Medieval European society reached its high point in the 1200s. However, much changed in the 1300s when a series of disastrous forces overwhelmed Europe. The Black Death spread, killing more than one-third of the population. People’s faith was undermined when the Great Schism rocked the Catholic Church. Then, the Hundred Years’ War started. Recovery began in the 1400s, and rulers responded by establishing their “new” monarchies.

The Black Death

GUIDING QUESTION What social and economic effects did the Black Death have on Europe?

Toward the end of the thirteenth century, noticeable changes in weather patterns were occurring as Europe entered a period that has been called a “little ice age.” A drop in overall temperatures led to shorter growing seasons and bad weather conditions. Between 1315 and 1317, heavy rains in northern Europe destroyed harvests and caused food shortages, resulting in extreme hunger and starvation. The Great Famine expanded to other parts of Europe as well. Famine might have led to chronic malnutrition and in turn to higher susceptibility to disease because malnourished people are less able to resist infection. This might help explain the high mortality of the great plague known as the Black Death, the most devastating natural disaster in European history. Bubonic plague was the most common form of the Black Death. It was spread by black rats infested with fleas carrying a deadly bacterium. Italian merchants brought the plague with them from Kaffa, on the Black Sea, to the island of Sicily in October 1347. The plague had spread to southern Italy and southern France by the end of 1347. Usually, the path of the Black Death followed trade routes. In 1348 and 1349, the plague spread through France, the Low Countries (modern Belgium, ­Luxembourg, and the Netherlands), and Germany. It ravaged England in 1349 and expanded to northern Europe and Scandinavia. Eastern Europe and Russia were affected by 1351. Out of a total European population of 75 million, possibly more than onethird of the population died of the plague between 1347 and 1351. ­Especially hard hit were Italy’s crowded cities, where 50 to 60 percent of the people died. In England and Germany, entire villages disappeared. People did not know what caused the plague. Many believed that God sent it as punishment for their sins or that the devil caused it. Extreme reactions led to anti-Semitism, or hostility toward Jews. Jews were even falsely accused of causing the plague by poisoning town wells. The death of so many people had economic consequences. Trade declined, and a shortage of workers caused a dramatic rise in the price of labor. At the same time, the decline in the number of people lowered the demand for food, resulting in falling prices. Landlords were now paying more for labor while their incomes from rents were declining. Some peasants bargained with their lords to pay rent instead of owing services. This change freed them from serfdom, an institution that had been declining throughout the High Middle Ages.

Interactive Map

Click here to explore the movement of the Black Death across Europe.

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Identifying What did many people believe caused the plague?


Decline of Church Power

GUIDING QUESTION How did the Great Schism and other crises lead to the decline of Church power?

The popes reached the height of their power in the 1200s. In the 1300s, the Church encountered a series of problems. These problems led to a decline in the Church’s power.

The Popes at Avignon
European kings had begun to reject papal claims of supremacy by the end of the 1200s. The struggle between Pope Boniface VIII and King Philip IV of France had serious consequences for the papacy. Philip claimed the right to tax the clergy. Boniface argued that taxing the clergy required the pope’s consent, because popes were supreme over both Church and state. Philip rejected the pope’s position and sent French forces to Italy to bring Boniface back to France for trial. The pope escaped but died soon afterward. Philip then engineered the election of a Frenchman, Clement V, as pope in 1305. Clement took up residence in Avignon (a • v e e n • YOHN), in southern France. From 1305 to 1377, the popes lived in Avignon. Sentiments against the papacy grew during this time. Many believed that the pope as bishop of Rome should reside in Rome, not in Avignon. The splendor in which the pope and cardinals were living in Avignon also led to criticism. At last, Pope Gregory XI, perceiving the disastrous decline in papal prestige, returned to Rome in 1377.