The History of The Church
The Church had held sway over medieval society for centuries, but it began to lose its grip in the fourteenth century. It was not only that it could not explain nor prevent the calamities that swept through the century, it was enduring its own calamities.
The Church was at its strongest in the thirteenth century, but within a few years of entering the fourteenth it entered a series of crises that would all but destroy it (and certainly destroyed its hold over the minds and hearts of many Europeans).
1) The Babylonian Captivity
This is something that forms part of the plot of The Nameless Day. One of the great medieval popes, Boniface VIII, died in 1303. For many years he had been engaged in a power struggle with the French King, Philip IV. When Boniface died, Philip seized the opportunity to influence the subsequent papal election so that his own man, Clement V, took the papal throne (there was a brief interval when someone else was elected, but he lived less than a year). Clement promptly removed the entire papacy from Rome to the French-controlled town of Avignon, where the papacy remained for over 70 years. All Europe believed that during this time the papacy was controlled by the French monarchy - indeed, the majority of papal officials, including the cardinals (from among whom a new pope was always elected), were Frenchmen. The era when the popes lived in Avignon is known as the Babylonian Captivity, and the papacy lost a great deal of respect during this time as most people believed the pope the mouthpiece of the French monarchy rather than of God.
2) The Great Schism
Worse was to follow when Gregory XI returned to Rome in 1377. No-one knows whether Gregory meant to this to be a permanent move back 'home', but he fortuitously died while in Rome, and a papal election was held in the Hall of Conclave attached to the Vatican Palace. The Roman mob, determined to see an Italian elected, surrounded the hall and threatened to kill the cardinals if they did not do what the mob wanted. Terrified, the cardinals elected an Italian, Urban VI. However, for centuries there had been a clause that if a papal election came under undue influence it was to be declared null and void ... and there was no doubt in anyone's mind that Urban's election had come under undue influence. Besides, Urban was a vulgar man and few liked him. So the majority of the cardinals, all Frenchmen, departed back to Avignon where they promptly held another papal election and put another pope on the throne. The problem was, however, that Urban refused to resign. Thus for decades Christendom laboured under two popes (and sometimes three), the French and its allies supporting the pope in Avignon, the English and their allies supporting the pope in Rome. Two popes, two papal courts, two archbishops or abbots likely to turn up to fill a vacancy ... the entire thing was a farce, and seen as such by all Europe. By the end of the century the Roman...