Lecture: The Late Middle Ages

The Late Middle Ages can create confusion among historians of Europe, because the dates (1350-1500) are the same as those of the Italian Renaissance. Although Italy began to recover from the effects of poor climate and plague by about 1400 (the date 1350 is only because of Petrarch), northern Europe continued in a mire of mud and pestilence for quite a while.

Climate Change and Black Death

Peter Breughel's Hunters in the SnowBeginning around 1300, there was a global climate change that affected not only Europe but all of Eurasia and Africa, and possibly the Americas too.The weather gradually became colder, wetter, and cloudier. Crops which had flourished before did poorly in the new conditions, and agricultural production declined. Famine resulted. Eventually the "Little Ice Age" would lead to advances in agricultural technology, but at the beginning people starved and there was little relief. Roads were made of dirt, and were often too muddy to get food by wagon to the hardest hit areas. This painting by Pieter Breughel, Hunters in the Snow, shows a common sight.

Starvation and poor climate got the better of people's immune systems. If you went back in a time machine to 1340, you would notice that almost everyone seemed to have a head cold or upper respiratory infection. Weakened immune systems throughout Europe made conditions ripe for the form of plague that would be called the Black Death. Preparing the body for burial

The bubonic plague was a disease already known in Central Asia. It was deadly, killing the infected person in a few days, but it was not highly contagious. Contact with the blood or pus of an infected person was necessary in order to contract plague. The bacillus that caused plague was carried by a particular flea that liked black rats. These black rats were highly sociable, and liked to tag along on caravan rides from Central Asia to the Mediterranean, eating grain out of sacks and sleeping in folds of the tents. They were also happy on ships, eating grain in the hold and running up and down the rigging. A bunch of happy black rats got off the boat in Italy around 1347 and made themselves at home. The black rat loved the crowded, unsanitary conditions of 14th century housing: close quarters, thatched roofs. They carried the infected fleas, which moved onto people after they killed their host rat.

What should have happened in 1347 was that the fleas should have given some poor Italians the plague by biting them. Society would have isolated these people to prevent infection. The people with plague would have died, and the spread would be slow. But instead, the plague spread like wildfire. Why?

Because, as I mentioned, the human hosts had weakened immune systems, and permanent upper respiratory infections. Instead of staying in the blood and only killing the host, the plague got into the lungs and was communicated through coughing and sneezing. The Black Death wasn't just bubonic plague; it was pneumonic plague that spread as quickly as a head cold. The continuing poor climate in northern Europe exacerbated these conditions. By 1348 the Black Death was in England, in a very virulent form. A person was sneezed on one day, and noticed a boil appearing in his armpit or groin a few days later. This boil contained infected pus, which then went through the bloodstream, causing death in less than three days. Enlightened healers tried to lance the boils to drain out the pus. Some people recovered from this procedure and were cured; most died of the superinfection from unclean lancing knives.

What was particularly insidious about the plague was that it spared no one. It killed off one-third to one-half the population, and only those who had survived the disease once were immune to it. Children and the elderly were hit worse, and there was no maternal immunity for newborns. After the initial hit in 1348, the plague returned various times, the worst in London in the 1660s. Since no one knew about bacillus and fleas and rats, there were no rat-killing expeditions; in fact, the black rat did very well in the crowded towns of England and Europe. It wasn't until the black rat's feeding area was taken over by the brown rat that the plague ceased around 1750. The brown rat was not so social, and did not attract the same type of flea. Humans, of course, prided themselves that their better science and hygiene got rid of the plague. It's the fields of climate history and biological history that give us the rodents' side of the story.

The human side is best seen in literature. Giovanni Boccaccio witnessed the plague come through Italy firsthand, and described people's reactions:

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Peasant Revolts

Peasant Revolt map

With about half the population dead, social conditions changed. There were labor shortages everywhere, in towns and on manor estates. There weren't enough people to do the work, so workers were worth more. The result was an economic phenomenon known as rising expectations. Let's say you know you're about to get a raise in wages at work. You plan for this increase; you will be richer, able to buy more things. Then your raise comes, and you find that the cost of living has increased so much that you are not richer at all, or that your raise is far less than you expected. Your expectations have been dashed.

The same thing happened to peasants. Essentially, the Black Death marked the end of the manorial system. With half the peasants dead, and often half the lord's household, it was impossible to hold peasants to the land if they could get a better deal elsewhere. And they could, because every surviving lord needed agricultural labor or they couldn't make any income from the land. The aristocracy was completely dependent on the peasants. The same situation existed in towns, where the guild system was hit by the deaths of both members and consumers. Labor was at a premium, so peasants and workers had rising expectations. They felt they could name their price.

Legislation like the Statute of Laborers of 1351 in England were designed to protect the elites, and the economy, by not allowing people to pay more for labor. It was a wage freeze, trying to hold all wages to pre-plague levels. With their expectations dashed, many peasants rebelled. Large groups of angry peasants would raid the manor house, raping the noble woman and her daughters and killing the lord. They would take goods from the house and run off. It was class warfare, and it took a long time to gather enough knightly retainers together to put down a revolt. Peasants with land could do very well in this climate, since prices for their agricultural goods increased, but landless peasants found rebellion to be a good outlet for their frustration. Taxes designed to make up for the loss of wealth also set off violence, as in the many revolts of peasants in the countryside.

Hundred Years' War

Effigy of Edward III

Frustrated nobles could join the Hundred Years' War as an outlet for violence. The war was begun because of the claims of King Edward III. Edward III had images of chivalric times, creating the Order of the Garter in an effort to imitate King Arthur's Round Table of knights. His military exploits were expensive, leading to large sums being borrowed from Italian banks and necessitating at one point the pawning of the crown jewels. I find his claim to the throne of France ironic, since he was one of the first English kings to actually speak English instead of Norman French.

His claim to the throne was through his mother Isabella, daughter of Philip the Fair. Essentially, Edward was breaking a feudal tie, since the kings of England were supposed to be vassals of the French crown, at least in their position as dukes of Normandy, Anjou and Aquitaine. There are two main phases of the Hundred Years War (which was more than a hundred years because it went off and on, and people lost count). The first phase was 1337-1417, in which the English were victorious. The second was from 1417, when Henry V invaded Normandy, to 1453 when the English were defeated. Crossbow

The Battle of Crècy was part of the first stage. The English were vastly outnumbered, with only 12,000 of them facing 36,000 French. But note that of the 12,000 English, 7,000 were archers. Crècy has always been used to demonstrate one crucial military event: the victory of the English longbow over the French crossbow. The crossbow could shoot a deadly metal arrow 200 yards, and 2-5 arrows per minute could be fired. It was easy to aim and anyone could use it. The longbow, on the other hand, required highly trained soldiers. But it could fire 10 arrows per minute at a range of 250-300 yards, outdistancing the crossbow. The English shot 500,000 arrows at Crècy, and only lost several hundred men to the over 5,000 men lost to the French. Longbowmen and cannon at siege

The cannon was also a fairly new innovation for the war. Although it was not very accurate, the noise and smoke did a great job of scaring the horses. Occasionally a cannon ball would hit a besieged castle with fairly good impact, making it easier to take the castle. But this war was very difficult to fight, if for no other reason than the weather. Contemporary pictures, and several feature films, show the battles taking place in the sunshine. Truth is, most fighting occurred in the mud and rain of the late 14th century gloom. See Kenneth Branaugh's feature film Henry V for a movie with a more accurate portrayal of conditions.

The Hundred Years' War also gives us a bit of gesturatory legend. The story goes that during the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, the French said they would cut off the draw finger of the English archers when they captured them. At the end of the battle, the victorious English archers stuck up their draw fingers (it's the middle finger) and waved them at the French. It's been a spectacular taunting gesture to this day.

Decline of Church Prestige

The center of the medieval Christian church was Rome. At least, it was supposed to be Rome. For centuries, Rome had the distinction of being the seat of the pope. The city had been the site of the martyrdom of Saints Peter and Paul. Its place had been defended by the papacy, which had long claimed that the site represented the rock upon which St. Peter had said he would build his church. But in 1307, Pope Clement V decided to move his entire court to Avignon in southern France because the violence in the city of Rome was getting too close to home. Pope's Palais at Avignon

This move was called, by critics, the "Babylonian Captivity" of the church. The name referred to the time under the Babylonian Empire when elite Jews were held captive in Babylon so they wouldn't foment Jewish rebellion in Palestine. The implication was that the papacy was being held captive, of its own desire, to the king of France. Indeed, the pope had French cardinals elected for his new court, although he still left the Italian ones to see to things in Rome. Proponents called it the Avignon Papacy. This situation persisted until 1377, when a new pope decided to return the court to Rome. Unfortunately, having packed up everything, he then died.

The cardinals in Avignon elected a new pope and planned to stay there. The cardinals in Rome elected a new pope there. Each pope excommunicated the other (with much finger-pointing and denunciations of "the anti-Christ") and there were two popes. In terms of orthodoxy, it's impossible to have two popes. The pope is the vicar of Christ on earth, the ultimate authority for all issues in Christendom; there can only be one. A council of cardinals tried to solve the problem by electing a new pope and having the other two step down. The other two didn't step down and for a while there were three popes. The Great Schism, as it was called, continued till 1414, when the new Council of Constance did get the (now different) popes to step down and elected a new one.

All this took place at a time of plague and war. Good Christians didn't know where to turn, especially since half the clergy were dead of the plague. Lack of clergy meant no access to sacraments (such as baptism, marriage, confession, last rites). Sacraments instilled grace; without them, the medieval Christian soul was in danger of going to hell. You may recall that under King John, the pope putting England under interdict left people without such services for years, and ultimately forced John to make England a papal fief. The salvation of the soul was a very serious issue in medieval times, and people were highly dependent on the church.

In the Late Middle Ages, if the parish priest in a village died, there was no one to give last rites to the dying. According to orthodoxy, people who didn't get this sacrament died with "their sins upon their head" and were damned. But what if the people were known to be truly good Christians? How could a good Christian person who died of plague be going to hell, just because no priest was present at her death? Many children were born, and died of the plague without being baptized. Were they going to hell too? What about when there wasno one to hear a confession? Was anyone who ever sinned going to hell because they couldn't go to confession?

These questions made good Christians confused and anguished. They looked to the church for help, and found a corrupt institution with one, two or three popes in Avignon. The church needed to answer the big question: "why is God punishing us with plague and war?", but it didn't have an answer. The combination of the famine, war, plague, and a discredited papacy led to a change in religious feeling all over Europe.

Popular Piety and Mysticism

There were two ways to retain faith in God in these times of crisis: mechanical piety and mysticism. Mechanical piety was what the church itself encouraged. Since priests could not explain the crisis, they assumed that God's flock had become sinful and wasn't praying enough. People were encouraged to count rosary and pray a lot, all day if necessary. This continual praying became mechanical; after a while the words themselves were thought of as magical, and any real feeling in them was gone.

Some people felt that the church just wasn't there for them religiously anymore, and became mystical in their practices. Some famous mystics of the time (such as Joan of Arc in France) felt that God talked directly to them. As with most historical topics that seem to be about just one thing (in this case, religion), Joan's case is also about other issues. Joan was a political threat because she led troops in favor of the Dauphin, the heir to the French throne, against the English in the Hundred Years War. She was also a gender threat, because the saints told her to wear men's clothes.

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Technically, many of these practices Joan represents (especially talking directly to God) were heretical. But outside of an obvious threat like leading troops, the clergy was in no position to fight it. As with earlier heresies, the Church was forced to adapt. Just as the Church had persecuted Abelard only to laud Aquinas as a saint, they looked on as Joan of Arc was killed but then elevated Catherine of Siena to not only saintly status, but Doctor of the Church status. Her explanation of mysticism in the service of orthodoxy is sampled here:

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Eventually, the directness of mysticism would pave the way for the Reformation. Within a century, there would be no universal Christian church.

Philosophy and Artistic Trends

To understand the changes in philosophy taking place in the Late Middle Ages, we should review the state of scholasticism up to this point. You may recall that medieval universities wanted to use logic and reason to analyze theology, and that this was controversial. At first, back in the 12th century, the church had considered combining faith (meaning all matters pertaining to God, including Scripture and the writings of the church fathers) and reason (meaning the logic of Aristotle and the use of the mind to create objectivity) to be unacceptable (poor Peter Abelard)

But the new universities had been able to push their curriculum in the 13th century, when the expansion of towns brought in new heretical ideas. The rational explaining of theological matters was accepted as both a teaching technique for masters of theology, and as a way to "reason" urban people into returning to church orthodoxy. This combination of faith and reason into a method is called several things: scholasticism, the Thomistic Synthesis (after St. Thomas Aquinas), the Gothic Synthesis. Beginning with the crisis of the early 14th century, however, such a synthesis of faith and reason fell into disfavor among religious philosophers.

Hans Holbein's Dance of Death - death touching prince

Come, potent prince, with me alone --
Leave transent pomps of worldly state;
I am the one who can fling down
The pride and honours of the great.

Why separate faith and reason again? My interpretation is that the crisis of famine, and later plague, war, and the lack of moral authority in the church, led to this change. What was happening was not "reasonable"; the crisis could not be explained in terms of reason. The big question was "why is God punishing us?" and no one had a reasonable answer. That was a threat to the church and to Christianity in general. How does one rationally explain the ravages of the late 14th century, without coming up with something horrible like "God doesn't care about us"? If faith in God and in Christianity was to be retained, some felt, it had to be separated from the necessity of explaining spiritual events (such as acts of God) in rational terms.

The only solution was to separate the areas of faith and reason again, to destroy the medieval scholastic synthesis by making faith supreme. William of Ockham, for example, made an attempt to save faith from the ravages of reason. Even before the plague hit England, Ockham separated the two, claiming that matters of faith are not subject to rational examination. Ironically, in trying to save faith, Ockham actually paved the way for modern science. If faith was in its own camp, then so was reason. It should therefore be possible to examine things which are not issues of faith using only ones reason. That's science, and there are many hints of the upcoming Scientific Revolution. Dance of Death

Late medieval art, however, went into an area that did not rely on past designs. Artistic expression after the plague hit focused on death. It became morbid. The image of Jesus is a good example. Before the 14th century, Jesus was often portrayed either "in majesty" (as a middle-aged man on a throne) or as a happy baby. Beginning in the 14th century, the emphasis was on the crucifixion, with Jesus as an anorectic, tormented figure. Hans Holbein the Younger created a collection of popular woodcuts called The Dance of Death which portrayed the new style; take a look at the on-line version.

Literature was also affected by the despair and great changes of the age. You can see the cynicism in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, a series of vignettes about individuals going on a pilgrimage to Canterbury, to the tomb of St. Thomas Becket. Characters you would expect to be virtuous are not, and others you would expect to be evil are good.
The satirical poem Piers Plowman has a character who complains of the one thing many people hoped they would attain: old age.

Lessons of History

1. Climate change helped turn localized plague into a pandemic that killed 1/3 to 1/2 of the population.

2. The Church lost face in their inability to deal with a time of plague and war.

3. This era saw the medieval synthesis of knowledge dissolve, making room for something different.



All text, lecture voice audio, and course design copyright Lisa M. Lane 1998-2018. Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002.