Post-classical history


There was one pope; then another claimed to be pope; then, still another. A rupture, a schism, rent western Europe as never before. Largely along national lines, Europe was divided into two and eventually three allegiances. Confusion, suspicion, distrust, bitterness, even hatred consumed much of Christian Europe. Indeed, there have been other times in the long history of the papacy when there were rival claimants, but none can be compared to the schism (known to history as the Great Schism) that began in 1378 and lasted for almost four decades. And it cast a long, lingering shadow over the subsequent history of the church.

The road to Pisa

Two men, each claiming to be pope and bishop of Rome, each claiming canonical election, established themselves together with full papal apparatus at Rome and Avignon. Both held the same constitutional position: they believed in the primacy of Rome over the church. They differed only about who was the true successor of Peter, the bishop of Rome and, on earth, the head of the Church. Each quickly excommunicated the other and began to act as pope. Neither Urban nor Clement, on the human level, had much to commend him as leader of the Christian church. Urban’s lapses into apparently demented behaviour led to decisions and actions hardly consistent with the ideals of the religion of which he claimed to be leader. Clement, on the other hand, was the butcher of Cesena. A year and a half before the cardinals elected him pope, the then Robert of Geneva, acting as a military commander, ordered the slaughter of all the inhabitants of Cesena, near Rimini, sparing none, not women, children, the aged, the infirm. As many as 3,000 perished, and the streets and lanes of Cesena were said to have been awash with blood. Neither Urban nor Clement was an ideal person to be pope, but one of them was the true pope and the other an anti-pope. The identity of the true pope was the central but not the only question of the schism. How to resolve the schism was the allied question, and it soon became the paramount question. Christians of unquestioned rectitude, belonging to both camps, endeavoured to find answers, and their quest was to last for decades. A Paris theologian lamented, ‘Not even a hardened heart can be unmoved at the sight of holy mother the church in such agony.’

In the years immediately following the double election, two German theologians at the University of Paris suggested a radical solution to the problem. They proposed the calling of a general council to resolve the crisis. Henry of Langenstein, who was soon (1383) to become, in a real sense, the new founder of the University of Vienna, wrote that the general good of the church must be the final norm and that the church, as the community of believers, to secure the common good can reverse what cardinals had done. His colleague at Paris, Conrad of Gelnhausen, soon to leave for Heidelberg, where he was to become the first chancellor, also believed that the ultimate authority in the church reposes in the church itself, the community of all Christians, which is superior even to the pope. To those who might argue that only a pope can call a general council he replied that, against the wishes of a heretical or notoriously criminal pope, the Christian people can call a council. Also, if after the death of a pope and before the election of his successor all the cardinals died, only a general council could resolve the situation, even though there was no pope to convene it. Thus, for Conrad, there is not an essential need for a council to be summoned by the pope. True, he continued, there are positive, man-made laws that require that a general council be summoned by the pope, but, like all human laws, there are circumstances which even the wisest of legislators could not have foreseen and in which they would not have wanted the law to apply. He was restating the Aristotelian principle of epikeia and applying it to the schism: although canon law requires a pope to call a council, the makers of that law could not have foreseen the current situation and, consequently, that law does not bind. His conclusion quite simply was that a general council can and should resolve the crisis of the schism.

In 1381 these opinions of Henry and Conrad found no ready acceptance; their acceptance would come later. In the meantime, the rival claimants were preoccupied with garnering support for their rival claims and for their rival bureaucracies. The death of Urban VI on 15 October 1389 might have provided the opportunity to reconcile the two obediences. Avignon urged the French king to persuade the cardinals at Rome to elect Clement VII and, thus, end the schism, but it was an opportunity spurned. Eighteen days after Urban’s death, without waiting for negotiations, the Roman cardinals elected Boniface IX. Almost immediately he excommunicated Clement VII, who, in turn, excommunicated him. There was to be no quick or easy fix to the schism.

The new French king, Charles VI, was amenable to capturing Rome by military force and imposing Clement VII on the papal throne at Rome. Complications arose, and the campaign failed to materialize, but the use of force was never far from Clement’s mind. It led him to support various campaigns in Italy with some but little success and to drain the French church by demanding taxes at an unheard of rate, which led to an increasing alienation of much of the French clergy. Mental illness began to plague Charles VI from 1392, and the real power in France moved to the dukes of Berry and Burgundy. They put a high premium on ending the schism, political calculations playing a large role in their designs.

The University of Paris, in 1384, polled its members and graduates about ways in which to resolve the schism. Three ways emerged: via concilii generalis (way of a general council), via compromissi (way of compromise) and via cessionis (way of resignation). The university recommended the last of these: the mutual resignation of both claimants without judgement about the legitimacy of their claims. The via cessionis became the policy adopted by the French authorities. It was to have several manifestations, including forced resignation and even deposition. In its less radical form it was the way of choice.

This way seemed quite within reach when a few months later, in September 1394, Clement VII died. If the Avignon cardinals would not elect a successor and if Boniface IX at Rome could be convinced to resign, a resolution was clearly within sight. To this end the royal council dispatched a letter to the cardinals at Avignon not to proceed to an election. Without acknowledging the letter they went into conclave and elected the Spaniard Peter de Luna, whom we first met at the troubled election at Rome in 1378, and he became Benedict XIII. Luna had taken a pre-election oath, as did the other cardinals, that, if elected, he would strive to resolve the schism, even if it required his resignation. He even repeated the same oath after his election but made it clear that he would in no way consider resignation unless his legitimacy was affirmed. The royal dukes responded by calling an assembly of the higher clergy of France to meet at Paris in February 1395 to give their advice. Over 100 clergy and scholars attended. The key figure at the assembly was Simon de Cramaud, the titular patriarch of Alexandria, formerly a professor of canon law at Paris and now a royal official. He presided and skilfully presented the via cessionis, which carried by a vote of more than four to one. An embassy led by the dukes of Berry and Burgundy, joined by the king’s brother the duke of Orléans, proceeded to Avignon. Their pleas fell on the deaf ears of Benedict XIII, but his cardinals were not so deaf. All but one, a fellow Spaniard, agreed to the via cessionis, and support began to come from elsewhere. In England, Richard II accepted this solution as part of a larger settlement with France that included a truce and his marriage to the French king’s daughter. Castile, England’s new ally, followed the English lead and supported the via cessionis. Richard II’s brother-in-law, King Wenceslaus of Bohemia, soon took the same position. In 1397, representatives of France, England and Castile visited both claimants, urging their mutual resignations.

Another French assembly met at Paris in May and June 1398 and argued for forced cession or subtraction (withdrawal of allegiance). Two months later the French government withdrew its support for Benedict XIII. The cardinals who had been loyal to Benedict crossed the Rhone from Avignon, taking with them the papal seal. All seemed lost for Benedict, but the end of the schism was not to be so easily attained. He had hidden support. The duke of Orléans openly sided with Benedict as did the universities of Toulouse, Angers and Orléans. The king of Castile restored his allegiance in 1402. Aragon remained steadfast behind Benedict, as it was to continue to be throughout the ups and downs of the schism, almost to his final, almost farcical end. Meanwhile, at Avignon, where he had endured a long siege and humiliating house arrest, Benedict escaped to friendly Provence. Opposition to Benedict in France began to crumble. The cardinals returned, the royal withdrawal of allegiance was rescinded (1403) and the people of Avignon submitted to Benedict.

Flushed with the sense of victory, Benedict sent an embassy to Rome to make two proposals to Boniface IX: first, that the two claimants meet and, second, that both agree not to create any new cardinals. Prospects for a settlement looked promising, but, by the time the embassy reached Rome, Boniface IX was in extremis and died on 1 October 1404. The cardinals, before proceeding to an election, tried to convince Benedict’s embassy that their pope ought now to resign, but they failed. The new pope, Innocent VII, lived just over a year. At his death another chance was given to resolve the schism, but it too failed. The 13 cardinals of the Roman Obedience met at Rome, and, before entering the conclave, each swore that, if elected, he would resign if the other claimant would do the same and if the cardinals of both claimants would join to elect a new pope and, further, that he would not name any new cardinals. On 13 November 1406 they elected the 80 year old Gregory XII for the sole purpose of having him resign. Almost immediately he wrote to Benedict XIII, saying that he would resign if the Avignon cardinals would join his cardinals to hold an election. Early in the following January, Benedict agreed to a meeting with Gregory to arrange a mutual abdication, providing – with Benedict there was always a proviso – there first be a discussion of rightful legitimacy. They planned to meet on 29 September 1407 at Savona, a coastal town west of Genoa. But the carousel was to continue to go round and round.

Simon of Cramaud served as the go-between and, in shuttle diplomacy, moved between the two papal courts. On the appointed day, the feast of St Michael the Archangel, Benedict was at Savona, but Gregory was almost 200 miles away at Siena. Benedict suggested another meeting place and sailed to Portovenere, east of Genoa, and Gregory moved to Lucca in this strange chess game. In January 1408 they were but 40 miles apart. Other meeting places were discussed and rejected. Gregory was losing interest in an agreement, not under the heady influence of papal incense but under the pressure of his greedy family and others looking for personal advantage. On 4 May he announced that he would never resign and he forbade his cardinals to leave Lucca. He also announced that he would create four new cardinals. On 11 May most of Gregory’s cardinals abandoned him, appealing from Gregory to Christ, to a general council and to a future pope. A fortnight later France once again withdrew its support from Benedict XIII and declared its neutrality; England followed suit later in that year. At last, events were moving quickly. Most of the cardinals of both camps met at Leghorn on 29 June 1408 and took an oath to reunite the church by securing the voluntary resignations of both claimants:

If they will not resign or if they act contumaciously, we will find another remedy through a general council. Then we will give the church one, true, undoubted shepherd by a canonical election by both our colleges meeting as a single body.

They then summoned a general council to meet at Pisa on 25 March 1409. The solution, prematurely proposed by Langenstein and Gelnhausen in the early 1380s, was now chosen as the vehicle for reunion.

It would be easy to dismiss the Council of Pisa, as historians often do, because of subsequent events, yet that would grossly underestimate what the council achieved. Not since the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) had such an impressive assembly been seen in Europe. Twenty-four cardinals from the two obediences attended as did four patriarchs, 84 archbishops and bishops and the proxies of a 102 others, 128 abbots and proxies for 200 others, the general superiors of the four orders of friars (Dominican, Franciscan, Carmelite and Austin). Cathedral chapters from most of Europe sent representatives as did 13 universities. Some 300 theologians and canonists were also present. Ambassadors represented almost all the secular princes of Europe. They came from England, France, Bohemia, Poland, Portugal, Sicily and Cyprus. The great dukes of Burgundy, Brabant, Holland, Lorraine and Austria sent envoys as did the prince-bishops of Liège, Cologne and Mainz. Other representatives came from Brandenburg, Thuringia and Savoy. Apart from Scotland and Scandinavia the notable absentees were representatives from Naples and Spain, which was still loyal to its native Benedict XIII. It was an impressive array of prelates, scholars and lay envoys who met at the cathedral at Pisa on the first day of the new year (25 March). In a real sense, Europe came together at Pisa in 1409 in a concerted attempt to bring unity to the church. The events at Pisa in 1409 were not incidental, peripheral to general European affairs. It is not too much to say that in the months from late March till early August the focus of Europe was fixed on Pisa.

One matter and one matter alone concerned the fathers of the Council of Pisa, the reuniting of the church under a single pope. At the opening session Guy de Malesset, who was the only surviving cardinal of Pope Gregory XI (except for Peter de Luna, now Benedict XIII) and who had participated in both elections in 1378, presided. Five times the council summoned the rival popes; they responded by calling their own councils, which, in the event, were piddling, ineffective meetings. The main action was at Pisa.

On 4 May the council answered objections to its legality and declared that by canonical right it represents the community of the faithful with the right to pass judgement on the papal claimants. And judgement soon came. On 5 June 1409 the council declared,

This sacred synod, acting for the universal church, acts as a court in the present case against Peter de Luna and Angelo Corrario, once known as Benedict XIII and Gregory XII, decrees … that they were and are schismatics, nourishers of schism and notorious heretics and that they have deviated from the faith and have committed the notorious crimes of perjury by violating their oaths … For these reasons and others they have proved themselves to be unworthy of all honour and dignity, including those due to the papal office … This synod deprives, deposes and excommunicates Peter and Angelo and forbids them to act as supreme pontiff. This synod declares the Roman see vacant.

There it was: the deposition of both claimants for reasons of heresy and scandalous crimes. In doing this the council was not instituting a revolutionary constitutional principle; it was adhering to current canonical teaching on the two basic issues: first, that a pope could be deposed for notorious crimes and heresy, a doctrine enunciated in its clearest form by the canonist Huguccio (1188), and, second, that the ultimate authority in the church rests with the whole church as a corporate body, a doctrine classically articulated by Hostiensis (1270). Pisa was adhering to principles with a long tradition.

The Holy See was now considered vacant, and an election was quickly held. The council authorized the cardinals of both obediences to elect the new pope. In order to guarantee acceptance of their choice the council decreed that the new pope had to receive not a two-thirds vote of the combined body but a two-thirds vote of each group of cardinals. After 11 days, they announced the unanimous choice of the Crete-born Franciscan friar, Peter Philargi, the cardinal archbishop of Milan. He took the name Alexander V. It must be underlined that he was not elected by the cardinals as cardinals but by the cardinals as electors delegated by the council; the authority for election derived from the council itself.

The schism was over, or so it could confidently be believed. A new pope of unblemished reputation had been elected. He had the support of most of western Europe. Two octogenarian rivals could not be expected to long endure, and, in any case, their support was eroding. Gregory, now abandoned by his native Venice, had only Naples, and Benedict had little support beyond Spain. The great princes, churchmen and universities recognized Alexander V as the one pope of the now united church. He retrospectively authenticated the acts of the council that preceded his election. The council in its last session (7 August 1409) called for another council in three years’ time to address issues of internal reform. The fathers left Pisa with understandable optimism and with the clear sense that they had ended the schism. Unforeseen events were to prove otherwise.

The road to Constance

Nearly 70 when elected, Alexander V would presumably outlive his two rivals. Such was not to be. A delegation from Rome came to him at Bologna to arrange his triumphal entry into their city, but, before he could do so, Alexander V suddenly died. One might speculate what might have happened had Alexander not died in 1410, had he solidified his widespread support, had he been able to take advantage of the shrinking influence of his rivals and had he turned to the internal reform of the church. He would have been hailed as a saviour of the church and not listed by the Vatican as an anti-pope. His death was bad luck, but the choice of a successor would have remedied that bad luck. The choice, in fact, was disastrous, or so says traditional historical wisdom.

Baldassare Cossa, a Neapolitan (as were most of the ‘Roman popes’ of this time), has had his name blackened by his enemies. Disengaging truth from libel is not easy in these circumstances. As a young man, he had certainly acted in the naval wars of the time, but did he act piratically? He failed to display the customary pieties of a prelate and may even have fathered a child, but did he seduce 200 women at Bologna, as is frequently said? When Alexander V suddenly died at Bologna, had Cossa poisoned him? And, when the election was held, did he use lavish gifts as bribes to secure his election? There may be some truth to some of these allegations, but to say more than that is to go beyond surviving evidence.

John XXIII entered Rome in April 1411, the beleaguered Gregory XII cowering at Gaeta under the protection of the king of Naples. In the following year Naples abandoned Gregory, who then took refuge at Rimini with the local lord, his last supporter. Gregory was quickly becoming an irrelevance. Meanwhile, John’s hand was strengthened even more when, out of the contest for the German kingship, there

Table 1 Papal claimants of the three obediences at the Great Schism





Urban VI (1378–89)

Clement VII (1378–94)


Boniface IX (1389–1404)

Benedict XIII (1394–1423)


Innocent VII (1404–06)


Alexander V (1409–10)

Gregory XII (1406–15)


John XXIII (1410–15)

emerged Sigismund, who abandoned any allegiance he once held for Gregory and pledged his considerable support for the successor of the pope elected at Pisa. John XXIII felt confident enough to appoint 18 new cardinals, including among them three distinguished scholars: Pierre d’Ailly, Guillaume Filastre and Francisco Zabarella. John’s strength had now reached its highest point, and no one would have predicted in 1412 that three years later he would be forced to resign.

Map 20 The Great Schism: between Pisa and Constance

The unravelling of John’s influence began when the army of the kingdom of Naples, once again changing its political position, marched into Rome in March 1413, thus forcing the pope to flee for his safety to Florence and then to Sutri. Fearing the worst, he appealed to Sigismund for assistance. Cardinal Zabarella, the greatest canonist of the age, led the delegation to Sigismund, who at the time was near Como in northern Italy. What they discussed principally was the calling of another council. The Council of Pisa had required the calling of a reforming council in three years’ time. John XXIII had tried to summon such a council at Rome in late 1412, but the unsettled state of affairs in central Italy prevented anything but a small attendance: it was but a brief meeting with only one session. John had promised to call another, fuller council, and, after negotiations of John’s legation with Sigismund lasting more than two weeks, the where and when of this council were agreed upon. On 30 October 1413, Sigismund announced that a council would meet on 1 November 1414 at Constance. John then met Sigismund at Lodi for further discussion, and on 9 December he formally called the council. Although it is frequently said that the emperor-elect forced a reluctant pope to call the council, the evidence suggests rather that it was in the choice of place that Sigismund prevailed over the pope. Constance (Konstanz in southern Germany near the Swiss border) was situated in lands that he controlled and, in the turbulent situation then existing in central Italy, was a more appropriate place than Rome, which John favoured. It must further be emphasized that the Council of Constance was not summoned to resolve the schism. It was summoned to complete the work left unfinished at Pisa: the internal reform of the church. That the council took another turn was not foreseen in 1413 when it was called by the one pope with the overwhelming support of Christians. John XXIII made a solemn entrance into Constance on 28 October and formally opened the council on 5 November 1414.

The Council of Constance sat continuously for over three and a half years, had forty-five full sessions, countless committee and other meetings and, in the end, profoundly influenced the very constitution of the church. Its composition, varying from time to time, was even broader in scope than the Council of Pisa: no part of Christendom was unrepresented. Bishops came from remote parts of the British Isles and Scandinavia, from Silesia and Transylvania; even the Iberian peninsula, in time, sent representatives; observers came from the Eastern churches, from Greece and Constantinople. The greatest representative assembly of the Middle Ages it has been called, and that claim might well be justified.

The great array that gathered at Constance, called to complete the work of the Council of Pisa, took a major turn from this original purpose, and the agent of that change was Pierre d’Ailly. He had a brilliant career as a theologian at the University of Paris and became the university chancellor in 1389. During the years of the schism d’Ailly was the towering figure among European intellectuals discussing ways of resolving the crisis. Not particularly involved at Pisa, d’Ailly came to Constance as a cardinal recently created by John XXIII and as bishop of Cambrai; he virtually took control of the council. The Italian bishops in a memorandum of 7 December 1414 wished to limit the council to two actions – to confirm the Council of Pisa and to take a stronger action against the two claimants, Benedict XIII and Gregory XII, particularly the latter – after which the council should dissolve. D’Ailly rose to the challenge and called those wishing to dissolve the council ‘promoters of schism and open to serious suspicion of heresy’. Neither he nor his associates questioned that John XXIII was the sole lawful pope and that the others were mere pretenders, but d’Ailly put the unity of the church together with reform as the essential agenda of the council. D’Ailly’s party soon urged John XXIII, the good shepherd, to lay down his life for his flock by abdicating: the peace of the church required it. Discussions would follow, but the abdication of John XXIII was firmly on the table. Next d’Ailly turned to the organization of the council. On 7 February 1415 the council agreed to organize itself into four nations: English (including Scots and Irish), French, German (including Poland, Bohemia, Hungary and Denmark) and Italian. In July 1415 the cardinals formed a ‘nation’ as, later, did the Spanish. Within each nation voting included not only bishops and abbots but also the proxies of absent bishops and abbots as well as representatives of cathedral chapters and universities and the envoys of secular rulers. In each nation the vote would be by head but in the general sessions it would be by nation. The fear that the Italian bishops by sheer numbers would overwhelm the others if the general session were to have voting by head and the belief that the pope had secretly made 50 additional Italian prelates contributed to the adoption of this method of voting. The attack on John XXIII could now begin in earnest.

During the month of February John XXIII’s enemies circulated an anonymous broadside which charged him with great and numerous crimes. It found ready acceptance particularly among the Germans and the English. The unimaginable was becoming inevitable as the anti-John campaign neared its goal, his abdication. In the face of quickly eroding support, not least from Sigismund, John gave the first indication that he might resign on 16 February. Five days later he issued a similar memorandum. In each of these the pope agreed to abdicate on the condition that the other claimants renounce any claim to the papal office. Further discussions took place, and an acceptable formula – not of resignation but of the promise of resignation – was agreed to. On 2 March 1415 after celebrating Mass before the assembled council, John knelt before the high altar of Constance cathedral, while his statement was read:

I, Pope John XXIII, in order to bring tranquillity to all of Christ’s people, do hereby offer, promise, pledge, swear and avow to God, the church and this holy council willingly and freely to give peace to the church by my genuine abdication and to carry out this promise as this council decides, if and when Peter de Luna and Angelo Corario, known as Benedict XIII and Gregory XII in their obediences, do likewise renounce either in person or by legal proxies their claims to the papal office.

This agreed statement was clear enough: John would resign when the other two resigned. Three of the nations – German, French and English – asked for his immediate resignation. This was predictably unacceptable to John XXIII, who, fearing for his life, fled Constance. In the words of a contemporary chronicler,

On 20 March 1415 at one o’clock in the afternoon Pope John departed the city of Constance in secret. On a small horse he rode out of the city, wearing a grey cape with a grey hood, wrapped about him to disguise his identity.

The fleeing pope went to a place nearby where he was under the protection of the duke of Austria and from where he wrote to Sigismund and the cardinals of his continuing intention of resigning. Although there was a danger that the council would sputter out now that the pope had left, it did not, and John quickly became yesterday’s man but not first without some unpleasant formalities. An armed force of 300 brought him back on what appear to be highly inflated charges. Without his answering them the council on 29 May 1415 proceeded to ‘remove, deprive and depose’ him. The judgement of one scholar of the period is that

he was neither better nor worse than his contemporaries … He was sacrificed to the desire of the Christian nations for unity, all the sins of the age heaped on him so that he could be deposed with a semblance of legality.

Perhaps this favourable judgement holds much more than a grain of truth. John never appealed his deposition and, in fact, ratified the council’s action by resigning. In 1419 he paid homage to the new pope, who made him a cardinal.

The council, after having deposed the pope, the validity of whose election it never questioned, was in an unusual situation. How could there be a council without a pope? A council took its authority from the pope, but now without a pope – negotiations with the other claimants were ongoing – by what right could the council exist? There now came into the open what had been intermittently whispered heretofore, the doctrine of conciliarism: the supreme authority in the church was not the pope but the church itself, represented in a general council.

While John XXIII was on the run, the council asserted its sovereignty. Almost immediately after his flight, even before trying him, the council announced its ultimate authority in the often-cited decree Haec sancta (from its opening words):

This holy synod of Constance, legitimately assembled in the Holy Spirit, forms a general council representing the Catholic church militant. It derives its power immediately from Christ, and everyone of whatever position or rank, even the papacy itself, is bound to obey it in all things pertaining to the faith, to the healing of the schism and to the general reform of the church of God in head and members.

It went on to say that any person, even the pope, who refuses to obey a general council will be duly punished. These were unprecedented claims. No council, however turbulent or rebellious, had asserted its supremacy over the pope. This conciliarism had gone beyond the teaching of earlier theologians and canonists that gave a general council extraordinary powers over a heretical or criminous pope: Haec sancta attributed to a general council essential power over the pope, even a saintly, fully orthodox pope. In time some conciliarists would moderate this radical view. Zabarella, for example, stressed that the deposing power of a council applied only to popes notoriously guilty of serious offences, but Haec sancta made no such distinction. In matters pertaining to faith, ending the schism and reforming the church in head (i.e., the pope) and members the council, representing the church, took its authority from Christ. One might ask, what other matters could there be? Faith has to do with theology, and reform has to do with human behaviour, and schism was a matter of the moment. This was an all-embracing decree. Echoes of it will thunder through the next decades and will be heard centuries later at councils at the Vatican in 1870 and 1963.

The council was without a pope, since, after the deposition and resignation of John XXIII, whose right to be pope was consistently acknowledged by the council, there were still two pretenders, never recognized by the council as popes. Yet, according to Haec sancta, a pope was not necessary, and the council continued with its business. Before the council proceeded to disposing of the two pretenders and electing a new pope, a pressing matter had to be dealt with. It concerned heresy.

Wyclif and Hus

This heresy came from Bohemia but had some of its roots in England. John Wyclif, an Oxford don of middling theological abilities, held controversial views, which were condemned at a council at Blackfriars in London in 1382. Two years later he died without having been personally excommunicated, protected by powerful members of the royal family, particularly by the mother of the young King Richard II. Although he was himself an absentee pluralist, holding several benefices simultaneously while residing at Oxford, Wyclif inveighed against the abuses of the church. Churchmen who were not righteous could have no authority in the church of Christ. In addition, he held views on the Eucharist out of step with the received orthodoxy of the times. After the consecration of the bread and wine, he believed, the substance of bread and wine and not merely the accidents (i.e., the appearances) of bread and wine remained. Also, he held that Christ was not physically present in the consecrated species. He further denied the existence of purgatory. All of these ventures into heterodoxy might have remained a purely English affair, of peripheral interest in the wider life of the medieval church, even if ripples continued in England for a few decades. It was the marriage of Richard II to Anne of Bohemia, sister of King Wenceslaus, in 1382, that transported Wyclif’s teachings to the tinder-box of Bohemia and gave his name a European-wide recognition. Although the details are not fully known, the works of Wyclif were brought back to Bohemia, perhaps by clerical members of Queen Anne’s household after her death in 1394. In Bohemia not England, at Prague not Oxford, Wyclif received a warm welcome. Many of the surviving manuscript copies of his works exist only in Czech libraries.

Even before the reception of Wyclif, Bohemia was experiencing considerable unrest, and the new teachings became part of a larger mix. The indigenous Slavic people, the Czechs, were dominated by the Germans, who formed less than 10 per cent of the population. The centres of resentment were the University of Prague, German-controlled since its founding, and the church, in whose higher ranks the Germans prevailed. One Czech critic described the situation,

The Germans completely controlled the university. The Czechs were helpless … And the Germans also controlled the kingdom, having the secular offices, while the Czechs had nothing.

This was the world in which the Czech John Hus came of age. He joined the voices of protest at the Bethlehem Chapel in 1402, while still a theology student. His eloquence and obvious sincerity won him a large audience, and he soon became the foremost voice of Czech nationalism and the pre-eminent preacher of reform in the church, inveighing against the vices of the clergy, his preaching becoming less and less restrained. At the same time, he discovered the works of John Wyclif and even translated one of them into Czech.

Of particular appeal to Hus was Wyclif’s ecclesiology: since only righteous churchmen have genuine authority, obedience need not be given to the unrighteous of any dignity. But it was Hus’s violent attacks against simony and clerical greed that led the archbishop of Prague to restrict his preaching, but to no effect, since Hus did not feel obliged to obey. When Wyclifite propositions were condemned at Prague in 1407, Hus refused to join in the condemnation. Two years later, stirred on by Hus’s fiery sermon, a mob sacked the archbishop’s palace. The archbishop burned Hus’s works and excommunicated him. Civil unrest continued, and by 1412 Prague was in near revolt. The touchstone of orthodoxy was willingness to condemn Wyclifite propositions. After a long silence, Hus, in July 1412, defended five of these propositions, arguing that an orthodox interpretation of them was possible. The execution of three followers of Hus for inciting riots later in 1412 gave the movement its martyrs, and King Wenceslaus set out to destroy Czech nationalism and the heretical teachings by now inextricably bound up with it. Hus was solemnly excommunicated. The matter was moving quickly towards the breaking point. The brief, poorly attended council held by John XXIII at Rome in February 1413 condemned the writings of Wyclif, principally because of the growing crisis in Bohemia, but this council hardly mattered. The showdown was to come at Constance.

Events were to prove it unwise, but John Hus, at the urging of Sigismund and reassured by the king’s promise of a safe-conduct and with the removal of his excommunication, went to Constance. Perhaps he thought he would be involved in a university-like disputation with the fathers of the council and that he would convince them of the rightness of his views. John XXIII before his flight seemed eager to accommodate Hus, even meeting with him personally, but Hus insisted that the papacy was a man-made institution and that the church was not built on Peter but on Christ. Pope John had him placed under house arrest, but, after John’s demise, the council, urged on by Pierre d’Ailly and Jean Gerson, the chancellor of the University of Paris, turned to the Hus affair. Ironical, as it seems to us, these two conciliarists and a decidedly conciliarist council found the antipapal views of Hus too radical for their taste. A trial was held on 5 July 1415 in the presence of Sigismund with d’Ailly leading the prosecution. Thirty allegedly heretical or erroneous propositions supposedly drawn from Hus’s work De ecclesia (On the Church) were presented to him. Hus denied having taught them and, when given the opportunity to abjure them, replied that he could not abjure what he never taught. The following morning after Mass in the cathedral Hus was condemned and handed over to the secular arm, a paper hat bearing the word heresiarcha (heretic) placed on his head. The secular authorities acted within hours, and John Hus was devoured by flames.

Rioting followed in Prague, and the Hussites (as they were soon called) became a force in Bohemia, often associated with Czech national aspirations, although many Czech nationalists were not Hussites and the Hussites came to include Germans. Hus having been disposed of, the Council of Constance could return to the business of the other papal claimants and to the election of a new pope.

Back to Constance

Disposing of the two remaining claimants, John XXIII having resigned, proved relatively straightforward. Gregory XII, now nearing 90 and anxious to prepare his soul for death, proved easier to deal with than the increasingly intransigent Benedict XIII. On 4 July 1415, five weeks after John XXIII’s deposition, Gregory’s representatives did two things in his name: they formally convoked the assembly at Constance as a general council, since Gregory did not recognize that assembly as a council, and to that general council submitted Gregory’s resignation. Benedict XIII, at Perpignan in the eastern Pyrenees, proved the last obstacle. Sigismund’s personal meetings with Benedict and even the pressures brought by Spanish kings had no effect. When these kings and the Scottish legates abandoned Benedict on 13 December 1415, he ceased to be a factor in these matters. All that remained were the formality of his deposition from the office he claimed (16 July 1417), but by that time the council was planning the election of a pope who would be universally recognized.

Plate 23 Burning of John Hus for heresy, from Ulrich von Reichenthal, [Chronicle of the Council of Constance] (Augsberg, 1483); British Library shelf no. IB 5958. Reproduced by permission of the British Library.

A significant part of the council wanted to delay the election of a pope until the council took serious measures to reform the church. The stalemate, acrimonious at times, was broken when Henry Beaufort, bishop of Winchester (later cardinal) and nephew of the English king, Henry V, arrived at Constance in early October with a compromise plan: promulgate the reforms already agreed to, elect a pope and defer other reforms to a future council. And so it was agreed. On 9 October 1417, the council by its own authority, promulgated five reforming decrees. They concerned the transfer of bishops by the pope, the papal collection of taxes and, most significantly, the need for future councils. The decree Frequens, often paired with Haec sancta by historians, provided the vehicle for future reforms:

A frequent celebration of general councils is a special means for cultivating the field of the Lord and for destroying briers, thorns and thistles, i.e., heresies, errors and schism … Thus, by a perpetual edict we sanction, decree, establish and ordain that general councils shall be held in the following manner. The next council shall follow the close of this one at the end of five years. The second shall follow the close of that at the end of seven years. Thereafter councils shall be held every ten years.

There remained only the election of a pope.

Who would elect the new pope? The only uncontested cardinal was the only cardinal still living who had been appointed by Gregory XI (i.e., before 1378), and he was hiding in a Spanish fortress, still protesting that he was pope. (To those who believed the election of Urban VI invalid and that of Clement VII valid Benedict XIII, as successor to Clement VII, was true pope, but that logic won him little support, and he died a sad figure on 23 May 1423.) The electoral body would be made up of the cardinals of the three obediences (23 in number) plus six delegates from each of the nations. The successful candidate would receive a two-thirds majority of the cardinals and a two-thirds majority of each nation. This body met on 8 November 1417 and on 11 November, the feast of St Martin, elected Odo Colonna, who took his name from the day’s saint and became Martin V. Some further attempts were made at reform, but the fathers of the council were eager to go home and to postpone all that could conceivably be postponed. Pope Martin entered into some temporary agreements, usually called concordats, about reform with individual countries. Significantly these were with the secular rulers and not the bishops, whose authority was to some extent thus undermined. Although the council did not dissolve until 22 April 1418, the council had essentially ended with the election of Martin V five and a half months earlier. The schism was truly over.

To describe the effect of the schism and the Council of Constance as ‘the end of the medieval papacy’ exaggerates and even distorts what actually happened. True to say, the papacy in 1418 was markedly different from the papacy in 1378. The institution itself could hardly have been unaffected by competing claimants to the papal office and by Christendom being divided into separate, hostile allegiances. While nations went their own ways, none of them questioned the papacy itself, even the French (the so-called Gallicans). What they questioned was the identity of the pope, although the French and English wanted less papal intervention in the practical affairs of their local churches. The challenge to the papacy itself came from the council and its claim to superiority over the pope. This claim, as we shall soon see, persisted well into the fifteenth century. Yet it was not conciliarism that fomented the great changes of the sixteenth century. After Constance the papacy’s principal challenge was the need for reform within the church and for revitalizing the spiritual life of the Christian people.

Further reading

The survey by Howard Kaminsky distils a lifetime of distinguished scholarship on the schism: ‘The Great Schism’, The New Cambridge Medieval History, vol. 6, c.1300–c.1415 (ed. Michael Jones; Cambridge, 2000), pp. 674–96, with a remarkably thorough bibliography (pp. 1031–41), although the article pulls up short, apparently because of constraints of periodization, and consequently has little to say about Pisa and virtually nothing about Constance. Both of these councils are treated summarily by Antony Black in ‘Popes and Councils’, vol. 7 of the same history, c.1415–c.1500 (ed. Christopher Allmand; Cambridge, 1998), pp. 65–69. A reader looking for a fairly detailed narrative can read John Holland Smith, The Great Schism 1378: The Disintegration of the Papacy(London, 1970).

A classic of its kind is Brian Tierney’s immensely influential Foundations of the Conciliar Theory (Cambridge, 1955; rev. edn., Leiden, 1998). The definitive study of Pierre d’Ailly’s political thought remains Francis Oakley, The Political Thought of Pierre d’Ailly: The Voluntarist Tradition (New Haven and London, 1964). For a more general study of d’Ailly’s ecclesiology see Louis B. Pascoe, Church and Reform: Bishops, Theologians, and Canon Lawyers in the Thought of Pierre d’Ailly (1351–1420) (Leiden and Boston, 2005). Brian Patrick McGuire has written a thoughtful biography of Gerson: Jean Gerson and the Last Medieval Reformation (University Park, PA, 2005). E.F. Jacob, Essays in the Conciliar Epoch (2nd edn; Manchester, 1953) contains seminal work on the subject. The reader will find the works of Robert N. Swanson helpful, especially his monograph Universities, Academics and the Great Schism (Cambridge, 1978) and his many articles, including ‘The Way of Action: Pierre d’Ailly and the Military Solution to the Great Schism’, The Church and War (Studies in Church History, vol. 20, 1983; ed. W.J. Sheils), pp. 191–200.

Several contemporary descriptions of the Council of Constance can be found in The Council of Constance: The Unification of the Church (tr. Louise Ropes Loomis; eds J.H. Mundy and K.M. Woody; New York and London, 1961).

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