Late Middle Ages
Looking at the High Middle Ages (1000-1300) in comparison to the Late Middle Ages (1300-1500), it’s easy to think of the High Middle Ages as being the best period of medieval history. Education was thriving, people were making advances in technology, and despite the ups and downs of royals taking the throne and making decisions (good or bad), things were certainly moving forward.
The Late Middle Ages saw everything grind to a long halt. We’ll talk about the many issues the people of this period faced, including famine, plague, and wars over who should truly rule countries, but it’s always good to keep in mind that every period of history has its positives and negatives, and despite the challenges the people of the Late Middle Ages faced, the end result was a movement toward new thinking and the beginning of a period known as the Renaissance-the turning point of European history.
Unlike the warm climate of the High Middle Ages, the Late Middle Ages saw fairly unstable changes in weather. Europe shifted into a cooler climate, and the land became harder to farm. The change took place slowly, and shifted back and forth, which made it hard to predict the weather. It also made it hard to tell if crops would grow enough food or simply die off. There was more rain than usual during this period, and many farms flooded, destroying what had been planted. Lands could not be looked after properly, and so they were left to waste, sitting under rainwater.
People who depended on the land for raising animals or food were forced to move, leaving homes and farmland abandoned. Land that could grow crops was hard to find, and understandably, everyone wanted a piece of it. Even this land could be difficult to farm, however, and in the end, the lack of good farmland and crops meant hunger and eventually famine for the people of Europe. This event became known as The Great Famine and lasted from 1315-1322.
Many people died or moved to already crowded towns. Remember how many people had moved into cities during the High Middle Ages? Imagine those cramped living conditions becoming even worse! Houses were built upward rather than outward, and streets were the sizes of alleys.
The lack of sanitation practices of the time made conditions particularly bad-in other words, keeping things clean was a very hard thing to do. People dumped garbage and waste into the streets-the same narrow streets that were used to walk on throughout the city.
So let’s think about what we know so far: people were starving because there wasn’t enough land to farm, and without enough land, there wasn’t enough food. This pushed people into already crowded cities that could not hold the new number of people and were already getting fairly dirty from practices of the time. Without proper diets, people became sick more easily, and serious illnesses such as rickets, gout, dysentery, and tuberculosis were common. Wars raged between England and France over who should sit on the French throne. Then, without any real warning, true disaster struck: the plague arrived in Europe.
From 1347-1349, what was known as The Black Death moved quickly across Europe, entering through port cities on the coasts and moving inland. Fleas, which carried the illness, leapt on rats, which in turn carried these fleas around on mainland Europe from ships entering ports. People who were already living in poor conditions easily caught the illness and an enormous percentage of Europe’s population died as a result. Medicine at the time had no real cures for the plague, and those who caught it often transferred it to other members of the household. It was a sad and devastating loss, and it took a very long time for Europe to become a thriving, healthy culture again.
However, from tragedy came many good things. People realized that there was much learning to be done, many improvements in thought and medicine to be made, and once the plague had ended and Europe began to rebuild itself, something wonderful began to happen. Language changed, even in places of learning. Middle English was spoken and used in writing, and literature became available to more and more people with the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in the early 1400s. Banking and commerce developed, and trade began again, this time on a larger scale.
Art shifted to a new style, showing human life as it really was and producing some of the greatest artists of Early Renaissance Europe. Patrons (supporters of the arts) began to pay for works to be created, exploration was on the rise, and a return to Greek and Roman schools of thought emerged in the beginning of the Renaissance, signaling the end of the Middle Ages.