Crisis of the Late Middle Ages

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The Crisis of the Late Middle Ages refers to a series of events in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries that brought centuries of European prosperity and growth to a halt.[1] Three major crises led to radical changes in all areas of society. They were: demographic collapse, political instabilities and religious upheavals.

A series of famines and plagues, beginning with the Great Famine of 1315–17 and especially the Black Death of 1348, reduced the population perhaps by half or more as the Medieval Warm Period came to a close and the first century of the Little Ice Age began. Along with depopulation came social unrest and endemic warfare. Soil exhaustion, overpopulation, wars, and epidemic diseases helped cause hundreds of famines in Europe during the Middle Ages, including 95 in Britain and 75 in France.[2][3] In France, the Hundred Years' War, crop failures and epidemics reduced the population by two-thirds.[4]

Popular revolts in late medieval Europe and civil wars between nobles within countries such as the Wars of the Roses were common—with France fighting internally nine times—and there were international conflicts between kings such as France and England in the Hundred Years' War. The unity of the Roman Catholic Church was shattered by the Western Schism. The Holy Roman Empire was also in decline, in the aftermath of the Great Interregnum (1247–1273), the Empire lost cohesion and politically the separate dynasties of the various German states became more important than their common empire.

Demography[edit]

Main article: Medieval demography

Some scholars contend that at the beginning of the 14th century, Europe had become overpopulated.[5][6] By the 14th century frontiers had ceased to expand and internal colonization was coming to an end, but population levels remained high.

The Medieval Warm Period ended sometime towards the end of the 13th century, bringing the "Little Ice Age"[7] and harsher winters with reduced harvests. In Northern Europe, new technological innovations such as the heavy plough and the three-field system were not as effective in clearing new fields for harvest as they were in the Mediterranean because the north had poor, clay-like soil.[8] Food shortages and rapidly inflating prices were a fact of life for as much as a century before the plague. Wheat, oats, hay and consequently livestock, were all in short supply. Their scarcity resulted in malnutrition, which increases susceptibility to infections due to weakened immunity. In the autumn of 1314, heavy rains began to fall, which were the start of several years of cold and wet winters.[8] The already weak harvests of the north suffered and the seven-year famine ensued. In the years 1315 to 1317 a catastrophic famine, known as the Great Famine, struck much of North West Europe. It was arguably the worst in European history, perhaps reducing the population by more than 10%.[8]

Genoese (red) and Venetian (green) maritime trade routes in the Mediterranean and Black Sea

Most governments instituted measures that prohibited exports of foodstuffs, condemned black market speculators, set price controls on grain and outlawed large-scale fishing. At best, they proved mostly unenforceable and at worst they contributed to a continent-wide downward spiral. The hardest hit lands, like England, were unable to buy grain abroad: from France because of the prohibition, and from most of the rest of the grain producers because of crop failures from shortage of labour. Any grain that could be shipped was eventually taken by pirates or looters to be sold on the black market. Meanwhile, many of the largest countries, most notably England and Scotland, had been at war, using up much of their treasury and exacerbating inflation. In 1337, on the eve of the first wave of the Black Death, England and France went to war in what became known as the Hundred Years' War. This situation was worsened when landowners and monarchs such as Edward III of England (r. 1327–1377) and Philip VI of France (r. 1328–1350), raised the fines and rents of their tenants out of a fear that their comparatively high standard of living would decline.[8]

The European economy entered a vicious circle in which hunger and chronic, low-level debilitating disease reduced the productivity of labourers, and so the grain output was reduced, causing grain prices to increase. Standards of living fell drastically, diets grew more limited, and Europeans as a whole experienced more health problems.

When a typhoid epidemic emerged, many thousands died in populated urban centres, most significantly Ypres (now in Belgium). In 1318 a pestilence of unknown origin, sometimes identified as anthrax, targeted the animals of Europe, notably sheep and cattle, further reducing the food supply and income of the peasantry.

Popular revolt[edit]

Before the 14th century, popular uprisings were not unknown, for example, uprisings at a manor house against an unpleasant overlord, but they were local in scope. This changed in the 14th and 15th centuries when new downward pressures on the poor resulted in mass movements and popular uprisings across Europe. To indicate how common and widespread these movements became, in Germany between 1336 and 1525 there were no less than sixty phases of militant peasant unrest.[9]

Political and religious[edit]

The unity of the Roman Catholic Church was shattered by the Western Schism. The Holy Roman Empire was also in decline, in the aftermath of the Great Interregnum (1247–1273), the Empire lost cohesion and politically the separate dynasties of the various German states became more important than their common empire.

Civil wars[edit]

International wars[edit]

Explanations for crisis[edit]

Malthusian[edit]

Often known as the Malthusian limit, scholars use this term to express and explain some tragedies as resulting from overpopulation. In his 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population, Thomas Malthus asserted that eventually humans would reproduce so greatly that they would go beyond the limits of necessary resources; once they reach this point, catastrophe becomes inevitable. In his book, The Black Death and the Transformation of the West, professor David Herlihy explores this idea of plague as an inevitable crisis wrought on humanity in order to control the population and human resources. In the book The Black Death; A Turning Point in History? (ed. William M. Bowsky) he "implies that the Black Death's pivotal role in late medieval society ... was now being challenged. Arguing on the basis of a neo-Malthusian economics, revisionist historians recast the Black Death as a necessary and long overdue corrective to an overpopulated Europe."

Herlihy also examined the arguments against the Malthusian crisis, stating "if the Black Death was a response to excessive human numbers it should have arrived several decades earlier"[10] due to the population growth of years before the outbreak of the Black Death. Herlihy also brings up other, biological factors that argue against the plague as a "reckoning" by arguing "the role of famines in affecting population movements is also problematic. The many famines preceding the Black Death, even the 'great hunger' of 1315 to 1317, did not result in any appreciable reduction in population levels".[10] Herlihy concludes the matter stating, "the medieval experience shows us not a Malthusian crisis but a stalemate, in the sense that the community was maintaining at stable levels very large numbers over a lengthy period" and states that the phenomenon should be referred to as more of a deadlock, rather than a crisis, to describe Europe before the epidemics.[10]:34

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ James L. Goldsmith (1995), "THE CRISIS OF THE LATE MIDDLE AGES: THE CASE OF FRANCE", French History, 9 (4): 417–450, doi:10.1093/fh/9.4.417 
  2. ^ Poor studies will always be with us
  3. ^ The facts on malnutrition & famine
  4. ^ Don O'Reilly. "Hundred Years' War: Joan of Arc and the Siege of Orléans". TheHistoryNet.com.
  5. ^ Perry Anderson (1974) [2006]. Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism. Verso. pp. 186, 199. ISBN 1-85984-107-4. 
  6. ^ Jonathan Maunder (2009-04-07). "Feudalism and the growth of the market". Socialist Worker Online. Retrieved 2009-12-22. 
  7. ^ World Regions in Global Context, Third Edition
  8. ^ a b c d J. M. Bennett and C. W. Hollister, Medieval Europe: A Short History (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006), p. 326.
  9. ^ Peter Blickle, Unruhen in der ständischen Gesellschaft 1300–1800, 1988
  10. ^ a b c Herlihy, David (1997). The Black Death and the Transformation of the West. Harvard University Press. p. 33. ISBN 978-0-674-07612-9. Retrieved 2 September 2009. 

External links[edit]