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14th Century Crises

The Great Schism

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
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The 14th Century was a time of great tragedy. Everything seemed to go wrong at the same time, almost as if Europe was suffering from a hangover from the heady days of the High Middle Ages.

The climate changed dramatically, ushering in a couple of centuries of colder and wetter weather. Then came the Black Death, a bubonic plague pandemic. As if all this was not enough, the papacy seemed to lose its head and, in doing so, the Catholic Church lost the support of the hearts and minds of its congregation.


Christianity itself did not decline during this period. It merely became less churchly. Despite the increase of Papal political power during the High Middle Ages, there was also an underlying growth of lay leadership which was both mystical and anti-clerical, and which was hostile to ecclesiastical wealth and privilege.

The mysticism was not directly "heretical" but it laid its emphasis in different quarters. While the Catholic Church stressed the importance of the Church and the Sacraments as channels of grace, the new theology looked to a personal relationship with God in which neither Church nor sacraments were necessary.

Important revolutionary leaders and thinkers of the day included Gerard Groot, Thomas á Kempis, John Wycliffe, John Hus and Joan of Arc.

Gerard Groot was a Flemish lay preacher who founded the Brethren of the Common Life in 1375, an organisation devoted to simple lives of preaching, teaching and charity. They were similar to the earlier Franciscans except that they took no vows for life.

Thomas á Kempis stands as the supreme literary expression of late-medieval mysticism. His book, The Imitation of Christ, typifies the mystical outlook in its emphasis on adoration rather than speculation, inner purity over good works, and inner experience of God over sacramental avenues of divine grace. Both men stayed within the bounds of orthodoxy but laid the foundation for the later Reformation.

John Wycliffe of Oxford University and John Huss of Bohemia, however, went beyond the bounds of orthodoxy. They placed Scripture above Popes, and preached against ecclesiastical wealth. Each was called to explain his theology.

While John Wycliffe was able to seek refuge behind support by his university colleagues (although his Lollard supporters were sought out and destroyed), John Hus was declared a heretic by a Church Council and burnt at the stake. Joan of Arc met a similar fate.


Underlying the attacks on the Church was the belief that, because the Popes had transferred their headquarters to the French city of Avignon, they were no longer politically unbiased. The Papacy had moved to Avignon in 1309 - six years after Boniface VIII's humiliation at Anagni - and so started what became known as the "Babylonian Captivity of the Church".

The Avignon popes were not bad popes as such, and seldom allowed the French monarchy to interfere in their affairs. Indeed, they continued the reform process and brought the Church to a pinnacle of bureaucratic efficiency which, above all, succeeded in tightening up on the system of papal taxation so that most of the money collected now reached the papal coffers.

There lay the rub, however, because the Papacy now became extremely wealthy and the Popes lived in luxury. All around, however, was sinking into the 14th Century depression. The lay reformers in the Church were not interested in the efficiency of the Church but in its ostentatious show of wealth.

The Church's headquarters in France also made it suspect of being in cahoots with the French government. The rising national states therefore objected highly to paying the taxes which they believed were finding their way into the coffers of the King of France.


Although the Popes made various attempts to move back to Rome, they were unable to do so. Eventually, in 1376, Pope Gregory XI did move back but the Pope was soon caught up in the political disturbances of Rome.

When Pope Gregory died, the predominantly French cardinals elected an Italian pope whom they could then leave in Rome to look after himself, while they ran back to the civilised world of France.

But the new pope, Urban VI suddenly turned to radical reform, however, which started with a reduction in the cardinals' revenue and influence. The French cardinals immediately declared the papal election invalid on the grounds of "mob intimidation", and elected a French pope who again took up residence at Avignon.

There were now two popes, one in Rome and another in Avignon. This schism lasted for some 37 years. As each pope died, the cardinals in each city elected a new one. Each of the popes excommunicated the other and the political leaders of Europe made use of the schism to gain political advance.

England and the Holy Roman Empire backed the Roman popes which they hoped would undermine the power of France. France and its allies in turn supported the Avignon popes. The Italians continually changed sides as it suited their own political advantages.

Eventually the cardinals themselves called a Council at Pisa in 1409 which deposed both popes and elected a new one. However, the two deposed popes duly declared themselves to be an authority above Councils and refused to step down. The Great Schism had therefore turned into a three-way affair, with two popes in Rome itself and a third in Avignon.

Eventually the German Emperor was forced to interfere and called a further Council at Constance (1415-18) which deposed two of the popes and brought pressure to bear on the third to resign. Pope Martin V was then elected, and so ended the Great Schism.

The damage done by the sad affair was immense, however, and virtually made a split in the Christian Church inevitable.

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