Late Middle Ages - Late Medieval European Society

Late Medieval European Society

See also: Crisis of the Late Middle Ages

Around 1300–1350 the Medieval Warm Period gave way to the Little Ice Age. The colder climate resulted in agricultural crises, the first of which is known as the Great Famine of 1315-1317. The demographic consequences of this famine, however, were not as severe as those of the plagues of the later century, particularly the Black Death. Estimates of the death rate caused by this epidemic range from one third to as much as sixty percent. By around 1420, the accumulated effect of recurring plagues and famines had reduced the population of Europe to perhaps no more than a third of what it was a century earlier. The effects of natural disasters were exacerbated by armed conflicts; this was particularly the case in France during the Hundred Years' War.

As the European population was severely reduced, land became more plentiful for the survivors, and labour consequently more expensive. Attempts by landowners to forcibly reduce wages, such as the English 1351 Statute of Laborers, were doomed to fail. These efforts resulted in nothing more than fostering resentment among the peasantry, leading to rebellions such as the French Jacquerie in 1358 and the English Peasants' Revolt in 1381. The long-term effect was the virtual end of serfdom in Western Europe. In Eastern Europe, on the other hand, landowners were able to exploit the situation to force the peasantry into even more repressive bondage.

The upheavals caused by the Black Death left certain minority groups particularly vulnerable, especially the Jews. The calamities were often blamed on this group, and anti-Jewish pogroms were carried out all over Europe; in February 1349, 2,000 Jews were murdered in Strasbourg. Also the state was guilty of discrimination against the Jews, as monarchs gave in to the demands of the people, the Jews were expelled from England in 1290, from France in 1306, from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1497.

While the Jews were suffering persecution, one group that probably experienced increased empowerment in the Late Middle Ages was women. The great social changes of the period opened up new possibilities for women in the fields of commerce, learning and religion. Yet at the same time, women were also vulnerable to incrimination and persecution, as belief in witchcraft increased.

Up until the mid-14th century, Europe had experienced a steadily increasing urbanisation. Cities were of course also decimated by the Black Death, but the urban areas' role as centres of learning, commerce and government ensured continued growth. By 1500 Venice, Milan, Naples, Paris and Constantinople probably had more than 100,000 inhabitants. Twenty-two other cities were larger than 40,000; most of these were to be found in Italy and the Iberian peninsula, but there were also some in France, the Empire, the Low Countries plus London in England.

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