The Late Middle Ages

Efforts to distinguish the High Middle Ages of Europe, the Late Middle Ages, and the Renaissance are as arbitrary and capricious as are efforts to distinguish the several generations of recent American history. A steady process of development and growth marks European culture throughout this time span. Historians traditionally try to place any good developments of medieval times into the High Middle Ages, treating the Late Middle Ages as an era of trouble and collapse, thus introducing a splendid and sparkling Renaissance or rebirth in Europe. But the good and the bad are intertwined, as they always are in human history, and the Renaissance is more a continuation of medieval progress than it is any rediscovery or rebirth of ancient culture and virtue.

One key development in world history overlaps the High Middle Ages of Europe: the sudden appearance of the Mongol Empire in Asia. Genghis Khan (born Temujin) assembled in his lifetime the largest landmass under one government in all human history. (Wikipedia quibbles regarding this achievement, suggesting that some World War II developments achieved greater control over the Earth, but the Mongol Empire remains the largest by any reasonable definition of “empire.”) The land ruled by the Khan included China (formerly under the Chinese Song Empire), other central Asian states, Persia, western Asia almost to Egypt, and northeastern Europe covering most of modern Russia as well as parts of Poland and other east European lands. Under his successors, the Mongol Empire would divide into four cooperating governments; Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis, would attempt to add Japan to his Japanese holdings; his failure, largely due to adverse weather, is as important to Japanese history as the Persian invasion is to Greek history and the Spanish Armada to British history. The greatest impact upon medieval Europe from the Mongols was indirect; controlling much of the Silk Roads network, they facilitated the import of Asian products into Europe, enriching the economy and creating a greater demand for Asian products in Europe.

Commodities traveled along the Silk Roads. So did ideas. So did disease. Bubonic plague had been known in the Mediterranean world long before the time of the Mongol Empire, but a new virulent strain of the disease traveled along the Silk Roads west into Europe and east into coastal China, leading to outbreaks of sickness and death commonly called the Black Death. This plague killed at least a quarter and perhaps more than a third of the population of Europe in the fourteenth and fifteen centuries. Periodic outbreaks of the plague continued in later centuries. No one was immune—rich or poor, noble class or peasant, church worker or casual worshiper or secret unbeliever. Some members of the European communities turned to the Christian faith hoping for supernatural protection from the disease; others rejected religion and followed the motto, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we will die.” The population decline across Europe added value to the remaining lives, especially in the working class. Peasants demanded more from the noble and the wealthy in exchange for their work; when the noble and wealthy refused, wars of rebellion broke out on occasion. This class warfare set the stage for greater change in Europe during the coming centuries.

Another important event of the Late Middle Ages was the death of Charles IV of France, last of the Capetian line of kings. He had no sons or brothers to inherit the throne; his nearest male relative was Edward, the nephew of Charles, who was King of England. French officials refused to acknowledge Edward as King of France; instead they crowned a cousin of King Charles, beginning the line of France’s Valois kings. Edward did not take this insult sitting down. He brought the English army into France, seeking to claim the throne that he considered his. Instead, he began the Hundred Years War between England and France.

The Hundred Years War actually lasted 116 years, but those years included two lengthy peace treaties between the French and English governments. English fighters had superior training and weaponry with their longbows, but they were unable to defeat the French in any conclusive manner. Instead, in the last years of the war, the French forces were rallied by a teenage girl named Jeanne Darc (Joan of Ark in English), who heard voices that told her what the English were planning and how they could be defeated. Eventually Jeanne was captured in battle, tried for witchcraft, condemned, and executed. But the Hundred Years War ended with the French government taking control even of lands that had belonged to the English crown, while the English government disintegrated into a civil war known as the War of the Roses.

Other unpleasantness at the same time as all these events was the highly unexpected Spanish Inquisition. Several governments in Europe had inquisitions—judicial tribunals of the Church that identified heretics, traitors, and other undesirable members of the citizenry and handed them over to the civil government for punishment. The atrocities of the Inquisition have been exaggerated by many writers, but the work of the Inquisition was far from modern judicial systems that respect the rights of the accused and grant them a hearing before a jury of their peers.

In spite of the Black Death, the Hundred Years War, and the Inquisition, European culture continued its progress during these years. Philosophers such as Roger Bacon, Nicholas of Cusa, and William of Ockham (famous for his principle of Ockham’s Razor) helped to invent the scientific method of observation, prediction, and experimentation. Great literature was being written by Dante and Petrarch, by Chaucer, and by numerous poets who built the romantic legends of King Arthur and his knights. Meanwhile, a mystic tradition of Christian devotion was growing, a tradition that helped to prepare the Church for its Reformation and for its existence and growth in the Early Modern world. J.

Stepping back to see the big picture (socialism, continued)

The idea of socialism arose as a response to the Industrial Revolution and to some of the problems within that Revolution. In turn, the Industrial Revolution was a consequence of several large historical movements that came together in a particular time and place to shape human history.

When historians seek to understand and explain an event or a movement, they must take a step back and look at the broader picture. Often this requires further steps back, sometimes to view the entire panorama of history. Analyzing the causes of the Industrial Revolution includes such steps and such a view.

The Persian Empire, Mauryan Empire, Han Empire, and Roman Empire each constructed roads to facilitate government communication across their stretches of land and to accommodate the travel of armies. As a result of those roads (and associated waterways), merchants and merchandise began to flow through and beyond these empires. Imperial governments favored the exchange of merchandise, since it could be taxed every time it changed hands. Two thousand years ago, Italian glass could be bought in China, and Chinese silk could be bought in Italy. Anything that could be moved, bought, and sold traveled along these roads and waterways: fabrics, spices, precious metals and gems, artwork, food, livestock, and slaves. Over the centuries, travel and trade ebbed and flowed because of other political and economic conditions. Along the same routes traveled ideas—religious ideas, political and economic ideas, and technology—and disease also spread from culture to culture along the same roads.

Genghis Khan’s Mongolian Empire sparked additional travel and trade along these routes. Asian produce and technology traveled into Europe. Bubonic plague (the Black Death) began somewhere in inland China but spread to the cities of China and to Mediterranean cities, and from there to all the populated areas of Europe. This disease had a devastating consequence upon commerce and economic activity, both because of the high death rate of the disease and because of the fear of disease that spread throughout the population.

Disruption of trade, caused by disease and by political developments in the eastern Mediterranean, caused western European governments to seek a shortcut to African and Asian goods, eliminating some of the middlemen. Using Asian technology, including the Chinese compass and the Arabian astrolabe, Portuguese mariners set sail down the coast of Africa and into the western ocean. Spain, England, and the Netherlands eventually followed. Early results of the Portuguese expeditions included expansion of the sugar industry and development of the African slave trade. But Columbus’ abortive attempts to cross the ocean between Spain and east Asia revealed an expanse of islands and continents in the western hemisphere. Soon commerce between the Old World and the New World brought new foods to Europe; those new foods helped to support a growing population, recovering from the plague.

As the population grew, though, landowners found that they could enclose their land for more specific use, such as the grazing of sheep to produce wool. This removed peasants from the land and from their agricultural activities, sending them into the towns and cities. The growing urban population disrupted the guilds and other work that the tradespeople had developed over centuries. More new technology met this change in population dispersion to ignite the Industrial Revolution in England.

A Chinese inventor had learned how to harness the power of a flowing river with a wheel, channeling that energy to other uses. Europeans improved the water wheel by installing it vertically instead of horizontally, effectively letting the power of gravity increase the power generated by the moving water of the river. Later, the same idea was converted to generation of power from steam, which no longer needed the immediate presence of a river.

Around the same time, a Chinese chemist found a new recipe for steel. Iron technology had begun in Anatolia (the location of modern Turkey) about three thousand years ago. Pure iron is a powder, but iron combined with carbon makes cast iron, which produced tools stronger and more durable than the stone and bronze tools used previously. (Ironworking was discovered independently in central Africa around the same time.) About a thousand years ago, a new recipe for iron and carbon produced steel, a great improvement over cast iron. The new recipe used coal instead of burnt wood as a carbon source. Coal and iron deposits both exist in China, but not near each other. In England, iron and coal and running water are found in close proximity. Deforestation of England also provided greater interest in coal, both as fuel and as an ingredient for making steel. The Industrial Revolution was ready to emerge.

As the urban population grew, new businesses began to exploit the work force to get around the guild economy of Europe. Shepherds and shearers would sell the raw wool from their sheep to moneyed peasants. These peasants would then hire some families to card the wool in their homes. The carded wool was then returned to the business owners, who hired other people to spin the wool into thread. The spinners returned the thread, which the business owners then sent to weavers, who used looms to change the thread into cloth. The cloth was chemically treated by fullers, and the improved cloth was sent to tailors, who cut the cloth into pieces and sewed it into garments. Shepherds, Shearers, Carders, Spinners, Weavers, Fullers, and Tailors were each paid for their labor, and afterward they all bought clothing from the businesses that had paid them for their work. Today many family names reflect the role of their ancestors in this industry.

Steel tools and steam power made factories possible. No longer did the work have to be sent into homes and brought back to the businesses: the businesses could own the buildings and machines where the work was done. These machines could produce far more clothing from far fewer laborers. The Industrial Revolution began in England, spread into other European countries and then to North America, and eventually filled the world. The impact of this revolution changed the lives of many people, from wealthy business owners to impoverished workers. J.