A well-intended but not entirely successful overview of one of Europe’s most turbulent eras, defined by religious schism and the advent of an Islamic enemy.
Historian Welsh (Australia: A New History of the Great Southern Land, 2006, etc.) faces an immediate challenge in attempting to distill a century and a half of late-medieval events into his short study. The device by which he does so is the Council of Constance, convened in 1414, which over the next four years hammered out an agreement on papal succession—no small thing in a time when, owing to schisms and previous councils, three popes were competing to be declared the bishop of Rome. At the same time, the council moved against the Bohemian reformer Jan Hus, burned at the stake at the council’s pleasure in 1415. That act led to decades of civil war and the rise of Protestantism, which was far from its intended effect. In the end, another of the council’s long-debated decisions changed the rules by which popes were elected, with another unintended consequence: “Given the split between the parties it was impossible for an English, German or French pope to be elected, and an Italian was almost the inevitable choice.” Italian popes would rule henceforth, while at the fringes of Europe the Ottoman Empire revealed its expansionist nature, bringing on another great crisis in Christianity. Its upshot was that the Latin pope had a chance to reconcile the Eastern and Western churches but failed to come to the aid of Byzantium, which fell to the Muslim armies and marked “the decline of the Roman papacy as an international power.”
Welsh does not always pick up the many threads of this complex narrative, but he does a good job of showing how the religious and political rivalries of old anticipated later crises in world history.