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  • Contextualising Reform:Colette of Corbie’s Relations with A Divided Church1
  • Anna Campbell (bio)

The Colettine reforms took place at a time of profound crisis in the Western Church, yet Colette successfully navigated the ecclesiastical politics of the early fifteenth-century in order to effect far-reaching reform of the Poor Clares and Friars Minor in France and Flanders.2 The politics of the ‘Great Western Schism’ strongly influenced the course of the events of Colette’s career. Not only was it not possible for any religious reforms to exist in a vacuum, but her close association with the Dukes of Burgundy and their manipulation of ecclesiastical politics for their own ends, ensured that she was drawn into the complexity of events. She therefore had the task not only of negotiating the politics of the Franciscan Observant reforms and the politics and self-interests of her patrons, but also to navigate her way through the schismatic proceedings of the Church in order to achieve her reforms.

This paper seeks to highlight Colette’s engagement in the overlapping spheres of ecclesiastical and dynastic politics, and to contextualise her actions and reforms in relation to the complexities of papal schism. At the beginning of Colette’s career, two popes claimed St Peter’s throne, and Christendom was split between allegiance to either Avignon or Rome. From the early years of her reforms, official documents give witness to the fact that the pragmatist in Colette negotiated successfully between the rival obediences to obtain the papal documents and permissions for the acquisition of convents, the permission to found new ones, and for the protection of the autonomy of her community.3 [End Page 353]

Secondly, the paper seeks to examine Colette’s role with regard to the crisis in the church, given her status as a ‘living saint.’ Colette’s reputation for holiness, apparent from the time of her incarceration in an anchor-hold in her hometown of Corbie between 1402 and 1406, was confirmed in 1417, when the great Dominican saint, Vincent Ferrer, visited Colette in Besançon, and seemingly worked together for an end to the Schism. This same reputation, however, was placed in jeopardy when one of her patrons, Amadeus VIII of Savoy, agreed to become the ‘anti-pope’, Felix V, and caused a second schism in 1430. It was due to the reputation that she had constructed by that time, and the protection she was afforded by her other patrons, that she negotiated this situation with such political acumen. However, some of the choices that she was forced to make revisited her later in her life: in some quarters, such as in her hometown of Corbie, she was never fully able to shake off her association with the ‘anti-pope’, Benedict XIII, who had given his assent for her reforms to take place. Despite such set-backs, Colette persisted in her work, implementing reforms when and where she could, until her death in Ghent in 1447.

Context – The Avignon Papacy and the Great Western Schism

In order to be able to place the Colettine reforms in both their ecclesiastical and political context, we need to understand both the reasons for the Papal Schism, and the part that France and the Dukes of Burgundy had to play in both its creation and its conclusion. The Schism had its roots in the early fourteenth century. After the death of Pope Boniface VIII in 1303, violence broke out in Italy between warring factions such that, on the election of the French archbishop of Bordeaux as Pope Clement V, the papacy removed itself from Rome, not to return until 1378.4 Gregory XI finally brought the papacy ‘home’ to Rome in 1377, but his death just one year later set up a course of events that were not to resolve themselves until 1417. The Roman communes and seigneurie of Italy exerted pressure upon the conclave to choose a Roman Pope, or at least an Italian: Bartolomeo Prignano was duly elected unanimously as Urban VI 8 April 1378. Six months later, however, having been on [End Page 354] the receiving end of the Pope’s petulant and bad-tempered behaviour, the cardinals claimed that...


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