Tuesday, October 27, 2020


 Last week I blogged about anti-popes, that is men elected as pope but who are not ultimately recognized as real popes.  Real popes were those men elected as pope who were indeed ultimately recognized.  When you have both real popes and anti-popes (and you generally don't have an anti-pope without a pope), you have a schism, a split in the church when some people follow one pope, some the other.

The Great Schism involves late medieval popes.  The story starts at Avignon, a pleasant city in southern France.  Below is a picture of the town's medieval bridge.  There is a little French children's song, "Sur le pont, d'Avignon, on y danse" (On the bridge of Avignon, people are dancing).

Avignon originally had nothing of the schism about it.  In 1303 the pope died, just as the king of France was announcing he was going to arrest the pope and try him for heresy.  (Yes, if you thought medieval people lived in fear of the pope, you are mistaken.)  The cardinals, wanting to keep on the good side of the king, elected a Frenchman as pope in 1304.  He started toward Rome but got no further than Provence, that is the southeastern corner of France.  Avignon seemed like a nice place, so he stopped there while sorting out some issues but somehow never got moving again.  He and his successors just stayed in Avignon.

They built a lovely large palace (which is still there), planted vineyards (think Châteauneuf du Pape), and proved themselves serious administrators, not inspiring but not corrupt.  Avignon was a good choice, because even though it really was French, politically it was just within the border of the Holy Roman Empire, and thus the popes could say plausibly that they weren't really in the French king's pocket.

But everyone said they should get back to Rome. Somehow it never quite happened, for three-quarters of a century.  Finally in 1378 the whole papal curia got themselves together at last and headed off to Rome.  What a mess!  Nobody had cleaned up the place in generations.  The pope announced he was heading home to Avignon but instead he died.

The Roman mob demanded the cardinals elect an Italian, which the terrified cardinals did.  But when the new pope started throwing his weight around, the cardinals decided they had only elected him "under duress," which didn't count, and raced back to Avignon where they elected a different pope.  The Great Schism was on.

Earlier schisms had been cleared up within a generation, but this one dragged on, with the Roman pope and the Avignon pope both getting supporters (respectively the English and the French king, who were having the Hundred Years with each other), and both excommunicating the others' adherents.  Everyone agreed this was horrible, and a big council seemed like the only solution.

In 1408-9 a great council was held at Pisa.  Both the Roman and Avignon popes were denounced as schismatic heretics and formally deposed.  The council elected a new pope to replace them.  You can probably guess what happened.  Now there were three popes.

You  might have thought the failure of the Council of Pisa would have turned everyone against councils, but it was really their only option.  In 1417 the Council of Constance, announcing that a general council held its power only from God, deposed all three popes, and the Great Schism was over.  There have been a few anti-popes since, but none ever got much support.

But in the meantime the papacy had pretty much lost all respect.  The popes settled down to be one more Renaissance tyrant, and the Reformation was only a century away.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on the medieval church, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.  Also available in paperback.


  1. But this is one thing I can't figure out. The medieval popes were sitting in Rome, that was the capital of the Papal State and anyway not in the realm of french kings. So in order to arrest the Pope and try him for heresy, the king firstly needed to break a war and conquer the Papal State. Is the Papal State was so weak and so lacking allies that conquering it was such a no big deal for the king of France that he was able to do this just on a whim?

  2. A small group of men went to capture the pope at his villa outside of Rome. If one's goal is one person, one doesn't need a whole army. The pope didn't die in their hands, he died while fleeing, but the papacy has always (since the 11th century anyway) had to rely on spiritual rather than physical power primarily.

  3. Sounds interesting and funny, just like modern intelligence agencies' operation. Thank you very much.