The Later Middle Ages

Many accounts of the history of the Middle Ages make a distinction between the “High Middle Ages” (from about 1100 to 1300, often portrayed as a period of cultural and social achievement) and the “Later Middle Ages” (from about 1300 to 1500, often portrayed as a period of decay or stagnation). There is some truth in these traditional representations of the medieval period, even if there is at least some degree of arbitrariness about the exact date of this transition. Western Europe experienced a series of disasters shortly after 1300, such as the Great Famine of 1315–17 and the Black Death, which arrived in Europe from China in the late 1320s, and was at its height in 1348–50. Some estimates suggest that the population of western Europe may have been reduced by some two hundred million people – roughly 30 percent of the population – by these catastrophes. The situation was made worse by widespread social unrest, and the outbreak of the destructive Hundred Years’ War – actually a series of wars – over the period 1337 to 1453.

Christianity in western Europe was deeply affected by these developments. In the case of the Catholic church, an additional complication arose through what is known as the “Great Schism.” As we shall see, political infighting led to conflict over the identity of the pope, and the influence of the church over international politics. In this section, we shall consider the fortunes of the western church, and how it coped with what many still regard as a period of ecclesiastical decline and decay.

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