Medieval History Ch. 46: The Church and Papacy at the End of the Middle Ages

Papal Palace in Avignon
Papal Palace in Avignon

The following is an excerpt (pages 533-545) from Ancient and Medieval History (1944) by Francis S. Betten, S.J. Although some information may be outdated, the Catholic historical perspective it provides remains pertinent. Use the link at the bottom of post to read the previous/following pages. Use the Search box above to find specific topics or browse using the Resources tab above.






We shall treat, first, of an institution which shows the intimate connection between Church and State, and the high esteem in which the purity of religious doctrine was held in those days. We shall then set forth the events which tended toward a weakening of the papal influence upon the further development of European politics.


662. Origin and Nature. — Faith is a reality. Its teachings are not fairy stories but express facts. The Church is the God-appointed guardian of these revealed truths. She is not merely an advisory board, whose findings one may or may not follow. She is endowed with a supreme power to teach and to rule. She can and must demand submission to her decisions. But this power would be futile were it not combined with another power, namely, the right to enforce obedience and to punish those who refuse to abide by her decisions. The penalties, however, which she inflicts will vary according to the times. Circumstances may either recommend or forbid the employment of bodily chastisements besides merely spiritual weapons (§ 495).

Public opinion was far from siding with heretics. On the contrary, in several places notorious heretics were burned at the stake by the enraged populace as early as 1100.

Many of the heretical doctrines which made their appearance about this time were of a very vicious character. They threatened not only religion but the very existence of the whole social and political order. The Albigenses and the Wyclifites have already been mentioned (§§ 543, 637, 638). Induced by the frequence and gravity of such errors, and more than half forced by the demands of the people, the Church created a special tribunal, the Papal or Universal Inquisition. This spiritual court traveled from place to place, as the presence of heretics seemed to require. Its jurisdiction extended only to baptized persons, or such as claimed to be baptized. Its purpose was not to make Christians out of pagans, but to prevent the spreading of error among the children of the Church.

The judges of the Inquisition summoned accused persons, called in witnesses to testify for or against those indicted, and, if they saw fit, inflicted punishment. Their first endeavor was always to convert the guilty by instruction. If they succeeded, spiritual penalties were imposed, such as pilgrimages, fasting, almsdeeds. In severer cases they proceeded to incarceration. Persons that had once recanted and then relapsed or proved absolutely incorrigible were handed over to “the secular arm,” to be dealt with according to the laws of the state. (The spiritual and the secular power were compared with the two arms of the human body and spoken of as “the spiritual arm” and “the secular arm.”) The state, too, considered heresy as a crime, because it undermined the foundations of public welfare. The penalty fixed by the secular laws for heresy was death by fire. This was never inflicted by the ecclesiastical judge.

This Roman Inquisition was not extended to all the countries of Europe. It was active chiefly in Italy and Southern France. The prosecution of the Lollards in England, and, as far as it went, of the Hussites in Bohemia, was carried on by the episcopal authorities. In the trial of Hus at Constance, the council itself was the court of justice (§ 674).

663. The Spanish Inquisition. — Spain struggled with religious problems of its own. Moors and Jews in large numbers submitted to the formalities of baptism in order to gain admission to the court and appointments to the highest secular and ecclesiastical offices and thus to destroy both religion and nationality. To cope with this very serious danger Ferdinand and Isabella petitioned the Pope for a separate Inquisition for Spain. This Spanish Inquisition became an institution unique in character and organization. It consisted of several tribunals permanently established in certain cities with a Grand Inquisitor at the head of all. The state exercised a very great influence upon the appointment of its members and even on the procedure itself, though the Spanish Inquisition never was a mere state institution.

664. Character of the Inquisition. — It is evident that something like the Inquisition is a necessity for the Church, unless she is to neglect utterly her duty of preserving unchanged the teachings of Christ. In fact every “ religion ” must, by some board or committee or assembly, or by some individual officer, or by the general vigilance of the members, watch over the integrity of the body of doctrines to which it has decided to adhere. And as soon as an actual case turns up, the transaction will of itself assume the nature of court functions. Some spiritual or temporal penalty, too, must be inflicted, if the whole proceeding is not to be an empty farce. It is therefore only natural that in the course of time the Church came to organize a regular “Tribunal of Faith.” It was the product of its age. Some items of its procedure at first sight indeed seem surprising to the modern mind. To appreciate them correctly, we must gauge them not by the judicial practice of the present time, but by that of the Middle Ages.

(1) The accused never found out the names of those who either had reported him or had given evidence against him. But those who prescribed this method knew it would appear incongruous. They considered it necessary to take away all risk for such as might feel bound to give information against some important man who could and would, even if condemned, wreak vengeance upon them.

(2) The use of the rack in order to extort confessions was taken from the Roman law. The Inquisition did not inflict it as penalty. It was applied in the secular courts without the stringent regulations with which the Inquisition limited its use.

(3) The prisons of the Inquisition were as a rule much better and perhaps in no case as bad as were those dens in which criminals were detained by secular potentates.

(4) As to the death penalty, see above, § 662. The death by fire certainly cannot compare in cruelty with the butchery which in England was the regular punishment for high treason, and, later on, for the profession of the Catholic faith. The number of executions has been enormously exaggerated, though according to our views it was big enough. But justice was sterner in those days, and the death penalty was much more readily inflicted. (The Protestants at any rate ought not to upbraid the Inquisition for the multitude of its victims. If the latter had been as numerous as they are represented to be, it would still be little in comparison with the victims of Protestant persecutions. We need only mention the wholesale massacres in Ireland which reduced that Catholic country almost to a wilderness. Instead of an Inquisition, France had its Huguenot Wars with the devastation of a considerable part of its territory; and Germany had its Thirty Years’ War, which reduced its population to less than one half.)

665. Abuses. — While thus the Inquisition and its methods stand justified, it was like all human institutions liable to error and abuse in its actual workings. Lower officials and even judges made themselves the tools of unscrupulous rulers and of their still more unscrupulous ministers. There are well-attested cases of glaring injustice, above all in Spain, where the influence of the government and of government officials was very great. Once Pope Leo X excommunicated the whole tribunal of Toledo (Spain) for cruelty, and ordered the witnesses to be tried for perjury. Occasionally the government intercepted appeals to Rome. The clause which assigned the entire property of the guilty to the public treasury repeatedly occasioned the condemnation of innocent persons.

Notwithstanding all its shortcomings the Inquisition has done immeasurable good to the Church and mankind. An anti-Catholic historian cannot help admitting that, had the Albigensian heresy “become dominant, or even had it been allowed to exist on equal terms, its influence could not have failed to prove disastrous.” And this is only one point.

Taken as a whole the Inquisition does not stand for judicial arbitrariness, but for the reform of crying evils in the contemporaneous methods of administering justice. Many of the details embodied in the procedure of that much maligned tribunal passed into the practice of the secular courts and have been retained ever since. Says a French historian, “The word Inquisition is the scarecrow of unthinking people.” (In our own days the duties of the Inquisition are taken care of by the Roman “congregation” of the Holy Office — congregation being the name of the several committees of cardinals each of which looks after a certain kind of business. The Holy Office depends entirely upon the voluntary obedience and religious conscientiousness of those whose doctrines, it may have to investigate.)


666. Pope Boniface VIII (1294—1303) devoted a mind cultivated by profound learning and matured experience to the noble aim of pacifying the Christian nations, enforcing the laws of the Church, and bringing about a new crusade. The Empire had lost most of its power and influence. But the monarchy of France had become strengthened (§ 641). Here ruled Philip IV, the Fair (1285—1314), who aimed at nothing less than to restore the Roman Empire in its old boundaries, become himself the Emperor, and make the pope his court chaplain. He waged his private wars with the money which, so far, by a special papal permission, he had levied on the clergy for the purpose of a crusade. His demands, however, did not stop here but grew more and more exorbitant. The clergy implored the Pope for protection against the extortions of royal officers. Then appeared the bull Clericis Laicos, already mentioned in connection with England. We have seen what effect it had in that country (§537). When Philip continued his aggressions, Pope Boniface VIII addressed to him a letter in which he reproved him in a fatherly way for the evil he was doing. The king had the original document destroyed and another one written in very insulting language, which with an equally insulting answer he spread broadcast among his people. An assembly of pliable bishops and servile barons then put forth a number of the most absurd charges against the Pope, calling him a heretic, a sorcerer, and an unbeliever. They then appealed from the Pope to a general council and to afuture legitimate pope. Philip IV secretly sent one of his creatures, Nogaret, a low and violent character, to Anagni in Italy where the Pope resided. Having gathered an army of ruffians Nogaret forced his way into the papal palace. Clad in the full insignia of his office, Boniface awaited him. The aged but dauntless pontiff was imprisoned and deprived of food and drink for several days. He was rescued by the citizens of Anagni, and died a month later.

An outcry of indignation arose throughout the whole Christian world. This outrage against the Vicar of Christ showed clearly the criminal aspirations and violent character of a mighty prince. Unfortunately, however, Philip IV did not find a Gregory VII or an Innocent III to oppose him. Thus this sad event was in fact the significant beginning of a new period for the papacy.

667. The Popes in Avignon. — After the one year’s pontificate of Benedict XI, the French Archbishop of Bordeaux was chosen pontiff as Clement V. Since the city of Rome just then was again the scene of bloody party strife, Clement V preferred to avoid Italy altogether. He had himself crowned in Lyons, and in 1309 transferred his residence to Avignon, a quiet little town on the Rhone. He was the obedient servant of Philip IV. All the papal utterances which had been published against the king were at once repealed. Determined opposition to the extortion of money from the clergy came to an end. The Order of the Knights Templar was suppressed (§ 597). The one thing Philip IV could never obtain from this weak pontiff was the condemnation of Boniface VIII as a heretic.

In all, four popes resided at Avignon, the most prominent of whom was undoubtedly John XXII. He strove untiringly for the true welfare of the Church. His most cherished idea, however, the inauguration of a new crusade, was never realized. Under him as well as under his successors the missionary efforts for the conversion of Africa and Asia were zealously continued. One of the four, Blessed Urban V, returned to Rome for a short while, but finally died in Avignon.

668. The Church undoubtedly suffered much through the residence of the popes in Avignon. Though the city was not strictly French territory but belonged to the popes as a kind of outlying province of the Papal States, the one-sided influence of French politics was at times strongly noticeable. It was, moreover, principally in consequence of the absence of the pontiffs that the Papal States at one time almost slipped from their control, and the loss of this source of revenue made it necessary to insist still more extensively upon the payment of papal taxes by ecclesiastics the world over (§ 570). All this caused uneasiness and loud complaints, and seriously undermined the general confidence in the fairness and integrity of the Holy See. There is some reason to speak of the Avignon period as “the Babylonian Exile of the Papacy.”

In 1377, Gregory XI at last made up his mind to return to the Eternal City, and he in fact died there the year following, — just before he could carry out his resolution to go back to Avignon. “He found the ancient monuments destroyed, most of the 414 churches in ruins, commerce paralyzed, and the number of inhabitants reduced to 30,000.”


669. Origin. — After the death of Gregory XI, the cardinals assembled for the conclave in Rome. The populace gathered in front of the building and wildly clamored for a Roman or, at least, an Italian pope. The cardinals, to avoid the charge of intimidation, chose an Italian archbishop who assumed the name of Urban VI. To forestall all objections they met again the following day and, in due form, cast their votes for him a second time.
All might have been well had Urban VI excelled as much in prudence as in sanctity and learning. At once, with much harshness, he addressed himself to the task of a much needed reform of the papal court. The cardinals, accustomed to a less restrained life in Avignon, were loath to submit to his severe regulations. Within a few months there was general dissatisfaction. His refusal to go to Avignon occasioned an open rebellion upon the part of the eleven French cardinals. They withdrew to another city, claimed that Urban VI was no legitimate pontiff since in electing him they had not been free, and proceeded to the election of another pope. The king of France eagerly espoused the cause of the antipope, Clement VII, who at once took up his residence in Avignon. French influence gained him additional supporters among the Christian rulers. Thus, in 1378, began the Great Western Schism.

There were now two men each of whom claimed to be the successor of Peter, each elected by cardinals. Christianity was divided into two “obediences.” The schism was perpetuated by each pope’s appointing cardinals who after his death elected a successor.

670. Effects of the Schism. — The people did not doubt that one only of the two claimants could be the right pope. But it was difficult, if not impossible, for most to decide. Had not the majority of the cardinals rejected Urban VI? Was it not for the cardinals, the august senate of the Church, to know and state whether Urban’s election had taken place in the lawful manner? Hence there were well-meaning people on both sides. In our own days, however, when all the facts can be better surveyed, the Roman pope is clearly seen to have been the real head of the Church.

This deplorable condition was productive of unspeakable confusion. There were often two claimants to the same bishopric or abbey or parish, and each had sentence of excommunication pronounced upon him by the pope to whom the other adhered. In many churches divine services were neglected. The religious devotion of the people grew lukewarm. The charges of rapacity against the papacy grew in volume and violence, as each of the two popes was obliged to increase the already heavy demands for support (§ 668). The rulers occasionally changed sides, accordingly, as one pontiff promised them greater advantages than the other. The schism made the popes more dependent upon the secular power than any previous event had done. Thus the prestige of the Holy See, which had been suffering during the Avignon period, fell still more in consequence of the schism.

To make sure that the influence of a “hostile” pope should not find its way into their realms, some rulers, in particular those of England, forbade the introduction of any papal document without their own approval. This practice they kept up even after the schism was ended. Certain potentates, Catholic and non-Catholic, have at times extended this demand even to the pastoral letters of the bishops. Of course no such right exists. Christ did not oblige His apostles to submit their official utterances to the secular magistrates before publishing them, nor has the ecclesiastical authority ever granted any such privilege.

671. Many plans were tried to put an end to this sad state of
affairs in the Church. When one decade after another elapsed without any sign of reconciliation between the two rival “popes,” prominent men, foremost of all the University of Paris, advanced the idea, unknown to former ages, that a general council is above the pope. A council, it was thought, could and ought to take this matter in hand. An attempt made by the cardinals of both sides to bring the two claimants together had failed. Thereupon six cardinals of the Avignon pope, Benedict XIII, joined seven cardinals of Gregory XII, the Roman pontiff, and these thirteen constituted themselves a provisional government for the Church. In this arrogated capacity they summoned the bishops of the world to a general council to meet at Pisa in Italy, 1409. This council, “assembled by the grace of the Holy Ghost,” declared both claimants deposed and elected a new one. Of course neither of the former two submitted to the verdict of this self-appointed tribunal. And so the world, as it is flippantly said, now had three popes instead of two.

Inasmuch as this assembly assumed authority over the Church it was illegitimate and revolutionary from the start, because most certainly it was neither summoned, nor presided over, nor sanctioned by the real pope. Whichsoever of the two be deemed the true successor of St. Peter, — and one of them surely was, — the council was in direct opposition to him. (See Guggenberger, II, §§ 34-37.)

672. Heresies contributed much to aggravate the deplorable state of Christianity. The most dangerous were the innovations of Wyclif (§ 637). The English queen at that time was a Bohemian princess. The intercommunication between the two countries, brought on by this connection, caused Wyclif’s ideas to be spread in Bohemia. They were eagerly caught up by one of the professors in the university of the capital, Jerome of Prague, and through him they passed to Johannes Hus. Both had been working seriously for a much needed reform of the clergy and people but like Wyclif they overshot the mark. Hus exaggerated Wyclif’s doctrine by teaching, as some of the Lollards did, that secular magistrates as well as spiritual lose all their power by mortal sins. Many of the Bohemian nobility were delighted to hear that the Church must be deprived of all her possessions. Christ, these heretics taught, is not present in the Blessed Sacrament under each separate species; hence Communion must be received by the faithful under both species.

The university had forty-five theses extracted from Wyclif’s books. These theses were solemnly condemned through the influence of the German and Polish professors. Thereupon Hus, already an extremely popular preacher, posed as the champion of Bohemian nationality. By royal mandate the non-Bohemian professors and students were forcibly deprived of the rights which they had enjoyed since the establishment of the institution ; 20,000 students, it is said, directly left the university. Hus became the hero of a strong and influential party. By temporizing for quite a while and using ambiguous terms he evaded removal and punishment. In the meantime, his errors began to take root in the neighboring countries.

673. The End of the Schism: The Council of Constance. — In Germany Sigismund, brother of the King of Bohemia and son of Charles IV (§ 652), was recognized as Roman King. Fully realizing the greatness of his vocation, he resolved to spare no efforts and expense to end the pernicious schism. He adhered, like many other excellent men, to the Pisan pope, John XXIII.

Sigismund prevailed upon John XXIII, whose “obedience,” as a matter of fact, was the largest, to summon a council to Constance, a German city on the Rhine. The eyes of Europe now hopefully turned to that little town beyond the Alps where assembled one of the most brilliant gatherings the Middle Ages had seen. These expectations were not disappointed.
John XXIII soon found that grave charges against him were circulated among the members of the council. He hoped to break up the assembly by secretly leaving the city. But King Sigismund had him brought back a prisoner, and by his firmness prevented the dissolution of the synod. John XXIII was now expected to abdicate. This he did, and of his own accord added the protestation that it was his free resolution to renounce the papal dignity. To prevent any untoward influence upon him Sigismund ordered him to be kept in confinement. While the council continued its sessions the Roman King set out on a journey to the kings of France, England, and Spain, to secure them for the cause of unity. In this matter his endeavors were successful, though he failed to reestablish peace between France and England (§ 639).

Gregory XII, the Roman pope, who, as we now know, was the real Vicar of Christ, sent an ambassador to Constance, and through him first convoked the council on his part and ordered his own followers, bishops as well as cardinals, to join it. He then declared through the same legate that for the good of the Church he resigned his office as pope. The third claimant, Benedict XIII, whose “obedience” had shrunk to his ancestral castle, might be safely ignored. St. Vincent Ferrer, who had been his confessor, left him when the “pope” refused to abdicate for the welfare of Christianity.

The papal throne now being evidently vacant a new pope was elected by unanimous vote, and he assumed the name of Martin V. When the Christian world learned that there was once more a universally recognized pope and that the unity of Christianity was restored, “men could scarcely speak for joy.”

With reference to the Great Western Schism a bitterly anti-Catholic historian, Gregorovius, says: “Every temporal power would have perished therein. But so wonderful was the organization of the spiritual empire, and so indestructible the very idea of the papacy, that this widest of schisms only demonstrated its indivisibility.”

674. The Execution of Johannes Hus. — Before the election of Martin V the council had proceeded against Johannes Hus, the Bohemian heretic. Sigismund wished him to appear, but Hus was in no way forced to do so. On his arrival he was treated with the utmost forbearance. The excommunication into which he had fallen was temporarily lifted. He was forbidden only to say Mass and to preach, before the council had passed upon his doctrine. But accustomed to disregard his superiors, Hus said Mass privately, admitted numerous visitors, and inveighed in sermons against Pope and cardinals and the whole Church. Under the very eyes of the council he sanctioned by letter the practice of receiving Communion under both species because, as he said, it was enjoined by the Bible. Hus considered the council as something like a debating society, where all are of equal authority, whereas a council, as successor to the College of the Apostles, must demand submission. After much patience, and literally exhausting all means of kindness and persuasion, the council declared Hus an incorrigible heretic and handed him over to the secular authority. According to the law of the time he was burned at the stake. His ashes were thrown into the Rhine. Jerome of Prague suffered the same fate. (King Sigismund had given Hus a “safe conduct.” It is often alleged that his execution was a violation of this guarantee of safety. But the “safe conduct” was meant merely as a protection against unlawful aggressions, not against the just verdict of his judges. It was not a grant of impunity for whatever he might have committed or was going to commit. That the council declared a promise given to a heretic unbinding is a lie pure and simple.)

” With more moderation and less pride John Hus, instead of suffering the death of fire, could have become an ornament in the august assembly. By his learning and eloquence he could have contributed a large share to the solution of the greatest problems of Europe.” Johannes Hus, a master of the Bohemian language, poisoned a large part of the Bohemian nation against that Church to which it owed its civilization and splendor.

675. The Hussite Wars. — The execution of Hus was represented in Bohemia as an attack at once upon the new religion and upon Bohemian nationality. Long years of fanatical party strife began, which devastated the whole of Bohemia and the adjoining German provinces. Five crusades were preached against the Hussites, but their hordes proved unconquerable. At last an agreement with the Council of Basel allowed them to receive Communion under both species provided they believed in the presence of Jesus Christ under each species. But Bohemia’s agriculture and commerce was ruined, and her intellectual ascendency had suffered a severe blow (§ 652).