ESSAY ON THE LATER MIDDLE AGES (1300 1500)
The Later Middle Ages is characterized as being a time of overwhelming hardships, catastrophes and struggles. Both natural disasters and man-made ones seemed to strike constantly and relentlessly. What progress was made during this time is seen as less then previously or since; though not entirely non-existent. However, it should be remembered that humans have a habit of remembering the “bad” times and forgetting the “good”. Professor Webber also brought out the fact; in his first tape called “Common Life in the Middle Ages” that “If cats could write history their history would be mostly about cats.” He related this to the fact that until the 14th century, the common man did not have the resources or learning to read or write. So I feel, that while the major catastrophes and hardships are well documented, what progress was made by common people of the times is not well chronicled. I don’t doubt that if a common person was asked about the time he would point out that I didn’t have to live then, and offer to switch places with me.
However, if you take a few steps back and see the larger picture you would find that this time period is a perfect human example of the scientific premise that “For every action, however mild or violent, there is an opposite and equal reaction.” The “action” was certainly violent and I think the “reaction” to it was just as violent.
The major destructive events create a long list of violent actions by both man and nature and in general they all seemed to be directed towards the common people. Nature struck with the “Black Death” which began in 1347 with periodic outbreaks for the next 100 years, and in 1315 major floods occurred throughout western Europe. Even the weather changed becoming colder and wetter causing crop failures and famines throughout this time. Constant warfare ensued outwards towards other lands as in The Hundred Years War (1337 1453), between France and England, and The Capture of Constantinople (1453) by Ottoman Turks. Inward the incessent fighting of the feudal lords and kings, for instance the political chaos in Germany (c. 1350 c.1450) and The War of the Roses (1455 1485) caused as much hardship and upheavel as the outward wars. Even God got involved in the supposed form of the divine power of the Catholic church against the secular kings and rulers, resulting in The Babaloynia Captivity of the papacy (1305 1378). And the divine did not stop there, fighting and bickering among themselves causing The Great Schism (1378 1417). Add to this mix the various local revolts; and the political, economic, philosophical and religious day to day manuverings, most of which effected but did not truly involve the common folk, (though they were frequently used) and its easy to see that the events of the time combined together to create the major, all-encompassing, violent “action” that I mentioned earlier.
But the “reaction” was just as major and all-encompassing and not only effected but involve the common people. Economically, socially, religiously and philisophically, changes started to happen which would forever alter the way people lived.
Agriculturally, farming became more specialized and trade increased.
By 1400, food production was normal and prices began to decline. With the unfortunate decimation of the population, people could afford what they considered to be luxeries, dairy, meat and wine for example. With specialization, commercial trade over longer distances increased and the economy of a region depended more on what the soil of an area could produce best.
The importance of rural life diminished and towns and cities began to take on a greater importance. Manufacturers could alter how they did business, sometimes even controlling supply and demand, easier then feudal landlords and with added strength allowed then to hire rural labor. Even many of the feudal lords learned it was easier to make money then fight for it. Common people began to gain power and a middle class began to develop. Some common folk for example the House of Medici came to control politics and governments. Business practices were changed and developed to increase profits and decrease risks. Partnerships were formed and insurance companies invented. Double entry bookkeeping, a basic accounting principal still used today started to be used in the mid 14th century. Other developments were branch banking, credit techniques and bank transfers, call “book transfers”. These transfers were made at first orally and then around 1400 the practice of requiring a written order eventually developed into the modern check.
Three inventions of the times were responsible for most of the amazing changes taking place. The mechanical clock, movable type printers and gunpowder all played a major role in the “reaction” of the time.
Clocks were placed in towns and with this an accurate way to count the passing hours. Activities and events could be planned, work and businesses organized and people throughout Europe started living more on the same time schedule. The calandar was also finally standardized, leading to not only the way hours and minutes were kept track of but the days, weeks months and years.