Convent meets Oktoberfest: The Council of Constance and European Cooperation

If you’ve somehow maintained the stamina to continue consuming the news, you’ll have heard quite a bit of diatribe in the past two years against the European Union. Most recently, it’s been President Drumpf’s trade war and his meeting with EU Chief Jean-Claude Juncker (complete with simple, colorful cards). Before that was the Brexit campaign and those eye-catching, yet demonstrably false statistics plastered on London’s buses. Two years later, it seems that those same buses are now ready to drive the British economy straight off the White Cliffs of Dover come March 2019.

In these moments when supranational cooperation seems to be on the fritz, it helps to reflect on a time when our governing officials could play together a little bit better. For this historical hike, we’re going back to the end of the middle ages to explore the Council of Constance (1414–1418). This meeting was not your average Kansas City corporate conference; it brought people together from across Europe and Northern Africa for a momentous occasion: The first — and so far only — papal selection north of the Alps.

Sigismund’s Schism

Back in the fifteenth century, the Church was going through a bit of a rough patch. Three men each claimed the title of ‘Vicar of Christ,’ and the resulting schism threatened to Yoko-Ono the Catholic world. Back on the farm, troublemakers in Bohemia were fomenting a rebellion against the entire institution, and the Ottoman Turks were closing in on eastern Europe. The whole ordeal could be pitched to HBO for a three-season run.

With the schism growing deeper, Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund (1368–1437) really needed a win. To kill all these birds with one stone (or, as the Germans say, three flies with one swatter), Sigismund brought the Christian world on a destination vacation to the alpine town of Constance in 1414 to work out their relationship woes.

Ulrich von Richenthal: Chronik des Konstanzer Konzils (facsimile from

The Clerics, Cooks, and Call Girls of Constance

How many people does it take to repair a rift in the Catholic church and elect a new leader? From contemporary accounts, somewhere in the neighborhood of 70,000 people descended on the medieval town of Constance, which at the time had just 7,000 inhabitants. These clerics and officials originated from as far as the North Sea to North Africa and from Spain to Russia–which was still under Mongol rule. No delegations from the Americas attended because it would take another 78 years for Columbus to deliver the invitation (along with a healthy dose of smallpox).

To meet the demands for food, bakers also immigrated to feed the city with their early-modern food trucks. These mobile ovens and delicatessens even catered to the tastes of their customers, marketing fish to their coastal visitors, various types of sausages to the Germans, and allegedly frogs and snails to the Welsh (still waiting for Richard Burton and Catherine Zeta-Jones to confirm this stereotype for me).

Ulrich von Richenthal: Chronik des Konstanzer Konzils (facsimile from

Another group of migrant workers satisfied a different hunger, so to speak. More than 700 prostitutes also joined the festivities, and that official count doesn’t even include those enterprising business folk who operated their own in-house services. Not to miss out on their cut of the profits, the city council set the prices for brothel visits. A minstrel named Oswald von Wolkenstein reflected on his trip to the conference with this double entendre: “It hurts my (coin) pouch to think back on Lake Constance.”

600 years later, how did we come to know so much about all the going-ons at the conference — from the official meeting minutes to the price of the prostitutes? We have to thank local documentarian Ulrich von Richenthal (1364–1437) for his dedicated note-taking and the humours illustrations that have survived the centuries. In his chronicle, Richenthal even went so far as to claim that no one was robbed, murdered, or assaulted over the entire five-year span (the same statistic that our universities like to tout today). However, historians can offer a corroborated objection to this proposition. We do know of one man who was killed in the course of events. Even worse, it was actually at the hands of the church (dun dun DUUUUUUN!!).

Burn Notice

Jan Hus (c. 1330–1417) did not attend the conference to select the pope or eat frogs with the Welsh, but instead to air his grievances against the church. He was excommunicated in 1410 for protesting the sale of indulgences (which he did in fewer than 95 theses AND 107 years earlier than that bloke from Wittenberg). Many Czechs still consider Hus a national hero for standing up to German oppression (more information on which can be found in this previous post). Emperor Sigismund promised Hus protection at the conference mainly to stop him from making trouble in Bohemia. However, after he got there, the council revoked Hus’s safety agreement, declared him a heretic, and burnt him to a crisp. Legend has it that a black spot on the floor in the city’s main church just won’t disappear — supposedly Hus’s ghost continuing to haunt his persecutors.

Ulrich von Richenthal: Chronik des Konstanzer Konzils (facsimile from

While the burning of a heretic was certainly not good publicity, the Church did manage to repair that pesky schism. All three competing popes voluntarily (or with some *light* convincing) relinquished their power, and in 1417 Oddone Colonna was elected Pope Martin V. Along with the salvation of the Church, the Council of Constance also put this small town on the world map. At least, that’s what Emperor Sigismund said when he tried to skip town without paying his bills, making the argument that he did bring the city quite a bit of revenue. Sounds a bit familiar — looking at you Olympics committee and FIFA…

A Model for Transnational Cooperation

Constance continues to capitalize on their notoriety from the conference. Thanks to its close proximity to Switzerland, the city escaped bombing in the Second World War and saved many of the original conference buildings. In 1993, the city celebrated its council history by erecting a statue on the harbor which has caused more than a few tourists to stop in their tracks. Designed by Peter Lenk, the thirty-foot statue depicts the tiny, naked figures of Pope Martin and and Emperor Sigismund perched on the hands of a prostitute. Lenk modelled the woman after the figure — in personality and body proportions — of the title character in Honoré Balzac’s story “Imperia.” She rotates on her pedestal, showing off, err, all sides of that five-year conference.

Today, people from around over the world come to Constance for a different reason: to hike in the alps and swim in the clear waters. I was fortunate enough to visit Lake Constance this July, and during my four days on the water, I met people from Berlin, Italy, France, Kurdish Syria, and Vietnam. Looking back on the history of international cooperation, let’s remember that we do better when we work together… oh, and that frogs and snails are a Welsh delicacy.


Rosengarten Museum, Konstanz

Wolkenstein quotation from above: “Denk ich an den Bodensee tut mir gleich der Beutel weh” (translation my own).

Musicologist and historian studying at the University of Oxford.

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