[Edited Spring 2008, Spring 2015, and Spring 2016]
The Late Middle Ages (1300-1500)

During the High Middle Ages, Western 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).  Bad weather 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 close again.

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 ended.  The 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 Chronicles]

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 themselves.

[Here is Froissart's Description of the Jacquerie, a more complete version than I read in class]

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 needed.

[Here's one good account of the  Schism.]

[Some of you might find interesting the life of Catherine 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 belong.

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 here!

[A 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 popular theology 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 the 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 language.

Wyclif's study of the Bible led him to question some of the beliefs of his contemporaries.  He questioned the idea of transubstantiation, 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 by Wyclif, John Huss (1370-1415).

As a professor at the University of  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 stop 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 student 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 to 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 his criticisms--and also 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 something 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 throughout 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 bad?  See this account of the Banquet of the Chestnuts]

Naturally, Savonarola thundered against 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, once a major force for reform, had gotten to the point where it is silencing the voice to reformers like Savonarola.