In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section General Church Councils, Pre-Trent

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Historiographies
  • Sources
  • Rome, 1412–1413
  • Pavia-Siena, 1423–1424
  • Nonenacted Decrees/Reforms

Renaissance and Reformation General Church Councils, Pre-Trent
Nelson H. Minnich
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 September 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 October 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0054


During the 15th and 16th centuries, the Catholic Church celebrated more general councils than during any similar period in its history. The Council of Pisa I, 1409 attempted to end the Great Western Schism but instead succeeded in adding a third pope. To bolster his position, the Pisan pope called a council that met in Rome, 1412–1413. The Council of Konstanz, 1414–1418 healed the schism but introduced new issues by declaring the superiority of a council over all Christians and requiring the celebration of councils on a regular basis. In accord with that requirement, a council was held at Pavia-Siena, 1423–1424, with another later at Basel-Lausanne, 1431–1449. The pope tried to transfer the latter council to Ferrara (1437), but the majority of the fathers remained at Basel. The Council of Ferrara (1438–1439) moved to Florence (1439), where it issued decrees uniting the Eastern and Latin churches and condemning the council still being held at Basel. The papal council ended in Rome (1445). In their conflict with Julius II, some cardinals and rulers called a council that met at Pisa (1511) but then transferred to Milan, Asti, and Lyons (1511–1512). To combat that council, Julius II called his own council to meet in the Lateran Basilica in Rome (Lateran V, 1512–1517). These eight councils dealt with themes of church unity (healing schisms), ultimate authority (pope or council), doctrinal issues (the teachings of Wyclif, Hus, Falkenberg, Grabon, and Favaroni; Filioque, Eucharist, Purgatory; immortality of the soul, montes pietatis; etc.), Crusades (attempts to fend off the Turks), and reform (of morals, pastoral care, preaching, education of clergy, the privileges of religious orders, etc.). Scholars have debated the legitimacy of various councils and the origins, meaning, reception, and implementation of their decrees.

General Overviews

Around the time of the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), a number of brief surveys of general councils were produced, the most important of which were Jedin 1960 (the more erudite) and Hughes 1961 (the more popular). In modern times, three series have been published that contain extended studies of individual councils: Hefele 1855–1874, Dumeige 1962–1981, and Brandmüller 1979.

  • Brandmüller, Walter, ed. Konziliengeschichte. Paderborn, Germany: Ferdinand Schöningh, 1979–.

    A collection of monographs on ecumenical and provincial councils, by leading scholars, projected to include fifty-five volumes.

  • Dumeige, Gervais, ed. Histoire des conciles oecuméniques. 12 vols. Paris: l’Orante, 1962–1981.

    Gervais Dumeige (b. 1913–d. 1996) brought the series up to Vatican I (Vol. 12, 1964), enlisting prominent scholars to write the various volumes (for example, Joseph Gill for Konstanz [1414–1418], Basel, and Florence; Oliver de La Brosse for Lateran V [1512–1517]).

  • Hefele, Karl Joseph. Conciliengeschichte. 7 vols. Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany: Herder, 1855–1874.

    With his rebuttal of the anti-Roman history of the councils (Wessenberg 1840), Hefele (b. 1809–d. 1893) got as far as the councils of Basel and Florence (published 1855–1874), turning the editorship over to Josef Hergenröther, who wrote the history of Lateran V (1512–1517) and the period up to 1536 (Tome VIII, 1887), while P. Richard and Albert Michel wrote on Trent (Tomes IX and X, 1930–1931), and Charles de Clercq did the Catholic Oriental councils (Tome XI, 1952).

  • Hefele, Karl Joseph. Histoire des conciles d’après les documents originaux. Revised and translated by Henri Leclerq. Paris: Letouzey, 1907–1921.

    A translation and revision of the first eight volumes of Hefele 1855–1874 into a French version, based on the second German edition.

  • Hughes, Philip. The Church in Crisis: A History of the General Councils, 325–1870. Garden City, NY: Image Books/Doubleday, 1961.

    A lively, well-written account of the councils, with few footnotes.

  • Jedin, Hubert. Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Church. Translated by Ernest Graf. New York: Herder and Herder, 1960.

    Provides the history of each general council, including the participants, agenda, major decrees, and the reception of these decrees. Though without footnotes, there are some selected bibliographies at the end. Originally published as Kleine Konziliengeschichte: Die zwanzig Ökumenischen Konzilien im Rahmen der Kirchengeschichte (Freiburg, Germany: Verlag Herder, 1959).

  • Wessenberg, Ignaz Heinrich von. Die grossen Kirchenversammlungen des 15ten und 16ten Jahrhunderts in Beziehung auf Kirchenverbesserung geschichtlich und kritisch dargestellt. 4 vols. Konstanz, Germany: C. Glückher, 1840.

    Argues for a conciliar model for the church, on the basis of Haec sancta of the Council of Konstanz (1414–1418).

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