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The Western Schism and the Tale of 3 Popes

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  • 0:05 The Avignon Popes
  • 3:00 Cardinal Division
  • 4:41 End of the Western Schism
  • 5:16 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Elam Miller

Jessica has taught college History and has a Master of Arts in History

In the Middle Ages, the Catholic church ended up with three elected popes, creating a division in loyalty. This lesson explores how this incident occurred and how it was finally resolved.

The Avignon Popes

The papal court in Avignon, France
Avignon Papal Court

In 1305 a Frenchman was elected Pope Clement V. Clement immediately named several French cardinals to ensure a strong vote for future French popes. He then moved his court from its home in Rome, Italy to Avignon, France. Clement was the first of seven French popes who would reside in France from 1309 to 1379.

After pope Clement V moved the papal court to Avignon, six other popes served their terms from this location. Pope John XXII was the pope from 1316 to 1334. Pope Benedict XII served from 1334 to 1342. Benedict was succeeded by Pope Clement VI. Clement VI's term lasted from 1342 to 1352. Pope Innocent VI became pope in 1352 and continued to serve until 1362. After Innocent VI, Pope Urban V served from 1362 to 1370. Pope Urban spent three years in Rome from 1367 to 1370 but returned to Avignon in 1370. The last Avignon pope was Gregory XI. Gregory was pope from 1370 to 1378. He moved the papal court back to Rome in 1376.

While in France, the popes were accused of being heavily influenced by the French king and losing much of their spiritual integrity. Italian scholar Petrarch went so far as to call this period 'the Babylonian Captivity' in reference to a time in Jewish history when Jews were exiled to Babylon. In the sixth century BCE, Jews were forced to live in captivity in Babylon. They were allowed to return to Jerusalem in 538 BCE. Petrarch was reminded of the Jewish exile as he wrote about the popes living in thrall in France.

One of the earliest and best examples of the power of the French king over the pope was the disbanding of the Knights Templar. The Knights Templar were a religious military order that protected Christians who travelled to Jerusalem. They grew so wealthy and powerful that King Philip IV ordered them arrested in 1307. Many were tortured into confession and executed. The king pressured the pope to support his actions against them. People were outraged that the knights were tortured into confessing to crimes of which they were accused, like heresy and devil worship. Many went to the pope hoping for help. In response, after more pressure from King Philip, the pope issued a rule that required all Christian rulers in Europe to arrest all Templar knights.

The Italian scholar Petrarch
Petrarch

The Avignon popes seemed to fall further under France's influence during the Hundred Years' War between England and France. During this time England made claims to the French throne while France attacked English territories within its borders. England fought to keep control of its land and was successful during the early part of the conflict. The war reached a turning point after Joan of Arc began rallying French troops. Politics held a major involvement in the war, and the power and influence of the pope was coveted by those involved. Conflict was also rampant in Italy, where aristocrats battled over control of Italian provinces.

Cardinal Division

Pope Gregory XI moved the papal court back to Rome in 1377, hoping to gain more control over papal land. Gregory died shortly after the move, and, under the influence of a threatening crowd, an Italian pope, Urban VI, was elected. Urban was an unpopular choice among the French cardinals, who elected their own pope, Clement VII, who took up residence back in Avignon. The division among the curia over who was the legitimate pope is called the Great Schism or Western Schism.

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