Two related developments of a distinctly political rather than theological nature—in the 14th and early 15th centuries—can be seen as a medieval episode forcing Church reorganization or as part of a gathering storm leading to a broad-based crisis in the 16th century.
The first was the Avignon papacy, between 1309 to 1377, when seven successive popes resided in and presided from the town of that name. The Western Schism that followed involved several simultaneous claimants to the papal chair.
The bishop or overseer of the Church in Rome was regarded as preeminent going back to apostolic times because the first one was the apostle Peter, to whom Jesus assigned leadership over his followers in Matthew 16:18-19 in terms that admittedly left room for debate much later.
The Romans called Peter’s successors Papa (father) or pontifex (Latin for “bridge builder,” from pons plus facere), which was the title of the leader of the principal college of priests in ancient Rome. Although other bishops of ancient sees claimed some eminence in the Church, allegiance to the pope was universally accepted until 1054, when the Roman pope and the patriarch of Constantinople excommunicated each other, launching the still-unhealed Great Schism between the Catholic and Orthodox communions.
In addition, political, legal, social and even military roles befell the pope to the point that the medieval popes were not only the spiritual and ecclesiastical leaders of Western Christianity, but they were rulers over large parts of Italy, the Papal States—their decrees amounted to acts of a common European law. The medieval pope could be best seen as a secretary general of United Nations, but on steroids; the pope could rule on the terms to settle conflicts between kings and princes, order dispositions of territories and property and since Charlemagne even crown emperors.
Of course, between the years 200 and 1449 there arose some 42 challengers, called antipopes. The would-be pontiffs gained sufficient following among a faction of church leaders to claim the seat of Peter in opposition to a pope more generally seen as the legitimately elected pontiff, often by express confirmation by a general council.
Avignon and the related Papal Schism lasted altogether a bit more than a century and opened up what should have been chastening questions concerning the significance of the pope and the see of Rome that had never quite been considered before.
At the beginning of the 14th century the French-speaking town of Avignon had no great importance. Its only religious claim to fame was the legend surrounding its bridge, built by a shepherd boy, the future Saint Bénézet (1163–84), who was told in a vision to build a bridge over the Rhône River at Avignon.
He started building the structure by single-handedly laying a huge foundation stone. Later called the Pont Saint-Bénézet, it was a bridge built with 22 stone arches that tended to collapse when the Rhône flooded. Rebuilding was abandoned in the 17th century, but it nonetheless inspired a popular French folk song, Sur le Pont d’Avignon (On the Avignon Bridge).
In 1309, Avignon attracted a bridge builder of a different kind, the Catholic pontiff. Indeed, the four surviving arches on the bank of the Rhône were built around 1345 by an Avignon pope, Clement VI.
The Avignon papacy started when, facing factionalism in Rome and encouraged by French King Philip IV, Pope Clement V moved the papal residence and offices to the French town. All seven of the popes during the period were French, as were 111 of the 134 cardinals named, but the pope was not as influenced by royal French pressure as critics claim.
In some respects the inner functioning of the ecclesiastical offices connected to the pope improved away from Rome. The College of Cardinals gained a stronger role in governing the church, there was vast reorganization and centralization of administrative offices, reforms of the clergy were begun and many attempts were made to settle royal rivalries and establish peace. All this occurred within a complex of buildings that still stands, the Palace of the Popes, an architecturally severe French Gothic structure.
The shift had a distinct economic effect on France when Avignon became a center of trade. The popes were followed to Avignon by agents of the great Italian banking houses who intermediated between the papal agencies and others. Traders brought products needed for the upkeep of a large papal court and the visitors who flocked to it. Grain and wine came from Provence and the countryside around Lyons. Fish came from as far away as Brittany. Cloth and tapestries were brought from Bruges and Tournai. Avignon became wealthy, and its university drew European students who were rewarded with free books and scholarships.
Politically, France slowly gained control of the Kingdom of Arles, within which Avignon was located. At the outset of the Avignon papacy, the kingdom was nominally part of the (Germanic) Holy Roman Empire as it had been since 1032. When the popes left, the kingdom was dissolved and effectively and legally passed to France.
All this favoritism toward France damaged the papacy in the eyes of the English and German nobility, which disliked the Avignon papacy. In the eyes of some critics it also provoked a grave moral crisis in the Church, which came to resemble a bawdy and earthly principality, gaining critics such as William of Ockham and others, who sought a more austere clergy. Such critics described the period as the “Babylonian captivity” of the popes, a term thought to originate with the humanist scholar and poet Petrarch, who while visiting Avignon in the 1340s described it as “the Babylon of the West.”
Just as the Avignon papacy ended, however, a new crisis began, known as the Great, Papal or Western Schism. Its eruption reads like a classic political thriller. Urged by many voices at the time, including that of Catherine of Siena, Pope Gregory XI reestablished papal administration in Rome in January 1377; unfortunately he died soon after, in March 1378.
The College of Cardinals was immediately convened. Romans, whose interests had suffered during the Avignon period, wanted a pope who was Roman or at least Italian, as did the mobs from various neighboring regions that pressured the cardinals to act. On April 8, the cardinals elected the Archbishop of Bari, a respected administrator in the papal chancery at Avignon, as Pope Urban VI.
As pope, however, Urban seemed to want to accomplish many reforms at once and, reportedly, was prone to violent outbursts of temper. The cardinals began to have buyer’s remorse; a majority went from Rome to Anagni, where on September 20 they elected Robert of Geneva, who took the papal name Clement VII and reestablished a papal court in Avignon.
The numerous earlier antipopes had been rival claimants to the papacy appointed by minority factions among Church leaders, but this time the same group of cardinals elected both the pope and the antipope within months of one another, without first removing the sitting pope.
The second election threw the Church—and Europe—into turmoil. Kings and princes suddenly had to choose whom they would recognize as pope. The Avignon claimant won the support of Aragon, Burgundy, Castile and León, Cyprus, France, Naples, Savoy, Scotland and Owain Glyndwr’s rebellion in Wales. Denmark, England, Flanders, the Holy Roman Empire, Hungary, Ireland, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Sweden and the Republic of Venice, along with other Italian city states, sided with the Roman claimant.
The schism lasted 39 years with three parallel papal lines: two Avignon popes (Clement VII and Benedict XIII); four Roman popes (Urban VI, Boniface IX, Innocent VII and Gregory XII); and—incredible as it sounds—two parallel substitute popes elected to resolve the dispute (Alexander V and John XXIII) yet ultimately unsupported by majorities.
Yes, you read right, John XXIII. Cardinal Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, a church history aficionado, chose that very name when elected pope in 1958 to cross a t and dot an i in the historical record; the medieval John XXIII is officially regarded as an antipope.
The schism ended with the resignation of Gregory XII in 1415—the last time before 2013 that a pope stepped down before death—and the election of Martin V in 1417. To prevent the repetition of such a spectacle, Pius II decreed that papal elections were irrevocable and could be undone only by the sitting and elected pope.
To some observers, the survival of the Catholic Church despite such immense folly is evidence of its divine protection.