When There Were Three Popes at Once: An Animated Video Drawn in the Style of Medieval Illuminated Manuscript

Pope Fran­cis, who’s been head of the Catholic Church for a decade now, is offi­cial­ly Pon­tiff num­ber 266. But if you scroll through Wikipedi­a’s list of popes, you’ll see quite a few entries with­out num­bers, their rows cast in a dis­rep­utable-look­ing dark­er shade of gray. The pres­ence of sev­er­al such unof­fi­cial Popes usu­al­ly indi­cates par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing times in the his­to­ry of the Church, and thus the his­to­ry of West­ern civ­i­liza­tion itself. The new TED-Ed video above, writ­ten by medieval his­to­ry pro­fes­sor Joëlle Rol­lo-Koster, tells of the only peri­od in which three popes vied simul­ta­ne­ous­ly for legit­i­ma­cy. This was The West­ern Schism — or the Papal Schism, or the Great Occi­den­tal Schism, or the Schism of 1378.

How­ev­er one labels it, “the ori­gins of this papal predica­ment began in 1296, when France’s King Philip IV decid­ed to raise tax­es on the church.” So begins the nar­ra­tor of the video, which ani­mates the his­tor­i­cal scenes he describes in the style of a medieval illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­script. (It includes many amus­ing details, though I haven’t man­aged to spot any aggres­sive rab­bits or snails, to say noth­ing of butt trum­pets.) Pope Boni­face VIII, the Church’s leader at the time, respond­ed with the Unam Sanc­tam, “a rad­i­cal decree assert­ing the pope’s total suprema­cy over earth­ly rulers.” The clash between the two result­ed in the death of Boni­face, who was even­tu­al­ly replaced in 1305 by Clement V.

As “a French diplo­mat seek­ing peace in the war between Eng­land and his home­land,” Clement strate­gi­cal­ly moved the seat of the papa­cy to Avi­gnon. Sev­en popes lat­er, the papa­cy moved back to Italy — not long before the death of Gre­go­ry XI, the Pon­tiff who moved it. Out of the chaot­ic process of select­ing his suc­ces­sor came Pope Urban VI, who turned out to be “a reformer who sought to lim­it the car­di­nals’ finances.” Those car­di­nals then “denounced Urban as a usurp­er” and elect­ed Pope Clement VII to replace him. But Urban refused to relin­quish his posi­tion, and in fact “entrenched him­self in Rome while Clement and his sup­port­ers returned to Avi­gnon.”

This began the schism, split­ting West­ern Chris­ten­dom between the cap­i­tals of Avi­gnon and Rome. Each cap­i­tal kept its line going, replac­ing popes who die and per­pet­u­at­ing the sit­u­a­tion in which “Euro­pean rulers were forced to choose sides as both popes vied for spir­i­tu­al and polit­i­cal suprema­cy.” Only in 1409 did a group of car­di­nals attempt to put an end to it, elect­ing a new pope them­selves — who went unrec­og­nized, of course, by the exist­ing popes in Rome and Avi­gnon. The schism went on for near­ly 40 years, under­scor­ing the allit­er­a­tive truth that “even those who are sup­posed to be pious are prone to pet­ty pow­er strug­gles.” Most popes, like any fig­ures of pow­er, must feel lone­ly at the top — but that’s sure­ly bet­ter than when it’s too crowd­ed there.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Lis­ten to a Brief His­to­ry of Papal Abdi­ca­tion

A Brief Ani­mat­ed His­to­ry of Mar­tin Luther’s 95 The­ses & the Ref­or­ma­tion — Which Changed Europe and Lat­er the World

The Vat­i­can Library Goes Online and Dig­i­tizes Tens of Thou­sands of Man­u­scripts, Books, Coins, and More

Watch the Bayeux Tapes­try Come to Life in a Short Ani­mat­ed Film

Ani­mat­ed: Stephen Fry & Ann Wid­de­combe Debate the Catholic Church

Pope John Paul II Takes Bat­ting Prac­tice in Cal­i­for­nia, 1987

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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