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7th Grade Social Studies / Lesson 12 - A Time of Crisis

What will we be learning in this unit?
  • How did the Black Death cause social and economic decline?
  • What problems afflicted the Church in the late Middle Ages?
  • What were the causes, turning points, and effects of the Hundred Years' War?


  The Black Death

  • By 1348, the Black Death had reached beyond Italy to Spain and France. From there, it ravaged the rest of Europe. One in three people died-worse than in any war in history.
  • The sickness was bubonic plague, a disease spread by fleas on rats. Bubonic plague had broken out before in Europe, Asia, and North Africa but had subsided. One strain, though, had survived in Mongolia. In the 1200s, Mongol armies conquered much of Asia, probably setting off the new epidemic, or outbreak of rapid-spreading disease.

 


 The Black Death
  • In the premodern world, rats infested ships, towns, and even the homes of the rich and powerful, so no one took any notice of them. In the early 1300s, rats scurrying through crowded Chinese cities spread the plague, which killed about 35 million people there. 
  • Fleas jumped from those rats to infest the clothes and packs of traders traveling west. As a result, the disease spread from Asia to the Middle East. Terrible reports reached Europe: "India was depopulated," wrote a chronicler. "Mesopotamia, Syria, and Armenia were covered with dead bodies." In Cairo, one of the world's largest cities, the plague at its peak killed about 7,000 people a day.


The Black Death
  • In Europe, the plague brought terror and bewilderment, as people had no way to stop the disease. Some people turned to magic and witchcraft for cures. Others plunged into wild pleasures, believing they would soon die anyway. Still others saw the plague as God's punishment. They beat themselves with whips to show that they repented their sins. Christians blamed Jews for the plague, charging that they had poisoned the wells. "The whole world," a French friar noted, "rose up against [the Jews] cruelly on this account." In the resulting hysteria, thousands of Jews were slaughtered.


 The Black Death
  • As the plague kept recurring in the late 1300s, the European economy plunged to a low ebb. As workers and employers died, production declined. Survivors demanded higher wages. As the cost of labor soared, inflation, or rising prices, broke out too. 
  • Landowners and merchants pushed for laws to limit wages. To stop rising costs, landowners converted croplands to sheep raising, which required less labor. Villagers forced off the land sought work in towns. There, guilds limited apprenticeships, refused to accept new members, and denied journeymen the chance to become masters.


  The Black Death
  • Coupled with the fear of the plague, these restrictions sparked explosive revolts. Bitter, angry peasants rampaged in England, France, Germany, and elsewhere. In cities, too, artisans fought, usually without success, for more power. The plague had spread both death and social unrest. Western Europe would not fully recover from its effects for more than 100 years.


Upheaval in the Church
  • The late Middle Ages brought spiritual crisis, scandal, and division to the Roman Catholic Church. Many priests and monks died during the plague. Their replacements faced challenging questions. "Why did God spare some and kill others?" asked survivors. 
  • The Church was unable to provide the strong leadership needed in this desperate time. In 1309, Pope Clement V had moved the papal court to Avignon on the border of southern France. There it remained for about 70 years under French domination. This period is often called the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, referring to the time when the ancient Israelites were held captive in Babylon.


Upheaval in the Church
  • In Avignon, popes reigned over a lavish court. Critics lashed out against the worldly, pleasure-loving papacy, and anticlergy sentiment grew. Within the Church itself, reformers tried to end the "captivity."
  • In 1378, reformers elected their own pope to rule from Rome. French cardinals responded by choosing a rival pope. For decades, there was a schism, or split, in the Church as two and sometimes even three popes claimed to be the true "vicar of Christ." Not until 1417 did a Church council at Constance finally end the crisis.


Upheaval in the Church

  • With its moral authority weakened, the Church faced still more problems. Popular preachers challenged its power. In England, John Wycliffe, an Oxford professor, attacked Church corruption. 
  • Wycliffe insisted that the Bible, not the Church, was the source of all Christian truth. His followers began translating the Bible into English so that people could read it themselves rather than rely on the clergy to read it. Czech students at Oxford carried Wycliffe's ideas to Bohemia-what is today the Czech Republic. There, Jan Hus led the call for reforms. 
  • The Church responded by persecuting Wycliffe and his followers and suppressing the Hussites. Hus was tried for preaching heresy-ideas contrary to Church teachings. Found guilty, he was burned at the stake in 1415. The ideas of Wycliffe and Hus survived, however. A century later, other reformers took up the same demands.

 


Hundred Years' War
  • On top of the disasters of famine, plague, and economic decline came a long, destructive war. Between 1337 and 1453, England and France fought a series of conflicts, known as the Hundred Years' War.
  • As you have read, English rulers had battled for centuries to hold onto the French lands of their Norman ancestors. French kings, for their part, were intent on extending their own power in France. When Edward III of England claimed the French crown in 1337, war erupted anew between these rival powers. Once fighting started, economic rivalry and a growing sense of national pride made it hard for either side to give up the struggle.


  Hundred Years' War

  • At first, the English won a string of victories-at Cr©cy in 1346, Poitiers 10 years later, and Agincourt in 1415. They owed much of their success to the longbow wielded by English archers. This powerful new weapon was six feet long and took years to master. But it could discharge three arrows in the time a French archer with his crossbow fired just one, and its arrows pierced all but the heaviest armor. 
  • The English victories took a heavy toll on French morale. England, it seemed, was likely to bring all of France under its control. Then, in what seemed to the French a miracle, their fortunes were reversed.

 


Hundred Years' War
  • In 1429, a 17-year-old peasant woman, Joan of Arc, appeared at the court of Charles VII, the uncrowned king of France. She told Charles that God had sent her to save France. She persuaded the desperate French king to let her lead his army against the English. 
  • To Charles's amazement, Joan inspired the battered and despairing French troops to fight anew. In an astonishing year of campaigning, she led the French to several victories and planted the seeds for future triumphs.


Hundred Years' War
  • Joan paid for success with her life. She was taken captive by allies of the English and turned over to her enemies for trial. The English wanted to discredit her, and they had her tried for witchcraft. She was convicted and burned at the stake. Much later, however, the Church declared her a saint. 
  • The execution of Joan rallied the French, who saw her as a martyr. After Joan's death, the French took the offensive. With a powerful new weapon, the cannon, they attacked English-held castles. By 1453, the English held only the port of Calais in northwestern France.


 Hundred Years' War
  • The Hundred Years' War set France and England on different paths. The war created a growing sense of national feeling in France and allowed French kings to expand their power. During the war, English rulers turned repeatedly to Parliament for funds, which helped that body win the "power of the purse." The loss of French lands shattered English dreams of a continental empire, but English rulers soon began looking at new trading ventures overseas. 


Hundred Years' War
  • The Hundred Years' War brought many changes to the late medieval world. The longbow and cannon gave common soldiers a new importance on the battlefield and undermined the value of armored knights. Castles and knights were doomed to disappear because their defenses could not stand up to the more deadly firepower. Feudal society was changing. Monarchs needed large armies, not feudal vassals, to fight their wars.