Also known as "the Great Schism." Division within the Roman Catholic Church caused by dis-agreement over which of two (and for a time, three) claimants to the position of pope had been lawfully elected. It originated in the after-math of the election of Pope Urban VI (1378-1389) as successor to Pope Gregory XI, who the preceding year (1377) had finally suc-ceeded in re-establishing Rome as the seat of the papal administra-tion and had brought the predominantly French college of cardinals back from Avignon to Rome, thus ending the so-called Babylonian Captivity of the papacy. The election of Urban VI was tumultuous, with large crowds of Roman citizens gathered outside the electoral conclave, threatening the lives of the cardinals if they did not elect an Italian rather than another French pope. Although all but one of the cardinals acquiesced in the election of Urban (who was an Italian, the former archbishop of Bari), many of them claimed that the fear of mob violence had forced them to make the election and that therefore the whole process was illegal.
   When the new pope proved disrespectful of the traditional privi-leges of the cardinals and showed signs of erratic behavior, the French cardinals left Rome, reassembled beyond the pope's reach, formally declared the earlier election invalid, and then elected one of their own group, Clement VII (1378-1394), as pope. Since Pope Ur-ban held firm control of Rome, Clement VII and the majority of the cardinals returned to Avignon. Thus there were two rival claimants, one at Rome and one at Avignon. Since each claimant excommuni-cated his rival and all of his rival's supporters and then filled up his college of cardinals with new appointees, the division was institu-tionalized. When either claimant died, his cardinals elected a succes-sor. Thus the division was not limited to the lifetime of the first two claimants: there were not only two popes but also two colleges of car-dinals and two papal administrative systems. The rival popes sought support of rulers and prelates in all parts of Catholic Europe, so that the various nations divided into pro-Roman and pro-Avignonese groups. Since each side excommunicated the other, half of Europe seemed doomed to eternal damnation for supporting a false pope, and no one was quite sure which half it was.
   This spiritual crisis produced many attempts to resolve the schism, either by negotiation between the two rival popes or by mediation of secular rulers, but all efforts based on compromise or mediation proved unsuccessful. Eventually, appealing to the practice of the early church, many university theologians and canon lawyers adopted the theory of Conciliarism, insisting that a church council, not the pope, was the ultimate authority in the church. The first at-tempt to put this theory into practice, made by groups of cardinals from both Rome and Avignon, was the Council of Pisa that assem-bled in 1409, declared both claimants deposed in the interests of unity, and then elected a new pope. This action added a third claimant rather than solving the problem.
   Eventually, the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund gained the back-ing of most European rulers and summoned a new council, the Coun-cil of Constance, which convened in southern Germany in 1414, dominated by Conciliarist theorists who optimistically hoped that the new council not only would bring an end to the Schism but also would enact far-ranging reform legislation. Meaningful reform proved difficult to enact, but in 1417, after deposing one of the three popes, persuading a second to abdicate, and forcing the third to flee to Castile, the council elected a new pope, Martin V, who was uni-versally recognized. The Schism was at an end. The experience left papal authority weakened and for a generation continued to inspire demands for reform and insistence that the Conciliarist decrees en-acted at Constance, Haec Sancta and Frequens, were a permanent part of the church's laws and required that councils must be sum-moned at frequent intervals.

Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. . 2004.


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