Archive for March, 2012

An Idiot’s History of Western Europe—The Wheels Come Off in the Late Middle Ages (1300 to 1500)

[This is the sixth installment of my mini-history—more to come]

In 1348, a Genoese ship arrived from the Black Sea carrying rats infected with the bacterium Yersinia pestis, the bubonic plague.  The resulting Black Death killed about one third of the population of Western Europe by 1350, more in the cities and towns.  No one, not even the learned Church, could provide any relief or explanation.  Even worse, the Plague returned at unpredictable intervals (but with less impact) over many centuries thereafter.  Recent findings indicate this medieval disease organism was no more virulent than its modern-day form found in many species of rodent around the world.  It seems the crowded, unsanitary conditions of medieval urban life, coupled with poor nutrition from expanding population and decreasing agricultural output as the Medieval Warm Period gave way to the Little Ice Age in Europe, made Europeans exceptionally susceptible to the disease.  Today we can hardly imagine the psycho-social, cultural and economic impact of such an unprecedented and pervasive calamity as the Black Death (nothing comparable had been seen since the Plague of Justinian in the 600s and 700s), especially in 1348-9 when it struck so quickly and violently.  It is equally difficult for us to conceive of how a society could recover from the Black Death.  Ironically, Western Europe recovered quite quickly and became more prosperous and innovative than ever before.  In fact, the Black Death saved Europe from an economic collapse that struck in 1343.

Black Death Recapitalizes Europe

The population and economic growth in the High Middle Ages, resulting from agricultural innovation, good weather, and related growth of trade and towns and the economic stimulation of the Crusades, was particularly felt in the Italian Peninsula.  Leading families of the mercantile cities, especially Genoa, Florence and Venice, became enormously wealthy.  Control of trade between Western Europe and the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic Levant (eastern Mediterranean shore) allowed these families to accumulate capital and invest it in new business ventures proposed by adventurous young men with no wealth of their own but the courage to risk life and reputation in pursuit of wealth and recognition.  Some families, most notably the Bardi and the Peruzzi of Florence, set themselves up as bankers to Europe, even the monarchs of England and France as they waged the Hundred Years’ War (1337 to 1453) for control of France.  The vital role of these two banks for lubricating the economy of Western Europe (and the associated risks of supporting both sides of a princely conflict) was dramatically demonstrated when Edward III of England in 1343 repudiated his enormous loans from the Bardi and Peruzzi.  The Italians were kicked out of England, their property was confiscated, and their banks collapsed, taking the whole economy of Europe down with them, since so many tradesmen and artisans had placed their small and large savings with the banks or depended on them for working capital loans.  The European economy was decapitalized overnight.

Then it was recapitalized almost as quickly by the Black Death.  How could this be?  First, the survivors of the Plague were in more demand for their labor and skills.  Wages rose and so did opportunities for social mobility in the towns.  Second, Professor Bartlett cites the “inheritance effect.”  The survivors in wealthy families inherited from family members killed by the Plague.  Surplus capital accumulated in fewer hands.  This stimulated new investment and consequent economic growth.  It also gave rise to new confidence of the mercantile families, who had the leisure and the wealth not only to pursue creature comforts but also develop their own distinctive cultural identity, setting the stage for the Italian Renaissance.

Italian Renaissance and Humanism

According to Professor Bartlett,

The Renaissance began in Italy in the 14th century and then spread somewhat unevenly over the rest of Northern Europe in the late 15th and 16th centuries.  The most perfect actualization of this new culture arose in Florence.”

With the Ordinances of Justice in 1293, Florence became a merchant-controlled republic.  Its governing merchant class sought “a cultural model for their self-definition,” which had to be found outside the definitions and structures of the feudal system.  They saw themselves reflected in the Roman Republic of antiquity, where

“the state was an instrument to help us here on Earth.  Salvation was left to faith, as the secular and divine were separated in function.  Social mobility and competition were valued, as was personal responsibility.  These were the fundamental ideas that collectively came to be known as humanism.”

Florentines perceived themselves as different from the men of the Middle Ages, which [their] historians described as barbarous and Gothic.  Celebrated by Florentine writers like Petrarch and Boccaccio, the place of human values became supreme, and the Middle Ages came to define that chasm between classical antiquity and the beginning of the Italian Renaissance.  Humanist values and practices spread broadly across the Italian Peninsula, as learned laymen were produced by humanist schools and sought employment in republics, monarchies, and papal Rome.  Humanism proved a remarkably flexible and effective tool, setting the standards for style, scholarship, and communication, as well as art and architecture throughout Italy.”

Having heard the term “humanism” throughout my (partially) educated life, I thought this worldview had emerged in the Renaissance as a truly new way of looking at the world, so I was surprised to discover from Professor Bartlett that Renaissance humanism was in fact the “revival of antiquity and its application to contemporary issues.”  My confusion is understandable given the very broad use of the term these days, even as a softer label for atheism.  The Renaissance humanism actually arose as a reactionary “back to the good old days” denial of the Church-centered medieval culture.  On one hand, Florentines and other wealthy, educated laymen had become aware of the sophistication of Roman and Greek culture through recently re-discovered writings.  On the other hand, nearly a millennium had passed without direct exposure to the truly barbaric aspects of ancient Greek and Roman life.  So the ancient world could take on the aura of a lost golden age of civilization that preceded the “dark ages” (Petrarch’s term) from which the nouveau riche Italian republicans sought to free themselves. As described in my previous post, there was already underway in the prior century a reform movement led by the mendicant orders and especially St. Francis and St. Thomas Aquinas to revitalize the Church-centered medieval culture and make it more human-centered.  But this movement didn’t fully serve the purposes of the Italian merchant class.  For them there had to be a clear distinction between the Church-centered culture that supported the feudal system and a superior new culture of those who were, almost by definition, outside the feudal system.  St. Thomas Aquinas had already done the heavy intellectual lifting to legitimize Aristotle (and by association, pagan antiquity) in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church.  Without challenging the Church’s authority on theological and spiritual issues, the Renaissance drew from the ideas and examples of antiquity to create a self-consciously alternative culture for the here-and-now material world.  This very practical new culture served the townspeople and kings of Western Europe very well indeed.

Humanism was technically the study of the humanities—the literature and art—of ancient Greece and Rome.  In practical terms, however, humanism inspired not only emulation of classical literature and art during the Renaissance but also a form of secular education that emphasized the importance of precise use of language, the formal Latin language of Cicero, to influence others through elegant rhetoric.  These and other secular skills, such as arithmetic and bookkeeping, made the graduates of humanist schools quite valuable employees in the administrations of city-states, kingdoms and even Papal Rome.  This humanist education became a requirement for career advancement and achievement of social position for the sons of the Third Estate and eventually all who would be regarded with respect.  Such education became a new “caste mark” (as Professor Bartlett calls it) of the educated, upwardly mobile, competitive achiever—the Renaissance Man on the street.

Humanism’s Setback of Scientific Development

It is ironic that the fashion-driven preference for the formal Latin of Cicero (which had never been spoken on the streets of Rome) more or less killed Latin as a living language that could evolve with the times.   Equally ironic is the setback that humanism gave to the development of natural philosophy (science).  In setting up the Greek and Roman writers as their reference point for what is true and right and good, the humanists dismissed the work of Thomas Aquinas and his followers in the early universities, known collectively as the Scholastics, in favor of a return to unsophisticated acceptance of Aristotle as the final authority on nature and how it works.  In his excellent book, The Genesis of Science, James Hannam shares new insights on medieval science derived from recent historical research.   Thomas Aquinas and the Scholastics, notably Roger Bacon, Robert Grosseteste, Richard of Wallingford, Duns Scotus, William of Ockham and the Merton Calculators of Oxford University (including Thomas Bradwardine, Richard Swineshead and William Heytesbury), and on the Continent, John Buridan, Nicole Oresme and others built on and challenged each other’s work and in the process distilled and further developed the great value of Aristotle’s rational method while correcting many of his obvious errors.  They succeeded in building on and up from Aristotle’s pioneering work in natural philosophy.  It seems that Aristotle seldom bothered to actually test his ideas about how the natural world works by just observing nature in action, even the simplest mechanics of projectiles and falling objects.  The Scholastics made great strides by committing themselves to observe the natural world and try to explain its behavior through reason aiding by their pioneering though still rudimentary mathematics.

The Black Death took the lives of some of the Scholastics and no doubt left the confidence of others deeply shaken.  But worse was the derisive dismissal of the Scholastics by the humanists.  History is written by the victors, it is said, and in the cultural triumph of humanism and the Renaissance, Scholastics were not just ignored as though they never existed, they were derided as fools caught up in meaningless theological speculation.  If the Scholastics ever wondered how many angels danced on the head of a pin, writes James Hannam, they surely were just teasing each other, but the joke was turned against them.  The extent of anti-intellectual character assassination is reflected by the origin of the word “dunce” from the name of Duns Scotus.  Aristotle, along with the other Classics, was enshrined in the curricula of universities for centuries after, perpetuating his laughable errors along with his materialism and commitment to logical reasoning from a priori (i.e., unquestionable) premises as the sole source of knowledge.  Even worse for the Scholastics, they were blamed in later centuries (notably by Francis Bacon) for this over-commitment to the truth of Aristotle and his tedious, hyper-rationalist method.  I will return in a later post to the Scientific Revolution and its origins in medieval philosophy.

Christian Humanism

As humanist education and values spread to the schools of Europe north of the Alps, humanism took on a more Christian identity.  In Italy there had been a tradition of secular schooling (the abacus schools that prepared young men for careers in their fathers’ mercantile businesses), so it was possible for humanism to be taught to youth without much reference or challenge to Christian theology and practice.  Humanism and the Church could coexist without much interference in Italy.  In northern Europe, on the other hand, education was provided by the Church (such as the cathedral schools of France, Germany and Britain).  There was no tradition of secular education.  Since humanism was in effect a lens through which to study literature and art, and since the texts to be studied in northern Europe were not the Classics of Rome and Greece but the Bible and writings of the early Church Fathers, humanist education led to new ways of interpreting the Christian religion – the Christian humanism exemplified by the writings of Desiderius Erasmus of Holland and Thomas More of England (who were close friends).  These and other Christian humanists raised awkward questions about the dissonance of the Judeo-Christian idea (and its elaboration in Christian theology) and the actual operation of the Roman Catholic Church in practice.  Moreover, their books were widely read and very popular, thanks to the spread of literacy and education in Western Europe and even more the invention of the printing press with moveable metal type by Johann Gutenberg, marked by his first Bible in 1455.

Crisis in the Church

Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Church was doing just about everything possible to undermine its own legitimacy and authority.  In the Late Middle Ages, Rome was an unpleasant and dangerous little city, to the point that popes feared for their own lives, due in part to their involvement in temporal struggles for power in the Italian Peninsula and beyond.  In 1309, Pope Clement V, who was French, moved the papal court to a safer, more comfortable location in Avignon in what is now France.  Critics derided the following decades and seven French popes residing in splendor in Avignon as the Babylonian Captivity, not to be confused with the Babylonian Captivity of the Jewish people of the Old Testament.  Whether true or not, England and its allies believed the papacy was favoring the French crown and its allies and therefore supported Rome as the rightful residence for a pope, preferably not a Frenchman.  Then in 1378, two popes were elected, one in Avignon, the other in Rome, and this was followed by a series of rival claimants to the papacy and deep confusion in Western Catholicism about just who held the ultimate position of authority as Vicar of Christ on earth.  This episode of Church history was known as the Western Schism; in contrast to the Great Schism of 1054 that officially separated Western and Eastern Christianity, the Western Schism had no theological implications.  It was simply a question of where and who was the locus of ultimate authority on theological and moral questions when they arise.  But both schisms had the effect of undermining the notion that the authority of God could be represented on earth by just one entity or one person.

The Western Schism was resolved in 1417 by the Council of Constance, which elected Martin V as the one and only legitimate pope and sent him to reside in Rome.  However, the cultural impact of the Western Schism was not so easily resolved.  Corruption continued to be blight on Roman Catholicism as the pope and the Church hierarchy competed for political power and sought greater revenue, including the selling of indulgences later made famous by Martin Luther.  To quote Professor Bartlett:

“As a consequence many pious people began to look outside the Church for spiritual comfort.  There was a huge increase in lay religious movements, more or less orthodox, that promised a close communion with God on a personal level, thus bypassing the institutional structure of the Church that had become so questionable.”

This trend was strengthened by the rise of Christian humanism and its rapid spread through humanist education and the printing of books.

In my prior posting on the High Middle Ages, I mentioned the heresies that challenged the role of the Church and its priests as necessary intermediaries between the individual Christian and God.  The first major heresy of this type was led by Jan Hus of Bohemia (now the Czech Republic).  Hus foreshadowed the Reformation with his sweeping theological challenges to the prerogatives of the Church, but his followers were motivated as much by the local politics of Czech vs. German in Bohemia, a state within the Holy Roman Empire.  This empire was founded by Charlemagne but it quickly disintegrated and reconstituted as a German-dominated federation of principalities and kingdoms covering what is now mainly Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic and Italy.  Usually the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor were vying with each other for political control, particularly in Italy.  But in the case of Hus and his followers, the Hussites, the Holy Roman Emperor and the Church found common cause in putting an end to these heretics.  However, the treacherous execution of Jan Hus and a few others at the Council of Constance in 1415 ignited a decade-long Hussite Rebellion in Bohemia that was finally crushed by the Emperor’s forces.  This incident illustrates the explosive blend of religious and ethnic grievances against both the Holy Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church.

Turkish Threat to European Civilization

We moderns think of the past couple of centuries as a time of amazing change.  And they were, of course, but surely it is hard even for us to imagine the turmoil created by all these events starting in the 1300s and flowing into the 1400s.  But there were soon even more unprecedented and deeply disruptive developments.  While the events in Western Europe were unfolding, the Ottoman Turks were sweeping across the Islamic Middle East, Egypt and the Anatolian Peninsula, winning victory after victory against the Byzantine Empire until Constantinople itself finally fell in 1453.  The shock of this news in Western Europe of the impossible-to-believe loss of the last vestige of Roman rule in the East, the fortress city of Constantine, was quickly compounded by the Turkish conquests in Eastern Europe, including Serbia, Greece and Bosnia.  The Turks appeared to be super-human, unstoppable warriors.  The Black Sea and the Mediterranean became Turkish lakes, halting the Mediterranean trade that had enriched Italy, thereby dooming the Italian Peninsula to centuries of decline.

After a pausing for a few decades, the Ottomans under Suleyman the Magnificent surged deeper into central Europe, annihilating a massive Christian army led by King Louis of Hungary in 1526 and then laying siege to Vienna in 1529.  The siege was lifted only because the Ottoman army had over-extended its supply lines from Constantinople and could not withstand the winter.  The Ottomans would lay siege to Vienna again in 1683, but that siege was broken by intervention by Polish-Lithuanian forces combined with those of the Holy Roman Empire, and this marked the beginning of the decline of the Ottoman Empire.  But the Europeans of the 1400s and 1500s were gripped by reasonable fear that Christendom would soon be overwhelmed by Islam, destroying life as they knew it.  They were even more troubled by a deep sense that God was using the Turks to punish them. What had they done wrong?  Perhaps the transgressions so widely displayed even by the Church itself.  What could they do to recover God’s favor?

The effects on society and politics were profound, especially in Spain, where a new Christian militancy arose with the reign of Ferdinand and Isabela, who joined two of the main political units of the Iberian Peninsula.  Reflecting the fear and loathing throughout Christendom, the Spaniards were hungry to reassert the dignity and honor of the Christian identity and push back against the Muslims, seeking any kind of victory over the seemingly invincible Turks.  For centuries, Spain had been the principal point of mutually tolerant contact between the cultural and religious traditions of Western Christendom and Islam, as well as Judaism.  The Iberian Peninsula had been the gateway to Europe for the Greek, Roman, Jewish and Islamic learning that sparked the resurgence of European culture.  But that tolerance was overwhelmed by a new crusading zeal to restore the ascendancy of Christendom, driven by fear of Islamic expansionism and political jealousy of the favored position of Jewish converts to Christianity.  The result was military conquest of all Moorish Muslim areas of the southern Iberian Peninsula, the mass expulsion of Muslims and Jews, and the Spanish Inquisition (an appalling perversion of long-standing practice of the Church to inquire fairly into reports of heresy) that focused on rooting out the Jewish converts.  That the Moors of Spain had almost nothing in common with the Ottoman Turks except their religion meant little to the Spanish Christians.  Any victory over Islam would do to relieve the simmering panic that had gripped Christian Europe.

Sailing Around the Turks and Discovery of the New World

At the same time, the Portuguese were circumnavigating the African continent and discovering a long way around the Turkish blockade of the Mediterranean and overland trade with the Orient.  Denied both these routes, the Spanish crown was receptive to Christopher Columbus’s proposal to explore the possibility of a third route to the Orient, by sailing straight west across the Atlantic Ocean.  No serious thinker of the time actually thought the earth was flat (it was known to be a sphere since the ancient Greeks).  Rather the question was how big the earth was, and therefore whether the distance across the Atlantic was too great to allow a ship and its crew to make the journey before
exhausting their provisions of water and food.  Columbus had calculated the distance to be about half the real distance to Asia (which the Alexandrian Greeks had calculated already with fair accuracy) and used this erroneous calculation to convince Queen Isabela to sponsor his expedition.  While Columbus was convinced that he did in fact reach the East Indies in 1492, those who followed him soon understood that they had discovered a New World.

This remarkable discovery was a shock to more than the unsuspecting inhabitants of the New World.  It posed a peculiar challenge to Christendom; this strange land and its human and other inhabitants were not mentioned in the Bible.  What were they?  To imagine the psychological impact, think how we moderns would react to discovery of extraterrestrials?  As David Brog describes in In Defense of Faith, it took some time for the Dominicans who accompanied the Conquistadors to convince Europe that the Amerindians were in fact human beings, children of God and therefore brothers and sisters of all those races named in the Bible and known to Europe – and should be treated as such rather than enslaved or killed.  Remarkably the Spanish Crown, and not so remarkably the Pope, accepted this argument early on and banned mistreatment of the New World people.  But the Conquistadors were cut from vicious cloth and determined to get what they wanted regardless of the cost to others.  And even the Spanish crown was unable to reach across the Atlantic to force these cruel men to follow the dictates of Christianity.  For Europeans in general, the New World was yet another surprise that upended their worldview and forced reconsideration of all they had taken for granted for millennia.

In this context of cultural, political and economic upheaval, Western Europe entered a violent transition, during the 1500s and 1600s and beyond, from the medieval worldview to the modern one.

Copyright 2012 by Chris Dunford.  May be quoted in part or in full only with attribution to Chris Dunford (


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