Dictionary and Thesaurus
1. There was a general failure of leadership in 14th-century Europe.
A. The Monarchy and Aristocracy
A. The aristocracy and the monarchies seemed unable to defend their lands
in any effective manner. The monarchs involved their subjects in conflicts
such as the 100 Years' War. The military strategist von Clauswitz stated
that war is politics carried out by other means. There is a good deal of
validity in this view. For the most part, warfare can be viewed as a means
of settling conflicts that could not be settled by more peaceful means.
But leaders must be able to extricate themselves from a war that is no
longer directed at accomplishing its original purpose. The warfare between
France and England, involving most of the rest of western Europe at one
time or another, dragged on and on with no clear resolution in sight. The
people who paid heavy taxes to support the monarchies and aristocracies
could not have helped but wonder why these groups could not meet their
responsibilities and perform the functions for which they claimed the
right of taxing the people.
In addition to this difficulty, with the increasing use of "new" weapons,
the ruling classes - "those who fight" - were losing their traditional
superiority on the field of battle. Time after time, armored aristocrats
were slaughtered by peasants and urban militia using longbows, crossbows,
pikes and gunpowder. The aristocracy of France and England had very little
effect on the progress of the conflict and were relegated to the position
of paying taxes to the monarchs to support the mercenary armies who now
seemed to dominate warfare.
Neither the monarchy nor the aristocracy seemed able to provide effective
leadership in this matter. The uprising of the Jacquerie in France and the
Peasants' Revolt in England were both radical rebellions. Although they
failed in their purpose, their leaders demanded nothing less than
uprooting of the entire feudal system.
B. The Middle Classes
The gilds, the basic unit of organization of the middle class, were
designed to operate non-competitively within a general framework of
economic expansion. They were unable to adapt to the stagnant or shrinking
markets of the fourteenth century. In an effort to maintain their status
and standard of living, gild masters across Europe began to cut labor
costs by exploiting their own workers, reduce production by limiting
access to gild membership, and to reduce incidental costs by reducing or
eliminating their traditional social contributions. were slowly replaced
by capitalist organizations. The "greater" gilds fought the "lesser" for
political control of the cities, all the while that both great and lesser
gilds were being supplanted by new, capitalist forms of production. In the
process, workers and artisans found their compensation and political power
These conflicts were already underway at the spread of the Black Death.
Both capitalists and gild masters, the leading members of the middle
class, were confronted with a situation in which laborers were in short
supply and in which they nevertheless did not wish to increase their labor
costs by paying higher salaries. They solved this by allying with the
nobility in support of measures to freeze salaries at pre-Plague levels.
This alliance created a class that might be termed "the wealthy" that was
isolated from the mass of the population and that, far from leading the
way to a restored general prosperity, seemed intent on increasing their
own wealth and power at the expense of everyone else.
C. The Church
Far from providing leadership during the difficult times of the fourteenth
century, the Church steadily lost power and prestige. In effect, it tied
itself into an ecclesiastical knot that the popes were powerless to
unravel. In their efforts to do so, the popes actually contributed
significantly to the ills of the age. The failure of the Church to provide
spiritual and moral leadership and example during this time affected all
elements of society.
The process can be viewed as having consisted of four stages.
1. The Avignon Papacy (1305-1378)
(Note that this is only a summary review of the lecture notes for the
a. The Church in Avignon was seen as a French puppet, was driven into
corruption by its need for money, diminished social services, did not
condemn the excesses of the 100 Years' War, and failed to meet its
responsibility of providing sacraments to all the dead and dying during
the Black Death.
b. It was attacked by various groups.
1. Some demanded that the Church give up its wealth and property because
Jesus and the Apostles were without property.
2. Others claimed that the state should police the Church.
3. Or that an organized Church was unnecessary because God dwells in each
4. Or that sacraments were unnecessary because they were not supernatural
and the individual could reach God through meditation.
5. Or that the Church consists of the members and not the head.
C. The papacy responded by a stubborn defense of its righteousness and an
energetic attack upon its critics. It relied upon its monopoly of the
sacramental system, used the Inquisition to silence its critics, and
accused many of its detractors of heresy.
D. Generally speaking, the Church lost much moral authority during the
3. The Great Schism (1378-1415)
a. At the death of Gregory XI in Rome, the cardinals were forced by a
Roman mob to elect an Italian pope. They chose Urban VI in hopes that he
would be compliant to their advice. They were mistaken in this hope. Urban
decided that both pope and papal administration should resume its
residence in Rome, and threatened to reform the college of cardinals to
increase Italian representation up to a majority in the body. Unable to
control their new paper as they had hoped, the French cardinals fled Rome.
The Italian cardinals, naturally, remained with Rome's new champion. When
the French cardinals reached a point where they were same from the pope's
power and the pressure of the Roman mobs, they assembled and declared that
the election of Urban was invalid and void because they had acted under
duress. They held another, rump, election, chose a Frenchman and returned
b. This created a knotty problem. The clergy had worked long and hard to
establish the principles that the Church was independent of the State and
immune from secular sanctions for its actions, and that the pope, once
selected as bishop of Rome by the College of Cardinals, held absolute and
supreme power within the Church. Since there was no secular power or
person superior to the pope in churchly affairs, it followed that there
was no power or person competent to judge the pope's actions. This meant
that neither was there any power or person qualified to determine which of
two claimants to the bishopric of Rome, was the true Vicar of Christ.
c. The financial situation of the Church as a whole grew even worse than
it had been during the Avignon papacy. There were now two papal capitals
for which it was necessary to provide upkeep; there were two entire papal
administrations to be maintained in a style befitting their dignities.
When the two papal claimants began competing with each other in matters
such as pomp, lavish gifts, patronage, and bribery, the drain on
ecclesiastical resources increased still further.
2. There were other forms of competition available and the rivals soon
made use of them. Not only did each papal administration declare the other
and its clergy to be heretical, but they reached the point of declaring
that anyone accepting sacraments from a heretical - for which you may read
"rival" - cleric would be considered excommunicate. It didn't take a
genius to figure out that, since the rival popes each enjoyed the support
of about half of Europe, half the population might be receiving the
sacraments from a true priest, but the other half were being attended by a
heretic, were dying excommunicate. While all of the population were making
perfect acts of contrition, being absolved of their sins, receiving the
sacrament of Extreme Unction and dying in certain hope of a Glorious
Resurrection and Life Everlasting, the souls half of them were descending
directly into the first of Hell to suffer the unspeakable torments of the
damned for all eternity.
This was obviously a difficult matter for the faithful to accept, and it
was clear that the true pope, whichever of the claimants he might have
been, was powerless to save many thousands of believing Christians from
being cast into Hell. As a matter of fact, it was at the command of the
true pope that they were being so cast. There were two ways to solve the
dilemma. One was to have the real pope stand up and so be able to reunify
the Church. The other was to conclude that the Church was an ineffective
institution as it had been operating and to reorganize it, or, if that
proved impossible, to toss the Church hierarchy and established doctrine
aside as being unnecessary for individual salvation. Naturally enough, the
established leaders of society chose to pursue the first option and to
find the real pope.
Several secular rulers were asked to exert their power and influence in
settling the matter, but the secular rulers had already entered the game
and chosen to support whichever of the claimants it was more advantageous
for them to support. They
were in no mood to support their opponents' man, and so did nothing to
solve the problem. Distinguished figures called upon both popes to
abdicate for the good of Christendom, but failed to persuade the
The theological faculty of the University of Paris was asked the decide
the issue, but could come to no clear decision. One must note, however,
that the realization that, if they opted for either one, the other would
excommunicate them collectively and individually may have affected their
logical powers. The question they had to decide, though, was not really
which of the claimants to the Throne of Saint Peter was truly God's choice
as exercised through the College of Cardinals but whether they had any
right to pass upon the qualifications of the Vicar of Christ. One of the
claimants, you see, must have been the true pope, and for the theology
faculty to have presumed to pass judgment on his worthiness would have
been a grievous sin.
Some people went so far as to poll those people - and it was not all that
small a body - who were generally considered to be saints in all things
save the final requirement of being dead. Unfortunately, of those who were
willing to offer an opinion, there was not clear majority for either
claimant. The pope himself, the king and princes, the wealthy and famous,
the learned, and the holy - none of them provided the leadership needed in
what was far from a minor difficulty.
While members of the establishment were trying, and failing, to
distinguish the true pope from the false claimant, others were approaching
the matter in more basic ways. On the principle that the bishopric of Rome
would not be such a bone of contention were it not for the wealth and
taxes that accrued to the position, some people revived the call for the
Church to accept "apostolic poverty," in emulation of Jesus and his
disciples. Influential thinkers and writers began to claim that the
authority of the monarchs was superior to that of the pope and, in its
role as protector of the people, the state had the responsibility of
overseeing the Church's discharge of its functions. Generally speaking,
the radical reformers of the Avignon period regained strength, but at too
slow a pace to suggest to anyone that their resolution of the problem
could be expected in the near future.
Popular responses to the situation arose -- critics of the Church and its
practices that neither papal administration found easy to silence. Some of
these critics addressed some of the basic beliefs that underlay the power
and prestige of the Church. Wyclif and Hus, after all, claimed that the
sacraments - which the ecclesiastical administrations recognized as
essential to the Church's continued existence - were simply memorial
"For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the
Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He
had given thanks, He broke it, and said, This is My body, which is for
you; do this in remembrance of Me" (1Cor.11:23-24).
without supernatural power.
The response of many members of a population that found itself without
leaders and, to a certain degree without restrictions, was to embrace
mystic movements such as the Rhineland Mystics of Meister Eckhardt. The
"Pietist" movements that spread among the peasantry stimulated a new sense
of personal religiosity. All of these movements were similar in their
tendency to circumvent - even without intending to do so - the entire
Church hierarchy by placing priestly powers in the hands of the
individual. In many ways, this was the foundation of the concept of "the
universal priesthood of all true believers" that would form an important
element in the Protestant Reformation of the next century.
Over time, the situation only grew worse. There were still two papal
claimants, and their rivalry led to increased corruption within their
administrations and a decrease of interest in anything other than gaining
advantage over their opponent. As time passed, the various reformers
managed to settle on common principles and upon the way in which those
principles might be put into action. They agreed upon the principle that
the sovereignty of the Church rested in a body representative of
its members. On this basis, they claimed that a general council would have
the power to depose popes and address the other problems facing the
church. Because of their insistence on the power of a council, they were
known as the Conciliarists, and the group soon included virtually everyone
committed to ecclesiastical reform.
They supported their position that general councils held supreme power
within the church by numerous arguments:
1. Scriptural: In order to gain approval of his conversion of non-Jews to the
Christian faith, Paul felt it necessary to gain approval of the Council of
2. Historical: When the Emperor Constantine wanted Christians to formulate their
common set of beliefs, he called the Council of Nicaea into session.
3. Parallels: Other monarchs, even though claiming supreme authority "By the
Grace of God, shared their power with representative assemblies on matters of
4. Philosophical: Nominalism, acceptance of which was growing, held that
truth is what has been established and accepted by common will -- that justice
is superior to law and that justice is a social construct.
4. The Council of Pisa
One should not assume that all leaders were oblivious to their
responsibilities or that all clergy were interested only in papal
politics. Many were in fact acutely aware of the situation and passionate
in the search for a solution. Indeed, several cardinals, members of each
of the rival papal administrations had embraced the principle of
Conciliarism. They joined together to act as a council to deal with the
problem posed by rival popes. I suppose that the logic of this solution
was that, if a College of Cardinals could act as a vehicle for the voice
of God in choosing the Vicar of Christ from among many likely candidates,
it could also act as a vehicle for the voice of God in separating the
wheat from the chaff, the sheep from the goats, and Vicars of Christ from
mere pretenders. The logic is appealing and if the men who met at the
Council of Pisa in 1408 had followed through on that principle, everything
might have turned out well. They made the serious error, however, of
trying to please all sides and deposed both claimants and selecting a new,
compromise, candidate as pope.
It was pointed out, and not too gently, that, by deposing both
claimants, they had assuredly assumed the right to dethrone a true pope.
This logical failing made little difference, however, since neither papal
claimant would obey the decision of the council, but excommunicated the
participants and their electee along with anyone who would support or work
with him. There were now three papal claimants, and the situation had
It was clear to the Conciliarists that they would need organized secular
force and the threat of withholding papal taxes and renders if they were
to accomplish their aims. By 1415, the problems raised by the triple
popes, Czech (Hussite) heresy and revolt, Church corruption, and popular
concern had become so pressing that the Holy Roman Emperor threw his
support behind the Conciliarists and arranged for a new council to meet at
the imperial city of Constance.