The Great Schism

The other great crisis of European civilization against which backdrop Joan's drama was staged was the Great Schism of the Roman Catholic church. Between 1378 and 1417, church leadership was claimed by two popes, one residing at Rome and the other at Avignon. From 1409 to 1415, there was also a third claimant. But the roots of the problem and its consequences for believers such as Joan the Maid stretched farther backward and forward in time than those dates might suggest.

One of the victories of king Philip IV of France was the humiliation of the papacy in the person of Pope Boniface VIII (1294-1303), who died after escaping from a detachment of French troops come to arrest him in Italy. Boniface's successor, an archbishop of Bordeaux who took the name Clement V, seconded Philip's major religious policies: he annulled his predecessor's offensive acts, confirmed Philip's destruction of the Knight's Templar, and in 1309 moved the permanent residence of the pope from Rome to Avignon, a papal city of the Rhone River directly opposite the kingdom of France. Public opinion in much of the rest of Europe was so consistently distressed, sometimes outraged, by that surrender of the Papacy's ancient role and symbolic seat that the papacy returned to Rome in 1376 amid general rejoicing, even in France.

Two years after the return, however, a disputed election split the papacy once more. One line of popes claiming exclusive legitimacy remained in Rome thereafter; another line claiming the same legitimacy returned to Avignon. In 1409 a church council meeting at Pisa succeeded in producing a third claimant. This stubborn scandal was resolved only in 1415 thanks to a major alteration in the constitution of the church, the recognition of a broadly representative Gerneal Council as finally superior to the office of pope. The restored Roman papacy, headed by a native Roman of ancient lineage, Marin V (1417-31), committed itself to undercutting this innovation at every turn.

imgDuring the years of the schism, the English king and Parliament had supported the Roman pope, at least partly because the French kings supported the Avignonese pope. Since Scotland was determined to maintain its independence of English pressure, the Scots supported the Avignonese claimant; parallel situations arose throughout Christendom. The Avignonese and Roman popes excommunicated their rivals and their rivals' supporters, thus denying them the sacraments of the true church. But how could one be sure which pope was the valid dispenser of the sacraments? One apocalyptic preacher even claimed to have been shown in a vision that no one had entered heaven since the Great Schism began.

Some of the best minds and most idealistic spirits of European society committed their hope for the reform of this scandal and of the church as a whole to the institution of the General Council. One such council, attended by thousands of clerics and laymen from every province and interest group in Christendom, met at the city of Constance on the upper Rhine between 1414 and 1417, and a second met at the nearby city of Basel between 1431 and 1437. The intellectual leadership of the University of Paris was overwhelmingly in favor of conciliar reform. Not surprisingly, the majority of that university's faculty also supported the Plantagenet claimant to the crown of France: a dual monarch would be likely to have his hands so full that he would need to rely on the parliamentary institutions of the two kingdoms. Edward III had shown the way by his cultivation of the English parliament during his long and popular reign (1327-77); his young and insecure great-great-grandson Henry VI would clearly have to go even farther in ruling his French kingdom through the Estates-General, an institution that tended (for good reason) to make the Valois kings nervous.

Modern admirers of Joan who also admire the tradition of representative democracy may feel a certain conflict on that score. The merciless fury of the Paris intelligentsia against the Maid is disturbing, but it is easy to see how she must have represented for them a mindless regression to the inept tyranny of monarchic absolutism, whether royal or papal. This ambivalence makes the reactions of Jacques Gelu and especially Jean Gerson, a consummate intellectual who supported both the General Council and the Valois cause, all the more important to understand.

From: Régine Pernoud and M.V. Clin, Joan of Arc, Herstory in her Context, translated and revised by Jeremy duQuesnay Adams. St. Martin's Press, 1998.