The Pope Smackdown of the 14th Century

Alex Johnson - Content Writer

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I’m Sicilian from my mother’s side of the family, which means I was ostensibly raised Catholic. Really, that meant I went to church and catechism school until my body grew large enough that it was harder for my mom to make me go places. After that, I totally checked out from the religion, including the four years I spent at a Catholic college.

By that time, I had grown even larger than I’d been in middle school, and while the administration could certainly force me to sign up for two theology courses to fulfill core requirements, they could not make me show up to class. If I had, though, I bet I would have learned all about the Western Schism in the Catholic church.

There have been a couple of great Catholic schisms. An earlier schism stuck—which is why we have the Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox churches today. A few hundred years later, the Catholic church was rocked by another schism. From 1378 to 1417, the Catholic church in Western Europe was split not once, not twice, but three times, each with its own pope. And, whether you’re a recovering Catholic like me, a practicing Catholic, or you’ve never been Catholic in your life, I think we can all agree: one Catholic church is the magic number. Same goes for popes—they’re kinda like extremely mortal Highlanders. There can be only one.

Whose Bright Idea Was it to Have Three Popes at the Same Time?

Well, nobody planned it that way. Human history has found itself in a lot of really stupid jams, and it’s usually because we get a little caught up in tribalism and miss the big picture. In this case, a lot of Catholics—particularly in Italy, and particularly in Rome—were sick of having French popes.

See, for almost all of the 14th century, up until 1376, the papacy had been seated in Avignon, France, rather than Rome. During that time, there was a string of seven French popes based in France. The optics weren’t great: it looked like the French crown owned the Catholic church.

Here’s a little cartoon from the Seattle Catholic, which was apparently making political cartoons in the 2000s about stuff that happened in the 14th century.

Historically, there are a couple things that you can count on most of Western Europe to do: stop Germany from taking over the world, and resent France, for one reason or another. This time, France was earning that resentment by appropriating the Catholic church. At least, that was the common perception among the people of Rome at the time.

It looks like Pope Gregory XI, the last of the popes in Avignon, felt the pressure, because he moved the papal court back to Rome in 1376. Two years later, Gregory XI died, and it was time to vote in a new pope. The people of Rome, worried that they’d get yet another French pope, exercised their own political power by rioting in the streets and scaring the sh*t out of the cardinals.

The cardinals weren’t in a rush to get to heaven, so they acquiesced and elected an Italian pope, as god intended. The archbishop of Bari was coronated as Pope Urban VI in 1378, and everything was all cleared up.1 2

Uh Oh, Pope Urban VI was a D**k

Ahh, come on, we were so close.

OK, so Pope Urban VI, it turned out, f**king hated the cardinals. Possibly because the majority at the time were French, and Urban had jumped from archbishop (just beneath cardinal) to pope (just above cardinal). If you were suddenly promoted to your boss’ boss, maybe you’d be a d**k about it, too.

This illustration by Greg Harlin of Pope Urban VI beating his cardinals is, admittedly, inaccurate: Urban would have beaten his cardinals with a papal ferula at this point in history, rather than a croisier. Still, I like the colors.

Urban VI also had a violent temper. As the mobs of Rome previously established, the cardinals weren’t fond of violence aimed at cardinals. So, they huddled back up and decided that—whoops!—that last papal election hardly counted, what with all the threats of violence directed at the goodly cardinals. A new and less threatening electoral process was needed to amend the terrible mistake made by electing Urban VI. This likely did not improve Urban VI’s attitude toward cardinals.

It probably didn’t make the Roman mobs happy, either, because the cardinals (who, remember, were mostly French) elected an even newer, French-er pope. In fact, Antipope (kind of cool, right?) Clement VII was so French, he was indeed from France. He also placed his seat back in Avignon, at the Palais des Papes, right back where this whole thing started. The cardinals, I imagine, liked the idea of getting the f**k out of Rome and away from any mob retribution. The whole thing was a big renege.

And That’s How You Get Two Popes

The thing about electing a very new pope in Avignon when you’ve still got an old new pope kicking around in Rome is that, uh, now you’ve got two popes. Sure, you could try and fire the old pope, but good luck: you’ve already told him he’s infallible.

On top of that, the entire nature of papal infallibility was on the line, here. How could you have two dudes who disagree, but still have each of them be right 100 percent of the time? It presented the kind of paradox that, quite frankly, should have awoken the Great Old Ones from their ancient slumbers to rule over Earth and drive humankind to madness.

Le Pape Clement VII, soaking it up.

That didn’t happen, but it was still a bad spot for Western Europe to be in. Europe fractured, with various crowns and kingdoms picking their favorite pope. Some liked the Avignon pope, others liked the Roman pope.

In a stroke of potentially divine intervention, the church’s pope problem was nearly solved when both popes eventually died. Alas, letting a conflict simple wane into the ether is not the human way, so the cardinals on each side kept the conflict alive, electing replacements for their dead popes.1 2

Episode Four(teen O’Nine): A New Pope

“All right, that’s enough of this,” was the thesis of a church council that met in Pisa in 1409. The idea was to make a compromise: the Avignon and Rome popes would resign, and the council would elect a new pope. That way, neither side would be happy.

They got the ball rolling by electing a new pope first: Antipope Alexander V. They really jumped the gun, though, because the popes in Avignon and Rome, ah, did not agree to any of that. Instead, they stayed on as popes, and that’s how you get three popes. Or antipopes, depending on who you think is a real pope, and who’s a phony.

Alexander V, the third antipope, crowned in Pisa.

This schism mess played out like a bad episode of The Three Stooges (the Shemp years) for another five years, with popes from Avignon, Rome, and now Pisa all jockeying for control over the Catholic church, becoming stuck together in the narrow door of history, as it were.1 2

Pain d’Avignon

Finally, in 1414, Alexander V’s successor, John XXIII, tried a radical change in tack: another church council. Kind of like the one in Pisa five years prior. You know, the church council that tried to decrease the number of popes, but instead gave the church a third pope.

This time, though, things were different. The council was led by John XXIII in Pisa, and gained the support of Gregory XII in Rome. That’s two popes on board, leaving the Benedict XIII, in Avignon, the odd pope out.

The next steps play out like some kind of Settlers of Catan murder-suicide gambit where nobody gets to win the game: John XXIII and Gregory XII excommunicate Benedict XIII, totally removing Avignon from the board. Then, John and Gregory both resigned, wiping the slate clean.

The tomb of Antipope John XXIII (not to be confused with regular Pope John XXIII, 1958-1963). I guess he’s like the hero in this story, since he’s the one who went nuclear to reset the papacy.

Only the council was left, and it elected one final pope: Martin V, who would rein from 1417-1431. The schism was over, and the Catholic church never faced any problems ever again. OK?1

One Pope to Rule Them All, One Pope to Find Them

OK, OK, maybe some problems persisted. But let’s not muddy the waters too much. The important takeaway regarding this specific issue is that it created lasting problems with the Catholic church.

All this succession drama, where different people and places claimed to be the rightful seats and holders of power—that was nothing new to medieval Europe. That continent has been a factional powder keg through most of its recorded history, and people were already plenty familiar with that brand of instability by the 14th century.

Winner, winner, chicken dinner. (Pope Martin V.)

But it was one thing for kings, queens, nations, and city states to duke it out among one another for power. The Catholic church was supposed to be above the fray of worldly concerns. All this mucking around in politics, well, that was the kind of muddy secular pursuit better left to humans than to the infallible voice of god on Earth. When you’ve got two or three popes, well, none of them seem all that special, do they?

Even medieval Catholics had only so much patience for this kind of pope v. pope v. pope guff. By the time that church council in Pisa got everything sorted out, the damage had been done, and the church’s influence had degraded.1

Anyway, that’s how you get back to one pope.

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Notes & Gossip 📌

  1. History Studies. (2013, December 3). The Western Schism. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ya_BL8nqkUk
  2. Encyclopaedia Britannica. (Accessed July 1, 2018). Western Schism: Roman Catholic History. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/event/Western-Schism

Scholarly Shout-outs 🌟

  • Encyclopaedia Britannica. (Accessed July 1, 2018). Avignon Papacy: Roman Catholicism. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/event/Avignon-papacy
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica. (Accessed July 1, 2018). Western Schism: Roman Catholic History. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/event/Western-Schism
  • History Studies. (2013, December 3). The Western Schism. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ya_BL8nqkUk

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