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It had been settled at the council of Constance that regularly from time to time there should be held a general council, by which name was then meant a council gathered from the whole of the Western Church, but without any representatives of the Eastern Churches; and according to this decree a council was to meet at Basel on the Rhine, in the year 1431. It was just before the time of its opening that Cardinal Cesarini was defeated by the Hussites of Bohemia, as we have seen. Being convinced that some gentler means ought to be tried with them, he begged the pope to allow them a hearing; and he invited them to send deputies to the council of Basel, of which he was president.
The Bohemians did as they were asked to do, and thirty of them appeared before the council,--rough, wild-looking men for the most part, headed by Procopius, who was at once a priest and a warrior, and was called the great, in order to distinguish him from another of the same name. A dispute, which lasted many weeks, was carried on between the leaders of these Bohemians and some members of the council; and, at length, four points were agreed on. The chief of these was, that the chalice at the Holy Communion should not be confined to the priest alone, but might be given to such grown-up persons as should desire it. This was one of the things which had been most desired by the Bohemian reformers. We need not go further into the history of the Hussites and of the parties into which they were divided; but it is worth while to remember that the use of the sacramental cup was allowed in Bohemia for two hundred years, while in all other churches under the Roman authority it was forbidden.
Soon after the meeting of the council of Basel, the pope, whose name was Eugenius IV, grew jealous lest it should get too much power, and sent orders that it should break up. But the members were not disposed to bear this. They declared that the council was the highest authority in the Church, and superior to the pope; and they asked Eugenius to join them at Basel, and threatened him in case of his refusal. Just at that time Eugenius was driven from Rome by his people, and therefore he found it convenient to try to smooth over differences, and to keep good terms with the council; but after a while the disagreement broke out again. The pope had called a council to meet at Ferrara, in Italy, in order to consult with some Greeks (at the head of whom were the emperor and the patriarch of Constantinople) as to the union of the Greek and Latin Churches; and he desired the members of the Basel council to remove to Ferrara, that they might take part in the new assembly. But only a few obeyed; and those who remained at Basel were resolved to carry on their quarrel to the uttermost. First, they allowed Eugenius a certain time, within which they required him either to appear at Basel or to send some one in his stead; then, they lengthened out this time somewhat; and as he still did not appear, they first suspended him from his office, then declared him to be deposed, and at length went on to choose another pope in his stead (Nov. 17, 1439).
The person thus chosen was Amadeus, who for nearly thirty years had been duke of Savoy, but had lately given over his dukedom to his son, and had put himself at the head of twelve old knights, who had formed themselves into an order of hermits at Ripaille, near the lake of Geneva. The new pope bargained that he should not be required to part with the long white beard which he had worn as a hermit; but after a while, finding that it looked strange among the smooth chins of those around him, he, of his own accord, allowed it to be shaved off. But this attempt to set up an antipope came to very little. Felix V (as the old duke called himself on being elected) was obliged to submit to Eugenius; and the council of Basel, after dwindling away by degrees, and being removed from one place to another, died out so obscurely that its end was unnoticed by any one.
Eugenius held his council at Ferrara, and afterwards removed it to Florence (AD 1438-9); and it seemed as if by his management the Greeks, who were very poor, and were greatly in need of help against the Turks, were brought to an agreement with the Latins as to the questions which had been so long disputed between the Churches. The union of the Churches was celebrated by a grand service in the cathedral of Florence. But, as in former times, the Greeks found, on their return home, that their countrymen would not agree to what had been done; and thus the breach between the two Churches continued, until a few years later Constantinople was taken by the Turks, and so the Greek Empire came to an end.