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Crisis in the Late Medieval Church

The Great Schism

Political conditions in 1378 were far different than in 1304. France was preoccupied with war and internal strife, and Charles VI was no Philip IV. The College of Cardinals was still dominated by Frenchmen, but the Italian faction was strong. Moreover, the long residence of the papacy at Avignon had stirred ever stronger calls for a general reform of the Church.

When Gregory died, the Roman people took to the streets, demanding the election of an Italian. The cardinals elected Urban VI, who was indeed Italian but who was a life-long functionary within the Church, guaranteed to keep the status quo.

Urban VI (1378-1389), however, unexpectedly turned zealous upon his election, and began active reforming with the College of Cardinals his especial target. The cardinals were dismayed his sudden change in behavior. One faction, largely French, fled to Anagni where they declared Urban's election invalid, because it was forced on them by the Roman mob. This, despite the fact that an entire summer had elapsed before they discovered this irregularity.

The faction at Anagni elected Clement VII (1378-1394) as a rival pope. With Clement they returned to Avignon. Urban at Rome excommunicated Clement, who returned the favor.

Thus began the Great Schism. Coming as it did on the heels of the Babylonian Captivity, the Schism caused an even greater scandal. There were now two popes, two Colleges of Cardinals, two entire religious governments. They appointed rival bishops, collected double taxes, issued conflicting penances, and excommunicated one another's supporters.