Episode 20 AD 1356-1414

The Great Schism

In the later 1300s the Turks were able to grow in power and tighten their stranglehold on Constantinople because Latin Christendom was caught in a descending vortex of factional inner conflict.

The mercenary Companies, spawned by 100 Years War, became a source of systemic instability, which spread from central France, to the south and into Burgundy, Spain and Italy.

The period saw a long truce in the 100 Years War, unleashing the Companies into Spain and northern Italy. But none of the three kingdoms in Iberia – Castile, Aragon and Portugal – could achieve outright hegemony in the peninsula.

The papacy at Avignon systematized its hold on the ecclesiastical structure of Latin Christendom and extracted from all over Europe the coin to fund its wars in central Italy, in order to reassert its authority over the Papal States and make a return to Rome feasible. In the process, it drew sustained criticism from Italy and from some intellectuals.

Papal war in central Italy was partially successful, but the return of the pope in 1378 proved a disaster. A botched papal election led to two anti-popes claiming exclusive authority. Immediately warfare broke out and the entire Latin church descended into a 40-year Schism.
The Great Schism was a watershed in European religious sensibility, for the standing scandal it represented corroded social reverence for the office of the papacy and opened the way for individual university doctors to mount frontal assaults on the whole edifice of medieval religious assumptions. The result, in Bohemia, was a terrible religious civil war, a harbinger of the long-term future.

Contents of the video (1 hour & 8 mins.)

  • Factional conflict between the princes was mirrored by factions within the Latin church, which eventually split it.
  • The Holy Roman Empire provided a large region of relative calm, amid the spreading mayhem of the rest of Europe.
  • In Spain the ending of the Moorish threat led to the breakup of the Crusade alliances, and a power struggle between Castile and Aragon for hegemony. Both sides brought in Companies from the two sides of the wars in France. An attempt by the king of Castile to inherit Portugal met with resistance from Joã de Avis, forming a new Portuguese mercantile kingdom. However, an expedition of French knights paid by Castile took the Canary Islands in 1402, the jumping off point 90 years later for discovery of the Americas.
  • The papacy at Avignon because much more effective at controlling the ecclesiastical institutions of Europe, and in securing sources of revenue from each of them. It became a professional bureaucratic, fiscal and juridical organisation of immense reach. Its effectiveness however also sowed the seeds of a murmuring against its worldliness in many quarters.
  • Leading intellectuals began to publish systematic critiques of the papacy and calling for reform. Among them were Dante Alighieri and Marsilio di Padova, calling for secular supremacy over the papacy. In England, an Oxford theologian, John Wycliffe, demanded a reform that was not secular in tendency, but for more strictness in religion.
  • The Companies become the personal armies of great warlord captains, Condottieri in Italian, who hired them out to this or that employer. Italy by the 1350s had become their field of activity. The papacy at Avignon now had the money to launch a military campaign to reassert its sovereignty over the Papal States. It employed Cardinal Albornoz as its vicar in Italy. Over fourteen years he used his mercenaries and diplomacy to reconquer each city of central Italy one by one.
  • After Albernoz’ death, non-Italian papal officials ruled the cities of central Italy, with their feared mercenaries. Florence led an alliance against them, waging the semi-religious war of the Otto Santi.
  • By 1377 the way was clear for the pope to return to Italy. Saint Catherine of Siena played a pivotal role in bringing this about. The pope’s death at Rome led to an election, which was held under tumultuous circumstances. The upshot of Roman popular pressure and the foolishness of the cardinals was the appointment of two popes, one Italian and the other of the Avignonese party. Civil war ensued between them and Latin Christendom was split by the Great Schism.
  • The Schism was to last four decades, and it only intensified the disgust in many quarters at the way religion was conducted. Wycliffe’s writings were known at the university of Prague, where the doctrine played into local ethnic resentments. The vacancy of the bishop’s seat at Prague allowed Jan Hus to preach unopposed his version of Wycliffe’s doctrine. A violent religious explosion was about to happen in Bohemia.

Now with the audio-only version included

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