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Some Thoughts From History

Going to play history nerd here a bit. I was going through some of my previous work (from my Master of Arts in Ancient Classical History) and came across a discussion post I did in one of my history courses. I thought the short discussion is quite relevant for today so here it is:

How did the 14th century calamities create and foster an environment for change?

The 14th century is the century that seems to best personify the nomenclature of Dark Ages often applied to the Middle Ages. It was a time of major calamity, population struggles and institutional issues as well as social constriction. It was a time just recent enough to be in the working memory of those writers and thinkers of the Renaissance, which left them to make a judgement of this period being a dark period of history. A judgment that not be entirely accurate as the time had many successes and advancements. The 14th century itself does not entirely fit this mold either, but if you only look at the calamities and not what resulted from them it is an easier picture to paint.

We can break these calamities down to at least three areas, natural calamity, war and institutions. In focusing on natural calamities the largest event of note is the plague. Since I will be discussing this in the next question I will pass it by here and move unto a discussion of war.

War was not a new phenomenon, but just as it played such a heavy role in the fashioning of many time periods prior and after, it played a significant contribution to the crises of the 14th century. The most recognized war of the time period of course the Hundred Year War. “The Hundred Years War (1337–1453) between Britain and France resulted from Edward III having laid a claim to the French throne after the deaths of three French Kings, his uncles.”[1] The war raged for over a hundred years, as so aptly named, only receding for a time at the height of the Black Death plague. It dominated the social, political and religious landscape of the major powers of England and France and impacted the greater economy, population and development pf Western Europe.

The costs of war in human capital and treasure is tremendous, and war lasting over 100 years has a dramatic effect monetarily. It had an effect of causing raids, loss of grain and crops and at times certain areas devolved into anarchy, though this was not widespread. “In many areas of France, as in certain parts of Germany, the fourteenth century was the age of mercenary companies and Raubritter. Yet it would be an exaggeration to speak of ‘anarchy’ or the total dislocation of French society at this time.”[2] War was not the only setback for Europe.

A very notable argument that has occupied scholars and historians is the battle between the church and the state for power and authority. As time moves into the 14th century the battle had basically gave way to the kings of the west. The power once wielded by Innocent III, was no longer at the biding of the church (the Catholic church in the West). “The later medieval papacy has often been seen as the shadow of a formerly vigorous institution.”[3] As former power fell and new dynasty rose, the church as saw a humbling of its power. The time represented a dissolution of many of the power institutions of the prior centuries. Some would be completely remade, nations and boundaries, others like the church would battle not only for relevancy in the political world but against a growing social tide of opinion against the wealth and prominence of its leaders.

How did people respond to the plague? Why? How did the church? How did the medical profession?

Panic, fear, seclusion? How would any people respond to such mass death? But those responses were seen in differing areas including restrictive social activities, including travel and a challenge to social political institutions like the church. Even the Hundred Years War was put on hold at the height of the plague. It was a challenge to institutions, church and state, after all such suffering and death is sure to raise the attention and questions of those who proclaim to have the answer to life and wealth. Individuals reacting sometimes in seemingly heroic ways. Men and women who face adversity often rise with solutions and stronger ideas.

One of the greater medical minds of the era and one who continues to have impact even in some ways today was Guy de Chauliac. Working with patients during the plague without fear, he furthered not only compassion to his fellow man but the way doctors and medicine approached their patients. An Impact that Watters points out is still felt today. Regarding the doctors right to charge a fair wage and responsibility to his patient with right and unafraid care Watters claims, “This statement has held true before and since 1363. Six and a half centuries later, we cannot really express it any better than Guy de Chauliac, who is deservedly regarded as a ‘Father of Surgery.’”[4]

The 14th century, could be the end of the world or the beginning of something new altogether. How does this century represent both ideas and why?

For many I’m sure the time appeared apocalyptic. It is hard to hold out for optimism when you fear for your life from war and disease. A never ending war, a plague that wipes out swaths of the population is not hard to view in terms of end of the world, or at least the end of their world. Yet for many of us in modern times we can see the advancements, and fruits that arose from such chaos as a beginning. A new state of political affairs, a new generation in medical practice and even a new or refocus on religion. While calamity and dark days are never something we covet, they can be an opportunity to refocus and reconstruct.

[1] David Watters, “Guy de Chauliac: Pre-Eminent Surgeon of the Middle Ages,” Cowlishaw Symposium (2013), 731. doi: 10.1111/ans.12349. (Accessed Febraury 15, 2017) [2] Malcolm Vale, “The Civilization of Courts and Cities in the North 1200-1500,” The Oxford History of Medieval Europe, ed. George Holmes, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 299. [3] Ibid., 304. [4] David Watters, 734.

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