The late middle ages opened as an era of unparalleled crisis in Europe as disaster after disaster struck every aspect of European life causing much of the prosperity of the high middle ages to crumble. The high middle ages were a period of marked social, political and economic growth all held together by the stability and continuity of the Roman church as an intertwining agent in all aspects of European life. The 14th century however brought with it a sharp decline in population growth, due largely to the overpopulation of the previous centuries that had placed a strain on the land which forced many peasants to farm on marginal lands or lands with poor soil. Added to this was a series of years of bad weather from 1315-1320 which caused much of these crops on marginal lands to fail which first led the peasant population to eat all their grain reserves and then their seed reserves, finally leading to starvation and no seed to plant for next years harvest. The reality was that Europe had reached its population ceiling and the land could no longer support the population. A good example of this was the sharp population decline in Provence, France where a population of 400,000 people dropped to 200,000 people.
Adding to all this was the arrival of the bubonic plague from 1346-1348, unseen in Europe since the 5th century. The plague arrived in Italy by way of a ship infested with plague carrying rats that docked in Sicily unleashing the entire population of rodents on the unsuspecting Sicilian population who had no immune resistance to the plague. The plague spread rapidly throughout Italy, reaching as far north as Denmark by 1349-1350. Certain characteristics of the plague caused it to prevent population recovery such as it being endemic, meaning it would lie dormant in the population for a time before returning without warning, (Barcelona was hit six times by the plague in the first 100 years of the epidemic.) and the widespread malnutrition due to crop failure contributed to the death toll being alarmingly high during each wave of the plague.
England was hit by the plague in 1348 and lost 30-50% of it’s total population
Another significant setback during the late middle ages was that the plague predominantly struck those who were in their childbearing years preventing reproduction to replenish the population. This huge decline in population triggered social dislocation and serious economic depression that had terrible consequences across the continent.
Firstly the demand for food took a serious hit as the plague nearly halved populations in many countries, this, in turn, caused the collapse of agricultural prices and profits. The loss of population also meant fewer peasant workers who demanded higher wages from their employer which increased the price of manufactured goods, destroying sales revenue. In desperation, employers and owners looked to governments for relief and support in the form of wage freezes but the wage freezes enraged the already stressed out and starving peasant population with wave after wave of workers rising in revolt.
In the midst of all this socio-economic upheaval the English and French monarchies engaged in The Hundred Years War from 1337-1453 which greatly weakened both ruling houses. The war began over a squabble regarding succession to the throne of France. In 1328 Charles IV the last of the powerful Capetian dynasty died without having produced a male heir, leaving not only a vacant throne but also a significant problem for France. There were two claimants to the throne, Philip of Valois, a French noble who was a distant relative of the Capetians and King Edward III of England. Philip’s claim was through a male bloodline whereas Edwards was through a female, his mother being the old king’s sister. The French nobility decided to go with Philip as the most suitable option to occupy the throne and Edward acceded to their judgment but events in Flanders changed the situation dramatically.
Flanders was part of France and was ruled by a count who was a vassal of the King of France but both the Count and the French rule he paid homage to were quite unpopular among the people. The dispute over the French throne was seen by the Flemish people as an opportunity to overthrow French rule and they immediately demanded that Edward press his claim to the throne, threatening to stop buying English wool if he did not. Flanders bought a significant share of English wool but not enough to convince Edward to fight over the crown but then Philip chose to invade English lands in France which finally convinced Edward III that he needed to go to war for the crown of France. Edward fought the first half of the war for England while Henry V took over in the 15th Century but sadly there were no real winners in the war as both countries suffered under the weight of the conflict.
Out of an era of social, economic, political and ecclesiastical darkness, God raised the movement of the Reformation to offer people hope beyond what they saw unfolding before them.
The late middle ages was also a time when the Roman church went through its own share of upheaval leading many people to lose faith in its authority and infallibility. The first disaster was that of the Babylonian Captivity that lasted from 1305-1378. In 1305, the Capetian king Philip IV attempted to strengthen the monarchy by trying to gain control of the French clergy, which led him to pressure Pope Boniface VIII to transfer the Papal court to Avignon in Southern France. While the Pope was in Avignon and deeply influenced by the French king, the Papal States declared independence which led the Pope to turn to Papal fiscalism in order to gather revenue for the church. Papal fiscalism entailed charging fees for every single service provided by the church and included an elaborate new system to collect Papal taxes. The people came to realize see the Papacy as greedy and materialistic and rulers resented the flow of tax money out of their kingdoms and into the Papal coffers. All this coupled with an underlying resentment towards the French influence over the Pope led people to lose confidence in the leadership of the church.
The second wave of disaster for the church ran from 1378-1415 in the form of the Great Schism or the Papal Schism. In 1378 Pope Gregory IX decided that the Papal court had to move back to Rome or risk the total loss of public confidence. He managed to accomplish the task but died shortly thereafter. The College of Cardinals, many of whom were French, elected a new Pope, the Italian Urban VI, however, Urban turned out to have new and radical ideas regarding church reform which took the Cardinals by surprise and so the French cardinals went back into session, deposed Urban and elected a new French Pope. The problem was that Urban refused to step down and so the French Pope and Cardinals moved back to Avignon, leaving Urban and the Italian cardinals in Rome which meant that now there were two Pope claiming to be the Vicar of Christ and two groups claiming to be the true church. All of Europe was forced to take sides and all Christendom was split causing the church to be totally humiliated.
This led to the rise of the Conciliar Movement which was essentially a group of Cardinals who decided that only a council of the church could decide which Pope had the rightful claim to the Papal seat. There was also a suggestion that after the decision had been made the council would take over as the highest authority in the church with the pope as a second tier administrator. The first attempt was held in Pisa in 1409 and the Bishops of the Council elected a new Pope and declared the two squabbling pontiffs deposed. However they both refused to acknowledge the deposition and so there were three Popes, in Pisa, Rome and Avignon and the public image of the church took a nosedive. Under pressure from the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, the conciliar solution was tried again in 1415, this time in Constance, Germany. The Council lasted from 1415-1418 and dealt with the matter of the schism once and for all by elected a new Pope, Martin V. In addition to this the Council also dealt with other matters such as the Hussite heresy which saw the martyrdom of the Bohemian reformers John Huss and Jerome and the burning of John Wycliffe’s bones as an act of condemnation of him and his work.
The late middle ages also saw the rise of the Renaissance, a movement that sprang from the ashes of a crisis-ridden 14th century to provide a humanistic alternative to the prevailing despondency and gloom. The Renaissance began in Italy among intellectuals of the urbanized North who instead of giving way to pessimism in the wake of the death and socio-economic upheaval around them chose to create a new society through a search for renewal or rebirth. Thus the Renaissance while being a launching pad for the revival of art, literature, and culture was also a counter movement to the powerful biblical revival taking place in England under Wycliffe and taken up in Bohemia by Huss and Jerome. Some of the keystones of the Renaissance were the rediscovery of the great Greek and Roman classical writings, reaching beyond Aristotle to embrace the likes of Seneca, Scipio, Demosthenes, and others. The premise behind this was that these classics contained the wisdom that was needed to solve the political, social and moral problems facing Europe and to reconstruct society on classical foundations.
When you take a step back and look at the upheaval in Europe, with death on every hand, society falling apart, the economy disintegrating and the church so embroiled in such materialistic turmoil it seems only natural that intelligent and educated people began to look to other sources for the answers they so desperately needed. But God was already working to provide those answers, He had raised up Wycliffe as a powerful reformer in England and through the agency of his writings raised up a movement throughout Europe. God had also raised up Huss and Jerome and the Bohemian Reformation. Amidst the terrible darkness of superstition, man-made tradition, and a hopeless grave God was seeking to reach the minds of people in Europe.
In addition to the Renaissance the late middle ages also saw the birth of Civic Humanism which was essentially looking to man and his wisdom as a source of morality and ethics. Much of Humanism was based on the writings of the great Roman classicists like Cicero, Livy, Lucretius, and Quintilian. The goal of humanism was to help the individual reach his fullest potential through the study of classical wisdom thus producing the best caliber of citizens. Much of humanistic education was based on the educational structure of Rome and was basically founded on the belief that man was able to reach divine enlightenment on through mental and intellectual culture.
One of the biggest fans of humanism was Ulrich Zwingli but God opened his mind to the truth that man is not able to transform himself through mental culture but it is only the power of God experienced through Jesus the living Word that is able to transform men’s lives. Europe had so long been plunged into the darkness of Papal supremacy that it had no concept of light and was in danger of exchange the darkness of Rome for the darkness of humanism. Zwingli was the man God chose to dispel that cloud and place before the people the only alternative to human ideology; the word of God.
Surveying the landscape of the late middle ages makes you realize how ripe Europe was for the Reformation. The stench of death on every hand, the political and economic systems failing, social fabric fraying, war and turmoil in every quarter and the tempestuous upheaval of the only stable and consistent bulwark in European society; the Roman Catholic church. In order to find hope beyond the grave and some semblance of meaning to life, the brightest minds in European society turned to Roman culture and civilization for answers. But God was raising up a movement, brick by brick, that would hold up His word as the only unfailing source of wisdom that men needed to navigate the uncertainty and turmoil they faced at every turn.