1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Basel, Council of

BASEL, COUNCIL OF. A decree of the council of Constance (9th of October 1417) sanctioned by Martin V. had obliged the papacy periodically to summon general councils. At the expiry of the first term fixed by this decree, Martin V. did, in fact, call together at Pavia a council, which it was necessary to transfer almost at once to Siena, owing to an epidemic, and which had to be dissolved owing to circumstances still imperfectly known, just as it was beginning to discuss the subject of reform (1424). The next council was due to assemble at the expiry of seven years, i.e. 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 were slow in appearing at Basel. Cesarini devoted all his energies to the war against the Hussites, until the disaster of Taus forced him hastily to evacuate Bohemia. 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, Eugenius IV., to think that the synod of Basel was doomed to certain failure. This opinion, added to the desire which he had of himself presiding over the council, 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, his intention being to make the session of the council coincide with some conferences with representatives of the Greek church, which were to be held there with a view to union (18th December 1431).

This order led to an outcry among the fathers of Basel and incurred the deep disapproval of the legate Cesarini. The Hussites, it was said, would think that the Church was afraid to face them; the laity would accuse the clergy of shirking reform; in short, this failure of the councils 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, though 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. However, 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 the 15th of December 1433 by 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 recognizing that the synod had not ceased to be legitimately assembled. It would be wrong, however, to believe that Eugenius IV. ratified all the decrees coming from Basel, or that he made a definite submission to the supremacy of the council. No express pronouncement on this subject could be wrung from him, and his enforced silence concealed the secret design of safeguarding the principle of sovereignty.

The fathers, who were 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. Nay more, the difficulties of all kinds against which Eugenius had to contend, 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. This is why, besides the disciplinary measures which regulated the elections, the celebration of divine service, the periodical holding of diocesan synods and provincial councils, are found 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 annates (q.v.) were abolished, the abuse of “reservation” of the patronage of benefices by the pope was much limited, and the right claimed by the pope of “next presentation” to benefices not yet vacant (known as gratiae expectativae) was done away with altogether. By other decrees the jurisdiction of the court of Rome was much limited, and rules were even made 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. 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 was the result both of its composition and of its organization; not only was the number of prelates in it always small in comparison with that of the doctors, masters, representatives of chapters, monks or clerks of inferior orders, 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—was ratified for the sake of form in general congregation, and if necessary led to decrees promulgated in session. It was on this account that the council could sometimes be called, 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, was 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 Palaeologus, pressed hard by the Turks, showed a great desire to unite 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 chief object of the latter was 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 the 18th of 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, which was more apparent than real, between the Latin and the Greek church (6th 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 oecumenical character. On the 24th of January 1438 it suspended Eugenius IV., and went on in spite of the intervention of most of the powers to pronounce his deposition (25th June 1439), finally giving rise to a new schism by electing on the 4th of November Amadeus VIII., duke of Savoy, as 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 Alphonso of Aragon, of the Swiss confederation and 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 the 13th of 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 (7th April 1449). Eugenius IV. died on the 23rd of February 1447, and the fathers of Lausanne, to save appearances, gave their support to his successor, 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 it had been 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, which had been 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 was closed; the constitution of the Church remained monarchical.

Authorities.—Mansi, vol. xxix.-xxxi.; Aeneas Sylvius, De rebus Basileae gestis (Fermo, 1803); Hefele, Conciliengeschichte, vol. vii. (Freiburg-im-Breisgau, 1874); O. Richter, Die Organisation und Geschäftsordnung des Baseler Konzils (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, président du concile de Bâle (Paris, 1904). Much useful material will also be found in J. C. L. Gieseler’s Ecclesiastical History, vol. iv. p. 312, &c., notes (Eng. trans., Edinburgh, 1853).  (N. V.)