The End of Europe's Middle Ages

The Church

Although religion and faith continued to dominate virtually every aspect of life, the influence of the Church suffered greatly during the late Middle Ages and, by the beginning of the sixteenth century, its power would shift from the temporal commonwealth of Christendom to individual secular rulers. The Investiture Contests of the eleventh and twelfth centuries had weakened the ascendancy of the Church over the growing monarchies. More importantly, the increasing hostility of the laity to ecclesiastical wealth and decadence undermined papal prestige. Dissension within the Church neither increased confidence in its authority nor allowed it to address external challenges.

  Investiture Contest or Controversy

Early in the fourteenth century, explosive violence between feuding Italian factions erupted into the College of Cardinals in Rome and the independence of the pontificate was threatened. In 1305, Pope Clement V (1305-1314) temporarily moved his court from Rome to Avignon in south-eastern France in an attempt to maintain papal autonomy - thus began the Avignonese or Babylonian Captivity. As the papal residence in Avignon continued, French intervention increased and the papacy lost the independence that the move from Rome was intended to preserve. The ability of the popes to exercise control over other lay rulers declined as the French monarchy became more influential in papal affairs. Furthermore, many people from inside and outside the Church questioned the legitimacy of a pope absent from the seat of St. Peter and began to campaign for the Pope's return to Rome. It was not until 1376, however, that Pope Gregory XI (1370-1378) yielded to public pressure and decided to return the papal court to Rome after an absence of seven decades, although he died before the move was completed.

After the death of Pope Gregory XI in 1378, the French-dominated curia elected an Italian pope to appease the riotous Roman mobs. Pope Urban VI (1378-1389) promptly initiated zealous reforms, taking steps to reduce the material wealth of the cardinals. Horrified, the French cardinals declared the election invalid on the basis of intimidation and elected a French pope, the schismatic anti-pope, Clement VII (1378-1394), who fled with them back to Avignon. Meanwhile, Pope Urban VI appointed new cardinals to fill the French vacancies and, for the next thirty-seven years, the Church was split by the Great Schism which saw papal courts established at both Rome and Avignon.

  The Great Schism

Ecclesiastical attempts to resolve this schism by conciliar orders only exacerbated the problem, resulting in the election of a third papal claimant. Two popes was scandalous - three popes was ludicrous. Finally, the Holy Roman Emperor, Sigismund, summoned leading churchmen from across Europe to the Council of Constance (1415 - 1418). Two of the schismatic popes were deposed, the third resigned and a single new pope, Martin V, an Italian, was elected.

  Sacrosancta (1415) from Council of Constance
  Frequens (1415) from Council of Constance
  List of Abuses (1417) from Council of Constance

Although the Church was once again united under one pope, the Avignonese Captivity and the Great Schism had discredited the papacy and undermined its supremacy. Many Church officials hoped to remedy this by having the papacy governed by council decisions. Yet, despite the democratic flavour of the Council of Constance which placed them in power, Martin V and his successors insisted on the unchallenged authority of the pontificate and the Council of Basel (1431 - 1449) was the last major attempt at conciliarism. By the middle of the fifteenth century, a single pope in Rome was once again able to rule the Church with unchallenged authority.

Unfortunately, the popes of the last half of the fifteenth century involved themselves in the volatile politics of Renaissance Italy rather than the concerns of an international church. The papacy allowed its influence in northern countries to diminish as it struggled to retain control over its own territories. With the pontificate of the scandalous and unscrupulously political Borgia pope, Alexander VI, a disgraced papacy was abandoned by many Christians seeking other paths to spiritual salvation.

  The Borgia Pope Alexander VI

Although the prestige of the papacy and the influence of the Church declined during the late Middle Ages, Christianity did not. The focus of faith merely moved from ecclesiastical obedience to lay piety. This shift was not specifically heretical and the value of the Sacraments was not belittled by these movements. What was at issue was the importance of individual union with God. Many began to doubt the intermediary value of a priest in such a personal relationship, especially a priest tainted by the recent ecclesiastical scandals.

The Mystical Marriage of Catherine of Siena, Barna da Siena, 1340 One way in which people pursued more personal religious experiences was through mysticism. Mysticism is not a phenomenon unique to the late Middle Ages. It had been a major component of Christianity from the beginning and mystics were common amongst devout monastics. The novelty now was in how widely mystic beliefs had spread and how involved the laity had become. The revelations of inspired mystics such as Catherine of Siena (d. 1380) were profoundly influential and inspired massive outbursts of lay piety and faith.


A German mystic and Christian theologian, Meister Johannes Eckhart (d. 1327) used mystical writings as the basis for his teachings that the true goal was absorption into the Divine Unknown. It was these teachings of Eckhart which led Gerhard Groot to found the Brethren of the Common Life around 1375. Practicing the devotio moderna, which professed the sanctity of everyday life, the Brethren adhered to a simple life of teaching, preaching and charity. The Brethren became extremely popular and their schools influenced some of the foremost humanist thinkers of a later day. Erasmus, Luther and Thomas á Kempis all attended schools of the Brethren. The Imitatio Christi (Imitation of Christ) by Kempis is considered the ultimate literary expression of religious faith in the late Middle Ages and still stands today as a manual for salvation through individual piety and spirituality.

  Brethren of the Common Life
  Imitation of Christ

Image of Jan Hus burning at stake

While most mystical and lay religious beliefs remained within the boundaries of Church doctrine, some ventured across the borders into heresy. John Wyclif (d. 1384) in England, and later Jan Hus (d. 1415) in Bohemia, vigorously condemned Church abuses and questioned the role of a corrupt clergy as intermediaries between man and God. These ideas were far too dangerous to the Church and even to many secular powers who drew their authority from papal approval. The preachings of Wyclif and Hus were declared heretical and their followers, the Lollards and the Hussites, were ruthlessly suppressed. Wyclif died a natural death but Hus was burned at the stake as a heretic at the Council of Constance.

  Errors of Jan Hus as Condemned at the Council of Constance, 1415
  Final Declaration of Jan Hus, 1 July 1415
  Errors of John Wycliffe as Condemned at the Council of Constance, 4 May 1415

Pope Honorius and St. Francis

Not all the outpourings of secular piety led to such extreme condemnation and persecution by the Church. Many lay people instituted confraternities, fraternal worship groups under the direction of local clergy or monastics, most especially the mendicant friars. Some of these groups drew their members from guilds or local neighbourhood populations. Other confraternities grew out of the tertiaries, or third orders, lay people who served monastic houses and observed rules similar to those of the monks and nuns. The style of these lay religious organizations was often shaped by attempts to allay the horrors of war and plague that pervaded Europe in the late Middle Ages. All these organisations sought to appease the wrath of God by either organized praise or disciplinary behaviours, such as self or mutual flagellation.

  The Mendicants

Having suffered greatly in the areas of prestige and finance during the end of the Middle Ages, the Church at last began to adjust the ponderous and anachronistic machinery of its organizations to the demands of the day. The first small steps were taken to at least reduce the corruption of the clergy and several strong popes addressed the financial problems of the papacy. Church theologians began to recognize that the ideas of individual piety and personal salvation would not disappear and educated themselves in the arguments they would need to counter further attacks on the preeminence of the Church. Thus at the close of the fifteenth century, the Catholic Church remained far from its former position as the supreme religious and secular authority in Europe but at least some of the initial moves were being made that would allow it to survive the forthcoming tempest of the Reformation.

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The End of Europe's Middle Ages / Applied History Research Group / University of Calgary
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