Late Middle Ages

History - Middle Ages




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The period of European history during 14th to 16th century (1300-1500) is considered as the Late Middle Ages. At the end of 13th century, Europe faced a series of famines and plagues including the Great Famine during 1315 to 1317 and the Black Death. Because of these natural disasters, the population of Europe got reduced to a significant degree.

During the High Middle Ages, European powers gained through the religious unity which was established by the Papacy. However, during the late medieval period, this religious unity was jolted by the differences between Western and Eastern Church.

In late medieval period, European political powers also faced a decline and they had to face social unrest, serfs’ uprising, the Peasants’ Revolt, the Jacquerie, and along with all these issues, European powers also suffered the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. Western Schism decreased the influence of Catholic Church and it further aggravated the situations.

The Great Famine of 1315-1317

During the early 14th century, Northern Europe faced a series of serious crisis; the Great Famine is considered the first of them. It all started in 1315 when almost all of the Europe faced abnormally heavy rains and cold. Because of this extremely unfavorable weather throughout the summer and spring, peasants lost their crops and they failed to produce fodder for their livestock.

As a result, food inflation hit the towns and Serfs and peasants could no longer afford food. Situations were so grim that when Edward II, king of England was travelling through St. Albans, he failed to get any food on 10th of August 1315 because neither he nor his entourage could find bread.

Situations were worsened in 1316 when during the spring, it started raining heavily again. Ordinary people and peasants had no reserve food supply. Those were days when crime in Europe reached a new height. Incidences of cannibalism and infanticides were also observed during that period. Great famine also brought diseases which caused mass deaths.

The Great Famine weakened the feudal system and it weakened the lower class. Furthermore, the power of Church also faced serious challenges because no amount of prayers could save dying people. The Great Famine brought unrest in everyone including the serfs and the members of nobility, who just gave up their ways of chivalry.

The Hundred Years’ War

In 1337, the Kingdom of England and Kingdom of France, along with their various allies got engaged in war to gain control over the French throne. They continued to fight against each other during a series of different conflicts till 1453. Historians often term these series of independent conflicts between France and England as The Hundred Years’ War. However, during these years, there certainly were many little periods of truce and peace between England and France. The motive of all these wars was to establish territorial claims and to conquer throne of France.

While this prolonged war, which was basically a conflict between two dynasties, it gave rise to the idea of British and French nationalism. The French went through a revival of regular taxes, stable coinage, and they along with English, revived the standing army. New weapons and war tactics were evolved and employed by both sides; however, France attained superiority in using firearms and field artillery as they used large mobile canons which could cause heavy damage. During these 100 years of wars, both France and England suffered economic troubles, while both sides lost a huge portion of population.

France also suffered civil wars, and marauding mercenary armies which at the end caused the death of around half of the population.  At the end of the war, both the French and English people started to give up the feudal ideas and they began thinking themselves as separate distinctive nationalists. Because of the effects of the war, France faced a remarkable political change as the war helped the emergence of centralized governments. French people created nation-states. England lost their control over French territory and the situation forced the British Empire to stress more on domestic problems.

Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc played an important role during the Hundred Years’ War as a French saviour. She was a peasant girl who lived between 1412 and 1431. She worked hard to unite the French as a nation and strengthened France against England. At the age of 13, she claimed that she had heard ‘celestial voices’ that told her to help the Dauphin (who became Charles VII later on), when England was about to succeed in capturing Orleans. Charles VII listened to her and believed her and that saved Orleans and his life. As a result, he declared her as one of the Generals of the French Army.

She successfully led French Army against England in various decisive victories. She became the real force to unite France and her support to Charles VII became the major reason for him to succeed as the king of France. Yet, Charles ordered to capture her and to turn her over to the English in 1430. She was then turned over to the Church in Rouen by England where she was tried for heresy and sorcery. The court condemned her with death sentence. She was burnt at the stake on May 30, 1431. However, she was re-tried af 25 years after her death and it was declared that she was innocent.

The Black Death

During the mid-14th century, Europeans faced an epidemic plague which is termed as the Black Death. During this epidemic, Europe lost almost a quarter of its total population. This plague was characteristically transmitted by fleas carried by rodents which became the cause of greater harm as it caused worst affects in big cities and towns where population was dense and sanitation wasn’t proper. While every section of the society of late middle ages suffered the consequences of this plague, the wealthy and rich class saved themselves as they succeeded in making least contact with outsiders and they could also afford to move to safer areas outside the cities.

The survivors of the plague had to face new challenges. Mass death created a shortage of workers and people started to ask for better wages and standards and gradually, they developed Guilds.
Peasants of England took advantage of the situations and asked landlords to lower rents or raise wages. However, landlords refused this demand. In 1381, peasants got together and they protested against taxes and argued for better treatment.

King Richard II met with leaders of the rebel peasants and he agreed for their demands. However, he did not stand to his words and as soon as the peasants got dispersed, he ordered execution of many of the rebels. The whole episode of this peasant rebellion is known as Tyler’s Rebellion. At the end, the king failed to prevent the changes demanded by peasants and in 15th century, England witnessed the end of serfdom.

The Great Schism of Late Middle Ages

During the period between 1378 and 1417, the Western Church; based in Rome, faced three strong popes claiming to the pontificate. The contested election of Pope Urban VI in 1378 became the beginning of the Great Schism of Western Church. After his election, the same cardinals who elected him were dismayed by him and his erratic behavior. As a result, they revolted against him and declared that Urban’s election was invalid because it was made at a time when Rome was facing riots. They selected a new pope, Clement VII. Urban, however, didn’t give up and he excommunicated Clement and his supporters and created a college of his own cardinals. It is difficult to say which of these two elections was valid.

Clement VII moved to Avignon where he won the support of the French king and it was the time when the Schism became serious. Rulers preferred to support the Pope who could help them in gaining greater political control. 

In order to ease the situation, convocation of council was called for and in 1409, the cardinals and bishops of both groups met at Pisa. However, this failed to help any of the sides and resulted in a claim of a third Pope for the pontification. At the end, all three popes were asked for resignation and the Council of Constance (1414-1418) elected a new pope martin V who reigned from 1417 to 1431. This great Schiff significantly reduced the power of Church and people started asking for Church reform which gave rise to the Protestant Reformation.





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