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….