Medieval Monday – Reasons Why the 14th Century Sucked, Part One

If anyone ever gives you a chance to go back in time to any time period anywhere, do not, I repeat DO NOT go back to 14th century Europe!  Europe in the 14th century was a total disaster.  I talked about the Black Death in last week’s Medieval Monday post, but that was just a drop in the bucket of the crappiness of the 14th century.

Actually, things weren’t that bad at the dawn of the century.  In fact, they were pretty good.  The 12th and 13th centuries in Europe were fantastic places to be.  But some of the things that made life so good going into the 14th century were what eventually brought on its downfall.

Let’s talk about peasants again, shall we?  Anyone who has been reading my Medieval Monday posts knows that I am an advocate for the peasantry.  As the 14th century dawned life was as good for the common man as it had been in hundreds of years.  Economic prosperity meant that there was a lot of upward mobility amongst the lower classes.  Some peasants were wealthy.  They could go into trades or become freeman farmers.  And in many cases the tradition of paying cash to the local lord instead of giving free labor as the feudal system of earlier years prescribed had become ingrained.  And that’s very important to remember for next week!

Meanwhile, the nobility was also prospering.  They had a lot of money and a lot of children.  The noble lifestyle had always involved a lot of expensive pomp and circumstance and as incomes rose so did lavishness.  And you can’t put too fine a point on the huge population growth of rich and poor entering into this wild century.

And then BOOM!  The bottom fell out.  Years of famine brought on by a climate shift and agrarian technology that couldn’t keep up with the increased population weakened Europe.  Then the Black Death swept in and killed a staggering amount of people.  Those that were left over were depressed and prone towards extremes of one kind of another.  And maybe that would have sucked enough on its own, but three things made life all that much more sucky.  The suck can be broken down into the demise of everything that made the three pillars of Medieval Society – the nobility, the peasantry, and the Church – what they were.

This week, the nobility…

The Hundred Years War:

Here’s what went down.  Did anyone see Braveheart? *raises hand*  Remember the French princess Isabella who supposedly ended up pregnant by William Wallace?  That never happened, by the way.  William Wallace was dead before Isabella ever stepped foot in England.  But she was the daughter of the great French king Philip the Fair.  Isabella’s brother, Charles IV of France, died childless.  Meanwhile, back in England, Isabella’s lover, Mortimer, and his baron buddies had deposed and killed her gay husband, Edward II (I tell you, the stories of the English monarchy are better than fiction any day) and Isabella and Mortimer were ruling England as regents until Edward III came of age.  When the French barons noticed this little drama they kind of freaked and quickly passed a law that said no women nor her sons could ever inherit the throne of France ever, ever, ever!  So if you ever wondered why there was never a Queen of France when there were plenty of Queens of England, blame Isabella.

Pissed off about this, Edward III, who kind of really was the legitimate heir to the French throne if women counted, gathered an army and decided to kick some French ass to get the throne he thought he deserved.  And so, intermittently from 1337 to 1453, France and England were at war.

Of course, there’s a little more to it than that.  There’s also an economic angle having to do with the textile industry, the Middle Ages’ biggest cash cow.  Flemish cloth manufacturers were loyal to the French but dependent on English wool for their livelihood.  So when the Edward III laid claim to the French throne the Flemish merchants supported him.  This sent the all-important textile industry into a panic.  War was needed to settle the issue so that life could get back to normal.

Needless to say, the war caused problems.  First, it was expensive.  On the English side, for example, it was expensive to the tune of about five million pounds.  In Medieval currency that’s … a whole freakin’ lot.  The English started out winning the war.  This meant that as they fought they captured cities and territories and pillaged them and brought the spoils home.  English noble households were outfitted with pilfered French goods for the whole middle to late half of the 14th century.  But the spoils of war didn’t off-set the costs of the fight.  And while military victories are great, paying for them isn’t.  The nobles of England, and indeed the entire country, went slowly bankrupt.  Since most of the fighting happened in France, in addition to the everyday costs of war, entire regions were being wiped out due to the fighting, including the farmland that supported the nation.

The “flower of knighthood” on both sides was slaughtered.  This era is known as the last gasp of Medieval Chivalry.  Sure, it was great to get your armor on, go out and fight the enemy, but military technology was improving.  The English longbow could mow down a field of French soldiers in minutes.  Armor meant that if you fell you couldn’t get up.  A lot of knights drown in mud on the battlefield.  In some cases swarms of French peasants brutalized and defeated squadrons of English knights.  This was also the introduction of a new form of war weaponry known as the cannon.  And while gunpowder-based weaponry was anything but accurate, it was loud and destructive.  It caused mass panic and confusion on the battlefield.  Basically, a lot of men died.  Which left a lot of women in positions of authority that they wouldn’t have been in otherwise, arguably a good thing.

In fact, it was a woman, Joan of Arc, who ended the war.

Joan of Arc was a teenage French peasant.  Her family was one of the ones who had prospered so much and done so well during previous decades and centuries that they were considered well-off.  They were also a religious family.  When Joan began to hear voices telling her to go convince the Dauphin to stop at nothing to be crowned King of France, naturally she went and found the Dauphin and delivered her message.  The miracle in a way is that she actually managed to make her way to an audience with Charles and that he actually listened to her.  And then she went on to lead an army at the age of 17 with no experience.

What the heck, you ask?  How did something like that ever happen?

It happened because France was desperate for a hero(ine).  France spent most of the Hundred Years War losing.  French land was devastated.  Lingering Black Death Blues didn’t help the situation.  Nor did the papal situation (which I’ll go into in much, much more detail in a week or two).  So when this charismatic teenager came along promising French glory, people believed her.  People followed her.  It’s amazing what people as a nation can do when they’re in a funk and one charismatic person comes along.  At the risk of making a night-and-day sort of analogy, just look at Germany after World War I.  The country had been brought so low that all it took was one tiny spark in the form of a charismatic leader to change the course of its history.  Early 15th century France: Joan of Arc, Early 20th century Germany: Adolf Hitler.  ‘Nuff said.

Anyhow, France rallied and won the war.  Ahem, they “won” the war.  Because while the English were kicked out and pushed back across the Channel, both sides had lost a ton of money and men.

But there were some startlingly good results from this Hundred Year Mess.  Medieval nations really weren’t nations.  Regionalism was rampant.  All across Europe the system of Feudalism had divided lands into manors, fiefs, and kingdoms which were loosely clumped together in allegiance to kings and emperors.  You can see it in what is now Germany with all the little kingdoms that made up the Holy Roman Empire and surrounding territories.  They didn’t unify until well into the “modern” era.  England was a more rural society, but they were also an island.  France was more like Germany, split into dozens of smaller kingdoms with regional customs, dialects, and currencies, many of which didn’t get along.  But the Hundred Years War gave France a sense of FRANCE.  Joan of Arc fought for and spoke about a unified France.  This was the beginning of a nationalism that would propel both England and France into being the key players in later years.

But there were two other things going on simultaneous to this mega-war.  Next week I’ll fill you in on the massive social shifts involving the ever-blurring line between noble and peasant that signaled the end of the Middle Ages….


16 thoughts on “Medieval Monday – Reasons Why the 14th Century Sucked, Part One

  1. A marvellous lesson in real history! Well done! It’s a shame that so many folk get their history from Hollywood these days. I love the down and dirty trueness of real history because it’s a lot more interesting that the faff produced by movie makers.

    Fantastic post! Loved it!

    • Thanks Dave! Yeah, you don’t really have to embellish the things that happened all that much because they were so wild on their own.

      Stay tuned next week … I’m going to be talking about those revolting peasants. 😉

  2. Ugh. I had a splitting headache last night and tried to stay up for this but just couldn’t 😦
    Great reading for my morning coffee though 🙂

  3. Steven Pinker has some choice words to say about “medieval chivalry” in his new book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature”. Namely, that it is a work of fiction and that medieval knights were actually a bunch of bloodthirsty brutes who went about raping and slaughtering each other’s peasants. If they were alive today, we would call them “warlords”.

    Although much of Pinker’s argument so far has elicited a “well, duh, isn’t that obvious?” response from me, I think that may be merely because I am a student of history. What he has to say may be quite a revelation to the average man on the street.

    Still, if you ever get a chance to read his book, Merry, I’d recommend doing so. I’d be keen to find out your thoughts about it.

    • Well I think part of the problem was that young men weren’t allowed to take possession of their land until their fathers had died, and they weren’t allowed to marry until they had possession of their land. And in general young men without women tend to get a little out of hand. =P Of course then the other side of the problem was that young women were married off to older men with whom they had very little in common, so they grew very attached to and indulgent of their sons and did things like encouraged them to rebel and kill off their husbands so that they, the mothers, could run off with their young lovers.

      But that’s all just generalization really. 😉

      • Here’s an interesting one for you, again from Pinker’s “Better Angels” book (pg 311): “Collier observes that ‘the countries at the bottom coexist with the 21st century, but their reality is the 14th century: civil war, plague, ignorance.’ The analogy to that calamitous century, which stood on the verge of the Civilizing Process before the consolidation of effective governments, is apt. In ‘The Remnants of War’, Mueller notes that most armed conflict in the world today no longer consists of campaigns for territory by professional armies. It consists instead of plunder, intimidation, revenge, and rape by gangs of unemployable young men serving warlords or local politicians, much like the dregs rounded up by medieval barons for their private wars.”

  4. Hi – great overview & a great post title. Yup, that century sure did suck – Europe, especially, had a pretty rough time once the Medieval Warm Period ended. The ideation of chivalry (and the need to expose its realities) is a whole other issue. Not to mention the fact that at one point, thanks to the Hundred Years War, there were two and even three Popes for much of it (the English supported the one in Avignon).

    What your post highlights for me is the fact that history is actually really, really interesting. It was also real and colloquial for those living through it. I remember being fairly well put off medieval history as an undergrad at university because the lecturers (with one exception) had ways of making it soooooo boring. (My interest was restored by ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’, but that’s another story…)

    For a good look at the ick-factor about the fourteenth century, I thoroughly recommend Simon Schama’s ‘History of Britain’ DVD, which has great coverage – though don’t watch it at mealtimes. (My wife and I made that mistake. Ewww!)

    Looking forward to your next post.

    Matthew Wright

  5. If only more history books were written to be as interesting as this post. The history classes I most enjoyed growing up were the ones where the teachers put in the fun facts that our books didn’t talk about (which do make for better stories than some fiction). The main reason I wouldn’t want to go back to medieval times is the lack of bathing. When even nobility only bathed a few times a year (and several people shared the same water eww) I can’t imagine how grubby the peasant class must have felt.

    • Thanks, Amanda, but GAAHHHH!!!!!! You’ve brought up one of my pet-peeves about historical misinformation! PEOPLE IN THE MIDDLE AGES DID BATHE!!!! I don’t know where the idea that they didn’t started. I know there is a blatantly false and stupid email thing that has gone around for years talking about the so-called origins of common phrases and it is completely false.

      The fact is, even though they didn’t have running water, they did bathe more than a few times a year. In fact, many European towns had public bath-houses on the model of Roman towns where people from all walks of life could bathe for free. Rich or poor, people knew what stinky was and they knew it wasn’t a good way to attract people, so they tried to get rid of it. And they knew how. Not everyone may have had big tubs full of warm water with bubbles, but they at least had a basin of water and a sponge.

      Hmm… I see I’m going to have to write a post about this. 😉

  6. I’m not sure where it started but I know even my teachers had mentioned it in classes. But then I guess that goes to the point that something can contain the same facts but omit others to create a different scenario. I think when they say that nobility bathed several times a year they meant traditional bath with hot water carried in for the tub, etc. If they also had bath houses, took sponge baths, etc. then that a different scenario than the one painted by only mentioning the hot baths. I think a post is a good idea 🙂

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