Late Middle Ages

Late Middle Ages

The Late Middle Ages is a term used by historians to describe European history in the period of the 14th and 15th centuries (AD 1300–1499). The Late Middle Ages were preceded by the High Middle Ages, and followed by the Early Modern era (Renaissance).

Around 1300, centuries of European prosperity and growth came to a halt. A series of famines and plagues, such as the Great Famine of 1315–1317 and the Black Death, reduced the population by as much as half according to some estimates. Along with depopulation came social unrest and endemic warfare. France and England experienced serious peasant risings: the Jacquerie, the Peasants' Revolt, and the Hundred Years' War. To add to the many problems of the period, the unity of the Catholic Church was shattered by the Great Schism. Collectively these events are sometimes called the Crisis of the Late Middle Ages. [Cantor, p. 480.]

Despite these crises, the 14th century was also a time of great progress within the arts and sciences. A renewed interest in ancient Greek and Roman texts led to what has later been termed the Italian Renaissance. The absorption of Latin texts had started in the twelfth-century Renaissance through contact with Arabs during the Crusades, but the availability of important Greek texts accelerated with the capture of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks, when many Byzantine scholars had to seek refuge in the West, particularly Italy. [Cantor, p. 594.] Combined with this influx of classical ideas was the invention of printing which facilitated dissemination of the printed word and democratized learning. These two things would later lead to the Protestant Reformation. Toward the end of the period, an era of discovery began. The growth of the Ottoman Empire, culminating in the fall of Constantinople in 1453, cut off trading possibilities with the east. Europeans were forced to discover new trading routes, as was the case with Columbus’s travel to the Americas in 1492, and Vasco da Gama’s circumnavigation of India and Africa in 1498. Their discoveries strengthened the economy and power of European nations.

The changes brought about by these developments have caused many scholars to see it as leading to the end of the Middle Ages, and the beginning of the modern world. However, the division will always be a somewhat artificial one for other scholars, who argue that since ancient learning was never entirely absent from European society, there is a certain continuity between the Classical and the Modern age. Some historians, particularly in Italy, prefer not to speak of the Late Middle Ages at all, but rather see the 14th century Renaissance as a direct transition to the Modern Era.

Historical events

The limits of Christian Europe were still being defined in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. While the Grand Duchy of Moscow was beginning to repel the Mongols, and the Iberian kingdoms completed the Reconquista of the peninsula and turned their attention outwards, the Balkans fell under the dominance of the Ottoman Empire. [For references, see below.] Meanwhile, the remaining nations of the continent were locked in almost constant international or internal conflict. [Allmand (1998), p. 3; Holmes, p. 294; Koenigsberger, pp. 299–300.] The situation gradually led to the consolidation of central authority, and the emergence of the nation state.Brady et al., p. xvii; Jones, p. 21.] The financial demands of war necessitated higher levels of taxation, resulting in the emergence of representative bodies – most notably the English Parliament. [Allmand (1998), p. 29; Cantor, p. 514; Koenigsberger, pp. 300–3.] The growth of secular authority was further aided by the decline of the papacy with the Great Schism, and the coming of the Protestant Revolution. [Brady et al., p. xvii; Holmes, p. 276; Ozment, p. 4.]


:"Main articles: Denmark, Norway, Sweden"After the failed union of Sweden and Norway of 1319–1365, the pan-Scandinavian Kalmar Union was instituted in 1397. [Hollister, p. 366; Jones, p. 722.] The Swedes were reluctant members of the Danish-dominated union from the start. In an attempt to subdue the Swedes, King Christian II of Denmark had large numbers of the Swedish aristocracy killed in the Stockholm Bloodbath of 1520. Yet this measure only led to further hostilities, and Sweden broke away for good in 1523. [Allmand (1998), p. 703] Norway, on the other hand, became an inferior party of the union, and remained united with Denmark until 1814. [cite book|first=Sverre, Knut Mykland|last=Bagge|authorlink=|title=Norge i dansketiden: 1380–1814|edition=2nd ed.|publisher=Cappelen|location=Oslo|year=1989|id=ISBN 9788202123697|url=]

Iceland benefited from its relative isolation, and was the only Scandinavian country not struck by the Black Death. [Allmand (1998), p. 673.] Meanwhile, the Norwegian colony on Greenland died out, probably under extreme weather conditions in the 15th century. [Allmand (1998), p. 193.] These conditions might have been the effect of the Little Ice Age. [cite web|url=|title=The Little Ice Age: When global cooling gripped the world|publisher=The Washington Post|author=Alan Cutler|date=1997-08-13|accessdate=2008-03-12]


The death of Alexander III of Scotland in 1286 threw the country into a succession crisis, and the English king, Edward I, was brought in to arbitrate. When Edward claimed overlordship over Scotland, this led to the Wars of Scottish Independence. [Jones, pp. 348–9.] The English were eventually defeated, and the Scots were able to develop a stronger state under the Stewarts. [Jones, pp. 350–1; Koenigsberger, p. 232; McKisack, p. 40.] From 1337, England's attention was largely directed towards France in the Hundred Years' War. [Jones, p. 351.] Henry V’s victory at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 briefly paved the way for a unification of the two kingdoms, but his son Henry VI soon squandered all previous gains. [Allmand (1998), p. 458; Koenigsberger, p. 309.] The loss of France led to discontent at home, and almost immediately upon the end of the war in 1453, followed the dynastic struggles of the Wars of the Roses (c. 1455–1485), involving the rival dynasties of Lancaster and York. [Allmand (1998), p. 458; Nicholas, pp. 32–3.] The war ended in the accession of Henry VII of the Tudor family, who could continue the work started by the Yorkist kings of building a strong, centralized monarchy. [Hollister, p. 353; Jones, pp. 488–92.] While England's attention was thus directed elsewhere, the Hiberno-Norman lords in Ireland were becoming gradually more assimilated into Irish society, and the island was allowed to develop virtual independence under English overlordship. [McKisack, pp. 228–9.]

Western Europe

:"Main articles: France, Burgundy, Burgundian Netherlands"The French House of Valois, which followed the House of Capet in 1328, was at its outset virtually marginalized in its own country, first by the English invading forces of the Hundred Years' War, later by the powerful Duchy of Burgundy. [Hollister, p. 355; Holmes, pp. 288-9; Koenigsberger, p. 304.] The appearance of Joan of Arc on the scene changed the course of war in favour of the French, and the initiative was carried further by King Louis XI. [Duby, p. 288-93; Holmes, p. 300.] Meanwhile Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, met resistance in his attempts to consolidate his possessions, particularly from the Swiss Confederation formed in 1291. [Allmand (1998), pp. 450-5; Jones, pp. 528-9.] When Charles was killed in the Burgundian Wars at the Battle of Nancy in 1477, the Duchy of Burgundy was reclaimed by France. [Allmand (1998), p. 455; Hollister, p. 355; Koenigsberger, p. 304.] At the same time, the County of Burgundy and the wealthy Burgundian Netherlands came into the Holy Roman Empire under Habsburg control, setting up conflict for centuries to come. [Allmand (1998), p. 455; Hollister, p. 363; Koenigsberger, pp. 306-7.]

Central Europe

:"Main articles: Germany", "Hungary", "Poland", "Lithuania"
Bohemia prospered in the fourteenth century, and the Golden Bull of 1356 made the king of Bohemia first among the imperial electors, but the Hussite revolution threw the country into crisis. [Holmes, p. 311–2; Wandycz, p. 40] The Holy Roman Empire passed to the Habsburgs in 1438, where it remained until the Empire's dissolution in 1806. [Hollister, p. 362; Holmes, p. 280.] Yet in spite of the extensive territories held by the Habsburgs, the Empire itself remained fragmented, and much real power and influence lay with the individual principalities. [Cantor, p. 507; Hollister, p. 362.] Also financial institutions, such as the Hanseatic League and the Fugger family, held great power, both on an economic and a political level. [Allmand (1998), pp. 152–153; Cantor, p. 508; Koenigsberger, p. 345.]

The kingdom of Hungary experienced a golden age during the fourteenth century. [Wandycz, p. 38.] In particular the reign of the Angevin kings Charles Robert (1308–42) and his son Louis I (1342–82) were marked by greatness. [Wandycz, p. 40.] The country grew wealthy as the main European supplier of gold and silver. [Jones, p. 737.] Meanwhile Poland's attention was turned eastwards, as the union with Lithuania created an enormous entity in the region. [Koenigsberger, p. 318; Wandycz, p. 41.] The union, and the conversion of Lithuania, also marked the end of paganism in Europe. [Jones, p. 7.]

Eastern Europe

The thirteenth century had seen the fall of the state of Kievan Rus', in the face of the Mongol invasion. [Martin, pp. 100–1.] In its place would eventually emerge the Grand Duchy of Moscow, which won a great victory against the Golden Horde at the Battle of Kulikovo in 1380. [Koenigsberger, p. 322; Jones, p. 793; Martin, pp. 236&ndash7.] The victory did not end Tartar rule in the region, however, and its immediate beneficiary was Lithuania, which extended its influence eastwards. [Martin, p. 239.] It was under the reign of Ivan III, the Great (1462–1505), that Moscow finally became a major regional power, and the annexation of the vast Republic of Novgorod in 1478 laid the foundations for a Russian national state. [Allmand (1998), p. 754; Koenigsberger, p. 323.] After the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 the Russian princes started to see themselves as the heirs of the Byzantine Empire. They eventually took on the imperial title of Tsar, and Moscow was described as the Third Rome. [Allmand, p. 769; Hollister, p. 368.]

Byzantine Empire and the Balkans

:"Main articles: Byzantine Empire, Bulgaria, Serbia"The Byzantine Empire had for a long time dominated the eastern Mediterranean in politics and culture. [Hollister, p. 49.] By the fourteenth century, however, it had almost entirely collapsed into a tributary state of the Ottoman Empire, centred on the city of Constantinople and a few enclaves in Greece. [Allmand (1998), pp. 771–4; Mango, p. 248.] With the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Byzantine Empire was permanently extinguished. [Hollister, p. 99; Koenigsberger, p. 340.]

The Bulgarian Empire was in decline by the fourteenth century, and the ascendancy of Serbia was marked by the Serbian victory over the Bulgarians in the Battle of Velbazhd in 1330. [Jones, pp. 796–7.] By 1346, the Serbian king Stefan Dušan had been proclaimed emperor. [Jones, p. 875.] Yet Serbian dominance was short-lived; the Serb armies were defeated by the Ottomans at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, where most of the Serbian nobility were killed and the country became a part of the Ottoman empire, like Bulgaria before it. [Hollister, p. 360; Koenigsberger, p. 339.] By the end of the medieval period, the entire Balkan peninsula was annexed by, or became vassals to, the Ottomans. [Hollister, p. 360; Koenigsberger, p. 339.]

outhern Europe

:"Main articles: Italy", Spain, Portugal"

Avignon was the seat of the papacy from 1309 to 1376. [Hollister, p. 338.] With the return of the Pope to Rome in 1378, the Papal State developed into a major secular power, culminating in the morally corrupt papacy of Alexander VI. [Allmand (1998), p. 586; Hollister, p. 339; Holmes, p. 260.] Florence grew to prominence amongst the Italian city-states through financial business, and the dominant Medici family became important promoters of the Renaissance through their patronage of the arts. [Allmand, pp. 150, 155; Cantor, p. 544; Hollister, p. 326.] Also other city states in northern Italy expanded their territories and consolidated their power, primarily Milan and Venice. [Allmand (1998), p. 547; Hollister, p. 363; Holmes, p. 258.] The War of the Sicilian Vespers had by the early fourteenth century divided southern Italy into an Aragon Kingdom of Sicily and an Anjou Kingdom of Naples. [Cantor, p. 511; Hollister, p. 264; Koenigsberger, p. 255.] In 1442, the two kingdoms were effectively united under Aragonese control. [Allmand (1998), p. 577.]

The 1469 marriage of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon led to the creation of modern-day Spain. [Hollister, p. 356; Koenigsberger, p. 314; Reilly, p. 209.] In 1492, Granada was captured from the Moors, thereby completing the Reconquista. [Allmand (1998), p. 162; Hollister, p. 99; Holmes, p. 265.] Portugal had during the fifteenth century – particularly under Henry the Navigator – gradually explored the coast of Africa, and in 1498, Vasco da Gama found the sea route to India. [Allmand (1998), p. 192; Cantor, 513.] The Spanish monarchs met the Portuguese challenge by financing Columbus’s attempt to find the western sea route to India, leading to the discovery of America in the same year as the capture of Granada. [Cantor, 513; Holmes, pp. 266–7.]


Around 1300–1350 the Medieval Warm Period gave way to the Little Ice Age. [citebook|first=Jean M.|last=Grove|authorlink=|title=The Little Ice Age|edition=|publisher=Routledge|location=London|year=2003|id=ISBN 0415014492] The colder climate resulted in agricultural crises, the first of which is known as the Great Famine of 1315-1317. [Jones, p. 88.] The demographic consequences of this famine, however, were not as severe as those of the plagues of the later century, particularly the Black Death. [Citation|first=Barbara F.|last=Harvey|author-link=|editor-last=Campbell|editor-first=B.M.S.|contribution=Introduction: The 'Crisis' of the Early Fourteenth Century|title=Before the Black Death: Studies in The 'Crisis' of the Early Fourteenth Century|year=1991|pages=pp. 1–24|place=Manchester|publisher=Manchester University Press|id=ISBN 0719032083] Estimates of the death rate caused by this epidemic range from one third to as much as sixty percent. [Jones, pp. 136–8;Cantor, p. 482.] By around 1420, the accumulated effect of recurring plagues and famines had reduced the population of Europe to perhaps no more than a third of what it was a century earlier. [Herlihy (1997), p. 17; Jones, p. 9.] The effects of natural disasters were exacerbated by armed conflicts; this was particularly the case in France during the Hundred Years' War. [Hollister, p. 347.]

As the European population was severely reduced, land became more plentiful for the survivors, and labour consequently more expensive. [Duby, p. 270; Koenigsberger, p. 284; McKisack, p. 334.] Attempts by landowners to forcibly reduce wages, such as the English 1351 Statute of Laborers, were doomed to fail. [Koenigsberger, p. 285.] These efforts resulted in nothing more than fostering resentment among the peasantry, leading to rebellions such as the French Jacquerie in 1358 and the English Peasants' Revolt in 1381. [Cantor, p. 484; Hollister, p. 332; Holmes, p. 303.] The long-term effect was the virtual end of serfdom in Western Europe. [Cantor, p. 564; Hollister, pp. 332–3; Koenigsberger, p. 285.] In Eastern Europe, on the other hand, landowners were able to exploit the situation to force the peasantry into even more repressive bondage. [Hollister, pp. 332–3; Jones, p. 15.]

Up until the mid-fourteenth century, Europe had experienced a steadily increasing urbanisation. [Hollister, p. 323; Holmes, p. 304.] Cities were of course also decimated by the Black Death, but the urban areas' role as centres of learning, commerce and government ensured continued growth. [Jones, p. 164; Koenigsberger, p. 343.] By 1500 Venice, Milan, Naples, Paris and Constantinople probably had more than 100,000 inhabitants.Allmand (1998), p. 125] Twenty-two other cities were larger than 40,000; most of these were to be found in Italy and the Iberian peninsula, but there were also some in France, the Empire, the Low Countries plus London in England.

The upheavals caused by the Black Death left certain minority groups particularly vulnerable, especially the Jews. [Chazan, p. 194.] The calamities were often blamed on this group, and anti-Jewish pogroms were carried out all over Europe; in February 1349, 2,000 Jews were murdered in Strasbourg. [Hollister, p. 330; Holmes, p. 255.] Also the state was guilty of discrimination against the Jews, as monarchs gave in to the demands of the people, the Jews were expelled from England in 1290, from France in 1306, from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1497. [Brady et al., pp. 266–7; Chazan, pp. 166, 232; Koenigsberger, p. 251.]

While the Jews were suffering persecution, one group that probably experienced increased empowerment in the Late Middle Ages was women. The great social changes of the period opened up new possibilities for women in the fields of commerce, learning and religion.Klapisch-Zuber, p. 268.] Yet at the same time, women were also vulnerable to incrimination and persecution, as belief in witchcraft increased.

Military developments

Through battles such as Courtrai (1302), Bannockburn (1314), and Morgarten (1315), it became clear to the great territorial princes of Europe that the military advantage of the feudal cavalry was lost, and that a well equipped infantry was preferable. [Jones, p. 350; McKisack, p. 39; Verbruggen, p. 111.] Through the Welsh Wars the English became acquainted with, and adopted the highly efficient longbow. [Allmand (1988), p. 59; Cantor, p. 467.] Once properly managed, this weapon gave them a great advantage over the French in the Hundred Years' War. [McKisack, p. 240, Verbruggen, pp. 171–2]

The introduction of gunpowder affected the conduct of war significantly. [Contamine, pp. 139–40; Jones, pp. 11–2.] Though employed by the English as early as the Battle of Crécy in 1346, firearms initially had little effect in the field of battle. [Contamine, pp. 198–200.] It was through the use of cannons as siege weapons that major change was brought about; the new methods would eventually change the architectural structure of fortifications. [Allmand (1998), p. 169; Contamine, pp. 200–7.]

Changes also took place within the recruitment and composition of armies. The use of the national or feudal levy was gradually replaced by paid troops of domestic retinues or foreign mercenaries. [Cantor, p. 515.] The practice was associated with Edward III of England and the condottieri of the Italian city-states. [Contamine, pp. 150–65; Holmes, p. 261; McKisack, p. 234.] All over Europe, Swiss soldiers were in particularly high demand. [Contamine, pp. 124, 135.] At the same time, the period also saw the emergence of the first permanent armies. It was in Valois France, under the heavy demands of the Hundred Years' War, that the armed forces gradually assumed a permanent nature. [Contamine, pp. 165–72; Holmes, p. 300.]

Parallel to the military developments emerged also a constantly more elaborate chivalric code of conduct for the warrior class. [Cantor, p. 349; Holmes, pp. 319–20.] This new-found ethos can be seen as a response to the diminishing military role of the aristocracy, and gradually it became almost entirely detached from its military origin. [Hollister, p. 336.] The spirit of chivalry was given expression through the new chivalric orders; the first of which was the Order of St. George founded by Charles I of Hungary in 1325, the best known probably the English Order of the Garter, founded by Edward III in 1348. [Cantor, p. 537; Jones, p. 209; McKisack, p. 251.]


The Great Schism

The French crown's increasing dominance over the Papacy culminated in the transference of the Holy See to Avignon in 1309. [Cantor, p. 496.] When the Pope returned to Rome in 1377, this led to the election of different popes in Avignon and Rome, resulting in the Great Schism (1378–1417). [Cantor, p. 497; Hollister, p. 338; Holmes, p. 309.] The Schism divided Europe along political lines; while France, her ally Scotland and the Spanish kingdoms supported the Avignon Papacy, France's enemy England stood behind the Pope in Rome, together with Portugal, Scandinavia and most of the German princes. [Hollister, p. 338; Koenigsberger, p. 326; Ozment, p. 158.]

At the Council of Constance (1414–1418), the Papacy was once more united in Rome. [Cantor, p. 498; Ozment, p. 164.] Even though the unity of the Western Church was to last for another hundred years, and though the Papacy was to experience greater material prosperity than ever before, the Great Schism had done irreparable damage. [Koenigsberger, pp. 327–8; MacCulloch, p. 34.] The internal struggles within the Church had impaired her claim to universal rule, and promoted anti-clericalism among the people and their rulers, paving the way for reform movements. [Hollister, p. 339; Holmes, p. 260; Koenigsberger, pp. 327–8.]

Reform movements

John Wycliffe

Though the Catholic Church had long fought against heretic movements, in the Late Middle Ages, it started to experience demands for reform from within. [A famous account of the nature of, and suppression of a heretic movement, is Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's citebook|first=|last=|authorlink=|title=Montaillou: Cathars and Catholics in a French Village, 1294–1324|edition=|publisher=Scolar Press|location=London|year=1978|id=ISBN 0859674037] The first of these came from the Oxford professor John Wyclif in England. [MacCulloch, p. 34–5.] Wycliffe held that the Bible should be the only authority in religious questions, and spoke out against transubstantiation, celibacy and indulgences. [Allmand (1998), p. 15; Cantor, pp. 499–500; Koenigsberger, p. 331.] In spite of influential supporters among the English aristocracy, such as John of Gaunt, the movement was not allowed to survive. Though Wycliffe himself was left unmolested, his supporters, the Lollards, were eventually suppressed in England. [Allmand (1998), pp. 15–6; MacCulloch, p. 35.]

Jan Hus

Richard II of England's marriage to Anne of Bohemia established contacts between the two nations and brought Lollard ideas to this part of Europe. [Holmes, p. 312; MacCulloch, pp. 35–6; Ozment , p. 165.] The teachings of the Czech priest Jan Hus were based on those of John Wyclif, yet his followers, the Hussites, were to have a much greater political impact than the Lollards. [Allmand (1998), p. 16; Cantor, p. 500.] Hus gained a great following in Bohemia, and in 1414, he was requested to appear at the Council of Constance, to defend his cause. [Allmand (1998), p. 377; Koenigsberger, p. 332.] When he was burned as a heretic in 1415, it caused a popular uprising in the Czech lands. [Koenigsberger, p. 332; MacCulloch, p. 36.] The subsequent Hussite Wars fell apart due to internal quarrels, and did not result in religious or national independence for the Czechs, but both the Catholic Church and the German element within the country were weakened. [Allmand (1998), p. 353; Hollister, p. 344; Koenigsberger, p. 332–3.]

Martin Luther

Though technically outside the time-period of the Middle Ages, the Protestant Reformation of Martin Luther ended the unity of the Western Church – one of the distinguishing characteristics of the medieval period.

Luther, a German monk, started the Reformation by the posting of the 95 theses on the castle church of Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. [MacCulloch, p. 115.] The immediate provocation behind the act was Pope Leo X’s renewing the indulgence for the building of the new St. Peter's Basilica in 1514. [MacCulloch, pp. 70, 117.] Luther was challenged to recant his heresy at the Diet of Worms in 1521. [MacCulloch, p. 127; Ozment, p. 245.] When he refused, he was placed under the ban of the Empire by Charles V. [MacCulloch, p. 128.] Receiving the protection of Frederick the Wise, he was then able to translate the Bible into German. [Ozment, p. 246.]

To many secular rulers, the Protestant reformation was a welcome opportunity to expand their wealth and influence. [Allmand (1998), pp. 16–7; Cantor, pp. 500–1.] The Catholic Church met the challenges of the reforming movements with what has been called the Catholic or Counter-Reformation. [MacCulloch, p. 107; Ozment, p. 397.] Europe became split into a northern Protestant and a southern Catholic part, resulting in the Religious Wars of the 16th and 17th centuries. [MacCulloch, p. 266; Ozment, pp. 259–60.]

Trade and commerce

The increasingly dominant position of the Ottoman Empire in the eastern Mediterranean presented an impediment to trade for the Christian nations of the west, who in turn started looking for alternatives. [Allmand (1998), pp. 159–60; Pounds, pp. 467–8.] Portuguese and Spanish explorers found new trade routes – south of Africa to India, and across the Atlantic Ocean to America. [Hollister, pp. 334–5.] As Genoese and Venetian merchants opened up direct sea routes with Flanders, the Champagne fairs lost much of their importance. [Cipolla (1976), p. 275; Koenigsberger, p. 295; Pounds, p. 361.] At the same time, English wool export shifted from raw wool to processed cloth, resulting in losses for the cloth manufacturers of the Low Countries. [Cipolla (1976), p. 283; Koenigsberger, p. 297; Pounds, pp. 378–81.] In the Baltic and North Sea, the Hanseatic League reached the peak of their power in the fourteenth century, but started going into decline in the fifteenth. [Cipolla (1976), p. 275; Cipolla (1994), p. 203, 234; Pounds, pp. 387–8.]

In the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, a process took place – primarily in Italy but partly also in the Empire – that historians have termed a 'commercial revolution'. [Koenigsberger, p. 226; Pounds, p. 407.] Among the innovations of the period were new forms of partnership and the issuing of insurance, both of which contributed to reducing the risk of commercial ventures; the bill of exchange and other forms of credit that circumvented the canonical laws for gentiles against usury, and eliminated the dangers of carrying bullion; and new forms of accounting, in particular double-entry bookkeeping, which allowed for better oversight and accuracy. [Cipolla (1976), pp. 318–29; Cipolla (1994), pp. 160–4; Holmes, p. 235; Jones, pp. 176–81; Koenigsberger, p. 226; Pounds, pp. 407–27.]

With the financial expansion, trading rights became more jealously guarded by the commercial elite. Towns saw the growing power of guilds, while on a national level special companies would be granted monopolies on particular trades, like the English wool Staple. [Jones, p. 121; Pearl, pp. 299–300; Koenigsberger, pp. 286, 291.] The beneficiaries of these developments would accumulate immense wealth. Families like the Fuggers in Germany, the Medicis in Italy, the de la Poles in England, and individuals like Jacques Coeur in France would help finance the wars of kings, and achieve great political influence in the process. [Allmand (1998), pp. 150–3; Holmes, p. 304; Koenigsberger, p. 299; McKisack, p. 160.]

Though there is no doubt that the demographic crisis of the fourteenth century caused a dramatic fall in production and commerce in "absolute" terms, there has been a vigorous historical debate over whether the decline was greater than the fall in population. [Pounds, p. 483.] While the older orthodoxy was that the artistic output of the Renaissance was a result of greater opulence, more recent studies have suggested that there might have been a so-called 'depression of the Renaissance'. [citejournal|first=C.M.|last=Cipolla|authorlink=Carlo Maria Cipolla|year=1964|month=|title=Economic depression of the Renaissance?|journal=Economic History Review|volume=xvi|issue=|pages=pp. 519–24|accessdate=] In spite of convincing arguments for the case, the statistical evidence is simply too incomplete that a definite conclusion can be made. [Pounds, pp. 484–5.]

Arts and sciences

In the fourteenth century, the predominant academic trend of scholasticism was challenged by the humanist movement. Though primarily an attempt to revitalise the classical languages, the movement also led to innovations within the fields of science, art and literature, helped on by impulses from Byzantine scholars who had to seek refuge in the west after the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. [Allmand (1998), pp. 243–54; Cantor, p. 594; Nicholas, p. 156.] In science, classical authorities like Aristotle were challenged for the first time since antiquity. Within the arts, humanism took the form of the Renaissance. Though the fifteenth-century Renaissance was a highly localised phenomenon – limited mostly to the city states of northern Italy – artistic developments were taking place also further north, particularly in the Netherlands. [For references, see below.]

Philosophy, science and technology

The predominant school of thought in the thirteenth century was the Thomistic reconciliation of the teachings of Aristotle with Christian theology. [Jones, p. 42; Koenigsberger, p. 242.] The Condemnation of 1277, enacted at the University of Paris, placed restrictions on ideas that could be interpreted as heretical; restrictions that had implication for Aristotelian thought.cite web|url=|title=Condemnation of 1277|publisher=Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy|author=Hans Thijssen|year=2003|accessdate=2008-04-21] An alternative was presented by William of Ockham, who insisted that the world of reason and the world of faith had to be kept apart. Ockham introduced the principle of parsimony – or Occam's razor – whereby a simple theory is preferred to a more complex one, and speculation on unobservable phenomena is avoided. [Grant, p. 142; Nicholas, p. 134.] This new approach liberated scientific speculation from the dogmatic restraints of Aristotelian science, and paved the way for new approaches. Particularly within the field of theories of motion great advances were made, when such scholars as Jean Buridan, Nicole Oresme and the Oxford Calculators challenged the work of Aristotle. [Grant, pp. 100–3, 149, 164–5.] Buridan developed the theory of "impetus" as the cause of the motion of projectiles, which was an important step towards the modern concept of inertia. [Grant, pp. 95–7.] The works of these scholars anticipated the heliocentric worldview of Nicolaus Copernicus. [Grant, pp. 112–3.]

Certain technological inventions of the period – whether of Arab or Chinese origin, or unique European innovations – were to have great influence on political and social developments, in particular gunpowder, the printing press and the compass. The introduction of gunpowder to the field of battle affected not only military organisation, but helped advance the nation state. Gutenberg's movable type printing press made possible not only the Reformation, but also a dissemination of knowledge that would lead to a gradually more egalitarian society. The compass, along with other innovations such as the cross-staff, the mariner's astrolabe, and advances in shipbuilding, enabled the navigation of the World Oceans, and the early phases of colonialism . [Jones, pp. 11–2; Koenigsberger, pp. 297–8; Nicholas, p. 165.] Other inventions had a greater impact on everyday life, such as eyeglasses and the weight-driven clock. [Grant, p. 160; Koenigsberger, p. 297.]

Visual arts and architecture

A precursor to Renaissance art can be seen already in the early fourteenth-century works of Giotto. Giotto was the first painter since antiquity to attempt the representation of a three-dimensional reality, and to endow his characters with true human emotions. [Cantor, p. 433; Koenigsberger, p. 363.] The most important developments, however, came in fifteenth-century Florence. The affluence of the merchant class allowed extensive patronage of the arts, and foremost among the patrons were the Medici. [Allmand (1998), p. 155; Brotton, p. 27.] The period saw several important technical innovations, like the principle of linear perspective found in the work of Masaccio, and later described by Brunelleschi. [Burke, p. 24; Koenigsberger, p. 363; Nicholas, p. 161.] Greater realism was also achieved through the scientific study of anatomy, championed by artists like Donatello. [Allmand (1998), p. 253; Cantor, p. 556.] This can be seen particularly well in his sculptures, inspired by the study of classical models. [Cantor, p. 554; Nichols, pp. 159–60.] As the centre of the movement shifted to Rome, the period culminated in the High Renaissance masters da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael. [Brotton, p. 67; Burke, p. 69.]

The ideas of the Italian Renaissance were slow to cross the Alps into northern Europe, but important artistic innovations were made also in the Low Countries. [Allmand (1998), p. 269; Koenigsberger, p. 376.] Though not – as previously believed – the inventor of oil painting, Jan van Eyck was a champion of the new medium, and used it to create works of great realism and minute detail. [Allmand (1998), p. 302; Cantor, p. 539.] The two cultures influenced each other and learned from each other, but painting in the Netherlands remained more focused on textures and surfaces than the idealised compositions of Italy. [Burke, p. 250; Nicholas, p. 161.]

In northern European countries gothic architecture remained the norm, and the gothic cathedral was further elaborated. [Allmand (1998), pp. 300–1, Hollister, p. 375.] In Italy, on the other hand, architecture took a different direction, also here inspired by classical ideals. The crowning work of the period was the Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, with Giotto's clock tower, Ghiberti's baptistery gates, and Brunelleschi's cathedral dome of unprecedented proportions. [Allmand (1998), p. 305; Cantor, p. 371.]


The most important development of late medieval literature was the ascendancy of the vernacular languages. [Jones, p. 8.] The vernacular had been in use in France and England since the eleventh century, where the most popular genres had been the chanson de geste, troubadour lyrics and romantic epics, or the romance. [Cantor, p. 346.] Though Italy was later in evolving a native literature in the vernacular language, it was here that the most important developments of the period were to come. [Curtius, p. 387; Koenigsberger, p. 368.] Dante Alighieri's "Divine Comedy", written in the early fourteenth century, merged a medieval world view with classical ideals. [Cantor, p. 546; Curtius, pp. 351, 378.] Other promoters of the Italian language were Petrarch – whose "Canzoniere" are considered the first modern lyric poems – and Boccaccio with his "Decameron". [Curtius, p. 396; Koenigsberger, p. 368; Jones, p. 258.] The application of the vernacular did not entail a rejection of Latin, and both Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio wrote prolifically in Latin as well as Italian. [Curtius, p. 26; Jones, p. 258; Koenigsberger, p. 368.] Together the three poets established the Tuscan dialect as the norm for the modern Italian language. [Koenigsberger, p. 369.]

The new literary style spread rapidly, and in France influenced such writers as Eustache Deschamps and Guillaume de Machaut. [Jones, p. 264.] In England Geoffrey Chaucer helped establish English as a literary language with his "Canterbury Tales", which tales of everyday life were heavily influenced by Boccaccio. [Curtius, p. 35; Jones. p. 264.] The spread of vernacular literature eventually reached as far as Bohemia, and the Baltic, Slavic and Byzantine worlds. [Jones, p. 9.]


Music was an important part of both secular and spiritual culture, and in the universities it made up part of the "quadrivium" of the liberal arts. [Allmand, p. 319; Grant, p. 14; Koenigsberger, p. 382.] From the early thirteenth century, the dominant sacred musical form had been the motet; a composition with text in several parts. [Allmand, p. 322; Wilson, p. 229.] From the 1330s and onwards, emerged the polyphonic style, which was a more complex fusion of independent voices. [Wilson, pp. 229, 289–90, 327.] Polyphony had been common in the secular music of the Provençal troubadours. Many of these had fallen victim to the thirteenth-century Albigensian Crusade, but their influence reached the papal court at Avignon. [Koenigsberger, p. 381; Wilson, p. 329.] The main representatives of the new style, often referred to as "ars nova" as opposed to the "ars antiqua", were the composers Philippe de Vitry and Guillaume de Machaut. [Koenigsberger, p. 383; Wilson, p. 329.] In Italy, where the Provençal troubadours had also found refuge, the corresponding period goes under the name of trecento, and the leading composers were Giovanni da Cascia, Jacopo da Bologna and Francesco Landini. [Wilson, pp. 357–8, 361–2.]


For eighteenth-century historians studying the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the central theme was the Renaissance, with its rediscovery of ancient learning and the emergence of an individual spirit. [Brady "et al.", p. xiv; Cantor, p. 529..] This was a process centred on Italy, where, in the words of Jacob Burckhardt: "Man became a spiritual individual and recognized himself as such" ("The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy", 1860). [cite book|first=Jacob|last=Burckhardt|authorlink=Jacob Burckhardt|title=The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy|edition=|publisher=|location=|year=1860|page=p. 121|id=|url=] This proposition was later challenged, and it was argued that the twelfth century was a period of greater cultural achievement. [cite book|first= Charles Homer|last=Haskins|authorlink=Charles Homer Haskins|title= The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century|edition=|publisher= Harvard University Press|location=Cambridge, Mass.|year=1927|id=|url=] As economic and demographic methods were applied to the study of history, the trend was increasingly to see the late Middle Ages as a period of recession and crisis. Belgian historian Henri Pirenne introduced the now common subdivision of Early, High and Late Middle Ages in the years around World War I. ["Les periodes de l'historie du capitalism", "Academie Royale de Belgique. Bulletin de la Classe des Lettres", 1914.] Yet it was his Dutch colleague Johan Huizinga who was primarily responsible for popularising the pessimistic view of the Late Middle Ages, with his book "The Autumn of the Middle Ages" (1919). [cite book|first=Johan|last=Huizinga|authorlink=Johan Huizinga|title=The Waning of the Middle Ages: A Study of the Forms of Life, Thought and Art in France and the Netherlands in the XIVth and XVth Centuries|edition=|publisher=E. Arnold|location=London|year=1924|page=|id=|url=] To Huizinga, whose research focused on France and the Low Countries rather than Italy, despair and decline were the main themes, not rebirth.Allmand, p. 299; Cantor, p. 530.]

Modern historiography on the period has reached a consensus between the two extremes of innovation and crisis. It is now generally acknowledged that conditions were vastly different north and south of the Alps, and "Late Middle Ages" is often avoided entirely within Italian historiography. [Le Goff, p. 154. See e.g. cite book|first=John M.|last=Najemy|authorlink=|title=Italy in the Age of the Renaissance: 1300–1550|edition=|publisher=Oxford University Press|location=Oxford|year=2004|page=|id=ISBN 0198700407|url=] The term "Renaissance" is still considered useful for describing certain intellectual, cultural or artistic developments, but not as the defining feature of an entire European historical epoch.Brady "et al.", p. xvii.] The period from the early fourteenth century up until – sometimes including – the sixteenth century, is rather seen as characterised by other trends: demographic and economic decline followed by recovery, the end of western religious unity and the subsequent emergence of the nation state, and the expansion of European influence onto the rest of the world.

ee also

*List of basic medieval history topics
*Timeline of the Middle Ages
*Church and state in medieval Europe
*History of the Jews in the Middle Ages
*1345 – an extensive treatment of a single year of this period.



*"The New Cambridge Medieval History, vol. 6: c. 1300 - c. 1415", (2000). Michael Jones (ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521362903.
*"The New Cambridge Medieval History, vol. 7: c. 1415 - c. 1500", (1998). Christopher Allmand (ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521382963.
*cite book|first=Thomas A., Jr., Heiko A. Oberman, James D. Tracy (eds.)|last=Brady|authorlink=|title=Handbook of European History, 1400–1600: Late Middle Ages, Renaissance and Reformation|edition=|publisher=E.J. Brill|location=Leiden, New York|year=1994|id=ISBN 9004097627|url=
*cite book|first=Norman|last=Cantor|authorlink=Norman Cantor|title=The Civilization of the Middle Ages|edition=|publisher=Harper Perennial|location=New York|year=1994|id=ISBN 0060170336|url=
*cite book|first=Denys|last=Hay|authorlink=Denys Hay|title=Europe in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries|edition=2nd ed.|publisher=Longman|location=London|year=1988|id=ISBN 0582491797|url=
*cite book|first=C. Warren|last=Hollister|authorlink=|title=Medieval Europe: A Short History|edition=10th ed.|publisher=McGraw-Hill Higher Education|location=|year=2005|id=ISBN 0072955155|url=
*cite book|first=George (ed.)|last=Holmes|authorlink=George Holmes (professor)|title=The Oxford History of Medieval Europe|edition=New ed.|publisher=Oxford University Press|location=Oxford|year=2001|id=ISBN 0192801333|url=
*cite book|first=Maurice|last=Keen|authorlink=Maurice Keen|title=The Penguin History of Medieval Europe|edition=New ed.|publisher=Penguin Books|location=London|year=1991|id=ISBN 0140136304|url=
*cite book|first=Jacques|last=Le Goff|authorlink=Jacques Le Goff|title=The Birth of Europe: 400-1500|edition=|publisher=WileyBlackwell|location=|year=2005|id=ISBN 0631228888|url=
*cite book|first=Daniel|last=Waley|authorlink=|first2=Peter|last2=Denley|author2-link=|title=Later Medieval Europe: 1250-1520|edition=3rd ed.|publisher=Longman|location=London|year=2001|id=ISBN 0582258316|url=

Specific regions:
*cite book|first=David|last=Abulafia|authorlink=David Abulafia|title=The Western Mediterranean Kingdoms: The Struggle for Dominion, 1200-1500|edition=|publisher=Longman|location=London|year=1997|id=ISBN 0582078202|url=
*cite book|first=Georges|last=Duby|authorlink=Georges Duby|title=France in the Middle Ages, 987-1460: From Hugh Capet to Joan of Arc|edition=New ed.|publisher=WileyBlackwell|location=|year=1993|id=ISBN 0631189459|url=
*cite book|first=John V.A.|last=Fine|authorlink=|title=The Late Medieval Balkans: A Critical Survey from the Late Twelfth Century to the Ottoman Conquest|edition=Reprint edition|publisher=University of Michigan Press|location=Ann Arbor|year=1994|id=ISBN 0472082604|url=
*cite book|first=E.F.|last=Jacob|authorlink=E. F. Jacob|title=The Fifteenth Century: 1399–1485|edition=|publisher=Oxford University Press|location=Oxford|year=1961|id=ISBN 0-19-821714-5|url=
*cite book|first=May|last=McKisack|authorlink=May McKisack|title=The Fourteenth Century: 1307–1399|edition=|publisher=Oxford University Press|location=Oxford|year=1959|id=ISBN 0-19-821712-9|url=
*cite book|first=Cyril (ed.)|last=Mango|authorlink=Cyril Mango|title=The Oxford History of Byzantium|edition=|publisher=Oxford University Press|location=Oxford|year=2002|id=ISBN 0198140983|url=
*cite book|first=Janet|last=Martin|authorlink=|title=Medieval Russia, 980–1584|edition=2nd ed.|publisher=Cambridge University Press|location=Cambridge|year=2007|id=ISBN 0521859166|url=
*cite book|first=John M. (ed.)|last=Najemy|authorlink=|title=Italy in the Age of the Renaissance: 1300-1550|edition=New ed.|publisher=Oxford University Press|location=Oxford|year=2004|id=ISBN 0198700407|url=
*cite book|first=Bernard F.|last=Reilly|authorlink=|title=The Medieval Spains|edition=|publisher=Cambridge University Press|location=Cambridge|year=1993|id=ISBN 0521397413|url=
*cite book|first=Piotr|last=Wandycz|authorlink=|title=The Price of Freedom: A History of East Central Europe from the Middle Ages to the Present|edition=2nd ed.|publisher=Routledge|location=London|year=2001|id=ISBN 0415254914|url=

*citebook|first=Robert|last=Chazan|authorlink=|title=The Jews of Medieval Western Christendom: 1000-1500|edition=|publisher=Cambridge University Press|location=Cambridge|year=2006|id=ISBN 0521616646
*citebook|first=David|last=Herlihy|authorlink=David Herlihy|title=Medieval Households|edition=|publisher=Harvard University Press|location=Cambridge, Massachusetts; London|year=1985|id=ISBN 0674563751
*citebook|first=David|last=Herlihy|authorlink=|title=Medieval Culture and Society|edition=|publisher=Macmillan|location=London|year=1968|id=
*citebook|first=William Chester|last=Jordan|authorlink=William Chester Jordan|title=The Great Famine: Northern Europe in the Early Fourteenth Century|edition=|publisher=Princeton University Press|location=New Jersey|year=1996|id=ISBN 0691011346
*citebook|first=Christiane|last=Klapisch-Zuber|authorlink=|title=A history of women in the West|edition=New ed.|publisher=Harvard University Press|location=Cambridge, Mass.; London|year=1994|id=ISBN 0674403681

The Black Death:
*citebook|first=Ole J.|last=Benedictow|authorlink=|title=The Black Death 1346-1353: The Complete History|edition=|publisher=Boydell Press|location=Woodbridge|year=2004|id=ISBN 0851159435
*citebook|first=David|last=Herlihy|authorlink=David Herlihy|title=The Black Death and the transformation of the West|edition=|publisher=Harvard University Press|location=Cambridge, Mass.; London|year=1997|id=ISBN 0750932023
*citebook|first=Rosemary|last=Horrox|authorlink=|title=The Black Death|edition=|publisher=Manchester University Press|location=Manchester|year=1994|id=ISBN 0719034973
*citebook|first=Philip|last=Ziegler|authorlink=Philip Ziegler|title=The Black Death|edition=New ed.|publisher=Sutton Publishing Ltd.|location=Sutton|year=2003|id=ISBN 0750932023

*cite book|first=Christopher|last=Allmand|authorlink=|title=The Hundred Years War: England and France at War c.1300-c.1450|edition=|publisher=Cambridge University Press|location=Cambridge|year=1988|id=ISBN 0521319234|url=
*cite book|first=Philippe|last=Contamine|authorlink=|title=War in the Middle Ages|edition=|publisher=Blackwell|location=Oxford|year=1984|id=ISBN 0631131426|url=
*cite book|first=Anne|last=Curry|authorlink=|title=The Hundred Years War|edition=|publisher=Macmillan|location=Basingstoke|year=1993|id=ISBN 0333531752|url=
*cite book|first=Maurice|last=Keen|authorlink=|title=Chivalry|edition=|publisher=Yale University Press|location=New Haven|year=1984|id=ISBN 0300031505|url=
*cite book|first=J. F.|last=Verbruggen|authorlink=|title=The Art of Warfare in Western Europe during the Middle Ages: From the Eighth Century to 1340|edition=2nd ed.|publisher=Boydell Press|location=Woodbridge|year=1997|id=ISBN 0851156304|url=

*cite book|first=Carlo M.|last=Cipolla|authorlink=Carlo Maria Cipolla|title=Before the Industrial Revolution: European Society and Economy 1000–1700|edition=3rd ed.|publisher=Routledge|location=London|year=1993|id=ISBN 0415090059|url=
*cite book|first=Carlo M. (ed.)|last=Cipolla|authorlink=|title=The Fontana Economic History of Europe, Volume 1: The Middle Ages|edition=2nd ed.|publisher=Fontana Books|location=New York|year=1993|id=ISBN 0855271590|url=
*cite book|first=M.M.|last=Postan|authorlink=Michael Postan|title=Mediaeval Trade and Finance|edition=|publisher=Cambridge University Press|location=Cambridge|year=2002|id=ISBN 0521522021|url=
*cite book|first=N.J.P.|last=Pounds|authorlink=|title=An Economic History of Medieval Europe|edition=2nd ed.|publisher=Longman|location=London and New York|year=1994|id=ISBN 0582215994|url=

*citebook|first=Anthony|last=Kenny|authorlink=Anthony Kenny|title=Wyclif|edition=|publisher=Oxford University Press|location=Oxford|year=1985|id=ISBN 0192876473
*citebook|first=Diarmaid|last=MacCulloch|authorlink=Diarmaid MacCulloch|title=The Reformation|edition=|publisher=Penguin|location=|year=2005|id=ISBN 014303538X
*citebook|first=Steven E.|last=Ozment|authorlink=Steven Ozment|title=The Age of Reform, 1250-1550: An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe|edition=|publisher=Yale University Press|location=New Haven and London|year=1980|id=ISBN 0300024770
*citebook|first=John H.|last=Smith|authorlink=|title=The Great Schism, 1378|edition=|publisher=Hamilton|location=London|year=1970|id=ISBN 0241015200
*citebook|first=R.W.|last=Southern|authorlink=Richard Southern|title=Western society and the Church in the Middle Ages|edition=|publisher=Penguin Books|location=Harmondsworth|year=1970|id=ISBN 0140205039

Arts and science:
*citebook|first=Jerry|last=Brotton|authorlink=|title=The Renaissance: A Very Short Introduction|edition=|publisher=Oxford University Press|location=Oxford|year=2006|id=ISBN 0192801635
*citebook|first=Peter|last=Burke|authorlink=Peter Burke|title=The European Renaissance: Centres and Peripheries|edition=2nd ed.|publisher=Blackwell|location=Oxford|year=1998|id=ISBN 0631198458
*citebook|first=Ernest Robert|last=Curtius|authorlink=Ernst Robert Curtius|title=European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages|edition=New ed.|publisher=Princeton University Press|location=New York|year=1991|id=ISBN 0691018995
*citebook|first=Edward|last=Grant|authorlink=Edward Grant|title=The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages: Their Religious, Institutional, and Intellectual Contexts|edition=|publisher=Cambridge University Press|location=Cambridge|year=1996|id=ISBN 0521567629
*citebook|first=James|last=Snyder|authorlink=|title=Northern Renaissance Art: Painting, Sculpture, the Graphic Arts from 1350 to 1575|edition=2nd ed.|publisher=Prentice Hall|location=|year=2004|id=ISBN 0131895648
*citebook|first=Evelyn|last=Welch|authorlink=|title=Art in Renaissance Italy, 1350-1500|edition=reprint ed.|publisher=Oxford University Press|location=Oxford|year=2000|id=ISBN 019284279X
*citebook|first=David Fenwick|last=Wilson|authorlink=|title=Music of the Middle Ages|edition=|publisher=Schirmer Books|location=New York|year=1990|id=ISBN 002872951X

External links

* [ Original sources]
* [ Collection of links]

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