Robert Swanson: Rezension von Joëlle Rollo-Koster: The Great Western Schism, 1378-1417. Performing Legitimacy, Performing Unity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2022, in: sehepunkte 23 (2023), Nr. 9 [15.09.2023], URL:

Von Joëlle Rollo-Koster

First, I want to express my gratitude to Robert Swanson, whom I admire greatly, for taking the time to review my book, and to the editors of Sehepunkte for granting me the opportunity to provide commentary. I acknowledge that my cultural analysis may not resonate with everyone, especially in a field that has predominantly been dominated by institutional historians.

My approach was to develop in several chapters, responses to a single question: What happens when we place the Schism at the center of a historical inquiry? Until now, the historiography has primarily focused on the "why" of the Schism's occurrence and the "how" of its resolution, but not as much on "how" it affected its environment. My book focuses on the rival popes' performance of legitimacy, the responses of their audiences, and how the Schism affected the internal life of its two capital cities, Rome and Avignon. This could explain why my method may appear somewhat disjointed. In hindsight, I should have described the book as a series of essays rather than a monograph, although I didn't consider this at the time.

To some extent, Professor Swanson's review is filled with judgmental language, without offering specific rationale. For instance, Prof. Swanson questions the conclusions of Chapter 1, where I framed the evolution of the Schism around Victor Turner's definition of "social drama," concluding that I oversimplified the crisis's resolution. Unfortunately, he does not pinpoint where I made errors. When the Council of Constance ended, papal unity was restored, fulfilling its primary objective. The subsequent developments and challenges were unpredictable, although we can recognize them in hindsight.

The remainder of the review often refers to "less coherent" arguments and structure but does not provide evidence as to why. Professor Swanson states "It [Chapter 2] tacks together discussions of administrative performance (assessed by examining the issue of papal bulls), liturgical innovations (the feasts of the Presentation - surely Purification to contemporaries? - and Visitation of the Virgin), and papal gift-giving through the distribution of the Golden Rose. Each segment is engaging, but they do not convincingly share or develop a common theme." While Chapter 2 is organized around various topics, they all frame legitimation. I argue that widely circulated papal bulls brought the papacy closer to its followers, popes competed in their musical liturgy to gain the Virgin's favor and attracted followers through the offering of the Golden Rose. These were for the two popes means of communication, to "perform" their legitimacy.

Evidently, what I considered obvious did not convince my reviewer. Furthermore, Prof. Swanson suggests that I confused the Feast of the Presentation with the Purification. I did not confuse the two feasts (Presentation of Mary: November 21; Presentation of Jesus: February 2). The section in Chapter 2 titled "Music and the Virgin: The Feasts of the Presentation and Visitation" focuses on the role of Mary (not Jesus) and music during the Schism, with appeals to the Virgin to resolve the crisis. My discussion is based on a liturgical drama authored by Philippe de Mézières, which celebrates Mary's Presentation to the Temple, not Jesus'.

Prof. Swanson goes on to conclude that "Critically, it often feels hurriedly written and unpolished." I would like to inquire how this is the case considering that Prof. Swanson also states, "The text contains distracting digressions and information overload." Let us be fair. I cannot be simultaneously "hurried" and overly detailed. Describing a 420-page, somewhat large-format, small-print volume as "hurriedly written" seems overstated, at least to me. While I could have developed my arguments more extensively in some cases, the aim was to stimulate discussion about the Schism as an "instigator" and to place the crisis at the "central stage" of cultural analysis. Additionally, Cambridge University Press did not want a longer submission.

I acknowledge Prof. Swanson's critique regarding the lack of images, and I share this frustration. I had beautiful maps and images in color, but Cambridge deemed them too expensive to print. I did provide some links to direct readers to the documents, and I would be delighted to share the colorful maps produced by Matilde Grimaldi with anyone interested.

Professor Swanson's review does not mention my discussion of the wide range of sources I used for the analysis, which encompasses Vatican and Avignon communal archives, bulls, liturgical drama, chronicles, tapestry, and more. This discussion is appended at the end of the introduction (pages 12-17).

While I recognize that not everyone may appreciate my cultural (theoretical) perspective, I hope that my work will initiate discussions and foster some cross-pollination of ideas. I thank Professor Swanson for his overall support of the volume. A panel on "Crises of Authority in the Fifteenth Century" will be held at the 59th International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Mich. (May 2024), where we will revisit the Schism and the topic of tyrannicide.


Von Robert Swanson

While I stand by (most) of my review, for what it is worth I empathise with Prof. Rollo-Koster's reaction - I have sometimes felt the same about reviewers' comments on my own work. However, reviewing is by definition judgemental, and judgements do not always go the way the author wants and anticipates. I accepted the invitation to review immediately, and eagerly: I was really looking forward to reading the book. Concerns developed and accumulated as I read; some significant, many merely annoying. They could not be ignored or left unvoiced. Whether the review's overall balance is right is for others to judge.

Debating a review potentially challenges the very validity of 'reviewing'. I see it as an unavoidably subjective activity, trying within a strict word limit to be both fair to the author and indicative to the readers, content to leave an overtly positive review to speak for itself but hoping that the wording of a less enthusiastic response does not become unduly negative. My comments on the volume were 'of the moment'; I cannot say that I would indubitably produce an identical overview if it had been read in different circumstances. The following comments draw on memory of my responses when reading; while I have checked some specific points it would have been impractical to 're-review'. Any such re-evaluation would inevitably be affected by Prof. Rollo-Koster's own comments.

To make two points from the start. First, I grovel and apologise unreservedly for my stupid error about the feast of the Virgin's Presentation. I cannot reconstruct the precise route to it - other than a faulty synapse - but it is inexcusable, should not have happened, and I should have noticed and corrected it. I regret any misdirection that may have resulted from it.

Secondly, but as a less complete retraction, I concede that my description of the book as 'hurriedly written' was infelicitous. I am less willing to retract 'unpolished', but full justification for the adjective would require assuming an editorial hat and producing a fully marked-up copy of the text. Based on my own experiences of disrupted publication schedules and chaotic deadlines since 2019, I deliberately suggested Covid as mitigation for that criticism. I suspected, but could not assert, that CUP were responsible for the problems of absent illustrations and the greyscaled maps. I welcome the clarification, but (alas!) that of itself cannot obviate my comments on them.

Dealing with other points raised in Prof. Rollo-Koster's response meets the obstacle which provoked them: the inherent constraints of reviewing. As she says, her book ranges widely, 'on the rival popes' performance of legitimacy, the responses of their audiences, and how the Schism affected the internal life of its two capital cities, Rome and Avignon'. Providing an assessment within the permitted 7500 'characters' necessarily curtailed and compressed comment (I used 7475, including spaces in that total). Responding more expansively and unpacking the compression within the same constraints is equally challenging. (This has ended up at roughly the same length.) One major instance - singled out in Prof. Rollo-Koster's response - must suffice here. In resisting my statement that her discussion of the Council of Constance 'arguably over-simplifies the process of “reintegration” [as the final stage in the Schism as a Turnerian 'social drama']', Prof. Rollo-Koster remarks that I fail to 'pinpoint where I made errors. When the Council of Constance ended, papal unity was restored, fulfilling its primary objective.' The second of these sentences requires most comment, concurrently responding to the first not to 'pinpoint … errors' but to suggest that her discussion of Constance does 'arguably over-simplif[y]' (with a very firm emphasis on that 'arguably') by overlooking significant elements of the Constance narrative which might reinforce the Council's depiction as reintegrative within the extended social drama. First, though, was 'papal unity' actually restored in November 1417? Scholarly consensus does normally treat the election of Martin V as terminating the schism; but that ignores Benedict XIII's continued self-assertion as sole legitimate pope (and also sole surviving cardinal - and so sole qualified elector - from the reign of Gregory XI). His claim passed to Clement VIII in 1423. Full 'papal unity' came only when Clement's abdication in 1431 led to the merging of his (admitted minute) obedience with that of Constance. Ignoring the phantom pontificate of an obscure 'Benedict XIV', that finally gave Martin V legitimacy regardless of who had actually been the 'true' successor to Gregory XI in 1378.

Constance can be treated as 'performing unity' de facto by eventually electing Martin V, but it is questionable whether it did so by 'performing legitimacy'. Re-reading the book's discussion of the Council (pp. 61-8), that segment deals mainly with historiography, the status and afterlife of the decree Haec sancta of April 1415, and the treatment of John Hus. The issue of legitimacy seems side-lined; the fate of the papacy, the basic messiness of trying to reconcile three mutually incompatible legitimist strands in order to elect one pope whom all parties were meant to recognise in their own successions, is barely mentioned. The theoretical and practical manoeuvrings of March 1415 to November 1417 may complicate any reconstruction of 'social drama', but the fundamental contribution of those crises and compromises of loyalty and allegiance (both at and beyond Constance) to the 'reintegrative' stage of the Turnerian construct surely merits some acknowledgement? Restoration of papal unity was indeed the Council's 'primary objective' - as it had been at Pisa in 1409 - but there was no consensus about how it should or could be achieved. In 1414 John XXIII presumably hoped that he would still be pope at the Council's end. The machinations after his flight - the revolutionary manifesto of Haec sancta; the negotiations which accepted Gregory XII as legitimate pope and convenor of Constance to procure his resignation; the piecemeal defections as realms abandoned Benedict XIII; the novel conclave arrangements which elected Martin V - collectively prioritised unity over legitimacy, in effect pushing legitimism under the carpet. As Prof. Rollo-Koster indicates more than once, the legacy of that uncertainty lingered into the twentieth century (even if as one of the unpredictable 'subsequent developments and challenges … [which] we can recognize … in hindsight'). Only since 1958 have the Pisan popes been formally relegated to the status of antipopes, and Gregory XII's 'legitimate' reign extended to 1415 - although without posthumously renumbering Alexander VI.

Finally, Prof. Rollo-Koster seems to hint that my review suggests antipathy to theory, or at least to cultural theory, and thereby misjudges the book. I admit to wariness, even chariness, about the application of theory in historiography: it is a useful tool to enhance interpretative insight or provide a broad perspectival framework, but problematic and distorting when imposed as a dictatorial template (which is definitely not the case with the reviewed book). There may have been points where we were not on the same wavelength, but I never felt we were on different planets. My review's final paragraph affirms the book's importance, and its broader stimulation, both of which I happily reassert.