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.