Spring 2008, Spring 2015, and Spring 2016]
The Late Middle Ages (1300-1500)
During the High Middle Ages,
Europe developed one of the most impressive and successful
civilizations the world had yet seen. One might have thought it
was a civilization destined to continue essentially unchanged for
centuries. But that's not what happened. In the 14th
century, a series of disasters shook Western European civilization to
its foundations, eventually forcing major changes in Europe.
The first disaster to hit Europe was famine. Some of the
agricultural success of the High Middle Ages had been due to improved
whether conditions, what's called the Medieval Warm Period
(800-1300). Around 1300, Europe begins to cool off, and there is
the beginning of what is called the Little Ice Age (1300-1870).
conditions meant bad harvests, particularly in 1315, 1316, and
1317. Harvests were so bad farmers ended up eating
their seed corn, and, with no seed to plant, future harvests
weren't going to be much good either. Food shortages led to
widespread malnutrition, increased vulnerability to disease, and
shorter life expectancy.
Another disaster to hit the Europe at this time: out of control
diseases. The worst of these diseases was the Black Death, a
disease that hit around 1348 and, within a couple of years, wiped out
1/3 of Europe's people.
In addition to killing lots of people, the Black Death had a lasting
and very negative effect on medicine. The Black Death was really
three different diseases: Bubonic, Pneumonic, and Septicemia
Plague. Each form was spread in a different way: the first via
rats and fleas, the second through the air, and the third through
exchange of bodily fluids. No wonder the doctors were
mystified! And, unfortunately, the disease tended to kill the
best of the doctors, the ones who cared most about their patients. This
opened the door to the medical charlatans, the miracle-cure
pushers. And once that door opened up, it was mighty hard to
Similar was the affect of the Black Death on religion. The
disease tended to kill off the best of those in religious life, those
who cared most for others. The best priests tended to be carried
off first by the Black Death because they visited the sick, giving the
victims the last
rights or other spiritual solace. Their high-level exposure rates
meant a great chance that they too would catch the disease and
die. The death of such individuals opened up the door to
religious quackery. Groups like the flagellants traveled from
place to place whipping one another, trying to punish themselves so God
wouldn't punish them with the Black Death. And a small love
offering from you would help you share in the work--and, hopefully,
help you avoid God's wrath as well.
The Black Death also tended to aggravate social tension. Jews and
Christians had, for the most part, gotten along well before the Black
Death. But the Jewish community was not affected as greatly by
the Black Death as their Christian neighbors. A kosher lifestyle
is a cleaner lifestyle.
More cleanliness meant fewer rats, fewer fleas, and not as much
likelihood of the disease spreading. Christians didn't understand
this. They thought the Jews were poisoning the wells, and,
to get even they attacked Jews. This helped lead to lasting
anti-Semitism in Europe.
Likewise, people on the margins of society (widows, poor people) became
suspect during the Black Death. Thinking that the disease might be
brought on by the curse of "witches," Europeans began hunting
down and exterminating those who they though were trafficking with the
devil. And fear of witches just doesn't go away: it's still
around centuries later.
In addition, the Black Death had a negative impact on morality.
The good, helpful people tended to die. Why bother being good if
you were going to die tomorrow anyway?
A third disaster hitting the High Middle Ages was war. As an
example, the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453). This war
was fought over who would be king of France. The English king
(Edward III) had
a good claim to the throne, but the French nobles preferred a candidate
of their own (Philip VI). This led to a war that couldn't be
English had the advantage in direct battle do the long bow, but not
enough troops to effectively control the country as a whole. The
French knights avoided the direct battles that were disastrous to them,
so the English tried to force them to fight be devastating the
countryside. Horrible for the peasants! In 1415, the battle
of Agincourt resulted in another English victory, and, finally, it
seemed that France and England would end up ruled by the same king,
Henry V of England.
But shortly after the death of Henry V, France Joan or Arc rallies the
French, and helps her candidate for King (Charles VII) regain control
of a substantial part of France. Joan is eventually betrayed into
the hands of the English who burn her as a witch, but her work
survives, and the English never regain the upper hand in France.
The war drifts on until 1453, and it's really hard to find anything
good to come out of the 100 plus years of fighting.
[To get a clearer picture of the Hundred Years'
War, see Froissart's
Closely associated with the Hundred Years' War, another disaster
hitting Europe, peasant revolt.
There were peasant revolts in many places during this period. A
good example: the Jacquerie, a 1358 peasant revolt in France.
Frustrated with the French knight's failure to protect them and tired
of nothing but exploitation at the hands of the more privileged, French
peasants rose up to exterminate the knights--only to end up slaughtered
[Here is Froissart's
Description of the Jacquerie, a more complete version than I read
There is a certain amount of class tension in all societies, but it's
usually manageable. It's a sick, sick society where class hatreds
get as out of control as they do in the Jacquerie.
Making it hard for Europeans to deal with disasters like the above is
the fact that Europe at this time did not have the kind of strong
leadership it had had earlier. After the death of Philip IV, France has
a string of weak, sometimes mentally incompetent, kings. England
has able kings, but they are busy trying to add France to their
dominions and don't govern as effectively as they might have. The
power of the Holy Roman Emperors had been broken as a result of
disputes with the papacy. The pope had gone so far as to declare
a crusade against one of the last strong emperors, Frederick II (d.
1250), and Frederick had ended up giving up too much of his authority
to his nobles. By the 14th century, the emperors were weak--sometimes
little more than figureheads.
Even more of a problem for Europe, though, the fact that the popes were
in no position to provide spiritual leadership. The popes made
the mistake of moving their center of operations to Avignon in France,
and, from 1309-1376, the popes resided in France rather than
Italy. During this period (the Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy
or, perhaps better, the period of the Avignon Papacy), the pope seemed
a tool of the French king. Further, while one can make a good
case that the bishop of Rome has special authority as the "vicar of
Peter," there is nothing special about the bishop of
Avignon. By moving out of Rome, the papacy lost considerable
claim to authority.
In 1376, the college of cardinals went to Rome to elect a new
pope. They chose an Italian pope, popular with the people of
Rome. But, once in office, the guy turned out to be a
reformer--and he started his reform at the top, with the cardinals
themselves. Resenting this, the cardinals claimed they had made a
mistake. They select a different pope, a man more to their
liking. But the first guy won't step down, and so, from 1378 to
1409, there were two popes. This is the beginning of the Great
Papal Schism, another episode the weakened papal authority. In
1409, church officials at the Council of Pisa tried to solve the
problem by deposing both popes and setting up a third "compromise"
pope. But neither of the other popes would give up their claims,
and so for a time there were three popes. Finally, the council of
Constance ended the dispute (1415), but the damage had been done: the
popes prestige and influence was permanently weakened. A real
shame for Europe in a period where spiritual leadership was desperately
[Here's one good
account of the Schism.]
might find interesting the life of
of Sienna, a key figure in
ending the "Captivity," and in trying to
end the "Schism."]
NOTE--The Late Middle Ages
(1300-1500), the Renaissance (1350-1600), and the Reformation
(1517-1648) overlap, and historians aren't all that consistent in the
way they associate different figures with the different periods.
I often treat Wyclif and Hus as Renaissance figures, but, during the
Spring 2015 semester I am treating them in connection with the Late
Middle Ages. Other professors talk about Wyclif and Hus as
precursors of the Reformation.
Erasmus (1466-1536) and More
(1478-1535) are usually often considered late Renaissance writers, but
I put them in my lecture on 16th century reformers--where they also
For the Spring 2015 final, I am
skipping the Renaissance question. I moved my Wyclif, Hus, and
Savonarola material to the Late Middle Ages, and I'd like you also to
talk about these figures should you choose the Late Middle Ages
question. Use each figure as an example of the leadership crisis
of the Late Middle Ages.
Here's the Spring 2015 and Spring
2017 Wyclif, Hus,
and Savonarola material--clipped from my Renaissance lecture and moved
shame too that the papacy and the insitutional church in general wasted
their energy opposing those religious reformers whose ideas, had they
been implemented in time, might have helped Europe avoid much of the
violence and conflict that was to come later. Three reformers in
particular were worth listening too: Wyclif, Hus, and Savonarola.]
John Wyclif (1320-1384) was a very
professor at Oxford
University. Part of his popularity stemmed from his ability to
refute "nominalism," a skeptical sort of philosophy that
dominated much 14th century theology. The nominalists believed in
a sharp distinction between faith and reason, thinking that men like
Anselm and Aquinas were on the wrong track: reason was of no use at all
in confirming the truths of Christian faith. Wyclif tried to show
that reason and faith did in fact go hand in hand. He wrote a
"Summa" sort of like that of Aquinas, but a work which pays special
attention to refuting the nominalists.
Wyclif's influence went well beyond
academic world. He
translated the Bible from Jerome's Vulgate into English, and, for the
first time, English-speaking Christians had the Bible in their own
Wyclif's study of the Bible led him
question some of the beliefs
of his contemporaries. He questioned the idea of
and also the idea of papal supremacy. He also challenged the
privileges of the nobles: the Bible, he argued, taught equality, not
special privileges based on birth.
Naturally enough, there were many
powerful people unhappy with
Wyclif, and he had to defend himself against charges of heresy.
But Wyclif defended himself successfully: after all, he knew the Bible
much better than those who accused him!
Not so lucky, a man deeply influence
Wyclif, John Huss (1370-1415).
As a professor at the University
Prague (in the present-day
Czech Republic, what at the time was called Bohemia), Huss was looking
for ways to refute nominalism. In his search, he came across
Wyclif's Summa. He was impressed--and began to read Wyclif's
other works as well. Huss' teachings spread quickly throughout
Bohemia, much to the concern of some of the Catholic hierarchy.
Catholic officials at the time were
trying to do everything they
could to restore unity to the church. A great council at
Constance in 1415 at last put an end to the Great Papal Schism.
But the officials at Constance wanted to do more. Huss' teachings
were a potential problem as well, they thought, and so Huss was
summoned to appear. They promised him a safe-conduct, and so
(reluctantly) Huss made his way to Constance. Huss presented his
ideas, and the assembled church officials were outraged.
Heresy! And the logical thing to do to heretics is to burn
them. But what of the promise of safe conduct? Well,
promises to heretics don't count, and Huss was burned at the
stake. The church officials weren't done, though. The real
trouble-maker, they said, was Wyclif. He's the real
heretic. And the logical thing to do to heretics is to burn
them. Problem was, Wyclif had already been dead for thirty
years. Didn't stop them. They sent to England, had Wyclif's
remains dug up, and then burned them.
This, of course, was not going to
the calls for reform.
Later in the 15th century, a man named Savonarola (1452-1498) was a
particularly strong voice for change.
Savonarola was a brilliant young
of philosophy. His
studies eventually led him to the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas,
and, like so many people before and since, Savonarola fell in love with
Aquinas' philosophy and determined to live his life by it.
Aquinas had been a Dominican, and Savonarola likewise joined that
order. This left him free to travel and preach, and that's what
he did, eventually basing himself in Florence, the home of so many of
the great Renaissance figures. Savonarola began preaching a
series of sermons on the Book of Revelation. He was a powerful
preacher. Pico della Miranddola said his voice alone was enough
make you tremble. But while people were listening to Savonarola,
they weren't changing their lives. Nevertheless, Savonarola was
stirring up trouble by denouncing the way in which the wealthy
merchants of Florence (including the powerful Medici family) were
exploiting the poor and less privileged. Wealthy and powerful
people don't like hearing themselves denounced, and Lorenzo de Medici
tried to silence Savonarola--first through bribery, then by threats.
Savonarola responded by stepping up
predicting God's judgment, not just on Lorenzo, but on the current pope
and the current king of France. All three, said Savonarola, would
die within the year. And, sure enough, that's what happened.
Savonarola was now regarded as
of a prophet. His
prediction of an impending scourge from the north sent by God to punish
the Florentines for their sins seemed about to be fulfilled as
well. The new French king invaded Italy, destroying Milan, and
heading toward Florence. The Florentines in a panic turned to
Savonarola who basically told them to get busy repenting while he dealt
with the French king. The French did turn aside, and now
Savonarola was so popular with the Florentines that they were willing
to put his teachings into practice.
Enthusiastic young people went
Florence gathering up
luxury items and anything that might be offensive to God. These
were gathered up and throne into bonfires (the original bonfire of the
vanities). Savonarola also restored republican government to
Florence, ending the rule of the merchant princes. The new
government eliminated cruel tortures and passed laws protecting the
poor and weak from exploitation.
Success? For a time. But
Savonarola had predicted he
would preach for eight years and then die a martyrs death. He
called this one too. Throughout his preaching, Savonarola had condemned
corruption in the church as lying at the root of all other societal
ills. He preached especially strongly against Alexander VI, the
current pope. Alexander, one of the Borgia popes, was one of the
most unworthy men ever to sit on the throne of St. Peter. He had
at least five illegitimate children and a whole series of
mistresses. He favored his illegitimate son Cesare Borgia.
The whole Borgia family was as corrupt and immoral as one can imagine.
[You really want to know how
See this account of the Banquet of the
Naturally, Savonarola thundered
such a corrupt pope.
The pope responded with excommunication, and then by conniving with
the displaced merchant princes of Florence to do away with
Savonarola. The fickle Florentine mob turned on their one-time
favorite, seizing Savonarola, torturing him, hanging him upside down,
and then finally burning his body and scattering the ashes in the river.
A tragic thing that the papacy,
major force for reform, had
gotten to the point where it is silencing the voice to reformers like