Late Medieval European Culture, 1258-1453
“Due ancoliti“: music from 14th-century Italy (4:57 min.):
Corvus Corax, “Saltatio mortis” (Totentanz, or Dance of Death, 3:53 min.):
Making medieval manuscripts (Getty Museum; 6:19 min.):
Janina Ramirez, The Search for the Lost Manuscript of Julian of Norwich [Revelations of Divine Love, 1373] (BBC, 59:09 min.; for Julian’s life and visions, see 14:00-27:00 min.):
Cultures, pp. 363-372 (Late medieval Europe; scholasticism; mysticism)
Maps of Europe and the Mediterranean:
In the East, the two centuries from the 1250s to the 1450s saw the Mongol conquest of the Seljuk empire and its subsequent fragmentation into small states, followed by the rise of the Ottoman Turks. Beginning c. 1300, they conquered Anatolia and the Balkans, seizing the remaining territory of the Byzantines, including Constantinople in 1453. Egypt and the E. end of the Mediterranean were ruled from 1250 to 1517 by the Mamluk sultanate.
In the West, the period from c. 1250 to c. 1450 saw the rise of France; the fragmentation of Germany and Italy; the attempt by England to seize Scotland and Ireland and to conquer France; the approach of the end of Muslim power in Spain (in 1492); and the establishment of new religious orders, papal autocracy, and the Inquisition. It also saw the spread of universities and literacy, the rise of scholasticism and science, the growth of urban life and commerce, the development of new technologies and new forms of architecture, and of magnificent new achievements in art, music, and vernacular literature. The population peaked c. 1300, but then sharply contracted during the Great Famine (c. 1315-22) and the Black Death (c. 1347-50). Endemic plague caused the European population to continue to fall or become stagnant for c. 150 years, until c. 1500.
Italy’s city-states dominated Mediterranean shipping and international trade, led the revival of urban culture and vernacular literature, and pioneered techniques of banking, the use of arabic numerals, the study of law, and the rebirth of study of the Classical world and its arts and literature.
Western scholarship was revolutionized beginning in the 1100s by the translation and circulation of all of Aristotle’s works in Latin, and by the re-discovery of the Corpus Juris Civilis (Body of Civil Law), a codification of late Roman law written in Latin in the mid 500s for the Byzantine emperor Justinian. Aristotle’s work inspired Western scholars to examine the natural world as well as the realms of philosophy, and to try to use human reason to understand the workings of the universe and the nature of the soul and of God. The Corpus Juris Civilis gave to European nation-states and to the Church, which were in a formative stage of administration, an overview of Roman law and also a methodology for organizing complex information on laws and jurisprudence systematically into a clear and logical format. This format was quickly adopted by scholars both of civil law (national law codes) and of canon law (the laws of the church).
Among the chief intellectual tasks of “scholasticism” (the rational scholarly method inspired by Aristotle) were:
- to identify and reconcile seeming contradictions in the works of great authorities,
- to discern God’s rational patterns for the universe and everything in it,
- and, ultimately, to reconcile reason (human logic and rational thought) with revelation (religious faith).
In the end, even the greatest philosophers of medieval Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (Thomas Aquinas, Ibn-Rushd, and Maimonides) were unable to reconcile reason with revelation, and this goal was abandoned by scholars as unachievable. Many people began to turn instead to mysticism – to try to know God simply through faith, rather than through reason and logic. In Europe, mysticism also became a pathway for Christians (especially women) to explore their spirituality and seek communion with God directly, without the mediation of the clergy.
“Agincourt: Myths and Misconceptions” (Wallace Collection; 8:03 min.):
“Due ancoliti“: music from 14th-century Italy (4:57 min.):
Cultures, pp. 372-383 (The guild system; the mendicant orders; early representative government; the weakening of the papacy; noble privilege and popular rebellion; the Hundred Years’ War)
Sources, pp. 190-194 (Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy)
In towns and cities (not villages), rapid growth and economic development led to the creation of trade and craft associations called guilds. In smaller towns there was a single guild, to which all who wished to practice any trade (commercial occupation, such as selling wine or wool) or a craft (manual work, such as baking bread or sewing clothing) had to belong. In large towns and cities, each substantial trade or craft had its own guild. Only senior members (“masters”) of the guild could keep a shop, train apprentices, and serve as guild officers. The officers were responsible for ensuring that guild members obeyed local laws and price regulations, provided good-quality goods and services, and didn’t cheat their customers. Thus, guild members enjoyed an economic monopoly, the public enjoyed the assurance of honest goods and work, and the town government was spared the burden of inspecting and policing every detail of everyday commerce. If the guild failed to police itself, and customers complained to the town government, then the guild could lose its monopoly. Guilds could reject those judged unqualified to work to the necessary standard. Most guilds excluded women from membership; some guilds accepted women as members, but did not allow them to hold office. Guilds also served as religious associations for their members, and no guilds admitted non-Christians.
The mendicant orders:
The rapid growth of towns between 1000 and 1300 meant that for a long time they were badly under-served by the Church, whose center of gravity was in the countryside, in the rural abbeys of Benedictine monks who lived in luxurious isolation from the laity. Meanwhile, in the towns, zealous lay preachers, some of them deemed heretics by the Church, drew large crowds and attracted many followers. In the early 1200s, two young men — Francis of Assisi, and Dominic (Domingo) of Castile — obtained permission from Pope Innocent III to found new religious orders of friars (“brothers”) whose specific mission would be to preach to townspeople while living as mendicants (“beggars”) practicing apostolic poverty, in imitation of Jesus and his disciples, in contrast to the luxurious lifestyle of many clergy. The new mendicant orders became wildly popular and attracted thousands of new members, including women. Since the Church forbade women to preach, Franciscan and Dominican nuns were put in convents, where they lived in seclusion like Benedictine nuns, but with only the bare essentials in food, clothing, and housing. Both the Franciscans and the Dominicans sent their most academically promising brothers to the new universities, but the Dominicans came to specialize in formal academic training much more than the Franciscans, and as a result the Dominicans became very active in the Church’s new legal channel for investigating and prosecuting heresy, the Inquisition.
The birth of representative government:
Many kings and other sovereign princes periodically summoned councils of important nobles and churchmen, but these councils were advisory only, and were expected to give their assent to the king’s wishes. In the late 1200s, the king of England began to call councils (called “Parliaments“) that included elected representatives from the townspeople (“burgesses”) and the lesser landowners of the countryside (“knights of the shire”) as well as the nobility and senior clergy. The reason for including the burgesses and shire knights was to get them to support the king’s wish to impose new taxes — taxes that would fall most heavily on the towns and the rural landowners — to pay for his foreign wars. The burgesses and the shire knights, who represented the common people of England, met separately from the elite nobles and clergy, forming a Parliament with two chambers: the Commons and the Lords. By the 1320s, the Commons had gained veto power over new royal taxation, which put the Commons on the path to power.
In France, King Philip IV called the first meeting of an advisory body called the Estates General in 1302. It consisted of the “three estates“: the nobles, senior clergy, and commons (who in this case were elected representatives from some of the towns, but not the countryside). Initially the king needed the assent of the Estates General to levy new taxation, but by the later 1300s the French kings found ways to bypass this, and thus the Estates General failed to develop into a strong and independent body like the English Parliament.
In the Iberian peninsula, the kings of the various Christian kingdoms summoned advisory councils called cortes made up of the “three estates” (nobility, senior clergy, and burgesses), beginning with the king of Leon in 1188. Until the late 1400s the cortes had power to veto the monarch’s wishes, but this was suppressed by Ferdinand and Isabella, and thereafter the cortes were left without real power.
The weakening of the papacy:
Pope Boniface VIII (1294-1303) clashed with King Philip IV of France (1285-1314) and King Edward I of England (1272-1307) over their taxation of their clergy. Boniface also proclaimed it essential for every human’s salvation to be subject to the pope. Philip IV summoned a court in Paris to convict the pope in absentia of murder, devil worship, and other high crimes, and sent an armed force to Italy to arrest him. Boniface was rescued by local people, but died soon after, and Philip IV engineered the election of a new pope who was friendly to French interests. In 1309 the new pope established a new papal headquarters in Avignon, where the popes remained until 1376, a period that became jeeringly known as the “Babylonian Captivity.” (Click for murals by Matteo Giovanetti, 1340s, in the chapel of St-Jean and papal suite.) In 1376 Pope Gregory XI returned to Rome at the urging of the lay ascetic and mystic St. Catherine of Siena (1347-80). (Click here for a photo of St. Catherine’s mummified head in the church of St. Dominic in Siena.)
Peasant revolts, urban riots, and the Hundred Years’ War:
The steep fall in population caused by the Great Famine and the Black Death caused a fall in the price of land and food, and a sharp rise in real wages. Peasants and urban laborers demanded higher wages and better working conditions, while landlords and employers tried to enforce a return to things as they had been before the plague. This clash in expectations resulted in a series of peasant revolts and urban riots, including the Jacquerie revolt in France (1358), the Ciompi revolt in Florence (1378), and the Great Revolt in England (1381). All were put down harshly.
Meanwhile, an intermittent but brutal dynastic war raged between England and France for more than a century, from 1337 until 1453, from which it later became known as the Hundred Years’ War. It was launched by Edward III of England, who had a strong claim (through his mother, a French princess) to inherit the French throne, a claim pursued by his successors down to his great-great grandson, Henry VI. Again and again the English came close to their objective but it always slipped away, most famously when Henry V won a colossal victory against the French at Agincourt in 1415, but then in 1429 an illiterate peasant girl and visionary mystic called Joan of Arc, aged 17, succeeded in turning around the morale and military fortunes of the French. However, she was captured in 1430, and the French king refused to ransom her. Her captors then sold her to the English, who had a Church court try her for heresy, and burned her at the stake (1431). Major elements in the Church’s case against Joan at her trial were: (1) as the leader of the French army, on the battlefield and off it, she wore men’s clothing and armor; (2) she said that she had heavenly visions in which she received God’s instructions from saints and angels; (3) she refused to accept her prosecutors’ instruction that her masculine clothing was unacceptable, and that her visions were demonic, not angelic. Joan’s insistence that she was right, contrary to the Church court’s command of both religious doctrine and canon law, lay at the heart of the case, and symbolizes some of the broad political, cultural, and religious movements of the late Middle Ages.
Dante Alighieri, four extracts from The Divine Comedy: Dante’s visions of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, where he is guided by the Roman poet Virgil and by his own dead beloved, Beatrice.