45 Reading: The Catholic Church

The Catholic Church

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476, the Catholic Church became a powerful social and political institution and its influence spread throughout Europe.


Outline the role of the Catholic Church in Medieval Europe


Key Points

  • Christianity spread throughout the early Roman Empire despite persecutions due to conflicts with the pagan state religion.
  • When the Western Roman Empire fell in 476, the Catholic Church competed with Arian Christians for the conversion of the barbarian tribes and quickly became the dominant form of Christianity.
  • Monastic communities were centers for learning and preservation of classical culture.
  • Once the cultural and political boundaries of Rome were weakened, Catholicism spread throughout Europe to the Irish, English, Franks, and Goths.

Key Terms

  • Byzantine Empire: Sometimes referred to as the Eastern Roman Empire, was the continuation of the Roman Empire in the East during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, when its capital city was Constantinople.
  • Orthodoxy: Conforming to the Christian faith as represented in the creeds of the early church.
  • Pope: The Bishop of Rome and the leader of the worldwide Catholic Church, and the traditional successor to Saint Peter, to whom Jesus is supposed to have given the keys of Heaven, naming him as the “rock” upon which the church would be built.
  • missionaries: Members of a religious group sent into an area to evangelize or offer ministries of service, such as education, literacy, social justice, health care, and economic development.

Early History and the Fall of Rome

The history of the Catholic Church begins with the teachings of Jesus Christ, who lived in the 1st century CE in the province of Judea of the Roman Empire. The contemporary Catholic Church says that it is the continuation of the early Christian community established by Jesus.

Christianity spread throughout the early Roman Empire despite persecutions due to conflicts with the pagan state religion. In 313, the struggles of the early church were lessened by the legalization of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine I. In 380, under Emperor Theodosius I, Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire by the decree of the emperor, which would persist until the fall of the Western Empire, and later with the Eastern Roman Empire until the fall of Constantinople.

After the destruction of the Western Roman Empire, the church in the West was a major factor in preserving classical civilization, establishing monasteries, and sending missionaries to convert the peoples of northern Europe as far north as Ireland. In the East, the Byzantine Empire preserved Orthodoxy well after the massive invasions of Islam in the mid-7th century.

The Catholic Church in the Middle Ages

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476, the Catholic faith competed with Arianism for the conversion of the barbarian tribes. The 496 conversion of Clovis I, pagan king of the Franks, saw the beginning of a steady rise of the Catholic faith in the West.


Saint Remigius baptizes Clovis

In 530, Saint Benedict wrote his Rule of Saint Benedict as a practical guide for monastic community life, and its message spread to monasteries throughout Europe. Monasteries became major conduits of civilization, preserving craft and artistic skills while maintaining intellectual culture within their schools, scriptoria, and libraries. They functioned as centers for spiritual life as well as for agriculture, economy, and production.

During this period the Visigoths and Lombards moved away from Arianism toward Catholicism. Pope Gregory the Great played a notable role in these conversions and dramatically reformed the ecclesiastical structures and administration, which then launched renewed missionary efforts. Missionaries such as Augustine of Canterbury, who was sent from Rome to begin the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons, and, coming the other way in the Hiberno-Scottish mission, Saints Colombanus, Boniface, Willibrord, and Ansgar, among many others, took Christianity into northern Europe and spread Catholicism among the Germanic and Slavic peoples. Such missions reached the Vikings and other Scandinavians in later centuries. The Synod of Whitby of 664, though not as decisive as sometimes claimed, was an important moment in the reintegration of the Celtic Church of the British Isles into the Roman hierarchy, after having been effectively cut off from contact with Rome by the pagan invaders.

In the early 8th century, Byzantine iconoclasm became a major source of conflict between the eastern and western parts of the church. Byzantine emperors forbade the creation and veneration of religious images as violations of the Ten Commandments. Sometime between 726 and 730 the Byzantine Emperor Leo III the Isaurian ordered that an image of Jesus prominently placed over the Chalke gate, the ceremonial entrance to the Great Palace of Constantinople, be removed, and replaced with a cross. This was followed by orders banning the pictorial representation of the family of Christ, subsequent Christian saints, and biblical scenes. Other major religions in the East, such as Judaism and Islam, had similar prohibitions, but Pope Gregory III vehemently disagreed. Empress Irene, siding with the pope, called for an Ecumenical Council. In 787, the fathers of the Second Council of Nicaea “warmly received the papal delegates and his message.” At the conclusion, 300 bishops, who were led by the representatives of Pope Hadrian I “adopted the Pope’s teaching,” in favor of icons.

Spread of Catholicism Beyond Rome

As the political boundaries of the Roman Empire diminished and then collapsed in the West, Christianity spread beyond the old borders of the Empire and into lands that had never been under Rome.

Beginning in the 5th century, a unique culture developed around the Irish Sea, consisting of what today would be called Wales and Ireland. In this environment, Christianity spread from Roman Britain to Ireland, especially aided by the missionary activity of Saint Patrick. Patrick had been captured into slavery in Ireland and, following his escape and later consecration as bishop, he returned to the isle that had enslaved him so that he could bring them the Gospel. Soon, Irish missionaries such as Saints Columba and Columbanus spread this Christianity, with its distinctively Irish features, to Scotland and the Continent. One such feature was the system of private penitence, which replaced the former practice of penance as a public rite.

Although southern Britain had been a Roman province, in 407 the imperial legions left the isle, and the Roman elite followed. Some time later that century, various barbarian tribes went from raiding and pillaging the island to settling and invading. These tribes are referred to as the “Anglo-Saxons,” predecessors of the English. They were entirely pagan, having never been part of the Empire, and although they experienced Christian influence from the surrounding peoples, they were converted by the mission of Saint Augustine sent by Pope Gregory the Great. Later, under Archbishop Theodore, the Anglo-Saxons enjoyed a golden age of culture and scholarship. Soon, important English missionaries such as Saints Wilfrid, Willibrord, Lullus, and Boniface would begin evangelizing their Saxon relatives in Germany.

The Development of Papal Supremacy

During the decline and fall of the Western Roman Empire, and throughout the Middle Ages, the office of pope not only gained supremacy over the entire Christian Church but also developed political power rivaling that of the secular rulers of Europe.


Explain the development of papal supremacy


Key Points

  • During the early history of Christianity, Rome became an increasingly important center of the faith, which gave the bishop of Rome (the pope ) more power over the entire church, thereby ushering in the era of papal supremacy.
  • When Catholicism became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380, the power of the pope increased, although he was still subordinate to the emperor.
  • After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the pope served as a source of authority and continuity; however, for several centuries afterward the Eastern Roman Emperor still maintained authority over the church.
  • From the late-6th to the late-8th century there was a turning of the papacy to the West and an escape from subordination to the authority of the Byzantine emperors of Constantinople.
  • When Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as Roman Emperor in 800, he established the precedent that, in Western Europe, no man would be emperor without being crowned by a pope.
  • After a conflict known as the Investiture Controversy, as well as from the launching of the Crusades, the papacy increased its power in relation to the secular rulers of Europe.
  • Throughout the Middle Ages, popes struggled with monarchs over power.

Key Terms

  • Byzantine Papacy: A period of Byzantine domination of the papacy from 537 to 752, when popes required the approval of the Byzantine Emperor for episcopal consecration.
  • Arianism: A Christian sect in late antiquity that asserts that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who was created by God the Father at a point in time, is distinct from the Father, and is therefore subordinate to the Father.
  • Investiture Controversy: The most significant conflict between church and state in medieval Europe, in which a series of popes challenged the authority of European monarchies.
  • Papal supremacy: The doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church that the pope, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ and as pastor of the entire Christian Church, has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole church.


Papal supremacy is the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church that the pope, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ and as pastor of the entire Christian Church, has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered—that, in brief, “the Pope enjoys, by divine institution, supreme, full, immediate, and universal power in the care of souls.”

The doctrine had the most significance in the relationship between the church and the temporal state, in matters such as ecclesiastic privileges, the actions of monarchs, and even successions. The creation of the term “papal supremacy” dates back to the 6th century, at the time of the fall of the Western Roman Empire, which was the beginning of the rise of the bishops of Rome to not just the position religious authority, but the power to be the ultimate ruler of the kingdoms within the Christian community (Christendom), which it has since retained.

The Church and the Roman Empire

In the early Christian era, Rome and a few other cities had claims on the leadership of the worldwide church. During the 1st century of the church (c. 30–130), the Roman capital became recognized as a Christian center of exceptional importance. In the late 2nd century CE, there were more manifestations of Roman authority over other churches. In 189, assertion of the primacy of the Church of Rome may be indicated in Irenaeus’s Against Heresies: “With [the Church of Rome], because of its superior origin, all the churches must agree… and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition.” In 195 CE, Pope Victor I, in what is seen as an exercise of Roman authority over other churches, excommunicated the Quartodecimans for observing Easter on the 14th of Nisan, the date of the Jewish Passover. Celebration of Easter on a Sunday, as insisted on by the pope, is the system that has prevailed.

When Constantine became emperor of the Western Roman Empire in 312, he attributed his victory to the Christian God. Many soldiers in his army were Christians, and his army was his base of power. With Licinius (Eastern Roman emperor), he issued the Edict of Milan, which mandated toleration of all religions in the empire. Decisions made at the Council of Nicea (325) about the divinity of Christ led to a schism; the new religion, Arianism, flourished outside the Roman Empire. Partially to distinguish themselves from Arians, Catholic devotion to Mary became more prominent. This led to further schisms.

In 380, the Edict of Thessalonica declared Nicene Christianity, as opposed to Arianism, to be the state religion of the empire, with the name “Catholic Christians” reserved for those who accepted that faith. While the civil power in the Eastern Roman Empire controlled the church, and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the capital, wielded much power, in the Western Roman Empire the Bishops of Rome were able to consolidate the influence and power they already possessed. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, barbarian tribes were converted to Arian Christianity or Catholicism; Clovis I, king of the Franks, was the first important barbarian ruler to convert to Catholicism rather than Arianism, allying himself with the papacy. Other tribes, such as the Visigoths, later abandoned Arianism in favor of Catholicism.

The Middle Ages

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the pope served as a source of authority and continuity. Pope Gregory I (c. 540–604) administered the church with strict reform. Gregory was from an ancient senatorial family, and worked with the stern judgement and discipline typical of ancient Roman rule. Theologically, he represents the shift from the classical to the medieval outlook; his popular writings are full of dramatic miracles, potent relics, demons, angels, ghosts, and the approaching end of the world.


Gregory the Great: Pope Gregory I (c. 540–604) who established medieval themes in the church, in a painting by Carlo Saraceni, c. 1610, Rome.

The Byzantine Papacy was a period of Byzantine domination of the papacy from 537 to 752, when popes required the approval of the Byzantine Emperor for episcopal consecration, and many popes were chosen from the apocrisiarii (liaisons from the pope to the emperor) or the inhabitants of Byzantine Greece, Byzantine Syria, or Byzantine Sicily. Justinian I conquered the Italian peninsula in the Gothic War (535–554) and appointed the next three popes, a practice that would be continued by his successors and later be delegated to the Exarchate of Ravenna. With the exception of Pope Martin I, no pope during this period questioned the authority of the Byzantine monarch to confirm the election of the bishop of Rome before consecration could occur.

From the late-6th to the late-8th century there was a turning of the papacy to the West and an escape from subordination to the authority of the Byzantine emperors of Constantinople. This phase has sometimes incorrectly been credited to Pope Gregory I (who reigned from 590 to 604 CE), who, like his predecessors, represented to the people of the Roman world a church that was still identified with the empire. Unlike some of those predecessors, Gregory was compelled to face the collapse of imperial authority in northern Italy. As the leading civil official of the empire in Rome, he was compelled to take over the civil administration of the cities and negotiate for the protection of Rome itself with the Lombard invaders threatening it. Another part of this phase occurred in the 8th century, after the rise of the new religion of Islam had weakened the Byzantine Empire and the Lombards had renewed their pressure in Italy. The popes finally sought support from the Frankish rulers of the West and received from the Frankish king Pepin The Short the first part of the Italian territories later known as the Papal States. With Pope Leo III’s coronation of Charlemagne, first of the Carolingian emperors, the papacy also gained the emperor’s protection; this action established the precedent that, in Western Europe, no man would be emperor without being crowned by a pope.

Second Phase of Papal Supremacy

The second great phase in the process of papal supremacy’s rise to prominence extended from the mid-11th to the mid-13th century. It was distinguished, first, by Gregory VII’s bold attack after 1075 on the traditional practices whereby the emperor had controlled appointments to the higher church offices. This attack spawned the protracted civil and ecclesiastical strife in Germany and Italy known as the Investiture Controversy. At issue was who, the pope or the monarchs, had the authority to appoint (invest) local church officials such as bishops of cities and abbots of monasteries. The conflict ended in 1122, when Emperor Henry V and Pope Calixtus II agreed on the Concordat of Worms, which differentiated between the royal and spiritual powers and gave the emperors a limited role in selecting bishops. The outcome seemed mostly a victory for the pope and his claim that he was God’s chief representative in the world. However, the emperor did retain considerable power over the Church.

Papal supremacy was also increased by Urban II’s launching in 1095 of the Crusades, which, in an attempt to liberate the Holy Land from Muslim domination, marshaled under papal leadership the aggressive energies of the European nobility. Both these efforts, although ultimately unsuccessful, greatly enhanced papal prestige in the 12th and 13th centuries. Such powerful popes as Alexander III (r. 1159–81), Innocent III (r. 1198–1216), Gregory IX (r. 1227–41), and Innocent IV (r. 1243–54) wielded a primacy over the church that attempted to vindicate a jurisdictional supremacy over emperors and kings in temporal and spiritual affairs. Throughout the rest of the Middle Ages, popes struggled with monarchs over power.

The Rise of the Monasteries

Christian monasticism, which consists of individuals living ascetic and often cloistered lives that are dedicated to Christian worship, became popular during the Middle Ages and gave rise to several monastic orders with different goals and lifestyles.


Compare and contrast some of the monastic orders that were formed during the Middle Ages


Key Points

  • Because of the ubiquitous power of religion, and especially Christianity, monasticism flourished in medieval Europe.
  • Medieval monastic life consisted of prayer, reading, and manual labor.
  • From the 6th century onward, most of the monasteries in the West were of the Benedictine Order, founded by Benedict of Nursia, who wrote influential rules for monastic life.
  • By the 11th century, the Cistercians reformed the Benedictine way of life, adhering more strictly to Benedict’s original rules and focusing on manual labour and self-sufficiency.
  • During the rule of Pope Innocent III (1198–1216), two mendicant orders, the Franciscan and the Dominican, were founded.
  • Francis of Assisi founded the order of the Franciscans, who were known for their charitable work.
  • The Dominicans, founded by Saint Dominic, focused on teaching, preaching, and suppressing heresy.

Key Terms

  • mendicant: Certain Christian religious orders that have adopted a lifestyle of poverty, traveling, and living in urban areas for purposes of preaching, evangelization, and ministry, especially to the poor; more generally an ascetic lifestyle that includes poverty and begging.
  • Benedict’s Rule: A book of precepts written by Benedict of Nursia (c. 480–550) for monks living communally under the authority of an abbot.
  • Christian monasticism: The devotional practice of individuals who live ascetic and typically cloistered lives that are dedicated to Christian worship.

Monasticism in the Middle Ages

Christian monasticism is the devotional practice of individuals who live ascetic and typically cloistered lives that are dedicated to Christian worship. Monasticism became quite popular in the Middle Ages, with religion being the most important force in Europe. Monks and nuns were to live isolated from the world to become closer to God. Monks provided service to the church by copying manuscripts, creating art, educating people, and working as missionaries. Convents were especially appealing to women. It was the only place they would receive any sort of education or power. It also let them escape unwanted marriages.

The Benedictines

From the 6th century onward most of the monasteries in the West were of the Benedictine Order. The Benedictines were founded by Benedict of Nursia, the most influential of western monks and called “the father of western monasticism.” He was educated in Rome but soon sought the life of a hermit in a cave at Subiaco, outside the city. He then attracted followers with whom he founded the monastery of Monte Cassino, between Rome and Naples, around 520. He established the Rule, adapting in part the earlier anonymous Rule of the Master (Regula magistri), which was written somewhere south of Rome around 500, and defined the activities of the monastery, its officers, and their responsibilities.

By the 9th century, largely under the inspiration of Emperor Charlemagne, Benedict’s Rule became the basic guide for Western monasticism. Early Benedictine monasteries were relatively small and consisted of an oratory, a refectory, a dormitory, a scriptorium, guest accommodation, and out-buildings, a group of often quite separate rooms more reminiscent of a decent-sized Roman villa than a large medieval abbey. A monastery of about a dozen monks would have been normal during this period.

Medieval monastic life consisted of prayer, reading, and manual labor. Prayer was a monk’s first priority. Apart from prayer, monks performed a variety of tasks, such as preparing medicine, lettering, and reading. These monks would also work in the gardens and on the land. They might also spend time in the Cloister, a covered colonnade around a courtyard, where they would pray or read. Some monasteries held a scriptorium where monks would write or copy books. When the monks wrote, they used very neat handwriting and would draw illustrations in the books. As a part of their unique writing style, they decorated the first letter of each paragraph.

The efficiency of Benedict’s cenobitic Rule, in addition to the stability of the monasteries, made them very productive. The monasteries were the central storehouses and producers of knowledge.

Portrait of Saint Benedict holding a quill. He is standing as he writes, but he is turned away from his paper, looking off into the distance.

Saint Benedict: Saint Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine Monastic Rule, by Herman Nieg, Heiligenkreuz Abbey, Austria.

Cistercian Movement

The next wave of monastic reform after the Benedictines came with the Cistercian movement. The first Cistercian abbey was founded in 1098, at Cîteaux Abbey. The keynote of Cistercian life was a return to a literal observance of the Benedictine Rule, rejecting the developments of the Benedictines. The most striking feature in the reform was the return to manual labour, and especially to field work. Inspired by Bernard of Clairvaux, the primary builder of the Cistercians, the Cistercians became the main force of technological diffusion in medieval Europe. By the end of the 12th century the Cistercian houses numbered 500, and at its height in the 15th century the order claimed to have close to 750 houses. Most of these were built in wilderness areas, and played a major part in bringing such isolated parts of Europe into economic cultivation.

Mendicant Orders

During the rule of Pope Innocent III (1198–1216), two of the most famous monastic orders were founded. They were called the mendicant, or begging, orders because their members begged for the food and clothes. At their foundation these orders rejected the previously established monastic model of living in one stable, isolated community where members worked at a trade and owned property in common, including land, buildings, and other wealth. By contrast, the mendicants avoided owning property, did not work at a trade, and embraced a poor, often itinerant lifestyle. They depended for their survival on the goodwill of the people to whom they preached. They would usually travel in pairs, preaching, healing the sick, and helping the poor. Francis of Assisi founded the order of the Franciscans, who were known for their charitable work. The Dominicans, founded by Saint Dominic, focused on teaching, preaching, and suppressing heresy.

The Dominican Order came into being in the Middle Ages at a time when religion was starting to be contemplated in a new way. Men of God were no longer expected to stay behind the walls of a cloister. Instead, they traveled among the people, taking as their examples the apostles of the primitive Church. Like his contemporary, Francis, Dominic saw the need for a new type of organization, and the quick growth of the Dominicans and Franciscans during their first century of existence confirms that the orders of mendicant friars met a need.

The inspiration for the Franciscan Order came in 1209 when Francis heard a sermon on Matthew 10:9 that made such an impression on him that he decided to devote himself wholly to a life of apostolic poverty. Clad in a rough garment, barefoot, and, after the Evangelical precept, without staff or scrip, he began to preach repentance.

Francis was soon joined by a prominent fellow townsman, Bernard of Quintavalle, who contributed all that he had to the work, and by other companions, who are said to have reached eleven within a year. The brothers lived in the deserted leper colony of Rivo Torto near Assisi, but they spent much of their time traveling through the mountainous districts of Umbria, always cheerful and full of songs, yet making a deep impression on their hearers by their earnest exhortations. Their life was extremely ascetic, though such practices were apparently not prescribed by the first rule that Francis gave them (probably as early as 1209), which seems to have been nothing more than a collection of Scriptural passages emphasizing the duty of poverty.

Similar to Francis, Dominic sought to establish a new kind of order, one that would bring the dedication and systematic education of the older monastic orders like the Benedictines to bear on the religious problems of the burgeoning population of cities, but with more organizational flexibility than either monastic orders or the secular clergy. Dominic’s new order was to be a preaching order, with its members trained to preach in the vernacular languages. Rather than earning their living on vast farms as the monasteries had done, the new friars would survive by begging— “selling” themselves through persuasive preaching.

Dominic inspired his followers with loyalty to learning and virtue, a deep recognition of the spiritual power of worldly deprivation and the religious state, and a highly developed governmental structure. At the same time, Dominic encouraged the members of his order to develop a “mixed” spirituality. They were both active in preaching and contemplative in study, prayer, and meditation. The brethren of the Dominican Order were urban and learned, as well as contemplative and mystical in their spirituality. While these traits had an impact on the women of the order, the nuns especially absorbed the latter characteristics and made them their own. In England, the Dominican nuns blended these elements with their own defining characteristics and created a spirituality and collective personality that set them apart.

Portrait of Saint Francis

Saint Francis: Saint Francis of Assisi, founder of the Order of Friars Minor.

The Western Schism

The Western Schism was a prolonged period of crisis in Latin Christendom from 1378 to 1416, when there was conflict concerning the rightful holder of the papacy.


Explain the events that led to the Western Schism, as well as its eventual resolution


Key Points

  • From 1309 to 1377, the seat of the papacy resided in Avignon, France, rather than Rome.
  • Gregory XI returned to Rome in 1377, thus ending the Avignon Papacy, at which point Romans rioted to ensure the election of a Roman for pope.
  • Urban VI, born Bartolomeo Prignano, the Archbishop of Bari, was elected in 1378.
  • As pope, Urban VI proved suspicious, reformist, and prone to violent outbursts of temper, and thus many of the cardinals who had elected him soon regretted their decision and moved to Anagni, where they elected Robert of Geneva as a rival pope on September 20 of the same year.
  • The second election threw the church into turmoil, and it quickly escalated from a church problem to a diplomatic crisis that divided Europe.
  • The conflict was finally resolved by a council was convened by a third Pisan pope, John XXIII, in 1414, which resulted in the excommunication of some of the claimants to the papacy.

Key Terms

  • Avignon Papacy: The period from 1309 to 1377, during which seven successive popes resided in Avignon, France, rather than in Rome.
  • Antipope: A person who, in opposition to the one who is generally seen as the legitimately elected pope, makes a significantly accepted competing claim to be the pope.

The Western Schism, or Papal Schism, was a split within the Roman Catholic Church that lasted from 1378 to 1417. During that time, three men simultaneously claimed to be the true pope. Driven by politics rather than any theological disagreement, the schism was ended by the Council of Constance (1414–1418). For a time these rival claims to the papal throne damaged the reputation of the office.


The schism in the Western Roman Church resulted from the return of the papacy to Rome under Gregory XI on January 17, 1377, ending the Avignon Papacy, which had developed a reputation for corruption that estranged major parts of western Christendom. This reputation can be attributed to perceptions of predominant French influence and to the papal curia’s efforts to extend its powers of patronage and increase its revenues.

After Pope Gregory XI died in 1378, the Romans rioted to ensure the election of a Roman for pope. On April 8, 1378 the cardinals elected a Neapolitan when no viable Roman candidates presented themselves. Urban VI, born Bartolomeo Prignano, the Archbishop of Bari, was elected. Urban had been a respected administrator in the papal chancery at Avignon, but as pope he proved suspicious, reformist, and prone to violent outbursts of temper. Many of the cardinals who had elected him soon regretted their decision; the majority removed themselves from Rome to Anagni, where, even though Urban was still reigning, they elected Robert of Geneva as a rival pope on September 20, 1378. Robert took the name Clement VII and reestablished a papal court in Avignon. This second election threw the church into turmoil. There had been antipopes —rival claimants to the papacy—before, but most of them had been appointed by various rival factions; in this case, a single group of church leaders had created both the pope and the antipope.

The conflict quickly escalated from a church problem to a diplomatic crisis that divided Europe. Secular leaders had to choose which claimant they would recognize. France, Aragon, Castile and León, Cyprus, Burgundy, Savoy, Naples, Scotland, and Owain Glyndwr’s rebellion in Wales recognized the Avignon claimant. Denmark, England, Flanders, the Holy Roman Empire, Hungary, Ireland, Norway, Portugal, Poland, Sweden, Republic of Venice, and other city states of northern Italy recognized the Roman claimant. In the Iberian Peninsula there were the Ferdinand Wars and the 1383–1385 Crisis in Portugal, during which dynastic opponents supported rival claimants to the papal office.


Sustained by such national and factional rivalries throughout Catholic Christianity, the schism continued after the deaths of both initial claimants; Boniface IX, crowned at Rome in 1389, and Benedict XIII, who reigned in Avignon from 1394, maintained their rival courts. When Boniface died in 1404, the eight cardinals of the Roman conclave offered to refrain from electing a new pope if Benedict would resign, but when his legates refused on his behalf, the Roman party then proceeded to elect Innocent VII. In the intense partisanship characteristic of the Middle Ages, the schism engendered a fanatical hatred between factions.

Efforts were made to end the schism through force or diplomacy. The French crown even tried to coerce Benedict XIII, whom it nominally supported, into resigning. None of these remedies worked. The suggestion to have a church council resolve the schism was first made in 1378, but was not initially adopted because canon law required that a pope call a council. Eventually, theologians like Pierre d’Ailly and Jean Gerson, as well as canon lawyers like Francesco Zabarella, adopted arguments that equity permitted the Church to act for its own welfare in defiance of the letter of the law.

Eventually the cardinals of both factions secured an agreement that Benedict and Pope Gregory XII would meet at Savona. They balked at the last moment, and both colleges of cardinals abandoned their popes. A church council was held at Pisa in 1409 under the auspices of the cardinals to try solving the dispute. At the fifteenth session, on June 5, 1409, the Council of Pisa deposed the two pontiffs as schismatical, heretical, perjured, and scandalous. But it then added to the problem by electing another incumbent, Alexander V. He reigned briefly from June 26, 1409, until his death in 1410, when he was succeeded by John XXIII, who won some, but not universal, support.


Finally, a council was convened at Constance by Pisan pope John XXIII in 1414 to resolve the issue. This was endorsed by Gregory XII, Innocent VII’s successor in Rome, thus ensuring the legitimacy of any election. The council, advised by the theologian Jean Gerson, secured the resignations of John XXIII and Gregory XII in 1415, while excommunicating the claimant who refused to step down, Benedict XIII. The council elected Pope Martin V in 1417, essentially ending the schism. Nonetheless, the Crown of Aragon did not recognize Martin V and continued to recognize Benedict XIII. Archbishops loyal to Benedict XIII subsequently elected Antipope Benedict XIV (Bernard Garnier), and three followers simultaneously elected Antipope Clement VIII, but the Western Schism was by then practically over. Clement VIII resigned in 1429 and apparently recognized Martin V.


Habemus Papam 1415: Habemus Papam (the announcement of a new pope) at the Council of Constance, 1415.


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