Category Archives: Lesson 7 European Late Middle Ages

The European Late Middle Ages: towards Renaissance

In the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries, European society developed many aspects of social development. It developed territorial states, parliaments, capitalist trade and industry, banks, cities, and vernacular literature.

The Catholic Church under the direction of the papacy reached its height  conflicted with the state, and led the disastrous Crusades in which a Christian west was pitted against the Middle East and Islam.

Fourteenth-century European crises led to the disintegration of medieval socities. However, new ideas and practices were emerging and the pace of change was quickening. The rebirth of Classical culture that some historians have called the Renaissance had begun.

Developing complex European society

During the High Middle Ages, European society was dominated by a landed aristocracy whose primary function was to fight. The nobles rationalized their warlike attitudes by calling themselves the defenders of Christian society, continued to dominate the medieval world politically, economically, and socially.

Over time medieval kings began to exert a centralizing authority and inaugurated the process of developing new kinds of monarchical states. By the thirteenth century, European monarchs were solidifying  the machinery of government that would enable them to become the centers of political authority in Europe. The actions of these medieval monarchs laid the foundation for the European kingdoms that have dominated the European political scene ever since.

The power of both nobles and kings, however, was often overshadowed by the authority of the Catholic Church

The High Middle Ages also witnessed a spiritual renewal that led to numerous and even divergent paths:

  • The development of centralized administrative machinery expanded papal leadership both within the church and over European society
  • There were new dimensions to the religious life of the clergy and laity.

A wave of religious enthusiasm in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries led to the formation of new religious orders that worked to provide for the needs of the people, especially their concern for achieving salvation.

First of all, there was a tendency to stress the performance of good works, including acts of charity, as a means of ensuring salvation.

  • Bequests to hospitals and other charitable foundations increased.
  • Family chapels were established, served by priests whose primary responsibility was to say Mass for the good of the souls of deceased family members.
  • A growing emphasis on indulgences.
  • people sought to play a more active role in their own salvation.
  • Greater participation in pilgrimages (journeys to holy sites)
  • Popular mysticism (the immediate experience of oneness with God) and lay piety in the fourteenth century.

Meister Eckhart (1260–1327), sparked a mystical movement in western Germany. Eckhart was an educated Dominican theologian who preached that a union with God was attainable by all (including the uneducated) who pursued it wholeheartedly.

Eckhart’s movement spread from Germany into the Low Countries, where it took on a new form, called the Modern Devotion, founded by Gerard Groote (GROH-tuh) (1340–1384). His messages were that to achieve true spiritual communion with God, people must imitate Jesus and lead lives dedicated to serving the needs of their fellow human beings His followers came to be known as the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life, spreading through Germany, Netherlands.

A number of female mystics had their own unique spiritual experiences. For them, fasting and receiving the Eucharist (the communion wafer that, according to Roman Catholic doctrine, contains the body of Jesus) became the mainstay of their religious practices. Catherine of Siena, for example, gave up eating any solid food at the age of twenty-three and thereafter lived only on cold water and herbs that she sucked and then spat out.


But as Dissent from church teaching and practices grew, a climate of fear and intolerance developed as the church responded with inquisitorial procedures to enforce conformity to its teachings. this small beginning, a movement developed that spread

Changes in Theology

The fourteenth century presented challenges not only to the institutional church but also to its theological framework. In the thirteenth century,

Thomas Aquinas’s grand synthesis of faith and reason was not widely accepted outside his own Dominican order.


The philosopher William of Occam (1285– 1329) posited that the truths of religion could only be known by an act of faith and were not demonstrable by reason. The acceptance of Occam’s nominalist philosophy at the University of Paris brought an element of uncertainty to late medieval theology by seriously weakening the synthesis of faith and reason that had characterized the theological thought of the High Middle Ages. At the same time, Occam’s emphasis on using reason to analyze the observable phenomena of the world had an important impact on the development of physical science by creating support for rational and scientific analysis.

The Middle Ages spiritual renewal also gave rise to the crusading ‘‘holy warrior’’ who killed for God.

Byzantine Decline, renewal and the road to the Crusades

After the Macedonian dynasty was extinguished in 1056, the empire was beset by internal struggles for power between ambitious military leaders and aristocratic families who attempted to buy the support of the great landowners of Anatolia by allowing them greater control over their peasants. This policy was self-destructive, however, because the peasant-warrior was the traditional backbone of the Byzantine state.

The Byzantine Empire faced external threats to its security as well. The greatest challenge came from the Seljuk Turks who had moved into Asia Minor—the heartland of the empire and its main source of food and manpower. After defeating the Byzantine forces at Manzikert in 1071, the Turks advanced into Anatolia, where many peasants, already disgusted by their exploitation at the hands of Byzantine landowners, readily accepted Turkish control.

The growing division between the Latin script Catholic Church of the West and the Greek  script Eastern Orthodox Church of the Byzantine Empire also weakened the Byzantine state. schismThe Eastern Orthodox Church was unwilling to accept the pope’s claim that he was the sole head of the church. This dispute reached a climax in 1054 when Pope Leo IX and Patriarch Michael Cerularius, head of the Byzantine church, formally excommunicated each other, initiating a schism between the two great branches of Christianity that has not been healed to this day.

The Comneni, under Alexius I Comnenus (1081–1118), were victorious on the Greek Adriatic coast against the Normans, defeated the Pechenegs in the Balkans, and stopped the Turks in Anatolia. Lacking the resources to undertake additional campaigns against the Turks, Emperor Alexius I turned to the West for military assistance. The positive response to the emperor’s request led to the Crusades.

The Crusades

The Crusades were based on the idea of a holy war against the infidels or unbelievers. The wrath of Christians was directed against the Muslims and had already found some expression in the attempt to reconquer Spain from the Muslims and the success of the Normans in reclaiming Sicily.

At the end of the eleventh century, the Byzantine emperor, Alexius I, asked Pope Urban II (1088– 1099) for help against the Seljuk Turks. The pope saw an opportunity to provide papal leadership to rally the warriors of Europe for the liberation of Jerusalem and the Holy Land from the infidel (the Holy City of Jerusalem had long been the object of Christian pilgrimages.) At the Council of Clermont in southern France (1095), Urban challenged Christians to join in a holy war to recover the Holy Land.

The Peasant’s Crusade


The First Crusade was preceded by a ‘‘Peasants’ Crusade,’’ or ‘‘Crusade of the Poor,’’ Peter the Hermit, who preached of his visions of the Holy City of Jerusalem, convinced a large mob, most of them poor and many of them peasants, to undertake a Crusade to the east. They moved through the Balkans, terrorizing the natives and looting food and supplies. Their misplaced religious enthusiasm led to the persecution of the Jews, long depicted by the church as the murderers of Christ.

Two bands of peasant crusaders, led by Peter the Hermit, reached Constantinople. Emperor Alexius shipped them over to Asia Minor where the Turks massacred them.

The First Crusade 1096+

Pope Urban II drew on the warriors of western Europe, particularly France, for the first crusading armies. The knights (nobles) were motivated by religious fervor and opportunities for adventure (fighting), to gain territory, riches, status, possibly a title, and salvation—the pope offered a full remission of sins for those who participated.

For the pope and European monarchs, the Crusades offered a way to rid Europe of contentious young nobles who disturbed the peace and wasted lives and energy fighting each other. The Catholic Church had tried earlier with the ‘‘Peace of God’’ and ‘‘Truce of God’’ to limit the ongoing bloodletting in Europe, without much success.

Merchants in many Italian cities relished the prospect of new trading opportunities in Muslim lands.

In the First Crusade, begun in 1096, the crusading army probably numbered several thousand cavalry and as many as 10,000 foot soldiers. After the capture of Antioch in 1098, much of the crusading army reached Jerusalem in June 1099. After a five-week siege, the Holy City was taken amid a horrible massacre of the city’s men, women, and children (see Spielvogle, p. 295).

After further conquest of Palestinian lands, the crusaders ignored the wishes of the Byzantine emperor (who believed the crusaders were working on his behalf) and organized four crusader states (Edessa, Antioch, Tripoli, and Jerusalem). Because the crusader states were surrounded by Muslim enemies, they grew increasingly dependent on the Italian commercial cities for supplies from Europe. Some Italian cities , such as Genoa, Pisa, and especially Venice, became rich and powerful in the process.

The Second and Third Crusades

By the 1120s, the Muslims were striking back and the crusader states soon foundered. In 1144, Edessa became the first of the four Latin states to be recaptured. Its fall led to renewed calls for another Crusade, especially from the monastic firebrand Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, who gained the support of King Louis VII of France and Emperor Conrad III of Germany. Their Second Crusade proved to be a total failure.

In 1169, Sunni Muslims under the leadership of Saladin brought an end to the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt. Proclaiming himself sultan, Saladin succeeded in establishing his control over both Egypt and Syria and in 1187, Saladin’s army invaded the kingdom of Jerusalem and destroyed the Christian forces there.


Unlike the Christians of the First Crusade, Saladin did not permit a massacre of the civilian population and even tolerated Christian religious services in conquered territories. For some time, Christian occupation forces carried on trade with Muslim communities in the region.

In reaction to the fall of the Holy City of Jerusalem, Three European monarchs agreed to lead the Third Crusade: Emperor Frederick Barbarossa of Germany, King Richard I the Lionhearted of England (1189–1199), and Philip II Augustus, king of France. It was another failure. Barbarossa drowned while swimming in a local river. The English and French attacked by sea and met with success against the coastal cities, but were defeated when they moved inland. Philip retreated and, Richard negotiated a settlement whereby Saladin agreed to allow Christian pilgrims free access to Jerusalem.

The fourth crusade

Following Saladin’s death in 1193, Pope Innocent III initiated a Fourth Crusade, led by Venetians. On its way to the Holy Land, the crusading army became involved in a dispute over the succession to the Byzantine throne. The Venetians saw an opportunity to rid themselves of their greatest commercial competitor, the Byzantines. The crusaders sacked the great capital city in 1204 and created a new Latin Empire of Constantinople. It In 1261 the Byzantines ecaptured Constantinople. Their Empire had been saved, but it was no longer a great Mediterranean power, but comprised only the city of Constantinople, its surrounding territory, and as some lands in Asia Minor. Though reduced, the empire survived until the Ottoman Turks to conquer it in 1453.

The Children’s Crusade.


In Germany in 1212, a youth known as Nicholas of Cologne announced that God had inspired him to lead a Children’s Crusade to the Holy Land. Thousands of young people joined Nicholas and made their way down the Rhine and across the Alps to Italy, where the pope told them to go home. Most tried to do so.

The Fifth, Six, Seventh and Eight Crusades (fail).

The Fifth Crusade (1219– 1221) attempted to recover the Holy Land by way of the powerful Muslim state of Egypt. The Crusade achieved some early successes, but its ultimate failure marked an end to papal leadership of the western crusaders.

The Sixth Crusade was led by the German emperor Frederick II, took place without papal support because the emperor had been excommunicated by the pope. In 1228, Frederick entered Jerusalem and was crowned as its king without any battle as he had made an agreement with the sultan of Egypt. However the city soon fell to a group of Turks allied with the sultan of Egypt.

The last two major Crusades were poorly organized by the pious king of France, Louis IX. They were complete failures. Soon the remaining Christian possessions in the Middle East were retaken. Acre, the last foothold of the crusaders, surrendered in 1291.  The Crusades failed to capture and keep the Holy Land for the Christian West.

The Effects of the Crusades

European stability?

Some historians think the Crusades help stabilize European society by removing large numbers of young warriors who would have fought each other in Europe and believe that Western monarchs established their control more easily as a result.


Although there may have been some broadening of perspective that comes from the exchange between two cultures, the interaction of Christian Europe with the Muslim world was more intense and more meaningful in Spain and Sicily than in the Holy Land.


The Crusades contributed to the economic growth of the Italian port cities, especially Genoa, Pisa, and Venice (see also below). However, while the Crusades may have enhanced the revival of trade, but they did not cause it. Even without the Crusades, Italian merchants would have pursued new trade contacts with the eastern world.

Negative legacies

Some historians have argued that the Crusades might be considered a ‘‘Christian holy war’’ whose memories still trouble the relationship between the Muslim world and the West today.

Other historians argue that the early crusaders were motivated as much by economic and political reasons as religious ones.


The first widespread attacks on the Jews began with the Crusades. As some Christians argued, to undertake holy wars against infidel Muslims while the ‘‘murderers of Christ’’ ran free at home was unthinkable. With the crusades, the massacre of Jews became a regular feature of medieval European life.

Jewish people were massacred in Rhineland, in 1096;  expulsed from England, for example, in 1290 by order of Edward I, and had previously been required to wear badges identifying themselves as Jews.

In 1168 the accusation of ritual child murder was made among the Gloucester Jews and more were killed. The fabrication spread to Northern France in 1171, where the population of an entire Jewry at Blois was burned to death. Whenever a Christian child died accidentally or in some uncertain manner, the Jews were accused, in Bury St. Edmund in 1181, in Bristol 1183, in Winchester 1192, in London 1244 and in Lincoln in 1255, resulting in massacres of Jews each time. This Blood Libel which began in England would, over the next hundreds of years, spread to more than 150 other Jewries from the Rhineland to the Middle East, with great loss of Jewish life each time.

13-14th century crisis

The Papacy

The papacy of the Roman Catholic Church reached the height of its power in the thirteenth century and met its limit during the fourteenth.

The struggle between the papacy and the monarchies began during the pontificate of Pope Boniface VIII (1294–1303).

King Philip IV (1285–1314) of France, desired new revenues and claimed the right to tax the French clergy. Boniface VIII responded that the clergy of any state could not pay taxes to their secular ruler without the pope’s consent.

Underlying this issue was a basic conflict between the claims of the papacy to universal authority over both church and state, which necessitated complete control over the clergy, and the claims of the king that all subjects, including the clergy, were under the jurisdiction of the crown and subject to the king’s authority on matters of taxation and justice. In short, the fundamental issue was the universal sovereignty of the papacy versus the royal sovereignty of the monarch.

The confrontation between Pope Boniface VIII and Philip IV of France led to a loss of papal power and the removal of the papacy to Avignon on France’s border in 1305 from Rome.

In 1377, Pope Gregory XI returned to Rome. He died, in the spring of 1378. When the college of cardinals met, they elect the Italian archbishop of Bari as Pope Urban VI (1378–1389). Many of the cardinals (the French ones) withdrew from Rome, claiming that they had been coerced by the mob into electing Urban. The dissenting cardinals thereupon chose a Frenchman, who took the title of Pope Clement VII and returned to Avignon.

Since Urban remained in Rome, there were now two popes, initiating what has been called the Great Schism of the church. Europe’s loyalties soon became divided: France, Spain, Scotland, and southern Italy supported Clement, while England, Germany, Scandinavia, and most of Italy supported Urban. These divisions generally followed political lines and reflected the bitter division between the English and the French in the Hundred Years’ War.

The Great Schism lasted for nearly forty years and had a baleful effect on the Catholic Church and Christendom in general. A new conciliar movement based on the belief that church councils, not popes, should rule the church finally ended the Schism in 1417.

The Black Death


At mid-14th century, the Black Death, a devastating plague that wiped out at least one third of the European population, with even higher mortality rates in urban areas.

Social responses

  • Some people escaped into alcohol, sex, and crime.
  • Some, such as the flagellants, believing the Black Death to be a punishment from God, attempted to atone for people’s sins through self-inflicted pain. I
  • Jews were scapegoated in many areas, suffering discrimination and worse.


  • Economic crises including a decline in trade and industry, bank failures, and
  • Social upheavals, including peasant revolts pitting the lower classes against the upper classes.

The Hundred Years War (1353-1453)

The Hundred Years’ War, a long, drawn-out conflict between the English and the French.

Armored knights on horseback formed the backbone of medieval armies, but English peasants using the longbow began to change the face of war.

After many defeats, the French cause was saved by Joan of Arc, a young peasant woman whose leadership inspired the French, who also began to rely on cannon and were victorious by 1453.



The Italian City-States

Italy, fourteenth century. Papal opposition to the rule of the Hohenstaufen emperors in northern Italy. Lack of centralized authority had enabled numerous city-states in northern Italy to remain independent of any political authority.

The center of the peninsula remained under the rather shaky control of the papacy.

southern Italy was divided into the kingdom of Naples, ruled by the French house of Anjou, and Sicily, whose kings came from the Spanish house of Aragon.

Two general tendencies:

  • the replacement of republican governments by tyrants and
  •  the expansion of the larger city-states at the expense of the less powerful ones.

By the end of the fourteenth century, three major states came to dominate northern Italy: the despotic state of Milan and the republican states of Florence and Venice.

Duchy of Milan

Located in the fertile Po valley, at the intersection of the chief trade routes from Italian coastal cities to the Alpine passes, Milan was one of the richest city states in Italy.

The Visconti family established themselves as the hereditary despots of Milan in 1322. Giangaleazzo Visconti who ruled from 1385 to 1402, extended Milan’s power over all of Lombardy and even threatened to conquer much of northern Italy until the duke’s death before the gates of Florence in 1402.

Republic of Florence

Florence, like the other Italian towns, was initially a free commune dominated by a patrician class of nobles known as the grandi. But the rapid expansion of Florence’s economy made possible the development of a wealthy merchant-industrialist class known as the popolo grasso—literally the ‘‘fat people.’’

In 1293, the popolo grasso assumed a dominant role in government by establishing a new constitution known as the Ordinances of Justice. It provided for a republican government controlled by the seven major guilds of the city, which represented the interests of the wealthier classes. Executive power was vested in the hands of a council of elected priors.

Around the mid-fourteenth century, revolutionary activity by the popolo minuto, the small shopkeepers and artisans, won them a share in the government. Even greater expansion occurred briefly when the ciompi, or industrial wool workers, were allowed to be represented in the government after their revolt in 1378. Only four years later, however, a counterrevolution brought the popolo grasso back to power. After 1382, the Florentine government was controlled by a small merchant oligarchy that manipulated the supposedly republican government.

By that time, Florence had also been successful in a series of wars against its neighbors. It had conquered most of Tuscany and established itself as a major territorial state in northern Italy.

Republic of Venice



The republic of Venice, on the north eastern coast, had grown rich from commercial activity throughout the eastern Mediterranean and into northern Europe.The Venetians took to piracy and derived some of the early wealth from attacking Islamic trading ships in the Adriatic sea.

Venice also developed a trading fleet and by the end of the tenth century had become the main western trading center for Byzantine and Islamic commerce. It sent wine, grain, and timber to Constantinople in exchange for silk.

By 1100, Venetian merchants began to benefit from the Crusades and were able to establish new trading centers in eastern ports. There the merchants obtained silks, sugar, and spices, which they carried back to Italy and the West.

A large number of Venetian merchant families became extremely wealthy. In 1297, these patricians took control of the republic. In this year, the Great Council, the source of all political power, was closed to all but the members of about two hundred families. Since all other magistrates of the city were chosen either from or by this council, these families completely dominated the city.

Although the doge (or duke) had been the executive head of the republic since the Early Middle Ages, by 1300 he had become largely a figurehead. Actual power was vested in the hands of the Great Council and the legislative body known as the Senate, and the Council of Ten (formed in 1310) came to be the real executive power of the state. The Venetian government was respected by contemporaries for its stability.

In the fourteenth century, Venice also embarked on a policy of expansion. By the end of the century, it had created a commercial empire by establishing colonies and trading posts in the eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea as well as continuing its commercial monopolies in the Byzantine Empire. Along with Italian merchants from other cities with ttrading posts in Cairo, Damascus,and a number of Black Sea ports,  they acquired goods brought by Muslim merchants from India, China, and Southeast Asia. Some journeyed to India and China in
search of trade.

At the same time, Venice also began to conquer the territory adjoining it in northern Italy.

Medieval Culture

Much of the art of the period depicted the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse described in the New Testament Book of Revelation: Death, Famine, Pestilence, and War. to some people, the last days of the world appeared to be at hand. the ‘‘fat people’’ back into virtual control of the government.

In art, the period also produced Giotto, whose paintings expressed a new realism that would be developed further by the artists of the next century.

Latin remained the language of the church liturgy and the official documents of both church and state throughout Europe, the fourteenth century witnessed the rapid growth of vernacular literature, especially in Italy. The development of an Italian vernacular literature was mostly the result of the efforts of three writers in the fourteenth century:

Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio.

Their use of the Tuscan dialect common in Florence and its surrounding countryside ensured that it would prevail as the basis of the modern Italian language.

Dante Alighieri (DAHN-tay al-lih-GAIR-ee) (1265– 1321) came from an old Florentine noble family that had fallen on hard times. Although he had held high political office in republican Florence, factional conflict led to his exile from the city in 1302. Until the end of his life, Dante hoped to return to his beloved Florence, but his wish remained unfulfilled.

Dante’s masterpiece in the Italian vernacular was the Divine Comedy, written between 1313 and 1321. Cast in a typical medieval framework, the Divine Comedy is basically the story of the soul’s progression to salvation, a fundamental medieval preoccupation. The lengthy poem was divided into three major sections corresponding to the realms of the afterworld: hell, purgatory, and heaven or paradise. In the ‘‘Inferno’’ (see the box on p. 323), Dante is led by his guide, the Classical author Virgil, who is a symbol of human reason. But Virgil (or reason) can lead the poet only so far on his journey. At the end of ‘‘Purgatory,’’ Beatrice (the true love of Dante’s life), who represents revelation—which alone can explain the mysteries of heaven—becomes his guide into ‘‘Paradise.’’ Here Beatrice presents Dante to Saint Bernard, a symbol of mystical contemplation. The saint turns Dante over to the Virgin Mary, since grace is necessary to achieve the final step of entering the presence of God, where one beholds ‘‘the love that moves the sun and the other stars.’’16

Petrarch Like Dante, Francesco Petrarca, known as Petrarch (1304–1374), was a Florentine who spent much of his life outside his native city. Petrarch’s role in the revival of the classics made him a seminal figure in the literary Italian Renaissance. His primary contribution to the development of the Italian vernacular was made in his sonnets. He is considered one of the greatest European lyric poets. His sonnets were inspired by his love for a married lady named Laura, whom he had met in 1327. Though honoring an idealized female figure was a long-standing medieval tradition, Laura was very human and not just an ideal. She was a real woman with whom Petrarch was involved for a long time. He poured forth his lamentations in sonnet after sonnet:

I am as tired of thinking as my thought

Is never tired to find itself in you,

And of not yet leaving this life that brought

Me the too heavy weight of signs and rue;

And because to describe your hair and face

And the fair eyes of which I always speak,

Language and sound have not become too weak

And day and night your name they still embrace.

And tired because my feet do not yet fail

After following you in every part,

Wasting so many steps without avail,

From whence derive the paper and the ink

That I have filled with you; if I should sink,

It is the fault of Love, not of my art.17

In analyzing every aspect of the unrequited lover’s feelings, Petrarch appeared less concerned to sing his lady’s praise than to immortalize his own thoughts. This interest in his own personality reveals a sense of individuality stronger than in any previous medieval literature.

Boccaccio Although he too wrote poetry, Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375) is known primarily for his prose. Another Florentine, he also used the Tuscan dialect. While working for the Bardi banking house in Naples, he fell in love with a noble lady, and under her inspiration, he began to write prose romances. His best-known work, the Decameron, however, was not written until after he had returned to Florence. The Decameron is set at the time of the Black Death. Ten young people flee to a villa outside Florence to escape the plague and decide to while away the time by telling stories. Although the stories are not new and still reflect the acceptance of basic Christian values, Boccaccio does present the society of his time from a secular point of view. It is the seducer of women, not the knight or philosopher or pious monk, who is the real hero. Perhaps, as some historians have argued, the Decameron reflects the immediate easygoing, cynical post plague values.

Boccaccio’s later work certainly became gloomier and more pessimistic; as he grew older, he even rejected his earlier work as irrelevant. He commented in a 1373 letter, ‘‘I am certainly not pleased that you have allowed the illustrious women in your house to read my trifles. . . . You know how much in them is less than decent and opposed to modesty, how much stimulation to wanton lust, how many things that drive to lust even those most fortified against it.’’18


Another leading vernacular author was Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340–1400), who brought a new level of sophistication to the English vernacular language. His beauty of expression and clear, forceful language were important in transforming his East Midland dialect into the chief ancestor of the modern English language.


The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories told by a group of twenty-nine pilgrims journeying from the London suburb of Southwark to the tomb of Saint Thomas a` Becket at Canterbury. This format gave Chaucer the chance to portray an entire range of English society, both high- and low-born. Among others, he presented the Knight, the Yeoman, the Prioress, the Monk, the Merchant, the Student, the Lawyer, the Carpenter, the Cook, the Doctor, the Plowman, and, ‘‘A Good Wife was there from beside the city of Bath—a little deaf, which was a pity.’’

The stories these pilgrims told to while away the time on the journey were just as varied as the storytellers themselves: knightly romances, fairy tales, saints’ lives, sophisticated satires, and crude anecdotes. Chaucer also used some of his characters to criticize the corruption of the church in the late medieval period. His portrayal of the Friar leaves show’s his disdain for the corrupt practices of clerics. Of the Friar, he says: He knew the taverns well in every town. The barmaids and innkeepers pleased his mind Better than beggars and lepers and their kind.19

And yet Chaucer was still a pious Christian, never doubting basic Christian doctrines and remaining optimistic that the church could be reformed.

Christine de Pizan (c. 1364–1430)

Because of her father’s position at the court of Charles V of France, she received a good education. Her husband died when she was only twenty-five (they had been married for ten years), leaving her with little income and three small children and her mother to support. Christine took the unusual step of becoming a writer in order to earn her living (see Spielvogel, p. 315). Her poems were soon in demand, and by 1400 she had achieved financial security.

City of Ladies on accusations of men quotepic

Christine de Pizan is best known, however, for her French prose works written in defense of women. In The Book of the City of Ladies, written in 1404, she denounced the many male writers who had argued that women needed to be controlled by men because women by their very nature were prone to evil, unable to learn, and easily swayed. With the help of Reason, Righteousness, and Justice, who appear to her in a vision, Christine refutes these antifeminist attacks. Women, she argues, are not evil by nature, and they could learn as well as men if they were permitted to attend the same schools:

‘Should I also tell you whether a woman’s nature is clever and quick enough to learn speculative sciences as well as to discover them, and likewise the manual arts. I assure you that women are equally well-suited and skilled to carry them out and to put them to sophisticated use once they have learned them.’’20

Much of the book includes a detailed discussion of women from the past and present who have distinguished themselves as leaders, warriors, wives, mothers, and martyrs

for their religious faith. She ends by encouraging women to defend themselves against the attacks of men, who are incapable of understanding them.

A New Art: Giotto

The fourteenth century produced an artistic outburst in new directions as well as a large body of morbid work influenced by the Black Death and the recurrences of the plague.

The city of Florence witnessed the first dramatic break with medieval tradition in the work of Giotto (JOH-toh) (1266–1337), often considered a forerunner of Italian Renaissance painting.

Born into a peasant family, Giotto acquired his painting skills in a workshop in Florence. Although he worked throughout Italy, his most famous works were done in Padua and Florence.

Coming out of the formal Byzantine school, Giotto transcended it with a new kind of realism, a desire to imitate nature that Renaissance artists later identified as the basic component of Classical art.

St. Francis of Assisi Sermon to the Birds

Giotto’s figures were solid and rounded; placed realistically in relationship to each other and their background, they conveyed three-dimensional depth. The expressive faces and physically realistic bodies gave his sacred figures human qualities with which spectators could identify. Florentine painting in the early fifteenth century pursued even more dramatically the new direction his work represents.

Medieval Society

New inventions made an impact on daily life at the same time that the effects of the plague were felt in many areas of medieval urban life.

One immediate by-product of the Black Death was greater regulation of urban activities by town governments. Authorities tried to keep cities cleaner by enacting new ordinances against waste products in the streets. Viewed as unhealthy places, bathhouses were closed down, leading to a decline in personal cleanliness. Efforts at regulation also affected the practice of female prostitution.

Medieval society had tolerated prostitution as a lesser evil: it was better for males to frequent prostitutes than to seduce virgins or married women. Since many males in medieval towns married late, the demand for prostitutes was high and was met by a regular supply, derived no doubt from the need of many poor girls and women to survive. The recession of the fourteenth century probably increased the supply of prostitutes, while the new hedonism prevalent after the Black Death also increased demand.

As a result, cities intensified their regulation of prostitution. By organizing brothels, city authorities could supervise as well as tax prostitutes. Officials granted charters to citizens who were allowed to set up brothels, provided they were located only in certain areas of town. Prostitutes were also expected to wear special items of clothing—such as red hats— to distinguish them from other women. It was assumed that the regulation of prostitution made it easier to supervise and hence maintained public order.

Family Life and Gender Roles

The basic unit of the late medieval town was the nuclear family of husband, wife, and children. Especially in wealthier families, there might also be servants, apprentices, and other relatives, including widowed mothers and the husband’s illegitimate children.

Before the Black Death, late marriages were common for urban couples. It was not unusual for husbands to be in their late thirties or forties and wives in their early twenties. The expense of setting up a household probably necessitated the delay in marriage. But the situation changed dramatically after the plague, reflecting new economic opportunities for the survivors and a new reluctance to postpone living in the presence of so much death.

The economic difficulties of the fourteenth century also tended to strengthen the development of gender roles. Based on the authority of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas and other scholastic theologians had advanced the belief that according to the natural order, men were active and domineering while women were passive and submissive. As more and more lawyers, doctors, and priests, who had been trained in universities where these notions were taught, entered society, these ideas about the different natures of men and women became widely accepted. This was evident in legal systems, many of which limited the legal capacity of women. Increasingly, women were expected to give up any active functions in society and remain subject to direction from males (see the box above). A fourteenth-century Parisian provost commented that among glass cutters, ‘‘no master’s widow who keeps working at his craft after her husband’s death may take on apprentices, for the men of the craft do not believe that a woman can master it well enough to teach a child to master it, for the craft is a very delicate one.’’21 Although this statement suggests that some women were, in fact, running businesses, it also reveals that they were viewed as incapable of undertaking all of men’s activities. Europeans in the fourteenth century imposed a division of labor roles between men and women that persisted until the Industrial Revolution.

In practice, however, some women in the fourteenth century benefited from the effects of the Black Death. The deaths of many male workers in cities opened up new jobs for women, such as metalworkers and stevedores. In cloth making, women were allowed to assume better-paying jobs as weavers. Brewing became an all-female profession by 1450.

Widows also occasionally carried on their husbands’ shops or businesses.

Medieval Children

Parents in the High and Later Middle Ages invested considerable resources and affection in rearing their children. The dramatic increase in specialized roles that accompanied the spread of commerce and the growth of cities demanded a commitment to educating children in the marketable skills needed for the new occupations. Philip of Navarre noted in the twelfth century that boys ought to be taught a trade ‘‘as soon as possible. Those who early become and long remain apprentices ought to be the best masters.’’22 Some cities provided schools to educating and training the young.

As a result of the devastating effects of the plague and its recurrences, these same communities became concerned about investing in the survival and health of children. A number of hospitals existed in both Florence and Rome in the fourteenth century, and in the 1420s and 1430s, hospitals were established that catered only to the needs of foundlings, supporting them until boys could be taught a trade and girls could marry.

New Directions in Medicine

The medical community comprised a number of functionaries. At the top of the medical hierarchy were the physicians, usually clergymen, who received their education in the universities, where they studied ancient authorities, such as Hippocrates and Galen. As a result, physicians were highly trained in theory but had little or no clinical practice. By the fourteenth century, they were educated in six chief medical schools—Salerno, Montpellier, Bologna, Oxford, Padua, and Paris. Paris was regarded as the most prestigious.

The pre-plague medicine of university-trained physicians was theoretically grounded in the Classical Greek theory of the ‘‘four humors,’’ each connected to a particular organ:

  • blood (from the heart),
  • phlegm (from the brain),
  • yellow bile (from the liver),
  • and black bile (from the spleen).

Because the four humors corresponded in turn to the four elemental qualities of the universe—air (blood), water (phlegm), fire (yellow bile), and earth (black bile)—a human being was considered a microcosm of the cosmos. Good health resulted from a perfect balance of the four humors; sickness meant that the humors were out of balance. The task of the medieval physician was to restore proper order through a number of remedies, such as rest, diet, herbal medicines, or bloodletting.

Beneath the physicians in the hierarchy of the medical profession stood the surgeons, whose activities included performing operations, setting broken bones, and bleeding patients.

Their knowledge was based largely on practical experience.

Below surgeons were midwives, who delivered babies, and barber-surgeons, who were less trained than surgeons and performed menial tasks such as bloodletting and setting simple bone fractures. Barber-surgeons supplemented their income by shaving and cutting hair and pulling teeth.

Apothecaries also constituted part of the medical establishment. They filled herbal prescriptions recommended by physicians and also prescribed drugs on their own authority.

All of these medical practitioners proved unable to deal with the plague. When King Philip VI of France requested the opinion of the medical faculty of the University of Paris on the plague, their advice proved worthless. This failure to understand the Black Death produced a crisis in medieval medicine that resulted in some new approaches to health care.

One result was the rise of surgeons to greater prominence because of their practical knowledge. Surgeons were now recruited by universities, which placed them on an equal level with physicians and introduced a greater emphasis on practical anatomy into the university curriculum. Connected to this was a burgeoning of medical textbooks, often written in the vernacular and stressing practical, how-to approaches to medical and surgical problems.

Finally, as a result of the plague, cities, especially in Italy, gave increased attention to public health and sanitation. Public health laws were instituted, and municipal boards of health came into being. The primary concern of the latter was to prevent plague, but gradually they came to control almost every aspect of health and sanitation. Boards of public health, consisting of medical practitioners and public officials, were empowered to enforce sanitary conditions, report on and attempt to isolate epidemics by quarantine (rarely successful), and regulate the activities of doctors.

Inventions and New Patterns

The technological innovations that had characterized the High Middle Ages continued through to the 14th century.

The Clock

The mechanical clock was invented at the end of the thirteenth century but not perfected until the fourteenth. Some historians believe it was actually invented in Song dynasty China, and that the technology gradually made its way westwards.

The European time-telling clock was a by-product of a larger astronomical clock. The best-designed one was constructed by Giovanni di Dondi in the mid-fourteenth century. Dondi’s clock contained the signs of the zodiac but also struck on the hour. Since clocks were expensive, they were usually installed only in the towers of churches or municipal buildings. The first clock striking equal hours was in a church in Milan; in 1335, a chronicler described it as ‘‘a wonderful clock, with a very large clapper which strikes a bell twenty-four times according to the twenty-four hours of the day and night and thus at the first hour of the night gives one sound, at the second two strikes . . . and so distinguishes one hour from another, which is of greatest use to men of every degree.’’23

Clocks revolutionized how people thought about and used time. Throughout most of the Middle Ages, time was determined by natural rhythms (daybreak and nightfall) or church bells that were rung at more or less regular three-hour intervals, corresponding to the ecclesiastical offices of the church.

Clocks made it possible for people to plan their day and organize activities around the regular striking of bells. This brought a new regularity into the lives of workers and merchants, defining urban existence and enabling merchants and bankers to see the value of time in a new way.



Like clocks, eyeglasses were introduced in the thirteenth century but not refined until the fourteenth. Even then they were not particularly effective by modern standards and were still extremely expensive. The high cost of parchment forced people to write in extremely small script; eyeglasses made it more readable.


A significant change in writing materials occurred in the fourteenth century when parchment was supplemented by much cheaper paper made from cotton rags. Although it was more subject to insect and water damage than parchment, medieval paper was actually superior to modern papers made of high-acid wood pulp.


Another Chinese invention, gunpowder appeared in the West in the fourteenth century. The use of gunpowder eventually brought drastic changes to European warfare.



Its primary use was in cannons, although early cannons were prone to blow up, making them as dangerous to the people firing them as to the enemy. Continued improvement in the construction of cannons, however, soon made them extremely valuable in reducing both castles and city walls. Gunpowder made castles, city walls, and armored knights obsolete.