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Turmoil in the Church During the Middle Ages Essay

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Updated: Jun 30th, 2021

Introduction

The history of Christian thought in the Middle Ages has been filled with conflicts inside and outside the Church. At the start of the fourteenth century, the tension between the ruling nobility and papacy increased leading to the Church losing control over its main representative, the pope.1 The string of events that followed the relocation of the papacy from Italy to France created the Great Western Schism. During this event, the authority of the Church and the overall role of the pope came under question for nobles and commoners.2 As an outcome of the Babylonian Captivity and the Great Western Schism, the Church entered a challenging period that could have become one of the factors in encouraging the Reformation movement.

The Challenges of the Church

The Impacts of the Babylonian Captivity and the Western Schism

Before the transfer of the papacy to Avignon, Rome was unanimously considered the center of Christianity.3 However, after the conflict between King Phillip IV and Boniface VIII has escalated, the ruling nobility of France stopped seeing Rome and other Catholic countries as having authority over France’s religious and political decisions. Thus, the French-dominated College of Cardinals soon appointed a new pope who decided to move to Avignon, France, to avoid being persecuted by Italian Christians.4 The onset of the Babylonian Captivity exacerbated the religious conflicts among different countries. The new pope was under the control of the French king, putting the authority of the Church under that of the political ruler. This change in political leanings altered the way the countries perceived the papacy and the legitimacy of the Church because before the transfer the pope’s position was seen as protected from all judgments.5

The Western Schism further weakened the influence of the Church on the nobility and commoners as well, although the religion itself remained an inherent part of people’s lives. The lack of recognition of ecclesiastical structures resulted in a century-long conflict between multiple popes, the majority of Western countries, and the Church’s council. The existence of two popes with the initial separation of Rome and Avignon-based locations confused people and called the religious and diplomatic immunity of the papacy into question.6 Then, when the council established by the Church appointed a third pope whose authority could not overcome or convince the public, the reliability of the existing ecclesiastical system deteriorated further.7 While the Church succeeded in removing the competing popes and establishing a new pope again, the perception of people toward the Catholic Church was changed.

The Significance of Early Reformers

The changes that the Church underwent in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries had a great impact on the following events and paved the way for the Reformation movement. The position of the early reformers who doubted the popes’ authority strongly affected the way other people viewed Catholicism and Christianity, in general. The Church was deemed as corrupted and indulgent by the opposition, and the connection between the Church and the religion was called into question.8 The headship of Christ became foundational for many reformers, and the established hierarchy was devalued in their eyes.9 Instead, the original text of the Scriptures was deemed as the only valuable source of the religion, as opposed to the traditions and rituals established by the Church throughout the years.

Early reformers reevaluated the evangelical ideals of the Christian thought and revitalized some people’s ideas about the relationship between people and the system as well as the Church and God. It also should be noted that the Schism did not affect only Italy and France – the influence of the changes in the structure reached other countries in the region. The Czech Reformation was inspired by the works of early reformers and led to significant alterations in the country’s religious beliefs.10 The influence of the Church declined as a result of these conflicts. Reformers in the other countries felt that they could bring attention to their ideologies basing their concerns on the undermined position of the Catholic Church.

The Relationship Between the Church and the Ruling Nobility

As it was stated above, the relationship between the Church and the ruling class was strained. The main point of tension was power and its effect on laws, taxation, and autonomy. The initial conflict that involved King Philip IV and Pope Boniface VIII was started by the two men because of money and political authority.11 The two leaders believed that their position was more influential than the authority of the opponent. Thus, they attempted to use their respective powers to limit each other’s influence on the region. The king attempted to reduce the pope’s income by refusing to send the money out of the country. In a contrast, the pope wanted to free the clergy from paying taxes to separate the religious organization from any national institutions and duties.12 The following conflicts between the papacy and nobility continued to develop because of power struggles.

During the Babylonian Captivity, the relationship between the French king and the new pope drastically changed, but it also had many issues. France’s pope was under the influence of the ruler, which led to him reversing many rules established by his predecessor.13 Moreover, his decisions for future changes were also strongly influenced not by religious but political reasons. Therefore, when the pope was residing in Avignon, the Church’s authority was substantially reduced.

The Historiography of Conciliarism

The history of Conciliarism and the decisions of the Church during and after the Schism were analyzed and criticized by many people. After exploring different works and points of view from contemporaneous theologians, Skarsten concluded that historians took different approaches when discussing the concept of Conciliarism.14 Some scholars chose to pursue a revisionist point of view, which also included multiple strategies of reimagining the movements of the Reformation period. They either tried to redeem certain reformers who were considered “heretics” by the Church or focus on the decrees created by the Council of Constance and their binding effect.15 The shift away from the idea of heretical origin characterized more recent scholarship on Conciliarism that was published in the twentieth century. In this case, the scholars believed that Conciliarism was a vital step towards positive change in the history of the Roman Catholic Church and its evolvement from the Medieval period and canon law.16

Conclusion

In the Middle Ages, the Church underwent many substantial changes after overcoming challenges from both external and internal problems. The strained relationship between the Catholic Church and the ruling nobility destabilized the religious structure and led to the Schism which, in turn, devalued the previously undoubted role of the pope. As an outcome of this conflict, other ideologies started to arise, reimagining Christianity and its interaction with the clergy. The early reforms paved the way for future revolutions and affected the region of Europe substantially. Conciliarism that was introduced as a result of the rivalry between the papacy and nobility was seen as a heretical decision at first but later revised as an important step in the Church’s evolution.

Bibliography

DiDomizio, Daniel. “Jan Hus’s De Ecclesia, Precursor of Vatican II?” Theological Studies 60, no. 2 (1999): 247-260.

McGill, Sara Ann. Babylon Captivity & the Great Western Schism. Toledo: Great Neck Publishing, 2017. E-book.

Skarsten, Trygne R. “The Origin of Conciliarism as Reflected in Modern Historiography.” Lutheran Quarterly 19 (1967): 296-311.

Footnotes

  1. Sara Ann McGill, Babylon Captivity & the Great Western Schism (Toledo: Great Neck Publishing, 2017), E-book, chap. 1.
  2. Ibid., chap. 2.
  3. Ibid., chap. 1.
  4. Ibid., chap. 1.
  5. Trygne R. Skarsten, “The Origin of Conciliarism as Reflected in Modern Historiography,” Lutheran Quarterly 19 (1967): 303.
  6. Ibid., 302.
  7. McGill, Babylon Captivity, chap. 3.
  8. Daniel DiDomizio, “Jan Hus’s De Ecclesia, Precursor of Vatican II?” Theological Studies 60, no. 2 (1999): 248.
  9. Ibid., 250.
  10. Ibid., 247.
  11. McGill, Babylon Captivity, chap.1.
  12. Ibid., chap. 1.
  13. Ibid., chap. 2.
  14. Skarsten, “The Origin of Conciliarism,” 310.
  15. Ibid., 311.
  16. Ibid., 309.
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