Crisis of the Late Middle Ages

The Crisis of the Late Middle Ages was a series of events in the 14th and 15th centuries that ended centuries of European stability during the Late Middle Ages.[1] Three major crises led to radical changes in all areas of society: demographic collapse, political instability, and religious upheavals.[2]

Citizens of Tournai (Belgium) bury plague victims

The Great Famine of 1315–1317 and Black Death of 1347–1351 reduced the population perhaps by half or more as the Medieval Warm Period came to a close and the first century of the Little Ice Age began. It took until 1500 for the European population to regain the levels of 1300.[2] Popular revolts in late-medieval Europe and civil wars between nobles such as the Wars of the Roses were common—with France fighting internally nine times—and there were international conflicts between kingdoms such as France and England in the Hundred Years' War.[citation needed]

The unity of the Roman Catholic Church was shattered by the Western Schism. The Holy Roman Empire was also in decline; in the aftermath of the Great Interregnum (1247–1273), the Empire lost cohesion and the separate dynasties of the various German states became more politically important than their union under the Emperor.[citation needed]


The expression "Crisis of the Late Middle Ages" is commonly used in western historiography,[3] especially in English and German, and somewhat less in other western European scholarship, to refer to the array of crises besetting Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. The expression often carries a modifier to specify it, such as the Urban[4] Crisis of the Late Middle Ages, or the Cultural,[5] Monastic,[6] Religious,[7] Social,[7] Economic,[7] Intellectual,[7] or Agrarian[8] crisis, or a regional modifier, such as the Catalan[9] or French[1] crisis.

By 1929, the French historian Marc Bloch was already writing about the effects of the crisis,[10] and by mid-century there were academic debates being held about it.[1][10] In his 1981 article Late Middle Age Agrarian Crisis or Crisis of Feudalism?, Peter Kriedte reprises some of the early works in the field from historians writing in the 1930s, including Marc Bloch, Henri Pirenne, Wilhelm Abel, and Michael Postan.[8] Referring to the crisis in Italian as the "Crisis of the 14th Century", Giovanni Cherubini alluded to the debate that already by 1974 had been going on "for several decades" in French, British, American, and German historiography.[11]

Arno Borst (1992) states that it "is a given that fourteenth century Latin Christianity was in a crisis", goes on to say that the intellectual aspects and how universities were affected by the crisis is underrepresented in the scholarship hitherto ("When we discuss the crisis of the Late Middle Ages, we consider intellectual movements beside religious, social, and economic ones"), and gives some examples.[7]

Some question whether "crisis" is the right expression for the period at the end of the Middle Ages and the transition to Modernity. In his 1981 article The End of the Middle Ages: Decline, Crisis or Transformation? Donald Sullivan addresses this question, claiming that scholarship has neglected the period and viewed it largely as a precursor to subsequent climactic events such as the Renaissance and Reformation.[12]

In his "Introduction to the History of the Middle Ages in Europe", Mitre Fernández wrote in 2004: "To talk about a general crisis of the Late Middle Ages is already a commonplace in the study of medieval history."[3]

Heribert Müller, in his 2012 book on the religious crisis of the late Middle Ages, discussed whether the term itself was in crisis:

No doubt the thesis of the crisis of the late Middle Ages has itself been in crisis for some time now, and hardly anyone considered an expert in the field would still profess it without some ifs and buts, and especially so in the case of German Medieval historians.[13]

In his 2014 historiographical article about the crisis in the Middle Ages, Peter Schuster quotes the historian Léopold Genicot's 1971 article "Crisis: From the Middle Ages to Modern Times": "Crisis is the word which comes immediately to the historian's mind when he thinks of the fourteenth and the fifteenth centuries."[14]


Some scholars contend that at the beginning of the 14th century, Europe had become overpopulated.[15][clarification needed] By the 14th century frontiers had ceased to expand and internal colonization was coming to an end, but population levels remained high.[citation needed]

The Medieval Warm Period ended sometime towards the end of the 13th century, bringing the "Little Ice Age"[16] and harsher winters with reduced harvests. In Northern Europe, new technological innovations such as the heavy plough and the three-field system were not as effective in clearing new fields for harvest as they were in the Mediterranean because the north had poor, clay-like soil.[17] Food shortages and rapidly inflating prices were a fact of life for as much as a century before the plague. Wheat, oats, hay and consequently livestock were all in short supply.[17]

Their scarcity resulted in malnutrition, which increases susceptibility to infections due to weakened immune systems. In the autumn of 1314, heavy rains began to fall, which were the start of several years of cold and wet winters.[17] The already weak harvests of the north suffered and the seven-year famine ensued. In the years 1315 to 1317 a catastrophic famine, known as the Great Famine, struck much of North West Europe. It was arguably the worst in European history, perhaps reducing the population by more than 10%.[17]

Most governments instituted measures that prohibited exports of foodstuffs, condemned black market speculators, set price controls on grain and outlawed large-scale fishing. At best, they proved mostly unenforceable and at worst they contributed to a continent-wide downward spiral. The hardest hit lands, like England, were unable to buy grain from France because of the prohibition, and from most of the rest of the grain producers because of crop failures from shortage of labor. Any grain that could be shipped was eventually taken by pirates or looters to be sold on the black market.[17]

Meanwhile, many of the largest countries, most notably England and Scotland, had been at war, using up much of their treasury and creating inflation. In 1337, on the eve of the first wave of the Black Death, England and France went to war in what became known as the Hundred Years' War. This situation was worsened when landowners and monarchs such as Edward III of England (r. 1327–1377) and Philip VI of France (r. 1328–1350), raised the fines and rents of their tenants out of a fear that their comparatively high standard of living would decline.[17]

When a typhoid epidemic emerged, many thousands died in populated urban centres, most significantly Ypres (now in Belgium). In 1318 a pestilence of unknown origin, sometimes identified as anthrax, targeted the animals of Europe, notably sheep and cattle, further reducing the food supply and income of the peasantry.[18]

Little Ice Age and the Great FamineEdit

As Europe moved out of the Medieval Warm Period and into the Little Ice Age, a decrease in temperature and a great number of devastating floods disrupted harvests and caused mass famine. The cold and the rain proved to be particularly disastrous from 1315 to 1317 in which poor weather interrupted the maturation of many grains and beans, and flooding turned fields rocky and barren.[19][20] Scarcity of grain caused price inflation, as described in one account of grain prices in Europe in which the price of wheat doubled from twenty shillings per quarter in 1315 to forty shillings per quarter by June of the following year.[19] Grape harvests also suffered, which reduced wine production throughout Europe. The wine production from the vineyards surrounding the Abbey of Saint-Arnould in France decreased as much as eighty percent by 1317.[20] During this climatic change and subsequent famine, Europe's cattle were struck with Bovine Pestilence, a pathogen of unknown identity.[21]

The pathogen spread throughout Europe from Eastern Asia in 1315 and reached the British Isles by 1319.[21] Manorial accounts of cattle populations in the year between 1319 and 1320, places a sixty-two percent loss in England and Wales alone.[21] In these countries, some correlation can be found between the places where poor weather reduced crop harvests and places where the bovine population was particularly negatively affected.[21] It is hypothesized that both low temperatures and lack of nutrition lowered the cattle populations' immune systems and made them vulnerable to disease.[21] The mass death and illness of cattle drastically affected dairy production, and the output did not return to its pre-pestilence amount until 1331.[21] Much of the medieval peasants' protein was obtained from dairy, and milk shortages likely caused nutritional deficiency in the European population. Famine and pestilence, exacerbated with the prevalence of war during this time, led to the death of an estimated ten to fifteen percent of Europe's population.[20][21]

Climate change and plague pandemic correlationEdit

The Black Death was a particularly devastating epidemic in Europe during this time, and is notable due to the number of people who succumbed to the disease within the few years the disease was active. It was fatal to an estimated thirty to sixty percent of the population where the disease was present.[22] While there is some question of whether it was a particularly deadly strain of Yersinia pestis that caused the Black Death, research indicates no significant difference in bacterial phenotype.[23] Thus environmental stressors are considered when hypothesizing the deadliness of the Black Plague, such as crop failures due to changes in weather, the subsequent famine, and an influx of host rats into Europe from China.[22][24]

Popular revoltEdit

Richard II of England meets the rebels of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381.
Joan of Arc during the Siege of Orléans (1428–1429)

Before the 14th century, popular uprisings were not unknown, for example, uprisings at a manor house against an unpleasant overlord, but they were local in scope. This changed in the 14th and 15th centuries when new downward pressures on the poor[clarification needed] resulted in mass movements and popular uprisings across Europe. To indicate how common and widespread these movements became, in Germany between 1336 and 1525 there were no less than sixty phases of militant peasant unrest.[25]

Malthusian hypothesisEdit

Scholars such as David Herlihy and Michael Postan use the term Malthusian limit to explain some calamities as results of overpopulation. In his 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population, Thomas Malthus asserted that exponential population growth will invariably exceed available resources, making mass death inevitable. In his book The Black Death and the Transformation of the West, David Herlihy explores whether the plague was an inevitable crisis of population and resources. In The Black Death; A Turning Point in History? (ed. William M. Bowsky), he "implies that the Black Death's pivotal role in late medieval society ... was now being challenged. Arguing on the basis of a neo-Malthusian economics, revisionist historians recast the Black Death as a necessary and long overdue corrective to an overpopulated Europe."[citation needed]

Herlihy also examined the arguments against the Malthusian crisis, stating "if the Black Death was a response to excessive human numbers it should have arrived several decades earlier"[26] in consequence of the population growth before the Black Death. Herlihy also brings up other, biological factors that argue against the plague as a "reckoning" by arguing "the role of famines in affecting population movements is also problematic. The many famines preceding the Black Death, even the 'great hunger' of 1315 to 1317, did not result in any appreciable reduction in population levels".[26] Herlihy concludes the matter stating, "the medieval experience shows us not a Malthusian crisis but a stalemate, in the sense that the community was maintaining at stable levels very large numbers over a lengthy period" and states that the phenomenon should be referred to as more of a deadlock, rather than a crisis, to describe Europe before the epidemics.[26]: 34 

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c James L. Goldsmith (1995), "The Crises of the Late Middle Ages: The Case of France", French History, 9 (4): 417–50, doi:10.1093/fh/9.4.417
  2. ^ a b Galens, July; Knight, Judson (2001). "The Late Middle Ages". Middle Ages Reference Library. Gale. 1. Retrieved May 15, 2020.
  3. ^ a b Mitre Fernández, Emilio (2004) [1st pub. 1976:Istmo]. "1 La Crisis Economica y Social de la Baja Edad Media". Introducción a la historia de la Edad Media europea [Introduction to the History of the Middle Ages in Europe]. Colección fundamentos, 56. Madrid: Ediciones AKAL. p. 289. ISBN 978-84-7090-479-0. OCLC 819718540. Retrieved 2 November 2018. Hablar de crisis general de la Baja Edad Media europea resulta ya un lugar común dentro de los estudios de Historia medieval. Los siglos XIV y XV (el «otoño de la Edad Media», según la expresión de Huizinga) son el período de desgaste de unas estructuras materiales y mentales configuradas en las anteriores centurias y el puente hacia el Modernidad. De ahí que en distantas ocasiones se les haya querido negar una presonalidad propia. Crisis política (Guerra de los Cien Años), crisis espiritual (Cisma de Occidente, conciliarismo, movimientos heterodoxos que preludían la Reforma protestante, etc.) y, sobre todo, por lo que concierne a este capítulo, crisis económica y social.[To talk about a general crisis of the Late Middle Ages is already a commonplace in the study of medieval history. The 14th and 15th centuries (the "autumn of the Middle Ages", according to Huizinga) are the period of the superannuation of some of the physical and mental structures configured in prior centuries and the bridge toward Modernity. To the extent that it was even denied its own personality. Political crisis (the Hundred Years War) spiritual crisis (the Western Schism, conciliarism, heterodox movements which were a prelude to the Protestant Reformation, etc.) and above all, as far as this chapter is concerned, economic and social crisis.]
  4. ^ Phythian-Adams 2002.
  5. ^ Merrill 1987.
  6. ^ Merton 1999, p. 188.
  7. ^ a b c d e Borst, Arno (15 April 1992) [1st pub. R. Piper:1988]. "10. Crisis and Reform in the Universities of the Late Middle Ages". Medieval Worlds: Barbarians, Heretics and Artists in the Middle Ages. Translated by Eric Hansen. University of Chicago Press. p. 167. ISBN 978-0-226-06656-1. OCLC 644552210. Retrieved 2 November 2018. When we discuss the crisis of the Late Middle Ages, we consider intellectual movements beside religious, social, and economic ones, but universities are given attention only in passing, as in the collection of essays of 1984 edited by Fernand Seibt and Winfried Eberhard, Europa 1400, Die Krise des Spaetmittelalters.
  8. ^ a b Kriedte, Peter (1981). "Spätmittelalterliche Agrarkrise Oder Krise Des Feudalismus?" [Late Middle Age Agrarian Crisis or Crisis of Feudalism?]. Geschichte und Gesellschaft (in German). 7 (1): 42–68. JSTOR 40185111. Kriedte references include:
  9. ^ Ferrer i Mallol, Maria Teresa; Mutgé i Vives, Josefa (2005). La corona catalanoaragonesa i el seu entorn mediterrani a la baixa edat mitjana: actes del seminari celebrat a Barcelona, els dies 27 i 28 de novembre de 2003 [The Catalan-Aragonese Crown and its Mediterranean Environment in the Late Middle Ages: Acts of the Seminar held in Barcelona, November 27 and 28 2003] (conference pub.). Anuario de Estudios medievales, Annex 58 (in Catalan). Barcelona: Editorial CSIC - CSIC Press. p. 1. ISBN 978-84-00-08330-4. OCLC 878594930. Retrieved 3 November 2018.
  10. ^ a b Institut d'Estudis Catalans (9 September 2013). Crisis frumentàries, iniciatives privades i polítiques públiques de proveïment a les ciutats catalanes durant la baixa edat mitjana: Coordinació a cura d'Antoni Riera i Melis [Crises in grain production, private initiatives and public supply policies to Catalan cities during the Late Middle Ages: Coordination under the care of Antoni Riera i Melis] (1 ed.). Barcelona: Institut d'Estudis Catalans. p. 13. ISBN 978-84-9965-180-4. OCLC 870100518. Retrieved 3 November 2018. 2. El debat sobre la crisi de la baixa edat mitjana entre neomalthusians i marxistes en las dècadas centrals del segle XX: L'aparició, el 1949, d'un article d'Edouard Perroy sobre «l'economia encongida»8 va coŀlocar les fams de la premera meitat del segle XIV en el centre del debat sobre l'origen, la cronologia, l'abast, i els efectes de la crisis de la baixa edat mitjana; qüestió que Marc Bloch ja havia esbossat dues dècadas abans.9 Per a un corrent de la historagrafia rural, encapçalat per Michael M. Postan10 i Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie,11 les esmentades fams no són més que la manifestació d'un capgirament de la conjuntura dintre d'un cicle demogràfic i econòmic de llarga durada que s'havia iniciat a mitjan sigle X1; marquen el final dels «bons temps», de l'expansió, i l'inici d'un període d'estancament i de regressió que va cobrir, a bona part d'Europa, el segle XIV i gairebé tot el XV, i al qual s'ha designat com la «crisi de la baixa edat mitjana»12 o la «gran depresió».
      12. Per a la difusió del terme crisi, a mitjan segle XX, entre els historiadors i la seva primera utilització, amb un sentit més social i politic que econòmic, vegeu M. Bourin i F. Menant, 'Avant-propos', a M. Bourin, J. Drendel, i F. Menant (ed.), "Les disettes dans la conjuncture de 1300 en Méditerranée occidentale", Roma, 2011, p.2, nota 6.
    The debate about the crisis of the Late Middle Ages between Neomalthusians and Marxists in the middle of the twentieth century: The appearance in 1949 of an article by Edouard Perroy on 'the shrinking economy'8 propelled the famines of the first half of the fourteenth century into the center of the debate on the origin, chronology, scope, and effects of the crisis of the Late Middle Ages; an issue that Marc Bloch had already outlined two decades earlier.9 According to an account of rural historiography headed by Michael M. Postan10 and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie,11 the aforementioned famines are nothing more than the manifestation of a revival of the scenario within a demographic and economic cycle of long duration that had begun in the middle of the tenth century; marking the end of the 'good times' and of the expansion, and the beginning of a period of stagnation and regression that spanned, in much of Europe, the fourteenth century and almost all of the fifteenth, and which has been designated as the 'crisis of the Late Middle Ages'12 or as the 'great depression'.
      12. For the spread of term crisis in the middle of the 20th century among historians and its first use, with a sense more social and political than economic, see M. Bourin and F. Menant, 'Avant-propos', in M. Bourin, J. Drendel, and F. Menant (ed.), "Les disettes dans la conjuncture de 1300 en Méditerranée occidentale", Rome, 2011, p.2, note 6.
  11. ^ Cherubini, Giovanni (1974). "La 'Crisi Del Trecento'. Bilancio e Prospettive Di Ricerca" [The 'Crisis of the Fourteenth Century'. Budget and Research Perspectives]. Studi Storici (in Italian). 15 (3): 660–670. JSTOR 20564172. [L]a Storia einaudiana ha compiuto un'utile opera di «adeguamento» (sul piano, naturalmente, della più larga divulgazione di buon livello) della storiografia italiana alla storiografia francese, inglese, americana, tedesca, nelle quali il problema della «crisi del Trecento» è ormai dibattuto da alcuni decenni.   [The Italian historical series] Einaudi has... 'adjusted' Italian historiography (at least at the level of the more widely disseminated popularized version) to French, English, American, and German historiography, in which the problem of the 'Crisis of the Late Middle Ages' has been debated for several decades.
  12. ^ Sullivan, Donald (1981). "The End of the Middle Ages: Decline, Crisis, or Transformation?". The History Teacher. 14 (4): 551–565. doi:10.2307/493689. JSTOR 493689. Modern interpretations of the period ca. 1300-1500, conventionally identified as the late Middle Ages in transalpine Europe, have received little serious attention. This lack of attention can be attributed partially to a long evident tendency to represent the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as, at best, only the background or preparation for such climactic events as the Renaissance and the Reformation. While modern historiography has exhaustively examined the 'Renaissance Problem' the comparative neglect of the late medieval period stems largely from four centuries of viewing it primarily in relation to what was seen as more appealing or more significant eras, whether preceding, following, or overlapping it.
  13. ^ Müller, Heribert (18 September 2012). "1. Einleitung: Krise des Spätmittelalters? – Krise der Kirche [1. Introduction: Crisis of the late Middle Ages? – Crisis of the Church]". Die kirchliche Krise des Spätmittelalters: Schisma, Konziliarismus und Konzilien [The Religious Crisis of the Late Middle Ages: Schism, Conciliarism, and Councils]. Encyclopedia of German History, 90. Munich: De Gruyter. p. 1. ISBN 978-3-486-71350-3. OCLC 843181757. Retrieved 2 November 2018. Krise—beginnt das Buch gleich mit einem ungebrachten, ja falschen Begriff? Denn zweifellos ist die These von der Krise des Spätmittelalters seit längerem ihrerseits in der Krise, und wohl kaum ein Kenner der Materie dürfte sich heute noch ohne Wenn und Aber zu ihr bekennen, was ihm besonderer für deutsche Mittelalthistoriker gilt. [Crisis—does the book start out with an unfounded, even incorrect term? For no doubt the thesis of the crisis of the late Middle Ages has itself been in crisis for some time now, and hardly anyone considered an expert in the field would still profess it without some ifs and buts, and especially so in the case of German Medieval historians.]
  14. ^ Schuster, Peter (2014-01-01). "Die Krise des Spätmittelalters: Zur Evidenz eines sozial- und wirtschaftsgeschichtlichen Paradigmas in der Geschichtsschreibung des 20. Jahrhunderts" [The Crisis of the Late Middle Ages: On the Evidence of a Social- and Economic-historical Paradigm in the Historiography of the 20th century]. Historische Zeitschrift (in German). 269 (1): 19–56. doi:10.1524/hzhz.1999.269.jg.19. S2CID 164734921. Leopold Genicot konnte bereits 1971 die Ausbildung eines festen Geschichtsbildes in der Zunft zumindest in bezug auf das spaete Mittelalter vermelden: 'Crisis is the word which comes immediately to the historian's mind when he thinks of the fourteenth and the fifteenth centuries.'[in English in the original]   As early as 1971, Leopold Genicot was able to report the formation of a solid image of history among its practitioners, at least with regard to the late Middle Ages: 'Crisis is the word...' Note: Schuster is quoting a 1971 republication of Genicot in Cambridge Economic History of Europe, Vol. 1, The Agrarian Life of the Middle Ages, which appeared previously in a 1966 version.
  15. ^ Perry Anderson (1974) [2006]. Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism. Verso. pp. 186, 199. ISBN 978-1-85984-107-5.
  16. ^ World Regions in Global Context, Third Edition
  17. ^ a b c d e f J. M. Bennett and C. W. Hollister, Medieval Europe: A Short History (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006), p. 326.
  18. ^ Slavin, Philip (2012). "The Great Bovine Pestilence and its economic and environmental consequences in England and Wales, 1318-501". The Economic History Review. 65 (4): 1239–1266. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0289.2011.00625.x. S2CID 154241221.
  19. ^ a b Lucas, Henry S. (1930). "The Great European Famine of 1315, 1316, and 1317". Speculum. 5 (4): 343–377. doi:10.2307/2848143. JSTOR 2848143. S2CID 161705685.
  20. ^ a b c Jordan, William Chester (1997). The Great Famine : Northern Europe in the Early Fourteenth Century. Princeton University Press.
  21. ^ a b c d e f g Slavin, Philip (2012). "The Great Bovine Pestilence and its economic and environmental consequences in England and Wales, 1318—50". The Economic History Review. 65 (4): 1239–1266. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0289.2011.00625.x. JSTOR 23271688. S2CID 154241221.
  22. ^ a b DeWitte, Sharon (2015). "Setting the Stage for the Medieval Plague: Pre-Black Death Trends in Survival and Mortality". American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 158 (3): 441–451. doi:10.1002/ajpa.22806. PMID 26174498.
  23. ^ Bos, Kirsten I.; Schuenemann, Verena J.; Golding, G. Brian; Burbano, Hernán A.; Waglechner, Nicholas; Coombes, Brian K.; McPhee, Joseph B.; DeWitte, Sharon N.; Meyer, Matthias (October 2011). "A draft genome of Yersinia pestis from victims of the Black Death". Nature. 478 (7370): 506–510. Bibcode:2011Natur.478..506B. doi:10.1038/nature10549. ISSN 1476-4687. PMC 3690193. PMID 21993626.
  24. ^ Cui, Yujun; Yu, Chang; Yan, Yanfeng; Li, Dongfang; Li, Yanjun; Jombart, Thibaut; Weinert, Lucy A.; Wang, Zuyun; Guo, Zhaobiao (2013). "Historical variations in mutation rate in an epidemic pathogen, Yersinia pestis". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 110 (2): 577–582. Bibcode:2013PNAS..110..577C. doi:10.1073/pnas.1205750110. JSTOR 42553832. PMC 3545753. PMID 23271803.
  25. ^ Peter Blickle (1988). Unruhen in der ständischen Gesellschaft 1300–1800.
  26. ^ a b c Herlihy, David (1997). The Black Death and the Transformation of the West. Harvard University Press. p. 33. ISBN 978-0-674-07612-9. Retrieved 2 September 2009.

General and cited sourcesEdit

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