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12 - Plague, War, and Social Change in the Long Fourteenth Century.pdf

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Plague, War, and Social Change in the “Long” Fourteenth Century 215

[ DOCUMENT 12.1 [

The Famine of 1315 in England

This dramatic account of the famine is from the English chronicler Johannes de Trokelowe. The prices may be compared with

those given for the preceding century in document 11.1.

Meat and eggs began to run out, capons and fowl

could hardly be found, animals died of pest, swine

could not be fed because of the excessive price of

fodder. A quarter of wheat or beans or peas sold

for twenty shillings, barley for a mark, oats for ten

shillings. A quarter of salt was commonly sold for

thirty-five shillings, which in former times was

quite unheard of. The land was so oppressed with

want that when the king came to St. Albans on the

feast of St. Lawrence [August 10] it was hardly

possible to find bread on sale to supply his immediate household. . . .

The dearth began in the month of May and

lasted until the nativity of the Virgin [September

8]. The summer rains were so heavy that grain

could not ripen. It could hardly be gathered and

used to make bread down to the said feast day unless it was first put in vessels to dry. Around the

end of autumn the dearth was mitigated in part,

but toward Christmas it became as bad as before.

Bread did not have its usual nourishing power and

strength because the grain was not nourished by

the warmth of summer sunshine. Hence those who

had it, even in large quantities, were hungry again

after a little while. There can be no doubt that the

poor wasted away when even the rich were constantly hungry. . . .

Four pennies worth of coarse bread was not

enough to feed a common man for one day. The

usual kinds of meat, suitable for eating, were too

scarce; horse meat was precious; plump dogs

were stolen. And according to many reports, men

and women in many places secretly ate their own


Trokelowe, Johannes. “Annales,” trans. Brian Tierney. In Brian

Tierney, ed., Sources of Medieval History, 4th ed. New York:

Knopf, 1983.

Predictably, trade declined. Defaults on loans increased, and the banking system came under stress. The

great international banks still controlled their branches

directly and had unlimited liability for their losses. If a

branch failed it created a domino effect that might

bring down the entire structure. This happened in 1343

when the two leading Florentine banks—the Bardi and

the Peruzzi—failed, setting off a widespread financial

panic. The immediate cause of their failure was the repudiation of war debts by a major borrower, Edward III

of England, but both banks had been gravely weakened

before the final blow.

The Black Death struck in 1347–51. Endemic in

Asia since the eleventh century, the disease first entered

Europe through the Mediterranean ports and spread

with terrifying speed throughout the subcontinent.

Following the trade routes it reached Paris in the summer of 1348, Denmark and Norway in 1349, and Russia

in 1351. Estimates are that within four years a third

of the population of Europe died. It was the greatest

demographic catastrophe in European history, and its

ravages did not end with the first virulent outbreak.

Subsequent epidemics occurred regularly in every

decade until the beginning of the eighteenth century.

Given that immunity apparently cannot be transmitted

from generation to generation, the plague served as a

long-term check on population growth, and most countries required more than two centuries to recover the

population levels they had in 1300 (see table 12.1).

The relationship, if any, between the plague and

poverty or malnutrition is unclear. In its most common

form, bubonic plague is spread by fleas, which are carried by rats and other small mammals. A pneumonic

form of the plague is spread by coughing. The onset of

either form is rapid, and death usually comes within

three days (see illustration 12.1). The mortality rate

seems to have been about the same for all who contracted the disease, so that lowered resistance as a result

of malnutrition likely did not play an important part in

its spread. At the same time, death came most frequently to those who lived in crowded conditions. Soldiers, ship’s crews, and the urban poor were at greatest

risk, followed by those country folk whose poverty

forced them to huddle together in their one-room cottages for warmth. The rich often escaped, either because

they lived in more sanitary conditions or because, like

the characters in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, they

had the means to flee from the centers of population

(see document 12.2).

No one knew what caused the plague. Most probably believed that it was a visitation from God and took

refuge in prayer and religious ceremonies. Flagellants

paraded from town to town, beating each other with

metal-tipped scourges in the hope of averting God’s

wrath, while preachers demanded the reform of the

216 Chapter 12

3 TABLE 12.1 3

Indices of Population Increase in Europe,


[ DOCUMENT 12.2 [

The Symptoms of the Plague

The data presented in this table show the dramatic

effects of the Black Death as well as the substantial increases in the European population between 1150

and 1250 and between 1400 and 1450. The indices

are based on the figures for 100 (that is 1000 ‫ ؍‬100).

These figures are estimates only and have proved











1000 1100 1200 1300 1400 1500 1600 1700 1800 1900

Indices per period of fifty years











































Source: B. H. Slicher van Bath, The Agrarian History of Western Europe,

A.D. 500–1800, trans. Olive Ordish (London: Edward Arnold, 1963),

p. 79.

A description of the Black Death survives from one of the

greatest of the late medieval writers. In 1348–53 Giovanni

Boccaccio, who would later become a founder of Renaissance

humanism (see chapter 13), wrote the Decameron, a series

of stories told in a villa outside Florence where a group of

fashionable young people take refuge from the plague. The

book begins with a description of the epidemic.

In the year of our Lord 1348, there happened at

Florence, the finest city in all Italy, a most terrible

plague; which, whether owing to the influence of

the planets, or that it was sent from God as a just

punishment for our sins, had broken out some

years before in the Levant, and after passing from

place to place, and making incredible havoc all the

way, had now reached the west. There, in spite of

all the means that art and human foresight could

suggest, such as keeping the city free from filth,

the exclusion of all suspected persons, and the

publication of copious instructions for the preservation of health; and not withstanding manifold

humble supplications offered to God in processions and otherwise; it began to show itself in the

aforesaid year, and in a sad and wonderful manner.

Unlike what had been seen in the east, where

bleeding from the nose is the fatal prognostic, here

there appeared certain tumors in the groin or under

the armpits, some as big as a small apple, others as

an egg; and afterwards purple spots in most parts of

the body; in some cases large and but few in number, in others smaller and more numerous—both

sorts the usual messengers of death. To the cure of

this malady, neither medical knowledge nor the

power of drugs was of any effect; whether because

the disease was in its own nature mortal, or that the

physicians (the number of whom, taking quacks

and women pretenders into the account, was

grown very great) could form no just idea of the

cause, nor consequently devise a true method of

cure; whichever was the reason, few escaped; but

nearly all died the third day from the first appearance of the symptoms, some sooner, some later,

without any fever or accessory symptoms.

Boccaccio, Giovanni. “The Decameron.” In Stories of Boccaccio, p. 1, trans. John Payne. London: The Bibliophilist Society,


Plague, War, and Social Change in the “Long” Fourteenth Century 217

Illustration 12.1

— The Burial of Plague Victims at

Tournai, 1349. Tournai is located in

what is now Belgium. Similar scenes of

mass burial were replayed throughout

Europe during the plague years. As the

death toll increased, attempts to provide

coffins and individual funerals had to be

abandoned. The overwhelmed survivors

could only dump the bodies in mass


church on the theory that its increasing interest in secular affairs had provoked divine retribution. Some have

argued that the plague created a genuine and longlasting demand for spiritual renewal. However, other,

more sinister results were evident as well. In parts of

Germany whole communities of Jews were burned alive

because they were thought to have spread the disease

by poisoning wells.

The Economic Consequences of the Black Death

The psychological effects of the Black Death would

have a profound impact on religious belief, but its material consequences were equally dramatic (see table

12.2). Demographic collapse relieved pressure on the

land. Food prices dropped immediately. Land values

and rents followed close behind, declining by 30 to 40

percent in most parts of Europe between 1350 and

1400. For landholders, both lay and religious, this was a

serious loss; for ordinary men and women, it was a

windfall. Stunned by the horror they had experienced,

the survivors found not only that food was cheaper and

land more abundant, but also that most of them had inherited varying amounts of property from their dead


The delicate ecological balance of the thirteenth

century no longer existed. Acreage could be diverted to

pursuits that were less efficient in purely nutritional

terms, but more profitable and less labor intensive.

Fields were converted to pasture for grazing sheep and

cattle. Marginal lands in Germany and elsewhere reverted to forest where hogs could root at will and where

the next generation of peasants could presumably find

3 TABLE 12.2 3

Population, Prices, and Wages in England,


The information presented in this graph shows the relationship of agricultural prices, industrial wages and

prices, and population in the century and a half following

the Black Death. After dramatic rises during the crises of

1315–17 and in the decade of the 1360s, agricultural

prices remained fairly steady until the 1530s. The graph

is much simplified, and the index numbers are based on

prices, wages, and population in 1300.





(1300 = 100)








Index numbers of agricultural prices

Index numbers of industrial prices and wages

Index numbers of English population figures

Source: E. Perroy, “Les crises du XIVe siècle,” Annales, vol. 4 (1949):

pp. 167–82, as adapted in B. H. Slicher van Bath, The Agrarian History of

Western Europe, A.D. 500–1800, trans. Olive Ordish (London: Edward

Arnold, 1963), p. 139.

218 Chapter 12

cheap firewood and building material. A larger percentage of the grain crop was devoted to the brewing of

beer, and, in the south, vineyards spread over hillsides

upon which in earlier times people had sought to grow

food. If the prosperity of Europeans may be measured

by their consumption of meat and alcohol, these were

comfortable years. Some historians have referred to

the period after the Black Death as the golden age of

European peasantry. It did not last long.

For most people, calorie and protein consumption

undoubtedly improved. Wages, too, increased, because

the plague created a labor shortage of unprecedented

severity. In Italy, employers tried to compensate by purchasing slaves from the Balkans or from dealers in the

region of the Black Sea. This expedient was temporary

and not successful. Before 1450 Turkish expansion

brought an end to the trade, and although the Portuguese imported African slaves throughout the fifteenth century, they for the most part remained in

Portugal. The handful of Africans who served the

households of the very rich made no impact on the labor market. Wages remained high, and many people

were able for the first time to leave their ancestral

homes in search of better land or higher pay. Hundreds

of communities were abandoned completely. Such

movements cannot be accurately traced, but the century after 1350 appears to have been a time of extraordinary mobility in which the traditional isolation of

village life diminished greatly.

These developments provoked a reaction from the

propertied classes. Caught between rising wages and

declining rents they faced a catastrophic reduction in

their incomes. With the passage of time, some eased the

situation by turning to such cash crops as wool or wine.

Their initial response was to seek legislation that would

freeze wages and restrict the movement of peasants. Between 1349 and 1351, virtually every European government tried to fix wages and prices (see document 12.3).

For the most part, their efforts produced only resistance.

The failure of such measures led to strategies based

upon the selective modification of feudal agreements.

New restrictions were developed and long-forgotten

obligations were revived. Southwest Germany provides

some instructive examples. Peasants subject to one lord

were often forbidden to marry the subject of another. If

they did so, their tenures would revert to the husband’s

lord after the couple’s death. As population movements

had created a situation in which few subjects of the

same lord inhabited the same village, this practically

guaranteed the wholesale confiscation of peasant estates. At the same time, peasants were denied access to

[ DOCUMENT 12.3 [

The Statute of Laborers

Issued by Edward III of England in 1351, this is a typical

example of legislation designed to restrict the increase in labor

costs created by the Black Death.

The King to the sheriff of Kent, greetings; Because

a great part of the people, and especially of working men and servants, have lately died of the pestilence, many seeing the necessity of masters and

great scarcity of servants, will not serve unless they

may receive excessive wages, and others preferring

to beg in idleness rather than by labor to get their

living; we, considering the grievous incommodities

which of the lack especially of ploughmen and

such laborers may hereafter become, have upon

deliberation and treaty with the prelates and the

nobles and the learned men assisting us, with their

unanimous counsel ordained:

That every man and woman of our realm of

England, of what condition he be, free or bond,

able in body, and within the age of sixty years, not

living in merchandise, nor exercising any craft, nor

having of his own whereof he may live, nor land of

his own about whose tillage he may occupy himself, and not serving any other; if he be required to

serve in suitable service, his estate considered, he

shall be bound to serve him which shall so require

him; and take only the wages, livery, meed, or

salary which were accustomed to be given in the

places where he oweth to serve, the twentieth year

of our reign of England [that is, in 1347], or five or

six other common years next before.

The Statute of Laborers. From Pennsylvania Translations and

Reprints, vol. 2, no. 5, trans. Edward P. Cheyney. Philadelphia:

University of Pennsylvania Press, 1897.

the forests, whose game, wood, nuts, and berries were

reserved for the landholders. These forest laws created

enormous hardships and were similar in their effects to

the enclosure of common lands by the English gentry a

century later. Peasants who depended upon these resources for firewood and for a supplement to their diet

might be driven from the land.

When such measures failed to raise enough money,

landholders were often forced to sell part of their holdings to investors. If the land in question was held in fief,

Plague, War, and Social Change in the “Long” Fourteenth Century 219

the permission of the liege lord was usually required

and could be secured by a cash payment or in return for

political favors. Some of the buyers were merchants,

lawyers, or servants of the crown who wanted the status

provided by a country estate. Others were simply landholders who sought to consolidate their holdings at

bargain rates. In either case the purchase of land tended

to eliminate feudal obligations in fact and sometimes in

law. The new owners had no personal ties to the peasants on their newly acquired estates and felt free to exploit their property as efficiently as possible. The net

effect was to accelerate the shift toward private ownership of land that had begun with the commutation of

feudal dues in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

Princes, too, were affected by the drop in land values. Medieval rulers drew the bulk of their ordinary revenues from exploiting their domains. Domain revenue

came from a variety of dues, rights, and privileges, as

well as from rents, which were an important part of the

whole. Most princes were happy to make common

cause with the other great landholders or to compensate for their losses by levying new taxes.

Social Disorder from the Jacqueries

to the Bundschuh Revolts

Attempts to reverse the economic trends set in motion

by the plague created widespread discontent. In 1358,

much of northern France rose in a bloody revolt called

the Jacquerie (Jacques Bonhomme being more-or-less

the French equivalent of John Doe). Peasants attacked

the castles of their lords in one of the worst outbreaks

of social violence in centuries. There was no program,

no plan—only violence born of sheer desperation. In

this case peasant distress was greatly aggravated by that

portion of the Hundred Years’ War that had ended with

the French defeat at Poitiers in 1356. The countryside

was devastated, and the peasants were taxed to pay the

ransoms of the king and his aristocratic followers who

had been captured by the English on the battlefield.

Other revolts grew less from poverty than from the

frustration of rising expectations. The English revolt of

1381, known as Wat Tyler’s Rebellion in memory of

one of its leaders, was triggered by the imposition of a

poll or head tax on every individual. The rebels saw it

as regressive, meaning it fell heavier on the poor than

on the rich, and as a threat to the economic gains

achieved since the plague. In Germany the exactions of

princes and landholders, including the clergy, provoked

a series of rebellions that flared periodically throughout

the fifteenth century and culminated in the great Peas-

ant Revolt of 1524–25. These are generally referred to

as the bundschuh revolts after the laced boots that served

as a symbol of peasant unity.

Much urban unrest also was in evidence, but its relationship to the plague and its aftermath is unclear.

The overall volume of European trade declined after

1350, which was offset to some extent by continuing

strength in the market for manufactured and luxury

items. A more equitable distribution of wealth broadened the demand for clothing, leather goods, and various furnishings, while the rich, in an apparent effort to

maintain their status in the face of economic threats, indulged in luxuries on an unprecedented scale. The trade

in manufactured articles, though smaller in total than it

had been in the thirteenth century, was therefore larger

in proportion to the trade in bulk agricultural commodities. It was also more profitable. Towns, now considerably smaller, seem to have enjoyed a certain

measure of prosperity throughout the period.

Their political balance, however, was changed by

the new importance of manufacturing. Craft guilds and

the artisans they represented were generally strengthened at the expense of the urban patriciate, whose rents

were greatly reduced in value. The process was not entirely new. The Flemish cloth towns of Ghent, Bruges,

and Ypres had been the scene of periodic revolts for a

century before 1350, and outbreaks continued for years

thereafter. By 1345 the guilds had triumphed, at least in

Flanders, but this in itself failed to create tranquility.

The patriciate refused to accept exclusion from the

government, and various factions among the guilds

fought among themselves to achieve supremacy. Given

the chronic discontent among the mass of laborers,

most of whom were not guild members and therefore

disenfranchised, riots were easy to incite almost regardless of the cause. The disturbances in the German

towns of Braunschweig (1374) and Lübeck (1408) were

apparently of similar origin. Political factions were able

to mobilize popular discontent in the service of their

own, decidedly nonpopular, interests.

The revolts of 1382 in Paris and Rouen appear to

have been more spontaneous and closer in spirit to the

rural uprisings of the same period, but the seizure of

Rome by Cola di Rienzi in May 1347 was unique. Demanding a return to the ancient Roman form of government, he raised a great mob and held the city for seven

months under the title of Tribune. The whole episode

remains the subject of historical controversy. It was related to the absence of the pope at Avignon (see chapter 14). The departure of the papal court in 1305 had

wrecked the Roman economy and placed the city’s

220 Chapter 12

government in the hands of such old aristocratic families as the Orsini and the Colonna. Popular dissatisfaction kept the city in turmoil for several years even after

Rienzi was forced into exile.

The revolt of the Florentine Ciompi in 1378 was the

culmination of thirty years of civic strife. The depression of 1343 had led the popolo grasso (literally, fat people) to betray their city’s republican traditions by

introducing a despot who would, they hoped, control

the population. The subsequent revolt led to a government dominated by the minor, craft-oriented guilds and

to the incorporation of the semiskilled woolcarders

(ciompi) into a guild of their own. In 1378 the Ciompi

seized control of the city and introduced a popular and

democratic form of government that lasted until the

great merchants of the city hired a mercenary army to

overthrow it in 1382.

Few of these rebellions, urban or rural, had clearly

developed aims, and none of them resulted in permanent institutional changes beneficial to the rebels. For

the most part, the privileged classes found them easy to

suppress. The wealthy still possessed a near monopoly

of military force and had little difficulty in presenting a

united front. Their opponents, though numerous, were

poor and usually disorganized. Communication among

different groups of rebels was difficult, and outbreaks of

violence tended to be as isolated as they were brief.

These rebellions probably did not pose a fundamental

threat to the existing social order, but they inspired

fear. The chroniclers, who were by definition members

of an educated elite, described appalling scenes of murder, rape, and cannibalism. They noted that women

sometimes played a part in the agitation, and they regarded this as a monstrous perversion of nature. True or

exaggerated, these accounts made it difficult for readers

to sympathize with the rebels. The restoration of order

was often followed by mass executions and sometimes

by new burdens on the peasantry as a whole.

In general, the social disorders of the fourteenth

century weakened whatever sense of mutual obligation

had been retained from the age of feudalism and probably hastened the trend toward private ownership of

land. Moreover they increased the fear and insecurity

of the elite, who reacted by developing an attitude of

increased social exclusivity. The division between popular and elite culture became dramatic at about this

time. The tendency was to ridicule and suppress customs that had once belonged to rich and poor alike but

were now regarded as loutish or wicked.

Meanwhile, an impulse that must have been largely

unconscious led the upper classes into new extravagance

and the elaboration of an extreme form of chivalric excess. The tournaments and banquets described in the

Chronicle of Jean Froissart (c. 1333–c. 1400) surpassed

anything that an earlier age could afford and were at

least partially inspired by the flowering of chivalric romance as a literary form. Ironically, this “indian summer”

of chivalry occurred not only amid social and economic

insecurity but at a time when the feudal aristocracy was

losing the remnants of its military function.


The Transformation of Warfare:

The Emergence of the Soldier

Fourteenth-century Europe suffered not only from

famine and plague, but also from war. While the age

was probably not more violent than others before or

since, the scale and complexity of warfare was beginning to increase in highly visible ways. By 1500 the evidence was clear that the preceeding two hundred years

had witnessed a military revolution.

Long before the Black Death, the feudal system of

warfare had begun to break down. The warrior was becoming a soldier. The term soldier is used here in its

original meaning: a fighting man who receives a cash

payment or solde for his efforts as opposed to one who

serves in return for land or in the discharge of some

nonmonetary obligation. This was an important development, not only because it changed the way in which

wars were fought, but also because it altered the structure of western European society.

The increase in real wealth and in the circulation of

money between 1000 and 1250 allowed princes to alter

the basis of military service. Their own revenues, which

were based in part on import-export duties and occasional levies on movable goods, were augmented by the

revival of trade. Beyond that the commutation of military and other services for cash helped to create substantial war revenues exclusive of taxes. Scutage, the

payment of knight’s fees, and similar arrangements by

which even the feudal class could escape military service in return for cash payments are first noted in the

mid-twelfth century. By 1250 they had become commonplace. In 1227 the emperor Frederick II demanded

eight ounces of gold from every fief in his realms, but

only one knight from every eight fiefs. A quartercentury later, the pope declared his preference for

money over personal service from his vassals. The

money was used to hire mercenaries or to pay knights

to extend their service, often for an indefinite period.

The case of Edward I of England is typical. His attempts

Plague, War, and Social Change in the “Long” Fourteenth Century 221

to subjugate the Welsh and Scots could not be abandoned every autumn when his feudal levies went home.

He therefore contracted with certain knights on a longterm basis, paying their wages from the proceeds of

knight’s fees and from the nine great levies on moveable

property that he collected between 1297 and 1302.

The need for long-service troops and the superior

professionalism of those who fought year in and year out

for their livelihood were decisive. By 1340 unpaid feudal

service was becoming rare in western Europe, though

the crown was not yet the sole paymaster of its armies.

Men from the great estates were still paid by the lords

who employed them. Townsmen were paid by the

towns. This changed by the mid-fifteenth century in

England and France and by 1480 in Spain, though towns

and nobles could be called upon to provide equipment.

In Italy, the mercenary was dominant by 1300.

The major exceptions to this state of affairs were

found in eastern Europe. In Poland a numerous class of

small and middling gentry continued to perform unpaid

military service throughout the fifteenth century. Those

who account for this by pointing to the frontier character of Polish society would be wrong. In Hungary, Europe’s most exposed frontier, even the banderia, a heavy

cavalry unit composed of noblemen, was paid in cash

at an early date, and the armies of János Hunyadi

(c. 1407–56) and his son, Matthias I, were composed

largely of mercenaries. Aside from such quasitribal survivals as the szechely of eastern Transylvania, the decision to pay or not to pay seems everywhere to have

been governed by the availability of cash.

The first soldiers were probably poor knights or

younger sons whose only inheritance was a sword, a

horse, and a sound training in the profession of arms.

They were soon joined by paid infantry, most of whom

came from different social worlds. The fourteenth

century also saw the evolution of infantry tactics that

required either specialized skills or exceptional discipline and cohesion in battle. As those who possessed

such training were rarely part of traditional feudal

society, they, too, had to be paid in cash.

The skills were largely associated with the development of new or improved missile weapons. Archery had

always been a factor in medieval warfare, but its effectiveness was diminished by improvements in personal

armor. The introduction of the crossbow therefore

marked the beginning of a major change. This weapon

offered great accuracy and powers of penetration,

though at a relatively slow rate of fire. Originating in

the Mediterranean, it was first used as a naval weapon

and found special favor among the shipmasters of

Genoa and Barcelona as a defense against pirates. Men

selected and trained for this purpose had become numerous in the port cities of the western Mediterranean

by 1300 and were willing to transfer their skills to land

when the volume of maritime trade declined. The Genoese were especially noted for their service to France

during the Hundred Years’ War; natives of Barcelona

and Marseilles were not far behind.

The advent of the crossbowmen marked an alien

intrusion into the world of feudal warfare and was resented by many knights. Their world held little place

for the urban poor. However, the involvement of marginal people with deviant forms of social organization

was only beginning. The famous longbow was another

case in point. Basically a poacher’s weapon, it evolved

beyond the edges of the feudal world in Wales and the

English forests. Edward III introduced it in the Hundred

Years’ War with devastating effect. The longbow combined a high rate of fire with penetration and accuracy

superior to that of early firearms. It required many years

of training to be properly employed. As most of those

who were expert in its use were marginal men in an

economic and social sense they were usually happy to

serve as mercenaries.

Handguns followed a similar pattern. First seen in

Italy during the 1390s, they achieved importance in Bohemia during the Hussite wars.When peace returned,

companies of handgun men found employment in

Hungary and in the west.

All of these categories were overshadowed in the

fifteenth century by the emergence of the pike as a primary battle weapon (see illustration 12.2). The pike

was a spear, twelve to sixteen feet in length. It was used

in a square formation similar to the Macedonian phalanx and could, if the pikemen stood their ground, stop

a cavalry charge or clear the field of opposing infantry.

Massed infantry formations of this kind had been neglected during most of the Middle Ages because such

tactics were incompatible with feudalism as a social system. Infantry had to be highly motivated and carefully

trained to meet a cavalry charge without flinching.

In medieval Europe, two main forms of social organization could meet this requirement: the city and the

peasant league. Medieval towns were surrounded by

enemies. In those areas where princely authority was

weak (Italy, the Low Countries, and parts of Germany),

they were forced to develop effective armies at a relatively early date. As most towns lacked either extensive

territory or a large native nobility trained in the profession of arms, this meant that they had to rely on the

creation of citizen militias supplemented on occasion

222 Chapter 12

IIllustration 12.2

— Pikes in Action. This illustration of the opening of a battle

between formations of pikemen shows the “fall” of pikes as the

units come into action. It is a detail of The Terrible Swiss War by Albrecht Altdorfer, c. 1515.

by mercenaries. Those townsmen who could afford to,

bought horse and armor and tried to fight like knights.

The majority served with pike or halberd (a longhandled battle axe) and drilled on Sundays and holidays until they achieved a level of effectiveness far

superior to that of peasant levies. The victory of the

Flemish town militias over the chivalry of France at

Courtrai in 1302 was a promise of things to come.

By 1422 pike tactics had been adopted by the

Swiss Confederation, one of several peasant leagues

formed in the later thirteenth century to preserve their

independence from feudal demands. The successful defense of their liberties earned them a formidable military reputation, and after 1444 the Swiss were regularly

employed as mercenaries by the French and by the

pope. Their example was taken up by other poor peasants in south Germany who emulated their system of

training and hired themselves out to the emperor and

other princes. Pike squares remained a feature of European armies for two hundred years, and mercenary contracting became an important element in the Swiss and

south German economies.

The emergence of paid troops, new missile

weapons, and massed infantry tactics changed the character of European warfare. By the end of the fourteenth

century, armies were larger and cavalry was declining in

importance. The social consequences of these changes

were profound because they tended, among other

things, to monetarize the costs of war. In the simplest

form of feudal warfare, cash outlays were few. Men

served without pay and normally provided their own

food and equipment in the field. Feudal levies consumed resources in kind, but these costs rarely involved

the state. This changed dramatically with the advent of

the soldier, because only a sovereign state could coin

money or raise taxes. As feudal nobles could rarely do

either, they gradually lost their preeminent role as the

organizers of war while the eclipse of cavalry reduced

their presence on the battlefield. During the fifteenth

century, many great feudal families began to withdraw

from the traditional function as protectors of society,

leaving the field to men who served the sovereign for

pay and privileges. In the process, the state, too, was

transformed. Where the feudal world had demanded

little more than justice and military leadership from its

kings, the new warfare demanded the collection and

distribution of resources on an unprecedented scale.

The monarchies of Europe were at first unprepared for

such a task, and the difficulties they faced were compounded by a contemporary revolution in military


The development of Western technology is often

seen as a sporadic affair in which periods of innovation

were interspersed with longer intervals of slow, almost

Plague, War, and Social Change in the “Long” Fourteenth Century 223

imperceptible change. This is an illusion that comes

from thinking of the inventions themselves instead of

the complex process that created them, but periods certainly existed during which breakthroughs occurred at

an accelerated rate. One of these was the later Middle

Ages. Few of the changes had an immediate impact on

everyday life, but their effects on war, trade, and government were great.

The development of artillery and portable firearms

is a case in point. Evolution began with the invention of

gunpowder. In Europe, saltpeter was first identified in

the twelfth century. How or why it was combined with

charcoal and sulphur is unknown, but the mixture was

mentioned by Roger Bacon in 1248. A number of years

passed before it was used as a propellent, and its first

application probably was in mining. This, however, is

uncertain. Only the obstacles to its use are fully documented. Saltpeter was scarce and expensive. Years of

experimentation were needed to arrive at the proper ratio of ingredients and even longer to develop grains of

the proper consistency. Mistakes were often fatal, for

black powder was not totally safe or dependable in use,

and its chemistry has only recently been understood.

Nevertheless it presented fewer problems than the

construction of the guns. Metallurgy, not powder

milling, controlled the pace of artillery development.

The first guns, which appeared around the middle

of the fourteenth century, were hand forged from

wrought-iron bars and bound with iron hoops. They

were heavy, expensive, and prone to bursting when

fired. In spite of these drawbacks, they remained dominant until the middle of the fifteenth century when

they were superseded by guns cast from bronze. The

bronze used was approximately 80 percent copper and

20 percent tin. Large quantities of both metals were

therefore required, and gun production on a large scale

was prevented during the fourteenth century by the exhaustion of existing mines. Copper in particular was in

short supply. In 1450 a new process was introduced

that extracted copper from ores in which copper and

silver were found together. Large, previously unusable

deposits in Saxony, Hungary, and Slovakia thus could

be exploited, and copper production increased


The introduction of bronze cannons was further

delayed by the lack of adequate furnaces and by an inability to deal with a physical property characteristic of

bronze. Copper and tin tend to segregate as they cool,

causing variations in the strength of the metal that

might cause the guns to burst when fired (see illustration 12.3). Generations of experience were needed to

Illustration 12.3

— Gun-Casting Technique (after c. 1450). The gun was cast

around a core that was lowered into the mold and centered by an

iron “cross” that was left in the casting. The pouring head at the

top ensured that the mixture of tin and copper would not segregate during cooling and weaken the breach. The head was sawed

off after the casting process was complete.

solve these problems. By the 1460s they were largely

under control, and large numbers of bronze cannons

were quickly added to European armories. Within a

half-century, every existing fortress was obsolete, for

the high, relatively thin walls of medieval fortifications

could withstand no more than a few hours of battering

by the big guns. Towns and strongholds in militarily

exposed areas were forced to rebuild if they were to

survive. Between 1500 and 1530, Italian engineers developed a system of fortifcation that set the pattern for

224 Chapter 12

defensive works until the nineteenth century. Walls

were lowered and thickened to widths of forty feet or

more. Bastions became wedge-shaped and were laid out

geometrically so that every section of wall could be

covered by the defender’s guns. The works were then

surrounded by a broad, steep-sided ditch that was usually faced with brick or stone.

The cost was enormous. The guns were expensive

and required large numbers of skilled men and draft animals to maneuver. The new fortifications required less

skill to construct than their medieval predecessors, but

their scale was far larger and their expense proportionately high. The development of artillery had increased

the already heavy burden of warfare on states and subjects alike.

The development of navies, though not taking

place in earnest until the sixteenth century, was destined to have a similar effect. It rested upon changes in

shipbuilding that by the fifteenth century had created

vessels capable of crossing an ocean or using artillery in

a ship-to-ship duel. The new ships were the result of a

hybrid cross between two traditions of shipbuilding—

the Mediterranean and the north European. The ships

changed the world as few innovations have done before

or since.

The dominant ship types in the medieval Mediterranean were the galley and the round ship. The galley

was intended primarily for war. Long, narrow, and light,

its chief virtues were speed and maneuverabilty independent of the wind. However, it was too fragile for use

in the open Atlantic or for extended use in its home waters between October and May. It also lacked carrying

capacity, and this, together with its high manpower requirements, limited its usefulness. Though galleys were

sometimes used for commerce, especially by the Venetians, the preeminent Mediterranean cargo carrier was

the round ship. As its name implies, it was doubleended and broad of beam with a high freeboard.

Steered like a galley by side rudders located near the

stern, it normally carried a two-masted rig with triangular lateen sails (see illustration 12.4). The round ship

was not fast or graceful, but it was safe, roomy, and

thanks to its high freeboard, relatively easy to defend

against boarders. Its carvel type construction was typically Mediterranean. The hull planking was nailed or

pegged edge on edge to a skeleton frame and then

caulked to create a water-tight, non-load-bearing hull.

The ships of northern Europe were different. Most

were clinker-built like the old Viking longships with

overlapping planks fastened to each other by nails or

rivets. Their variety was almost infinite. By the middle



llustration 12.4

— The Evolution of Medieval Ship Types. These two ship

models represent the best current thinking on the appearance and

construction of medieval ships. (A) is a medieval round ship with

a lateen sail and steering oars of the type used to carry crusaders.

(B) is a model of the Mary Rose, Henry VIII’s “great ship” that capsized in 1545. It may be regarded as an early galleon. Note the


of the thirteenth century, the cog had emerged as the

preferred choice for long voyages over open water. Of

Baltic origin, the cog was as high and beamy as the

roundship. A long, straight keel and sternpost rudder

made it different from and more controllable than its

Mediterranean counterpart. The Genoese, in ships de-

Plague, War, and Social Change in the “Long” Fourteenth Century 225

signed for their Atlantic trade, adapted carvel construction to this design to create a lighter, cheaper hull with

greater carrying capacity.

The final step was the addition of multiple masts.

Shipbuilders soon discovered that a divided rig reduced

manning requirements because smaller sails were easier

to handle. It also made possible the use of different

sails—combined according to need, thereby increasing

speed and maneuverability under a wider variety of

conditions. With Portuguese, Dutch, and Basque innovators leading the way, a recognizably modern ship had

evolved by 1500.

Given the military rivalry among states, a marriage

between the new shipbuilding techniques and the cast

bronze cannon was inevitable. The full tactical implications of this were not immediately apparent, but by the

last quarter of the fifteenth century the major states

were acquiring ships capable of mounting heavy guns.

The competition to control the seas was on, and no

state with maritime interests could afford to ignore it.


Centers of Conflict:

The Eastern Frontiers

For much of the later Middle Ages, the great north European plain, where it made a borderless transition into

Asia, was in turmoil. East of the Elbe, two great movements were under way. The first was the eastward expansion of the German-speaking peoples. Population

growth in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries led to

the establishment of German settlements in Poland,

Lithuania, and the Baltic regions as well as in Transylvania and the Ukraine. The movement was not always

peaceful, bringing the Germans into conflict with the

Slavs who inhabited the region. Relations improved little with time, and the German “colonies” tended to remain isolated from their neighbors by linguistic barriers

and mutual resentments. In its later phases, German expansion was led by the Teutonic Knights, a military order on the crusading model. From the mid-thirteenth

century, the Knights attempted the large-scale conquest

of Slavic as well as unclaimed land on which German

peasants were then encouraged to settle (see map 12.1).

On its eastern fringes (see document 12.4) the

Slavic world was under equal pressure from the Mongols, who conquered most of Russia and the Ukraine in

1240–42 and who raided as far west as Breslau in Silesia. The center of resistance to Mongol rule became the

grand duchy of Moscow, founded by the son of the

Russian hero, Alexander Nevsky. Nevsky had defeated

[ DOCUMENT 12.4 [

The Novgorod Chronicle

Novgorod was an important trading city north of Moscow.

This excerpt from its city chronicle provides a vivid picture of

conditions on Europe’s eastern frontier in the year 1224.


Prince Vsevolod Gyurgevits came to

Novgorod. The same year the Germans killed

Prince Vyachko in Gyurgev and took the town.

The same year, for our sins, this was not [all] the

evil that happened: Posadnik [an elected official

somewhat resembling a burgomaster or mayor] Fedor rode out with the men of Russia and fought

with the Lithuanians; and they drove the men of

Russia from their horses and took many horses,

and killed Domazhir Torlinits and his son and of

the men of Russa Boghsa and many others, and the

rest they drove asunder into the forest. The same

year, for our sins, unknown tribes came, whom no

one exactly knows, who they are, nor whence they

came out, nor what their language is, nor of what

race they are, nor what their faith is, but they call

them Tartars. . . . God alone knows who they are

and whence they came out. Very wise men know

them exactly, who understand books, but we do

not know who they are, but have written of them

here for the sake of the memory of the Russian

princes and of the misfortune which came to them

from them.

The Chronicle of Novgorod, 1016–1471, trans. Robert Michell

and Nevill Forbes. Camden Society, 3d series, vol. 25. London:

Camden Society Publications, 1914.

a Swedish incursion in 1238 and the Teutonic Knights

in 1240. His descendants were forced to concern themselves almost exclusively with Asia. Though continuing

to pay tribute to the Mongol khans, the Musovites engaged in sporadic warfare with them until 1480 when

Ivan III refused payment and became, in effect, the first

tsar. An early sign of the grand duchy’s preeminence

was the transfer of the Russian Orthodox patriarchate

from Kiev to Moscow in 1299.

During the fourteenth century, Russian preoccupation with the Mongols encouraged the Teutonic

Knights to step up their activities in the Baltic. Resistance was provided by the Catholic kingdom of

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