4.2.5. The Great Western Schism and the prophecies of the popes

4.2.5. The Great Western Schism and the prophecies of the popes

The catastrophes of the 13th and 14th centuries had a baneful effect on church authority. The troubles were seen as manifestations of divine anger, while the writings of the period lamented the decadence of the institution of God: “they [the priests] frequent brothels and taverns, and spend their time in drinking, revelling, and gambling, fight and brawl in their cups, and with their polluted lips blaspheme the name of God and the saints, and from the embraces of prostitutes hurry to the altar.”349 Popular pamphlets speak about monks and priests in the roughest terms. Geoffrey Chaucer, in his pilgrimages to Canterbury, offers details about the price of a monk from his time. Money became the true god of the church. Bishops sold licenses to priests so that they could keep concubines and many popes were never elected as representatives of Christ if free elections were held and if gold did not talk instead of the voters. But the all-powerful money revealed its limits within an event that profoundly altered the image of the Papacy: the Great Western Schism.

The Great Western Schism, which took place between 1378 and 1417, manifested itself only within Catholicism and, as the Great Schism in the 11th century, was not caused by theological issues, but by political ones. In 1309 the seat of the Papacy was transferred from Rome to Avignon, where seven popes succeeded until 1378. At the death of Gregory XI the citizens of Rome protested against the election of a new French pope in Avignon and constrained the bishops to choose an Italian pope in the person of Urban VI. But the French cardinals refused to recognize Urban VI, declared the election null and named Clement VII as pope. Clement settled in Avignon, while Urban remained in Rome. In this situation Western Christendom could not decide who to listen to; some nations acknowledged Urban, others Clement. The scene of the two rival popes, each one claiming to be the veritable successor of Saint Peter, continued for approximately 40 years and damaged the institution of the Papacy more than any other event. The schism was finally solved through the Council of Constance (1414-1418). At the council three popes – from Avignon, Rome and Pisa – claimed the papal legitimacy, but all three were deprived of their power in favor of Pope Martin V, who established once and for all the pontificate in Rome.

The schism caused confusion in the Latin world. Urbanist and Clementine bishops came to dispute their legitimacy in the dioceses of Vreslau, Mayence, Liege, Basel, Lübeck and Constance. This situation led to the cessation of the public processions. Both sides accused each other of blasphemy. The schism chiefly involved a financial effort and stress of the Catholic Church as a whole, but it was felt the most by parishioners. Unlike other periods, the popes of the schisms were poor, because the rupture diminished the flow of money poured into the papal coffers. Desperate, the popes extorted the bishops, the bishops the priests, and finally the priests extorted the parishioners. In the battle for supremacy the rival popes offered gifts to princes and kings in exchange for support, narrowed the freedoms of the institution they represented and subjected themselves to public humiliations.

The schism had spiritual effects as well, being associated with the “apostasy.” The Italian Telesphorus said that the schism was a divine punishment for the sins and the pride of the clergy, and prophesied the end of the world for 1393. At that time the antipope was about to be killed in Perugia and the church was going to suffer a complete renovation and it would abandon all its possessions. The angelic pope and the messianic emperor were about to lead the world into the Millennium. Henry of Hesse declared this prophecy a nonsense, and said that teaching the hungry laymen that they can take the control over the possessions of the church was an incitement to riot.350 In 1398 the Valencian preacher Vincente Ferrer, surnamed the “Angel of the Apocalypse,” experienced a vision at Avignon through which he was cured of a severe sickness and it was shown to him that the schism was a sign of the times. From that point on Ferrer totally dedicated himself to itinerant preaching, believing he was the messenger of penance commissioned by God to prepare the people for Judgment Day. For 20 years he traveled by foot in Western Europe, performing miracles, converting many and preaching about the imminent and dreadful end.351

The sin of simony – buying the hierarchical place in the church – was not a novelty at the time of the schism; on the contrary; it was a sort of silent tradition practiced for hundreds of years. But the seats of cardinal were limited, and there could be only one pope. The schism demonstrated to what extent and absurdities people could get in their struggle for power. When money proved to be an insufficient means of manipulation, people became inventive and they pretended to have divine legitimacy. On the one hand, there were the small revelations, such as the one of Marie Robine in the French region of Gascogne. She claimed that Pope Clement VI (d.1314) miraculously cured her in 1378 and a series of subsequent visions indicated the divine legitimacy of the Papacy of Avignon (which recompensed her with an annual pension of 60 florins).352 Similarly, after 40 years the famous Joan of Arc had divine visions with a political tint against the English invaders.

On the other hand, the prophecies about popes appeared – the heavy artillery of the political arsenal. The Franciscans and the Joachimites believed that this degrading scandal would be miraculously solved through the saving intervention of the angelic pope. This was the case of the prophecy assigned to the Franciscan Tommasuccio of Foligno. A native of the region of Umbria, Tommasuccio died in 1377, shortly before the outbreak of the schism. Allegedly, during the schism his prophecy was found, which said that “one from beyond the mountains shall become the Vicar of God,” he would solve the schism, he would renew the church and he would bring universal peace. The text did not explicitly name the end of the world or the Great Western Schism. But “from beyond the mountains” was a clear reference to the Alps, the mountains between Italy and France, or between Rome and Avignon. Most likely the prophecy was written by an Italian Franciscan who had knowledge about the moral squalor of the clergy of Rome and wished to favor the French popes. Tommasuccio’s prophecy also said that the angelic pope would rise “about twelve years after the millennium will have passed,” interpreted at the beginning of the third millennium as referring to the year 2012 (and the Maya prophecy).353

Another papal prophecy was Vaticinia de Summis Pontificibus, a Latin manuscript which appeared at the end of the 13th century. This text enumerates portraits of popes and prophecies linked to each of them starting with Pope Nicholas III (d.1280) until the arrival of an angelic pope. Today, the series of 30 prophecies, based on Greek prototypes, are believed to have been written as a way of instigating to ecclesiastical reform, but also to influence the papal elections to the detriment of the candidates supported by the powerful Orsini family. The fact that it suggests in one way or another when the end of the world would happen is only a side effect of this prophecy. Besides, the prophecy was formulated in such a manner that it was supposed to have an immediate influence; the end of the world was placed in a very distant and obscure future.

Initially, Vaticinia... was known after its incipit as Genus nequam. It combines fantasy and mystical messages with an alleged chronology of the popes. Every prophecy of the series is made up of four elements: an enigmatic allegorical text, an emblematic image and a motto – assigned to a pope. The Genus nequam series enjoyed widespread circulation in the 14th century and was complemented with even more prophecies through the propagandistic incipit Ascende calve. These texts sat at the basis of many commentaries, interpretations, but also at the fabrication of other subsequent papal prophecies. This is the case of Liber de Flore sive de summis ponticifibus, which starts with the depiction of the historical popes (Gregory IX, d.1241), cites a couple of groups of popes from Genus nequam, but also adds details about the person and the political agenda of each pope.

Until the Council of Constance the two series – Genus nequam and Ascende calve – had been united under the name of Vaticinia de Summis Pontificibus and they were wrongly assigned (or intentionally to grant them legitimacy) to Joachim of Fiore. It seems that Vaticinia... was inspired by the Tiburtine Sibyl and Vaticinium Severi et Leonis imperatorum, the latter being a prophecy about the coming of the messianic emperor on the throne of the Byzantine Empire falsely assigned to Emperor Leo VI the Wise (d.912).354 It was speculated that Vaticinia... refers in fact to cardinals, not to popes.355 Due to the fact that the prophecy supports the image of the messianic emperor and the angelic pope, it was likely created by the Franciscans, who tried to influence certain papal elections.

Today, the most famous prophecy about popes is that of Malachy: a list of 112 short phrases in Latin – mottos designed to define the origins or the essence of the mandate of each pope (together with a few antipopes) until the end of the world. There is no reference about a calendar date, name or a place; each phrase expresses something generic. The list of mottos starts with a phrase representative for Pope Celestine II (d.1144) and ends with a pope described as “Petrus Romanus,” whose pontificate would witness the destruction of the city of Rome.

The prophecy of Malachy was published for the first time by the Benedictine monk Arnold of Wyon in 1595 in Venice, as part of his book Lignum Vitae. Wyon assigned the list to Saint Malachy, a 12th-century Irish archbishop of Armagh,356 naming it Prophetia Sancti Malachiae Archiepiscopi, de Summis Pontificibus.357 According to legend, in 1139 the archbishop went to Rome to present the state of the church from his country to Pope Innocent II. While he was in Rome, Malachy had a vision of the future of the Catholic Church and all the popes who would follow from that moment until the end of times. Malachy recorded what he had found, describing in a couple of Latin words each supreme pontiff. Allegedly, he entrusted the document to Innocent, who deposited it in the archive of the Vatican. Thus, the prophetic text was practically forgotten for four centuries, when it was brought again to light by Arnold of Wyon.358

The interpretation of the prophetic list was based on finding connections between the mottos and the popes’ birth places, personal logos, or events within the pontificate. For example, the first motto, Ex castro Tiberis (“From a Castle on the Tiber River”), suits Pope Celestine II, who was born at Città di Castello, Perugia, on the Tiber.359 Other interesting coincidences are those referring to Urban VIII (d.1644), characterized through the words Lilium et Rosa (“Lily and Rose”). Urban was born in Florence, a city whose symbol is the lily, three flowers of this kind being engraved on his papal emblem as well. Moreover, during his pontificate France (the lily) allied with England (having as a symbol the rose) in the Thirty Years’ War.360 Pius VII (d.1823) is described as Aquilla rapax (“Rapacious Eagle”), a possible reference to the fact that during his rule the Papal States were invaded by the armies of Napoleon, which had as coat of arms the imperial eagle.361 Leon XIII (d.1903) is defined as Lumen in caelo (“Light in the Sky”), and his mandate is seen today as one of the brightest in the history of the Catholic Church.362

Even though the hypothesis that the manuscript was hidden (or forgotten) in the archives of the Vatican is very plausible, most clues lead toward the conclusion that the prophecy is a forgery. The abbot ... (This text is incomplete. If you wish to read it in full, please purchase the book)

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