III. The Postclassical Period, 500–1500 > F. Europe, 461–1500 > 6. Western Europe, 1300–1500
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
(See 1305) (See 1245–79)
6. Western Europe, 1300–1500
a. Overview
The period began with significant ecological changes: the end of the optimal hydrological and thermal conditions that had produced large harvests between c. 1000 and 1250. Bad weather led to poor harvests, while sheep murrain (disease) in England reduced the size of flocks and the volume of wool exported, severely hurting Flemish and Italian weavers. The result was general agricultural and commercial weakness, economic distress for which weak and incompetent governments had no solution.  1
Social consequences: Poor harvests and famine led to great increase in number of vagabonds or homeless people; the abandonment of entire villages (as in parts of the Low Countries and on the Scottish-English border); great increase in the mortgaging, subleasing, and the sale of land, which in turn contributed to a volatile land market; postponement of marriage and the reduction of population; blame thrown on creditors, the rich, and the Jews, which led to attacks and pogroms. Government remedies: the French and English crowns set price controls and forbade the export of grain. Grain exported from Castile and the Baltic seized by pirates and sold on the black market.  2
A weak, undernourished, and overcrowded population proved ill prepared for the bubonic plague (Black Death) that swept Europe periodically (1347–1450), causing psychological pessimism, spiritual malaise, and huge population loss (see below). The disease may have adjusted population to food supply; it also produced a temporary labor storage and inflation. High death tolls from the plague broke continuity in record keeping and prevented landlords from proving servile status; those factors plus the widespread destruction of records during peasant uprisings, and the purchases of freedom and the continued flight from rural to urban communities accelerated the decline of serfdom, which had begun in the 13th century.  3
The Christian Church, centered first at Avignon, not Rome, and then divided by schism, provided little spiritual consolation and few strong moral examples; papal prestige declined. The series of conflicts known as the Hundred Years' War (1337–1453), in which England and France became deadlocked, involved the Burgundian struggle for control of the French crown, aristocratic resurgence, civil war, peasant and urban revolts in both countries. The long wars promoted the development of national consciousness, as reflected in the growth of vernacular languages.  4
Meanwhile, the steady accumulation of wealth in the Italian cities made possible a great cultural efflorescence, which the 16th-century art historian Vasari (1511–74) first labeled the Renaissance (It., renascita). In the 15th century this movement spread to France, England, Germany, and Spain.
Estimates of population decline c. 1300–1500:
Italy fell from 10 million to 7.5 million
British Isles fell from 5 million to 3 million
France fell from 17.5 million to 12.5 million
Iberia fell from 9 million to 7 million
Germany and Scandinavia fell from 11.5 million to 7 million.
Fourteenth-century records, the earliest available for structural study of marriage and the family in medieval Europe, indicate that the nuclear family (father, mother, and their children) was becoming an increasingly common pattern in all parts of western Europe, as opposed to extended-family arrangements. The average age at first marriage was 16 for women, 26 for men. Because of the relatively late marriage age for men, and in an attempt to reduce the potential for male violence, municipal authorities in many sizable towns (e.g., Toulouse, Montpellier, Paris, Venice, Florence, Rome, Hamburg, London, Sandwich) established brothels for the regulation of female prostitution. These cities had large numbers of unmarried young men and transient merchants, and a culture resting on a cash exchange. Medieval prostitution was an urban phenomenon and a social issue. (Research on male prostitution continues.) (See The Byzantine Empire)  6
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.