Encyclopedia > Council of Basel

  Article Content

Council of Basel

A decree of the Council of Constance (9 October 1417), sanctioned by Pope Martin V obliged the papacy to summon general councils periodically. At the expiry of the first term fixed by this decree, Martin V did, in fact, call together at Pavia a council, but due to an epidemic it transferred almost at once to Siena and disbanded owing to circumstances still imperfectly known, just as it had begun to discuss the subject of reform (1424).

The next council fell due at the expiry of seven years in 1431; with his usual punctuality, Martin V duly convoked it for this date to the town of Basel, and selected to preside over it the cardinal Julian Cesarini[?], a man of the greatest worth, both intellectually and morally. Martin himself, however, died before the opening of the synod.

From Italy, France and Germany the fathers came late to Basel. Cesarini devoted all his energies to the war against the Hussites, until the disaster of Taus forced him to evacuate Bohemia in haste. The progress of heresy, the reported troubles in Germany, the war which had lately broken out between the dukes of Austria and Burgundy, and finally, the small number of fathers who had responded to the summons of Martin V, caused that pontiff's successor, Pope Eugenius IV, to think the synod of Basel doomed to certain failure. This opinion, added to his desire to preside over the council in person, induced him to recall the fathers from Germany, whither his health, impaired of late, probably owing to a cerebral congestion, rendered it all the more difficult for him to go. He commanded the fathers to disperse, and appointed Bologna as their meeting-place in eighteen months' time, with the intention of making the session of the council coincide with some conferences with representatives of the Greek church, scheduled to be held there with a view to union (18 December 1431).

This order led to an outcry among the fathers at Basel and incurred the deep disapproval of the legate Cesarini. The Hussites, they said, would think the Church afraid to face them; the laity would accuse the clergy of shirking reform; in short, this failure of the council would produce disastrous effects. In vain did the pope explain his reasons and yield certain points; the fathers would listen to nothing, and, relying on the decrees of the Council of Constance, which amid the troubles of the schism had proclaimed the superiority, in certain cases, of the council over the pope, they insisted upon their right of remaining assembled, hastily beat up the laggards, held sessions, promulgated decrees, interfered in the government of the papal countship of Venaissin, treated with the Hussites, and, as representatives of the universal Church, presumed to impose laws upon the "sovereign pontiff" himself. Eugenius IV resolved to resist this supremacy; however he did not dare openly to repudiate a very widespread doctrine considered by many to be the actual foundation of the authority of the popes before the schism. He soon realized the impossibility of treating the fathers of Basel as ordinary rebels, and tried a compromise; but as time went on, the fathers became more and more intractable, and between him and them gradually arose an impassable barrier.

Abandoned by a number of his cardinals, condemned by most of the powers, deprived of his dominions by condottieri[?] who shamelessly invoked the authority of the council, the pope made concession after concession, and ended on 15 December 1433 with a pitiable surrender of all the points at issue in a bull, the terms of which were dictated by the fathers of Basel, that is, by declaring his bull of dissolution null and void, and recognising that the synod as legitimately assembled throughout. However, Eugenius IV did not ratify all the decrees coming from Basel, nor make a definite submission to the supremacy of the council. He declined to express any forced pronouncement on this subject, and his enforced silence concealed the secret design of safeguarding the principle of sovereignty.

The fathers, filled with suspicion, would only allow the legates of the pope to preside over them on condition of their recognizing the superiority of the council; the legates ended by submitting to this humiliating formality, but in their own name only, thus reserving the judgment of the Holy See. Furthermore, the difficulties of all kinds against which Eugenius had to contend, such as the insurrection at Rome, which forced him to escape by the Tiber, lying in the bottom of a boat, left him at first little chance of resisting the enterprises of the council. Emboldened by their success, the fathers approached the subject of reform, their principal object being to curtail the power and resources of the papacy. Accordingly we find (besides decisions on the disciplinary measures which regulated the elections, on the celebration of divine service, on the periodical holding of diocesan synods and provincial councils) also decrees aimed at some of the "rights" by which the popes had extended their power and helped out their finances at the expense of the local churches. Thus the Council abolished Ónnates[?], greatly limited the abuse of "reservation" of the patronage of benefices by the pope, and completely abolished the right claimed by the pope of "next presentation" to benefices not yet vacant (known as gratiae expectativae). Other conciliar decrees severely limited the jurisdiction of the court of Rome, and even made rules for the election of popes and the constitution of the Sacred College. The fathers continued to devote themselves to the subjugation of the Hussites; they also intervened, in rivalry with the pope, in the negotiations between France and England which led only to the treaty of Arras, concluded by Charles VII of France with the duke of Burgundy; finally, they investigated and judged numbers of private cases -- lawsuits between prelates, members of religious orders and holders of benefices -- thus themselves falling into one of the serious abuses for which they had most blamed the court of Rome.

The democratic character of the assembly of Basel resulted both from its composition and from its organization; not only did doctors, masters and representatives of chapters, monks or clerks of inferior orders always outnumber the prelates in it, but the influence of the superior clergy had all the less weight because, instead of being separated into "nations", as at Constance, the fathers divided themselves according to their tastes or aptitudes into four large committees or "deputations" (deputationes), one concerned with questions of faith (fidei), another with negotiations for peace (pacis), the third with reform (reformatorii), the fourth with what they called "common concerns" (pro communibus). Every decision made by three of these "deputations" -- and in each of them the lower clergy formed the majority -- received ratification for the sake of form in general congregation, and if necessary led to decrees promulgated in session. For this reason critics have termed the council, not without exaggeration, "an assembly of copyists" or even "a set of grooms and scullions".

Eugenius IV, however much he may have wished to keep on good terms with the fathers of Basel, found himself neither able nor willing to accept or observe all their decrees. The question of the union with the Greek church, especially; gave rise to a misunderstanding between them which soon led to a rupture. The emperor John VIII Palaeologus, pressed hard by the Turks, showed a keen desire to ally himself with the Catholics; he consented to come with the principal representatives of the Greek church to some place in the west where the union could be concluded in the presence of the pope and of the Latin council. Hence arose a double negotiation between him and Eugenius IV on the one hand and the fathers of Basel on the other. The Council wished to fix the meeting-place at a place remote from the influence of the pope, and they persisted in suggesting Basel or Avignon or Savoy, which neither Eugenius nor the Greeks would on any account accept. The result was that Palaeologus accepted the offers of the pope, who, by a bull dated 18 September 1437, again pronounced the dissolution of the council of Basel, and summoned the fathers to Ferrara, where on the 8th of January 1438 he opened a new synod which he later transferred to Florence. In this latter town took place the momentary union, more apparent than real, between the Latin and the Greek churches (6 July 1439). During this time the council of Basel, though abandoned by Cesarini and most of its members, persisted none the less, under the presidency of Cardinal Aleman, in affirming its ecumenical character. On 24 January 1438 it suspended Eugenius IV, and went on (in spite of the intervention of most of the powers) to pronounce his deposition (25 June 1439), finally giving rise to a new schism by electing (4 November 1439) duke Amadeus VIII of Savoy, as (anti)pope, who took the name of Felix V.

This schism lasted fully ten years, although the antipope found hardly any adherents outside of his own hereditary states, those of Alfonso V of Aragon, of the Swiss confederation and of certain universities. Germany remained neutral; Charles VII of France confined himself to securing to his kingdom (by the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges, which became law on 13 July 1438) the benefit of a great number of the reforms decreed at Basel; England and Italy remained faithful to Eugenius IV. Finally, in 1447, Frederick III, king of the Romans, after negotiations with Eugenius, commanded the burgomaster of Basel not to allow the presence of the council any longer in the imperial city. In June 1448 the rump of the council migrated to Lausanne. The antipope, at the instance of France, ended by abdicating (7 April 1449). Eugenius IV died on 23 February 1447, and the fathers of Lausanne, to save appearances, gave their support to his successor, Pope Nicholas V, who had already been governing the Church for two years. Trustworthy evidence, they said, proved to them that this pontiff accepted the dogma of the superiority of the council as defined at Constance and at Basel. In reality, the struggle which they had carried on in defence of this principle for seventeen years, with a good faith which it is impossible to ignore, ended in a defeat. The papacy, so fundamentally shaken by the great schism of the West, came through this trial victorious. The era of the great councils of the 15th century closed; the constitution of the Church remained monarchical.


  • Mansi, vol. xxix.-xxxi.
  • Aeneas Sylvius, De rebus Basileae gestis (Fetmo, 1803)
  • Hefele, Conciliengeschichte, vol. vii. (Freiburg-im-Breisgau, 1874)
  • 0. Richter, Die Organisation and Geschäftsordnung des Basler Konziis (Leipzig, 1877)
  • Monumenta Conciliorum generalium seculi xv., Scriptorum, vol. i., ii. and iii. (Vienna, 1857-1895)
  • J. Haller, Concilium Basiliense, vol. i.-v. (Basel,1896-1904)
  • G. Perouse, Le Cardinal Louis Aleman, prÚsident du concile de Bâle (Paris, 1904).
  • J. C. L. Gieseler, Ecclesiastical History, vol. iv. p. 312ff (Eng. trans., Edinburgh, 1853).

Based on 1911 Encyclopedia text.

All Wikipedia text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

  Search Encyclopedia

Search over one million articles, find something about almost anything!
  Featured Article

... extent by the slipping friction. The device is covered by US patents 3,726,146 (1973) and 5,353,655 (1994) by L.A. Mishler and US patent 5,800,311 (1998) by ...

This page was created in 23.8 ms