A History of the Church in the Middle Ages

By F. Donald Logan | Go to book overview
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Two views can be taken of the fifteenth century, each with merit as historical approaches. In the first place, it can be looked at only with one eye, while the other eye is on the future, to the sixteenth century and to the religious changes that dramatically altered the course of history. The emphasis is on roots, origins, even causes, related to the Protestant Reformation, and no historian of that phenomenon can avoid seeking its historical sources. But, for the medieval historian, this approach poses the real danger of turning the last century of the Middle Ages into a mere prelude to what was to come and of not seeing it in its own right. This second view examines this period not entirely unaware of the great changes around the corner but with the emphasis clearly on the here-and-now of fifteenth-century Europe. It is this second approach which is adopted here: the fifteenth century deserves to be studied for itself, not in an entirely blinkered way, but with emphasis unmistakably on what happened then rather than on what was to happen. What happened then was not decay and decline, as has often been said. It was, rather, a period of unusual richness, a richness in which the church shared and to which it contributed. Recovery from the catastrophic Black Death was fairly rapid. The self-inflicted wounds of the Great Schism and the consequent Conciliar Movement left scars, yet the church as the community of Christian believers emerged as healthy then as the church of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, perhaps even with a more widely shared sense of the essentially spiritual aspects of religion.

Popes and councils

From the attack on Boniface VIII (1303) through the long, seventy-year exile in Avignon followed by the devastating schism and the humiliation of the councils at Pisa (1409) and Constance (1414-18), the papacy was scarred, deeply troubled, even reeling. Yet fifty years later the papacy had recovered its constitutional position as the supreme authority over the church. Popes would reign who would be among the most splendid in an age of splendour and near splendour.

When Martin V left Constance in 1417, he had much to concern him, particularly the nature of the body that had elected him and its claims and


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