During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries old forms and attitudes persisted in Western politics but became less flexible and less creative. The Holy Roman emperor Henry VII in the early 1300s sought to straighten out the affairs of Italy in the old Ghibelline tradition, even though he had few of the resources that had been at the command of Frederick Barbarossa. The nobles of France and England, exploiting the confusion of the Hundred Years’ War, built private armies and great castles and attempted to transfer power back from the monarch to themselves. Their movement has been called bastard feudalism, for service in these neofeudal armies hinged upon money, not personal loyalty, mutual respect, and guarantees.
Manifestations like these have been interpreted as symptoms of senility, but they may also be viewed as experiments in the adjustment of old institutions to new demands. The nobles who practiced bastard feudalism were also putting soldiers in the field when neither French nor English monarchies could sustain a military effort. The importance of the monetary factor was characteristic of the passage from medieval to modern.
By the close of the fifteenth century, it was evident that the future lay not with neofeudal lords but with the so-called new monarchs, who were committed to power politics. Although politics and power had always gone hand in hand, the “new” monarchs did not hide their pursuit of power behind the church, and they were served by better instruments of government, better- equipped and better-trained soldiers, diplomats, and bureaucrats. Outstanding representatives of the new professionalism were Louis XI of France, Henry VII of England, and Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. The princes of the various German states and the despots of the Italian city-states also often exemplified the new businesslike political behavior.
Meanwhile, the economy and society of western Europe had been undergoing even more strain and upheaval. In the countryside the traditional patterns of manorialism, serfdom, and payment in kind coexisted with a free peasantry producing for a cash market and paying rents and taxes in cash. The economy and society showed some of the same symptoms of senility affecting political life.
Former serfs, who thought they were legally free peasants, often found that a lord could still oblige them to use his oven or flour mill or wine press and pay a stiff fee for the privilege. But they also found that they could no longer turn to a lord for protection in time of trouble. The uncertainty and insecurity of a world no longer wholly medieval nor yet wholly modern underlay the numerous outbreaks of rural violence. Crises also convulsed urban life. Civil war broke out in the prosperous woolen-manufacturing towns of Flanders, and chronic strife developed between the wealthy and poorer classes in Florence.
Life for the peasant—man or woman—was circumscribed. harsh, and on the whole, short. Rural life showed a bewildering variety, however, particularly in England, and broad generalization is difficult, beyond noting a slow increase in the value of labor in western Europe and a slow descent into serfdom in eastern Europe. The towns often were a political and economic buffer between nobles and peasants, and where there was no growth in towns or rise in urban class consciousness, the gap between the rich and the poor was particularly great.
Men continued to be warriors and priests. Medieval women were, if of the upper class, placed on a pedestal, to be admired for their attainments in conversation, embroidery, or household management; if of the lower class, they were sent with their husbands into the field. The arranged marriages of royalty and nobility typically took place in childhood; the arranged marriages of the peasantry came at a later age, and many peasant women did not marry because of a shortage of eligible landholding males. Daughters were, therefore, frequently put out to service, creating a class of permanent domestic workers. Marriage most often was arranged and was not for love. Families were large, and children were managed for their labor value or to make economic and political alliances through marriage.
Therefore, the children of the nobility often married by the time they were thirteen, and the daughters of the working class when sixteen. Men were older at marriage, and the age of both men and women at marriage rose in the fifteenth century. These economic considerations do not mean that there was no love in marriage—the letters between John and Margaret Paston, married c. 1439, clearly demonstrate that there was—or that children were not looked upon affectionately, especially as the church encouraged paternal care. Divorce did not exist, union ending only with the death of a partner, which meant that husbands and wives often felt it best to attempt to get along. Still, there were many private contracts of marriage, made in secret and without the blessings of the clergy, and these often led to disputes about property and the marriage agreement, which eventually had to be adjudicated by ana ecclesiastical court.
Two social traumas particularly undermined the morale and resiliency of fourteenth-century Europe. The first was the great famine of 1315-1317. Harvests failed in 1322 and 1329 and thereafter remained inadequate, so that populations were chronically undernourished. With Europe unable to grow enough grain, outright starvation was widespread. The second and greater trauma was the Black Death of 1347-1351, which is estimated to have killed one third to one half of an already weakened European population.
This ghastly epidemic apparently marked the first appearance in Europe of bubonic plague, introduced by caravans coming from China to the Crimea and then by ship to Sicily. Propagated by flea bites, prevalent wherever there were rats, and also carried in the air by sneezing and coughing, the plague wiped out entire communities. Recurring in the 1360s and 1370s, the plague altered the socioeconomic pyramid and initiated a steady decline in population that lasted to 1480. A major social consequence of the plague was a severe shortage of labor, which emboldened the peasants and workers who had survived the epidemic to press for greater rights, usually with only limited success.
The Black Death also had far-reaching psychological effects. Attitudes toward death became more morbid, and fascination with the rituals of death and dying grew, until by the fifteenth century the horror of physical death and of bodily decay had become an obsession. The Black Death erupted again in 1388-1390, and with this visit the cult of death developed even greater strength. Dance, decoration, art, and public ceremony used death as a centerpiece. Cemeteries were surrounded by charnel houses that displayed the bones of the deceased.
In enclosed places, the infection of one person meant the likely death of all, and entire monasteries were wiped out. Not knowing the cause of such sweeping disasters, people looked to demons, superstition, and the wrath of God for explanation. They also tried to keep their distance from anything Asian, since rumor had it that the plague had so severely struck India as to depopulate it utterly. Death from bubonic plague was particularly horrific, with very painful boils beginning in the groin, armpit, or on the neck, followed by bleeding under the skin and the spitting of blood, uncontrolled excrement, heavy sweating, and blackened urine.
One legacy of the Black Death was the beginning of modern medicine. When the plague began its sweep across Europe, medical theory rested on the notion of humors. The human body was believed to have four humors–blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Each was related to specific organs, phlegm coming from the brain, blood from the heart, and so forth. Good health meant that the humors were in balance; if one were sick, the physician must restore that balance, for example, by changing the diet or by bloodletting. Medieval doctors approached medicine more as a branch of philosophy than of science.
University-trained physicians were the elite, with surgeons only a step below. The former hardly touched their patients, while the latter performed operations. Barber-surgeons, usually illiterate, also operated on the sick and injured, set bones, and applied poultices. (The barber’s pole, traditionally red and white, is a reminder of the time when such surgeons hung out bloodied rags to dry.) Apothecaries, the pharmacists of their day, stood next, but because they possessed almost magical knowledge of the properties of different drugs and herbs, the lay public held them in esteem.
Apothecaries were also merchants, for they traded in spices, and as such they might well stand high in the social scale because of their relative wealth. Below all were the nonprofessionals, who charged little and worked by trial and error. Found primarily in the countryside, they were likely to know of “country remedies,” which from experience might work, but they were also likely to depend on outdated knowledge. Up to 20 percent of this group were women who served as midwives, herbalists, and comforters of the sick.
When the plague swept over Europe, the physicians did not know what to do. None of the hundreds of medical treatises written on the plague correctly adduced its cause—indeed, medical science would not understand plague until the early twentieth century. Almost no one saw any connection between the plague and the piles of dead rodents to be found prior to an outbreak. As to causes, most commentators favored either the astral or the environmental theory.
The astral theory held that a conjunction of three higher planets—Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn—in the sign of Aquarius corrupted the air, bringing poisonous material to the heart and lungs. The environmental theory held that a series of earthquakes between 1345 and 1347 had released poisonous fumes from the center of the earth. Others ascribed plague to southerly winds and warmer weather.
The crisis of the plague and consequent search for remedies led to the professional evolution of medicine. As the older medical leaders perished in the plague, other physicians took their place. Surgeons displaced traditional physicians; in 1390 the medical faculty at the University of Paris invited surgeons to join the faculty as equals. The lay public also began to demand that medical writing be in vernacular tongues so that the patient might attempt to understand his or her own problems. The role of hospitals changed. Before the plague anyone who was placed in a hospital was treated as though dead, and the institutionalized person’s property was sold. After the Black Death hospitals sought to cure the sick. Patients who had only broken bones were placed in separate wards, where they might hope to be protected from those with infectious diseases.
From the middle of the thirteenth century to the end of the fifteenth, no one could know, from day to day, whether he or she would live or die. Recurrent cycles of plague taught a lesson about human helplessness in the face of nature, influencing religious belief, social organization, and the movement toward experimental science. Those who survived the plague may have been better off—there were fewer people, wages rose as labor was scarce, and many restrictive remnants of feudalism fell into disuse—but, as a poem at the time put it, for most people the world was truly “turned upside down.”
The fourteenth century was particularly frightening, for even the climate turned against the rural population. In the midst of one of the earth’s great climatic swings from an earlier time when wheat was grown in Sweden and there were vineyards in Newfoundland, Europe passed through a long succession of wet years when crops rotted, and panic, famine, and death were common in the countryside.
Hygiene was generally lacking, even at court; disease was the normal state of things, even when there was no plague, for antisepsis was unknown, and simple injuries easily led to death. Even the presumed innocence of childhood was no joy, for while the children of the well-to-do certainly had toys, most were seen simply as small adults and expected to behave as adults long before they were into their teens.
No action in history is without its reaction, and few disasters do not also lead to beneficial change, as in the rise of medical knowledge after the Black Death. One group benefited: middle-class women, particularly in England, who experienced what some scholars have called a “golden age” between about 1370 and 1470. In part the more secure position of women in society arose from depopulation, so that women were more valued for their work, knowledge, and property, and in part from other changes in society. Prior to this time women were legally viewed as “one flesh” with their husbands, but widows were able to break free from this phrase.
They were able to make wills and testaments; in London especially they could continue their husband’s business and occupy the family house (whereas elsewhere and earlier widows had to vacate their dead husband’s home in forty days), and they were bale to join in the social and economic life of guilds, companies, and fraternities, though they were denied the political activities of such groups. Some women—the widows of tanners, for example—had to struggle to keep a position in their craft and were seldom admitted to the guilds, but by and large the “custom of London” allowed growing participation.
In London, and usually elsewhere, widows were entitled to dower: a share in a husband’s real estate at his death. She also shared in the husband’s goods and chattels by the custom of legitim, which meant that she kept half (or a third if there were surviving children) of the husband’s movable goods. Dower in land reverted to the husband’s heirs at the widow’s death, but the dower in chattels was hers to sell or use as she wished, and this made it possible for widows to enter business for themselves. Upper-class woman also acquired property and some, such as Elizabeth de Burgh, Lady of Clare (1295-1360), maintained large estates, engaged in significant public benefactions, and were the center of social gatherings.
Not all widows did inherit, however, for it was not uncommon to remarry, to enter a nunnery, or to assign an inheritance to someone else. Nunneries also offered education to girls who were not destined to be nuns, and women who did not enter a nunnery nonetheless could take a public vow of chastity, forestalling an arranged marriage or being seen to dishonor their deceased husband. Any child who was fatherless was declared to be an orphan, so that many widows no doubt remarried largely to rescue their children from such a legal definition.
Widow women also were generally exempt from taxation by order of Henry III, unless they were widows of rich merchants, and remarriage might lead to taxation, so that the majority either remained widows or were widowed again following a second or third marriage. There were more women than men in England, and far more widows than widowers, since women tended to marry at a younger age. Those of the middle class, therefore, and especially in cities such as London or York, tended to bond together in societies, conversation groups, and mutual support organizations.
This improved status for woman declined when population began to rebound from the Black Death. By the sixteenth century only widows of freemen could be granted the freedom of the city, and their numbers in the guilds fell. The new Protestant view of the place of women in society, emphasizing roles in the home or in religion, decreased their ability to act independently in economic matters. At the same time, as capitalism developed, the lines between mercantile and gentlemanly activities were blurred, and landed gentry began to move into trade. Women found it increasingly difficult to be apprenticed or to continue a husband’s business, a trend that would not be significantly reversed until the eighteenth century.
To the average citizen, then, these late Middle Ages must have seemed a time of incredible calamity and hardship. The Black Death ravaged the streets and the countryside. The Hundred Years’ War brought political and social collapse to much of western Europe, sweeping aside old ways. Soldiers experienced an unprecedented death rate, as gunpowder and heavy artillery came into widespread use for the first time.
The great schisms within the church forced Christians to take sides in a complex dispute that involved competing popes. The Turks were on the march, threatening the gates of Europe, as the powerful armies of the West fought one another. And yet, although the time may have seemed one of exceptional decline and instability, it also presaged rebirth. The crisis of the late Middle Ages ushered in what we conventionally call modern history.