Cover image for Poets, Saints, and Visionaries of the Great Schism, 1378–1417 By Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski

Poets, Saints, and Visionaries of the Great Schism, 1378–1417

Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski


$61.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02749-4

$30.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-05864-1

256 pages
6" × 9"
14 b&w illustrations/2 maps

Poets, Saints, and Visionaries of the Great Schism, 1378–1417

Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski

“Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski writes with a real sympathy for her subjects, who emerge as flesh-and-blood humans struggling to make sense of a profound crisis that threatens to undermine their faith in the clergy. No book more vividly tells the story of the Great Schism or brings together a more fascinating set of characters and texts from the period. I can think of no finer introduction to the workings of the minds of medieval people than Poets, Saints, and Visionaries.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
For almost forty years, from 1378 to 1417, the Western Church was divided into rival camps headed by two—and eventually three—competing popes. The so-called Schism provoked a profound and long-lasting anxiety throughout Europe—an anxiety that reverberated throughout clerical circles and among the ordinary faithful. In Poets, Saints, and Visionaries of the Great Schism, Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski looks beyond the political and ecclesiastical storm and finds an outpouring of artistic, literary, and visionary responses to one of the great calamities of the late Middle Ages.

Modern historians have analyzed the Great Schism mostly from the perspective of church politics. Blumenfeld-Kosinski shifts our attention to several groups that have not before been considered together: saintly men and women (such as Catherine of Siena, Pedro of Aragon, Vincent Ferrer, and Constance de Rabastens), politically aware and committed poets (such as Philippe de Mézières and Christine de Pizan), and prophets (for example, the mysterious Telesphorus of Cosenza and the authors of the anonymous Prophecies of the Last Popes). Not surprisingly, these groups often saw the Schism as an apocalyptic sign of the end times. Images abounded of the divided Church as a two-headed monster or suffering widow.

A twelfth-century “prelude” looks at the schism of 1159 and the role the famous visionaries Hildegard of Bingen and Elisabeth of Schönau played in this earlier crisis in order to define common threads of “mystical activism” as well as the profound differences with the later Great Schism. Poets, Saints, and Visionaries of the Great Schism will be of interest to students and scholars of medieval and early modern history, religious studies, and literature.

“Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski writes with a real sympathy for her subjects, who emerge as flesh-and-blood humans struggling to make sense of a profound crisis that threatens to undermine their faith in the clergy. No book more vividly tells the story of the Great Schism or brings together a more fascinating set of characters and texts from the period. I can think of no finer introduction to the workings of the minds of medieval people than Poets, Saints, and Visionaries.”
“Many scholars have claimed that the two principal kinds of medieval visions, the ‘experience-based’ religious and the ‘literary-poetic’ ones have to be examined together, but up to this moment no such analysis has been done. With an impressive tour de force and a smart, enjoyable narrative, Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski examines the common motifs and the peculiar metaphors of saintly, prophetic, and poetic visionaries during the period of the Great Schism. This specific context also allows her the exploration of the different lobbies and pressure groups promoting and using those visions. It also gives an opportunity for a witty, incisive analysis, reaching back to the experiences of a previous schism in the twelfth century, with Hildegard of Bingen and Elisabeth Schönau taking stands on it, and then going into details with Birgitta of Sweden, Catherine of Siena, Philippe de Mézières, Christine de Pizan, and several other fascinating prophets, visionaries, mystics, and poets, exploring the limits of our imaginary. This book is the first to analyze this ensemble together, and its perspicacious observations will be the starting point of any future research on this subject.”
“This engaging book will satisfy any academic or layperson interested in the history of the Church, but also in the history of mentalities at large. The book is well-written and comprehensive on many levels.”
“Blumenfeld-Kosinski’s choice to focus on the imaginaire of the Great Schism is extremely productive; since the book focuses so extensively on visions and prophecies, one might even say it is an inspired choice. One of the most fascinating dimensions of her approach is the way in which it enables exploration of concepts and images across generic boundaries. Her book offers a fresh perspective on a rich period as well as some extremely well-known medieval writers.”
“[This book] is an excellent complement to our general knowledge of the schism in that it provides an intelligent reading of authors who are often overlooked in this context. The illustrations are particularly well chosen, and the bibliography gratifyingly full.”
“This book is provided with a genealogy of popes, with maps having excellent legends, fourteen illustrations, a good bibliography . . . and an index. The author’s style is leisurely and reads well. Poets, Saints, and Visionaries certainly belongs in university libraries and will profit students and teachers of the late Middle Ages and of Church history.”

Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski is Professor of French at the University of Pittsburgh. Her books include Not of Woman Born: Representations of Caesarean Birth in Medieval and Renaissance Culture (1990) and Reading Myth: Classical Mythology and Its Interpretations in Medieval French Literature (1997).



Popes During the Great Schism



1. A Twelfth-Century Prelude: Hildegard of Bingen, Elisabeth of Schönau, John of Salisbury, and the Schism of 1159

2. Saints and Visionaries I: From the 1360s to the Beginnings of the Schism

3. Saints and Visionaries II: The Later Schism Years

4. Poetic Visions of the Great Schism I: Philippe de Mézières and Eustache Deschamps

5. Poetic Visions of the Great Schism II: Honoré Bovet and Christine de Pizan

6. Prophets of the Great Schism





E tutti li altri che tu vedi qui,

seminator di scandalo et di scisma

fuor vivi, e però son fessi così.

—Dante, Inferno 28:34–36

Dante’s “cleft schismatics,” forever carrying their intestines or heads in front of them, lived in earlier times, but his image of the damage done by schismatic discord is especially appropriate for the later fourteenth century, a period often referred to as the “calamitous” century. For most readers this term evokes the plague or the Hundred Years War. The Great Schism of the Western Church, although a profound crisis that lasted almost forty years (1378–1417), has not captured the imagination of a modern audience to quite the same extent. But at the time it generated staggering amounts of writings in a large variety of genres. The hostile coexistence of two and finally three popes also created a more general anxiety among Christians. The uncertainty about who was the right pope undermined people’s confidence in their ecclesiastical leaders and could be felt even at the lowest levels of pastoral care. In this study we shall encounter a large cast of characters, all of whom in one way or another gave expression to their anguish and frustration in face of the divided papacy and attempted to offer hope and solutions. They did so in letters, allegorical and polemical texts, prophecies, and images. Among them we find charismatic saints and visionaries, professional poets, wily diplomats, committed clerics, mysterious prophets, and stubborn, power-hungry popes.

But why did the Great Schism produce more literary, visionary, and prophetic activity than previous schisms? How did it differ from the more than twenty earlier schisms? How was this particular crisis conceptualized? Did medieval eyewitnesses and historians see it as one continuous event or rather as a succession of disconnected turns of fortune? In this Introduction I first give a brief outline of the major events between 1378 and 1417 (more details appear or reappear in later chapters as appropriate) and then provide a preview of the book as a whole and some methodological reflections.

<1> A Brief History of the Great Schism

The Great Schism became “great” only in a retrospective evaluation, of course. No one in 1378 could have anticipated that two and then three popes would fight over the right to the papal throne and thus divide Europe for more than a generation. Indeed, as a historiographical problem the Great Schism did not appear as such until the late seventeenth century, when Louis Ellies Dupin wrote the first chronological history of this event. As François Fossier puts it: “Lived as an event of uncertain contours by the historians of the time, [the Great Schism] becomes more and more blurred in the historical consciousness to the advantage of the description of heresies, which emerge as the most significant marker in the religious history of this period.” Yet, between 1378 and 1417 we find an almost frantic production of texts pro or contra one or the other pope.

Who were these popes? In the early fourteenth century the papacy had moved to Avignon and was dominated by French popes. In the 1360s a number of saintly figures like Saint Birgitta of Sweden (1303–73) and fr. (friar) Pedro of Aragon (1305–81) began to exert pressure on Pope Urban V (1362–70), a French Benedictine from Lozère, to return the papacy to Rome. Urban complied in 1367 but returned to Avignon just before his death. The same saintly personages, to whom we can now add Saint Catherine of Siena, then went to work on Urban’s successor, Gregory XI (1370–78), another Frenchman, from the Limousin area. We shall explore the details of their strategies and results in Chapter 2. Suffice it to say here that Gregory finally made the perilous journey to Rome and arrived there in January 1377.

Richard C. Trexler’s analysis of Rome just before the Great Schism shows us a “murderous city” where a “deep-seated chauvinism” had prepared the ground for a schism even before Gregory XI’s death. This death occurred on March 27, 1378, and set the stage for the tumultuous events that led first to the election of the Neapolitan Bartolomeo Prignano, the archbishop of Bari, as Urban VI (1378–89) and then to that of Robert of Geneva, a relative of the French king Charles V, as Clement VII (1378–94).

According to many eyewitnesses, the conclave where the cardinals gathered to choose Gregory’s successor was surrounded by the Roman populace, many of them armed and chanting “We want a Roman or at least an Italian”—or else. When the mob entered the conclave they at first thought that the aged cardinal of Saint Peter (a Roman) had been made pope, something some of the frightened cardinals apparently wanted them to believe until they had a chance to return to their safer quarters. Eventually the presumed pope enlightened the multitude that in fact Bartolomeo Prignano had been elected. He was hiding in the “most secret room” of the palace until the vote was made public. According to a curial document telling of these events, the contemporary Factum Urbani, and many other chronicles and eyewitnesses, there was a general atmosphere of confusion, fear, and panic during and after the election. The canonist Gilles Bellemère, for example, a rather timorous individual, was so frightened by the tumult in Rome (and especially by the constant ringing of bells) that he took off his clerical garb so as not to become a target for the mob. But other witnesses, such as the Urbanist Alfonso of Jaén, the confessor of Saint Birgitta of Sweden, her daughter Catherine, or the chronicler Dietrich of Niem, disputed this account. Already shortly after the election there were no more disinterested witnesses, for it was exactly these emotions—fear caused by intimidation and outright threats—that would soon become the major argument for the cardinals’ rejection of Pope Urban VI. An election under duress would not be canonical and hence invalid.

But why reject Urban VI so quickly after what seems to have been a unanimous election? The answer can be found in his character and behavior. Denouncing immediately the luxurious way of life of the cardinals, he apparently lost all self-control in his vituperations and even bodily attacked a cardinal. Many instances of his private and public displays of anger show a man who replaced all his previous humility and circumspection with self-righteousness and fury after his elevation to the papal throne. The cardinals, who, under the pretext of seeking a more healthful climate, had left Rome for Anagni, summarized their troubles with Urban in a letter to the French king on September 10, 1378, calling Urban an oppressive monster, struck by truculenta rabies (combative rage or rabies). Deciding that the first election had been invalid because of the fear occasioned by the Roman mob, the cardinals, now in Fondi and under the protection of the count (whom Urban had alienated by refusing to pay a debt incurred by his predecessor), proceeded to elect Robert of Geneva, closely related to the French royal family, as Clement VII, an act that earned them the scorn of many. Catherine of Siena immediately denounced the cardinals as liars and idolaters. Thus, the Great Schism was inaugurated. It was the first time that the same college of cardinals had elected two different popes within a space of five months. Urban would soon establish himself in Rome, while Clement, after a dramatic trip to Naples and futile military efforts, moved his papal court back to Avignon.

The chronicler Jean Froissart (ca. 1337–ca. 1404) labeled the Schism as “a great beginning of pestilence that broke into the church” (un grant commencement de pestilence qui se bouta en l’eglise), thus linking the scourge of the mid-fourteenth century to this new scourge, one that was as nefarious to Christians’ spiritual health as the Black Death had been to their physical well-being. For Nicolas de Clamanges (ca. 1363–1437), one of the great theologians of his time, the evil cardinals were at the origin of this “execrable plague of the schismatic division,” which he also referred to as “this very cruel beast, laying waste, consuming, and destroying everything.” For Pierre Salmon (d. after 1427), counselor to kings and dukes, there was a close relationship between Charles VI’s madness and the Schism. For Christine de Pizan (ca. 1364–ca. 1430) the Schism was a pestilence, “painful, poisonous, a contagious plant that was thrust into the bosom of Holy Church at the instigation of the devil.” It was a scourge, “a painful calamity, and a purulent wound.” The plague, both in the sense of an epidemic and the open wounds it causes, and the beast, especially various beasts of the Apocalypse, became frequent metaphors for the Schism.

In somewhat different metaphorical terms, the church was also seen as being adulterous or alternatively as having been raped by one of the popes, adumbrating the double perspective of the church as the guilty party or victim that will become a staple of many Schism texts. The popes were compared to two rival suitors, while the first election of April 1378 was interpreted as “spiritual matrimony” that the cardinals made legal by “cohabitation” with Pope Urban. The cardinals, according to the Florentine chancellor Coluccio Salutati, “had acted like women, taking favors from the man they now denounced.” This kind of language did not bode well for an early compromise.

After the second election furious diplomatic activity began for both camps: the Urbanists and the Clementists. Ambassadors were dispatched to all the European powers with the goal of persuading them to adhere to their pope. In almost all cases the adherence to one or the other pope was bound up with already existing or developing political conflicts. Thus, the French and English attitudes toward the divided papacy, as well as their repeated efforts at union, cannot be separated from the vagaries of the Hundred Years War. But it would go too far in the context of this Introduction to analyze the myriad political considerations that entered in a given country’s decision-making. Some of these factors will be taken up, however, in the different chapters of this book.

Soon after September 1378 the Emperor Charles IV and then his successor Wenceslas joined Urban’s camp, as did England, where the representatives of the “rival claimants arrived simultaneously, both legations asking for help against the anti-Christ and intruder.” This choice of words is a preview of the strong vocabulary eventually used by all Schism polemicists: over the years the popes were labeled as traitors, heretics, and antichrists. In England, Clement’s hapless representative was arrested and the benefices of the Clementist cardinals were confiscated.

In Italy the areas north of the kingdom of Naples for the most part adhered to Urban, while Naples changed allegiances several times, opting mostly for Clement under Queen Joan of Naples but after 1400 changing back to the Roman obedience. Flanders was Urbanist, except for some divided cities. Scotland went for Clement, while Poland, Hungary, and the Scandinavian countries became Urbanist. The Iberian kingdoms entered into a long phase of neutrality (the famous “indiferencia”) pending detailed inquiries into the circumstances of the double election, held at Medina del Campo between November 1380 and April 1381. They finally declared for Clement, though not all at the same time. Portugal flip-flopped several times, as a result of problems of succession and Castilian threats, but eventually became a strong supporter of Urban. France almost instantly became a bastion of Clementism, a move for which Charles V was later criticized. Louis of Anjou was an especially strong supporter, having hopes for Italian conquests.

But this dividing up of territories adhering to different obediences was less neat than it seems, for on the microlevel there were a number of dioceses that had two rival bishops who would attack each other “by mutual sentences of excommunication and interdict” and thus undermine their flocks’ confidence in their ecclesiastical leaders. In cities like Wroclaw, Constance, Liège, or Basel two competing bishops were in charge, designating each others’ masses as blasphemy and sacrilege. Similarly, many monastic houses were led by two abbots or priors, each adhering to a different pope. As for the ordinary citizen, Walter Ullmann puts it like this: “The spiritual salvation of the common people was determined by the attitude of their rulers and superiors, guided as these were by motives far enough removed from the spiritual, religious or moral.” Whom to believe? This was by no means clear, and the result was “one of indescribable mental confusion.” The great theologian Jean Gerson (1363–1429) addressed this confusion in a 1398 treatise on how ordinary Christians should confront the problem of the Schism. He argued against mutual excommunication by the different obediences, and especially against “terrifying the laity” by claiming that one set of sacraments would be invalid. What counted was the good intentions of the local priests, whom people should trust. Yet, all the while everyone should strive for the unity of the church for the lack of which the popes alone were responsible.

But this unity proved elusive. After the positioning of the major powers a period of entrenchment and enormous polemical literary activity commenced. In these early years we find such important texts as Giovanni de Legnano’s De fletu Ecclesiae (On the tears of the church; August 1379); Heinrich of Langenstein’s 1379 Epistola pacis (Letter on peace); Konrad of Gelnhausen’s 1380 Epistola concordiae (Letter on concord); and Saint Vincent Ferrer’s 1380 De moderno schismate (On the modern schism), a detailed defense of Pope Clement using the scholastic method. Such great thinkers as Pierre d’Ailly (1350–1420), Jean Gerson, Nicolas de Clamanges, and many other theologians and intellectuals began contributing their ideas and theories on the Schism, and they did so for the most part until the Council of Constance (1414–18). Outside the high-level clerical establishment of the university and the papal courts, other voices lamenting the Schism could be heard, as in a poem on the Great Schism authored by an anonymous cleric in 1381, as well as works by the many poets, prophets, and visionaries we shall encounter in the pages of this book.

Meanwhile, the two popes established their obediences with full colleges of cardinals and the financial arrangements that supported their administrations. Urban VI became embroiled in several notable conflicts with the kingdom of Naples and his own cardinals, several of whom plotted against him and were imprisoned, tortured, and finally killed on his orders while he took refuge in Genoa. Urban’s power waned while his unpopularity grew. When he died in October 1389, an annalist from Forli called him “the worst man, cruel and scandalous” (vir pessimus, crudelis et scandalosus). Few mourned his demise. His successor, who would reign for the next fifteen years as Pope Boniface IX, was Pietro Tomacelli, young and good-looking yet “feeble and uncultivated.”

The fact that now a second Roman pope had been elected into the Great Schism dashed the hopes of those who had wished that the death of one or the other pope might put an end to the division of the church. While Boniface had enormous political and financial troubles in Italy, in France discussions of an armed descent to Rome were revived, especially after the coronation of Louis II of Anjou as king of Sicily in 1390. The University of Paris became more and more involved in the discussions of the different viae (ways) of solving the Schism: the via facti, or armed conflict; the via cessionis, the abdication of both popes; and the via concilii, the summoning of a General Council. It was this latter idea that preoccupied many significant writers of the time, who worked on the conciliar theory that eventually resulted in the Council of Constance. The principal question debated in this context was who had the right to convene a General Council: the pope (but which one?), the cardinals, or the secular rulers? It would take another twenty-five years to resolve these questions.

In France the movement of trying to get the two popes to abdicate gained in popularity. Being in the Avignon obedience, the French concentrated their efforts on the Clementine papacy. In January 1394 a solemn poll was taken at the University of Paris, and of the ten thousand responses the majority supported the via cessionis. Apparently the Parisian scholars thought that if the Avignon pope abdicated the Roman one would follow. But they had not anticipated the developments that followed the death of Clement VII on September 16, 1394.

Although the French king Charles VI immediately dispatched messengers urging the Avignon cardinals to wait with electing a successor to Clement (as did the king of Aragon) in the hope of ending the Schism then and there, the cardinals entered the conclave on September 26 and elected the Spanish cardinal Pedro de Luna as Pope Benedict XIII. He became the most tenacious of popes and hung on to what he considered his rightful papal throne until long after the Council of Constance had deposed him. A skillful diplomat, he had been instrumental in getting the Spanish kingdoms to opt for Pope Clement VII. In the conclave Pedro had taken a solemn oath to abdicate if necessary, but he clearly had no intention of doing so. The next few years were dominated by many French attempts to force him to make good on his promise, all of them futile. Finally, in July 1398 the third council of Paris voted to withdraw obedience from Benedict, which put him in a difficult financial and political situation but did not lead to the desired result. Even when he was abandoned by his own cardinals and besieged in the papal palace in Avignon he did not waver. Because no overt political allies declared themselves, the French eventually had no choice but to restitute obedience to him in 1403, with the strong support of the dukes Louis of Orléans and Louis of Anjou. The conflicts between the Orléans and Burgundian factions were exacerbated by this episode, especially because the bouts of madness of King Charles VI, which first manifested themselves in 1392, often created a power vacuum. Furthermore, the deposition and death (1400) of the English king Richard II, with whom the French were close to an agreement, ruined any chances at a joint action to try and end the Schism. Under the new dynasty of Henry IV the hostilities of the Hundred Years War flared up again.

Even though the withdrawal of obedience had been a failure in that Benedict XIII still refused to abdicate, “it changed the climate of opinion even in the obdurate Roman papacy.” There was now a “new unionist sentiment” that “could [no longer] be ignored.” Boniface IX’s successors Innocent VII (1404–6) and Gregory XII (1406–15), who as Angelo Correr had been the first Venetian ever elected to the papacy, both agreed to negotiations should the other side be willing. In addition, following some earlier ideas, there was agreement that “no formal recantation of error [was necessary] on either side” and consequently there would be no further discussions on the legitimacy of either pope. But these new conciliatory efforts encountered numerous obstacles, especially in the shape of Pope Benedict XIII.

In 1404 and 1405, exploiting a perceived weakness of Innocent VII, the Avignon pope moved farther south—all the way to Genoa, which was now in French hands, with the famous Boucicaut as governor. The French government as well as the clerics began to complain again about Benedict’s fiscal policies and other transgressions and decided that the restitution of obedience had been a mistake; the obedience was again withdrawn in 1406, and in 1408 France declared itself neutral in the papal conflict. Now the pressure was on both popes finally to come to an agreement.

An intense period of negotiations over the place and terms of a meeting began. Savona, a town on the Mediterranean coast west of Genoa, was chosen as an appropriate location, and now all that was needed was to get the two popes there at the same time. But it was not to be. Excuses, delays, and enigmatic, incoherent, and contradictory pronouncements that made Gregory seem like a sphinx obstructed any progress. The chronicler Dietrich of Niem shows the exasperation of all those involved when he calls the obstreperous popes Benefictus and Errorius, apparently living in a world of fantasy and error.

Finally the cardinals took matters into their own hands and assembled the Council of Pisa from March to August 1409. But the two papal opponents refused to appear: Benedict convened his own council in Perpignan, while Gregory did likewise in Cividale. In a decree read by Simon de Cramaud, who had also been instrumental in the withdrawal of French obedience, the two popes were deposed and accused as “schismatics, fosterers of schism, notorious heretics deviating from the faith, ensnared in notorious crimes of perjury and violation of their oaths, and notorious scandalisers of the church: . . . they have been notoriously incorrigible, contumacious and stubborn in these respects.”

As serious as this deposition sounds, it had little effect on the two popes. In their view, they remained popes, despite the council’s election of the Greek Pietro Philargi, a Roman cardinal, as Pope Alexander V. He was soon succeeded by Baldassare Cossa as John XXIII. Instead of two popes Europe now had three. Both Benedict and Gregory still hung on to reduced obediences, but large parts of Europe, including France, England, Portugal, most of the Empire, and the Scandinavian countries, now adhered to the Pisan pope (Map 2).

Benedict, now more than eighty years old, moved to Spain, where he eventually took up residence on the rock of Peñiscola on the Spanish coast (1411), claiming to be the legitimate pope until his death in 1423. Gregory, rejected by his hometown of Venice, finally settled in Rimini after a series of dangerous peregrinations. John XXIII, now recognized by a number of important nations, established good relations with the newly elected emperor Sigismund but encountered growing difficulties with France and especially Naples, whose troops sacked Rome in June 1413 and chased the pope to Florence. The combined weaknesses of the three popes made another move toward union possible. It was the emperor Sigismund who took the initiative and announced in a “universal edict” on October 30, 1413, that a General Council would be held the following year in Constance. Everyone was invited, but not everyone came. For now, we leave our protagonists in the year 1413; the Council of Constance and its results will make a brief appearance in the Conclusion to this book.

<1> Some Methodological Reflections and a Preview of This Book

Two distinct insistent voices first alerted me to what were for me new aspects of the Great Schism: one of them mysterious and mediated, the other forceful and direct. The first belonged to Constance de Rabastens, whose visions, recorded by her confessor Raimond de Sabanac, included dramatic images of the schismatic popes; the second belonged to Christine de Pizan, whose allegorical and political writings repeatedly lament the divided church. Until I encountered Constance, the Great Schism had been a background problem for me—certainly something one must know about, but at the same time something that had been studied at extraordinary lengths and had therefore been “dealt with.” But in the vast scholarly literature on the Great Schism, although Constance was mentioned a few times no one wondered why an ordinary woman from southern France in the 1380s would have visions about the divided papacy. Was the Schism a concern that transcended the boundaries of the political, university, and ecclesiastical milieus and that spilled out into the lives of the ordinary faithful, be they widows from Languedoc or an Italian-French woman writer active in early fifteenth-century Paris? Slowly bits and pieces of my other areas of interest began to form a picture: Catherine of Siena’s letters, which I had studied in other contexts; political allegories by Philippe de Mézières and Honoré Bovet, texts that I had taught many times without zeroing in on the Schism; strange prophecies and images that I had encountered in various manuscripts—all these fragments coalesced into what I would call the imaginaire (more about this term below) of the Great Schism. Poets, saintly visionaries, and prophets—these were the groups that spoke most forcefully and most imaginatively about the Schism outside the “official” literature associated with this crisis, and it was these groups that I chose to make the focal points of this book.

This emotional entry into the subject matter helps explain what this book is not. It is not a history of the Great Schism; rather, I use the Great Schism as a problem to illuminate medieval thought processes. In other words, I analyze how a variety of people responded to one of the greatest crises the medieval church had ever experienced. How did they express their anguish and frustration? By which means did they try to intervene in the politics of their time? What kinds of solutions did they offer? For the most part I stay away from the numerous polemical tracts, treatises on conciliar theory, and mutually insulting invectives sent by one or the other pope and their supporters, which make up a great part of the literature on the Schism. These texts, most of them in Latin, do hover in the background, and I do cite some of them occasionally, but they are not my principal sources. Since I want to investigate the imaginaire or Vorstellungswelt—neither term has a good English translation—of different groups and classes of people during the Schism, I look outside the strictly clerical tradition.

The imaginaire is related to the concept of mentality but is not its synonym. Frantisek Graus’s definition of the term “mentality” is “the common tenor of longer-lasting forms of behavior and opinions of individuals inside of groups.” The French term mentalité also usually designates the ways a group thinks with an emphasis on collectivity. While I certainly seek to reconstruct the mentality of Christians reacting to the division of the church, my target is not so much a collectivity as a series of individuals whose responses to the Schism show a rather wide variety. There are no specific sources for the history of mentalities, but only different questions that can be asked of existing sources. What Georges Duby, after Lucien Febvre, called the outillage mental (mental tools) of medieval women and men is the subject of this history: emotions and behaviors, as they are expressed in written or visual sources; iconography; language, including poetry and its metaphors; visions and prophecies.

Especially useful in this context is the notion of the imaginaire or Vorstellungswelt, which means more than the realm of the imaginary or the world of the imagination: It refers to the ideas, conceptions, and even prejudices that informed the creation of texts and images in a given period. Some of the questions I hope to answer with the help of this material are: How did people conceptualize a problem like the Great Schism? Did they see it as a man-made political problem or as a divine punishment announcing the coming of the Antichrist? As an attack on the church from the outside or as a deep-rooted inner malady? As we shall see, all these ideas appeared at one time or another. How did people hope to intervene in this crisis? Why did they speak out? Did they think their voices would be heard, some of their proposed solutions accepted? What we look for, then, is not necessarily “objective” history but the “self-interpretation of an epoch.” That is, although we try to pin down the facts of a given event, the way the event was processed and represented by contemporaries is equally important. I do not want to make a distinction between “objective documents” and the literary reflections of events. Each text, whatever its genre, has an agenda. Thus, the object of inquiry here is the subjectivity of the people affected by the Great Schism as it manifests itself in texts and images, the only traces that remain of their thoughts. Partisanship rather than objectivity necessarily characterizes the sources of this long-term conflict.

But the texts and images at the center of this book are not merely reflections of and reactions to the developments of the time; they themselves are part of the historical reality. Bernard Guenée has recently explored the idea that our period first saw the formation of “public opinion.” He adduces numerous instances where in the extensive Chronique du religieux de Saint-Denys the chronicler Michel Pintoin makes reference to what the common people thought and talked about in public places. Pintoin emphasizes the increasing anxiety and dismay that overtakes Christendom as the Schism wears on for more than a generation. The many texts that circulated at the time expressing anger and despair constitute the reality of the Schism years just as much as do the many royal documents and papal bulls that make up the official records of these years. And they are as much part of the historical reality as the military offensives, intrigues, and murders that punctuated the Schism years. Our allegories and visionary texts speak of what has happened, but they themselves may have a trigger function and make new things happen. Thus, they can play a pivotal role in moving negotiations forward or pushing rulers to the brink, motivating them to seek new solutions.

The Great Schism affected all of Europe, but not all countries were equally involved in the creation of texts and images commenting on the Schism. In those countries that—like England, for example—chose an obedience early on and stuck to it, larger groups of people, and especially laypeople, were not as involved in Schism polemics as they were in France and the Italian territories. Margaret Harvey has demonstrated that the Schism did not seem to be a pressing problem for English churchmen, who seemed more concerned with Lollardy and anticlericalism. Nor was there much evidence of the Schism in English chronicles before 1408, when Henry IV’s government became involved in efforts to end the Schism during a brief truce in the Hundred Years War. In any case, the Schism was not a subject for English vernacular writers; the poets were mostly silent on this crisis. As for the Empire, few voices outside the official university and ecclesiastical circles can still be heard.

My study is therefore primarily concerned with France and Italy (as seats of the rival popes), but it also considers some examples in Spain and Germany. For each area, I selected a number of specific individuals from different backgrounds and social classes who illustrate especially well the different problematics at the center of this book. Thus, I do not intend to present a survey of all possible reactions to the Great Schism, but rather a selective look at some of the principal currents evident mostly in visionary, allegorical, and prophetic texts as well as in letters and images.

My division into chapters on saints and visionaries, poets, and prophets should not be interpreted as if these were watertight categories. A number of individuals could have appeared in several chapters. The distinction between visionaries, visionary poets, and prophets can and should not always be made clearly; indeed, this is for me one of the intriguing aspects of this study. As Barbara Newman observes, “If visions could inspire a devout soul to write, the desire to write could also inspire a poet to construct visions; and the outcomes of these two procedures might not be so dissimilar as scholars tend to assume.” According to Newman, visions can be epiphanies, but at the same time they can be heuristic devices. Often there is a political aspect to dreams and to the texts reporting them, as certainly holds true for the visionaries of all stripes that appear in the pages of this book. Furthermore, on a less theoretical level, many of the people appearing in my pages knew one another and undoubtedly influenced each other in various ways. I try to illuminate these connections whenever possible.

Why do I include “A Twelfth-Century Prelude” as a first chapter? It seems to me that the emotional responses and the appeal to revelations and visions on the part of John of Salisbury, Hildegard of Bingen, and Elisabeth of Schönau during the schism of 1159 in many ways prefigure the situation of the Great Schism and have not so far been explored as an ensemble. At the same time the twelfth-century historical conditions and the contemporaries’ reactions are sufficiently different that they highlight the unique nature of the Great Schism, where many more visionaries spoke out much more explicitly and did not fear to take sides. In addition, it is here that we find for the first time a political engagement of visionary women that is related to a schism in the church. Thus, this twelfth-century backdrop helps put the special nature of the Great Schism and the poetic and visionary activities surrounding it into a better perspective.

My second and third chapters focus on saints and visionaries from Saint Birgitta of Sweden (1303–73) to Saint Colette (1381–1447). Here some of the great figures of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries appear, along with some lesser known ones. We shall first investigate the pressure some saintly personages like Saint Birgitta of Sweden, fr. Pedro of Aragon (1305–81), and Saint Catherine of Siena (1347–80) exerted on popes Urban V (1362–70) and Gregory XI (1370–78) to return the papacy to Rome. I shall then turn to the visionaries who tried to intervene in the Schism, which many saw in fact as the result of the return to Rome. Some of them were on the Roman side, others on the side of the Avignon pope. Some found papal approval, others ended their lives as outcasts. It is certain that visionary activity increased during the time of the Great Schism as a distinct response to this grave crisis. In addition to saintly visionaries we find ordinary laypeople, mostly women, who normally would not have had the ear of rulers and prelates, trying to intervene in the politics of their time through their visions and revelations. They suffered because of the Schism, both mentally and physically, and hoped—mostly in vain—to persuade the popes and secular rulers to end the Schism,

The same goal informed many of the political allegories and dream visions I consider in my third and fourth chapters. There I am concentrating on France (neither in England nor in Italy was the Schism a major theme for allegorical visions) and on partisans of the French position: Philippe de Mézières (1327–1405), Eustache Deschamps (ca. 1340–ca. 1404), Honoré Bovet (ca. 1350–after 1409), and Christine de Pizan (ca. 1364–ca. 1430) will be at the center of these chapters. These prolific authors wrote on a wide variety of topics, and while only Bovet wrote separate works dealing with the Schism, for all of them it was a troubling issue that appeared in many guises in their allegories, prose texts, and ballades. The use of French in most of their works made their texts accessible to a nonclerical audience, thus widening the target for these polemical poems and enabling a nonlearned though still literate segment of the population to think about the Schism along these authors’ lines. Bemoaning the disastrous consequences of the Schism, these poets at the same time provided shrewd political analyses and offered solutions, such as the convocation of a General Council, that were adopted later, whether because of their efforts or not is impossible to say, however.

My last chapter is devoted to prophets and prophecy. The first text to be treated was one of the most popular and opaque works in medieval Europe: the Vaticinia de summis pontificibus (Prophecies of the last popes), a kind of emblem book with intriguing text-image combinations. Dating from a somewhat earlier period, the texts, but especially the images, were reconceived after the Great Schism and applied to the popes engaged in this conflict. Other parts of this chapter deal with prophets like Jean de Roquetaillade (d. ca. 1365) who anticipated the Schism in sometimes eerie detail, and Telesphorus of Cosenza (active 1380s), who wrote directly, if almost incomprehensibly, about the Schism. A bearded prophet with a political mission who mysteriously appeared in Genoa in 1386 will also make an appearance. Heinrich of Langenstein and Pierre d’Ailly will close this chapter; they were connected not only by their conciliar writings but also by their interest in the prophecies of Hildegard of Bingen. But only Pierre was destined to become one of the most active participants at the Council of Constance and see the end of the Schism. These events will be considered in the Conclusion.

For each chapter, I also study some illustrations in the manuscripts and occasionally printed editions whenever they can give us clues about the conceptualization of the Schism. The striking images in many of these manuscripts and books often serve as commentaries or supply additional ideas that sometimes support and sometimes contradict the texts they accompany. These illustrations are not meant to constitute a separate or comprehensive iconographical study of Schism images but should be seen as an organic part of the imaginaire—and, I hope, as a respite from too many pages of printed text and as a stimulus for further reflection.

Mailing List

Subscribe to our mailing list and be notified about new titles, journals and catalogs.