HIS101 logo The Late Middle Ages
by Jim Jones, West Chester University of Pennsylvania (c.2012)
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Between the 4th century CE, when the western Roman Empire suffered barbarian invasions, to the end of the 12th century, western Europeans went from the chaos of Merovingian rule to restoration of trade and civic life under the Carolingians, and the development of new political institutions (Holy Roman Emperor, papacy, feudal system) that brought predictability, if not peace. In the process Europeans (or at least the wealthy ones) became accustomed to what they thought of as the highest possible form of civilization, characterized by devotion to a deity (the Christian God), a code of conduct (chivalry) and a stable system of succession (primogeniture).

But the system was not really stable. The rapid expansion of Islam in the 7th century led to frequent conflict between Christian and Muslim forces in Spain and the Black Sea area. Population growth generated competition for the available resources, especially land. In the 13th century, Mongolian nomads conquered most of Asia and penetrated as far as the Danube River Valley. In the 14th century, Europe suffered famines (1314-1316), a plague known as the "Black Death" (1347-1350), and the seemingly endless "100 Years War" between France and England (1339-1429). Meanwhile, the French kings gained control over the Roman Catholic Church, and the popes went to live in France from 1305 to 1378. Ultimately, that led to a split between the French and Roman churches (the Great Schism) from 1378 to 1417. All of these disasters reduced the European population and led writers like Pierre Dubois (died 1321) to fear that their world was collapsing.


The first of the disasters came from central Asia in the form of the Mongol invasion. The Mongols were nomadic hunters and pastoralists who lived in a cold, dry region northwest of China. The Mongols were organized into clans led by leaders called khans and lived in movable camps composed of felt tents called yurts. The Mongol population was always small compared to that of the Chinese urban civilization, with whom the Mongols usually traded, but also frequently raided. The Chinese responded by building the "Great Wall" to fortify their northwestern border.

In the 13th century, the Mongols became unified and that, along with their skill at hunting and raiding, enabled them to conquer China. It began when one of their clan leaders, (Temujin, lived 1162-1227) received recognition as the ruler of all the Mongol clans (i.e. the "Jenghiz Khan" a.k.a. "Genghis Khan") in 1206. He led them on conquests from northern China to Persia and the Caspian Sea between 1206 and 1223, before he died during the siege of Hsingchungfu, the capital of West Hsia (China), in 1227.

An Italian named Marco Polo, who lived in the Mongol empire late in the 13th century, wrote this description of their army:

Their arms are bows and arrows, sword and mace; but above all the bow, for they are capital archers, indeed the best that are known. On their backs they wear armour of cuirbouly [shaped leather], prepared from buffalo and other hides, which is very strong. They are excellent soldiers, and passing valiant in battle. They are also more capable of hardships than other nations; for many a time, if need be, they will go for a month without any supply of food, living only on the milk of their mares and on such game as their bows may win them. Their horses also will subsist entirely on the grass of the plains, so that there is no need to carry store of barley or straw or oats ...

... when a [Mongol] prince goes forth to war, he takes with him, say, 100,000 horse. Well, he appoints an officer to every ten men, one to every hundred, one to every thousand, and one to every ten thousand, so that his own orders have to be given to ten persons only, and each of these ten persons has to pass the orders only to other ten, and so on; no one having to give orders to more than ten. And every one in turn is responsible only to the officer immediately over him; and the discipline and order that comes of this method is marvelous, for they are a people very obedient to their chiefs.

The Mongol conquest continued in 1235 under Genghis Khan's son Ogödei (ruled 1227-1241). Ogödei completed the conquest of China, while Genghis Khan's grandson Batu and another general named Subotai led armies to the west. They conquered Russia in 1237-1240 and established the a state called the "Khanate of the Golden Horde" with its capital on the Volga River. Batu's army continued into Hungary in 1241 and forced King Bela IV to flee to the Adriatic Sea, but Batu's army retreated back to Mongolia upon the death of Ogödei in 1241, to join the other khans in selecting a new supreme ruler. Civil war followed until 1251, when the sons of Tuli took control of Mongol succession. They began to attack the Muslim world and in 1258, Mangu (a.k.a Hulagu) Khan (born 1217, reigned 1251-1259) took over Persia, Syria and Mesopotamia; sacked the Seljuk capital at Baghdad, and executed the caliph. Islam survived in Egypt however, and Mangu's descendant Ghazan later converted to Islam in 1295.

After Mangu died, his brother Kublai Khan (1216-1294) ruled from 1260-1294. During this period, the Mongol Empire finished the conquest of China and reached its greatest extent, including control over Japan, Malaysia and central India. They ruled China through appointed Turkish and European officials, including Marco Polo, who spent twenty years there from 1275-1295. It was also under Kublai Khan that the Mongol Empire became sedentary, so even though it was the richest empire in the world at that time, it was very different from the warlike empire of Kublai grandfather, Temujin. After Kublai died, his sons continued to rule the Mongol empire, but they were unable to hold it together, and in 1368, a peasant-born former monk named Hung Wu led a rebellion that reestablished Chinese independence under the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).

To Europeans, the Mongol armies seemed invincible and so frightening that many believed they had been sent by the devil. The Mongol invasion also cut off Russia from the rest of Europe, creating the division between Russian and Greek Orthodox Churches that still exists today. The Mongols ended the Seljuk Turkish caliphate at Baghdad, opening the way for the Ottoman Turks to gain control over Mecca and establish their own Muslim empire in the 16th century.


In the 14th century, the Catholic Church became divided over the selection of popes. The Italian cardinals had dominated the process for centuries, but the rise of the Franks and their contributions to the Crusades gave the monarchy of France additional influence over the selection of bishops. Gradually, there developed a "French" faction among the College of Cardinals, and by 1303, it was strong enough to force the election of Pope Boniface III, who favored French interests. The Roman population, which was often hostile to the papacy, became especially threatening, so Boniface accepted an offer of protection from the French king and relocated the papacy to Avignon. To the Italian cardinals, this "Babylonian Captivity" of the papacy really meant its domination by France, since i deprived them of any influence over the appointment of Church officers. From 1305-1378 while the popes were in Avignon, they increased their influence over the nobles of Germany and Italy, and reformed the Church's finances by collecting dues from the rest of Catholic Europe. But as they gained power, the "French" popes made enemies who circulated rumors about corruption in Avignon.

The pressure to return the papacy to Rome grew until, in 1377, a new pope named Gregory XI agreed to leave Avignon. Unfortunately, he died after only a year in office and an Italian named Urban VI managed to get himself selected as Gregory's successor. That led to arguments with the French-dominated College of Cardinals, and each tried to dismiss the other one. The end result was the appointment of a second "French" pope named Clement VII who withdrew to Avignon, while the "Italian" Pope Urban VI remained behind in Rome. That started the "Great Schism" that lasted from 1378 to 1417 and which divided the European Catholics into two camps. France found allies in Aragon, Castile and Scotland, while Rome got support from the Holy Roman Empire, England and the rest of Europe's Catholics.

Catholic leaders made several efforts to end the schism. The first took place at the Council of Pisa in 1409, where 500 Catholic prelates selected Alexander V as a unifying pope. Unfortunately, he died after a year and his replacement by the Council, Cardinal Baldassare Cossa, was unacceptable to either side. When both the French and Roman popes refused to step down in 1410, the Catholic Church found itself with three popes. The Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund launched a second attempt to end the schism by ordering the French pope John XXIII to call another council of prelates. It met in Constance (in Germany on the Swiss border) from 1414 to 1417 and was more successful. Not only did it elect a new pope, Martin V, who both sides accepted, the Council of Constance also established the principle that a council of prelates had authority over the pope.


As you might expect, most of the cost of these disasters was born by the peasants of Europe, and on several occasions, they pushed back. In 1358, the peasants of France rebelled for several months, textile workers of Florence (Italy) did the same in 1378, and in 1381, English peasants revolted against their nobility for a week. None of the revolts succeeded, even though the peasants outnumbered the nobility, because they lacked the money for armor and horses, and and the knowledge of how to use them. They also lacked leaders who knew how to fight battles or to maintain peasant unity.


The Black Death was an epidemic that swept across Europe from 1347-50. It arrived at the port of Messina in Sicily, carried by fleas that travelled on rats that were brought by ship from the eastern end of the Black Sea. Although plagues had occurred before in history, by the mid-14th century Europe's population was weakened by war and malnutrition. That made this plague particularly deadly and historians estimate that it killed as much as half of all Europeans. The effects of a such a catastrophe are hard to describe or imagine, although we will read one account of the plague's effects in France and England. To get an idea, think about how many people you know by name and face. Then think about all of the ways that your life would change if half of them died in the next three years.


The nobility felt itself at risk from many directions as the peasants became rebellious, invaders threatened from Asia and the Church was no longer able to provide guidance. To maintain their identity and unity, the nobility erected artificial social barriers that kept out anyone without enough wealth to pay for the luxuries, banquets and costumes required to act like a noble. They formed forming chivalric orders which operated like fraternities, with names like the Knights of the Garter and the Knights of the Golden Fleece. Such measures offered escape from the death, smells, contagion, and corruption that accompanied the was and the plagues. The lower classes sought their own forms of escape including fairs and public spectacles like bear-wrestling, fire-eating and executions.


By the 15th century, things began to improve a bit, especially in towns. Townspeople benefitted the most from the upheavals of the 14th century because they made their money by manufacturing or trade, and they could react more quickly to changing market conditions than nobles whose wealth depended on agriculture . Merchants from port cities in northern Germany formed the "Hanseatic League" which gained control over the Baltic/North Sea grain trade as far west as England. At the southern end of the trade route that linked the North Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, the cities of Genoa and Venice controlled the trade in Eastern spices, while Milan dominated the production of weapons.

The increase in the wealth of towns created a new class of people who became known as the bourgeoisie (town-dwellers). Besides trade and manufacturing, they found jobs as scribes, lawyers, teachers and government officials. They became the source of many new ideas and business practices such as insurance, double-entry bookkeeping, branch banking, and ways to transfer money safely over long distances. Their efforts accelerated the change away from the land-based power of the nobility based on wealth created by agriculture, towards power based on wealth generated by trade and other means.

The next group of readings concerns various disasters of the 14th century in Europe. They will set us up for the final readings on how Europeans began to alter their view of the world with overseas expansion and religious reformation.

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