Why the Reformation? The Babylonian Captivity & Great Schism 1309-77, 1378-1417

Posted on August 9, 2008. Filed under: Church History |

Saturday, August 9, 2008– I wrote the following short pieces for our church’s annual Reformation Celebration last year. We printed these on some nice paper that looked “old” and had them ready for distribution to all who wanted them. We also had one copy of each paper laminated and placed in a stand at each of the displays.

Why the Reformation? The Babylonian Captivity & Great Schism

1309-77, 1378-1417

Overview: From 1309-1453 the Medieval World was turned upside down by the Avignon Papacy (1309-77), the Black Death which killed perhaps one third of the population of Europe in the years 1347-51, the Hundred Years’ War between France and England (1337-1453), the Peasants’ Revolts in Flanders and England (1323, 1381) and the Great Schism of 1378-1417 when there were 2-3 Popes at a time. A weakened papacy combined with rising nationalism and the rise of humanism in northern Europe set the stage for the Reformation of the 16th century.

The Babylonian Captivity/Avignon Papacy:

  • Preceded by Philip IV, King of France (1285-1314) taxing Church property.
  • Italian popes had long served in Rome, but with Clement V, of France, elected in 1305, power shifted to France. Clement V moved to Avignon, France in 1309 and French Kings controlled the papacy until 1378.
  • England, at war with France, refused to send money to a French pope.
  • Called the Babylonian Captivity because it was about 70 years long, like the Babylonian Captivity of Israel.

The Great Schism:

  • Pope Gregory XI returned the papacy to Rome in 1377 but died in 1378.
  • Urban VI was elected by the Cardinals in 1378 but angered the Cardinals who proceeded to elect Clement VII who moved back to Avignon.
  • About half of Europe followed the Italian pope and half followed the French pope. Many had to pay taxes to support both popes.
  • Council of Pisa (1409) the cardinals deposed Benedict XIII of Avignon and Gregory XII in Rome, electing Alexander V as pope…but the other two refused to abdicate so now there were three popes!
  • Sigismund, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, called the Council of Constance in 1414-18 and ended the Schism as all three popes abdicated.
  • The Conciliar Movement, 1409-1449 ended in a failure to reform the corrupt papacy. In 1460 Pope Pius II condemned the Conciliar Movement as heretical.

Summary: “The papacy’s failure to provide creative leadership for reform made possible the Protestant Reformation” (Western Civilization, Perry, Chase, Jacob, 2007, p.277).



Questions for Further Study and Application on

The Babylonian Captivity and Great Schism


For further study:

Why was the Pope always in Rome and why was it such a big deal for the Pope to be in Avignon, France for almost seventy years?


When was the first Great Schism of the Church and what was the result?


Read this quote from Dr. Earl Cairns (Christianity Through The Centuries, 1996. p.196): “Emperors were almost popes in the East, and in the West popes were almost Emperors.” What role did secular politics play in The Babylonian Captivity and Great Schism of the 14th and 15th centuries?


How do you think the political entanglements of the Church set the stage for the Reformation in the 16th century?


What role do you think the Papal Schism (Great Schism) could have played in Martin Luther’s emphasis on the Scriptures Alone being the authority for his stand against Rome?



In what way can divisions in the Church bring dishonor and shame and is there any time that divisions in the Church can be a good thing?


The American system of freedom of religion, guaranteed by the First Amendment to our Constitution, keeps the government from establishing a state church and from interfering in church matters. However, is the Church in America involved in politics? Should churches be involved in politics? If so, to what extent? If not, why not?


Recommended Reading: The Age of Reform 1250-1550: An Intellectual and Religious history of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe, Steven Ozment. Yale University Press: New Haven, CT. 1980 (see chapters 2-5).




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