Illustration of people kneeling in front of a man in papal dress, with others seated beside his throne.

Pope Clement V receives a noblewoman at the papal court in Avignon. Papal wealth would bring later trouble to the Church.

Crisis in the Church

The late Middle Ages brought spiritual crisis, scandal, and division to the Roman Catholic Church. Many priests and monks died during the plague. Their replacements faced challenging questions. Survivors asked, “Why did God spare some and kill others?”

Divisions in the Church

The Church was unable to provide the strong leadership needed in this desperate time. In 1309, Pope Clement V had moved the papal court to Avignon outside the border of southern France. It remained there for about 70 years under French domination. This period is often called the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, referring to the time when the ancient Hebrews were held captive in Babylon.

In Avignon, popes reigned over a lavish court. Critics lashed out against the worldly, pleasure-loving papacy, and anticlerical sentiment grew. Within the Church itself, reformers tried to end the “captivity.”

In 1378, reformers within the Church elected their own pope to rule from Rome. French cardinals responded by choosing a rival pope. The election of two and sometimes even three rival popes created a schism, or divide, in the Church. This second Great Schism, like the earlier split into eastern and western branches of Christianity, hurt the Church and weakened its moral authority, contributing to the gradual end of medieval Europe. Not until 1417 did a Church council at Constance finally end the crisis.

Portrait of a bearded man holding a staff.

English reformer John Wycliffe's ideas would help launch the Protestant Reformation years later.

New Heresies Threaten the Church

With its moral standing and leadership in decline, the Church faced still more problems. Popular preachers challenged its power. In England, John Wycliffe, an Oxford professor, attacked corruption in the Church.

Wycliffe insisted that the Bible, not the Church, was the source of all Christian truth. He supported the idea of translating the Bible into English so that people could read it themselves rather than rely on the clergy to read and interpret it for them. Czech students at Oxford carried Wycliffe's ideas to Bohemia—today's Czech Republic. There, Jan Hus led the call for reforms, supported by his followers, known as Hussites.

The Church responded to these calls for reform by persecuting Wycliffe and his followers and suppressing the Hussites. Hus was tried for preaching heresy—ideas contrary to Church teachings. Found guilty, he was burned at the stake in 1415.

The ideas of Wycliffe and Hus survived. Their calls for reform had taken root in response to the worldliness of the Church and feuds among its leaders. These reformers looked on the Bible, rather than the pope or bishops, as the source of Christian faith.


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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments