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Joëlle Rollo-Koster: The Great Western Schism, 1378-1417. Performing Legitimacy, Performing Unity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2022, XIII + 406 S., 2 Kt., 5 s/w-Abb., 3 Tbl., ISBN 978-1-107-16894-7, GBP 94,00
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Rezension von:
Robert Swanson
Shaanxi Normal University, Xi'an
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Ralf Lützelschwab
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Robert Swanson: Rezension von: Joëlle Rollo-Koster: The Great Western Schism, 1378-1417. Performing Legitimacy, Performing Unity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2022, in: sehepunkte 23 (2023), Nr. 9 [15.09.2023], URL:

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Joëlle Rollo-Koster: The Great Western Schism, 1378-1417

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Born in the rival elections of Urban VI and Clement VII in1378, and usually treated as resolved by the election of Martin V in 1417, the Great Western Schism was one of the pre-Reformation papacy's most significant crises. The two papal obediences created in 1378 ("Urbanist" in Rome, "Clementist" in Avignon) became three in 1409, when rebellious cardinals elected Alexander V at the Council of Pisa. In session from late 1414, in November 1417 the Council of Constance at last proceeded to its own papal election. Its choice, Martin V, was subsequently accepted as pope by all catholics other than a few "Avignonist" loyalists.

The extended crisis has received extensive scholarly attention, but - as this book amply demonstrates - it still provokes discussion and assessment. Joëlle Rollo-Koster is currently one of the leading scholars on the fourteenth-century papacy, known for her work on the pre-Schism papacy settled at Avignon, and as co-editor of A Companion to the Great Western Schism (1378-1417) (Leiden 2009). The volume reviewed here develops her ideas on the Schism, its contents extending the broad theoretical concern for socio-cultural issues shown in much of her previous work.

Setting the chronological boundaries, the book's main title is straightforward. Its subtitle is less so: what is hidden under "Performing Legitimacy, Performing Unity"? The Introduction, seven chapters, and brief Conclusion, of the subsequent text provide an answer. Yet, while the book is described as a "monograph" (8) and "a study" (357), neither label is really appropriate. The chapters are largely stand-alone pieces, effectively separate essays, some of them developed from previously published work. Setting out her sense of the volume as a project, the author seeks to go beyond the existing scholarship, which she describes as having "somewhat disincarnated the crisis, focussing on institutions rather than the people behind it". Her aim is to "complement this historiography by "incarnating" it, grounding the analysis of the Schism's events within the framework of cultural anthropology [...] as a social drama with its own actors performing this drama" (8).

That promise of a complex investigation with a strong emphasis on cultural theory is followed through in the chapters, with varying degrees of success. With its theoretical and structural foundations supplied by Victor Turner, Chapter 1 ("The Great Western Schism: A Social Drama") is a promising and intriguing opening, primarily a narrative overview shaped as the successive stages of a conceptual social drama. The theoretical application may become debatable and less effective in the final act, which arguably over-simplifies the process of "reintegration" at the Council of Constance.

Chapter 2 ("Performing the Papacy, Performing the Schism") continues to intrigue, but its structure and argument are less coherent. It tacks together discussions of administrative performance (assessed by examining the issue of papal bulls), liturgical innovations (the feasts of the Presentation - surely Purification to contemporaries? - and Visitation of the Virgin), and papal gift-giving through distribution of the Golden Rose. Each segment is engaging, but they do not convincingly share or develop a common theme.

The next three chapters also build from segments, combined with varying success. Chapter 3 traces aspects of the schism's visual legacy (and "sensory" impact), examining "Images and Responses: Antonio Baldana's de magno Schismate, Ulrich Richenthal's Chronicle, and the Apocalypse Tapestry of Angers". Reading it proves frustrating and disconcerting, mainly because there are no illustrations to illuminate the analysis of the images in Baldana's tract and the Tapestry, while the interpretative questions raised by exclusive reliance on a manuscript of Richenthal's Chronicle dating from c.1464 are silently ignored.

Chapter 4 ("Conflicting Legitimacy: The Schism and the Rhetoric of Tyrannicide") turns to political thought and theorising. This dissects the language used against Urban VI and Clement VII in the early years of the schism ("Was the Pope a Tyrant? He Was a Usurper"), and later in the context of the French subtraction of obedience from Benedict XIII in 1398. Also included are a brief and somewhat unsatisfactory discussion of Richard II's years of allegedly tyrannical rule in England and overthrow in 1399 (the latter much messier and problematic than presented), and lengthier treatment of the attempt to justify as legitimate tyrannicide the politically-motivated murder of the Duke of Orleans by agents of the Duke of Burgundy in 1407. That centres on Jean Petit's Justification and the subsequent furore surrounding it at the Council of Constance.

Chapter 5 brings another change of direction. Looking at "Finding Unity in Liturgy: Papal Funerals and the Political Theology of the Pope's One Body", it offers a detailed comparison and contrast of two texts detailing the ceremonial to be used at the papal deathbed and during the subsequent interregnum. That compiled by François de Conzié represents the Avignon obedience; its Roman counterpart was produced by Pierre Ameil. The readings are intricate, their interpretations set against a broad background of the challenges of sede vacante administration between 1300 and 1500; at times provoking unanswered - and perhaps unintended - questions.

The last two chapters offer useful complementary overviews of Rome (chapter 6) and Avignon (chapter 7) "during the Schism" (the former certainly plugs a significant gap in Anglophone scholarship). The cities are discussed as sites for political, social, and institutional "performance" - in both cases set against a wider chronological background. However, neither makes much of their function as magnets for pilgrims and petitioners.

Ultimately, and unfortunately, the book leaves a sense that it does not really work - or perform? - as intended. Critically, it often feels hurriedly written and unpolished. Maybe publication has not proceeded as hoped or anticipated (Covid being the obvious culprit for that). The lack of illustrations certainly weakens the impact of Chapter 3, inadequately compensated by instructions for accessing them elsewhere (113 n.8, 137 n.100). The maps of Rome and Avignon in Chapters 6 and 7 also disappoint. Obviously produced and intended to appear in colour, their reduced reproduction in shades of grey makes them almost illegible and unusable. The text contains distracting digressions and information overload, while niggling stylistic and linguistic quirks and other slips also disrupt the flow and attention. (Among striking instances, there was no "British monarchy" in 1378 [160]; while the origins of the "Briton [sic] ... mercenaries" [247] active around Rome in 1378 are unclear - Bretons from Brittany or "British" [= "English"?]? Using "folks" for "people" - as at 356, but also elsewhere - seems far too homely for an academic context.)

Although, ultimately, the book reads as a collection of parts rather than a coherent whole, it does make a real contribution to analyses of the schism, and cannot be ignored. Moreover, its approach, arguments and use of evidence should stimulate broader reflection on how far "the Great Schism" can justifiably be treated as a distinct and coherent segment of late medieval ecclesiastical history. It also raises important questions about the role of theory in historical analyses.

Robert Swanson