The Annotated Prince - The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli with notes by Gene Gessert

The Papal Schism

The Papal Schism or Western Schism was a period (1378 to 1417) of disputed Papal succession. It was a coda to the Avignon Papacy (1309 to 1378) also known as the Babylonian captivity of the Papacy during which the Papal court was, not in Rome, but in Avignon, in modern France.  While Avignon was then in the independent Kingdom of Arles, it was dominated by the French monarchy.  Papal prestige and income declined during this period, because rival European powers saw the Papacy as a tool of France and withdrew their cooperation.  

The Schism began when Pope Gregory XI died while attempting to move the Papacy from Avignon back to Rome.  This was followed by a 39 year period during which there were Popes in both Rome and in Avignon. 
The relevance of the schism for the understanding of The Prince is that it further weakened the Papacy in general and in two regions in particular: 

  • The country side around Rome, which was dominated by families of the old feudal aristocracy, known as the Roman Barons.  The two most important of these were the bitter and constantly feuding families of the Colona and Orsini.  The violence of their power struggle made Rome ungovernable and unsafe.  If fact, it was in part the security problems in Rome that originally motivated the curia to move to Avignon in 1309.  The Colona-Orsini rivalry continued to threaten the security of Rome and the Church throughout Machiavelli’s life.
  • The Romania, the north-east portions of the Papal States dominated by city states such as Cesena, Faenza, Forlì, Imola, Ravenna, Rimini and San Marino.  In legal principal the rulers (known as the Vicars of the Romania) should have been mere fiefs of the Pope.  In practice, they were independent war lords, who were often leaders of bands of mercenary soldiers (condottieri).

The Popes of Machiavelli’s day sought to subdue the Roman Barons and the Vicars of the Romania and this power struggle would shape the events of Machiavelli’s life and diplomatic career.