Crisis of the Late Middle Ages  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The crisis of the Late Middle Ages was a series of events in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries that brought centuries of European prosperity and growth to a halt. Three major crises led to radical changes in all areas of society: demographic collapse, political instabilities and religious upheavals.

A series of famines and plagues, beginning with the Great Famine of 1315–17 and especially the Black Death of 1347-1351, reduced the population perhaps by half or more as the Medieval Warm Period came to a close and the first century of the Little Ice Age began. It took 150 years for the European population to regain the levels of 1300.

Popular revolts in late-medieval Europe and civil wars between nobles within countries such as the Wars of the Roses were common—with France fighting internally nine times—and there were international conflicts between kings such as France and England in the Hundred Years' War. The unity of the Roman Catholic Church was shattered by the Western Schism. The Holy Roman Empire was also in decline; in the aftermath of the Great Interregnum (1247–1273), the Empire lost cohesion and politically the separate dynasties of the various German states became more important than their common empire.


The expression "Crisis of the Late Middle Ages" is used commonly in western historiography, especially in English and German, and somewhat less among other western European scholarship to refer individually or collectively to different crises besetting Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. The expression often carries a modifier to refer more specifically to one or another aspect of Late Middle Age crisis, such as the UrbanTemplate:Thin spaceTemplate:Sfn Crisis of the Late Middle Ages, or the Cultural,Template:Sfn Monastic,Template:Sfn Religious, Social, Economic, Intellectual, or Agrarian crisis of the Late Middle Ages, or a national or regional modifier, e.g. Catalan or French crisis. It is sometimes pluralized (The Crises...) but more often is found in the singular as a collective term for the various crises.Template:Cn

By 1929, French historian Marc Bloch was already writing about the effects of the crisis of the Late Middle Ages, and by mid-century there were academic debates being held about it.

In his 1981 article Late Middle Age Agrarian Crisis or Crisis of Feudalism?, Peter Kriedte reprises some of the early works in the field from historians writing in the 1930s, including Marc Bloch, Henri Pirenne, Wilhelm Abel, and Michael Postan. Kriedte references include: Template:Blist</ref> Referred to in Italian as the "Crisis of the 14th Century", Giovanni Cherubini alluded to the debate that already by 1974 had been going on "for several decades" in French, British, American, and German historiography.

Arno Borst (1992) says that it "is a given that fourteenth century Latin Christianity was in a crisis", and goes on to say that the intellectual aspects and how universities were affected by the crisis is underrepresented in the scholarship hitherto: "When we discuss the crisis of the Late Middle Ages, we consider intellectual movements beside religious, social, and economic ones", and gives some examples.

Some question whether "crisis" is the right expression for the period at the end of the Middle Ages and the transition to Modernity. In his 1981 article The End of the Middle Ages: Decline, Crisis or Transformation? Donald Sullivan addresses this question, claiming that scholarship has neglected the period and viewed it largely as a precursor to subsequent climactic events such as the Renaissance and Reformation.

In his "Introduction to the History of the Middle Ages in Europe", Mitre Fernández wrote in 2004 that "[t]o talk about a general crisis of the Late Middle Ages is already a commonplace in the study of medieval history."

Heribert Müller, in his 2012 book on the religious crisis of the late Middle Ages, discussed whether the term itself was in crisis, saying,
No doubt the thesis of the crisis of the late Middle Ages has itself been in crisis for some time now, and hardly anyone considered an expert in the field would still profess it without some ifs and buts, and especially so in the case of German Medieval historians. In his 2014 historiographical article about the crisis in the Middle Ages, Peter Schuster quotes historian Léopold Genicot's 1971 article "Crisis: From the Middle Ages to Modern Times" where Genicot wrote, "Crisis is the word which comes immediately to the historian's mind when he thinks of the fourteenth and the fifteenth centuries."

See also

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