Essays in the Conciliar Epoch

Essays in the Conciliar Epoch

Essays in the Conciliar Epoch

Essays in the Conciliar Epoch

Excerpt

The Conciliar Epoch is the period of the Great Schism and the General Councils of the Western Church (1378-1448). The Councils were the last collective act of medieval Christendom. To the re-making of religious unity in Europe and the reform of the Church the best minds of the age gave of their best. Unity they achieved at length, but not reform: the Conciliar system, as the decree Frequens planned it, was comparatively short-lived.

I have not attempted to do more here than to hint the answer or answers to the question why this was so. Elsewhere, in a work specially devoted to the Council of Constance, it will be suggested that a solution is to be found as much in the diplomatic as in the ecclesiastical history of the time. It is enough now to point to the zeal of the Conciliars, to their hopes--and to some of their shortcomings and the limitations of those they represented; to show how urgent their work seemed at a time when the foundations of authority in the Church were being challenged by the loyal as well as the disloyal. The challenge went back to Ockham and Marsilius, and indeed further still.

For the historian of religion it is an age abounding in deep currents: piety had reawakened and was seeking new forms of expression both for the life of the community and for the conduct of the individual. The human spirit was conscious that it was on the brink of new things, but could not everywhere take the plunge. Part of the fascination of the age lies in the coexistence, the overlapping, of old and new: in all the self-frustrated efforts to get free. One luminous mind, the mind of Cusanus, could transcend the antagonisms, but few had either the power, or (like Thomas of Agnetenberg) the humility. They turned back, as Dietrich of Niem, to the ancient ways: their radicalism, where it existed, was based on courses no longer applicable or relevant.

I am indebted to the Governors of the John Rylands Library and to the Librarian, Dr. Henry Guppy, for permission to reprint here certain articles that have already appeared in the Bulletin of the Library (chs. II and IV to IX), and to the Council of the Historical Association for similar permission to reproduce two articles in History (chs. III and X). Revision has made several of them barely recognizable: the publication of the new edition of Ockham's political works involved drastic changes in the article now printed as ch. V, while chs. VI ("Sir John Fortescue"), VIII (the De Imitatione Christi), and X ("Middle Ages" and "Renaissance") have undergone much transformation.

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