Arch Stanton Guest Post: Episode 5 of Today I Learned – Papal Schism

This is less something new I learned rather than perhaps my favorite bit of historical esoterica – the Papal Schism! (or the Great Schism) (or the Western Schism) (or the Schism of 1378) (or the Occidental Schism) (but not “Schism” by Tool, despite being a great song). Really, it’s probably just because of the word “schism” – go ahead and say it out loud. It’s delightful. Also, how many different schisms can there be where this many names are needed?
Anyway, for those of you who were not blessed to take AP European History with Mr Yanko in high school, this particular event concerns the time the Catholic Church accidentally appointed three concurrent popes. Three popes! An orgy of popes! The madness! Consider, if you will, the United States having three simultaneous presidents (rather than the current two – salute to our Comrade in Chief Putin!), and the chaos that would ensue. Now, imagine everyone actually GAVE a shit about what each of these people said, since your allegiance to the wrong one would lead to eternal damnation.
In the 1300’s, the head of the Catholic Church was moved from Rome to Avignon, France; the story behind this is pretty wild but we’ll keep it brief — the French king didn’t like the current Pope, who beat and tortured a 73-old religious figure until he died, leading to an emergency conclave to pick the next Pope, in which the French king forced the conclave to vote for the French nominee by pointing to the last guy who didn’t go along with his wishes; this French guy decided Rome was trash and moved the entire Catholic Church to southern France. The Middle Ages are considered the dark ages of history, but this is merely the background to a weirder story – the Middle Ages were WILD.
This Avignon papacy had developed a reputation for corruption, which alienated everyone that wasn’t French (the French – pissing everyone else off for as long as they’ve been around). After an Avignon pope died in 1378, the Romans saw their chance to reclaim the papacy for themselves, and they elected Bartolomeo Prignano, put fourth by the Italian mob (the Italians – hand-in-hand with the mafia since as long as they’ve been around), who became Urban VI located in Rome. Everyone was happy (note – still the Middle Ages, so no one was happy as everyone died all the time for like, NO reason, and you had to shit in buckets, assuming you were one of the lucky ones), until everyone realized Urban was kind of a dick to his cardinals. Or insane. Being the middle ages, who can tell the difference. The cardinals, being the catty mean girls of the Medieval period, fled Rome to Avignon to pick a new Regina George, electing Robert of Geneva (who became Clement VII) as the antipope located in Avignon. ANTIPOPE. THIS IS A REAL THING AND NOT A JOKE. The Antipope sounds like he was infected by a radioactive batch of holy water, and given the superpower of knowing the last time everyone masturbated. These cardinals claimed they were ‘pressured’ into their selection, and therefore it was all invalid, thus premiering the first ever anti-bullying campaign (or antipope campaign?)
Urban VI, with his feelings hurt by everyone’s change of heart, regretfully stepped aside. PSYCHE — he doubled down and proclaimed everyone who followed the other pope a heretic and destined to burn in hell. Medieval period Catholics were understandable not chill about this whole situation. An array of battles occurred between the cities and states on both sides while everyone tried to figure which side they were on. On the one hand, the FIRST pope (Urban) was in Rome, where the Catholic Church had historically been, but on the other hand, the SECOND pope (Clement) came as part of the the undisputed line of previous popes in Avignon, and all the Church leaders advocated for him as the legitimate pope. Eventually, after decades of separate papal lines, church leaders agreed they should hold an official church council to pick a newer, MORE official pope, but for realsies this time. The only issue is canon dictates an official church council could only be called by the pope, which neither would do at the risk of losing power. Wacky hijinks ensue.
In 1409 (thirty-one years after the original split), two groups of cardinals from both locations met and elected a new pope in order to solve the crisis, electing Alexander V to be the realest pope, damned if canon permitted it. TWO ANTIPOPES! Alexander died almost immediately, and John XXIII was elected in his place — this isn’t really relevant, but John’s original name was “Baldassare Cosaa” – Bald Ass the Pope.
In the most shocking twist of events yet, Bald Ass eventually agreed to hold an OFFICIAL church council, which the Roman pope at the time (Gregory XII) agreed to, thus bringing legitimacy to whoever was elected without lakes of bloodshed. This is the only time something has been decided by papal majority, with two of the three popes agreeing and overruling the third. John and Greg resigned, but the Avignon pope at the time (Benedict XIII) refused to abdicate; he was promptly ex-communicated. Being excommunicated was sort of like getting thrown out of a group chat, except you get condemned to burn in hell to boot. The new, OFFICIAL, NO FOR REAL OFFICIAL Pope, Martin V, was elected and resided in Rome. The Avignon papacy continued for two more popes but had lost all steam and support. Fun fact – Gregory XII, in 1415, was the last pope to resign until Benedict XVI did so in 2013.
Today, you (hopefully) learned that the Catholic Church is basically run the same way Charlie Day from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” approaches getting a cat out of a wall ( And there was a time you could name your kid Bald Ass.

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