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Council of Constance

1414-1418. The medieval papacy suffered a series of reverses during the fourteenth century, including the removal of the popes from Rome to Avignon and the Great Schism,* when for a time there were two and even three claimants to the office. There had been other instances of antipopes, but they were not nearly so serious as the fourteenth century schism, because in the latter instance the nations of Europe lined up behind their rival popes. There were many suggestions for ending the schism, and it is a high tribute to the office of pope that few people thought of abolishing the institution. The solution finally accepted by leaders such as Jean Gerson* and Pierre d'Ailly* was that of calling a council representing the entire church to settle the matter.

One of the popes, John XXIII, who was in military trouble, agreed to call the Council of Constance to secure the help of the Holy Roman Emperor, Sigismund. The emperor wished to call a council to enhance his prestige, reform the church, and suppress heresy. The council was attended by representatives of the lay rulers, bishops, and abbots or their representatives, and representatives of other ecclesiastical corporations and the universities. Several months passed before the council reached its full strength, and instead of voting by head, the group was organized into five nations after the pattern of medieval universities. Each nation-Italian, German, English, French, and Spanish-had one vote in the formal casting of ballots. This minimized the importance of the numerous Italian clergy present.

Among its achievements, the council ended the papal schism by deposing all three popes and electing Martin V. The problem of heresy was dealt with in the case of John Hus.* Hus came to Constance under safe conduct, firmly believing he could convince the council that his views were not heretical. The safe conduct was not honored, and he was imprisoned, tried, and burnt for heresy. The execution of Hus did not extinguish his teaching, but rather led to the Hussite wars. In the matter of reform, the council won two impressive victories, but lost on most of the practical issues. It passed the decrees Sacrosancta, affirming the authority of councils over the church, and Frequens, which set the intervals at which councils should meet. On specific matters, however, not much progress was made. Various committees of the council worked on reform of the abuses connected with papal revenues and provisions. Each party was ready to reform whatever did not affect its own selfish interests. The result was that Martin V was presented with a bill of particulars which he accepted in principle, but did not bother to enforce.