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Climate Change, Hunger, War and Plague, to 1350

The increase in availability of food in Christendom allowed its population to grow an estimated 2.5 times between 1100 and 1300. But food production began falling. Advancing polar and alpine glaciers produced longer winters, wetter weather and a shortened growing season. Farm expansion in western Europe had come to an end by the year 1300. Farmland was going into disuse, and there was the disappearance of a major food source from the sea: herring.

Historian Joseph R. Stayer writes of a "serious economic depression from about 1300 to about 1450." Stephen Hause and Walter Malty write:

Local crises of subsistence became common and, for the first time in two centuries, a large-scale famine struck northern Europe in 1315-17. Southern Europe suffered a similar catastrophe in 1339.

There were other conflicts and brutalities. In 1305, the English captured William Wallace of Scotland, took him to London, convicted him of treason, hanged him and had his corpse drawn and quartered.

On the brighter side, in 1315 an Italian surgeon, Mondino de Luzzi, oversaw the dissection of a corpse — an advance in medicine. His manual on anatomy would be was first to be founded on practical dissection.

More to darkness, in 1318 in Marseille four Franciscans were burned at the stake for heresy. The Franciscans were a mendicant religious order of men founded by a Catholic friar, deacon and preacher, Francis of Assisi back in 1209. The four had come into conflict with the Church over their idea of maintaining absolute poverty. The Church was concerned about the idea that it had a right to have possessions. In 1322, the Franciscans were hit again: Pope John XXII declared as heresy the Franciscan claim that Christ and his apostles held no property.

And back to the conflict with Scotland, by 1328 the English had been driven from Scotland by Robert the Bruce, and that year the English and Scots signed a peace treaty that recognized Scotland's full independence. But the treaty lasted only five years as many proud English nobles felt humiliated by it.

But also in 1328 the first sawmill appeared in Europe, which was to encourage shipbuilding. There was creativity even during a declining economy. There was the manufacture of linen in place of wool. The metal and glass industries were growing. Windmills would become popular, providing power to grind corn, saw wood or operate bellows for metal works.

And what was to be called the Hundred Years' Wars had its beginning around this time. Like much of the trouble in the world across the centuries, it involved monarchical succession. The French king, Charles IV, died in 1328 and left no direct descendant to carry on the Capet dynastic line. Edward I (r. 1272-1307) had married into France's royal family, and his grandson Edward III (r. 1327-77) held to the belief that the French throne vacated in 1328 should be his. Within a few years, King Philippe VI of France intervened in a conflict in Flanders, on the continent side of the English Channel, which was not yet a part of France and where the English were dominant. Edward III retaliated and claimed again to be the legitimate ruler of France. Philippe retaliated by declaring Edward's fiefs in France as his. Philippe's retaliation created a war that began in 1337 and was to last, on and off, for 100 years, a lot of strife and bloodshed over a couple of vain monarchs in conflict over who should rule where.

Meanwhile, an increase in world trade and movement of people within the last two centuries had exposed more people to the bubonic plague. Rats gave the disease to fleas, the rats were transported by humans and fleas passed the disease – a bacterium, Yersinia pestis – to humans by biting them. Then diseased humans made the disease airborne, spreading it to the lungs of others.

In December 1347 the disease was in the Crimea and Constantinople. That same month it spread to Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, and Marseille. By June 1348 it was in Spain, Italy and as far north as Paris. By June 1349 it had advanced through London and central Europe. From there it moved through central Europe, through Ireland and Scandinavia, reaching people weakened by decades of malnutrition. According to Britannica: "A rough estimate is that 25 million people in Europe died from plague during the Black Death." The poor were hit harder than aristocrats because they were generally in poorer health and less able to resist the disease and because they lived closer together.

The mindset of these times was on spiritual causations. The benefit of wearing the kind of medical mask that people might wear in the 21st century was unknown. The belief in witchcraft was revitalized. Some believed that the end of the world was at hand, some groups engaged in frenzied bacchanals and orgies. Men and women called the Flagellants traveled about flogging each other. They preached that anyone doing this for thirty-three days would be cleansed of their sins – one day for every year that Christ lived. The Church was still on guard against innovative religious proclamations, and in 1349 Pope Clement VI condemned the movement.

The wandering mobs focused their wrath upon clergy who opposed them, and they targeted Jews, whom they blamed for inciting God's wrath. In Germany rumors arose that Jews had caused the plague by poisoning the water. Pogroms followed. Jews were arrested. Their fortunes were seized by the lords under whose jurisdictions they lived. Jews were put to death by burning. Pope Clement VI condemned these attacks and threatened excommunication for Christians who harmed Jews.

The success of this greatest of plagues was limited and destined to diminish as it had centuries before in Europe. The body that the bacterium entered was its environment and source of life. When it used up that environment it faded away, but not completely.


With the Black Death there was a drop in demand for food and a drop in its price. And in Western Europe there were fewer people to bid down wages, and owners had to increase wages. The shortage of labor also increased the demand for slaves, cutting a little into the demand for free labor. Wealthy merchants vied for servants to staff their households. Craftsmen and shopkeepers felt that they had to keep slaves. Cobblers, carpenters, weavers and woolworkers bought men and women from the slave dealers to help in their industries. And more slaves were put on the market as hungry parents sold their children, preferring their children's enslavement to watching them starve to death.

In response to rising wages there was a conspiracy to fix wages at a low level. Hostility toward employers and authorities increased. The hostility included peasants demanding that their community labor obligations be reduced. In cities, workers rose against wealthy merchants who had been running city hall. Peasants and workers revolted in Spain, the Netherlands, southern Germany, Italy, and England.

In England, rebellion was mixed with religious fervor and a call for Christianity's communalism and for the abolition of differences between lord and serf. But soldiers prevented people from transforming their hostilities into a successful social revolution.

Also with the fall in population in western Europe, landlords in need of people to work their lands had begun renting to peasants for sharecropping, and great estates were being replaced by small farms.

In eastern Europe something else was happening. There, populations had been less dense and towns smaller and more distant from one another. Serfdom had all but disappeared, but following the plague the owners of large estates, uninhibited by government regulation, were able to force peasants to work their land as serfs — a bondage close to slavery.

Back in western Europe there was also the conflict regarding the Pope in Avignon rather than in Rome. Joseph R. Strayer (Western Europe in the Middle Ages) writes of the spiritual sufferings caused by this, the Hundred Years' War and the plague:

Behind all this turmoil, one fact stands out. The people of Western Europe were still seeking personal experience in religion and most of them were not gaining it through the conventional ministrations of the Church. This dissatisfaction was expressed in revivalism and popular superstition, but an even more significant manifestation was the growth of mystical and heretical sects. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were a great period of mysticism, because the mystics stressed the importance of the individual's relations with God, and minimized the problems of Church organization.

CONTINUE READING: The Hundred Years' War and Decline of Chivalry

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