World History 1 251 - 16.1.3 Europe in the Early Fourteenth Century

While its eastern and southern neighbors struggled to overcome the challenges of the early fourteenth century, Europe was also undergoing widespread crises of authority and shifting axes of power in the face of famine, war, and eventually pestilence. At the beginning of the century, a period of worsening weather resulted in crop failures and food shortages that left Europe vulnerable to the ravages of the bubonic plague, a deadly bacterial disease. These crises resulted in demographic changes and economic troubles that signaled profound transformations in the religious and political foundations of medieval society. Not all regions of Europe experienced the same level of upheaval and economic decline—some areas such as the Italian Peninsula and the French city of Bourges continued to prosper—but the fourteenth century was generally an era of chronic conflict and instability for most of the continent (Figure 16.8).

A map is shown with water in blue and the land in multiple colors. From the north to the south, these locations are labelled with their colors: Norwegian Iceland (purple), Lapps and Finns (Gray), Norway (purple), Sweden (pink), Scotland (pink), Ireland (lime green), England and Wales (orange), Denmark (lime green), Teutonic Order (green), Lithuania (lime green), Russian principalities (Rus) (blue and gray stripes), Mazovia (light blue), France (light blue), Bohemia (yellow), Poland (dark blue), Gallicia-Volhyia (green), Khanate of the Golden Horde (gray), Holy Roman Empire (several small states) (gray), Habsburg (orange), Gascony (orange), Hungary (light blue), Moldavia (lime green), Theodoro (Gothia) (pink), Genoese provinces (lime green), Portugal (pink), Castille (lime green), Granada (light blue), Navarre (purple), Aragon (yellow), Majorca (green), Genoa (green), Sardinia (gray, green, lime green, and orange), Papal states (pink), Venice (lime green), Naples (light blue), Sicily (green), Bosnia (dark blue), Ragusa (yellow), Cataro (yellow), Rascia (Serbia) (green), Vidin and Bulgaria (gray), Wallachia (green), Trnovo (orange), Empire of Trebizond (green), Georgia (pink), Byzantine Empire (pink), Achaia (lime green), Athens (light blue), Small Turkic Beylikates (gray), Ilkhan Empire (orange), Cillician Armenia (pink), Venetian Crete (lime green), Knights of St. John (lime green), Cyprus (light blue), Maghreb Marinida (green), Tlemcen Zayyanida (dark green), Bejaia Hafsids (light blue), Tunis (dark green), Banu Sulaym (pink), Berber (Amazigh) tribes and Lybian tribes (gray), Egypt and Mameluke Empire (dark orange), and Bedouin tribes (gray).
Figure 16.8 This map depicts the patchwork of kingdoms and political entities in Europe and beyond at the beginning of the fourteenth century. The many divisions ensured that political fragmentation rather than centralization defined the region throughout the medieval period, and many states depicted here still lacked a strong, centralized rule entirely. (credit: “Europe in 1328” by Lynn H. Nelson/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

In contrast to the stability that had defined much of the thirteenth century for the European Christian Church, it began experiencing significant destabilization in the beginning of the fourteenth century, when tensions between the pope and national monarchs led to a weakening of papal authority and division within the church. A notable conflict occurred between Pope Boniface VIII and King Philip IV of France, after Philip sought to impose taxes on the clergy in his country without papal approval. As a result, Boniface issued an edict reinforcing papal supremacy over secular rulers, to which Philip responded by attempting to kidnap the pope in 1303. Although the papacy retained its political autonomy and independent bureaucratic structures after a series of pontiffs came to settle in Avignon, France, the time they spent there tarnished the pope’s spiritual prestige and led many to question the integrity of the church’s administrative structures.

Although Pope Gregory XI brought the papal court back to Rome in 1377, continuing disagreements between church factions about papal legitimacy led to the simultaneous appointment of three popes and inaugurated a period known as the Great Western Schism (1378–1417). Although this crisis of authority was eventually resolved when the Council of Constance (1414–1418) persuaded two of the popes to resign, by then the reputation of the papacy had deteriorated significantly.

The decline in respect for the Roman Catholic clergy can be seen in an English satirical poem known as The Land of Cockaigne. The poem calls attention to the church’s purported gluttony during a time marked by food insecurity by depicting a monastery made of mouthwatering pastries and breads. The image of a church made of food suggested the greed of the clergy: “There is a fair abbey for monks, white and grey, and its chambers and halls have walls made of pies filled with fish and rich meats, the most delicious man can eat. The shingles on the church, cloisters, bowers and hall are wheat cakes, and the pinnacles are fat puddings, rich enough for princes and kings. All may be rightfully eaten without blame, for it is shared in common by young and old, strong and stern, meek and bold.”

In the midst of the church’s crisis of authority and status, many areas of Europe were further racked by political and military conflict through much of the fourteenth century. The Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453) erupted between England and France over claims to French lands held by the English monarch. The tension was heightened in 1328 when King Charles IV of France died without a son. The crown was given to his nephew Philip, the Count of Valois, the son of Charles’s younger brother. However, King Edward III of England, the son of Charles’s sister and the older of the two claimants, maintained that he had the greater right to the throne of France. The conflict caused widespread political factionalism and devastation, particularly in France where most of the fighting occurred.

Although the war lasted 116 years, its periods of conflict alternated with times of truce. The new military technologies of the late medieval period shaped much of the conflict and rendered combat especially savage. While the English longbow, prized for its ability to send arrows farther and faster than the French crossbow, dominated the first decades, later in the war the use of firearms and gunpowder became more widespread and more destructive, thanks to the ability of these weapons to dismantle the protective walls of castles and cities. Despite England’s dominance early in the conflict, the war’s conclusion in 1453 ultimately left France in control as the dominant kingdom of western Europe.

Link to Learning

The British Library learning timeline provides an interactive chronology including brief descriptions, sources, and images of key events in fourteenth-century European history, such as the Hundred Years’ War.

Another center of political instability during this period was the Holy Roman Empire. In the fourteenth century, the Holy Roman Empire, which had been founded by Charlemagne in 800, comprised four main entities—the Kingdom of Italy, the Kingdom of Germany (including lands that now are part of Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland), the Kingdom of Burgundy (a region in southeastern France), and the Kingdom of Bohemia (what is now the Czech Republic and part of Poland) under the nominal control of an elected emperor. Each of these kingdoms, in turn, was composed of a loose coalition of independent territories with different hereditary rulers. The emperor was chosen by a handful of these rulers known as electors.

Competition between noble families vying for the role of emperor often created instability. In 1314, for example, one group of electors chose the ruler of Austria to be emperor, but another group gave the title to the ruler of Bavaria. Later in the century, the Golden Bull, proclaimed by the emperor Charles IV in 1356 (bull is the Latin word for “seal”), attempted to simplify and clarify the process by which the emperor was elected. The document asserted that emperors would be selected by seven specific prince-electors, the secular rulers of four principalities and the archbishops of three cities within the empire. This practice of electing emperors stood in stark contrast to the hereditary monarchies of other European kingdoms such as France and England.

Rather than adopting a common currency, legal system, or representative assembly, the Holy Roman Empire remained a patchwork of semiautonomous principalities. Although each of these became relatively stable, the empire itself was a weak and decentralized political entity. By the end of the fourteenth century, it included more than one hundred principalities, each with varying degrees of power and autonomy. The emperor was now beholden to both the rulers who elected him and the pope, who in theory bestowed the imperial crown.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax