66 The Late Middle Ages and Collapse of Byzantium

Late Middle Ages

War, Famine, and Plague

A manuscript illustration of a bishop blessing four individuals who have fallen victim to the Bubonic Plague ( Omne Bonum, c. 1360–1375)
A manuscript illustration of a bishop blessing four individuals who have fallen victim to the Bubonic Plague ( Omne Bonum, c. 1360–1375) Wikimedia Commons | Public Domain

The first years of the 14th century were marked by a number of famines, culminating in the Great Famine of 1315–1317. The causes of the Great Famine were not just related to the ongoing climatic change that was taking place, a slow transition from the Medieval Warm Period to the Little Ice Age, but also had causes in overspecialization in single crops, which left the population vulnerable when bad weather caused crop failures. Other troubles included an economic downturn and the aforementioned climate change — which resulted in the average annual temperature for Europe declining during the 14th century. But knowledge of Asia and the trade routes to China expanded during the period, through the invasions of the Mongols and the travels of Marco Polo.

These troubles were followed in 1347 by the Black Death, a disease that spread throughout Europe in the years 1348, 1349, and 1350. The death toll was probably about 35 million people in total in Europe, about one-third of the population. Towns were especially hard-hit because of the crowded conditions. Large areas of land were left sparsely inhabited, and in some places fields were left unworked. Because of the sudden decline in available laborers, the price of wages rose as landlords sought to entice workers to their fields, but the lower rents were balanced out by the lower demand for food, which cut into agricultural income.

Urban workers also felt that they had a right to greater earnings, and popular uprisings broke out across Europe. Among the uprisings were the Jacquerie in France, the Peasants’ Revolt in England, and revolts in the cities of Florence in Italy and Ghent and Bruges in Flanders. The trauma of the plague led to an increased piety throughout Europe, which manifested itself in the foundation of new charities, the extreme self-mortification of the flagellants, and the scapegoating of the Jews. Conditions were further unsettled by the return of the plague throughout the rest of the 14th century. It continued to strike Europe throughout the rest of the Middle Ages.[1]

State Resurgence

The Late Middle Ages also witnessed the rise of strong, royalty-based nation-states throughout Europe, particularly in England, France, and the Christian kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula — Aragon, Castile, and Portugal. The long conflicts of the later Middle Ages strengthened royal control over the kingdoms, even though they were extremely hard on the peasantry. Kings profited from warfare by gaining land and extended royal legislation throughout their kingdoms. Paying for the wars required that the methods of taxation become more efficient and the rate of taxation often increased. The requirement to obtain the consent of those taxed meant that representative bodies such as the English Parliament or the French Estates General gained some power and new authority.

Throughout the 14th century, French kings sought to expand their influence throughout the kingdom at the expense of the territorial holdings of the nobility. This ran into difficulties when they attempted to confiscate the holdings of the English kings in southern France, leading to the Hundred Years’ War, which lasted until 1453. At first, the English under King Edward III and his son Edward, the Black Prince, won the battles of Crécy and Poitiers, captured the city of Calais and won control of much of France. The stresses of this war almost caused the disintegration of the French kingdom during the early years of the war. In the early 15th century, France once more teetered on the brink of dissolving, but in the late 1420s military successes led by Joan of Arc (d. 1431) led to the eventual victory of the French kings over the English with the capture of the last of the English possessions in southern France in 1453. The price was high, as the population of France at the end of the Wars was likely half what it had been prior to the start of the conflict.

Conversely, the Wars had a positive effect on English national identity, doing much to fuse the various local identities into a national English ideal. The conflict with the French also helped create a national culture in England that was separate from French culture, which had been the dominant cultural influence in England prior to the outbreak of the Hundred Years’ War. The early Hundred Years’ War also saw the dominance of the English longbow, and the appearance of cannon on the battlefield at Crécy in 1346.


In modern-day Germany, the Empire continued, but the elective nature of the imperial crown meant that there was no strong dynasty around which a strong state could form. Further east, the kingdoms of Poland, Hungary, and Bohemia grew into powerful kingdoms. The Iberian Peninsula kingdoms continued to gain land from the Muslim kingdoms of the peninsula, with Portugal concentrating on expanding overseas during the 15th century while the other kingdoms were riven by difficulties over the royal succession and other concerns throughout the 15th century.

England, after losing the Hundred Years’ War, went on to suffer a long civil war known as the Wars of the Roses, which lasted into the 1490s, after Henry Tudor consolidated his hold on England from his victory over King Richard III at Bosworth in 1485. Scandinavia went through a period of union under the Union of Kalmar in the late 14th and early 15th century, but dissolved once more after the death of Queen Margaret I of Denmark (r. in Denmark 1353–1412), who had united Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. The major power around the Baltic Sea was the city states of the Hanseatic League, a commercial confederation which traded from western Europe to Russia. Scotland emerged from English domination under King Robert the Bruce (r. 1306–1329), who secured papal recognition of his kingship in 1328.[2]

Collapse of Byzantium

Although the Palaeologi emperors managed to recapture Constantinople from the western Europeans in 1261, they were never able to regain control of much of the former imperial lands. They usually controlled only a small section of the Balkan Peninsula near Constantinople, the city itself, and some coastal lands on the Black Sea and around the Aegean Sea. The former Byzantine lands in the Balkans were divided between the new kingdoms of Serbia and Bulgaria and the city-state of Venice. The power of the Byzantine emperors was threatened by a new Turkish tribe, the Ottomans, who established themselves in Anatolia in the 13th century and steadily expanded throughout the 14th century. The Ottomans expanded into Europe, reducing Bulgaria to a vassal state by 1366 and taking over Serbia after the Serbian defeat at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. Western Europeans rallied to the plight of the Christians in the Balkans and declared a new Crusade in 1396, and a great army was sent to the Balkans which met defeat at the Battle of Nicopolis. Constantinople finally was captured by the Ottomans in 1453.[3]

Controversy within the Church

The troubled 14th century saw both the Avignon Papacy of 1305–1378, also called the “Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy” (a reference to the Babylonian Captivity of the Jews), and then the Great Schism that lasted from 1378 to 1418, when there were two, then later three, rival popes, each supported by a number of states. In the early years of the 15th century, after a century of turmoil, ecclesiastical officials convened in Constance in 1414, and in 1415 the council deposed one of the rival popes, leaving only two claimants. Further depositions followed, and in November 1417 the council elected Martin V (pope 1417–1431) as pope.

Besides the schism, the western church was riven by theological controversies, some of which turned into heresies. John Wyclif (d. 1384), an English theologian, was condemned as a heretic in 1415 for teaching that the laity should have access to the text of the Bible as well as holding views on the Eucharist that were contrary to church doctrine.

Wyclif’s teachings influenced two of the major heretical movements of the later Middle Ages — Lollardry in England and Hussitism in Bohemia. The Bohemians were also influenced by the teaching of Jan Hus, who was eventually burned at the stake in 1415 after being condemned as a heretic by the Council of Constance. The Hussite church, although subject to a crusade being called against it, survived past the end of the Middle Ages.

The papacy refined the concept of transubstantiation further in the Late Middle Ages, stating that the clergy alone was allowed to partake of the wine in the Eucharist. This further distanced the secular laity from the clergy. The laity continued the practices of pilgrimages, veneration of relics, and the belief in power of the Devil. Mystics such as Meister Eckhart (d. 1327) or Thomas à Kempis (d. 1471) wrote works that taught the laity to focus on their inner spiritual life, something that contributed to the Protestant Reformation. Besides mysticism, belief in witches and witchcraft became widespread, and by the late 15th century the Church had begun to lend credence to populist fears of witchcraft with its condemnation of witches in 1484 and the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum, the most popular handbook for witchhunters, in 1486.[4]

Scholars, Intellectuals, and Exploration

The Later Middle Ages saw a reaction against scholasticism led by John Duns Scotus (d. 1308) and William of Ockham (d. around 1348), both of whom objected to the application of reason to faith. Their efforts, along with others, led to an undermining of the prevailing Platonic idea of “universals.” Ockham’s insistence that reason operates independently of faith allowed science to be separated from theology and philosophy. Legal studies were marked by the steady advance of Roman law into areas of jurisprudence previously governed by customary law. The one exception to this trend was England, where the common law remained pre-eminent. Countries also codified their laws, with legal codes being promulgated in countries as far apart as Castile, Poland, and Lithuania.

Illustration of a university class room from the Middle Ages. In this image, the professor lectures from a raised to students situated in rows below. Not all of the students in the classroom are paying attention, with one student sleeping while others converse with one another.
Illustration of a university class room from the Middle Ages. In this image, the professor lectures from a raised to students situated in rows below. Not all of the students in the classroom are paying attention, with one student sleeping while others converse with one another. Wikimedia Commons | Public Domain

Education remained mostly focused on the training of future clergy. The basic learning of the letters and numbers remained the province of the family or a village priest, but the secondary subjects of the trivium – grammar, rhetoric, logic — were studied in either cathedral schools or in schools provided by cities. Commercial secondary schools spread also, with some towns in Italy having more than one such enterprise. Universities also spread throughout Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries.

The rise of vernacular literature increased in pace, with Dante, Petrarch and Giovanni Boccaccio in 14th century Italy, Geoffrey Chaucer and William Langland in England, and François Villon and Christine de Pizan in France. Much literature remained religious in character, but although much of this continued to be written in Latin, a new demand developed for saints’ lives and other devotional tracts in the vernacular languages. This was fed by the growth of the devotio moderna movement, most prominently in the formation of the Brethren of the Common Life, but also in the works of German mystics such as Meister Eckhart and Johannes Tauler. Theatre also developed in the guise of miracle plays put on by the Church. At the end of the period, the development of the printing press around 1450 led to the establishment of publishing houses throughout Europe by 1500.

Beginning in the early 15th century, the countries of the Iberian peninsula began sponsoring exploration past the boundaries of Europe. Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal (d. 1460), sent expeditions that discovered the Canary Islands, the Azores, and Cape Verde during his lifetime. After his death, exploration continued, with Bartholomew Diaz (d. 1500) going around the Cape of Good Hope in 1486 and Vasco de Gama (d. 1524) sailing around Africa to India in 1498. The combined Spanish monarchies of Castile and Aragon sponsored Christopher Columbus’ (d. 1506) voyage of exploration in 1492 that discovered the Americas. The English crown under King Henry VII (r. 1485–1509) sponsored the voyage of John Cabot (d. 1498) in 1497, which landed on Cape Breton Island.[5]

Late Medieval Art and Architecture

The Late Middle Ages in Europe as a whole correspond to the Trecento and Early Renaissance in Italy, while Northern Europe and Spain continued to use Gothic styles, increasingly elaborate in the 15th century, until almost the end of the period. International Gothic was a courtly style that reached much of Europe in the decades around 1400, producing masterpieces such as the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. All over Europe secular art continued to increase in quantity and quality, and in the 15th century the mercantile classes of Italy and Flanders became important patrons, commissioning small portraits of themselves in oils as well as a growing range of luxury items such as jewelry, ivory caskets, cassone chests and maiolica pottery. These objects also included the Hispano-Moresque ware produced by mostly Mudéjar potters in Spain. Although royalty owned huge collections of plate, little survives except for the Royal Gold Cup. Italian silk manufacture developed, so that Western churches and elites no longer needed to rely on imports from Byzantium or the Islamic world. In France and Flanders tapestry weaving of sets like The Lady and the Unicorn became a major luxury industry.
The large external sculptural schemes of Early Gothic churches gave way to more sculpture inside the building, as tombs became more elaborate and other features such as pulpits were sometimes lavishly carved, as in the Pulpit by Giovanni Pisano in Sant’Andrea. Painted or carved wooden relief altarpieces became common, especially as churches created many side-chapels. Early Netherlandish painting with artists such as Jan van Eyck (d. 1441) and Rogier van der Weyden (d. 1464) rivaled that of Italy, as did northern illuminated manuscripts, which in the 15th century began to be collected on a large scale by secular elites, who also commissioned secular books, especially histories. From about 1450 printed books rapidly became popular, though still expensive, and there were around 30,000 different editions of incunabula printed by 1500, and by then illuminated manuscripts were only commissioned by royalty and a few others. Very small woodcuts, nearly all religious, were affordable even by peasants in parts of Northern Europe from the middle of the 15th century, with more expensive engravings supplying a wealthier market with a variety of images.[6]

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