“Stop the Steal!”: Challenging an election, medieval style

By Joëlle Rollo-Koster

Today, the United States and other democratic countries are dealing with fundamental challenges to their electoral systems. Can events from the year 1378 give us some insights into what is a ‘legitimate’ election?

As if witnessing the events live on screen was not enough, the widely available broadcasting of the “January 6th Committee Hearings” has forced us to return to this infamous day of 2021 and think again about how easily democratic ideals can be lost. But as a historian one can wonder if the past can offer some sort of in-or-hind-sights.


Medieval elections are not something historians talk about a lot. Few medieval institutions functioned within a “democratic” framework, but elections did take place—a good example would be the elections of abbots in monasteries. The most famous elections were of new popes.

A papal election is an episcopal election since the pope is the bishop of Rome. It would be good to remember that the Latin electio means “choice” rather than our modern rendering of “election.” Choosing a pope evolved over time. In the early Middle Ages, it was initially quite open to the “people” of Rome at large, and the Roman clergy. But this openness led to conflicts between rivals who often “campaigned” through violence. In 366, for example, Damasus attacked supporters of his rival Ursinus when, according to a testimony:


Damasus and the perjurers collected the gladiators, charioteers, and grave diggers and all the clergy, with axes, swords and clubs, and besieged the basilica at the second hour of the day [. . .] and started a fierce battle. For they crashed down the doors and laid fires and searched for an entrance, in order to break in . . . Then all the forces of Damasus poured into the basilica and slew one hundred and sixty of the people, both men and women, and wounded a very large number, many of whom died. But no one died of the party of Damasus.

Some 1650 years before January 2021 the tale holds a certain ring of familiarity.

Essentially during a papal “election” consensus among a select group needed to be found. The Church eased the path by gradually limiting the process to only small groups of people: “people” (meaning the aristocracy) and princes for the Merovingians rulers who maintained their authority over the popes; Charlemagne himself for the Carolingian period; and all members of the religious community with the approval of the prince for those who attempted to reform the Carolingian main mise during the eleventh century. But electoral divisions continued to plague the papal nomination leading sometimes to extremely lengthy sede vacante or Empty See, that is the papal interregnum. It was almost an entire year between the papacys of Leo IX and Victor II; the 1055 election of Victor II being a staunch defense of imperial politics after the reforming zeal of Leo IX.

15th century depiction of Pope Nicholas II

The College of Cardinals

A remedy was first tried by Pope Nicholas II in April 1059. The pope devised the creation of an independent ecclesiastical electoral body: The College of Cardinals which up to now only held liturgical and governmental functions within Rome. Cardinal-bishops would have first choice of a pope, seconded by cardinal-deacons, the rest of the clergy, and the Roman people. Nicolas attempted to remove the nomination of a pope from emperors and the secular aristocracy who always vied for influencing this position. His efforts had little effect after his death. Calling the Lateran III Council in 1179 Pope Honorius III returned to the prickly question of the papal nomination and recognizing that “wicked ambition” marred the process; he charged the council to fix the procedure. All cardinals would hold a single vote and a majority of 2/3 would be required for future elections. Click here to read that decree.

The main issue with these new legislations was that they empowered a new group of men who also did not lack ambition: the College of Cardinals. It became pretty clear that once a pope died, the longer cardinals took to name a successor to the pope the longer they would remain in charge. Thence, while there was no pope, they were the Church. Case in point, the pope who tried to change this pattern, Gregory X, was elected in 1271 after a three-year-long interregnum. His bull Ubi periculum (1274) sequestered the cardinals (locked with a key, cum clave) in order to hasten the process. Thus was born the conclave. Enclosed in simple cells, with only a couple of servants, and guarded usually within thick walls, traditionally located where the pope had died, the cardinals with no other distractions at hand were forced to focus on their task, that is name a new pope. The longer they took the harsher their living conditions became, with food being restricted, for example, after the third day of “inaction.” This system, even if imperfect and still prone to interminable manipulation has more or less survived to this day.


In addition to regulating the electoral mode, the Church also developed over time special rules that scripted and ritualized the Empty See. This comprised rituals which accompanied the pope’s death and funeral, the end of his “temporal residency,” and the passage to a new ruler. Ritualizing the process offered antecedents and prevented innovations, and asserted the traditional, thus ancestral nature of the procedure. The moral was simple: do not mess with the immutable. Like monarchies, the church insisted on the double nature of the papacy, physical and mortal in its pope, but immortal in its institution. The pope dies, but the Church goes on. To secure the process, groups of individuals were selected to supervise specific tasks, and the governance of the church was left to the papal camerlengo, and the College of Cardinals.

Cardinal Camerlengo certifying a papal death. Illustration from “How the Pope is Elected” by W. J. Wintle. Published in the London Magazine in June, 1903.

While not democratic per se the electoral system established by the Church for the nomination of its head was well-thought and recognized by all other European institutions. Threats to the elections sometimes came from a foreign entity, mostly the Holy Roman Emperor, but never with catastrophic consequences. If however, we had to point a finger at the biggest threat to this system we would identify one group: The College of Cardinals. And this is how we get to the events that led to the Great Western Schism (1378-1417).

The Papal election of 1378

How did we get to a situation where two and even three popes ruled Christianity? Before narrating the events that led to this, it is necessary to recall that for close to a century the papacy had settled in territories outside of Italy, namely in the city of Avignon, within the boundaries of the Comtat Venaissin (now in the south of France). When Clement V moved to the city in 1309 it belonged to a vassal of the Church, the count of Provence. In 1348 Pope Clement VI bought Avignon from Countess Jeanne to the somewhat dismay of its inhabitants.


Several factors influenced the popes to remain away from Rome for most of the fourteenth century, but the most salient remained the unstable situation in Italy and Rome, and the active role the Church took in the negotiations aimed at ending the Hundred Years’ War. It goes without saying that the Black Death and its effects were also a strong deterrent. In Avignon the Catholic Church developed an efficient and large administration that collected huge revenues, distributed “benefices,” and regulated the lives of a large chunk of Christians. Popes enlarged the roles of cardinals who became senior administrators, or in today’s parlance government officials.

By the late 1370s, Italian papal territories were back under the control of the Church, the situation between France and England was what it always was, and Pope Gregory XI returned to Rome. Avignon lost its pope and with it all the benefits that a capital city could reap. Meanwhile Rome rejoiced at the prospect of regaining its status and good fortune, in all the senses of the term.

Pope Gregory XI entering his palace – British Library Royal MS 20 C VII

Unfortunately, Gregory did not enjoy his return to the holy city. He died within the year that followed his transfer of the curia, on March 27, 1378.  In early April 1378, Rome prepared for something it had not witnessed in close to a hundred years, a papal election. Spirits were high, crowds gathered around the Vatican palace where the cells of the conclave had been built, and chanted slogans like “we want a Roman pope or at least an Italian, if not we’ll cut you to pieces.” Axes, ropes, and chopping blocks took center stage in the middle of St. Peter Square, dangling from the top of a hastily built column. Bands of roaming men pounded lances on shields to scare people off the street of the capital city, intimidating anyone who was not on their side. Romans understood that the wealth of their city rested on the presence of the curia, even more so now after the devastation of the endemic Black Death. They tried their best to make cardinals aware of their intentions.

Romans had known first-hand the consequences of a papal exile. Now Rome feared another papal departure. Gregory’s court was filled with French “foreigners” who looked condescendingly upon what they considered an “unsophisticated” city. They saw Romans as dangerous, bloodthirsty, indominable, and irrational troublemakers who roamed the city freely. They were inadequate Christians who neither confessed nor received communion, and they lacked respect for the sacred. Had they not participated in the demise of Boniface VIII at Anagni in 1303? On the other hand, the Romans did their best to convince the College to vote “right” with an Italian and keep the papacy in their city. People swarmed the city, ransacked the houses of cardinals (something of a tradition during the empty See), pillaged the papal granary and cellars, and eventually breached the conclave with the tacit support of its guards, the Roman banderesi, agents of the “free” Roman commune. In any case, inside the conclave, the election went on. The new pope, Bartolomeo Prignano, Archbishop of Bari, was elected on April 8, 1378. He was enthroned as Pope Urban VI and recognized by the entire curia.


Still, things did not go as predicted. The bureaucrat that Prignano had been (he was previously the Vice-Chancellor) turned reformer. His biggest peeve was the behavior of the College of Cardinals, which he considered arrogant and entitled. He tried to reform them, but his heavy-handed tactics (like cutting down their cash-flow) turned them against him. And here we need to recognize the savviness of the cardinals, who found in the so-called electoral “violence” an escape clause. Appealing to the classical principle that “fear can afflict even a steadfast man” which allowed fear as a ground for invalidating official acts even if and when performed publicly, cardinals broke with Urban and weaponized the action of the crowd. They claimed that the election had been performed in self-defense and under extreme pressure, and thus rationalized their abandonment of a pope who disappointed them. As one witness testified, “we doubt about things we have not chosen with free will.”

16th century depiction of Urban VI

Those who were regretting the election of Prignano as Urban VI could indeed question the validity of this choice based on the circumstances that surrounded his election. During the conclave crowds had overtaken the city and may have broken the safety and integrity of the conclave. But it needs to be reiterated that right after the election the cardinals nevertheless sent letters announcing their choice to all the powers of Europe, stating to the few colleagues who had remained behind in Avignon:

We have firm hope and confidence in our pope and believe that under his guidance the orthodox faith will be strengthened and that the state of the universal Church will begin to blossom again. May our Saviour grant that he may serve for a very long time.

Nevertheless, the cardinals left Urban’s court and gathered in the city of Anagni, where they posted their declaratio on the gate of the Cathedral on August 9, 1378. They claimed that the election was not legitimate because it had taken place under duress and the cardinals had lacked freedom of choice. Romans had coerced them under threats into choosing a Roman and if not an Italian, and in their own words “From this time onwards the cardinals treated him as pope and paid homage to him, but never in the intention that he should be true pope.” All the cardinals who elected Urban (except for three) anathematized him, moved to Fondi, formed a new College, and elected a rival pope (Clement VII, formerly Cardinal Robert of Geneva), on September 20, 1378, under the protection of Onorato Caetani, Count of Fondi, whom Urban had also offended.

Urban of course never recognized his deposition nor accepted the election of a rival, and Catholic Christianity found itself divided between two popes (Urban and Clement), two courts (one in Rome and one eventually in Avignon), and two sides of supporters (France chose Clement, England Urban, etc.). What is called the Great Western Schism lasted for 39 years, until the Council of Constance – by this time there were three men claiming to be pope. By November 1417 they had removed them and elected a new pope Martin V, who would be recognized by all.

Map showing support for Avignon (red) and Rome (blue) during the Western Schism; this breakdown is accurate until the Council of Pisa (1409), which created a third line of claimants. Wikimedia Commons

The relevance of this historical example to today’s politics is quite astonishing. Grounded on lies the oldest European institution at the time (and still now) broke at the seams. This may serve as an example of an eventual “what if” for the United States. It is what could happen when the legitimacy of a vote is challenged.

I will not return here to the question of lies. The historiography has discussed the rich documentation available for the Schism and has addressed the issue of partisanship. I will only quote Father Marc Dykmans, a specialist on the topic, and a Jesuit, who after pouring over all the testimonies remarked candidly that Cardinal Orsini was “one of the very few who did not lie.”

As shocking as it may seem today, the division did not alter Christian lives that much. Each country chose its side and obeyed its pope who nominated cardinals, bishops, etc., and things continued to function relatively smoothly under the circumstances. This was not a theological nor dogmatic crisis. Each parish held its priest who delivered the sacraments uninterrupted. It was before all a political crisis.

From its initiation, solutions to the Schism were actively discussed, and three surfaced. The initial response was to use violence, the via facti, and the rivals attempted to eliminate each other on the battlefield. When this failed, interminable negotiations started to see if countries and religious leaders would break away from “their” popes (the via cessionis), and finally the decision to call a council to solve the issue (via concilii) was taken. It took two councils, Pisa in 1409, which deposed 2 popes and elected a third one who was not recognized by the deposed two, and Constance (1414-1418), to resolve the issue and elect a new pope recognized by all of Catholic Christianity.

15th century depiction of the Council of Constance

Challenging elections then and now

So where does this leave us and what can this event teach us about electoral challenges. First of all, even the Middle Ages thought about bad leadership! Something that almost sounds like an oxymoron. Medieval authors did ponder about bad political leadership, about what made “tyrants” and what to do with them, going as far as suggesting tyrannicide (see the work of Bartolus of Sassoferrato for example). In 1378, the cardinals elected a bad leader, recognized the issue but were stuck in a system that failed them, because it did not hold safety valves against this type of situation. In retrospect we must look at what happened in January 2021 and decide if we are satisfied with our level of security against poor leadership (impeachment, and twenty-fifth amendment?).

Another plain evidence is that violence still plays a huge part in our politics, and it works. My students usually scoff when I start describing the events of April 1378. But I like to remind them that there is not much difference between what happened in April 1378 and January 2021 when the same tactics of noise, guns, and nooses were used. If you intimidate people far enough you may be able to alter something, even something considered sacrosanct like a democratic or papal election.

The College in 1378 decided that Urban VI was not a good leader and took action, using an extremely convenient legal clause, which by the way could have been used in any other papal elections. Rambunctiousness of the crowd was somewhat of a “tradition” during a conclave which means crowd interference could have been used more than once to challenge a pope’s legitimacy. Evidence enough that maybe Urban was really bad but mostly that other popes had been well-chosen!

Another interesting factor is the tendency to lie for political ends. OK, no surprise here. But lies have consequences. Today’s members of Donald Trump’s team knew that the 2020 election was legitimate, still they convinced themselves (maybe) but most of all convinced the crowds of followers that it was not. These lies are still plaguing our political system. On June 19, 2022 the Texas Republican party rejected the legitimacy of the election of Joe Biden in November 2020. This does not bode well for the future of US democracy.

I will leave open the question of the sincerity of the cardinals who stated in testimonies that in April 1378 they were afraid but acted nevertheless according to custom when they elected Urban VI. They changed their mind once the pope they had chosen failed them and only then did they “remember” that they had been afraid, and easily convinced themselves and most European leaders to follow their lead. Here lies the cause of a crisis that broke the Church for almost two generations. Further, even though we can debate it, the historiography has for generations accused the Schism of being at the root of the Reformation. The temporary break caused by the Schism diminished the integrity of the Church and led to a permanent one. So, one can say that the cardinals’ actions had long-lasting and irremediable repercussions.

Even if secured by process and the rule of law, an election can easily turn into a messy business. And regardless of the rule of law, the process can be reversed quite easily. The Schism shows that well-focused intention can destroy a system, even when this system is buttressed by religious sanctification. A papal election is after all the choice of the Holy Spirit! In 1378 its choice was questioned and rejected. Are our modern electoral institutions strong enough to resist this type of challenge?

Interestingly enough, the Church never took a stance on the legitimacy of the 1378 elections. For generations, and even today the schism popes of the Avignonese side have been pushed back to the rank of antipopes. But no ecclesiastical tribunals ever decided on their fate. The topic was just never addressed. It is just a tradition that ruled. Italy should be the seat of the papacy thus the Roman Urbanist side was deemed legitimate. And a single man, Cardinal Angelo Mercati in 1947, demoted the popes of the Pisan line to antipopes – remarkably it was done so in the academic journal Mediaeval Studies, an action that the Jesuit Thomas E. Morrissey condemned with a “Modern mortals are not in a better position to answer the question [of legitimacy], unless one chooses an a priori stance based on a-historical arguments.” An example again, of how easily history can be manipulated.

Maybe a final positive word should be that the Schism showed that in the end the power of the many can win over the power of the few. And while quite different from our modern-day democracies, there still was something “democratic” in the only medieval “electoral” system. Both sides reached a point where they decided that the stubbornness of popes prevented the reunion of the Church and acted on it. They called for councils which in the end—after some negotiations, resolved the issue. The ballots that elected Martin were handed down not only by cardinals but by representatives of the “nations” present at the Council of Constance, that is France, Italy, Germany, England, and Spain. Each nation deliberated, voted, and held a veto. Of course, there were arguments and grandstanding, but discussions and negotiations won. And conciliarism rather than absolutism did work, at least for a short period of time.

Joëlle Rollo-Koster is professor of medieval history at the University of Rhode Island. She is the author of Raiding Saint Peter: Empty Sees, Violence, and the Initiation of the Great Western Schism (1378) (Leiden: Brill, 2008); Avignon and its Papacy (1309-1417): Popes, Institutions, and Society (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015); and most recently The Great Western Schism, 1378-1417: Performing Legitimacy, Performing Unity (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2022).

Further Readings:

Marc Dykmans, “La troisième élection du pape Urbain VI,” Archivum historiae pontificiae 15 (1977): 217–64.

Ephraim Emerton, Humanism and Tyranny (Gloucester, Mass.: P. Smith, 1964 [1925])

Angelo Mercati, “The New List of the Popes,” Mediaeval Studies 9 (1947): 71–80.

Thomas E. Morrissey, “After Six Hundred Years: The Great Western Schism, Conciliarism, and Constance,Theological Studies 40 (1979): 495–509.

Agostino Paravicini Bagliani, Boniface VIII: Un pape hérétique? (Paris: Payot, 2003).

Ian Robinson, The papal reform of the eleventh century: Lives of Pope Leo IX and Pope Gregory VII, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004).