Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
24.01.11 Rollo-Koster, The Great Western Schism, 1378-1417

24.01.11 Rollo-Koster, The Great Western Schism, 1378-1417

Drawing heavily on social science theory, and especially on the work of Victor Turner, Rollo-Koster presents a book that is original, important, interesting, and challenging. Her novel line of interpretation treats the Schism as a social drama. She says that prevailing historiography has disincarnated the crisis and that this book will incarnate it. A bit more concretely she says--correctly--that dominant lines of interpretation are essentially institutional and thus abstract and to do not get to how the schism was experienced on the ground. Turner’s concept of social drama sees four phases: breach, crisis, redress, and reintegration or recognition. In addition, Rollo-Koster argues that medieval society thought of itself as a body and, as a result, authority could be seen, voiced, heard, touched, and smelled. Performative acts could invoke all the senses.

There has not been a major discussion of the Great Western Schism in English in a long time and there has never been an attempt to get at the schism through the lens of performativity. Readers will therefore be grateful for the first chapter, which discusses the historiography and provides a concise narrative by reviewing major developments under the headings of breach, crisis, redressive action, and then reintegration. The 1378 election represented a breach of normal, norm-setting relations and procedures. Instead of blaming the “breach” on the cardinals, as is usual, she attributes the breach to the banderesi and the Roman commune in their support for and demands of Bartolomeo Prignani, who was elected as Urban VI. The crisis was the Europe-wide split of allegiances that immediately attended the second election and the establishment of Clement VII’s regime back in Avignon. In Turner’s view, crisis ensues when people take sides. Redressive actions involved such things as subtractions of allegiance, councils that either met or were called for, and pronouncements by universities, especially the theology faculty in Paris. Reintegration followed the Council of Constance and its success in establishing one pope, Martin V, in 1417. There is in a sense a story within the story, in that Rollo-Koster treats Constance itself as a social drama in so far as it proceeded through Turner’s four phases and was itself a total upheaval of ecclesiastical order and hierarchy.

Chapter 2, “Performing the Papacy, Performing the Schism,” shows off the author’s approach to the best effect. The chapter spotlights administrative behavior, the granting of bulls, the founding of liturgical feasts, and the granting of the Golden Rose. Clement VII was alleged to have said “Our predecessors did not know how to be pope.” With a bit more attention to the Avignon line than to the Roman, Rollo-Koster nicely illustrates papal performance of the papal office. Chancery production exploded: Avignon’s popes issued no fewer than 206,000 letters, which compares with about 48,000 in the thirteenth century. The granting of letters, usually following a petition, took on quasi-ritualistic characteristics and reinforced papal legitimacy and authority. Virtually all aspects of government were, and required, performance. The Feasts of the Presentation (Clementist) and Visitation (Urbanist) mark some of the ways that formal liturgical acts helped to legitimize the popes and reveal, in these cases, how popes could appeal to Mary for unity in the church. The Golden Rose was offered only to laymen to impress papal authority on the recipient. The Rose was sometimes perfumed with musk--smell thus being one sign of an embodied performance.

Chapter 3 takes up images that appear in chronicles by Antonio Baldana and Ulrich Richenthal and the Apocalypse Tapestry of Angers. The point of this discussion is to show the reception of papal performance during the schism. Readers, or observers, could form the impression of a multimedia performance that engaged all the senses. Looking, the author argues persuasively, involved more than a single physical sense; it was a total physical experience. Baldana treats the schism as a political, not a religious, crisis, and he blames the cardinals, presumably because he knew that his readers saw it that way. Richenthal emphasized conspicuous and ostentatious external ceremonial spectacles, which gave his readers an opportunity to participate in rites they had never witnessed. The Angers apocalypse tapestry makes the schism apocalyptic. It is Clementist, and by depicting speaking and gesturing, music, and incense, it again engages the senses.

Chapter 4 takes up the rhetoric of tyrannicide. Were schismatic popes tyrants? The chapter investigates the rhetorical and propagandistic nature of political violence during the schism using both secular and ecclesiastical texts. Did tyranny mean the unjust acquisition of power or the unjust exercise of power? Clement, for example, heaped abuse on Urban for usurping power. People understood the meaning of tyranny and the implications of tyrannicide. Rollo-Koster also looks at the case of England’s Richard II, whose rapprochement with France and treatment of his barons were seen as performances of tyranny. The French subtraction of obedience in 1398, promoted especially by the University of Paris, treated Benedict XIII (of Avignon) as a tyrant. She also looks at the murder of the Duke of Orléans and the Duke of Burgundy’s defense, which took up a good deal of time at Constance, where the fathers agreed that an authoritative ruler could be a tyrant and that the good of the many was superior to the good of one. The council nevertheless did not approve tyrannicide. This chapter struck me as a bit rambling and diffuse. For background, she looks at Aristotle, Cicero, and Seneca before jumping to Bartolus of Sassoferrato. She might have included the influential discussion in Isidore’s Etymologies (18.3.4-5, 18-20).

Chapter 5 returns to liturgy, specifically to papal funerals, and investigates the political theology of the pope’s body. Papal vacancies raised questions of personal and institutional continuity. Rollo-Koster draws inspiration from Kantorowicz’s famous The King’s Two Bodies and also from the work of Agostino Paravicini Bagliani. She notes that two ordines were prepared during the schism. Liturgists saw the cardinals as threats and sought to emphasize others. François de Conzié in his ritual emphasized the office of camerlengo--his own office. He actually had very little interest in the body of the dead pope. Pierre Amiel emphasized the corpus or the funus of the pope. He does not separate the pope’s humanity from his institutional quality. He laid stress on the preparation of the pope’s body and the role(s) of the penitentiaries. For Amiel the pope was the essence of the institution and the pope’s body still performed its institutional role. The body was vested as if to officiate.

Chapters 6 and 7 are long and somewhat meandering accounts of Rome and Avignon during the schism. It is useful to have these detailed discussions of the complicated, contentious, and often violent experience of each city over several decades. There was lots of performance. Sometimes papal performance was appropriated and turned against the popes. Ladislaus of Durazzo outperformed the pope, Rollo-Koster says. She treats the period 1404-1420 as a “long carnival.” Space often mattered, for example--the Campus Lateranensis, the Capitolio, the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome and the papal palace in Avignon. In Rome the Veronica was mobilized. Their level of details makes these chapters a little hard to follow and the Turnerian social drama is less visible than it is in earlier chapters.

Rollo-Koster is to be congratulated for presenting an old subject in a new way. I do not think this book will push all the others aside. Instead, it will offer a powerful new perspective.