Volume III - Church History

Fourteenth Century

The West

The West in the 14th century saw the “Babylonian Captivity” of the Papacy in Avignon, France (1309–1377), when the Papacy became virtually subject to the kings of France. Then, in the very next year after the return of the Papacy to Rome, the “Great Papal Schism” began, with two rivals claiming to be the legitimate Pope. And from 1409 to 1414 there were three rivals all claiming to be the true Pope. These humiliating developments helped lead to the rise of the Conciliar Movement, which became a powerful force in the Western Church in the next century.

Catherine of Sienna (c. 1347–1380), a remarkable Italian mystic, theologian, and advisor to Pope Gregory XI (r. 1370–1378), lived in the 14th century, as did John Wycliffe (c. 1330–1384), the forerunner of the Protestant Reformation in England. Other important mystical writers of this century were Walter Hilton (c. 1343–1396), Julian of Norwich (c. 1342–after 1416), and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, all of whom were English.

In Holland, Geert Groote (1340–1384) founded the popular and influential group of “secular” (i.e., non-monastic) priests and laity called the Brethren of the Common Life. This movement was part of a general revival and deepening of the spiritual life called the Devotio Moderna (Modern Devotion). The Dutch mystical writer Jan van Ruysbroeck (1293–1381) was probably the greatest representative of this movement in the 14th century. Emphasizing as it did the importance of Christian community, heartfelt devotion to Christ, and theological writing in the vernacular, as well as criticizing various abuses in the Church life of the time, this movement can be seen as a precursor to the Protestant Reformation.

Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) completed his timeless masterpiece The Divine Comedy in the last years of his life. Also in the early part of the 14th century, the famous painter Giotto (c. 1267–1337) began the revolutionary devolvement of religious art in the West away from traditional Byzantine iconographic patterns and towards a more humanistic, naturalistic realism that remained prominent in Western religious art until the 20th century.