The Disastrous 14th Century

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A Distant Mirror - The 14th Century

Europe in 1300 was well on the way to rapid expansion. It was rapidly increasing in intellectual and mathematical sophistication. Technically, thanks to water power and the mechanical discoveries that flowed from it, Europe was in the midst of what many historians call the Medieval Industrial Revolution. One reason there seems to be such a break between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance was that there was in fact a break. The 14th Century was a time of turmoil, diminished expectations, loss of confidence in institutions, and feelings of helplessness at forces beyond human control. Historian Barbara Tuchman entitled her book on this period A Distant Mirror because many of our modern problems had counterparts in the 14th Century. Even the extinction of the human race, something we ponder in discussing nuclear war, was faced by medieval Europeans, in fact, far more directly than we ever have.

Two Great Natural Disasters

The Little Ice Age

Two great natural disasters struck Europe in the 14th Century. One was climatic: the Little Ice Age. This term is used in wildly varied ways by different authors, and there actually seem to have been two cooling episodes: an earlier one from the late 1200's to 1600 or so, and a later one in the 1700's and 1800's. During the earlier one, the Baltic Sea froze over in 1303, 1306 and 1307, something never before recorded. Alpine glaciers advanced. The Norse settlements in Greenland were cut off and grain cultivation ceased in Iceland. The last ship sailed from Iceland to Greenland in the early 1400's (tantalizingly close to Columbus); when contact was resumed in the 1700's, the settlements were long abandoned. Starvation, disease, raids by English pirates and conflict with natives have all been suggested as causes, and all probably played a role in the demise of the colonies. In France, crops failed after heavy rains in 1315; there were widespread famine, reports of cannibalism, and epidemics.

The Black Death

If the Little Ice Age weakened Europe's agricultural productivity and made life uncomfortable, the Bubonic Plague brought life to a virtual standstill. Tuchman's prose describes the plague as powerfully as anyone.

In October 1347, two months after the fall of Calais, Genoese trading ships put into the harbor of Messina in Sicily with dead and dying men at the oars. The ships had come from the Black Sea port of Caffa (now Feodosiya) in the Crimea, where the Genoese maintained a trading post. The diseased sailors showed strange black swellings about the size of an egg or an apple in the armpits and groin. The swellings oozed blood and pus and were followed by spreading boils and black blotches on the skin from internal bleeding. The sick suffered severe pain and died quickly within five days of the first symptoms. As the disease spread, other symptoms of continuous fever and spitting of blood appeared instead of the swellings or buboes. These victims coughed and sweated heavily and died even more quickly, within three days or less, sometimes in 24 hours. In both types everything that issued from the body- breath, sweat, blood from the buboes and lungs, bloody urine, and blood-blackened excrement- smelled foul. Depression and despair accompanied the physical symptoms, and before the end "death is seen seated on the face."

The disease was bubonic plague, present in two forms: one that infected the bloodstream, causing the buboes and internal bleeding, and was spread by contact; and a second, more virulent pneumonic type that infected the lungs and was spread by respiratory infection. The presence of both at once caused the high mortality and speed of contagion. So lethal was the disease that cases were known of persons going to bed well and dying before they woke, of doctors catching the illness at a bedside and dying before the patient. So rapidly did it spread from one to another that to a French physician, Simon de Covino, it seemed as if one sick person "could infect the whole world." The malignity of the pestilence appeared more terrible because its victims knew no prevention and no remedy.

Rumors of a terrible plague supposedly arising in China and spreading through Tartary (Central Asia) to India and Persia, Mesopotamia, Syria, Egypt, and all of Asia Minor had reached Europe in 1346. They told of a death toll so devastating that all of India was said to be depopulated, whole territories covered by dead bodies, other areas with no one left alive. As added up by Pope Clement VI at Avignon, the total of reported dead reached 23,840,000. In the absence of a concept of contagion, no serious alarm was felt in Europe until the trading ships brought their black burden of pestilence into Messina while other infected ships from the Levant carried it to Genoa and Venice.

By January 1348 it penetrated France via Marseille, and North Africa via Tunis. Shipborne along coasts and navigable rivers, it spread westward from Marseille through the ports of Languedoc to Spain and northward up the Rhone to Avignon, where it arrived in March. It reached Narbonne, Montpellier, Carcassonne, and Toulouse between February and May, and at the same time in Italy spread to Rome and Florence and their hinterlands. Between June and August it reached Bordeaux, Lyon, and Paris, spread to Burgundy and Normandy, and crossed the Channel from Normandy into southern England. From Italy during the same summer it crossed the Alps into Switzerland and reached eastward to Hungary. In a given area the plague accomplished its kill within four to six months and then faded, except in the larger cities, where, rooting into the close-quartered population, it abated during the winter, only to reappear in spring and rage for another six months.

In 1349 it resumed in Paris, spread to Picardy, Flanders, and the Low Countries, and from England to Scotland and Ireland as well as to Norway, where a ghost ship with a cargo of wool and a dead crew drifted offshore until it ran aground near Bergen. From there the plague passed into Sweden Denmark, Prussia, Iceland, and as far as Greenland. Leaving a strange pocket of immunity in Bohemia, and Russia unattacked until 1351, it had passed from most of Europe by mid-1350.Although the mortality rate was erratic, ranging from one fifth in some places to nine tenths or almost total elimination in others, the overall estimate of modern demographers has settled- for the area extending from India to Iceland-around the same figure expressed in Froissart's casual words: "a third of the world died." His estimate, the common one at the time, was not an inspired guess but a borrowing of St. John's figure for mortality from plague in Revelation, the favorite guide to human affairs of the Middle Ages.

A third of Europe would have meant about 20 million deaths. No one knows in truth how many died. Contemporary reports were an awed impression, not an accurate count. In crowded Avignon, it was said, 400 died daily; 7,000 houses emptied by death were shut up; a single graveyard received 11,000 corpses in six weeks; half the city's inhabitants reportedly died, including 9 cardinals or one third of the total, and 70 lesser prelates. Watching the endlessly passing death carts, chroniclers let normal exaggeration take wings and put the Avignon death toll at 62,000 and even at 120,000, although the city's total population was probably less than 50,000.

When graveyards filled up, bodies at Avignon were thrown into the Rhone until mass burial pits were dug for dumping the corpses. In London in such pits corpses piled up in layers until they overflowed. Everywhere reports speak of the sick dying too fast for the living to bury. Corpses were dragged out of homes and left in front of doorways. Morning light revealed new piles of bodies. In Florence the dead were gathered up by the Compagnia della Misericordia - founded in 1244 to care for the sick - whose members wore red robes and hoods masking the face except for the eyes. When their efforts failed, the dead lay putrid in the streets for days at a time. When no coffins were to be had, the bodies were laid on boards, two or three at once, to be carried to graveyards or common pits. Families dumped their own relatives into the pits, or buried them so hastily and thinly "that dogs dragged them forth and devoured their bodies."

Amid accumulating death and fear of contagion, people died without last rites and were buried without prayers, a prospect that terrified the last hours of the stricken. A bishop in England gave permission to laymen to make confession to each other as was done by the Apostles, "or if no man is present then even to a woman," and if no priest could be found to administer extreme unction, "then faith must suffice." Clement VII found it necessary to grant remissions of sin to all who died of the plague because so many were unattended by priests. "And no bells tolled," wrote a chronicler of Siena. "and nobody wept no matter what his loss because almost everyone expected death.... And people said and believed, 'This is the end of the world.' "

In Paris, where the plague lasted through 1349, the reported death rate was 800 a day, in Pisa 500, in Vienna 500 to 600. The total dead in Paris numbered 50,000 or half the population. Florence, weakened by the famine of 1347, lost three to four fifths of its citizens, Venice two thirds, Hamburg and Bremen, though smaller in size, about the same proportion. Cities, as centers of transportation, w ere more likely to be affected than villages, although once a village was infected, its death rate was equally high. At Givry, a prosperous village in Burgundy of 1,200 to l,500 people, the parish register records 615 deaths in the space of fourteen weeks, compared to an average of thirty deaths a year in the previous decade. In three villages of Cambridgeshire, manorial records show a death rate of 47 percent, 57 percent, and in one case 70 percent. When the last survivors, too few to carry on, moved away, a deserted village sank back into the wilderness and disappeared from the map altogether, leaving only a grass-covered ghostly outline to show where mortals once had lived.

In enclosed places such as monasteries and prisons, the infection of one person usually meant that of all, as happened in the Franciscan convents of Carcassonne and Marseille, where every inmate without exception died. Of the 140 Dominicans at Montpellier only seven survived. Petrarch's brother Gherardo, member of a Carthusian monastery, buried the prior and 34 fellow monks one by one, sometimes three a day, until he was left alone with his dog and fled to look for a place that would take him in. Watching every comrade die, men in such places could not but wonder whether the strange peril that filled the air had not been sent to exterminate the human race. In Kilkenny, Ireland, Brother John Clyn of the Friars Minor, another monk left alone among dead men, kept a record of what had happened lest "things which should be remembered perish with time and vanish from the memory of those who come after us." Sensing "the whole world, as it were, placed within the grasp of the Evil One," and waiting for death to visit him too, he wrote, "I leave parchment to continue this work, if perchance any man survive and any of the race of Adam escape this pestilence and carry on the work which I have begun." Brother John, as noted by another hand, died of the pestilence, but he foiled oblivion.

The first wave swept through Europe in 1347-1350, and there were six more waves between 1350 and 1400 as each new generation of potential victims, not immune to the plague, appeared. The population of Europe was cut by half by 1400. This is probably the closest approach to the effects of a thermonuclear war in history.

Bubonic plague still exists. U.S. soldiers were routinely vaccinated against it during the Vietnam war. It is endemic among wild rodents in the western U.S.; every year a few dozen people catch it and once every few years victims die from it. It appears that humans evolved greater immunity while the most virulent strains of the plague killed off their hosts too quickly to be transmitted.

Social Upheavals

The Hundred Years' War

France was plunged into turmoil by the Hundred Years War (1337-1450). William the Conqueror had invaded England in 1066 and established French rule in England. With French-descended rulers on the throne of England, it was only a matter of time before someone emerged who had a claim on the throne of both countries. The problem was complicated by the fact that English monarch Henry II had married Eleanor of Aquitaine, whose holdings - much of southwestern France - passed under partial control of England. Under the complex rules of the time, however, that rule was still subject to that of the King of France. Edward III of England seems to have launched the war to gain total sovereignty over the region. At the battles of Crecy (1346) and Agincourt (1416), English commoners, armed with Welsh longbows, slaughtered French knights and Italian and Swiss mercenaries armed with more powerful but slower crossbows. The fame of these battles tends to obscure the bottom line: ultimately the French won the war. At the lowest ebb of French fortunes, the French were rallied by Joan of Arc, who was captured by the English, tried on trumped-up charges of heresy, and burned at the stake in 1431.

Collapsing Institutions

In the midst of all these upheavals, the Church was scarcely in a position to offer comfort. Since 1309 the Pope had resided at Avignon in southern France, rather than Rome. The "Babylonian Exile" began after the King of France attempted to tax the incomes of Church officials. The Pope responded by forbidding secular rulers to tax the Church and threatening to excommunicate the King, whereupon agents of the King attempted to kidnap the Pope. When a French Pope was elected in 1309, he moved to Avignon for safety and to be closer to his French mistress. At Avignon, the corruption and moral laxity of the Church reached all-time lows. Tuchman states flatly that in all the secular literature of the time, "clerical celibacy is a joke." The Italian writer Petrarch called Avignon "the Babylon of the West." Avignon was governed by one simple rule: absolutely everything in the Church was for sale, ecclesiastical offices, pardon for sins, holy relics. Pope Clement VI, hardly a spiritual man himself, at one point launched a tirade against his fellow churchmen:

What can you preach to the people? If on humility, you yourselves are the proudest of the world, puffed up, pompous and sumptuous in luxuries. If on poverty, you are so covetous that all the benefices of the world are not enough for you. If on chastity - but we will be silent on this, for God knows what each man does and how many of you satisfy your lusts.

The Pope was still ruler of much of central Italy - the Papal States, but that rule turned out to be impossible to enforce from Avignon. Revolts were frequent, inspired by resentment at the Papal exile, the general air of corruption, and heavy taxes to support the lush lifestyles of Avignon. They were fanned by the city-states of northern Italy, who were profoundly uncomfortable at having French power on both sides and who hoped to pick up any pieces of the Papal States that broke off. During one revolt, Cardinal Robert of Geneva subdued the town of Cesena and had about 5,000 civilians massacred, for which he earned the undying hatred of the Italians and the nickname "Butcher of Cesena."

When Florence offered Rome inducements to join the revolts, it became obvious that the Pope had to return to Rome or lose it. Pope Gregory XI returned to Rome in 1377 and died the next year. With the French cardinals divided among themselves and Italian mobs demanding an Italian Pope, the Cardinals elected the apparently harmless Urban VI, who promptly launched a campaign to end some of the more flagrant forms of Church corruption. Urban made peace with the northern Italian city states and refused to leave Rome, earning the support of the Italians and the enmity of the French. However, Urban quickly went beyond rational reform and became progressively more irrational and megalomaniacal as his reign wore on. He also began meddling in secular politics in a way that directly threatened French interests. Within a few months the French cardinals declared the election invalid, claiming Italian coercion to name an Italian Pope, They called a conclave of their own and elected as Clement VII none other than Robert of Geneva, the "Butcher of Cesena."

Faced on the one hand with the megalomania of Urban and the stupefying French arrogance in naming the one man most hated by the Italians as Pope on the other, even the articulate Tuchman is almost at a loss for words. She comments: "Perhaps by this time the 14th century was not quite sane. If enlightened self-interest is the criterion of sanity, in the verdict of [historian Jules] Michelet, 'no epoch was more naturally mad.'"

The so-called Great Western Schism lasted until 1447, during which time there were rival Popes in Rome and Avignon. Since the Catholic Church based its claim to authority on an unbroken succession of Popes, the existence of two parallel papacies was more than just a power struggle; it was a fundamental challenge to the whole medieval world-view. The corruption of the papal court at Avignon reached legendary proportions and the priestly vows of poverty and celibacy were widely viewed as jokes by the general public. Public disgust with Church scandals fueled some of the earliest stirrings of the Protestant Reformation. The Englishman John Wycliff and the Bohemian Jan Hus were the first of the reformers. Hus was burned at the stake as a heretic in 1415; Wycliff died a natural death in 1384 but was tried for heresy after the execution of Hus and his bones dug up and burned.

Contact With China Cut Off

Kublai Khan was the last great Mongol Khan. After him came a succession of weak and increasingly assimilated rulers. Peasant revolts broke out and eventually became widespread enough to topple the government. The Mongols reverted to their traditional role on the periphery of China with one exception: now the Chinese army knew how to fight Mongol style. This time the Chinese pursued them into Mongolia and destroyed the Mongol capital at Karakoram. Also the Chinese introduced Tibetan Lamaism, with its emphasis on celibacy and pacifism, as a means of subduing the Mongols. Never again would the Mongols threaten China. The Mongol, or Yuan Dynasty was over; the Ming Dynasty had begun. The Ming Dynasty was a golden age of Chinese culture but also an isolationist period. The Chinese expelled foreigners and the land route to China closed in 1368.

Militant Islam Advances

Late in the century, the Turks advanced in the Balkans. Islam made its deepest and most threatening penetration of Europe. Twice the Turks would advance to Vienna before being turned back. In the late 1200's, a Turkish clan led by Osman or Othman rose to power and deposed the ruling dynasty in Turkey. The Byzantine Empire, at that time consisting of little more than Constantinople and some surrounding land, invited the Turks to establish a buffer state in Europe between the Byzantine Empire and its European neighbors. Thus the Turks made an "end run" west of the Byzantine Empire and occupied a large swath of the Balkans before eventually taking Constantinople in 1453. For a time, it was expedient for the Turks to leave Constantinople as a free port and point of contact with Europe; when it outlasted its usefulness, they took it. In 1396, the Pope called a Crusade against the Turks, a Christian army marched into the Balkans, met the Turks in battle at Nicopolis in Bulgaria in 1396, and was slaughtered.

The 14th Century saw some of the first stirrings of the Protestant Reformation. One such movement in the Balkans had effects that linger to the present day. A monk named Bogomil (Slavic: Bog=God, miliy=pleasing, hence, pleasing to God) started a movement that was similar to many other proto-Reformation sects in Europe. It was a very minimalist sect that rejected the Church hierarchy and most ceremonies and placed primary emphasis on personal belief. Because the Bogomils, as they were called, rejected Church structure, they were considered heretics by both the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches. When the Turks invaded, bringing Islam, the Bogomils decided that Islam was rather compatible with their own beliefs, since it too had no hierarchy or ceremony and stressed a basic set of core beliefs. Also, the Bogomils were not welcome in either established church. They converted en masse to Islam. The conversion of the Bogomils is the reason five million Muslims live in former Yugoslavia, especially Bosnia. Their Catholic (Croatian) and Orthodox (Serbian) neighbors regard the Bogomils as traitors and their descendants as the descendants of traitors. This animosity will not be healed anytime soon.

Aftermath of the Disasters

The effects of the disorders on Western Europe were many. In the immediate wake of the plague, the natural response was shock and apathy. There are accounts of animals going untended and crops going unharvested. Later, many of the survivors sought comfort in self-indulgence. Self-indulgence was aided by the fact that the survivors inherited the wealth of the dead, and wages increased because of severe labor shortages. Episodes of hysteria and religious fanaticism were also common. One sinister outlet for fear and frustration was the search for scapegoats. Two came readily to mind. In some places, the Jews were blamed, although they died of the plague as much as anyone else. Often outbreaks of anti-Semitism were linked to resentment over money-lending and a desire to erase debts. By curious coincidence, account ledgers tended to disappear during attacks on the Jews.

Another scapegoat was witches. Contrary to popular stereotype, the Middle Ages placed very little emphasis on witchcraft. Those who did write on the subject tended to dismiss purported witches as deluded. But a sensational event in France in the early 14th century raised public consciousness of witchcraft to all-time highs. It involved a strange military religious order called the Knights Templars, a uniquely medieval institution that was a combination religious order and private army. The Knights Templars were originally conceived as the military arm of the Church during the Crusades, and by the 1300's they had amassed a vast treasury. King Philip the Fair of France saw the Templars as a source of revenue, and in 1307 he swept down on the Templars and had every one in France arrested on the same night. It's a measure of the degree to which the Templars had become soft and slack that Philip could make the doubtless elaborate preparations for his assault and the Templars had not a clue that it was about to happen. To justify the takeover, Philip staged show trials in which the Templars were accused of homosexuality (probably at least partly true) bestiality, devil-worship, and every other dark superstition of the time. In 1314 the Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, was executed. Before being executed, he called down a curse on the King and on France, and summoned the King and the Pope to meet him before God's judgement throne in a year. The Pope died within a month, Philip seven months later. For decades France saw a succession of short-lived rulers, seemingly demostrating the power of the curse. The long-range importance of the Templar episode, in Tuchman's words: "French justice became corrupted, and the pattern laid for the fanatic witchcraft persecutions of subsequent centuries." When the plague struck, the heightened consciousness of witchcraft found new outlets for suspicion.

(Modern writers, horrified by something as alien as medieval witch hysteria, deal with it with a sort of modern witch hysteria of their own. One widespread theory is that claims of alleged witchcraft were inspired by surviving pockets of pre-Christian cults; another is that they were a means of suppressing the sexuality of women. These both reflect modern academic fantasies more than historical reality.)

In 1393 a dramatic event occurred in France that came to symbolize the pessimism of the age. At a royal masquerade ball, the King and five of his friends appeared as "wood savages" in costumes with shaggy hemp glued on by pitch and wax. In an effort to see through the disguises, an onlooker got too close with a torch, a costume caught fire and rapidly ignited the other costumes. The King's life was saved by a quick-thinking onlooker, and another reveler dove into a water container, but the rest were not so fortunate. One died on the spot, three others lingered several days in agony before dying. The last to die had been bitterly hated for his contempt and maltreatment of the common people, who generally felt that he got what he deserved and who jeered his casket as it passed through the streets. At the same time, the people were enraged that the King's life had been carelessly endangered, and even the King was hard put to cool their anger at the organizers of the event. This event became a popular subject for illustration. In general, graphic, even morbid, realism began to pervade art (yet another similarity with the 20th Century). In 1300 a knight might choose to be represented on his tombstone as a young knight in all his vigor; by 1400 graphic depictions of skeletons and decay as a warning of mortality were in vogue.

Start of the Renaissance

By 1400, the worst of the upheavals had passed and European society was on the mend. The term " Renaissance" was first used in the late 14th century by Italian scholars who saw themselves as the vanguard of a period of improved conditions.


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Created 10 April 1998, Last Update 24 September 1998

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