Life in the 14th Century: Part 1

These next few posts are all in conjunction with this post. All are about the lives of the people in the 14th century. I decided to break them up so that they are easier to read rather than really long posts. I hope you enjoy.


Life in the 14th Century

Europe, at the turn of the century, was well on its way to rapidly expanding. It was rapidly increasing both intellectually and in mathematical sophistication. Thanks to water power and mechanical discoveries that flowed from it. Europe was well in the midst of what many historians would call the Medieval Industrial Revolution.

Even though Europe was in a time of “industrial revolution”, the 14th century was also a time of turmoil, diminished expectations, loss of confidence in institutions and feelings of helplessness at forces beyond that were beyond any human control. Even thoughts of extinction of the human race were prevalent throughout Europe at this time. The talks of extinction of our race are still around today, but back in medieval Europe talks were far more direct than we have ever discussed.


There were two great natural disasters at this time, one of which was a Little Ice Age. There were actually two cooling episodes around this time, the first was back in the late 1200’s and lasted until about 1600. In 1303, 1306 and 1307 the Baltic Sea even froze over, which was something which had never been recorded previous to this time. The Alpine glaciers had advanced and Norse settlements in Greenland had been cut off from the rest of the world. In Iceland grain cultivation had also ceased. In 1315, in France the crops had failed and thus there was widespread famine as well as reports of cannibalism and other epidemics. The Little Ice Age had already been a disaster for so many people but something worse was coming.bubonic-plague-2

The bubonic plague would bring the life of Europeans to a virtual standstill. In historian Barbara Tuchman’s book “A Distant Mirror” she describes the plague as powerfully as anyone else does. In October of 1347, two months after Calais had fallen, Genoese trading ships had put into harbor at Messina in Sicily. When they had arrived the ships were filled with dying men at their oars and dead men aboard as well. The ships had come from the Black Sea ports of Caffa, which now is Feodosiya, in the Crimea, where Genoese had maintained a trading post. The diseased sailors had strange black swellings, of which were about the size of an egg or apple, in their armpits and groin. The swelling would also be oozing blood and pus, then would be followed by the spreading of boils and black blotches on the skin, due to internal bleeding. The sick would have suffered severe pain and then died quickly, usually within five days of when their first symptoms appeared. One eyewitness account goes as follows:

“Realizing what a deadly disaster had come to them, the people quickly drove the Italians from the city. But the disease remained, and soon death was everywhere. Fathers abandoned their sick sons. Lawyers refused to come and make out wills for the dying. Friars and nuns were left to care for the sick, and monasteries and convents were soon deserted, as they were stricken, too. Bodies were left in empty houses, and there was no one to give them a Christian burial.”

As the disease had spread more symptoms would appear, a continuous fever and spitting of blood appeared instead of swelling or buboes. Plague victims would cough and sweat heavily and would die even quicker than they had previously, usually within three days or less, and sometimes within twenty-four hours of first symptoms appearing. Plague sufferers had bad breath, sweat, blood from buboes breaking open, blood in lungs, bloody urine, and blood blackened excrement. Times when the plague was around would have been very stinky. Depression and despair would accompany the physical symptoms. One man actually said that before the end of a person’s life “death is seen seated on the face”.

The plague came in three forms. The bubonic plague would cause buboes with swelling of the lymph nodes at the neck, groin and armpit, and internal bleeding and was spread by contact. Some people would survive the painful ordeal, but if one manifested lesions they would usually expect to die within a week.bubonic-plague

The second was more virulent, the pneumonic type, which infected the lungs and spread by respiratory infection. Many victims would die by choking on their own blood. One could expect to pass away within one or two days. The third type was the septicemic plague. It would attack the bloodstream.

People would come down with these types quite often all at once, this being what brought on the high mortality rates and speed of the contagion. The disease was so lethal that there were cases where a person could go to bed well and never wake up, dying of the plague before morning. It was so contagious that the French physician, Simon de Covino said that it seemed as if one person was sick they “could infect the whole world.”

Rumors of the plague supposedly started in China and then spread through Tartary in Central Asia and then to India and Persia, Mesopotamia, Syria, Egypt, and all of Asia Minor, reaching Europe in 1346. They would tell of a death toll that was so devastating that all of India was said to be depopulated. Whole areas were covered by dead bodies and in other areas there was just no one left alive. Pope Celment VI at Avignon gathered a death toll of 23,840,000 people. In the absence of a concept of the contagion, there was no serious alarm felt in Europe until the trading ships had brought their black burden into Messina, while other infected ships from Levant had carried the plague to Genoa and Venice.

By January of 1348 the disease had come to France from Marseille, North Africa from Tunis and was ship-borne along the coasts and navigable rivers. It would spread westward from Marseille through the ports of Languedoc and on into Spain. From there it moved up the Rhone to Avignon, arriving there in March. From February to May it reached Narbonne, Montpellier, Carcassonne and Toulouse. At the same time it was in Italy and spread to Rome and Florence and the hinterlands. June to August brought the plague to Bordeaux, Lyon, and Paris, spreading onward into Burgundy and Normandy. It would also cross over the Channel from Normandy into the southern parts of England. In that summer, from Italy it crossed the Alps into Switzerland, reaching eastward to Hungary. In any given area it accomplished what it came to do, kill, within four to six months and then it faded, except for in larger cities, where it rooted itself in the close-quartered population. In the winter months the plague would diminish, only to reappear in spring and rage on for another six months. The main reason for this was because fleas, who carried the plague, hibernated or died off in the winter months.


A map of the spreading of the plague


In 1349 it resumed its attack on the people in Paris, and moved into Picardy, Flanders, and the low countries. From England it moved on to Scotland and Ireland and to Norway. In Bergen a ghost ship with a cargo of wool and dead crew drifted offshore until it ended up running aground. From Norway it passed to Sweden, Denmark, Prussia, Iceland and as far as Greenland. In Bohemia and Russia, the plague left a strange pocket of immunity until 1351. By the mid 1350, most of Europe had been attacked by the disease. Though the mortality rate was erratic its toll would be around one fifth to nine tenths in some places, and in others it almost totally eliminated the population. The overall estimate of modern demographers has settled, for the area extending from India to Iceland around the same figure would be expressed in Froissart’s casual words, “ third of the world died.” His estimate was a common one for the time, and was not an inspired guess but a borrowing of St. John’s figure for mortality from the plague in Revelation, the favorite guide to human affairs of the Middle Ages. One-third of the population of Europe would have meant that there was about twenty million deaths, no one actually knows in truth how many had actually died.

As they watched the endless passing of the death carts, chroniclers let normal exaggeration take wings and put the death toll of Avignon at 62,000 and even at 120,000, although the city’s population was probably less than 50,000. When the graveyards were1412887205393_image_galleryimage_cwbtn7_great_plague_of_lo full, bodies at Avignon were thrown into the Rhone until mass burial pits were dug. In London, such pits would have the corpses piled up in layers that were so high that they overflowed the pits. Everywhere had reports that spoke of the sick dying too fast that ones left living couldn’t bury them all. Death was happening so often and so fast that the corpses would be dragged out of homes and left in the front doorways, each new morning would shine light on new piles of bodies.

In Florence the dead were gathered up by the Compagnia della Misericordia, which was founded in 1244 to care for the sick. Members would wear red robes and hoods that would cover all of the face, except for the eyes. When their efforts had failed to prevent sickness the dead lay putrid in the streets, sometimes for days at a time. When no coffins were left to be had, bodies were laid on boards, two or three at once sometimes, then carried off to the graveyards or common pits. Families would dump their relatives into pits or buried them so quickly and thinly “that dogs dragged them forth and devoured their bodies”.

Amid the accumulating death and fear of the disease, people died without being read their last rites and were buried without prayers. As one lye dying, this would be one of their fears as death came closer. A bishop in England ended up giving permission to laymen to make confession to each other as was done by the Apostles, “or if no man is present then even to a woman”, if a priest could not be found to administer extreme unction “then faith must suffice”.

Clement VII had found it necessary to grant remissions of sin to all that had died of plague because so many were left unattended by priests. “No bells tolled” wrote one chronicler of Siena, “nobody wept no matter what his loss because almost everyone expected death…And people said and believed, ‘This is the end of the world’.”

In Paris, where the plague had lasted through 1349, the reported death toll per day was eight hundred. In Pisa 500 died per day, in Vienna 5-600. The total dead in Paris had numbered 50,000, or half of the population. Florence, which was also weakened by the famine of 1347, had lost three to four fifths of its citizens, Venice lost two-thirds. Hamburg and Bremen, even though they were smaller in size, lost about the same proportion. The cities, as centers of transportation, were more likely to be affected than people in villages, even though one village that had been infected deaths rate was just as equally high. Givry, a prosperous village in Burgundy lost between 1,200 and 1,500 people. The parish register though records 615 deaths in the space of fourteen weeks, compared to an average of thirty deaths a year in the previous decade. Three villages in Cambridgeshire have manorial records that show their death rates at 47%, 57% and in one case up to 70%. When the last survivors, too few to carry on, moved away, one deserted village sank back onto the wilderness and totally disappeared from the map altogether, leaving only a grass-covered ghostly outline that showed where humans once lived.


Poveglia Island in Italy  mass grave of plague victims


Within enclosed places, such as monasteries and prisons, the infection of one person would usually mean infection of all. This was the case in the Franciscan convents of Carcassonne and Marseille, where every inmate had died. Of the one hundred and forty Dominicans at Montpellier only one survived. Petrarch’s brother, Gherardo, a member of a Carthusian monastery, had to bury thirty-four of his fellow monks one by one, sometimes three a day, until he was left alone with his dog and fled from the place to look for another that would take him in. Watching all their comrades die, men in such places couldn’t but wonder whether the strange peril that plagued the air hadn’t been sent to exterminate the human race.

In Kilkenny, Ireland; Brother John Clyn of Friars Minor, was another monk that was left alone among dead men. He kept a record of what had happened that said “things which should be remember perish with time and vanish from the memory of those who come after us.” Sensing, “the whole world as it were, placed within the grasp of the Evil One,” and “waiting for death to visit him too, he wrote, “ I leave parchment to continue this work which I have begun.” Brother John, as noted by another hand, would too die of the pestilence.

The first wave of the plague swept through Europe from 1347 to 1350. There were six more waves that occurred between 1350 and 1400 as each new generation of potential victims, not immune to the plague would appear. The overall population of Europe dead was half by


Another mass grave in Italy


1400. This was probably the closest approach to effects of a thermonuclear was in history.

The plague still exists today, even U.S. Soldiers were routinely vaccinated from it during the Vietnam War. In recent years there was an outbreak among wild rodents in the Western United States. Every year across the globe about a few dozen people catch it, and once every year victims will die from it. It appears that humans have evolved greater immunity to the bubonic plague, while most virulent strains of plague kill off their hosts too quickly to be transmitted.

Social Disasters

The Hundred Years’ War plunged France into turmoil from 1337 until 1450. William the Conqueror had invaded England in 1066 and had established French rule in England, and so with French-descended rulers on the throne of England, it was only a matter of time before somebody emerged who had claim to the throne in both countries. Problems were complicated by the fact that the English monarch Henry II had married Eleanor of Aquitaine, whose holdings, much of which were in southwester France, passed under partial control of England. Under the complex rules of the time though, that rule was still subject to that of the King of France. Edward III of England seems to have ignited a war to gain total sovereignty over the region.

In 1346, at the Battle of Crecy, and in 1416 at the Battle of Agincourt, English commoners, armed with Welsh longbows, had slaughtered French knights and Italian and Swiss mercenaries who were armed with more powerful but slower crossbows. The fame of these two battles tends to obscure the bottom line. In the end, the French would win the war. At the lowest ebb of French fortunes, the French were rallied together by a young woman named Joan of Arc, who had been captured by the English. Upon her capture she was tried on trumped up charges of heresy and then burned at the stake in 1431.

In the midst of these upheavals, the Church was scarcely in position to offer any comfort. Since 1309, the Pope had resided at Avignon in southern France, instead of Rome. “Babylonian Exile” had started after the King of France attempted to tax incomes of the church officials. The Pope would respond by forbidding secular rulers to tax the church and threatened to excommunicate the King, whereupon agents of the King would attempt to kidnap the Pope. In 1309, a French Pope had been elected and was immediately moved to Avignon for his safety and to be closer to his French mistress. There, the corruption and moral laxity of the church reached its all time low. Tuchman states bluntly that in all secular literature of the time, “clerical celibacy is a joke.” Another writer from Ital, Petrarch called Avignon “the Babylon of the West”.

Avignon was governed by one simple rule. Absolutely everything in the church was for sale, ecclesiastical offices, pardons for sins and holy relics. Pope Clement VI, who was hardly a spiritual man himself, at one point had launched a tirade against his fellow churchmen. The pope was still the ruler of much of central Italy, the Papal States, but that rule had turned out to be impossible to enforce from Avignon. Revolts would be frequent. Inspired by resentment at Papal exile, the general air of corruption and heavy taxes to support the lush lifestyles of Avignon. They were fanned by the city-states of northern Italy, who were very uncomfortable at having French power on both sides of them. They also had hoped to pick up any pieces of the Papal States that had broken off. During one revolt, Cardinal Robert of Geneva had subdued the town of Cesena and had about 5,000 civilians were massacred. He would earn the undying hatred of the Italians, who would nickname him “Butcher of Cesena”. When Florence had offered Rome inducements to join the revolts it became obvious that the Pope had to return to Rome or he’d lose it.

Pope Gregory XI had returned to Rome in 1377 and died the following year. With French cardinals divided among themselves, and Italian mobs demanding an Italian Pope, the cardinals elected apparently harmless Urban VI. He quickly launched a campaign to end some of the more flagrant forms of Church corruption, and made peace with northern Italian city states and refused to leave Rome. He would earn support of the Italians as well as the enmity of the French. However, he quickly went beyond rational reform and had become progressively more irrational as his reign wore on. Urban started to meddle in secular politics which was in a way directly threatening to French interests. Within just a few short months, French cardinals declared the election invalid, claiming Italian coercion to name an Italian Pope. They called a conclave of their own and was elected as Clement VII none other than Robert of Geneva, the “Butcher of Cesena”.

So-called Great Western Schism had lasted until 1447, during which time there were rival Popes in Rome and Avignon. Since the Catholic Church based its claim to authority on an unbroken succession of Popes, the existence of two parallel papacies was more than just a power struggle, it was a fundamental challenge to the whole medieval world’s view. The


John Wycliff


corruption of the papal court at Avignon had reached legendary proportions, priestly vows of poverty and celibacy were widely viewed as a joke by the general public. Public disgust with Church scandals had


Jan Hus


fueled some of the earliest stirrings of the Protestant Reformation.

Englishman John Wycliff and Bohemian Jan Hus were the first of the reformers. Hus was burned at the stake as a heretic in 1415. Wycliff would die of natural causes in 1384, but he too would be tried for heresy after the execution of Hus and his bones were dug up and burned.

Contact with China was also cut off during the 14th century. Kublai Khan was the last great Mongol Khan, after him came a succession of weak and increasingly assimilated rulers. There were peasant revolts that broke out and had eventually became widespread enough to topple the government. The Mongols had reverted to their traditional role on the periphery of China, with one exception. The Chinese army now knew how to fight against the Mongol style. This time the Chinese pursued them into Mongolia and would destroy the capital of Mongol at Karakoram. They also introduced the Tibetan Lamaism, with its emphasis on celibacy and pacifism, as a means of subduing the Mongols. Never again would the Mongols threaten China. The Mongol, or Yuan Dynasty, was over and the Ming Dynasty had begun. The Ming Dynasty would be a golden age of the Chinese culture, but was also an isolationist period. They had expelled foreigners and the land route to China was also closed in 1368.

Late in the century, the Turks would advance into the Balkans. Islam would make its deepest and most threatening penetration of Europe. Twice the Turks moved on Vienna before they were turned back. In the late 1200s, a Turkish clan that was led by Osman or Othman had risen to power and overthrew the ruling dynasty in Turkey at the time. The Byzantine Empire, of which at the time consisted of little more than Constantinople and some of the surrounding land, had invited the Turks to establish a buffer state in Europe, between themselves and its European neighbors, thus the Turks made an “end run”. This was at the west of the Byzantine Empire and would occupy a large swath of the Bulkans before it had eventually taken Constantinople in 1453.

In 1396, the Pope called for a Crusade against the Turks. A Christian army marched into the Balkans and met up with the Turks at the battle of Nicopolis in Bugaria and was slaughtered. We mentioned the Protestant Reformation beginning slightly before, but one Protestant movement in the Balkans had its effects that that would linger on into present day.

A monk named Bogomil had started a movement that was similar to many other sect movements through Europe. The very small sect that had rejected the Church hierarchy and most ceremonies and had placed their primary emphasis on their personal beliefs. Since the Bogomils, as they were called, had rejected the church structure, they were considered to have been heretics by both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. When the Turks had invaded, bringing Islam, the Bogomils had chosen that Islam was rather compatible with their own beliefs since it also had no hierarchy or ceremony and stressed the basic set of core beliefs. The bogomils were also not welcome in either of the churches that were established. They would convert to Islam in large masses. Their conversion is the reason that five million Muslims still live in former Yugoslavia, especially in Bosnia.

Their Catholic (Croatian) and Orthodox (Serbian) neighbors would regard the Bogomils as traitors and their descendants were also considered to be traitors. This animosity still existed and will not be healed anytime soon.

The Aftermath

The effects of the disorders on Western Europe were many. In the immediate wake of the plague the natural response was shock and apathy. Accounts exists of animals going untended and crops had gone unharvested. Many of the survivors would later seek for comfort in self-indulgence, which was aided by the fact that they inherited the wealth of the dead and their wages only had increased because of the sever labor shortages. Periods of hysteria and religious fanaticism were also common. One outlet for fear and frustration was the search for

In some places, Jews were blamed, even though they too had been touched by the plague, just as much as anyone else. Outbreaks of anti-Semitism would break out often and was linked to resentment over the money-lending and desire to erase debts. Account ledgers would curiously disappear during attacks on the Jews as well. Another scapegoat was witches.

Contrary to popular stereotypes, the Middle Ages had placed very little emphasis on witchcraft. Those who had written on the subject would tend to dismiss supposed witches as deluded. A sensational event in France would raise public consciousness of witchcraft to an all-time high. It had involved a strange military religious order known as the Knights Templar.

The Knights Templar was a unique medieval institution that was a combination of a


Knights Templar


religious order and private army. The Knights Templar had originally been conceived to be a military arm of the Church during the Crusades, but by the 1300s they had amassed a vast treasury. King Philip ‘the Fair’ of France would see the Templars as a source of revenue. In 1307, he had swept down on them and had every one in France arrested on the same night. This shows the measure of degree to which the Templars had become soft and slack, and that Philip could make doubtless elaborate preparations for his assault, the Templars had not a clue that it was going to happen. So as to justify his takeover, Philip staged show trials, in which the Templars were accused of homosexuality, which was probably at least partly true, bestiality, devil-worship, and every other dark superstition of the time.

In 1314, Grand Master, Jacques de Molay had been executed. Before he was, he called down a curse on the King and on France, and had summoned the King and Pope to meet with him before God’s judgment throne i


A depiction of Jacques de Molay


n one year’s time. The pope had died within a month and King Philip would die seven months later. For many decades, France saw a succession of short-lived rulers, seemingly demonstrating the power of the curse. The long range importance of the Templar episode, in Tuchman’s words is this: “French justice became corrupted, and the pattern laid for the fanatic witchcraft persecutions of subsequent centuries”. When the plague had struck there was a heightened consciousness of witchcraft, which found new outlets for suspicion. In 1393, a dramatic event would occur in France that would come to symbolize the pessimism of the age.

One night in 1393, at a royal masquerade ball, the King and five of his friends had appeared as “wood savages”, which were costumes made with shaggy hemp, glued on by pitch and wax. In an effort to see through their disguises an onlooker got too close to them with a torch, one of the costumes caught on fire and rapidly ignited the other costumes. The king’s life would be saved by a quick thinking onlooker. Another reveler dove into a container of water, but the rest of them were not so fortunate and had died on the spot. Three of the others had lingered for several days in agony before they passed. The last of them to die had been bitterly hated for his contempt and maltreatment of the common people, who had generally felt that he got what he deserved and who jeered at his casket as it had passed through the streets. At the same time, the people were enraged that the King’s life had been carelessly endangered, and even the King was hard put to cool the anger at the organizers of the event. This event would become a popular subject for illustration. In general, graphic, even morbid, realism had begun to pervade art, another similarity with the 20th century. In 1300 a knight may have chosen to be represented on his tombstone as a young knight in all his vigor, by 1400 graphic depictions of skeletons and decay as a warning of mortality were in vogue.


2 thoughts on “Life in the 14th Century: Part 1”

  1. Wow, you covered a lot of territory here. I love the map of the spread of the plague..very instructive. Some of my ancestors died of it..The religion story is much simplified in the minds of modern. It was a cathartic and pretty wild time for politics and religion. You captured it in essence. Well done.

    Liked by 1 person

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