Elliot Fernandez

The crisis of the Late Middle Ages

Between the late 13th and the 14th century, Europe experienced a period of overall crisis. The first symptoms of this decline were poor harvests, plague epidemics and wars.
Elliot Fernandez
Elliot Fernandez
He has a degree in History from the Autonomous University of Barcelona (2009) and a Master's in World History from Pompeu Fabra University (2011).
Post on 2020-12-23 | Updated on 2022-09-14

After the period of growth experienced by feudal Western Europe (between the 11th and the early 13th centuries), the European continent experienced a period of general crisis in the Late Middle Ages. It began by the mid-13th century and continued until the end of the 14th century.

The late-medieval slowdown was a warning of the epochal change that was to come. It would cause devastating economic and social effects. The first symptoms of this crisis, after a period of strong growth, were:

The beginning of a recessionary cycle. The first symptoms of the downturn in the Lower Middle Ages (13th to 14th centuries)

After the period of economic and demographic growth that coincided with the expansion of feudalism, Europe entered a phase of depression that lasted from the 13th to the 14th century. The 14th and 15th centuries show a desolate landscape at some times and in some places. One of the most important effects of the late medieval crisis was the demographic decline. Three factors, major plague epidemics (and their aftershocks), waves of famine as well as wars, caused that. War intensified the devastating effects of epidemics and famines.

Drivers of the crisis

Some historians have estimated between one third and one quarter of Europe's population was lost during this crisis. It was a time of popularization of the dances of death as well as literature showing the increase in the feeling of repentance. Death was seen as the sending of a divine punishment, the fleeting character of life, the "now we are, tomorrow we are not". Therefore, life had to be lived to the fullest. This panorama was reflected in the culture of the time: in art, in literature, in sculpture…

The crisis was not a one-off phenomenon in time and located in a specific space. Indeed, it was part of a long process that lasted almost two centuries and was widespread throughout Europe.

Although it is not possible to put a specific date on the beginning of the crisis, or to make a chronology, it can be stated that the change of trend towards recession began around 1300. This is when the first symptoms of the optimism of the previous period began to be observed.

Changing trend

The elements indicating a change in trend occurred simultaneously to each other:

Devastating epidemics, loss of agricultural production, and increased pressure from the landlords

The most dramatic phenomenon of the Lower Middle Ages was the plague epidemics. These affected the entire population equally, and were not selective. They caused a real panic. The first major epidemic was in 1348. All these factors occurred simultaneously and were also related. However, the symptoms of fluctuation predated the period of the plague.

Before the great plague epidemics, we can observe yet real symptoms of a slowdown, i.e. the seed of the crisis must be sought in the previous period of expansion.

European population after epidemics
The recovery of the European population after epidemics

The depression lasted for about 150 years. However, we find symptoms of recovery around 1450. In the crisis of the late Middle Ages, we can observe two types of factors that produced it:

Consequences on rural areas

As soon as the high mortality occurred, it affected all generations, i.e. from that moment on there was a significant lack of personnel to work in the field, as potential parents died and the demographic recovery was very difficult (many children were not born any more).

As a consequence, it produced the abandonment of marginal lands, as there was a lack of arms to work them. Mortality also produced a balance between population and available resources: there was less overall production, but productivity increased as they gained in quality because of abandoning the bad land.

This was an advantage for the peasant population. Simultaneously, it hurt the feudal lords, who, faced with a lack of income, decided to increase the pressure on farmers (higher taxes), i.e., more tax pressure on a population that already had many problems.

The repercussions of this increased pressure on the lords were the outbreak of peasant revolts that shook the whole of Europe. And the fall in demand for certain goods.

The most important peasant revolts of this period were:

Richard II meets with the rebels.
Richard II meets with the rebels. Author: Jean Froissart
Urban uprisings

As for the urban world, the most prominent riots were:

The economic slowdown put the feudal system itself into crisis (the system of lordly income). As a result of the economic downturn, the income of the nobility decreased and led to a process of indebtedness that even affected princes and kings.

The indebtedness of the feudal aristocracy led them to increase the tax burden on farmers so that they could pay back the loans taken out at very high rates. Also, during this period, the kings resorted to "not very legal" methods, such as seizures, frauds through the minting of lower-value coins, sales of jurisdictions…

Wars were another way for kings and feudal lords to obtain rents.

As the population declined, demand for handicrafts fell. This had repercussions on urban activities, which caused the crisis to spread from the countryside to the city. This crisis was the cause of the continuous urban revolts led by the lower classes. At the same time, the city bourgeoisie became the purchaser of patrimonies (land) and jurisdictions (minimum income) in order to minimize the effects of the crisis.

New settlements

Latin Christianity always had troops available to carry out operations to settle new territories. In Valencia, the conquerors were forced to establish many pacts with the local populations. In the old Arab kingdom, the Christian occupiers let the local population keep their religion, although in return they had to recognize the new authority. The indigenous population became Mudéjar, which directly meant domesticated, designating the Muslim population living on Christian territory after the feudal conquest.

Kingdom of Valencia.
Between 1229 and 1245, in just sixteen years, the Crown of Aragon managed to conquer a large part of what would become the Kingdom of Valencia.

In the long term, the Mudéjar population ended up disappearing. The Mudéjares who were forcibly baptized into the Christian faith were called Moorish.

Eastern Europe was a territory in continuous process of colonization. In these areas there was more land than people. This was the main problem. Central Europe was the area most affected by the crisis.

Historiographical interpretations of the late medieval slowdown

There are various interpretations among historians regarding the crisis of the late Middle Ages. A few years ago, no one discussed the existence of this crisis, but later this view became more nuanced. We needed to review the chronology of the crisis.

It is by no means disputed that something happened from 1300 onwards. The period of economic stability and abundance is clearly over after 1300. However, there are regional and chronological differences, and within each region the dates do not coincide completely either. This led to much discussion among historians about the actual concept of crisis.

What is to be understood by the term "crisis" in the lower Middle Ages? From the point of view of the ideology, Europe did not have a unique identity and awareness. The Church represented the dominant ideology. Yet, it was also in a very weakened situation in the 14th-15th centuries. The crisis of papacy affected it. There were several popes in Western Christianity.

From the territorial point of view, the feudal order had stopped its expansive dynamic that had characterized the preceding period.

Catalan Atlas of the Crown of Catalonia and Aragon, 1375.
Catalan Atlas of the Crown of Catalonia and Aragon, 1375.

The historiographical positions on the "crisis" revolve around the analysis of the demographic consequences of the Black Death and famine. Another historiographical view revolved around Malthus' theory. According to this theory, the demographic crisis caused by epidemics and wars in the 14th century was positive in terms of adjusting the population to the continent's productive capacities.

Interpretation of the crisis from a Malthusian perspective

A classic author is Michael Postan, the leading representative of Malthusian approaches

According to this, around 1300 there was a problem of overpopulation. Yet, during this same period, there was technical stagnation and therefore agricultural yields were declining. This led to an imbalance in the population.

Until 1300 the population had been growing steadily. Nevertheless, there was a moment when production was not growing at the same pace as the population. After the imbalance, according to the Malthusians, there had to be a readjustment, but why didn't that happen? Why did the problem of the crisis continue?

Interpreting the crisis from a social history perspective

The Polish historian Bronislaw Geremek considered that what happened during the late medieval crisis were prophylactic measures. A wide percentage of the population lived on charity, this represented almost 1/3 of the expenditure. At the time, these people had died, and they did not need more support. This was positive for the economy. Other investments, such as production, were available. This was to help get out of the crisis.

The medievalist Georges Duby is the one who made a more forceful criticism of those historians who generalized the vision of the crisis, especially in the regional differences. According to Duby, it was impossible to defend the idea of a generalized crisis, as this was not how it came about. Rather than a crisis, for Duby we should speak of transformations. Duby argued that the fall of one economic sector could be compensated by the rise of another, and the decline of a region could be compensated by the resurgence of another one.

The historians Guy Bois and Robert Brenner redirect the vision of Michael Postan. Both agree with the Malthusian vision. However, they believe that it is not enough to explain the crisis. The technical advances didn't appear yet. They argue that medieval growth occurred based on marginal lands, yet there was no technical knowledge or procedure to make it work: there were no technical advances. Why did the re-balancing not lead to a return to a situation of calm? The drastic drop in production led to a considerable decrease in feudal income. At the moment when the feudal lords saw their income decrease, a period of great social conflict began.

The "catastrophic" mortality caused by the Black Death. The figures of the catastrophe

The cycle of recession began when the first cycles of extraordinary mortality manifested themselves, which was caused by 2 factors: bad harvests (famine) and epidemics.

Crop failure was not a one-off problem, but a structural problem. It had always accompanied the lower middle-aged society. Permanent undernourishment helped a lot to spread diseases. All along the Black Death epidemic in Europe, society's resilience was very low. The plague was an external factor, yet it made the situation much worse. Famine and plague set up a catastrophic cycle.

The plague added tragically and enormously to a whole series of endemic diseases already suffered by the medieval population, such as measles, rubella, chickenpox, scarlet fever, diphtheria (bacteria affecting the respiratory tract), meningitis, typhus, tuberculosis, smallpox… and above all, the most important before the arrival of the plague, was leprosy.

Europe had not suffered plague epidemics since the 5th and 6th centuries. It was the plague that had the harshest effect and caused the greatest fear in people.

Medical and epidemiological factors

The Black Death came to Europe from Asia in the 14th century. "Yersinia Pestis" was a bacterium that developed at high temperatures. Originally, it affected rats, and flea bites transmitted it. Eventually, the disease passed from rats to humans through "zoonosis".

We now know that the animal that transmitted the disease from rats to people was the flea. With the introduction of the bacillus into the human body, 2 to 3 days of incubation, the symptoms started to appear: tremors, vertigo, vomiting, very high fevers, sweating, delirium, loss of consciousness… The buboes would appear (inflammation of the lymphatic vessels, usually behind the armpits or knees). For this reason, we call it bubonic plague. Transmission was always through fleas, so the disease spread quickly.

Usually, in the epidemic of bubonic plague that was suffered during the late Middle Ages, 40-70% of those infected died.

Nevertheless, the plague also had other variants, it mutated and generated a different modality: the pulmonary plague. The problem was that the contagion of the pulmonary plague was much faster, as there was no need to wait for the bite of the flea, the bacillus was transmitted through the air. Mortality from plague was 90%.

Two people affected by bubonic plague
Two people affected by bubonic plague

A further variant, septicaemic plague (affecting the arterial blood), was also present. People affected were externally visible, as dark blue spots appeared, hence the name Black Death.

When bubonic plague became pulmonary or septicaemic plague, mortality increased greatly.

Geography of transmission

Because of the rapidity of the plague's transmission, the epidemic that affected Europe appears to be pulmonary plague. Almost all of Europe was concerned. A precedent for plague occurred in the 5th-6th century. This is the so-called Justinian Plague (because it coincided with much of the Emperor Justinian's reign). The plague then disappeared from the West and didn't appear again until 1347.

Black Death in Europe
Map showing the spread of the Black Death in Europe between 1346 and 1353.
Source: Wikipedia.org

Many generations of Europeans never experienced a plague epidemic before. Unlike other diseases, plague is not selective, as it could affect anyone, both the best fed and the least fed. The fact that for the first time it affected sectors of society usually free from other diseases, came as a shocking fact among the wealthier classes.

The doorway to Europe and its expansion

We must look for the origin of the plague epidemic in the central areas of the Asian continent. It seems that Italian merchants trading with the East through the city of Caffa (a Genovese enclave now called Feodosia in the Crimea) were responsible for introducing the disease into Europe. However, there were also more aftershocks of the epidemic. The first of these was in 1348. Within the Crown of Aragon, there were 7 more aftershocks until the end of the 14th century and another 10 in the 15th century.

Medieval theories on the origin of the plague

It was thought that the origin of the plague was Providence (a kind of divine punishment, God's wrath against earthly sinners). Supernatural causes were also sought, such as the negative influence of the stars, eclipses or comets. Others said that earthquakes and volcanic eruptions generated polluted air, affecting the blood. Others spoke of human factors, such as the presence of foreigners, always a suspicious factor. Many others believed that the great culprits were the Jews.

At no time, the slightest reference was made to reality.

What did the doctors of the time do in the face of illness?

The doctors observed the sick, and they deduced having infected blood. Therefore, they practised the technique of leeching, but this caused even more serious situations, as it weakened the sick.

They also burned aromatic herbs and sulphur (to purify the air) or cleaned the streets and attempted to take hygiene measures. However, it did non matter: they did it once the problem started, not earlier.

They practised credentialing medicine, i.e. they invoked the saints. Bathing the sick was forbidden to avoid opening their wounds.

Segregation and isolation of the sick when they were still few. Quarantine applied (closing walls and not letting anyone in) as well as quick burials. But in the end, nothing worked.

Typical dress of the doctors who tried to cure the sick from the Black Death
Typical dress of the doctors who tried to cure the sick from the Black Death

Doctor Jaume de Agramunt, wrote a book Regiment de preservacio de pestilència (Directions for Protection from the Plague), where for the first time the relation between the spread of epidemics and the lack of hygiene was written and also warned about the environmental problems.

Slowly, they implemented urban planning programs which involved, among other things:

Psychological impact of the epidemic

A kind of collective hysteria prevailed. This provoked:

Social results

Why did the social coercion of the communities affected by the plague break down?

Population census of the time

The only source of documentation that we can count on for demographic studies in medieval times are the fouages. After the Black Death epidemics, the authorities had to keep a record of the people who survived to know how many people they could count on to pay taxes.

The authors MK Bennet and JC Russell estimate a population of between 42 and 52 million in Europe by the middle of the 11th century. In 1300, the population was about 73-85 million. From 1300 the European population did not grow any more and remained so until the middle of the 14th century, when the great famines and epidemics reached the continent.

By 1350, there were 50-51 million inhabitants. By 1400, about 45 million people. The figure of 1400 returned to the initial period.

There were cities that suffered a very notable loss of population, but very often it was due to the migratory movements of the population that changed from one city to another to flee from the epidemics.