publication of the bull Clericis laicos (the lay clergy). It was a veiled attack against King Philip IV of France. The Pope criticized those who were keeping the tributes that belonged to the Church, as in the case of the tithes. Philip IV did so, since he considered the State to be the most important institution. The old dispute of the universal powers was being reproduced.

Around 1300, the conflict flared up again between the Church and the French monarchy. A French royal advisor accused the bishop of Poitiers of treason, since he allegedly maintained contacts with the English (this fact was the prologue to the Hundred Years’ War). The bishop was imprisoned. The Pope reacted and wrote the bull Unam Sanctam.

At a time when the power of the monarchies was on the rise, the papal bull Unam Sanctam reinforced the idea of the universal hegemony of the Church, which for the kings was anachronistic (“creatures can only be saved if they submit to the authority of the Pope”). Philip IV’s reaction was furious. He tried to discredit the Pope, yet he did not succeed. He then prepared an ambush and captured the Pontiff, who died in captivity shortly afterwards.

The successor pope was Benedict XI, but he died in strange circumstances in less than a year. Then Clement V (1305), of Gascon origin, was elected. The election of Clement V meant the triumph of the monarchical conception, since this Pope submitted to the King of France, instigator of his election. The Pope left Rome and after a long journey settled in Avignon (France). The official reasons for his departure from Rome were the insecurity of the city and the hostility of the Roman patricians towards a non-Roman pope.

The Avignon Papacy (1309-1378)

In general, this period is considered as negative for the Church, being considered as “the second captivity in Babylon”. However, it would be more correct to consider it as a period of chiaroscuro.

The effective administration and organization of the Papacy in Avignon stands out positively. The historian Yves Renouard has described it as “the transformation of the Church into a Pontifical Monarchy”. The theocratic idea of the Papacy was not completely abandoned. As negative facts, the decline of the pontifical institution as the moral authority of the time is considered. The Papacy lost prestige and credibility. The pomposity of the Papal Court has also been criticized.

Palacio papal de Aviñón
Palais des Papes in Avignon

During this period, the Popes were French and therefore favourable to the kings of France. The Papal Curia was also Francophile: out of a total of 134 cardinals, 111 were French. Although the negative aspects, the Avignon Papacy is no longer considered a model of corruption and worldliness. However, nepotism was widely practised. A highlight of this period was the dissolution of the Knights Templar, in 1312, by Pope Clement V at the behest of Philip IV of France. Also, noteworthy was the official condemnation of the Franciscan doctrine of the poverty of Christ and the apostles by Clement V’s successor, Pope John XXII.

Two aspects being taken into account regarding this period are the external relations of the Papacy as well as the importance of the administrative apparatus. The papal see of Avignon was a resource of the popes that demonstrated the subordination of the Papacy to the French monarchy. It represented the triumph of the Feudal Monarchy over the Papacy. Avignon was a transitory residence. That is why in 1377 the seventh pope of Avignon, Gregory XI, returned to Rome. However, the Curia was divided on this choice between the Italians and the French. The French cardinals, in turn, were also divided. Shortly after the move to Rome, Gregory XI died.

Urban VI was the successor. He was a rather authoritarian, yet incompetent pope. Faced with this fact, the French cardinals alleged irregularities in his election and therefore considered it invalid.

A new Pope was elected – Clement VII – who returned to Avignon. At this moment the Western Schism began, since Urban VI had not resigned of his own free will.

The Western Schism (1378-1417)

Upon the Schism between the two popes, the feudal monarchies were divided according to their position respecting each pope.

The supporters of the pope of Rome were:

The supporters of the pope of Avignon were:

Cisma de Occidente
In red, the countries that supported the pope of Avignon. In blue, those who supported the pope of Rome. Source: Wikipedia.org

These positions were not simple and the countries hesitated a long time before pronouncing themselves. The Schism was a trauma for society. The two Popes excommunicated their enemies so that everyone was excommunicated. People lived in doubt whether they supported the true Pope, or whether they were indeed excommunicated. Faced with this difficult situation, the theologians of the University of Paris proposed three ways to solve the Schism, once resorting to force was rejected:

The Council of Pisa (1409). The Church with 3 popes

The option that finally triumphed was the way of the council. It was debated who had supremacy: the Pope or the Council. In 1409, the Council of Pisa was held, with the theory that the Council was superior to the Pope. The Council, with this power, dismissed the two Popes and elected Alexander V, who was then succeeded by John XXIII. However, neither of the two deposed pontiffs, Gregory XII and Benedict XIII, resigned from office, so a three-headed Church was established.

Faced with this situation, Emperor Sigismund I proposed the celebration of a new council.

The Council of Constance (1414)

In 1414, the Council of Constance began. Gregory XII, Pope of Rome, voluntarily resigned his office. John XXIII was deposed by the same Council that had chosen him. Benedict XIII (Pope of Avignon) refused to resign. The Emperor then initiated an intense diplomatic activity to ensure that no state would support the Pope of Avignon. He succeeded and this Pope retired to his castle in Peniscola, where he died alone and abandoned by all. He is the famous “Pope Luna”.

Finally, in 1417 a new Pope was elected, Martin V. Thus ended the Western Schism. The superiority of the Council over the Pope was definitively established. In addition to the College of Cardinals, representatives of the feudal monarchies participated in the Council of Constance. This fact revealed the general will that existed to reach an agreement.

The impact of Schism on society

The crisis of the late Middle Ages affected the religious population as well. The parishes saw a decrease in their attendance. The papal authority was the only one recognized by the religious orders, since they did not depend on the ecclesiastical authorities of the different territories where they were established. For this reason, tensions arose between the monastic orders and the bishops, since the former did not have to pay episcopal duties. When the Schism occurred, the orders did not know which pope they should support. This situation led to moral disenchantment. The older orders called for a movement of renewal in the Church.

From the Franciscans arose the spiritualists, who preached absolute poverty. They were condemned. New orders were also founded, such as the Order of St. Jerome in the Iberian Peninsula. Its most important seat was the monastery of Guadalupe. Many parishes were left unattended or in the hands of substitutes and the lack of preparation of the priests was denounced. During this period we also witnessed an increase in the number of confraternities. They were halfway between a religious organization and a lay character. They integrated many people, since they offered the possibility of mutual help. The confraternities replaced the Church in the tasks it had vacated.

A further consequence of the religious crisis was the aggressiveness towards religious minorities. The most important persecution was that of the Jews. They were forced to wear a badge. Mass expulsions took place. The first ones were in England, France, Central Europe… In the Iberian Peninsula, intolerance grew until 1492, when they were expelled by order of the Catholic kings. Most of the expelled Jews moved to Eastern Europe.

Philosophical-theological critique within the Church

Besides the proposals for reform of the Church from the religious orders, there were other more heterodox proposals that were persecuted. Some movements were not new and the Church had already persecuted them in the past. They were intermittent movements that resurged in moments of crisis.

Despite these movements considered heretical, the most important, and best studied, are those that constituted the philosophical-theological critique within the Church. From the beginning of the 14th century, the imperial idea of political theory, the natural law of monarchies, was updated as a guarantee of peace and equilibrium. The humanists took up these ideas and expounded them in their works.

Among the most outstanding humanist authors are the following:

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)

The Italian poet Dante, in his work “De Monarchia” (1312-1313) synthesized the aspiration for political unity (in the face of Italian fragmentation) and to establish balanced relations between the State and the Church. Three principles stand out in this work:

In 1329 Dante’s book was burned and included in the list of forbidden works of the Church.

Marsilius of Padua (1275/80 – 1342/43)

Marsilius of Padua echoed Dante’s ideas. In his work “Defensor Pacis” he clearly formulated the doctrine of the separation of the Church and the State. His arguments, clearly humanist, were forceful: the Church should subordinate itself to the State, since the latter was the organism in charge of assuring the material needs of man. The author was inspired by the model of the German emperor. Marsilius was declared a heretic and took refuge in the Imperial Court.

William of Ockham (1288-1347)

William of Ockham took up in part the previous proposals by adding to his critique the denunciation of the riches of the Papacy. Furthermore, he denied that it had temporal power. What was important, he said, were works and faith. He was declared a heretic and took refuge in the Imperial Court.

The defenders of the official doctrine

Notwithstanding these powerful movements of criticism, the pontifical theocracy continued to have followers and convinced defenders. Augustinus Triumphus considered that God granted power to the Pope and the Emperor should limit himself to defend it. The Portuguese Álvaro Pelayo insisted on the supernatural character of the Church. Others, such as Rodrigo Sánchez de Arévalo or Juan de Torquemada went in the same direction.

However, the foundations of the pontifical theocracy were beginning to be discussed by philosophers and theologians, joined by humanists such as Lorenzo Valla. He demonstrated that Constantine’s Donation of the Papal States was false and this represented a hard blow to the political aspect of St. Augustine‘s “City of God”.

Influences of critics on social upheavals

The critical movement had, in some cases, profound social repercussions. Some authors inspired revolts of great significance, such as John Wycliffe. He was born into a family of the lower nobility between 1324-30 and died in 1384. He was educated at Oxford and lectured there. His work was marked by two political events: the Hundred Years’ War and the Avignon Papacy. The Francophilia of the Avignon Papacy meant English opposition, but Wycliffe’s work went much further:

One of the most relevant works of political content of J. Wycliffe was “De civili dominio”, where he distinguished between the sovereignty (dominium), represented by God, and the power referred to the administrative power that God granted directly to the civil authorities (not through the Pope). Therefore, the pope could not aspire to universal temporal dominion (he followed the secularizing line of Marsilius of Padua and William of Occam). According to Wycliffe, the civil authority could strip ecclesiastics of their benefices if they did not act well (this thought inspired the English revolt of 1381). Excommunication could not be defended and therefore could not be practised.

All of Wycliffe’s ideas were rejected in 45 points at the Council of Constance. His ideas, however, had a great diffusion in among the reformers (especially in Anglicanism), among the popular masses (John Ball), and outside the country, especially to the new university of Prague. His thought was the philosophical basis of Jan Hus and the Hussite movement.

The Hussite movement

In the late Middle Ages, the Bohemia intensively exploited its silver mines, which led to huge economic prosperity. Yet, the Church owned a third of the land. Nevertheless, the lower clergy was extremely active and criticized the demands that later were taken up by the reformers. The nobility too was split: the upper aristocracy was greatly Germanized while the lower aristocracy was identified with a nascent Czech sentiment. The population, both urban and rural, was highly polarized as well.

There was a great separation between rich and poor. Of the latter, half could be considered indigent, so that they were a potential factor disposed to revolt. To all this we should add the seed of criticism and the desire to reform the Church.

Jan Hus burned at the stake in 1415

Jan Hus was educated at the University of Prague, where he lived closely the struggle between the Germanophile faction and the one that defended the Czech “nationalism”. There, he became acquainted with and disseminated the work of John Wycliffe. The condemnation of the Englishman’s work inflamed the feelings of the supporters for the reformist movement.

A fierce tension began between Jan Hus and his disciples with the monarchy, the high ecclesiastical hierarchy and the pan-Germanic sectors of the university. The Council of Constance selected 50 sentences from Hus’ works that it considered heretical. Hus was arrested, yet since he did not recant his principles, he was condemned to be burned at the stake, where he died on May 1415. Shortly afterwards his disciple Jerome of Prague was burnt as well.

The death of Hus had extraordinary social repercussions. Initially, an extremely fierce and explosive revolt, known as the Hussite Wars (1419 to 1434), broke out. Three phases stand out:


All articles of the course: Medieval History in Europe

The crisis of the 3rd century and the collapse of the Roman EmpireThe conversion of Constantine, the Christian EmpireAfter the Roman Empire: the Barbarian KingdomsExpansion of Islam in the Mediterranean (8th — 10th centuries)Peasants, agriculture and food before the Feudal RevolutionCharlemagne, Emperor. The Kingdom of the Franks (481-987)The origins of the new Feudal systemChristianity, a universal institution for the feudal orderThe origin of the Feudal MonarchiesMedieval cities under feudalism and commercial expansionThe Question of Medieval Growth (11th — 13th century)The crisis of the Late Middle AgesThe Hundred Years' War (1337 – 1453)Economic and social effects of the crisis of the Late Middle AgesPeasant revolts and urban conflicts in the Late Middle AgesThe Western Schism (1378-1417)

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