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§ 17. The council of Basel. 1431–1449.

Martin V. proved himself to be a capable and judicious ruler, with courage enough when the exigency arose. He left Constance May 16, 1418. Sigismund, who took his departure the following week, offered him as his papal residence Basel, Strassburg, or Frankfurt. France pressed the claims of Avignon, but a Colonna could think of no other city than Rome, and proceeding by the way of Bern, Geneva, Mantua, and Florence, he entered the Eternal city Sept. 28, 1420.323323    Richental, pp. 149 sqq. The delay was due to the struggle being carried on for its possession by the forces of Joanna of Naples under Sforza, and the bold chieftain Braccio.324324    Infessura, p. 21. Martin secured the withdrawal of Joanna’s claims by recognizing that princess as queen of Naples, and pacified by investing him with Assisi, Perugia, Jesi, and Todi.

Rome was in a desolate condition when Martin reached it, the prey of robbers, its streets filled with refuse and stagnant water, its bridges decayed, and many of its churches without roofs. Cattle and sheep were herded in the spaces of St. Paul’s. Wolves attacked the inhabitants within the walls.325325    Five large wolves were killed in the Vatican gardens, Jan. 23, 1411. Gregorovius, VI. 618 With Martin’s arrival a new era was opened. This pope rid the city of robbers, so that persons carrying gold might go with safety even beyond the walls. He restored the Lateran, and had it floored with a new pavement. He repaired the porch of St. Peter’s, and provided it with a new roof at a cost of 50,000 gold gulden. Revolutions within the city ceased. Martin deserves to be honored as one of Rome’s leading benefactors. His pontificate was an era of peace after years of constant strife and bloodshed due to factions within the walls and invaders from without. With him its mediaeval history closes, and an age of restoration and progress begins. The inscription on Martin’s tomb in the Lateran, "the Felicity of his Times,"—temporum suorum felicitas,—expresses the debt Rome owes to him.

Among the signs of Martin’s interest in religion was his order securing the transfer to Rome of some of the bones of Monica, the mother of Augustine, and his bull canonizing her. On their reception, Martin made a public address in which he said, "Since we possess St. Augustine, what do we care for the shrewdness of Aristotle, the eloquence of Plato, the reputation of Pythagoras? These men we do not need. Augustine is enough. If we want to know the truth, learning, and religion, where shall we find one more wise, learned, and holy than St. Augustine?"

As for the promises of Church reforms made at Constance, Martin paid no attention to them, and the explanation made by Pastor, that his time was occupied with the government of Rome and the improvement of the city, is not sufficient to exculpate him. The old abuses in the disposition and sale of offices continued. The pope had no intention of yielding up the monarchical claims of the papal office. Nor did he forget his relatives. One brother, Giordano, was made duke of and another, Lorenzo, count of Alba. One of his nephews, Prospero, he invested with the purple, 1426. He also secured large tracts of territory for his house.326326    Pastor, I. 227, Martin’s warm admirer, passes lightly over the pope’s nepotism with the remark that in this regard he overstepped the line of propriety—er hat das Mass des Erlaubten überschritten.

The council, appointed by Martin at Constance to meet in Pavia, convened April, 1423, was sparsely attended, adjourned on account of the plague to Siena, and, after condemning the errors of Wyclif and Huss, was dissolved March 7, 1424. Martin and his successors feared councils, and it was their policy to prevent, if possible, their assembling, by all sorts of excuses and delays. Why should the pope place himself in a position to hear instructions and receive commands? However, Martin could not be altogether deaf to the demands of Christendom, or unmindful of his pledge given at Constance. Placards were posted up in Rome threatening him if he summoned a council. Under constraint and not of free will, he appointed the second council, which was to meet in seven years at Basel, 1431, but he died the same year, before the time set for its assembling.

Eugenius IV., the next occupant of the papal throne, 1431–1447, a Venetian, had been made bishop of Siena by his maternal uncle, Gregory XII., at the age of twenty-four, and soon afterwards was elevated to the curia. His pontificate was chiefly occupied with the attempt to assert the supremacy of the papacy against the conciliar theory. It also witnessed the most notable effort ever made for the union of the Greeks with the Western Church.

By an agreement signed in the conclave which elevated Eugenius, the cardinals promised that the successful candidate should advance the interests of the impending general council, follow the decrees of the Council of Constance in appointing cardinals, consult the sacred college in matters of papal administration, and introduce Church reforms. Such a compact had been signed by the conclave which elected Innocent VI., 1352, and similar compacts by almost every conclave after Eugenius down to the Reformation, but all with no result, for, as soon as the election was consummated, the pope set the agreement aside and pursued his own course.

On the day set for the opening of the council in Basel, March 7, 1431, only a single prelate was present, the abbot of Vezelay. The formal opening occurred July 23, but Cardinal Cesarini, who had been appointed by Martin and Eugenius to preside, did not appear till Sept. 9. He was detained by his duties as papal legate to settle the Hussite insurrection in Bohemia. Sigismund sent Duke William of Bavaria as protector, and the attendance speedily grew. The number of doctors present was larger in comparison to the number of prelates than at Constance. A member of the council said that out of 500 members he scarcely saw 20 bishops. The rest belonged to the lower orders of the clergy, or were laymen. "Of old, bishops had settled the affairs of the Church, but now the common herd does it."327327    Traversari, as quoted by Creighton, I. 128. The most interesting personage in the convention was Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, who came to Basel as Cardinal Capranica’s secretary. He sat on some of its important commissions.

The tasks set before the council were the completion of the work of Constance in instituting reforms,328328    Ob reformationem Eccles. Dei in capite et membris specialiter congregatur, Mansi, XXIX. 165, etc. and a peaceful settlement of the Bohemian heresy. Admirable as its effort was in both directions, it failed of papal favor, and the synod was turned into a constitutional battle over papal absolutism and conciliar supremacy. This battle was fought with the pen as well as in debate. Nicolas of Cusa, representing the scholastic element, advocated, in 1433, the supremacy of councils in his Concordantia catholica. The Dominican, John of Turrecremata, took the opposite view, and defended the doctrine of papal infallibility in his Summa de ecclesia et ejus auctoritate. For years the latter writing was the classical authority for the papal pretension.

The business was performed not by nations but by four committees, each composed of an equal number of representatives from the four nations and elected for a month. When they agreed on any subject, it was brought before the council in public session.

It soon became evident that the synod acknowledged no earthly authority above itself, and was in no mood to hear the contrary principle defended. On the other hand, Eugenius was not ready to tolerate free discussion and the synod’s self-assertion, and took the unfortunate step of proroguing the synod to Bologna, making the announcement at a meeting of the cardinals, Dec. 18, 1431. The bull was made public at Basel four weeks later, and made an intense sensation. The synod was quick to give its answer, and decided to continue its sittings. This was revolution, but the synod had the nations and public opinion back of it, as well as the decrees of the Council of Constance. It insisted upon the personal presence of Eugenius, and on Feb. 15, 1432, declared for its own sovereignty and that a general council might not be prorogued or transferred by a pope without its own consent.

In the meantime Sigismund had received the iron crown at Milan, Nov. 25, 1431. He was at this period a strong supporter of the council’s claims. A French synod, meeting at Bourges early in 1432, gave its sanction to them, and the University of Paris wrote that Eugenius’ decree transferring the council was a suggestion of the devil. Becoming more bold, the council, at its third session, April 29, 1432, called upon the pope to revoke his bull and be present in person. At its fourth session, June 20, it decreed that, in case the papal office became vacant, the election to fill the vacancy should be held in Basel and that, so long as Eugenius remained away from Basel, he should be denied the right to create any more cardinals. The council went still farther, proceeded to arraign the pope for contumacy, and on Dec. 18 gave him 60 days in which to appear, on pain of having formal proceedings instituted against him.

Sigismund, who was crowned emperor in Rome the following Spring, May 31, 1433, was not prepared for such drastic action. He was back again in Basel in October, but, with the emperor present or absent, the council continued on its course, and repeatedly reaffirmed its superior authority, quoting the declarations of the Council of Constance at its fourth and fifth sessions. The voice of Western Christendom was against Eugenius, as were the most of his cardinals. Under the stress of this opposition, and pressed by the revolution threatening his authority in Rome, the pope gave way, and in the decree of Dec. 13, 1433, revoked his three bulls, beginning with Dec. 18, 1431, which adjourned the synod. He asserted he had acted with the advice of the cardinals, but now pronounced and declared the "General Council of Bagel legitimate from the time of its opening." Any utterance or act prejudicial to the holy synod or derogatory to its authority, which had proceeded from him, he revoked, annulled, and pronounced utterly void.329329    Decernimus et declaramus generale concil. Basileense a tempore inchoationis suae legitime continuatum fuisse et esse ... quidquid per nos aut nostro nomine in prejudicium et derogationem sacri concil. Basileensis seu contra ejus auctoritatem factum et attentatum seu assertum est, cassamus, revocamus, irritamus et annullamus, nullas, irritas fuisse et esse declaramus, Mansi, XXIX. 78. At the same time the pope appointed legates to preside, and they were received by the synod. They swore in their own names to accept and defend its decrees.

No revocation of a former decree could have been made more explicit. The Latin vocabulary was strained for words. Catholic historians refrain from making an argument against the plain meaning of the bull, which is fatal to the dogma of papal inerrancy and acknowledges the superiority of general councils. At best they pass the decree with as little comment as possible, or content themselves with the assertion that Eugenius had no idea of confirming the synod’s reaffirmation of the famous decrees of Constance, or with the suggestion that the pope was under duress when he issued the document.330330    So Hergenröther-Kirsch, II. 919, Pastor, I. 288, etc. Funk, Kirchengesch., p. 874, with his, usual fairness, says that Eugenius in his bull gave unconditional assent to the council. So verstand er sich endlich zur unbedingten Annahme der Synode Both assumptions are without warrant. The pope made no exception whatever when he confirmed the acts of the synod "from its opening." As for the explanation that the decree was forced, it needs only to be said that the revolt made against the pope in Rome, May, 1434, in which the Colonna took a prominent part, had not yet broken out, and there was no compulsion except that which comes from the judgment that one’s case has failed. Cesarini, Nicolas of Cusa, Aeneas Sylvius, John, patriarch of Antioch, and the other prominent personages at Basel, favored the theory of the supreme authority of councils, and they and the synod would have resented the papal deliverance if they had surmised its utterances meant something different from what they expressly stated. Döllinger concludes his treatment of the subject by saying that Eugenius’ bull was the most positive and unequivocal recognition possible of the sovereignty of the council, and that the pope was subject to it.

Eugenius was the last pope, with the exception of Pius IX., who has had to flee from Rome. Twenty-five popes had been obliged to escape from the city before him. Disguised in the garb of a Benedictine monk, and carried part of the way on the shoulders of a sailor, he reached a boat on the Tiber, but was recognized and pelted with a shower of stones, from which he escaped by lying flat in the boat, covered with a shield. Reaching Ostia, he took a galley to Livorno. From there he went to Florence. He remained in exile from 1434 to 1443.

In its efforts to pacify the Hussites, the synod granted them the use of the cup, and made other concessions. The causes of their opposition to the Church had been expressed in the four articles of Prag. The synod introduced an altogether new method of dealing with heretics in guaranteeing to the Hussites and their representatives full rights of discussion. Having settled the question of its own authority, the synod took up measures to reform the Church "in head and members." The number of the cardinals was restricted to 24, and proper qualifications insisted upon, a measure sufficiently needed, as Eugenius had given the red hat to two of his nephews. Annates, payments for the pallium, the sale of church dignities, and other taxes which the Apostolic See had developed, were abolished. The right of appeal to Rome was curtailed. Measures of another nature were the reaffirmation of the law of priestly celibacy,331331    De concubinariis, Mansi, XXIX. 101 sq. and the prohibition of theatricals and other entertainments in church buildings and churchyards. In 1439 the synod issued a decree on the immaculate conception, by which Mary was declared to have always been free from original and actual sin.332332    Immunem semper fuisse ab omni originali et actuali culpa, etc., Mansi, XXIX. 183. The interference with the papal revenues affecting the entire papal household was, in a measure, atoned for by the promise to provide other sources. From the monarchical head of the Church, directly appointed by God, and responsible to no human tribunal, the supreme pontiff was reduced to an official of the council. Another class of measures sought to clear Basel of the offences attending a large and promiscuous gathering, such as gambling, dancing, and the arts of prostitutes, who were enjoined from showing themselves on the streets.

Eugenius did not sit idly by while his prerogatives were being tampered with and an utterly unpapal method of dealing with heretics was being pursued. He communicated with the princes of Europe, June 1, 1436, complaining of the highhanded measures, such as the withdrawal of the papal revenues, the suppression of the prayer for the pope in the liturgy, and the giving of a vote to the lower clergy in the synod. At that juncture the union with the Greeks, a question which had assumed a place of great prominence, afforded the pope the opportunity for reasserting his authority and breaking up the council in the Swiss city.

Overtures of union, starting with Constantinople, were made simultaneously through separate bodies of envoys sent to the pope and the council. The one met Eugenius at Bologna; the other appeared in Basel in the summer of 1434. In discussing a place for a joint meeting of the representatives of the two communions, the Greeks expressed a preference for some Italian city, or Vienna. This exactly suited Eugenius, who had even suggested Constantinople as a place of meeting, but the synod sharply informed him that the city on the Bosphorus was not to be considered. In urging Basel, Avignon, or a city in Savoy, the Basel councilmen were losing their opportunity. Two delegations, one from the council and one from the pope, appeared in Constantinople, 1437, proposing different places of meeting.

When the matter came up for final decision, the council, by a vote of 355 to 244, decided to continue the meeting at Basel, or, if that was not agreeable to the Greeks, then at Avignon. The minority, acting upon the pope’s preference, decided in favor of Florence or Udine. In a bull dated Sept. 18, 1437, and signed by eight cardinals, Eugenius condemned the synod for negotiating with the Greeks, pronounced it prorogued, and, at the request of the Greeks, as it alleged, transferred the council to Ferrara.333333    "Transfer" is the word used by the pope—transferendo hoc sacrum concilium in civitatem Ferrarensium, Mansi, XXIX. 166. Reasons for the transfer to an Italian city and an interesting statement of the discussion over the place of meeting are given in Haller, Conc. Bas., I. 141-159.

The synod was checkmated, though it did not appreciate its situation. The reunion of Christendom was a measure of overshadowing importance, and took precedence in men’s minds of the reform of Church abuses. The Greeks all went to Ferrara. The prelates, who had been at Basel, gradually retired across the Alps, including Cardinals Cesarini and Nicolas of Cusa. The only cardinal left at Basel was d’Aleman, archbishop of Arles. It was now an open fight between the pope and council, and it meant either a schism of the Western Church or the complete triumph of the papacy. The discussions at Basel were characterized by such vehemence that armed citizens had to intervene to prevent violence. The conciliar theory was struggling for life. At its 28th session, October, 1437, the council declared the papal bull null and void, and summoned Eugenius within sixty days to appear before it in person or by deputy. Four months later, Jan. 24, 1488, it declared Eugenius suspended, and, June 25, 1439, at its 34th session, "removed, deposed, deprived, and cast him down," as a disturber of the peace of the Church, a simoniac and perjurer, incorrigible, and errant from the faith, a schismatic, and a pertinacious heretic.334334    Eugenium fuisse et esse notorium et manifestum contumacem, violatorem assiduum atque contemptorem sacrorum canonum synodalium, pacis et unitatis Eccles. Dei perturbatorem notorium ... simoniacum, perjurum, incorrigibilem, schismaticum, a fide devium, pertinacem haereticum, dilapidatorem jurium et bonorum ecclesiae, inutilem et damnosum ad administrationem romani pontificii, etc., Mansi, XXIX. 180. Previous to this, at its 33d session, it had again solemnly declared for the supreme jurisdiction of councils, and denied the pope the right to adjourn or transfer a general council. The holding of contrary views, it pronounced heresy.

In the meantime the council at Ferrara had been opened, Jan. 8, 1438, and was daily gaining adherents. Charles VII. took the side of Eugenius, although the French people, at the synod of Bourges in the summer of 1438, accepted, substantially, the reforms proposed by the council of Basel.335335    Mirbt gives it in part, Quellen, p. 160. This action, known as the Pragmatic Sanction, decided for the superiority of councils, and that they should be held every ten years, abolished annates and first-fruits, ordered the large benefices filled by elections, and limited the number of cardinals to twenty-four. These important declarations, which went back to the decrees of the Council of Constance, were the foundations of the Gallican liberties.

The attitude of the German princes and ecclesiastics was one of neutrality or of open support of the council at Basel. Sigismund died at the close of the year 1437, and, before the election of his son-in-law, Albrecht II., as his successor, the electors at Frankfurt decided upon a course of neutrality. Albrecht survived his election as king of the Romans less than two years, and his uncle, Frederick III., was chosen to take his place. Frederick, after observing neutrality for several years, gave his adhesion to Eugenius.

Unwilling to be ignored and put out of life, the council at Basel, through a commission of thirty-two, at whose head stood d’Aleman, elected, 1439, Amadeus, duke of Savoy, as pope.336336    H. Manger, D. Wahl Amadeos v. Savoyen zum Papste, Marburg, 1901, p. 94. Sigismund, in 1416, raised the counts of Savoy to the dignity of dukes. After the loss of his wife, 1435, Amadeus formed the order of St. Mauritius, and lived with several companions in a retreat at Ripaille, on the Lake of Geneva. He was a man of large wealth and influential family connections. He assumed the name of Felix V., and appointed four cardinals. A year after his election, and accompanied by his two sons, he entered Basel, and was crowned by Cardinal d’Aleman. The tiara is said to have cost 30,000 crowns. Thus Western Christendom again witnessed a schism. Felix had the support of Savoy and some of the German princes, of Alfonso of Aragon, and the universities of Paris, Vienna, Cologne, Erfurt, and Cracow. Frederick III. kept aloof from Basel and declined the offer of marriage to Margaret, daughter of Felix and widow of Louis of Anjou, with a dowry of 200,000 ducats.

The papal achievement in winning Frederick III., king of the Romans, was largely due to the corruption of Frederick’s chief minister, Caspar Schlick, and the treachery of Aeneas Sylvius, who deserted one cause and master after another as it suited his advantage. From being a vigorous advocate of the council, he turned to the side of Eugenius, to whom he made a most fulsome confession, and, after passing from the service of Felix, he became secretary to Frederick, and proved himself Eugenius’ most shrewd and pliable agent. He was an adept in diplomacy and trimmed his sails to the wind.

The archbishops of Treves and Cologne, who openly supported the Basel assembly, were deposed by Eugenius, 1446. The same year six of the electors offered Eugenius their obedience, provided he would recognize the superiority of an oecumenical council, and within thirteen months call a new council to meet on German soil. Following the advice of Aeneas Sylvius, the pope concluded it wise to show a conciliatory attitude. Papal delegates appeared at the diet, meeting September, 1446, and Aeneas was successful in winning over the margrave of Brandenburg and other influential princes. The following January he and other envoys appeared in Rome as representatives of the archbishop of Mainz, Frederick III., and other princes. The result of the negotiations was a concordat,—the so-called princes’ concordat,—Fürsten Konkordat,—by which the pope restored the two deposed archbishops, recognized the superiority of general councils, and gave to Frederick the right during his lifetime to nominate the incumbents of the six bishoprics of Trent, Brixen, Chur, Gurk, Trieste, and Pilsen, and to him and his successors the right to fill, subject to the pope’s approval, 100 Austrian benefices. These concessions Eugenius ratified in four bulls, Feb. 5–7, 1447, one of them, the bull Salvatoria, declaring that the pope in the previous three bulls had not meant to disparage the authority of the Apostolic See, and if his successors found his concessions out of accord with the doctrine of the fathers, they were to be regarded as void. The agreement was celebrated in Rome with the ringing of bells, and was confirmed by Nicolas V. in the so-called Vienna Concordat, Feb. 17, 1448.337337    Given in Mirbt, p. 165 sqq.

Eugenius died Feb. 23, 1447, and was laid at the side of Eugenius III. in St. Peter’s. He had done nothing to introduce reforms into the Church. Like Martin V., he was fond of art, a taste he cultivated during his exile in Florence. He succeeded in perpetuating the mediaeval view of the papacy, and in delaying the reformation of the Church which, when it came, involved the schism in Western Christendom which continues to this day.

The Basel council continued to drag on a tedious and uneventful existence. It was no longer in the stream of noticeable events. It stultified itself by granting Felix a tenth. In June, 1448, it adjourned to Lausanne. Reduced to a handful of adherents, and weary of being a synonym for innocuous failure, it voted to accept Nicolas V., Eugenius’ successor, as legitimate pope, and then quietly breathed its last, April 25, 1449. After courteously revoking his bulls anathematizing Eugenius and Nicolas, Felix abdicated. He was not allowed to suffer, much less obliged to do penance, for his presumption in exercising papal functions. He was made cardinal-bishop of Sabina, and Apostolic vicar in Savoy and other regions which had recognized his "obedience." Three of his cardinals were admitted to the curia, and d’Aleman forgiven. Felix died in Geneva, 1451.338338    In his bull Ut pacis, 1449, recognizing the Lausanne act in his favor, Nicolas V. called Amadeus "his venerable and most beloved brother," and spoke of the Basel-Lausanne synod as being held under the name of an oecumenical council, sub nomine generalis concilii, Labbaeus, XII. 663, 665.

The Roman Church has not since had an anti-pope. The Council of Basel concluded the series of the three councils, which had for their chief aims the healing of the papal schism and the reformation of Church abuses. They opened with great promise at Pisa, where a freedom of discussion prevailed unheard of before, and where the universities and their learned representatives appeared as a new element in the deliberations of the Church. The healing of the schism was accomplished, but the abuses in the Church went on, and under the last popes of the fifteenth century became more infamous than they had been at any time before. And yet even in this respect these councils were not in vain, for they afforded a warning to the Protestant reformers not to put their trust even in ecclesiastical assemblies. As for the theory of the supremacy of general councils which they had maintained with such dignity, it was proudly set aside by later popes in their practice and declared fallacious by the Fifth Lateran in 1516,339339    Sess. XI. romanum pontificem tanquam super omnia conciliaauctoritatem habentem, conciliorum indicendorum transferendorum «e dissolvendorum plenum jus et potestatem habere. This council at the same time pronounced the Council of Basel a "little council," conciliabulum, "or rather a conventicle," conventicula. Mansi, XXXII. 967. and by the dogma of papal infallibility announced at the Council of the Vatican, 1870.


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