Compendium of Church History - Notre Dame

Fourteenth Century
The Century of the Popes at Avignon

Babylonian Captivity and the Schism of the West

In passing from the story of the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries to that of the fourteenth and fifteenth, the transition is sharp from glory to decay.

Causes of Decline.

  1. The immense growth of the power and wealth of European nations, and the attendant luxury of living.
  2. The disrepute into which the Papacy fell in consequence of the disputes about succession.
  3. The spread of erroneous opinions on faith and morals.

The Popes at Avignon

The event which led up to the Schism of the West was the removal of the Papal residence from Rome to Avignon, a city on the Rhone held by the king of Naples.

When, in 1305, Bertrand de Got, Archbishop of Bordeaux, became Clement V by the influence of Philip the Fair, he was induced by that monarch to remain in France. Six popes in succession, Frenchmen by birth, followed his example, and as the majority of the Cardinals were natives of France, French influence prevailed in the Papal court. This sojourn of the Popes at Avignon lasted for seventy years, and was called by the Italians the Babylonian exile.

The six Popes who lived at Avignon were:

  1. Clement V. Suppressed the Knights Templars.
  2. John XXII. Published a crusade against the Ghibellines.
  3. Benedict XII. Built the famous palace of the Popes.
  4. Clement VI. Purchased Avignon from the Queen of Naples.
  5. Innocent VI. Opposed the heresy of Wickliffe.
  6. Blessed Urban V. Endeavored to reform the clergy.

Pope Gregory XI returned to Rome in answer to the demand of the Romans, the desire of the Christian world, and especially to the pleadings of St. Catharine of Sienna.

When Gregory XI died, the College of Cardinals numbered only twenty-three; seven were at Avignon, and of the sixteen who formed the conclave at Rome, eleven were Frenchmen. The inhabitants of Rome, fearing lest a French Pope might return to Avignon, clamored for a Roman, or at least an Italian Pope. The Archbishop of Bari was elected, and assumed the name of Urban VI. Dissatisfied with his rule and claiming that the election had been forced, the French cardinals seceded and chose an anti-pope, Clement VII, who fled to Avignon.

Schism of the West

France became the chief support of Clement VII, who gradually won the obedience of the Paris University, Spain, Scotland, Savoy, Naples, and Cyprus.

England, Brittany, and Portugal, the greater part of Italy, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Flanders, Sweden, Norway, and the Catholic Orient remained true to Urban VI.

Urban VI died in 1389, and the fourteen cardinals who had adhered to him elected his successor, Boniface IX. At the death of the latter the legitimate Roman line was continued by Innocent VII and Gregory XII. After the schism had lasted thirty years, during which time two anti-popes had been chosen by the cardinals at Avignon, several cardinals convened a synod at Pisa to end the schism. They declared the elections both in Rome and in Avignon null and void, and named Alexander V as pope. Three popes now claimed the recognition of the Christian world.

At the solicitation of the Emperor Sigismund, John XXIII, the successor of Alexander V, called a general council at Constance, 1414. It was decided to demand the abdication of all three popes. Pope Gregory freely resigned, John XXIII and Benedict XIII were deposed. Cardinal Otto Colonna was then elected, with the title of Martin V.

The schism lowered the prestige of papal authority, destroyed the fervor of the faithful, and finally contributed more than anything else to the great apostasy of the sixteenth century.

Heresies of the Fourteenth Century

Heresy of Wickliffe and Huss.
Coincident with the Western Schism there arose in England and Bohemia a dangerous heretical movement. In his early career, John Wickliffe, a scholar of Oxford, had lost a suit against the Archbishop of Canterbury. This disappointment and the failure to obtain the bishopric of Winchester turned him into a bitter enemy of the Church. He denied Transubstantiation, the primacy of St. Peter, oral tradition, and other dogmas. His doctrine gave rise to the sect of Lollards.

When Anne of Bohemia became the queen of Richard II, of England, John Huss accompanied her train to London as chaplain, where he heard John Wickliffe preach and imbibed his false doctrines. As he was a professor in the University of Prague, he had every opportunity of teaching others the new tenets.

In 1414 the Council of Constance formally condemned John Huss, and handed him over to the civil authority. According to the law of the empire, he was burned as a heretic. The next year Jerome of Prague met the same fate. He was an Oxford scholar and an admirer of Wickliffe, whose writings he brought to John Huss in Bohemia.

The doctrines of Wickliffe and Huss were later adopted by the followers of Luther. The insurrections of Watt Tyler in England and the bloody Hussite wars in Bohemia were but the attempts to reduce these doctrines to social facts.

Council of the Fourteenth Century

Fifteenth General Council.
The Council of Vienne in the year 1312 suppressed the order of the Knights Templars, condemned errors against faith, and enacted disciplinary canons for the better government of the Church.