The seventy years of the Avignon exile of the Pope (1308-1377) gave rise to the instability that occasioned the Great Western Schism (1378 – 1418). This schism divided Western Christianity for almost four decades - first under two men claiming simultaneously to be Pope, and finally under three papal claimants simultaneously.
During the Great Western Schism, the rulers of nations decided politically whether they would follow the Avignon Obedience or the Roman Obedience within the Church. In the broadest terms, France and Spain followed Avignon, while the remainder of the West followed the Roman Obedience. Accordingly, from the year 1378 until 1409 there were two Obediences, i.e., two cardinals simultaneously claiming to be the head of the Catholic Church.
The states of the centre and north of Italy, along with Hungary, Poland, most of the German-language countries, Holland, England, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway recognized Urban V1 and his successors in Rome. The kingdoms of Naples, Sicily, Sardinia, Savoy, France, Scotland and after a few years of neutrality and intense propaganda from Avignon - the kingdom of Aragon, Catalonia, Navarre, Castile, and for some time Portugal, recognized the papal claimant in Avignon. The situation became yet even more complicated and bizarre between 1409 and 1417, when there were simultaneously three claimants for the Papacy.
What here happened in the Church at large with two or three authorities simultaneously opposed happened at the same time in religious orders. The Order of St Augustine, however, was one of the religious orders least affected by the confusion caused by the Great Western Schism. This was so for a number of reasons: the promptness and the uniformity of action of the Priors General who followed the Roman Obedience of Pope Urban VI and his successors; the fact that two-thirds of the Augustinian Provinces from 1378 onwards were located geographically in the Roman Obedience (fifteen of the twenty-four Provinces); and because from 1385 to 1409 the government of the Order within the Roman Obedience was in the hands of only two Priors General, the first who governed for sixteen years and the second for nine years, with all the advantages that such continuity afforded.
The Augustinian priors general of the Roman Obedience were effective in promotiong the Roman Obedience. The greatest among them, Cardinal Bonaventura Baduario O.S.A., a friend of Petrarch, travelled widely in the interests of Pope Urban, and was murdered for the cause of unity. His successor, Bartholomew of Venice O.S.A. (1385-1400), worked indefatigably to protect the Order against further surrenders to Avignon. In his letters, he demanded strictest obedience to Pope Urban. He commanded all Augustinians to work for the Roman Obedience in the pulpit and the confessional, in public lectures and private conversations. He furthermore obliged all members of his jurisdiction to swear an oath of allegiance and ordered all opponents to he thrown into the monastic prisons. It was a period during which a major conflict raged between the Roman Obedience and the Avignon Obediences. Bartholomew of Venice O.S.A. excommunicated the antigeneral John Hiltalingen O.S.A. (aka John of Basel) in Avignon, who in return did the same to him. They were following the lead of the papal claimants in Rome and Avignon who were mutually excommunicating each other. Bartholomew's successor as Prior General was Nicholas of Cascia O.S.A. (1400-1409).
In order to maintain and increase support for their Obedience, the Priors General, the same as the popes had done, took advantage of the political events of the various countries. For example, when Queen Joanna of Naples, a partisan of Avignon, was deposed in 1381, southern Italy then passed to the Roman Obedience. By the same token, the Prior General in Rome took charge of the Augustinian Provinces of Puglia and Terra di Lavoro. When the Aquitaine region of France became subject to the British as a result of the Hundred Years War, and because England supported the Roman Obedience, the Prior General of the Roman Obedience took the Augustinian friaries in that region from the Province of Toluouse (in the Avignon Obedience) and named an English friar, Robert Waldeby O.S.A., as his vicar in that region. In 1385 he likewise placed the houses of Portugal under the Roman Obedience and promptly named a vicar there to fulfil his directives.
The Portuguese monarch obtained his independence from Castile with British help under the provision that he would abandon the Avignon claimant of the papacy. Through 1385-1399 the Augustinian Prior General validated his authority in eighteen of the twenty-four provinces of the Order. The only Augustinian Provinces then remaining under the antigeneral in the Avignon Obedience were the four French and the two Spanish Provinces. In the registers of Bartholomew of Venice O.S.A., the Prior General of the Roman Obedience, there are no letters directed to the superiors of these provinces. Little can be said of the three generals of the Avignon obedience since nothing is known of their registers or capitular acts.
The Great Western Schism and the higher education of Augustinians
A direct effect of the Great Western Schism of 1378 – 1417 upon the Order of St Augustine came through the decision of the General Chapter of Wurzburg in 1391 forbidding all Augustinians from obtaining their academic degrees at the university of Paris as long as it adhered to the Avignon Obedience (i.e., the Cardinal living in Avignon claiming to be pope). As a result of the Wurzburg directive, the brightest Continental Augustinian students were sent to England for their higher degrees; this was because throughout Europe only the theological faculties of Oxford and Cambridge universities were rated somewhat equal to the university of Paris.
Masters of the two English Augustinian studia generalia (Augustinian study houses under the direction of the Prior General) like Herdeby, Erghome, Ashebourne, Winterton and others certainly surpassed the average professors of their day. Indeed, the English studia (student houses) of the Order were then held in such high repute that also their grammar schools (preparatory for university entry) were attended by foreign Augustinians. The students who were entrusted to their care in England were the flower of the Order and exercised in the following years a decisive influence on the life of the Order and of the Church. John of Cologne became a founder of the university in his home town. Even more important was Berthold Puchhauser of Ratisbon, the first professor of theology at the University of Vienna.
After the devastation of his province by the Hussites, Puchhauser set himself to the task of providing his houses with copies of the writings of Augustinian authors, some of which copies have been preserved until now. John Zacharia became provincial of Saxony and gained wide acclaim as a preacher and opponent of John Hus. This trio of prominent German Augustinians was surpassed by three Italians, the greatest of them being Blessed John Bechetti of Fabriano. No one is praised as highly in the registers of the prior general who did everything to hasten Bechetti's admission to the magisterium though with little success. He brought to the house of Oxford the example of great religious perfection and at the University of Padua he became known for his efforts to harmonize Plato with the teaching of the Bible. Soon he was joined by Paolo Veneto, one of the most prolific writers of the century and the greatest Italian dialectician of his time. He brought with him from England a many books whose authors had been completely unknown to Italy, and with their help introduced an Oxonian dialectic which was still in use in Italy when England had long discarded it. The third Italian whose name often appears in the registers but nowhere else is Bernardo degli Angelieri of Florence who played a major role as the Procurator General of the Order. The total number of students from foreign countries cannot be determined exactly because individual provincials and other deserving friars received the privilege of sending students to universities of their choice.
Between 1383-93 the registers of Prior General Bartholomeus Venetus O.S.A. record the names of 27 students from Germany, 16 from Italy, 6 from France, 2 from Spain and 1 from Portugal as approved to study in England. Since in two years only one religious of each Order could be promoted to Oxford and to Cambridge, this increased influx of foreign students retarded the promotion of English friars almost beyond endurance. It is not to be wondered that they stood firmly for the right order and resented the constant efforts for special privileges on the part of influential foreign confreres. It seems unbelievable that none of the old universities would yield to the mendicant orders on this quantitative restriction of promotions. This limitation became one of the principal causes for the establishment of new universities. Bologna and especially Padua soon surpassed France and England by the brilliance of their teachers and students. By 1427 attendance at the English universities had become so unimportant that general permission was granted to Englishmen to take the places reserved for foreigners. And ten years later total attendance at Oxford had fallen below one thousand, and by then the Great Western Schism was well and truly over.
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