Medieval Monday – One Pope, Two Pope, Red Pope, Blue Pope

Today I finish up our look at why, if you ever get a chance to travel back in time, you should NOT visit the 14th century.  We’ve already talked about The Black Death and how it wiped out vast amounts of the population of Europe.  We looked at the Hundred Years War and how that decimated the Medieval nobility.  And last week we took a look at those revolting peasants and the Medieval origins of a lot of populist movements.

That was all seriously traumatic for the people of the Middle Ages.  But at least they still had their pillar of strength, that over-reaching bastion of stability and order that pervaded every aspect of life.  They still had a strong, indomitable Church, right?


The Medieval Church was as much a government and a political force as any kingdom.  More so if you consider that it could reach across borders to issue orders and demand money.  It didn’t matter what country you lived in, in the Middle Ages you answered to God first and foremost.  And since God wasn’t there directly, you answered to his representatives, the clergy, the cardinals, and the Pope.  So naturally the papacy and everyone and thing surrounding it had extraordinary power.

In the High Middle Ages the papacy was incredibly effective.  It was the Pope who had declared the original Crusades.  His wars in the Holy Land were successful, profitable, and supported.  Kings of nations rushed to serve as the Pope’s generals, kings of England, France, and various German states.  This was hardcore power we’re talking about here.  Citizens of various nations may have had their problems with one another, but the Church was still considered the heart of the world.

So of course things got political in a hurry.

At the dawn of the 14th century, France was arguably the most powerful nation in Europe.  I say arguably because France wasn’t really “France” yet.  It was a bunch of affiliated kingdoms that happened to have a central monarchy.  Northern France and Southern France didn’t get along particularly well.  But Southern France and the Papacy were best buddies.  What was more, the situation in Rome was tense and uncomfortable, full of infighting and back-biting amongst the major Roman families with their close ties to the papacy.  The Roman curia, the business end of the papacy, actually moved to Avignon in France to get away from the mess.

Avignon Papal Palace - Nice, eh?

And then, with the election of Pope Clement V in 1305, they didn’t move back to Rome.  Nope, they were happy to stay in Avignon, thank you very much.  Because Clement V was French and didn’t see any need to enter the lion’s den of Rome and it’s politicking.  But this was a huge problem.  Rome was the Church and had been since the word go.  And to have a pope stick so blatantly to their kingdom of origin turned the whole faith into an expression of politics.  The non-religious consequences of France being in charge of the one organization that spread through every kingdom in Europe was not something most other nations wanted to deal with.  That’s partially why this period of the papacy is referred to as the “Babylonian Captivity”

Of course as I mentioned before, Southern France, where the Pope now lived, didn’t really get along with Northern France.  France itself wasn’t immune to the meddling of the Pope.  In fact, Philip IV of France was one of the biggest opponents of the earliest French Pope.  But the meddling of these French Popes did produce a few good results.  Organization was improved and Papal power strengthened.  I could probably write an entire post about that, but I’ll spare you the details.  The Pope stayed in Avignon for 67 years, taking on a decidedly French flavor and irritating everyone.

Finally, in 1378, Pope Gregory XI decided it was time to pack up and move back to Rome.  (And yes, I’ve just glossed over a heck of a lot of history)  And everything was well and good and they all lived happily ever after, right?


Having moved back to Rome, Gregory XI promptly died.  It was time to elect a new pope.  So all the cardinals gathered together to choose a successor.  They looked at each other and said, “Okay, whatever you do, DO NOT elect another French Pope!”  So they elected and Italian who took on the name Urban VI.  Which was all well and good … until Urban VI went a little bit kooky.  He liked to order people around, not nicely either, and he was prone to bouts of temper.  So much so that the council of cardinals that had elected him really, really regretted their decision.

So what did they do?  They packed up, moved back to Avignon, and elected another pope, Clement VII.

There had been anti-popes before this, men who had been “elected” as pope by various rival factions within the Church.  What made this particular split as serious as it was was that the same body of cardinals had elected both popes.  In a way you couldn’t discredit one of them without discrediting the other.  And that’s sort of what happened.  Everyone knew having two popes was a serious problem and that one of them couldn’t possibly be the “real” Pope, but since no one was willing to back down and canon law didn’t cover the situation the Great Schism continued.

As you might imagine, France and its allies supported Clement VII and his successor in Avignon while England, the Holy Roman Empire, Flanders, and Scandinavia supported Urban VI and his successors.  And once again I’m going to gloss over a lot of history and skip to the end.  Because what was the solution to this problem?  To put together a council that negated the legitimacy of both popes and elect a new one.  Except that neither the Avignon pope nore the Roman pope agreed to step down, so in essence a third pope was created.  Oy vey!

Well, everything was finally sorted out at the Council of Constance in 1414.  The council managed to convince Pope Number Three and the Roman pope to step down, which they did, and excommunicated the Avignon pope when he refused to step down.  They then elected a new Pope, Martin V, who everyone pretty much agreed on, except for a few Frenchies who were ignored at this point because everyone was too tired to deal with the issue anymore.

Confused?  So was much of Christendom.  Whereas once upon a time the Papacy had ruled as the undisputed head of the Church and all things religious in Europe, now people just didn’t know what to think.  Or maybe you should say that people did begin to think.  They began to think about whether the Church, such a power for hundreds of years, really was the be all and end all.  Between the “Babylonian Captivity” and the Great Schism the Church began to lose the political clout it had built up during the Crusades.  England and France were now the major political players of the Western world.

More than political power, the Papacy had lost credibility.  Over the next hundred years, through the 15th century and into the 16th, theologians and leaders alike would begin to question everything that made the Church what it was.  New ideas and new questions arose, were debated and written about.  New ways of thinking spread.  Once it would have been unthinkable to question the Word of God as delivered by Rome, but after the messes of the 14th century cast all sorts of doubt on the infallibility of the Church the way was open for a revolution that would begin with a grumpy old German priest and professor by the name of Martin Luther.


Awesome “Pope Fight” image found at


4 thoughts on “Medieval Monday – One Pope, Two Pope, Red Pope, Blue Pope

  1. God should never have put religion in the hands of humans! The Goddess would never do that! Oh, wait, she did it too! We just can’t handle it! I decided a long time ago to be my own pope! LOL!

    • Yeah, unfortunately religion and politics get mixed all the time. It’s bad news for everyone. But I guess it’s human nature to meddle with the Divine that way, no matter what the faith system. This is why I prefer not to identify with any earthly religious organization.

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