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In 1378 the Catholic Church was plagued by severe inner turmoil. The Roman Pope, Gregory XI had just died, and a new Pope was in the process of being selected by the College of Cardinals. However, with the new election came a split within the church, as two men simultaneously claimed to be the true Pope (Rollo-Koster, Joëlle, and Thomas M. Izbicki. 2009). This papal schism not only split the church, but split countries and universities across Europe. The University of Paris played an important role in the Western Schism by attempting to act as a neutral ground for debate on the issue, as well as forge plans to reach a solution.

Pope is a Latin word which means “father”, and thus the Pope is in a sense the “father” of the Catholic Church. The Pope is technically the Bishop of Rome but is also seen as the worldwide leader of the Catholic Church (Wikipedia: “Pope” 20 Dec. 2012). The church believes that the Pope is a successor of the Apostle Peter who is considered to be the first Pope. The Pope’s office is known as the “papacy”. The papacy “is one of the most enduring institutions in the world and has had a prominent part in human history” (Wikipedia: “Pope” 20 Dec. 2012). While today the Pope’s power and authority is strictly related to religious matters, the Pope used to have a more nonspiritual role. The pope used to act as a mediator between various kingdoms who embraced Christianity. Therefore, the papal office was much more politically affiliated at the time. When a Pope dies, the College of Cardinals are the body of people responsible for electing a new Pope. A cardinal is a bishop whom has been elected by a Pope to be involved with the papal elections. The cardinals meet and vote on a new Pope in a very strict and procedural manner with precise rules and regulations, which is why the possibility of a schism is so rare and unheard of (Religion Facts 19 Apr. 2005).

With the death of Pope Gregory XI, the Roman people wanted more than anything for the new pope to continue in the current Roman papal tradition. Gregory XI had just returned the papacy to Rome, after it had previously been in Avignon, France. The Roman people greatly feared that upon the election of a new Pope, the papacy would return to Avignon, unless a Roman Pope was elected. However, the cardinals felt there were no decent options of Roman heritage and thus Urban VI, a Neapolitan Pope, was elected (Rollo-Koster, Joëlle, and Thomas M. Izbicki. 2009).

While Urban VI had proven to be a worthy administrator, he turned out to be a disappointing Pope. A majority of the cardinals regretted voting Urban to power, as with papal power he was suspicious, reform minded, and prone to violent outbursts of anger. The majority of cardinals, upset with Urban’s current control of office, moved to Anagni where they began the process of electing another man the papal chair. Even though there was a different man currently claiming to be the Pope, the cardinals went ahead and elected Pope Clement VII of Geneva as a rival Pope. Clement VII reestablished a papal court in Avignon (Rollo-Koster, Joëlle, and Thomas M. Izbicki. 2009). With the election of a second man to the most sacred chair of office in all of Europe came great problems. Both men claimed to be chosen by God, and the clear conflict threw the church into turmoil. Cardinals and Bishops were split between the two papal chairs. The multiple claims to the papal chair immediately hurt the reputation of the office and threw the western world into a papal schism.

While the papal schism undoubtedly hurt the office of the papacy, it also had a powerful and lasting effect on the many followers of the church. In this era, the church was the way of life for the people. The church had the power to tell a follower what constituted as a sin and it also had the power to absolve that sin. With the onset of the schism, followers of the church were thrown into a period of confusion. They had no way of knowing who the “true” pope was, and therefore had no way of knowing who was supposed to be acknowledged as the holy successor of Apostle Peter, the first Pope ("Apostolic Succession." Wikipedia). The Pope was supposed to be able to guarantee their followers of the church salvation, but due to the schism, this was unable to happen and left all the followers of the church without a dominant leader.

The problem of the great schism soon was concerning political leaders and theologians throughout universities across Europe. “Thanks to its reputation for theological study and its location in France, the University of Paris was, at least until 1403, in the forefront of academic attempts to end the schism” (Rollo-Koster, Joëlle, and Thomas M. Izbicki. 2009). The University of Paris was one of the earliest universities established in Europe. It was founded in the mid 12th century, and was known for their theology department. The theology department at the university was considered a superior area of study, and many famous theologians worked for the department faculty ("University of Paris." Wikipedia).

Originally the University attempted to claim neutrality on the issue, but when the University received written instructions from the king to publicly embrace Pope Clement VII and the Avignon papacy, the University almost immediately followed orders (Rollo-Koster, Joëlle, and Thomas M. Izbicki. 2009). While the University was striving to be a place of free debate and opinion surrounding the papal schism, pressure from the royal thrown was not to be over looked.

However, the University of Paris was blessed with a couple of the most renowned and respected theologians at the time. Led by lead theologians Pierre d’ Ailly and John Gerson, who were both very passionate about ending the schism, the University of Paris decided to support the calling of a general Church council in 1381. Ailly and Gerson developed the theory that Popes are subject to general councils (Kirsch, Johann Peter). The council was supposed to be an official way of settling the matter of the schism, but once again the University became subject to French royal pressures. The University was forced to begin to retreat their tactics when multiple university masters became imprisoned for their efforts. Royal officials banned talk of “via concilii” on campus completely. By 1383, against its will, the University of Paris had once again officially voiced its public support for Clement VII and the Avignon papacy (Rollo-Koster, Joëlle, and Thomas M. Izbicki. 2009).

Despite reoccurring royal disapproval, the University of Paris resumed open debate regarding the schism in 1394 (Rollo-Koster, Joëlle, and Thomas M. Izbicki. 2009). The French thrown had been the cause of leave for multiple university students and masters who supported conciliarism, or the belief that the general church council had greater authority than the Pope. However, this would be the last occurrence of an overbearing royal influence upon the University of Paris. When open debate resumed, the French thrown did not interpose to stop debate.

At one point the theological faculty at the University of Paris was asked to decide who the true Pope was. While secular rulers had previously been asked to use their power of state and decide the matter, each ruler had already clearly chosen a Pope with whom his alliance rested with (Nelson, Lynn H.). Besides, the support of secular rulers was typically based on whichever claimant was more beneficial to their own personal Crown. The esteemed theologians at the University of Paris initially appeared to be the next best thing, but they were incapable of coming to a decision. If the theologians had chosen one Pope as the supreme and true Pope, the other Pope would have undoubtedly excommunicated the entire group of faculty. Also, by deciding on the true Pope, the theologians would have not only had to decide which man was truly the choice of God to rule the Church, but also they would have to believe that “they had any right to pass (judgments) upon the qualifications of the Vicar of Christ” (Nelson, Lynn H). To the theologians, it was a horrible sin to pass judgment upon the person who was regarded as the holiest man on earth.

Meanwhile, with the new freedom granted from the French Crown, the University of Paris began to explore possible ideas to end the schism. The University also began to seek out academic approval and support for their various ideas regarding solutions to end the schism. Their main solution was a very simple idea, yet one that was surprisingly not previously thought of. The University embraced the idea of “via cessionis”. This translated means the “way of resignation” (Rollo-Koster, Joëlle, and Thomas M. Izbicki. 2009).

The schism continued to proceed even after the deaths of both original claimants to the papal chair. Pope Boniface IX was elected in 1389 in Rome and the antipope Benedict XIII was elected in Avignon in 1394. The University of Paris began to communicate with other universities, as well as the King of Aragon and the Pope at Avignon to try to convince others to embrace their solution of “via cessionis.” However, the University’s outreach was a failure, as neither current claimant to the papal chair was willing to resign. Antipope Benedict XIII even reportedly claimed “that he would rather suffer death” (Kirsch, Johann Peter) than agree to “via cessionis.”

Nevertheless, the University of Paris did not stop attempting to gain supporters for their solution to the schism. Their activism took the form of numerous academic letters including the letter “Quoniam fideles” which was published in August of 1395. This letter began to make its way through Europe and into other universities. It was used as a reference point in many different debates all over Europe concerning the schism and solutions to end it. However, these letters were not all met with acceptance. The University of Oxford rejected the letters and the idea of “"via cessionis"” as well as the University of Cambridge and the University of Toulouse. The University of Oxford wanted the schism to be resolved by a general council while the University of Toulouse strongly supported Pope Benedict XIII in Avignon. While the letters from the University of Paris were received “politely” at the University of Vienna and the University of Cologne, no real support came through for the “via cessionis.” With its lack of support in conjunction with more royal influence, the University of Paris was forced to abandon its theory of “via cessionis” that it had been championing up until that point and embrace the idea of a general council once again (Rollo-Koster, Joëlle, and Thomas M. Izbicki. 2009).

Eventually, with the help of the University of Paris tactics, the Council of Pisa was formed in 1409 (_"Council of Pisa." Wikipedia). During this council, it was declared that neither Gregory XII of the Roman papal line, or Benedict XIII of the Avignon papal line were Popes. The cardinals were reportedly tired of Benedict XIII’s “bad will” and Gregory XII’s “nepotism”, or favoring of his relatives. The council then decided to elect a third “true” Pope, Alexander V (_"Council of Pisa." Wikipedia). While the Council of Pisa thought that they were truly helping to solve the issue of the schism, they in fact they were only adding to the problem, as neither Pope Gregory XII or Pope Benedict XIII were willing to give up their papal thrown. Pope Alexander V died shortly after being elected at the Council of Pisa and was succeeded by John XXIII (_"Council of Pisa." Wikipedia). Thus the schism was complicated even further.

The Council of Pisa had good intentions but made the mistake of trying to please both the Roman and Avignon papacies. They cardinals at the heart of the council did not realize that by dethroning both of the original claimants to the papal chair, they were undoubtedly dethroning a true Pope. This ultimately was the largest flaw in the University of Paris’ championed theory of “via cessionis”. While the theory ideally would’ve been a good idea, it would have dethroned a true Pope, the Vicar of Christ. The idea of such an act, as previously stated, was viewed as a horrible sin. The University of Paris’ theory may have worked if both Popes were willing to resign. However, knowing they would both be viewed as illegitimate Popes, neither claimant would resign since the theory was still associated with opposing a true Vicar of Christ.

When neither claimant listened to or followed the orders of the decisions made at the Council of Pisa, both proceeded to excommunicate the cardinals and their supporters who were involved with the council (_"Council of Pisa." Wikipedia). With the current three claimants to the papal chair, the end of the schism seemed to be nowhere in sight.

By 1414 the problems that had arisen from the triple claim to the papal chair were enough to force secular leaders into action. There were threats of withholding papal taxes among other things in order to bring the schism to an end (Nelson, Lynn H). Eventually, the Conciliarists received support from the Holy Roman Empire and arranged for a new council. The new council was to be held in Constance.

The Council of Constance was finally able to affectively deal with the schism. The council secured resignation from the Pope John XXIII and Pope Gregory XII. The Council of Constance was then forced to excommunicate the claimant Pope Benedict XIII, due to the fact that he refused to step down. Pope Gregory XII formally empowered the Council of Constance to elect a new Pope, so the election would be viewed as legitimate. Gregory XII was chosen to do so because he was from the original line of Pope’s first elected in Rome beginning with Urban VI. The council therefore elected Martin V, and with this election to the papal chair came the end of the Western Schism (_"Schism, Great."

While the University of Paris may not have had a final hand in the ending of the schism, the work of its faculty, theologians and student supporters did not go unnoticed. The university came up with an original plan of “via cessionis”, or the “way of resignation”, and in the end that is basically what occurred at the Council of Constance when two of the three “Popes” agreed to resign. However, the “via cessionis” did not have the power that was needed in the end to forcibly remove Pope Benedict XIII from power. Nor did this theory have the power to reelect a new Pope to the papal chair. The University of Paris championed a theory that was almost the key to success in ending the schism, and the university supported this brilliant theory even with continued disapproval from the French Crown. While the original theory of “via cessionis” may not have single handedly ended the Western Schism, the University of Paris played a large role in actively solving the problem.


The University of Paris and the Western Schism


Page Author: Kiah Jones

Saturday, 19-Jan-2013 19:21



_"Apostolic Succession." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 02 Feb. 2013. Web. 4 Feb. 2013.

_"Council of Constance." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 17 Jan. 2013. Web. 22 Jan. 2013.

_"Council of Pisa." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 28 Dec. 2012. Web. 22 Jan. 2013.

_"How the Pope Is Elected." - ReligionFacts. N.p., 19 Apr. 2005. Web. 22 Jan. 2013.

_"Pope." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 20 Dec. 2012. Web. 20 Jan. 2013.

_"Schism, Great." The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 2004. Web. 21 Jan. 2013.

_"University of Paris." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Feb. 2013. Web. 2 Feb. 2013.

Kirsch, Johann Peter. "Pedro de Luna." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 22 Jan. 2013 <>.

Nelson, Lynn H. "The Great Schism, 1378-1415." The Great Schism (1378-1415)| Lectures in Medieval History. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Jan. 2013.

Rollo-Koster, Joëlle, and Thomas M. Izbicki. "University Experiences." A Companion to the Great Western Schism, 1378-1417. Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 2009. N. pag. Print.


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