BEFORE continuing the history of the Council of Constance, it may be well, now that, by the election of Martin V, unity was restored to Western Christendom, to note briefly the condition of the church, the ruin that schism had worked in it, and the effect upon the common life of the people. It is not pretended that all the evils rampant were the direct fruits of the division; many of them had been in existence for centuries; but they were now intensified and aggravated beyond measure. That the church should have survived these horrible years, and should be now vigorous, aggressive, and the great vis medicatrix of the world, is, perhaps more than any other one thing, a proof of her divine origin and the im­possibility of the “gates of hell” prevailing against her. Her wounds were not from strangers, but re­ceived in the house of her friends, and therefore the more grievous and piercing.

There is no lack of literature on the subject of the state of the church in the fourteenth century. Von der Hardt has made a great collection of it, which has been freely drawn upon by all historians. Among the most famous treatises are: “On the Ruin of the Church”, probably by Nicolas de Clemanges; “On the Difficulty of Reform” and “The Necessity of Reforming the Church in Head and Members”, by Cardinal d'Ailly, though some think by Dietrich von Niem; “Petitions for the Reform of the Church Militant”, by Richard Ullerston, an Englishman; and the “Squalors of the Roman Curia”, by the Bishop of Worms, in 1405.

The great causes of complaint were the corruption and sensuality of the clergy, which, as is ever the case, reacted upon the laity; the prostitution of the cure of souls to the love of money, so that everywhere benefices were bought and sold; and the tremendous exactions and abuses, simoniacal and otherwise, of the papal court. Take indulgences, for example (Froude): “Pardons, dispensations, and indulgences, permissions to do things which would be wrong without them, or remissions of penalties prescribed by the canon for offences, indulgences which were extended by popular credulity to actual pardon for sins committed, were issued whenever the Pope wanted money. Sorrowing relatives, uneasy for the fate of a soul in purgatory, could buy out their friend at a fixed rate of charges. The results were calculated beforehand. Averages could be taken from repeated experience. Sometimes a capitalist contracted on speculation for the anticipated sum, sometimes the batch was disposed of by recognized officials resident in the various countries. The price was high or low, according to the papal necessities, or according to the magnitude of the sins to which it would reach; but no one could possibly be so innocent as not to need an indulgence for something”.

Complaints of these things came from all parts of Europe; the far north seemed to have been as great a sufferer as the extreme south. In many dioceses there were two bishops,—for example, in Breslau, Mayence, Liege, Basel, Lübeck, Constance,—one an Urbanist, one a Clementine. It can easily be imagined what confusion arose in the minds of laymen as to which was their true superior; for the Clementines would preach that the Urbanist masses were blasphemy, and the Urbanists would retort in the same strain. In many cases public worship was altogether stopped, for the differences between the parishioners and the poverty of the priests made it impossible to keep the churches open. The profligacy of the clergy was everywhere a matter of complaint. One writer says: “The priests frequent brothels and taverns, and spend their time in drinking, reveling, and gambling. They 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”. Nor were many of the friars any better than the parish priests. Popular tracts in the language of the country everywhere speak of them in the coarsest terms. Chaucer (1340-1400), in his Canterbury pilgrimage, gives incidentally the general estimate of a friar in his time.

Even long after, the evil had not been rooted out; for Erasmus, speaking of some criticisms on his famous book, “Moria”, or the “Praise of Folly”, says: “Had I seriously wished to describe monks and theologians as they really are,  ‘Moria’ would seem a mild performance by the side of what I should have written. I do not condemn religious houses, but ask yourself what trace of piety is now to be found in such houses beyond forms and ceremonies. How worse than worldly almost all of them are!”

Even of nunneries Clemanges says, “It is about equal to sending a girl to prostitution to put her in a nunnery”. Priests guilty of the greatest offences, if they could raise a little money, got off scot-free. In very many instances bishops sold licenses to priests to keep concubines. Indeed, this was so general in Norway and Sweden that women living in this way were socially respected, and parishes often, for the protection of their families, insisted that the rector should take a concubine and pledge himself to be faithful to her. Boccaccio, by the conversation he puts into the mouths of refined people in the “Decamerone”, conversation which in our day would scarce be heard in a barrack-room, let alone a company of ladies and gentlemen, shows how low was the standard of morality among such people. The lives of some of the popes were stained with sin, and that such a person as John XXIII could ever have been freely elected the Vicar of Christ speaks volumes for the miserable tone of Christian living which everywhere prevailed. Money may be worshipped now, and venality common enough, but the church of today is as white as driven snow com­pared with the subserviency to money which then prevailed. The popes of the schism were always impecunious, for the schism stopped the flow of wealth into the papal coffers, and all sorts of dishonest and unfair expedients were resorted to in order to raise funds. It was wittily said that, while there might be some doubt whether Peter was ever at Rome, there could be none about Simon’s presence there. Popes fleeced bishops, bishops priests, and priests their flocks.

Even if a bishop was a man of pure character, and anxious to reform his diocese, he was confronted immediately with “exemptions”. For example, if he had a dissolute monastery in his diocese, and wished to reform it, the monastery would get together a good sum of money, often selling the church plate to make it up, and send off to Rome to purchase an exemption from episcopal authority, becoming a “peculiar”, so that the bishop had no authority within its walls. Even to this day Westminster Abbey enjoys that privilege. All sorts of favors could be purchased at the papal bureaus for money. Men would buy ten, twelve, eighteen benefices, and never go near one of them, but hire at starvation prices some wandering priest to give irregular ministrations, while they spent the rest of the income in luxury.

The rival obediences, anxious to curry favor with the powers that be, often granted to secular rulers concessions which endangered the liberties of the church and subjected it to the most shameful humiliations. Laymen were in a maze of doubt and distrust, and thousands lost all faith and fell away into utter evil living or infidelity, which, as far as the dogmas of the church were concerned, was kept very secret for fear of the Inquisition, thus engendering terrible hypocrisy.

It was no wonder that heresy spread; the church had only herself to blame for it. Indeed, the schism gave birth to all sorts of fanatical sects and to numberless false prophets. People believed everywhere that Antichrist was coming, and more than one bold preacher maintained that the Pope was Antichrist.

Protests against the Church's Worldliness.

The most widely circulated false prophecy was that of Telesphorus, an Italian. He says the schism was a punishment for the sins and crimes of the Roman Church and clergy, and he prophesies that all that will come to an end in 1393, when the antipope would be slain in Perugia, and the church be completely renovated, renouncing all property. A new Pope and a new emperor would then appear, and that em­peror would be a Frenchman. The whole bearing of this prophecy shows its author to have been a fierce French partisan. Henry of Hesse answered this widespread nonsense, and opposes the principle it laid down that the clergy ought to be deprived of their wealth. He shows very clearly that it would be perfect madness to teach laymen, already too grasping, that they had the right to take possession of church property under the pretext of reform.

The spoliation of the clergy was a favorite theme with all these fourteenth-century prophets, and it was not to be wondered at, when men were constantly witnessing such avarice and greed and simony in the highest church positions. Everywhere, especially in Germany, was there growing a great hatred of the clergy, and in Mayence, in 1401, the cry “Death to the priests!” often resounded through the streets. Faulty as the Inquisition was, it did good service often in shutting the mouths of blasphemers and revilers of all good. One sect, called the sect of “Free Thought”, taught that by a devout contemplation of the Godhead you could come to be one with God, absolutely perfect and incapable of sinning. No commandments were binding on the perfect, and this was carried into practice with a vengeance.

But the very number of sermons and treatises on the state of morals and discipline proves that all Christians were not sunk in sin and indifference; the fervor of the protests shows that the wide chasm yawning between the devout life as Christ commanded it and the life then led was deeply felt and struggled against. Devout men drew closer together. The mystics, as will be seen in a future chapter, were a large and powerful body. The Brethren of the Common Life were a very oasis in the dry and filthy desert of the monastic orders. This century gave birth to that immortal book, “The Imitation of Christ”. Preachers all on fire with the love of God and man were to be found everywhere, and in many a humble home fervent prayers went daily up from pure hearts that God would have mercy upon His church. There is a letter of Gerard Groot, of Deventer, in the Imperial Library of Vienna, in which he wishes that both the popes and all the cardinals could be transported to heaven and sing “Gloria in Excelsis” there, and another line bring peace and unity on earth. It is sad to think that the members of the Council of Constance were so well aware of the frightful state of the ordinary life of Christians, and that they should have done so little to heal the wounds inflicted by the sins of her sons on our common Christianity.