The Late Middle Ages
The period known as the Late Middle Ages (1300–1500) can also be considered the beginning of the Renaissance, which had its roots in the changes that began to gather speed during those two centuries. Yet there was plenty about this time that was truly medieval, and whereas some events pointed to the future, other occurrences signaled the end of an era. Among these were the upheaval created by the Black Death and Hundred Years' War, and the decline of the two institutions that had long dominated European life: feudalism and the papacy.
Pestilence and war
In 1300, Europe had about 100 million people; then a series of calamities struck. First Germany and other northern countries experienced crop failures from 1315 to 1317, and these resulted in widespread starvation and death. Then, in 1347, Europe was hit by one of the worst disasters in human history, an epidemic called the Black Death. Sometimes called simply "the Plague," the Black Death killed between twenty-fivePage 214 | Top of Article and forty-five percent of the European population.
The Black Death (1347–51)
The outbreak began in Asia. Thanks to the Mongols' conquests, which had made travel between East and West safer and easier than ever before, it quickly made its way to the Black Sea shore, where it erupted in September 1346. Likewise the opening of trade that had followed the Crusades aided its spread, as Italian merchants unknowingly brought the disease home in their ships. The first outbreak in Western Europe occurred in October 1347, in the city of Messina at the northeastern corner of Sicily. From there it was an easy jump to the Italian mainland, and by the following April all of Italy was infected. Meanwhile, it had reached Paris in January 1348, and within a year, 800 people a day were dying in that city alone. Quickly it penetrated the entire European continent and beyond, from Palestine to Greenland.
The only merciful thing about the Black Death was its quickness. Victims typically died within four days—a hundred hours of agony. If they caught a strain of bubonic (byoo-BAHN-ik) plague, their lymph glands swelled; or if it was pneumonic (nyoo-MAHN-ik) plague, the lungs succumbed first. Either way, as the end approached, the victim turned purplish-black from respiratory failure; hence the name. The ironic thing was that the force at the center of all this devastation was too small to see with the naked eye: a bacteria that lived on fleas, who in turn fed on rats.
The people of the time had no idea of this scientific explanation for the Plague and instead looked for spiritual causes and cures. Some believed that the world was coming to an end, and some joined sects such as the flagellants (FLAJ-uh-luntz), religious enthusiasts who wandered the countryside, beating themselves with whips as a way of doing penance.
The flagellants were closely tied with a rising anti-Semitic trend. Searching for someone to blame, Europeans found a convenient scapegoat in the Jews, who they claimed had started the Plague by poisoning the wells of Europe. This absurd explanation provided justification for many a pogrom (poh-GRAHM), or organized massacre.
Peasant uprisings of the late 1300s
By the end of 1351, the Plague had run its course, but it left behind a population change equivalent to that which would occur in the modern United States if everyone in the six most populous states—California, New York, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Illinois—died over a four-year period. Not until 1500, about 150 years after the Black Death, would the European population return to the levels of 1300. All over the continent, farms were empty and villages abandoned, leading to scarcity and higher prices— conditions that sparked a number of peasant revolts.
First came the French Jacquerie (zhah-keh-RHEE) in the spring of 1358. The latter took its name from Jacques Bonhomme (ZHAHK bun-AWM), a traditional nickname for a peasant meaning "John the Good Man," and the rebels collectively called themselves Jacques. In the space of a few weeks, the Jacques gathered support from a range of discontented persons, including even minor royal officials. Their targets were the wealthy
and powerful, and in their furious onslaught, which consumed much of the region around Paris, they did not spare even the children of their enemies. Then, just as suddenly as it began, the Jacquerie was brutally suppressed by the French royalty and nobility, who ordered wholesale executions of peasants—many of whom had not even participated in the revolt.
Across the English Channel in 1381, revolts against royal taxation broke out in several English counties, including Essex, Kent, and several others. The most well known of the rebel leaders was Wat Tyler from Kent, who captured the sheriff there and destroyed property records. The Essex force did much the same, then joined the faction from Kent and marched on London to meet with fourteen-yearold Richard II (ruled 1377–99).
Though Richard agreed to meet with the rebels against his advisors' counsel, the government's failure to keep the promises he made them only further enraged the peasants. The rebels destroyed a home belonging to John of Gaunt (1340–1399), Richard's uncle, and killed several of John's advisors.Page 217 | Top of Article The violence associated with the English revolt, however, did not equal that of the Jacquerie.
One hundred fifty years of war (1337–1485)
The Black Death and peasant uprisings occurred against the backdrop of the Hundred Years' War (1337–1453), which actually lasted 116 years, making it by far the longest armed conflict in history. Fought between France and England, the "war" was really a series of wars broken by long periods of truce, and the combined duration of all major battles was less than a month. The real devastation of the war came from the long sieges against towns, as well as periodic raids during times of official cease-fire. In both cases, it was France that sustained the injury.
The first phase of the war saw a series of English victories, most notably at Poitiers (pwah-tee-AY) in 1356. The hero of the latter was Edward the Black Prince (1330–1376) of England, whose military leadership gave England power over northern France. Discontent over Poitiers in turn spawned the Jacquerie, but by 1360 the war had entered a second phase, when little happened except for occasional French raids against the English.
Then after more than fifty years, the English returned to the offensive under Henry V (ruled 1413–22), who led them to victory at Agincourt (AH-zhin-kohr) in 1415. Henry, whose deeds would later be celebrated in several plays by William Shakespeare (1564–1616), solidified his power by marrying Catherine of Valois (val-WAH), daughter of the French king, in 1420.
English victory appeared certain, yet the French were about to unleash a secret weapon. This was a teenaged girl named Joan, just three years old at the time of Agincourt, who at the age of twelve believed she had heard the voice of God telling her to follow the path of holiness. When she was sixteen, this voice commanded her to come to the aid of the crown prince or dauphin (doh-FAN), Charles VII (ruled 1422–61), and so Joan of Arc (1412–1431) embarked on one of history's shortest and most brilliant careers. Once she had the dauphin's attention, she laid out a plan to force an English withdrawal from the French city of Orléans (ohr-lay-AWn). Clad in the armor of a boy, she and the tiny army Charles gave her broke the English siege on May 8, 1429, turning the tide of the war.
A year later, in May 1430, Joan was captured by a force from Burgundy, which had temporarily sided with England, and was sold to the English six months later. The English did not simply execute her, but sought to destroy French morale by trying her for heresy. A highly biased court composed of pro-English French priests found her guilty of witchcraft and burned her at the stake. Yet the French initiative in the war did not die with Joan, and France enjoyed victory under Charles. By 1453, the English had lost all their gains in France, and they returned to England in dejection.
More war awaited them in England as the houses of York and Lancaster launched the Wars of the Roses (1455–85), so named because of the flowers that symbolized the competing dynasties. The Lancaster line emerged victorious when Henry VII assumed the throne. Henry's son Henry VIII (ruled 1509–1547) would become one of England's greatest kings, and would father its greatest queen, Elizabeth I (ruled 1558–1603).
Wars and warlords in Italy
The Black Death hit Italy particularly hard, and much of the country remained in a state of anarchy through the 1400s. This led to the rise of mercenary military commanders, warlords, and a new class of ruthless local leadership. In Rome, Cola di Rienzo (RYENT-soh; 1313–1354) led a revolt in 1347, whereby he attempted to restore the glories of ancient Rome; but instead he simply provoked the Roman people and the papacy to anger with his reckless policies.
Much more successful were the Medici (MED-uh-chee), a family of bankers who controlled Florence from 1421 to 1737. The most famous member of the family was Lorenzo di Medici (1449–1492), sometimes known as "Lorenzo the Magnificent." As a ruler he could be a tyrant, but he also became a highly influential patron of the arts who assisted greatly in ushering in the Renaissance.
Whatever Lorenzo's sins, they paled in comparison to those of the Borgia (BOR-zhuh) family, who had their origins in Spain but came to power in Rome. Two of them became popes, Calixtus III and Alexander VI (ruled 1492–1503), and the latter fathered a number of children, the most notorious being the cruel Cesare (CHAY-zur-ay, c. 1476–1507) and his lustful sister Lucrezia (loo-KREET-zeeuh; 1480–1519).
The destruction of Byzantium
One of the most significant events in the history of Eastern Europe was the Battle of Kosovo Field, on June 28, 1389. Byzantium, well on its way to final ruin, had long before recognized Serbia as an independent nation, and at Kosovo the Serbs led a failed effort to protect Orthodox lands from invasion by the Ottoman Turks. As a result, Serbia and Bulgaria fell to the Turks, leaving a permanent Muslim influence on the Balkan Peninsula.
Half a century later, in 1448, Turkish forces defeated a Hungarian army under János Hunyadi (YAH-nos HOON-yahd-ee; c. 1407–1456), again at Kosovo Field. By the early 1500s, the Ottomans had gained control over much of Hungary, and like the Mongols before them, threatened Austria.
By then, the Turks had absorbed what remained of the Byzantine Empire. On the last night of Byzantium's history, May 28–29, 1453—just before troops under Mehmed the Conqueror entered Constantinople—Orthodox priests held the last Christian services in the Hagia Sophia. Four days later, the church reopened, but now it was a mosque, as it is today.
Greece soon became part of the Ottoman Empire, and would not win its independence until the early 1800s. Meanwhile a new nation was born, one that proclaimed itself the "Third Rome"—in other words, the third Roman Empire after Rome itself and Byzantium. That new nation was Russia. The imperial transformation of Muscovy began when Ivan III (the Great; 1440–1505) began conquering city-states, starting with Novgorod inPage 220 | Top of Article 1471 to 1478. In 1472, he married Sophia, or Zoë, niece of the last Byzantine emperor, thus establishing his claims as preserver of Orthodox Christianity. At that time, he also added the two-headed eagle, long a symbol of Byzantium, to Muscovy's coat of arms.
In 1480, Ivan established Russian independence by cutting off all tribute to the Tatar-Mongol overlords, who had never recovered from Tamerlane's attacks almost a century before. His grandson Ivan IV (1530–1584), better known as Ivan the Terrible, in 1547 took the old Slavic form of "caesar," and was crowned czar. As his name suggests, Ivan was a cruel emperor, establishing a pattern for most Russian rulers through the twentieth century.
The people and the powers
The Crusades and the Mongol conquests had greatly increased contact between Europe and the rest of the world, and in about 1300, the continent began to experience a sudden explosion of curiosity and creativity. This in turn would spawn the Renaissance in the arts and literature; the Reformation in religion; and the Age of Discovery in exploration and science.
Symbolic of old and new, respectively, were the Scholastic philosophers John Duns Scotus (c. 1266–1308) and William of Ockham (AH-kum; c. 1285–c. 1349). The latter is most famous for "Ockham's razor," which holds that "entities must not be unnecessarily multiplied"—in other words, one should always seek the most simple, logical, and straightforward explanation for something, avoiding conclusions not warranted by the known facts. Ockham's razor was a hallmark of the emerging revolution in science and thought, and it represented the complete opposite of medieval beliefs.
Ockham also supported the German emperor in a struggle with the pope. By contrast, Duns Scotus and his followers, the Scotists, held firmly to the old ways, including belief in the church and all its teachings. In the 1300s, aspects of the Scotists' ideas seemed forward-looking; but as the Renaissance gained momentum and they resisted all new ways of thought, the term duns or dunce became a hallmark of ignorance.
New ways of seeing the world
The transition from medieval to Renaissance could be seen in a variety of arts. Giotto (JAHT-oh; 1276–1337), the last great pre-Renaissance painter, showed the stirrings of new ideas in his use of highly expressive gestures, which turned a painting into a sort of story. Filippo Brunelleschi (fu-LIP-oh broo-nuh-LES-kee; 1337–1446) applied science to architecture, establishing the concept of perspective, whereby faraway objects appear smaller than objects close by.
Perspective greatly increased the sense of depth in the paintings of Masaccio (muh-ZAHT-choh; 1401–1428), who also took a scientific approachPage 221 | Top of Article to lighting. No longer were all figures equally lit, as in medieval art; in Masaccio's paintings, it was clear that light came from a definite source such as the Sun or a candle.
Donatello (c. 1386–1466), a student of Brunelleschi, helped usher in Renaissance sculpture by turning from purely biblical subjects—the only subjects permitted for medieval artists—to scenes from ancient Greece and Rome. In Flanders, the painter Jan van Eyck (YAHN vahn IKE; c. 1395–1441) made equally important strides, becoming the first major artist to depict ordinary, if wealthy, people—merchants who had paid for portraits of themselves and their families.
A change in the language
A number of Italian writers, most notably the poet Dante Alighieri (DAHN-tay al-ig-YEER-ee; 1265–1321), helped bridge the medieval and Renaissance periods. In his masterpiece, the Divine Comedy (1308–21), Dante described an allegorical journey through Hell (the Inferno), Purgatory, and Paradise. The book, a "comedy," in the ancient sense, meaning that it ends on a happy note, is a veritable encyclopedia of the Middle Ages. Practically every important person from premodern Europe is mentioned somewhere on its pages.
Like the troubadours before him, Dante wrote in the vernacular, the language of everyday people—in this case Italian instead of Latin. Petrarch (PEE-trark; 1304–1374) also wrote in Italian, but gained his greatest recognition during his lifetime for his work in Latin. Petrarch's purpose in using Latin, however, was very un-medieval. He was one of the first writers to take note of the growing Renaissance movement, and he used ancient Rome's language as a way of harkening back to the last great flowering of civilization.
Medieval events and trends influenced the writings of Giovanni Boccaccio (boh-KAHT-choh; 1313–1375) and Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1342–1400), yet their work was far from medieval in character. In Boccaccio's Decameron (dee-KAM-uh-rahn;1353), a group of young men and women escape the Plague by going to the countryside, and there they amuse themselves by telling tales. What sets the Decameron apart from most earlier literature is its natural, everyday tone, which influenced Chaucer in writing The Canterbury Tales. The latter is a collection of stories—some moral and uplifting, some bawdy and off-color— told by a group of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury.
A change of systems
The changes in the life of the mind at the end of the Middle Ages reflected larger economic and social changes as feudalism declined and the middle class gained power. It is ironic, then, that the style of armor most commonly associated with the medieval period only appeared during this era (see box, "Plate Armor"), when a number of factors combined to render medieval knighthood and its trappings irrelevant.
Most important among these factors was the development of gunpowder and cannons, which together with the pike, or spear, and the longbow (a weapon six to eight feet in length used for shooting arrows rapidly) completely changed the face of battle. As in Japan around the same time, massed formations became more important than individual warriors. By the time Miguel de Cervantes (sur-VAHN-tays; 1547–1616) wrote his hilarious novel Don Quixote (1605–15), knighthood had become something of a joke. Thus Don Quixote (kee-YOH-tay) rides around the Spanish countryside in a tattered suit of armor, fighting battles with windmills.
As knighthood and feudalism became a thing of the past, a new middle class was on the rise. From the time of the Crusades, Europe's economy had been on the upsurge, and changing views on usury and money-lending helped spur an economic explosion. No longer did the charging of interest—essential if an economy is going to grow—seem ungodly. The latter change was in turn tied with a revolution sweeping the world of religion, a revolution that would forever change the way Christians approached God.
The decline of the papacy
Due to the inability of Pope Boniface VIII to control the French king, the papal court had been moved to Avignon in 1309, signaling the beginning of the end of the powerful medieval papacy. Petrarch called the Avignon papacy the "Babylonian Captivity," referring to the period in the Old Testament when the people of Israel were carried off to slavery in Babylon. Worse was to follow, however, as the church became embroiled in the Great Schism (SKIZ-um; 1378–1417).
In 1378, just before he died, Gregory XI (the first non-French pope in years), moved the papacy back to Rome. Upon his death, the cardinals chose Urban VI (ruled 1378–89), but Urban became so unpopular that they elected Clement VII (ruled 1378–94) in his place. When Urban refused to give up his throne, Clement fled to Avignon and there set up a rival papacy. France, Scotland, Sicily, and parts of Spain supported the Avignon popes, while England and most of Western Europe continued to back Rome.
In 1409, the Council of Pisa attempted to rectify the situation by removing both popes and replacing them with a new one. Not surprisingly, the Avignon and Rome popes refused to step down, so now there were three popes, including the new one at Pisa. Only in 1417 did the Council of Constance end the Schism by removing all three popes and choosing Martin V (ruled 1417–31) to lead the church. All non-Roman popes of the Great Schism were declared antipopes. The Council of Constance also declared that the decisions of an ecumenical council had more authority than those of an individual pope, which further signaled the decline of the papacy.
Winds of reformation
The downfall of the papacy had come not because of external enemies,Page 223 | Top of Article but because of problems within the church itself—particularly its efforts to control politics. From the church's viewpoint, this could not have come at a worse time, because Rome now faced a threat more formidable than all the armies of Islam: a new group of religious leaders who questioned the authority of the church to stand between God and Christians. These leaders led a movement that came to be known as the Reformation. It arose from attempts to change Roman Catholicism and resulted in the founding of Protestantism. First among the movement's leaders was John Wycliffe (WIK-lif; 1330–1384), who rose to prominence in England just as the Great Schism was beginning.
Wycliffe challenged virtually every doctrine of medieval Christianity, and in fact questioned the idea that the Catholic Church was the Church. He declared that the church of Rome was not the "real church," which he said existed wherever two or more believers in Jesus Christ were gathered together. Transubstantiation (see box, page 101), he said, was an empty belief,
since there is nothing in the Bible to support it; and he condemned the monastic way of life because its idea of separation from the world went against the Bible as well.
These were the kind of teachings that could get a man killed, but Wycliffe survived in large part because he had powerful friends. Less fortunate was Jan Hus (HOOS; 1373–1415), a Bohemian reformer. Influenced by Wycliffe, Hus challenged a practice whereby the church peddled forgiveness by granting indulgences in exchange for monetary contributions. Ordered to appear before the Council of Constance in 1414, he was tried for heresy, and on July 6, 1415, was burned at the stake.
Hus was a hero not only of the Reformation, but of Bohemian or Czech nationalism because he supported greater Czech authority over the German-dominated University of Prague, Bohemia's capital. Later, when the Reformation reached its height, German nationalism would in turn be tied with the movement led by Martin Luther (1483–1546). Similarly, HenryPage 225 | Top of Article VIII's establishment of the Church of England (known as the Anglican, or in the United States, Episcopal Church) strengthened the formation of a distinctly English identity.
As the Middle Ages ended, medieval lands became incorporated in larger nations. Such was the fate of Burgundy, which briefly created a court noted as a center of music in the 1400s. By 1477 it had ceased to exist, divided among a number of growing nations, most notably France. To the south, Spain and Portugal (see box, "The Iberian Peninsula") had emerged as nations, as did Holland and a number of other countries to the north.
Spain's unification coincided with the opening stages of the Age of Discovery. Already Portugal had become a powerful force on the high seas, primarily through the efforts of Prince Henry the Navigator (1394–1460), who made no voyages himself but directed a number of expeditions around the coast of Africa. While the rest of Europe was embroiled in political struggles, tiny Portugal began building a colonial empire many times larger than Portugal itself. Spain asserted itself as a nation by sending three ships under the command of Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) to find a sea route to China.
What Columbus found was not China, of course; but that is another story, since by Columbus's time the Middle Ages were clearly over. Yet Columbus did not bring on the end of the Middle Ages, nor did Ockham or Dante or Hus or any number of other great figures. The man who deserves credit, perhaps more than any other person, for launching the modern era was a German printer by the name of Johannes Gutenberg (yoh-HAH-nes; c. 1395–1468). Improving on ideas pioneered by the Chinese several centuries before, Gutenberg developed a process of movable-type printing that would change the world as no one had ever done.
A fast and economical process of printing meant that books could be widely distributed, and this in turn led to an explosive growth in literacy. It also strengthened vernacular tongues. Newly literate merchants and others did not want to read dry old documents in Latin; they wanted to read the latest novel or a report on explorations in the East Indies in their native language, whether that be German, Italian, or English. This of course meant that the church would no longer be able to maintain the wall it had set up between believers and their God. In fact the first book Gutenberg printed in 1455 was a book constantly mentioned in the Middle Ages, yet rarely seen and almost never read: the Bible.
For More Information
Dijkstra, Henk, editor. History of the Ancient and Medieval World, Volume 10: Medieval Politics and Life. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1996, pp. 1345–68, 1375–1422.
Severy, Merle, editor. The Age of Chivalry. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1969, pp. 299–368.
"The Black Death." Discovery Online. [Online] Available http://www.discovery.com/stories/history/blackdeath/blackdeath.html (last accessed July 28, 2000).
"Avignon Papacy: Historical Summary." [On-line] Available http://www.humnet.ucla.edu/humnet/cmrs/faculty/geary/instr/students/history.htm (last accessed July 28, 2000).
"The Hundred Years' War." [Online] Available http://www.bnf.fr/enluminures/texte/atx2_02.htm (last accessed July 28, 2000).