Post-classical history

Chapter Ninety-One



Between 1412 and 1440, the Catholic church and the Christian empires fail to find the old unities

THE CATHOLIC CHURCH had been badly cracked by the long years of dual papacy; the cracks were now papered over, but still visible through the thin tissue of agreement. The paradigm of a single Christian empire still survived in stereo, in the hands of the German king to the west and the Byzantine emperor. Both of them claimed the ancient baptized crown of Rome, the call to enforce the pax Romana as a pax Christiana.

But all of these ideals were aging, and at least one of them was already emitting a deathbed rattle.

SIGISMUND, king of Germany and Hungary, was not yet emperor of a holy Roman kingdom. Both Italy and Bohemia, territories of the old empire, lay beyond his grasp.

Before his death from plague in 1402, Gian Galeazzo Visconti—granted the title Duke of Milan by the emperor Wenceslaus IV—had claimed almost all of northern Italy. Only Florence and Venice had remained independent, and Genoa had saved herself from his grasp only by submitting to the rule of the French.

But with Visconti dead, his two sons (aged twelve and thirteen) were helpless in the hands of various ambitious Milanese soldiers and city officials. The older son, Gian Maria, fell under the control of the soldier of fortune Facino Cane and his capable wife Beatrice Lascaris; for a decade, this formidable couple ruled Milan through the puppet duke, while the cities and lands that had once been under Milanese control were claimed, one by one, by other Milanese captains and merchants.

In 1412, while Facino Cane lay dying of fever in Pavia, a band of his enemies murdered the twenty-one-year-old Duke in Milan. His younger brother Filippo Maria Visconti became Duke of Milan in his place. The new Duke, aged twenty at the time of his accession, took the advice of his friends and married Facino’s widow Beatrice, now aged forty. She agreed to the match; she got to be Duchess of Milan, while Filippo Maria was able to claim control of her alliances and also of her rather extensive family lands.1

It was never a happy match. Filippo Maria Visconti had an odd and unattractive personality; he was intelligent, and a shrewd user of men, but pathologically frightened of thunder, obese, and so self-conscious about his hooked nose and vast girth that he lived in secret rooms, changing them frequently, scuttling away from his subjects in the street and refusing to allow his portrait painted. Beatrice, in turn, was a powerful and wealthy woman twenty years his senior. The two coexisted in mutual hostility until 1418, when Filippo Maria accused his wife of adultery and ordered her beheaded.

No one believed the charges; but it was more expedient to stay on the good side of the Visconti Duke.2

Filippo Maria found more satisfaction in his conquests. He had hired the mercenary Francesco Carmagnola to head the Milanese army, and by 1421 Carmagnola had reconquered for Milan almost all of the territories that had fractured away from the Duke’s control. As a bonus, he added Genoa, which changed its alliance from the mad king of France to Filippo Maria instead.

The conquests were vicious and unsparing; one account says that, at the city of Piacenza, so many citizens were slaughtered by the Milanese that only three people remained alive within its walls. But it set Filippo Maria at the top of the Italian pyramid: “Having become master of all Lombardy,” notes Niccolò Machiavelli, the sixteenth-century Florentine politician, in his History of Florence, “[he was] thinking he might undertake almost anything.” In name, he was a subject duke of the Holy Roman Empire; but in practice, he ruled the north of Italy with something close to an emperor’s power.3

BOHEMIA POSED an even thornier problem.

On paper, Bohemia belonged to Germany. But the kingdom was on fire with Hussite rebellion. Sigismund had promised Jan Hus safe-conduct to the Council of Constance, and then had stepped back and allowed him to burn. Hussite fury over the betrayal was widespread, but one Bohemian knight in particular emerged as Sigismund’s opponent: the soldier John Zizka, veteran of wars against the Teutonic Order of Prussia, an ex-captain of the dead Wenceslaus IV. He began to drill the Bohemian peasants, armed with grain flails and riding in wagons, into an actual army. Sigismund, not daring to enter the country, sent a German army ahead of him into Prague; Zizka and his peasants drove the German soldiers back.4

They now demanded the rights that Jan Hus had begun to preach, as spelled out by the Hussite leaders and submitted to Sigismund: the Four Articles of Prague. The Articles asked the king of Germany, first, to allow open preaching of the Gospel without restriction; second, to permit the Eucharist served sub utraque specie, “in both kinds” (in the Bohemian churches, a practice had evolved since the twelfth century of serving the bread to the Christians in the pews, but reserving the wine for ordained priests alone);* third, to require all clergy to take a vow of poverty, giving up the Church’s right to accumulate wealth; and finally, to punish actions “against divine law” (legi divinae contrariae) openly and promptly. Specific sins were mentioned: drunkenness and theft; adultery and wantonness; unjustified tax and interest rate hikes; the sudden raising of feudal rents. Like the Cathars, like the Waldensians, the Hussites fought against all entitlement and privilege.5

Sigismund refused to grant the Articles. But in the ongoing battles between German and Hussite forces—led by Zizka and then, after his death from plague, by the scholar-soldier Prokop the Shaven—he lost more and more ground. The sound of the Hussite battle hymn “Ye Warriors of God,” sung by the armed and trained peasants as they marched into battle, was more often than not the sound of German defeat.

Blessed is everyone who dies for the truth.

Therefore archers and lancers,

Of knightly rank,

Pikemen and flailsmen,

Of the common people,

Keep ye all in mind the generous Lord! . . .

Feel the pride of the weapon in your hands,

And cry: “God is our Lord!”6

In 1421, with Sigismund stalled outside Prague, the Bohemian Diet (the gathered princes of the kingdom) declared him deposed. By 1427, the Hussites were venturing out of Bohemia into Germany, raiding and burning in revenge for German attacks on their homes.

Sigismund’s response to the Hussite revolt was neither as energetic nor as effective as it could have been; his attentions were divided, he was often in Hungary, and he was saving enough force for a proposed march down into Italy, where he hoped to convince the new unification pope, Martin V, to crown him emperor.

The first tentative move towards the imperial crown happened in the spring of 1431, when a church council assembled in the German town of Basel to discuss (among many other issues) the problem of the Hussites. But Martin V died shortly after the council was assembled, delaying its deliberations; the cardinals had to pull away from Hussite business to choose a new pope, the Venetian Eugene IV, in his place. In the meantime, Sigismund opened negotiations with Filippo Maria of Milan. Even if he convinced the new pope to give him the imperial crown, he could not march through the Lombard lands towards Rome unless he treatied with or defeated Milan.

As an incentive, he offered imperial soldiers to aid Milan in its battles with Florence and Venice, and imperial friendship with Milan against those two rival cities. Cannily, Filippo Maria walked a middle path; he agreed to allow Sigismund to enter Milan and be crowned with the Iron Crown of the Lombards (the intermediate step towards emperorship), but when the German king arrived, the Visconti Duke refused to see him. He withdrew to one of his castles outside of Milan and sent a message explaining that he did not dare see Sigismund face-to-face because his emotions were too extreme; he did not want to risk “dying of joy.”7

This neatly avoided the problem of paying personal homage to the new king of the Lombards, which he did not wish to do. It also didn’t fool Sigismund, but since there was no graceful way for him to insist on Filippo Maria’s presence, he accepted the excuse, claimed the crown on November 25, 1431, and went home again.


91.1 The Empire of Sigismund

It took another eighteen months to arrange the imperial coronation in Rome; Pope Eugene IV kept falling out with the attendees at the Council, which made his departure complicated. Finally, in May of 1433, Sigismund had all of his ducks in a row. He journeyed from Germany south, through Lombardy, entering Rome itself on May 21, surrounded by six hundred knights and eight hundred foot soldiers and riding beneath a canopy of gold cloth. Ten days later, Eugene IV crowned him Holy Roman Emperor underneath the dome of St. Peter’s.8

In celebration, Sigismund began to use a new seal: a double-headed eagle, representing his dual identity as king of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor. Later in that same year, he returned to the Council to weigh in on its (interminable) discussions and negotiations. Speaking to the assembled priests in Latin, he used the feminine gender for a neuter noun; when a nearby canon tactfully corrected him, Sigismund retorted, “I am the Emperor of the Romans, and above grammar” (Ego Imperator Romanus sum, et super grammaticam).9

His new status brought some small forward movement to the Council, which finally agreed, on November 26, to withdraw condemnation of the Hussites as heretics, to allow Bohemian laypeople to receive the cup of wine at the Eucharist, and to permit preaching by anyone who was “commissioned” by a “superior.” On the other two points, the Council waffled. But the Hussite leaders in Prague, receiving this news from Basel, were inclined to accept the partial concession. Bohemia was a small country; for over a decade, the regular business of trading, farming, and living had been completely disrupted by war; over a hundred thousand men had died in the fighting, and waves of plague had swept across the country again and again.10

Unfortunately, the Hussite movement had now matured enough to subdivide into sects, and the most radical of the Hussites refused to agree to any compromise.

Led by Prokop the Shaven, an army of hard-line Hussites laid siege to the Catholic city of Plzeň; in response, the more moderate Hussites joined with orthodox Catholics to fight against them. At Lipany, on May 30, 1434, a pitched battle between the extremists and the moderate-Catholic alliance ended with the defeat of the fanatics and an eventual compromise, sworn out in 1436. The Compactata, the Compacts of Basel, recognized the Hussites as part of the Catholic Church although different in practice and belief: the first time that western Christianity had recognized the existence of a distinct sect as inside Christianity, yet outside pure Catholic doctrine. It was a kind of oneness—paper unity, existing as long as no one crumpled the surface.11

THE COMPACTS OF BASEL had managed to bring Bohemia back within the empire, but the kingdom’s submission was brief.

After four years as emperor, Sigismund died on December 9, 1437. He was a few months away from his seventieth birthday, probably suffering from diabetes; the toes on his left foot had been amputated not long before. Feeling the end approach, he ordered himself dressed in the imperial robes and managed to get himself onto the imperial throne, where he sat and waited for death to come.12

He left no sons, and his son-in-law Albert, the forty-year-old Duke of Austria, claimed the right to all of his titles. Albert had no difficulty ascending the Hungarian throne, and in March of 1438 the German electors agreed to recognize his claim to Germany. But Bohemia rejected him, and the bickering Hussite factions argued over whom to recognize in his place.

Meanwhile, the Council of Basel was still carrying on. It had semisettled the Hussite question, but a plethora of other matters, including various church reforms and the possibility of (once more) attempting to draw the Greek Orthodox church of Constantinople back into the Roman fold, were unsettled.

And factions had developed within the Council. Just as Bohemia splintered away from the Holy Roman Empire, the Council also splintered. Pope Eugene IV and his supporters insisted on moving the deliberations to Florence, where the wealthy merchant-politician Cosimo de’Medici had assured them of a welcome. A stubborn rump Council remained behind, insisting that the pope had acted without proper consideration of the Council’s authority, and elected a replacement: a northern Italian aristocrat who became the “antipope” Felix V.

Unlike the fourteenth-century schism, this division of the papacy turned out to be a mere footnote; Eugene IV proceeded on to Florence, and most of Christendom recognized that the Council of Basel had become the Council of Florence. But for the next ten years, the obstinate Felix V continued to claim the title of pope.*

IN 1439, the emperor of Constantinople arrived at Florence, ready to discuss the possibilities (yet again) of union with Rome; never mind that Rome itself was still suffering a fair amount of disunion.

He was driven by the changing situation in the Ottoman empire. The kindly disposed Ottoman sultan Mehmed had died in January of 1421 (a natural death, according to court chronicles; poison, according to rumor), and his son, the fierce eighteen-year-old Murad II, had at once laid siege to Constantinople.

The elderly Manuel II had paid the new sultan off in 1424, temporarily lifting the siege. But the old emperor died not long after, leaving his son John VIII to face the new Ottoman threat. Emperor John VIII had journeyed to Italy, to what was now the Council of Florence, to ask the Christian west to unify against the Ottoman east, for the sake of Constantinople’s survival: a repeat of the same theme that had been heard, like an out-of-tune first violin, since the call for the First Crusade.

The effort failed.

John’s strategy was to try, once again, to smooth out the differences between east and west; to sponge out nearly five hundred years of diverging thought and theology, custom and culture, for the sake of a single-front war. But even before the arrival of the emperor’s party (which included seven hundred priests, court officials, theologians and scholars), the patriarch of Constantinople was infuriated by a message reminding him that he was supposed to kiss the foot of the pope when he was presented. His intentions, he retorted, were “to treat the Pope as a father, if he were older than me; if of the same age, as a brother; if younger, as a son.”13

This jousting over rank continued. Once at the Council, the Byzantines and Europeans argued over the best seats, priority during meals, whether or not the Patriarch got to decorate his dais with curtains like the Pope, where Easter services should be held, and (eventually) church doctrines. From June 4, 1438, through July 5, 1439, the Council argued, in marathon daily sessions, over the theological points that divided them: the exact way in which the Holy Spirit related to the other two persons of the Trinity, the use of leavened versus unleavened bread for the Eucharist, the precise degree of authority that the Pope held over the Greek church, and a host of related minutia. The priests and theologians hammered out compromise statements, word by word and preposition by preposition. During the deliberations, the Patriarch died of old age.14

Finally, the compromises were finished, set down on paper as the Decrees of Union, read out loud to much rejoicing, and greeted with hymns of praise from both Greeks and Latins (although, since neither set of clergy approved of the hymn style of the other, they were forced to alternate singing at each other across the central aisle in the cathedral of Florence).

Guaranteed the support of the Western church, and bearing with him the promise that Pope Eugene would send three hundred warships and twelve thousand florins to help defend Constantinople against the Turks, John VIII set off for home. He arrived early in February 1440; and within a matter of weeks, both the promised soldiers and the much-needed cash had followed him to his capital city.

Yet the unification never happened.

Greeted by Constantinople’s people at the docks with the question “How did your efforts fare? . . . Did we win our cause?” the priests who had accompanied the emperor retorted, “We have sold our faith overseas, we have exchanged piety for impiety!” Only the very top levels of the Greek church and court were behind the compromise; the priests who labored in Constantinople’s churches and the laity in the pew saw it as a sellout, the crass exchange of precious sacred treasures for raw political advantage. Reading his people correctly, John VIII delayed in publishing the Decrees of Union in Constantinople.15

The delay became permanent. The attempt to draw the churches back into one body was no more successful than the reunification of the old Holy Roman Empire. The costly trip west, the countless hours in argumentation, the unending negotiations: all of this had brought a few more soldiers to Constantinople, but had achieved nothing else. And those soldiers would prove useless against the coming attack.


*This practice, which was defended by both Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas, seems to have grown out the doctrine of transubstantiation; if the bread and wine are literally transformed into Christ’s body and blood, taking part of either means that the worshipper has shared in the consumption of Christ, so both are not necessary. Because the wine was more easily spilled and abused (and, possibly, more expensive), many priests throughout France, Italy, and Germany refused to serve wine to the laity. This was a widespread but never universal practice; it was resented, by the Hussites, for drawing a sharp line of privilege between ordained and nonordained believers.

*The Council of Basel met for a transitional time at Ferrara before ending up at Florence. The entire council itself is most often now referred to as the Council of Florence, but the terms “Council of Basel” and “Council of Ferrara” are also sometimes used.

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