Chapter 14 Beginnings of Revolutionary European Civilization, 1300-1650

Section 1 Challenge and Response: the Transformation of Medieval European Civilization

By the 1200s, the new civilization that had emerged in Europe had achieved maturity. After 1300, however, the new civilization confronted a series of dramatic challenges. Changes in the environment, increasing warfare, and a collapse in the authority of the church forced Europeans to make rapid adaptations or face another collapse of their civilization. Where Rome had been unable to transform itself quickly enough to avoid disintegration, the diversity of the new European civilization gave it a flexibility unknown in the ancient world. This flexibility allowed it to survive the challenges and to emerge stronger than ever.

Environmental Challenges of the 1300s

By the end of the 1200s, the new European civilization that had emerged after 1000 had reached its natural limits of expansion. Despite their new farming technology, Europeans knew little about the use of fertilizers and the importance of replenishing nutrients in the soil. They had fed the growing population by simply bringing more land under cultivation. By 1300, however, most available productive land had been brought into use. Pushed beyond its capacity, the land began to lose its fertility and food production leveled off. Farmers could no longer grow enough food to sustain the growing population. Adding to the problem, the weather began to change.

A changing climate. In the late 1200s, the weather in Europe grew noticeably colder and wetter. The change in climate had devastating effects on agriculture. Increased rain washed away the topsoil and rotted seedlings in the fields. Early winter storms destroyed crops before the harvest. Harvests began to fail on a regular basis[v] and food supplies began to run short in the first two decades of the 1300s. Between 1315 and 1317 famine stalked Europe. Prices rose dramatically.[vi] Then in 1347, Europeans began to pay a fearful price for their revival of long-distance trade: the Black Death arrived from Asia.

The Black Death. The bubonic plague, called the Black Death by Europeans, first broke out in China in 1331.[vii] The plague was carried by black rats but transmitted by fleas. When infected rats died, their fleas began biting people, thus transmitting the disease. Once infected, a person suffered from painfully swollen lymph glands, high fever, large purple blotches on the skin, and black spots at the point of the flea bite. Usually death came within days. Victims lucky enough to survive developed an immunity against further infection. A more serious form of the disease, pneumonic plague, attacked the lungs and spread directly through the air as victims coughed or sneezed. It was almost always fatal.

            Probably picked up first by Mongol armies operating in Southeast Asia, from China the disease traveled along the trade routes of the Mongol Empire. By 1346 it reached the ports of the Crimea in the Black Sea. Merchant ships carried it to Sicily and Italy, from which it quickly spread to northern European ports. The disease swept through the European population, especially in crowded towns and cities. People died so rapidly that sometimes the survivors could not keep up with burying the dead. Agnolo di Tura, a survivor of the plague in Siena, Italy, wrote: 

“Members of a household brought their dead to a ditch as best they could, without priest, without divine offices. . . . They died by the hundreds, both day and night, and all were thrown in those ditches and covered with earth. And as soon as those ditches were filled, more were dug. And I buried my five children with my own hands.”[viii]

            According to most scholarly estimates, at least one third of Europe's people died in the four years between 1346 and 1350 alone. Some estimates say that altogether as much as 45 percent of Europe's population died.[ix][ix]  In China, meanwhile, 35 million people perished.[x] Central Asia, North Africa, and the Byzantine Empire were all ravaged. Ibn Khaldun, a Muslim observer in North Africa, wrote: “Cities and buildings were laid waste, . . . settlements and mansions became empty, and dynasties and tribes grew weak. The entire inhabited world changed.”[xi]  By the mid-1400s the worst was over, although the infection established itself among rodent populations in the European countryside. Consequently, epidemics periodically broke out over the next 500 years. 

Consequences of the Black Death. The Black Death not only attacked people's physical health, it also undermined their sense of self-confidence. Some regarded it as a punishment from God and adopted extreme forms of penance for their supposed sins. Many became Flagellants, beating themselves with sticks and whips. Still others blamed witchcraft and sorcery for the plague, or turned to such practices themselves hoping to escape it. Often, frightened mobs accused the Jews of causing the plague by poisoning wells. Despite church efforts to stop them, brutal massacres were not uncommon.[xii]

            The Black Death also strained social relationships in Europe to the breaking point. Fearful of the consequences of the high death rate, for example, nobles and kings tried to restore prices and wages to their pre-plague levels. In 1351, the English Parliament passed the Statute of Laborers: 

“Whereas to curb the malice of servants who after the pestilence were idle and unwilling to serve without securing excessive wages . . . such servants, both men and women, shall be bound to serve in return for salaries and wages that were customary . . . five or six years earlier.”[xiii]

The law was never effectively enforced, but when further efforts were made to raise taxes on adult males, the result was a major peasant revolt. While the long-term affects of the plague may thus have contributed to the final decline of feudalism in Western Europe, in Eastern Europe, many rulers were able to re-impose serfdom by the 1400s.

The Challenge of War and National Unity

As the feudal order began to break down in Western Europe, people had to look beyond the local lord for protection and a sense of security. Many found both in the strong kings who began to limit the power of their nobles, and to claim sovereign power, or sole authority, throughout their realms. Through allegiance to these kings, many Europeans began to feel a new sense of national identity and security. 

The Hundred Years' War. England and France were the first countries in which kings established strong governments and a new sense of nationhood rooted in common allegiance to the monarchy. From 1337 until 1453, however, a series of conflicts known collectively as the Hundred Years' War, disrupted both kingdoms. There were many reasons for the war. The two countries competed for control of the wool trade in Flanders. The English king Edward III held territories in southern France, which made him a vassal of the French king, but he rarely fulfilled a vassal’s loyal obligations. Moreover, the two dynasties were actually related by ties of marriage and descent, at least in the female line. When the last male Capetian died, Edward claimed the French throne, despite the opposition of the French people and especially the French nobility, who preferred to acknowledge the house of Valois as the legitimate successors of the Capetians.

            During the first half of the war it seemed as if the English kings would win. In 1429, however, an illiterate French peasant girl, Joan of Arc, emerged from obscurity to save France. Joan believed she had received a revelation from God commanding her to find the dauphin, the heir to the French throne, and see that he was crowned king. Then she was to help him drive the English out of France. After the dauphin was crowned as Charles VII, Joan dictated a letter to the English calling on them to withdraw: 

“Surrender to The Maid sent hither by God the king of Heaven, the keys of all those towns you have taken and laid waste in France. . . . If you do not, expect to hear tidings from The Maid who will shortly come upon you to your very great hurt.”[xiv][xiv] 

Inspired by Joan's leadership, the French troops began to defeat the English. When Joan was captured by Burgundian allies of the English, and then burned at the stake as a heretic, her “martyrdom” only inspired the French even more. By 1453 they had driven the English out of all French territory except the port of Calais, on the English Channel.

            France’s victory strengthened the French monarchy, but discredited the monarchy in England. There, in 1455, civil war broke out as two English noble houses, both descended from the Plantagenet dynasty established by Henry II, competed for the throne: the House of York, represented by a white rose; and the House of Lancaster, represented by a red rose. The Wars of the Roses, as the civil wars became known, lasted until 1485, when Henry Tudor, the Lancastrian heir, emerged victorious as Henry VII, and shortly thereafter married the female heiress of his opponents, Elizabeth of York, thereby reuniting the two competing families and establishing his own Tudor dynasty. By shrewd maneuvering and effective use of force, the new Tudor dynasty established a strong central monarchy. The Tudors limited the power of the nobility and gained the support of the growing middle classes who had become sick of the bloodshed and destruction of the civil wars.

            Meanwhile, the Hundred Years’ War had revolutionized warfare in Europe and contributed further to the downfall of feudalism. At the battles of Crécy and Poitiers, for example, English bowmen proved that the striking power of a new weapon, the Welsh longbow, could pierce a knight’s armor. Longbows fired arrows more rapidly and powerfully than crossbows. As the flower of French nobility withered under the deadly hail of English arrows the knightly era ended. Even more significantly, both the French and English also began to use gunpowder and cannons – weapons that changed power relationships between nobles and kings in Europe. Cannons could blast apart castle defenses. Consequently, kings, who had the wealth to pay for the expensive new weapons, could at last control rebellious nobles by reducing their castles to rubble when necessary – thereby consolidating their own sovereign power. 

The Holy Roman Empire. While France and England emerged stronger and more unified than ever after the Hundred Years’ War and the Wars of the Roses, in Central and Eastern Europe a different pattern developed. As they struggled with the popes for control of Italy, the emperors had gradually given up most of their power to the German princes and knights of the empire in exchange for support in their Italian campaigns. In 1356, Charles IV tried to rebuild his authority as emperor by removing the popes from the process of electing the emperor.[xv][xv] In a decree known as the Golden Bull, he designated seven hereditary electors: three archbishops and four German princes.

            For the first time since the coronation of Charlemagne in 800, the pope would play no formal role in electing the emperor. Ironically, Charles's action only further weakened the emperors’ real power. The new electors became nearly independent rulers in their own territories. For the next hundred years, the imperial title was little more than honorary.

            In 1438, however, the Habsburg family, which had held the title in the 1200s, once again assumed the imperial crown. From their hereditary bases in Austria and Bohemia the Habsburgs set out deliberately to increase their wealth and power. Through conquest and marriage, the Habsburgs became the most powerful dynasty in Europe. Although unable to unify the empire under a centralized authority, they controlled enough resources to dominate Germany and Italy. 

Divisions in the Church

While the national monarchies of Europe responded to the challenges of the 1300s by becoming even more firmly established, the authority of the church steadily declined. When, in 1294, Philip IV of France demanded that the clergy pay taxes to the French treasury, Pope Boniface VIII rejected the demands. In a decree entitled Unam Sanctum he reasserted the pope’s authority over all earthly kings. Ironically, this declaration proved to be not the renewal of papal authority but the beginning of its end. Infuriated, Philip accused the pope of heresy and selling positions in the church – then kidnapped and imprisoned him. Boniface was quickly released but the political power of the papacy had been damaged beyond repair. After Boniface's death, Philip had one of his own French advisers elected pope as Clement V. In 1309, Clement moved the papacy from Rome to Avignon in France and for nearly 70 years thereafter the French kings controlled the papacy. This period of papal history, called the Babylonian Captivity after the period of Hebrew exile in Babylon in the 500s B.C., seriously undermined church authority.

            Pope Gregory XI eventually returned to Rome in 1377, but died a year later. The cardinals in Rome then elected an Italian pope. Meanwhile, the Avignon cardinals elected a French pope. From 1378 until 1417 this Great Schism, or division, split Latin Christendom in two. In 1409 matters became even more confusing. A church council deposed both popes and elected a new one—but the other two refused to resign! With three rival popes all claiming to be Christ’s Vicar on earth, in 1414 another council deposed two of the claimants and forced the third to abdicate. Three years later, in 1417, the Great Schism finally ended with the election of Pope Martin V.

            The disunity caused by the Babylonian Captivity and the Great Schism only further increased the growing criticism of the church, even from within its own ranks. In England in the late 1300s, for example, John Wycliffe, a scholar at Oxford University, had openly attacked the wealth of the church, immorality among the clergy, and the pope's claim to absolute authority. Wycliffe argued that the only true guide to faith and salvation was the Bible, not a corrupt church. The English royal court, which was quarreling with the papacy at the time, defended him against charges of heresy. Jan Hus, a teacher at the University of Prague, who took up Wycliffe’s ideas, was not so lucky. Failing to gain the same kind of support from the emperor that Wycliffe had found in England, in 1415 he was burned at the stake as a heretic.[xvi][xvi]

            Hus and Wycliffe’s ideas, however, could not be so easily destroyed. Both had attracted the support of thousands of people who kept alive a belief in the importance of individual faith. Thus the powerful idea took hold that Christians could achieve salvation through personal faith without having to rely on the clergy. By the mid-1400s the church had lost much of its political power, and even more seriously, some of its spiritual and moral authority as well. The foundations on which the new European civilization had risen had begun to crumble. Even as Europeans recovered from the dark days of the 1300s, new currents of discontent had begun to filter throughout society. Although Europeans may not have realized it, their rising discontent would soon transform the very nature of their civilization. 

Section 1 Review

IDENTIFY and explain the significance of the following:


sovereign power

Hundred Years' War

Joan of Arc

Wars of the Roses

Welsh longbow

Golden Bull

Philip IV of France

Boniface VIII

Unam Sanctum

Babylonian Captivity

Great Schism

LOCATE and explain the importance of the following:




1. Main Idea.  What problems did the Black Death cause for European societies?

2. Main Idea.  What events led to the Great Schism in the church?

3. Geography: Place.  How did changes in climate affect Europeans in the 1300s?

4. Writing to Explain.  What were the consequences of warfare between France and England?

5. Hypothesizing.  Why might the Black Death have caused many Europeans to react in such extreme ways as becoming flagellants or rejecting their religious faith?