- 1 Colonization and Contraction
- 2 Cities in the Later Middles Ages
- 3 The Urban Economy
- 4 Guilds and other Associations
- 5 The Late Medieval Countryside
- 6 Late Medieval England
- 7 France under Philip the Fair and the Valois
- 8 The Hundred Years’ War
- 9 Rebellion and Revolution in England
- 10 Spain and the Aragonese Empire
- 11 Late Medieval Germany and the Hegemony of Bohemia
- 12 The Habsburg-Luxemburg-Wittelsbach struggle for the Imperial Crown
- 13 The Empire in Crisis
- 14 The Hussite Revolution
- 15 Scandinavia, Poland, Hungary, and Muscovy in the late Middle Ages
- 16 The Late Medieval Balkans
Colonization and Contraction
THE high Middle Ages saw the widespread expansion of Latin Christendom. Noblemen led the advance in what Robert Bartlett has deemed “the aristocratic diaspora.” Beginning in the years after 900, lords, churchmen, and peasants from northern and western Europe migrated to the far fringes of the European continent and beyond, establishing settlements, cities, kingdoms, and empires. The Crusades to the Holy Land were only part, and perhaps the least important part, of a much larger movement of people. Spain, Ireland and above all Eastern Europe and the Baltic regions became the focus of large-scale colonization efforts. By the middle of the fourteenth century, the area owing obedience to the papacy and ruled by aristocratic families of west European origin was perhaps four times greater than it had been four centuries earlier.
Hand in hand with colonization abroad came a form of internal colonization. Increases in population led peasants to clear additional lands to form new communities, both in the frontier regions and the old central areas. In Upper Franconia, along the Ottonian Slavic frontier, the number of settlements doubled during the period after 1000. The new settlements were mostly hamlets or isolated farmsteads and are generally recognizable by their names. In Germany the new settlements were called clearings – Rodunge – and contain the roots Hagen, Hurst, Wald, Reut, or Rode in their names. Early clearings were sponsored by nobles, but during the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries peasants began clearing land on their own. These wild clearings (wilde Rodunge) may be seen as expressions of peasant autonomy. Similar patterns may be seen in the Low Countries, though here peasants opened new lands by draining polder rather than clearing woodlands. In both Germany and the Low Countries demographic pressure provided the initial incentive for the formation of new settlements. By the early fourteenth century, however, peasants opened new lands primarily as a means of avoiding rents and taxes.
In other regions, sources indicate the creation of new settlements. In Ireland, some 240 chartered towns – one every thirteen miles – were created in the thirteenth century. In Spain, Alfonso X sponsored a policy of renaming Arab settlements with “Romance” names. Beyond nomenclature, the new settlements looked different. Colonial settlements, particularly in Ireland in Eastern Europe, tended to be laid out along roads in a fairly regular pattern. The German Waldhufendorf – a rectilinear village – became a fixed feature on roads leading into the east. Even more significant was the introduction of cereal agriculture in areas where pastoralism had been very strong. Finally we can note changes in personal names. In eastern German, Spain, and Ireland, Slavic, Arabic, and Celtic names begin to disappear, being replaced by either saints’ names or ones derived from nothern Gaul or Rhenish Germany. The expansion was initially fueled by population growth, but by 1300 demographic patterns began to change. In his research on Pistoia, David Herlihy has noted that in the countryside the population enters into a decline after the mid-thirteenth century. From 1244 to 1344 the population of the Pistoiese countryside declined from just over 30,000 to less than 25,000. Following the Black Death, the population continued drop, reaching its lowest point of less than 10,000 in 1402. What seems significant, however, is that a quarter of the population loss after 1244 occurred before the Black Death. Increased mortality does not necessarily appear to be the problem. Indeed, Herlihy’s research indicates a slight decline in infant mortality rates during the fourteenth century. Rather, a decline in the birth rate seems to be the primary cause. In parts of England, Italy, and Germany, records indicate that people began marrying later and having fewer children beginning in the mid-thirteenth century. Throughout the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries the average number of children per household rarely was more than two; 2.5-2.7 children per household appears to be the norm. The causes for the change are hard to sort out, but several factors appear to have contributed to a lower birth rate. Later age of marriage coupled with infertility owing to poor nutrition seems to have placed greater natural limits on fertility. Still, the very low birth rates along with documentary evidence points to deliberate family planning and the use of mechanical forms of contraception as primary culprits.
In 1315 northern Europe was hit by the first in a series of demographic crises. A series of cold rainy summers led to a prolonged famine, lasting until 1322. The famine was felt all across northern Europe. While the Black Death of 1347/48 was more destructive in terms of lives lost, the famine had a greater impact on social and political stability. In urbanized areas primitive transportation led to food shortages. Local magistrates found themselves under attack, in particular for guild leaders and artisans. Magistrates were regularly accused of hoarding food. Conflicts within towns led to conflicts between towns and nobles, in particular in highly urbanized areas. The famine is one of the principle events leading to a series of large-scale peasant rebellions in Flanders between 1323 and 1328. In England, the famine intensified complaints against Edward II. It should be noted that the famine in and of itself did not cause either the Flemish rebellions or the fall of Edward II, but that the inability of the ruling class to do anything about the famine inflamed preexisting social and political tensions. The famine also likely accelerated the decline in birthrates, ensuring that when the Black Death struck northern Europe, it hit a population already in decline.
The Black Death – Bubonic Plague – is the most famous and dramatic of late medieval pandemics. Carried by fleas on the Brown Rat, plague entered Europe from the Near East via trading cities in Italy. Southern Europe felt the plague most immediately, but within two years of the initial outbreak, hardly anyplace in Europe had been spared. It has been estimated that the population was reduced by perhaps one-third because of the plague, though here reliable records are scanty. What made the Black Death so terrifying was its suddenness and apparent randomness. While it might hit one town, neighboring towns and villages would remain untouched. Records from Florence give us a fairly graphic view of the impact of the plague. In non-plague years, an average of one to two Florentines would die on any given day. During plague years, mortality increased sharply. During the plague of 1424 the average number of deaths rose to 7 per day; during the plague of 1430 that figure rose to 11. The most dramatic plague was that of 1402 when the average number of deaths rose to just under 30 per day. A year later all was back to normal. The impact was intensified by the fact that plague was usually a summer event. Of the 3196 people who died during the Florentine plagues of 1424 and 1430, 2311 of these (73%) succumbed during the months of July, August, and September. August was the worst single month, seeing the deaths of 906 people (28%). During the winter months, by contrast, mortality levels remained at or below average for non-plague years.
Beyond famine and plague, we should also consider the impact of warfare. Military campaigns in the fourteenth century generally involved fairly small armies, but the practice of warfare could be devastating for local populations. Armies would frequently plunder and burn villages, drive off livestock, trample fields, and destroy crops. Peasants fled their advances, severely disrupting the normal patterns of rural life. Armies also brought disease in their wake – typhus and dysentery in particular – which could blossom into full scale epidemics. Taken together, the cycles of famine, plague, and war wreaked havoc on Europe in the later Middle Ages. It has been estimated that the population of France around 1340 was about 18 million; a century later the population had dropped to 8 million, only about 40% of the pre-plague level. If France followed the same demographic patterns noted elsewhere, the population in 1240 may have been as great as 20 million. It would take until the end of the seventeenth century for populations to return to that level.
The effects of the demographic crisis of the later Middle Ages were by no means uniform, but certain patterns stand out. As populations declined, labor costs soared while the cost of agricultural goods dropped. The nobles were the primary victims of this trend. Given that most nobles depended on rents in kind or linked to the price of commodities for their income, the decline in prices severely cut into their incomes. Petty nobles with small estates suffered the worst. Peasants, by contrast, benefited greatly from this trend, using their new-found wealth to increase their autonomy. This was particularly true of peasants in parts of France and western Germany. Indeed, some have described the fourteenth century as the “Golden Age” of the peasants. In other places, such as southeastern England and eastern Europe, the opposite occurred as landlords resorted to extreme measures to bind peasants to the land and keep labor costs down. In the east, serfdom was reintroduced during the fifteenth century as a way of maintaining a cheap and stable labor supply. In England, Parliament passed legislation that kept prices high and wages low. Ultimately, such laws proved ineffective. In western Europe it was always possible for peasants to flee to the cities to avoid restrictive tenures. Paradoxically, while populations in general declined sharply all across Europe, urban populations remained stable or increased. In sum: the late Middle Ages witnessed unprecedented social mobility, both geographic and economic. Cities and peasant villages grew richer and obtained greater autonomy while the social and economic position of the nobles was threatened. Thanks to the process of colonization, both abroad and at home, a fairly uniform religious, political, and material culture united Europe. At the same time, wars, plagues, and famines, combined with increased mobility, threatened social stability. Consequently, the fourteenth century proved a era of intense change, and, at times, revolutionary violence.
Cities in the Later Middles Ages
THE later Middle Ages was a critical period for the growth of cities in northern and western Europe. Edith Ennen has described three urban zones in Europe: the Mediterranean basin, where cities survived from antiquity; southwestern Europe, where cities had existed in antiquity but needed to be reestablished during the Middle Ages; areas never urbanized in ancient times. The third zone was primarily urbanized during the later Middle Ages. In Franconia, a region which lay beyond the boundaries of the old Roman world, 57% of all cities were founded during the thirteenth century.
Cities emerged or expanded either on account of their economic position or because of privileges granted to them by ruling authorities. This means that some places, while defined as “cities” in a legal sense were not terribly urbanized, remaining essentially large agrarian villages. Even so, legal privilege could provide the means for a local market town to rise above its competitors, while preexistent economic centers could usually count on generous royal privileges. The most extreme examples of urban privileges were the Imperial Cities of Germany. Along with the older free cities of Italy, the Imperial Cities were subject to no one but the Emperor. During the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, when imperial authority was at its nadir, this meant that the Imperial Cities were essentially autonomous states, respecting no higher power. German and Italian city states acquired territory and, in some cases emerged as political and military powers in their own right.
Local princes and nobles followed the example set by kings and emperors, granting privileges to villages, turning them into administrative towns. In southern Germany, such small territorial cities, or Landstädte, became a fixed part of territorial consolidation. But while princes in Germany, France, and the Low Countries granted privileges to townsmen, this did not always lead to close political ties. Kings and even the pope might grant additional privileges to local towns in order to gain their support against local rulers. Not surprisingly, coalitions and conflicts between cities, nobles, princes, and crowns became a fixed part of late medieval politics.
The population of cities across Europe expanded rapidly after 1200. Ulm in southern Germany had a population of about 4,000 in 1300. By 1345 the population had grown to 7,000 and, despite the Black Death, continued to increase throughout the remainder of the fourteenth century, topping 10,000 in the first decade of the fifteenth century. Even where populations declined, the changes were not as severe as other indicators might suggest. Venice lost a quarter of its population during the Plague years, dropping from 160,000 in 1300 to 120,000. Even so, there were more people in late fourteenth-century Venice than live in the same area today. In the Baltic region cities emerged where there had been none before, and in literally decades, cities such as Riga went from nothing to several thousand inhabitants.
Cities grew not because they were healthier – quite the opposite. Rather, the growth of cities derived almost entirely from immigration. This was particularly true of cities in the Baltic regions, Italy, Germany, and the Low Countries. In Ulm and Frankfurt, better than half of all new citizens were immigrants. The constant influx of new people had a destabilizing effect on urban politics. On the one hand, mortality among the upper classes could allow for the dramatic increase in a person’s fortunes. Heinrich Toppler was the son of a peasant who moved to the city of Rothenburg in the mid fourteenth century. By the time of his death, Toppler was the mayor of Rothenburg and the richest man in town. By the time of his death in 1408, Toppler’s estate included 381 properties, seven mills, eight wineries, two sheep farms, and two baths. The son of a peasant had 350 peasants of his own, more than many nobles. True, Toppler’s case is a bit extreme, but the sudden and often dramatic rise of newcomers posed a challenge to the traditional social order. Efforts by old elites to retain their authority led to tensions and often violent conflict between rising merchants and artists and the patricians.
The patricians were the highest ranking members of urban society. Many were noble by birth, or had achieved nobility through service, and were descended from royal administrators, ministeriales, and the knights who manned the castles. Patricians owned estates and lived off their rents, rarely engaging in trade. In fact, many cities had laws which prevented the members of the town government from trading. By the end of the fifteenth century, the patricians were in decline. Guild organization began to challenge the authority of the patricians throughout Germany. The tradesmen, along with some merchants, formed sworn associations and in some cases rose in arms. From the 1360s through the 1420s, the German cities were rent with a series of civil disorders known as the “Guild Revolution” (Zünftrevolution). This movement peaked in the 1390s, leading to the transformation of urban government. In some cities, mostly in southern Germany and Switzerland, the guilds assumed complete control over the government. In other cities, guild master were represented alongside the patricians.
By the end of the Middle Ages, cities had become important centers of culture, largely because they harbored a more literate population than the countryside. The cities had, through the conflicts of the later Middle Ages, developed a very strong sense of communal identity. The commune was bound together through oaths, and citizens had far greater rights and privileges than other members of the “third estate.” Many were ennobled, and in German and Italian cities, leading citizens took part in tournaments, just like the nobles outside the walls. At the same time, not all urban dwellers were citizens, and the urban underclass was not always guaranteed the same rights as the wealthy merchants, patricians, and guild masters. If anything, the economic vitality of medieval cities ensured that urban communes were more diverse that rural society.
The Urban Economy
THE market place was the center of urban economic life. There local merchants and artisans, peasants and traders met to sell their wares and to buy commodities their own community could not provide. The market also provided the center of social life in the towns. Although the primitive markets of the early Middle Ages were very localized affairs, by the twelfth century there is evidence that “modern” markets existed, linked together in town to town networks. Increasingly markets became specialized, and a hierarchy of market towns evolved. One or two large cities would come to dominate a region, while the conduct of trade in local markets was subordinate to the demands of the larger, centralized markets.
Medieval markets were strictly regulated, both by royal, comital, and local law. Only towns which were given the legal privilege by the rulers could hold markets. The charters determined the times of markets, generally held on Wednesdays and Saturdays. For most towns, two days a week was sufficient as it took that much time to produce and collect goods from the surrounding countryside to supply the markets. Moreover, it was difficult to free up labor to man the stalls in the open markets. Consequently, a good deal of the selling was done by women. The charters also gave towns the right to formulate their own trade policies. Local officials supervised the merchants in order to ensure that no one overcharged or sold contraband. Since merchants who wished to sell their wares had to pay for a place in the market, these regulations ensured that the towns and the crown received revenue from these ventures. Although some people continued to buy and sell outside the legal markets, if caught, they were subject to strong penalties: hanging was not that uncommon, and even more grizzly tortures are reported. While these rules could be seen as impinging on personal liberty, they did help to keep prices stable and regulate supply.
Over time, most town markets outgrew the small city market places. As a result, by the thirteenth century, most cities had several market places, specializing in particular wares. So, for example, in the small Franconian city of Rothenburg, by 1300 there was a general market, a hay market, a milk market, a fruit market, as well as another market for livestock. Each market was located in a different square, connected by the main streets to the central market place. In addition to agricultural produce and finished goods, there was also a labor market. The earliest solid evidence for a labor market is from Auxerre in Burgundy where in the late fourteenth century the managers of vineyards would come to the city before sunrise to meet with and hire day laborers.
In larger cities, permanent covered markets called Halles were built. Some of the oldest are the corn market at Toulouse (1203) and the cloth market in London, originally built in 1397. These covered markets gradually came to form merchant organizations, or cartels. In Paris, the Halles were, from the time of Philip Augustus, run by a coalition of merchants. One of the more important merchant organizations was the English Fellowship of the Staple, created in the fourteenth century by English wool merchants, who found that they could exact the highest profits by cooperating in selling.
The Halles were dominated by bulk dealers in agricultural produce. Artisan manufacturers, however, continued to market their wares on the general market. By the end of the fourteenth century, the nature of the market place had changed. Small shops now lined the market, replacing the covered stalls, and these became the place were manufactured goods were sold. The combination of production and distribution in the artisan shop was more efficient, as one could both man the shop and produce goods.
In time, the markets expanded and wholesalers began to meet at fairs where local merchants could obtain good in bulk. But even though their primary economic function was dominated by the action of great merchant houses, fairs were also popular events. Peasants would come to the fairs, perhaps to sell some of their own produce, or just to see the sights and drink a few too many beers. The livestock market was a major part of all fairs: modern “county fairs” are, in fact, primarily venues for stock dealers. The greatest fairs were established in Champagne, which thrived into the thirteenth century. Thereafter, warehousing and improved long-distance communications made the fairs unnecessary.
At the fairs, merchants developed solutions to many of the problems of long-distance trade. The most pressing was that of payment. Given the variability of exchange rates, and the logistic problem of moving large quantities of hard currency safely, merchants had to find a way to arrange payment without using cash. The answer were bills of exchange. These were papers which could be presented to a company’s offices for payment in hard currency at a later date. Soon merchants began to trade in this paper, speculating on the issuing firm’s ability to pay or changes in the exchange rate. Some merchants devoted all of their energy to issuing and buying bills of exchange. These men sat on benches in the middle of the fair and brought buyers and sellers together, working out payment plans. These benches (banca) gave their name to the institution which developed from this system, bank. If the officials discovered that a banker was issuing bills that he did not have sufficient capital to pay off, they broke his bench, symbolizing that he was out of business. The Italian word for broken bench is banca rupta, hence the term bankrupt.
By the fourteenth century, the fairs had become primarily capital markets. Thereafter, they were eclipsed by merchant exchanges and banks. It became regular practice for merchants to meet and trade bills of exchange or meet with moneychangers. These meeting became permanent fixtures of economic life in the fifteenth century. Although there is evidence for merchant exchanges in fourteenth century Italy, they grew to prominence in the north, particularly in the low countries. The first exchange was that in Bruges, founded in 1409. The meeting place of the Bruges exchange was the Bourse, and this word came to be applied to exchanges in general.
Banks were largely an Italian innovation. Christian law prevented the loaning of money on interest, hence it was difficult to borrow money, except from Jews. The Italian merchants worked out a solution. Essentially, early banking developed out of limited partnerships. One company, the “active” firm, would borrow money from a second firm, the “silent” partner, in order to purchase goods abroad or finance some other sort of venture. The silent partner would then share in a proportion of the profits. Florentine merchants came to specialize in this form of activity, and frequently became the silent partners to Genoese and Venetian traders in the Levant. By the end of the thirteenth century, several Florentine merchant houses had established offices all across Europe. These became clearing houses for bills of exchange and sources for capital. Their big break came in 1293, when king Edward I of England exiled the Jews. He was then forced to turn to several Florentine banking families, the Frescobaldi, Bardi and Peruzzi, for money to finance his wars in Wales and Scotland. Edward II became increasingly dependant on his bankers, and Italian merchants began to dominate the English wool trade. In 1345, however, Edward III defaulted on his loans, and drove all three families into bankruptcy. The Medici bank, established at the end of the century, was far smaller and much more conservative — hence much longer lived.
Guilds and other Associations
MEDIEVAL communes were, in effect, a coalition of many different organized groups. Trade Guilds, composed of individuals practicing the same craft, constituted one the most important forms of social organization in medieval cities. The guilds set standards for production through a formalized training system. A young man would be apprenticed to a master craftsman, and learn the basic skills required for his trade. He would then leave home as a Journeyman, and travel to other cities to work under other masters. Eventually he would return and, after showing the extent of his skill through the production of a master-piece, would be initiated in the circle of guild masters. Known by a variety of names – corps de metiers, Zünfte, Arti – guilds were organized throughout Europe beginning in the twelfth century. As their numbers increased, the guilds became increasingly specialized. In Paris in 1260 there were 101 guilds. A century later, there were several dozen metal-working guilds in Nuremberg.
Over time, a hierarchy of guilds emerged, separating the wealthier professions from the poorer ones. In Florence, a division arose between the Arti Maggiori, dominated by leading merchants, and the Arti Miniori. The power of the masters increased as well. By the end of the Middle Ages, the guild system primarily provided master – the leading citizens in the towns – with a means of controlling the labor market. With the emergence of the putting-out system (Verlagssyatem) in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, merchants could farm out work and maximize on profits by moving production away from the cities, were wages were high, to the countryside, where labor was fairly cheap. Although the putting-out system is generally associated with cloth, paper, metal wares, and even boats were produced under this system.
In addition to guilds, there were trade associations between cities. Among the most important of these was the Hansa, a league of German trading cities along the North Sea and Baltic coast. At its height, the Hansa comprised over a hundred cities, and had offices as far afield as Novgorod, Venice, and London. The Hansa established a monopoly over the Baltic trade. Since the Baltic was the source for important raw materials, as well as grain needed in western cities, the Hansa became an important political power.
Confraternities were another important urban association. A confraternity is a brotherhood (or sisterhood) of individuals around a particular set of religious practices. Four types of religious confraternity emerged in the later Middle Ages. The first were clerical fraternities, made up of priests and regular clergy in a particular region or diocese. During their meetings, priests would discuss matters of doctrine and liturgical practice. Fraternities would provide financial assistance to members or impose disciplinary sanctions on members who led scandalous lives. Finally, members attended each others funerals. Such fraternities first arose in Italy in the twelfth century, but by the end of the thirteenth could be found throughout Europe. Later, lay people were allowed to join, although their role in clerical fraternities was much more limited. During the thirteenth century a number of lay confraternities arose. The first were organized around pilgrimages, most notably the famous pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. The confraternity provided funds for its members to go on pilgrimages or offered aid to pilgrims passing through their community. A second form of lay confraternity were local organizations devoted to the Eucharist, the most famous being the Corpus Christi Brotherhoods. It was rare for people in the high Middle Ages to receive communion, but during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, in large part owing to mystical preaching and the spread of Franciscan piety, more people began receiving communion on a regular basis. Corpus Christi Brotherhoods were formed among people who regularly received the Eucharist together. A highlight of the Corpus Christi cult was a special Thursday procession and mass where the bread for the following Sunday was consecrated. On account of the hymn sung during the procession, “Behold the Bread of Angels” (ecce panis angelorum) such masses were often called “Angel Masses,” providing the alternative name for the confraternity, Brotherhood of the Angel Mass. The final form of lay confraternity were those made up of individuals who practiced a particular trade, such as artisans, or the various orders of knighthood, all of which functioned as both tournament societies and religious confraternities.
Confraternities provided a focal point for community life. They generally cut across social boundaries, bringing together nobles and commoners, clerics and laypeople, men and women. Members attended weddings and funerals together and generally chose the godparents for their children from the ranks of their confratri. Confraternities could also serve as a focal point for dissent. Clerical fraternities initially arose among priests who sought to defend themselves against episcopal centralization in the wake of the Gregorian and Lateran reforms. Lay confraternities allowed laymen a religious life outside of the formal confines of parish life. Confraternities often built their own chapels and hired chaplains to say mass for the souls of departed members. Chantries – endowments for memorial masses – were established by the thousands in the later Middle. Confraternities, then, could comprise a form of “consensual parish” founded and maintained by laymen and outside of the traditional diocesan administration. Not surprisingly, bishops sought to regulate confraternities, and lay religious organizations that failed to obtain episcopal confirmation or resisted incorporation into the church ran the risk of being declared heretical.
One of the most widespread popular religious movements of the later Middle Ages arose out of the same milieu as the confraternities. The Beghines and Beghards were pious laypeople who modeled themselves on the Franciscans, wandering, preaching, and begging. The movement had its origins in Flanders among women who followed Lambert le Bègue (the stammerer), a priest of the diocese of Liege in the mid twelfth century. Lambert died in 1177, but the movement spread among women who wished to follow the apostolic life. The decrees of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) effectively outlawed the movement, but insofar as the Beguines and their male counterparts, the Beghards, do not seem to have clung to any heretical doctrines, they were tolerated. The movement expanded rapidly during the thirteenth century, and by 1300 Beguines and Beghards began to be seen as a “suspect penumbra to the mendicant orders.” The suppression of the Templars and the Observant Franciscans led to the persecution of Beguines in France and later Germany. By the end of the fourteenth century they were generally considered to be heretics, but could still be found in large numbers in cities and towns throughout northern Europe. Ultimately, the Beguines may be seen as a spontaneous outgrowth of the demand for an active personal religious life, patterned on the lives of the apostles, that flourished from the time of St. Francis onwards.
One last form of urban association should be noted. As the political pretensions of cities grew, many found it expedient to form defensive alliances. One of the first arose in Italy among cities opposed to the emperor Frederick Barbarossa. In Germany, a Rhenish league appeared in 1254, followed by a string of city leagues in southwestern Germany. The greatest of these was the Swabian City League, founded on July 4, 1376. Smaller leagues could be found within counties or principalities. A league of Flemish cities challenged and defeated Philip the Fair of France in 1302; a similar league of nine Landstädte in the diocese of Würzburg arose in 1397 and took two years and a series of bloody battles to suppress.
Towns and cities were also linked together in less bellicose ways. Trade networks were important, and there were often formal and informal ties between guilds and confraternities in cities with economic ties. Law too provided a means of linking cities. In colonial areas, newly formed cities tended to adopt the law codes of leading cities further west. Cities in Poland and the Baltic are regularly divided into three zones based on the source of their law codes: the German cities of Lübeck, Magdeburg, and Nuremberg. A similar pattern can be noted in the West, where newly privileged towns generally derived their law from leading cities. Finally, as rulers became more dependant on towns and cities as administrative centers, military outposts, and sources of revenue, deputations from the towns begin to appear at representative assemblies. Cities first appear in the English Parliament and the Cortes of Aragon in the later thirteenth century and in the French Estates General and the German Imperial Diet in the early fourteenth century. Towns appear in the German territorial diets (Landtag) and French provincial estates during the fifteenth century. The appearance of towns in national and territorial assemblies is a sign of their newfound political and economic prominence.
The Late Medieval Countryside
WHILE the growth of cities was an important aspect of late medieval history, the emphasis on urban society should not obscure the continuing importance of rural areas. If anything, the growth of cities was predicated on the development of a strong agrarian economy that could support the burgeoning cities. One of the hallmarks of rural areas in the later Middle Ages is the decline of the manor and the rise of semi-autonomous peasant villages and the transformation of the old feudal nobility.
The main factors leading to the decline of the manorial system have already been noted. Suffice to say, by the end of the fourteenth century demense farming as had been practiced in the Carolingian period was practically nonexistent in western Europe. At the same time, allodial land was also gone, and nearly all peasant held their land on some sort of tenure. In western Europe, the demographic crises of the fourteenth century and the subsequent shortage of labor allowed peasants to negotiate long-term leases on good terms. As more rural villages received legal privileges, an increasing number of peasants found themselves under the direct jurisdiction of the crown or princes. In Flanders, for example, local government from the ninth century onwards tended to be in the hands of castellans who derived their income from peasants in their castelries (kassetelrijen). By the late thirteenth century, however, the castelries were largely honorific positions: villages were ruled by civilian officials, generally elected, who reported directly to the count. In Germany, princes were able to buy up noble castles and estates or acquired them when noble lineages failed. Thereafter, the old manor became a princely district (Amt) administered by a princely official, the Amtmann. The growth in the number of Ämter in Germany reflects a growing centralization of political authority in the princely states. In the Prince-Bishopric of Bamberg, there were only sixteen Ämter in 1323; in 1348 there were twenty-seven. In many cases, the change reflects the transformation of noble manors into princely administrative districts. Of six noble manors acquired in 1308 by the bishops of Bamberg, all had been redesignated princely Ämter by 1348. This pattern may also be seen to a lesser extent in England and France, where royal sheriffs and bailiffs replaced local nobles as the executors of local government.
The nobility changed rather considerably during the fourteenth century. Conventional wisdom holds that the demographic crises undercut the financial position of the nobility. This is true to a point. Nobles with extensive landholdings suffered far less than members of the lower nobility. Moreover, nobles who enjoyed royal or princely favor and patronage were far better able to weather the storm than those who did not.
Nobles who found themselves in difficulty had several options. They could become bandits – indeed, the fourteenth century is the golden age of the “robber baron.” Still, this was not necessarily the best option. A slightly more refined path was to become a mercenary. The Hundred Years’ War and the endemic petty wars in Germany and Italy provided ample opportunities for nobles who wished to serve under foreign arms. Most nobles, however, chose to stay close to home, mortgaging their lands to more powerful lords. In France, Germany, and the Low Countries, petty noblemen often entered into the service of the crown. This at times meant that nobles were appointed as princely administrators over the same lands that had previously comprised their manors. As administrative officials, they derived a more steady income and could make even greater demands on the peasants than they could as landlords. Consequently, it can be argued that the political clout of petty nobles actually increased once they abandoned their old role as lord of the manor.
As the physical expansion of Europe ground to a halt in the thirteenth century, it became more and more difficult for nobles to reward their supporters with fiefs. In England, Edward I issued legislation forbidding subinfeudation – the doling out of lands received by nobles from the crown as fiefs. In France the practice of subinfeudation continued, but became more rare. In both England and France, the great nobles preferred to use indentures to add petty nobles to their retinues. An indenture is a legal contract, often for life, in which the lord agreed to pay the recipient a stipend (livery and maintenance) in return for service. Indentures did not involve the granting of fiefs or oaths of homage, and hence were far more flexible than traditional feudal arrangements.
In England, the elimination of subinfeudation actually increased the number of knights in the service of the great nobles – it was far easier to provide knights with livery and maintenance than with manors. The use of indentures, what is called “bastard feudalism,” combined with the economic decline of the lower nobility, contributed to the rise of very powerful noble factions in France and England. In the latter case, the ability of the great nobles to amass large clienteles gave them a choke-hold over Parliament, allowing them to stack elections and control large voting blocks. Even more dangerous for the crown was the ability of powerful and ambitious nobles in England, France, and Germany to use indentures and other mechanisms to build up vast private armies. During the period from 1250 onwards such private armies made civil war an omnipresent threat and an occasional bloody reality.
Late Medieval England
RICHARD the Lionhearted had bequeathed John undisputed power within the realm. John died an outlaw. The failure of English foreign policy combined with opposition to Henry II’s attempts at centralization to create a highly volatile situation at home. Magna Carta was the product of this resistance. Two portions of that agreement were to be of great importance for future English history. First were sections 14 and 21, which decreed that the both the peers and the commons (meaning here knights and free tenants) should have a voice in the lawmaking process and fiscal administration. Second, sections 30-45 dealt with the administration of justice. They required for a man to be tried by a jury of his peers, and decreed that all judges, constables, sheriffs and other officials should be chosen on the basis of their knowledge and skill. Taken together, these decrees laid the legal basis for the co-regency of Parliament and the establishment of a professional law enforcement service.
When John died, his son Henry III (1216-1272) was a child. After an extended minority, Henry assumed his duties only to mishandle a volatile situation. His court was dominated by Poitivin favorites, scorned by their English colleagues. Moreover, Henry’s policy was directed largely by churchmen and English foreign policy was often tied to the whims of the pope. This led to disaster. In 1252, Henry paid off the pope’s debts in return for recognition of his son Edward as King of Sicily. This turned out to be an empty promise as the crown went instead to Charles of Anjou, the younger brother of St. Louis. In 1257, at the urging of the Pope and the German merchant cities, Henry III paid huge amounts of money to ensure the election of his brother Richard of Cornwall as Holy Roman Emperor. The election was disputed, however, and Richard was unable to exercise any authority. Just like his father, Henry III had to pay the price for a failed foreign policy with a revolution at home.
The first true English Parliament met on April 2, 1258. As Petit-Dutaillis wrote, “the patience of the English were exhausted. They were dissatisfied with the king who glutted his favourites and subjected his policy to the fatal caprices of the pope.” Famine and bad weather had led to a general economic decline. When the pope demanded an unprecedented tax, equal to one-third the value on all goods, it was too much for the barons to take. Simon de Montfort led a military revolt against the king following the meeting of Parliament. At the end of 1258, the king was forced to accept the Provisions of Oxford. Under these decrees, Parliament demanded that only Englishmen should hold public office, removing the Poitivin favorites of the king. Real power rested in a committee of twenty four nobles, headed by Montfort. These appointed the king’s privy council. Although the king retained his office, he was stripped of his power.
In 1259, Henry arranged a peace with Louis IX, regaining Poitou which had been lost in 1224 (during the minority). Although the Treaty of Paris required the king to do homage for Aquitaine, Louis agreed to grant Henry military support against his rebellious barons. Aided by his son Edward, Henry III invaded England. Unable to defeat the barons through military means, Henry and Edward agreed to accept the reforms in part, and sought to build a moderate party. Although Edward assumed leadership of the moderate barons he was unable to overawe the radicals. In 1264 Henry III and Richard of Cornwall were captured and imprisoned by Simon de Montfort. Montfort established a “protectorate,” similar to that imposed by Oliver Cromwell in the seventeenth century. Montfort took the title “Seneschal of England” and ruled in the king’s name, summoning Parliament, and promulgating a new constitution.
Montfort failed, however, in that he had not captured Prince Edward. Playing off the nobles’ fears of Montfort’s intentions, Edward was able to regain the support of the moderates. He invaded England, and at the battle of Evesham (1265) defeated Montfort’s forces. The “Seneschal of England” was dismembered and his body thrown to the dogs. Edward sent his head to Anne Mortimer, whose family had suffered gravely during the fifteen-month protectorate. Montfort’s supporters were purged and their manors confiscated.
Although the period from 1258 to 1265 was one of chaos and revolution, several important changes occurred in England. Westminster became the fixed seat of government, the site of the King’s Bench and the exchequer. The lawyers, living at the various inns near the government complex developed new procedures for formulating writs and perfected common law. The commons emerged as the lower house of Parliament during this time. Henry had summoned the knights of the shires to his first Parliament. In 1267, the burgesses (town leaders) were called as well, and in 1268, 27 towns were represented in Parliament. The most radical change, however, was that the trend which had begun with Magna Carta was brought to fulfillment with the Provisions of Oxford: the king was made subject to law. The reign of Henry III saw the origins of the English constitutional monarchy.
The hero of Evesham was Edward Longshanks, heir to the throne, and until his accession, the true ruler of England. As Edward I (1272-1307) he would restore the power of the monarchy at home and subject Wales and Scotland to the English crown. Edward I assumed the initiative in regulating the development of Parliament and transformed it from a venue for noble dissent to a tool for the administration of the realm. The “model Parliament” of 1295 which included representatives from the shires as well as the peers, established the basic procedures followed by later Parliaments. Edward also undertook a reform of the English judiciary, and was known to subsequent generations as the “English Justinian.”
For most of his reign, Edward concentrated his attention on the Celtic states on his borders. Wales remained an independent confederation of Celtic principalities from Anglo-Saxon times until the end of the thirteenth century. The Norman kings had sought to extend their influence, but with little success. Norman expansion was limited to a string of marcher lordships along the border. The marcher lords, in particular the Clare earls of Gloucester, the Bohuns of Hereford and the Mortimers, were given sweeping powers in the regions they controlled. The continuous attacks by the marcher lords led the Welsh princes to submit to English suzerainty.
Edward summoned Llywellyn ap Gruffydd, Prince of Wales, to do homage several times between 1273 and 1276. Llywellyn, however, had profited by the disorders of Henry III’s reign and felt that he could now press for full independence. In 1277, the marcher lords led an invasion of Wales. By November, Llywellyn had been defeated and agreed to a four year truce. The truce was short-lived. In 1282, Llywellyn’s brother David invaded the marches with a mercenary army, mostly made up of Scots. In 1284 he was defeated and executed in Parliament. Edward annexed Wales the following year. He secured the region through a policy of encastellation, following the model of crusader forts he had seen while serving in Syria. The most important of these was at Carnarvon, the administrative center for the newly won principality. Edward’s son and heir was born at Carnarvon and was proclaimed “Prince of Wales” by the Welsh nobles. From then on the heir to the English throne has held that title.
With the subjection of Wales, Edward I turned his attention to Scotland. The Scots’ royal house had died out in 1290, leaving a child, Margaret — the “Maid of Norway” — as heiress. Through the treaty of Brigham, Margaret was betrothed to Edward Prince of Wales in return for the promise that the administration of the two realms be kept separate. Margaret died, however, when the ship carrying her from Norway to Scotland foundered. Thereafter a contest ensued for control of the Scottish throne.
Two Anglo-Scots noblemen laid claim to the Scottish throne: John Balliol and Robert Bruce. As Edward had assumed the feudal overlordship of Scotland in the interregnum, both turned to the English king to resolve the problem. Contrary to the treaty of Brigham, Edward took Scotland into his own hands. Court cases were heard at Westminster. In 1293, John Balliol was recognized as king, but Edward forced him to come to England to accept the crown, and once there, John had to swear loyalty to the English Parliament.
The following year, Edward went to France to fight for control of Flanders. Balliol rose up in revolt, but in 1296 was defeated. Edward stole the Stone of Scone, according to tradition, the stone on which Jacob had dreamed his dream and the Scottish kings were crowned. From 1297 to 1304, Scotland was in a state of confusion. Finally, in 1305, Robert Bruce, the grandson of Balliol’s rival, emerged as leader. In 1306, the Scot’s hailed him as king. Edward decided to invade, but died before anything could be done.
The glories of Edward I’s reign were short-lived. He had overextended the resources of the kingdom with his Welsh and Scottish ventures. Neither area was pacified. The marcher lords of Wales resented the king’s newly-won power in that region. Moreover, the expense of Edward I’s campaigns had made the king more dependent on the magnates and Parliament as well as foreign bankers for money.
When Edward II became king, the people expected him to be equal to his father. Alas, Edward II was more like his grandfather, and despite a pleasant disposition, paled in comparison to his now legendary father. Like Henry III, Edward II was dominated by favorites, the most important of these being Piers Gaveston. Moreover, Edward II was deeply in debt to his Italian bankers, the Frescobaldi, from whom the crown had to borrow money after the expulsion of the Jews in 1291.
As early as 1308, there were widespread calls for reform, mostly aimed at removing Gaveston. In 1311, Parliament drew up a list of ordinances, similar to the Provisions of Oxford, to which the king was forced to submit. These called for the banishment of Gaveston and the Frescobaldi. The chief officers of the realm, namely the chancellor, treasurer, comptroller, and keeper of the privy seal, were to be appointed by Parliament. War could not be declared without the approval of Parliament. Finally, all funds were to be dispersed through the exchequer, under the control of Parliament. As with Magna Carta and the Provisions of Oxford, the king’s power was decreased, while that of the magnates increased.
Edward II rebelled against these provisions immediately and Gaveston was home in time for Christmas. Owing to the support of Gilbert of Clare, Earl of Gloucester and the leader of the marcher lords, Edward was reconciled with Parliament and began preparations for an offensive against the Scots. The result was the debacle of Bannockburn, where on mid-summer’s day, 1314 the king’s army was crushed. Gilbert of Clare was killed by Robert Bruce himself at the beginning of the battle, and with his death the king lost his most powerful ally.
The barons, under the leadership of the Duke of Lancaster, forced Edward to submit to the ordinances. A new middle party, led by Lancaster held the upper hand. But the unpopularity of the king’s new favorite, Hugh Despenser, led to a new revolt of the marcher lords. Under the leadership of Roger Mortimer, they marched on London in 1321, forcing Despenser to flee. Edward soon regained control and defeated the marcher lords the following year. Lancaster was executed and Mortimer fled to France.
In 1325, Edward sent his wife, Queen Isabella, to France, to petition her brother the king for support. There, Isabella met Mortimer. They soon became lovers and together raised a mercenary army and invaded England. In 1327, the Parliament deposed Edward, placing his son, Edward III, on the throne. But Edward III was fully under the control of his mother and her lover. As for the old king, under orders from Mortimer he was brutally murdered at Berkeley castle.
For the first three years of his reign, Edward III (1327-1377) was virtually a prisoner in the palace. Mortimer and Isabella ran the country. But with the aid of some young knights, Edward staged a coup in 1330. Mortimer was seized and executed. Isabella was forced to take the veil. In the years that followed, Edward III would raise England to the level of greatness it had experienced during the time of Henry II, and lead England into a hundred years’ war with France.
France under Philip the Fair and the Valois
THE medieval French monarchy reached its height under Philip IV “the Fair” (1285-1314). With the English king occupied in wars with Wales and Scotland, Philip continued the process of consolidation begun by Louis IX. He reformed the offices of baillis and seneschals, placing them more securely under royal control, and implemented new systems of taxation. He also clarified the role of corporate bodies within the kingdom. In particular, Philip regularized the parlements, regional collegial courts.
Whereas in England, the Parliament assumed legislative and administrative functions, the provincial parlements in France remained high courts. The members of the parlement were often of bourgeois origin and had achieved nobility by virtue of education and service. This class came to be known as the noblesse de robe, so-called because of the judicial robes, and were differentiated from the old nobility, the nobility of the sword. Philip based much of his power on the support of the bourgeois. He granted extensive privileges to the towns, freeing them from the dominion of local nobles while extending the influence of the crown through alliances with the major urban communes.
Philip began calling large assemblies, what would become the Estates General. The Estates comprised the nobles, prelates, and representatives of the privileged towns. The third estate, because of its control of the parlements and the wealth of the cities, rose to great prominence. Furthermore, Philip’s grants of privilege assured their loyalty. Unlike his English contemporaries, Philip the Fair was able to call together the estates from a position of strength. By consulting them before making decisions, the king was able to ensure widespread support for his policies.
Philip the Fair was faced, however, with a series of problems abroad. The first of these was Edward I’s attempt to regain control of Aquitaine. Although Philip was successful at thwarting this attack, Flanders, in alliance with England, rose in revolt. At Cortrai (1302) Philip’s knights were defeated by an army of Flemish townsmen and mercenaries. As a result, his influence over Flanders declined. The Flemish-English alliance, brought about owing to the wool trade, would be of supreme importance in the centuries to come.
The greatest threat to Philip the fair came from Rome. Pope Boniface VIII had begun to resurrect the papal monarchy of Innocent III. Two bulls issued in 1302, claricos laicos and unum sanctum, decreed that the clergy were free from secular jurisdiction and paid their taxes only to Rome. Boniface attempted to centralize all of the incomes of the church, from parish offerings to the estates of the monasteries, under the control of the papal treasury. Philip reacted by organizing the prelates of France in opposition to the Pope. As during the investiture conflict, the bishops were not about to allow the pope full access to their incomes. In 1303, a group of French knights, perhaps under order from the king, kidnapped Boniface and held him at Anagni, where they beat him severely. Although he was released, the pope was so shaken by the event that he died shortly thereafter. In 1309, on the pretext of “protecting” the popes from further violence, Philip moved the papal court to Avignon. The new pope, Clement V, granted the French king extensive rights over the church. With papal approval, Philip dissolved the Knights of the Temple, a monastic order, accusing them of devil worship, and seized their lands. From 1309 until 1376, the popes resided at Avignon under the close scrutiny of the French kings. This period, called the Babylonian Captivity, contributed to a general decline in the status of the church in the late Middle Ages.
When Philip the Fair died, he left three sons. But the succession was far from secure. In 1316, his eldest son died, leaving a pregnant wife. Three days after the king’s death, the Queen bore a son, John I, who lived and reigned for seven days. The remaining heirs died in quick succession, until in 1328 the line of Hugh Capet died out. Philip of Valois, a distant cousin of Philip the Fair, assumed the throne as Philip VI.
Philip of Valois had a tenuous claim to the crown. Several other claimants arose, the most prominent of these being Edward III of England. Philip defended his claim using Salic law, the law of the Frankish kings, which decreed that one could not inherit the throne through the female line. Salic Law, however, was by then a museum piece and fooled no one. When Edward refused to do homage for Aquitaine in 1337, Philip confiscated Gascony. The French king then made an alliance with the Scots against England. These two acts provided a casus belli,and in 1338 Edward III declared himself King of France. The conflict the resulted is that known as the Hundred Years’ War.
The Hundred Years’ War
THE cause of the outbreak of war between France and England lay in the French kings’ misunderstanding of the situation. The French believed that they could treat the king of England like any other vassal and tended to forget that they were dealing with another sovereign prince. Philip VI and Edward III had their own personal reasons for seeking a war. Philip was insecure on his throne and needed to flex his muscles in order to prove to his barons that he was worthy of the office of king. Edward saw the French as the primary architects of his father’s murder and his own humiliation at the hands of Mortimer and the Queen. A foreign war would also ensure his popularity at home. Moreover, the third confiscation of Gascony in a little more than forty years was more than Edward could take, and he felt honor bound to teach France a lesson. Ultimately, it was neither the strength of Edward III or Philip VI that precipitated the onset of hostilities, but the acute awareness of their own liabilities.
Edward III initially met with failure. In 1339 he invaded on the advice of his Flemish allies, but with little success. He soon was driven into bankruptcy, and was forced to leave his newborn son John and his Queen with the bankers of Ghent as security for his loans. In 1340, however, the French fleet was destroyed at Sluys while attempting to invade England. The naval victory at Sluys gave England a temporary reprieve, and Edward returned home to re-group for another attack.
In 1341, Edward III came to the aid of John de Montfort, one of the heirs to Brittany. Brittany was crucial to the control of Guyenne as it controlled the sea-lanes. John received the support of the Breton speaking west and the towns and defeated his rivals. He then did homage to Edward for Brittany as King of France. This was the first formal recognition of Edward III’s claim to the throne by a prominent French nobleman. In January 1343, Montfort died, but the treaty of Malestroit recognized Montfort’s infant son as Duke, with Edward as his guardian. Consequently, England assumed control of Brittany. As Perroy wrote “It was a fatal step, which was to plunge Brittany in blood for twenty-three years, weaken the Valois kingdom and restore to the Plantagenets, in the nick of time, the prestige which they needed.”
In 1346, Edward invaded again, and at the battle of Crecy (August 26, 1346) handily defeated a much larger French force. The battle was won by the English longbow. The French charged across a freshly plowed field, and died in droves under arrow fire. At one point, the English right, under the command of the sixteen-year-old Prince of Wales — Edward, the “Black Prince” — began to falter. When the King was asked if he would assist, Edward III refused and stated that his son would now prove whether he was worthy of the crown. The Black Prince held his ground and emerged as one of the heroes of the battle.
The French estates summoned the king to Paris and demanded an explanation. The ordered him to invade England, but a new tragedy struck: the Black Death. Bubonic plague ravaged the land and prevented a counteroffensive. As the population died in droves, the crown’s revenues, meager to begin with, dried up. Despite the demographic and economic chaos of the plague, neither France nor England sought to end the war. Rather, legislation was passed on both sides that bound the peasants to the land and tried to keep wages artificially low. Edward III issued the statute of laborers in 1350 and established special courts to try workmen who charged more for their services than the crown desired. The punishments meted out by the court were severe in the extreme, and only heightened peasant discontent against the nobility at a crucial time.
In 1350, an new French King, John II “the Good”, assumed control of the struggling kingdom. John the Good was at best a mediocrity. The years from 1350 to 1356 were, as one author wrote “the most incoherent in a century sufficiently fertile in delusions.” He was first humiliated by King Charles of Navarre, who, with support from John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster and Edward III’s third son, regained extensive holdings confiscated by Philip VI. Then, in 1356, the king was defeated by Edward the Black Prince at Poitiers. After a three-day battle, John was captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London.
France’s king was a prisoner in enemy hands, but this was only part of the general tragedy of French history in the 1350’s. Paris rose in revolt almost immediately. In the spring of 1357 a peasant revolt began called the Jacquerie. The Jacquerie resulted from efforts by the French nobility to keep their peasants on the land. The plague had led to a scarcity of labor, and the peasants hoped to use this to improve their lot. The nobles, however, would not budge, and the consequences were bloody indeed. Without a king, France reeled under English attacks. In 1358, the French agreed to pay a ransom of three million livres. With the treaty of Bretigny (1360) a great, sovereign Aquitaine was ceded to England, along with the northern bridgeheads of Pontheiu, Calais, and Guines.
This should have settled the matter, but England bungled its success. Edward III was old, and soon became dominated by his young mistress and the bottle. The Black Prince died in 1376, followed by his father. Richard II, the boy king, was something of an embarrassment to his warlike father and grandfather and proved incapable of saving France. Meanwhile, France received a new king, Charles V. Charles “the wise” combined the best qualities of Philip the Fair and St. Louis. He renewed the war with England and by 1377 had nearly retaken all of Aquitaine. But in 1378 the situation deteriorated rapidly. John Neville of Raby, the English commander, conducted a successful defense of Guienne and there were serious setbacks in Navarre and Brittany for the French. The greatest blow, however, came on the heels of a diplomatic triumph.
In 1377, Charles V of France met with the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV and his son Wenceslas to arrange for the papacy to return to Rome. This occurred in 1378, but almost immediately the new pope, Urban IV, angered the French cardinals. These left Rome, returned to Avignon and elected Clement VII as anti-pope. While the Emperor recognized Urban, Charles V supported Clement. The result was the Great Schism. From 1378 to 1409, there were two popes, and from 1409 to 1417, three. Europe divided over allegiance. Moreover, both popes pushed for a continuation of the war between France and England. Rightly or wrongly, the schism appeared to be France’s doing, and Charles V was blamed. Richard II, who was to have married the French king’s daughter Catherine instead married Anne of Bohemia, sister to the new emperor Wenceslas.
Charles V was succeeded by his son Charles VI, a minor. The new king was controlled by his uncles, in particular the Duke of Burgundy, and a group of favorites, the “marmosets.” Charles was convinced to agree to a truce with England in 1389 restoring most of the reconquered lands. This ended the first phase of the war, and until 1415, France and England were nominally at peace. In any event, Charles VI went mad in 1392, and remained incoherent for most of the remaining thirty years of his reign.
Rebellion and Revolution in England
THE rapid decline of English fortunes after 1376 had left the country in need of a scapegoat. John of Gaunt, the third son of Edward III and Duke of Lancaster, was just the man for the job. He had become the wealthiest man in the kingdom and had failed miserably in military efforts on the continent. In 1381, a band of rebellious peasants destroyed his palace at the Savoy. This was ironic, for if anyone, John of Gaunt had unwittingly given them the ideological basis for their revolt through his patronage of John Wyclif.
John Wyclif (ca. 1330-1384) was an Oxford scholar, remembered to posterity as the first medieval heretic to have held a prominent academic position. His theology derived from a critique of the dominant school of theology of his day, Nominalism. Nominalism grew out of the Franciscan critique of Thomas Aquinas and derived its particular flavor from the writings of Duns Scotus and William of Ockham. Scotus criticized St. Thomas for placing far too much emphasis on human reason. For Scotus, the Thomist position limited God’s power and chained him to his creation by demanding that He act solely in conformity with the dictates of human reason. Ockham went further, and suggested that, contrary to Aristotelean epistomology, one could not derive knowledge of particulars from the knowledge of univeral forms. For Ockham, all human knowledge derived from experience or acquaintance with singular objects through the senses. Abstract constructs, such as the Platonic forms or Aristotelean “highest good,” had no demonstrable existence outside of the human imagination. For Wyclif, such teachings were disturbing, for they suggested that since man can have no knowledge of God through the ordinary senses, one could not ultimately know God. Wyclif found the Ockhamist position to be far too skeptical. What was required, in his view, was not the rejection of human reason but a better form of reasoning.
Wyclif’s theology proceeds from his belief in the absolute power and rationality of God. In a series of writings that appeared between 1374 and 1379 he articulated his position, which may be summarized as follows. First of all, all human knowledge derives from the knowledge of God. God’s knowledge, however, transcends time and space, meaning that all that humans may know has been foreknown by God. Consequently, Wyclif taught a radical predestinarianism. God had foreknown who would be saved — the elect. The true Church was not an institution established by men but the body of the elect, those who enjoyed God’s grace and favor. Lordship naturally belongs to the righteous elect — since all power derives from God, only those whom God has justified may legitimately exercise power on His behalf.
Wyclif saw the Bible as the repository of divine truth made accessible to human reason through the written word. Scripture constituted the final authority in all matters, the key to doctrine and Christian living. Wyclif’s biblicism ultimately led to a critique of the church. The image of the primitive Church in scripture contrasted visibly with the rich and worldly ecclesiastical edifice of the later Middle Ages. In the Postilla super totam bibliamWyclif (1375/76) stressed the poverty and simplicity of the early church. Over the next few years his demand that the church divest itself of its wealth became increasingly radical. It is perhaps no accident that the publication of Wyclif’s most virulent critique of the church, De ecclesia (1378) coincided with the outbreak of the Great Schism. The gradual decay of the papacy and the institutional church as a whole since Pope Sylvester first accepted wealth and secular power from the Emperor Constantine was now made manifest. If there were two popes, so long as one was the legitimate Vicar of Christ, the other must be the Vicar of Antichrist if not Antichrist himself. God would never have forced individuals to make such a choice — indeed for Wyclif the existence of such a choice was proof that the Church was not a clerical corporation but the body of the elect. Hence his declaration in 1379 “Blessed be the God of Truth who has ordained this dissension, that the truth of this belief might shine forth!”
In response to the Schism, Wyclif argued that there was only one head of the Church, and that was Christ. On earth, the individual human communities represented various subunits of the Church. Since lordship was dependent on election and righteousness, there could be no division between secular and religious authority. Indeed, “in Wyclif’s thought the terms church, realm, and commonwealth (ecclesia, regnum, respublica) are interchangeable.” Not surprisingly, Wyclif’s elevation of the power of secular rulers over the church, combined with his call to disendow the clergy, made him popular in the higher circles of government. Edward III had issued legislation limiting papal authority in England. The statute of Provisors (1350) dictated that only native_born Englishmen could hold ecclesiastical offices in England, while the statute of Praeminure (1353) prohibited appeals to Rome. The financial distress caused by the war in France and the Black Death caused Edward and his successor to cast a hungry eye towards the church. Between 1372 and 1378 Wyclif was frequently used as a spokesman against the church. Nonetheless, after 1378 his critique of official doctrine, in particular his rejection of transubstantiation, made Wyclif too dangerous. In 1379 his teachings were condemned and two years later he left Oxford in disgrace.
Wyclif’s fall, if anything, allowed for a radicalization of his teachings. His followers at Oxford kept up the fight. In particular, they placed greater emphasis on preaching from the Bible in the vernacular. An English translation of the Bible, produced by members of Wyclif’s circle, appeared in the 1380s. Preachers carried his ideas on disendowment of the church and the rule of the righteous to broad masses, but in the process Wyclif’s political conservatism was lost in favor of a more radical anarchistic flavor. The Franciscan William Woodford argued that the upshot of Wyclif’s teachings on lordship was “that he legitimized a popular disappropriation of ‘kings, dukes and their lay superiors whenever they habitually offended’.” Wyclif himself condemned rebels, but there was some truth to Woodford’s accusation.
The climate in England was ripe for rebellion. After 1369 Edward III’s drunken neglect had left the governance of the realm in the hands of incompetent and corrupt advisors. The minority of Richard II only complicated matters. The power of the nobles grew, and they were able to secure royal support for their efforts to bind the peasants more firmly to the land. In the spring of 1381 an excommunicated priest named John Ball began preaching Wyclif’s message, condemning the wealth of the church and nobility. To him is attributed the saying, “when Adam delv’d and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” Soon peasants throughout England rose in revolt against the tithes and labor demands of their lords, demanding higher wages and lower taxes. A blacksmith, Wat Tyler, emerged as their leader and a peasant army marched on London. They sacked the Savoy palace of John of Gaunt and captured the city, executing hundreds of knights and wealthy merchants.
Richard II, still only a young boy, rode out to meet the mob, and after assuring them that he would remedy their grievances, the mob departed. Despite promises of safe conduct, Ball was arrested and killed after torture. Wat Tyler was killed almost immediately after the King finished speaking. Although the rebellion was quelled, Richard’s honor was tarnished by the hasty actions of his advisors.
Richard’s support declined as he proved unable to rule effectively. Parliament emerged as the major threat to his power. Edward III had depended heavily on Parliament to finance his wars in France, and the lords and commons had increased their role in government during the regency. In 1386 the “merciless” Parliament forced Richard to submit to a committee of barons, the “Lords Appellant.” Gloucester, Derby, Arundel, Warwick and Nottingham assumed control of the realm. In 1389, however, Richard secretly met with the King of France and after the death of his Bohemian wife agreed to marry Charles VI’s daughter Isabella. At the time of the wedding (1396) Richard was over thirty and Isabella but nine years old. Nonetheless, with her dowry Richard was able to throw over the Lords Appellant and in 1397 he executed the leaders and banished the remaining barons. In 1399, however, Richard made a fatal mistake. John of Gaunt had remained his most trusted and loyal supporter. But as the old Duke lay dying, Richard announced that he would disinherit John’s son, Henry of Bolingbroke. Shortly before breathing his last, John responded by exposing his genitals to the king. Despite this riposte, Henry Bolingbroke was forced to flee the realm.
Thinking himself secure, Richard II decided to go to Ireland, leaving the Duke of York as regent. Henry Bolingbroke returned in the king’s absence and won the support of the regent. When Richard returned from Ireland he was imprisoned and deposed. Bolingbroke retrieved not only the Duchy of Lancaster but was crowned king. As Henry IV, he established the Lancastrian dynasty. Richard II died or was murdered in the Tower.
Spain and the Aragonese Empire
THE dominant factor in Spanish history in the Middle Ages was the Reconquista — the reconquest of the Iberian peninsula from the Moors. After the Visigothic kingdom fell to Islamic invaders in 711, four kingdoms arose in northern Spain: Castile, Aragon, Navarre and Portugal. The kingdom of Asturias or Leon arose in the eleventh century and led the reconquista in its early phases. The kingdom was divided into two halves — Leon and Castile — in the mid twelfth century, but were reunited in 1230 under the leadership of Ferdinand III of Castile (1217-1252). Ferdinand’s victory over the Sultan at Cordoba in 1236 restricted Islamic control to the small area around Grenada. The last attempt by Islam to retake Spain failed in 1340.
Portugal, originally part of the kingdom of Asturias, became an independent kingdom in 1094, although papal confirmation of the kings only followed in 1179. After defeating the Moors in 1139, the kings of Portugal quickly expanded southward, and by 1250 had driven the Moors out of their kingdom. Under John I (1385-1433) Portuguese generals began campaigns in Africa and in 1415 established a foothold in north Africa.
Both Navarre and Aragon both had their roots in the Spanish march, established by Charlemagne in the eighth century. Under Jaime I (1213-1276) the Aragonese reconquista was completed and the kings of Aragon began to look towards the Mediterranean as a site for future expansion. During the twelfth century, Catalan merchants from Aragon began to play an increasingly important role in Mediterranean trade. The Aragonese made an alliance with the Normans in Sicily in 1127 and by 1180 were involved in trade with the crusader states of Palestine. Although the kings of Aragon, as counts of Barcelona, had been vassals of the king of France since Charlemagne’s time, during the early thirteenth century they freed themselves from French control and established a form of economic hegemony over the merchant communities and ports of Languedoc and Provence. By 1250, internal conflicts between the nobility and the crown had been settled and using Aragon’s economic power as one of his weapons, Jaime I began an aggressive imperialist policy in the Mediterranean.
Jaime married his son Pedro to Constanze, the daughter of Manfred of Hohenstaufen and the granddaughter of the Emperor Frederick II. After the death of Conradin in 1268, Constanze and her husband were recognized as the leaders of the Hohenstaufen party in Italy, the Ghibellines. Sicilian nobles and bureaucrats drifted to Jaime’s court. Through them, the Norman methods of government, applied in Sicily by Robert Guiscard and perfected under Frederick II, were introduced to Aragon. By the accession of Pedro III (1276-1285) Aragon had one of the best organized administrations of any state in Europe.
The conquest of the Balearic Islands between 1229 and 1235 provided a stepping stone to Sicily, Aragon’s next major conquest. After making alliances with Pisa and the other Tuscan cities, with the support of the Byzantine emperor, Michael Palealogus, Pedro III invaded Sicily in 1283. Even though Pope Martin IV excommunicated Pedro for his actions in Italy, the Aragonese king was successful and incorporated Sicily into his dominions. Further offenses allowed Pedro to capture Malta and islands off of the coast of Tunisia, ensuring Aragonese control of the narrow waters around southern Italy.
The early fourteenth century saw an increase of Aragonese fortunes. The first Catalan merchants were reported in London in 1303 and by 1325, Aragonese businesses were firmly emplaced in both England and Flanders. After ensuring the support of Pope Boniface VIII, Aragon took Sardinia from Pisa, its former ally, in 1326 following nearly three decades of war. The wars of conquest, however, led to troubles at home. Jaime I and Pedro III had barely triumphed over noble resistance and by 1325 a coalition of nobles began to challenge the authority of the crown. After 1350, the Aragonese parliament, the Cortes, began to exercise greater authority. In 1412, the Cortes mediated a contest over the succession, granting the crown to Ferdinand I, the brother of king Henry III of Castile under the provision that the kingdoms remain separate. Thereafter, real power was in the hand of the nobles of the Cortes.
The triumph of the Cortes did not end Aragonese imperialism, however. Ferdinand’s son, Alfonso V (1416-1458) conquered the kingdom of Naples from the heirs of Charles of Anjou in 1442. During the fourteenth century, the kingdom of Naples had been in a state of near anarchy. During the reign of oft married but childless Joanna I (1343-1382) the nobles were in a constant state of revolt. A branch of the house of Anjou had inherited the throne of Hungary in 1307 and the Balkan Angevins continually interfered in the affairs of their neapolitan cousins. Under Ladislas (1390-1414) Angevin fortunes improved, but Ladislas’ attempt to conquer the papal state led to his downfall. Alfonso used the chaos which followed Ladislas’ death and the reign of his daughter, Joanna II, to seize Naples. After his death in 1458, Alfonso divided his kingdom in order to ease the fears of the papacy that Aragonese power in Italy was too great. Ferrante (1458-1494), Alfonso’s bastard son, was enfeoffed with the kingdom of Naples while Alfonso’s brother, John II, reigned as sole king of Aragon and Sicily until 1479.
The reconquest of Naples would follow one of the great dynastic marriages of history: the secret union of 1469 between John II’s son Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile. This marriage would result in the union of Aragon and Castile and marked the birth of modern Spain.
Late Medieval Germany and the Hegemony of Bohemia
THE council of Lyon deposed the Emperor Frederick II in 1245. Although Frederick paid little heed to the council’s decree, Germany was soon plunged into anarchy. Two anti-kings were elected. The first of these, Heinrich Raspe, Landgrave of Thuringia, held the office only one year but his successor, William Count of Holland (1247-1256), very nearly succeeded in making himself master of the Empire. His early death led to a collapse of Imperial authority.
In 1257, two rival candidates were elected to the office of emperor. Richard of Cornwall (1257-1275) had widespread support, but after his capture by Simon de Montfort, he did not return to Germany. Alphonso X of Castile (1257-1272) had the support of the church, but never set foot on German soil. So for nearly twenty years, two kings failed to rule, and Germany was left in a state of anarchy. Only with the election of Rudolf of Habsburg in 1273 would imperial government be restored.
As happened in England, the princes, in particular the marcher lords, used the confusion to advance their power. Of all the German princes, none rivaled the PÍemyslid rulers of Bohemia in this period.
The PÍemyslid dynasty had ruled Bohemia since the tenth century. They counted among their ancestors St. Wenceslas (the good king of the Christmas carol) and made their seat, the town of Prague, the center of the country. Within the Empire, the duke of Bohemia held an important post as one of the princes who elected the emperors. In 1197, Duke PÍemysl Otakar (1197-1230) was recognized as King of Bohemia in return for support of Philip of Swabia in the disputed election. To achieve his other goals, however, he needed the support of the papacy. The diocese of Prague was subject to the archbishop of Mainz, and Otakar wished to make Prague an independent archbishopric. Through his great political skill, he was able to secure the support from pope Innocent III while still recognizing Philip as king instead of the pope’s candidate, Otto IV. The accession of Frederick II and the defeat of Otto ensured the success of Otakar’s plans. Otakar’s son Wenceslas I (1230-1253) consolidated his control over Bohemia and ensured that the crown would become hereditary. Capitalizing on the divisions within the Empire, he freed Bohemia from the last vestiges of imperial control. Building on that power base, Wenceslas’ son PÍemysl Otakar II (1253-1278) embarked on wars of conquest. In the 1260s he overran Austria, despite the feeble protests of the German kings and princes. Otakar emerged as undisputed master of east central Europe.
Until the middle of Otakar’s reign, the German kings posed no threat to his expansionist policies. When a new king was elected in 1273, Otakar had no reason to believe that any thing would be different. Rudolf of Habsburg (1273-91), an impoverished nobleman from modern day Switzerland, was elected king. Almost immediately he demanded that Otakar do homage for Austria. When Otakar refused, Rudolf invaded.
In 1276 Rudolf of Habsburg surprised everyone by defeating Otakar II and taking Austria for himself. Otakar retaliated but at the Marchfeld in 1278 he was defeated and killed. Wenceslas II (1278-1305) was a minor, and so, for a while, Bohemia ceased to play a major role in international politics.
Wenceslas II realized that Germany did not provide an opportunity for further expansion. By the time he reached his majority in 1283, the Habsburg were well emplaced in Austria, and set to foil any further PÍemyslid offensives there. After making an alliance with Philip the Fair, Wenceslas turned his attention eastward. Wenceslas used the weakness of the Piast kings of Poland to seize the Silesian duchies. These would remain tied to the crown of Bohemia until the eighteenth century. Then, in 1300, after the extinction of the Piast dynasty, Wenceslas acquired the crown of Poland. A few years later, he emerged as heir to Hungary, and after great struggles, took up his Hungarian inheritance in 1303. As a result, Poland, Bohemia, and Hungary were united, and Wenceslas ruled a kingdom which stretched from the Baltic to the Adriatic.
Wenceslas died suddenly in 1305, however, and his heir, Wenceslas III (1305-1306) was unable to secure his inheritance before being assassinated. With him, the PÍemyslid house died out. Two dynasties, the houses of Habsburg and Luxemburg, emerged as claimants. From 1306 to 1310, Bohemia was under Habsburg rule. In 1310, the Luxemburg emperor Henry VII took control of Bohemia, and his descendants would rule there until 1438. Under the Luxemburg emperors, Prague would become the capital of the Empire. In many respects, the house of Luxemburg proved worthy heirs to the crown of St. Wenceslas.
The Habsburg-Luxemburg-Wittelsbach struggle for the Imperial Crown
FROM 1273 to 1438, three dynasties struggled for control of the Imperial throne: the houses of Habsburg, Luxemburg and Wittelsbach. The Habsburgs were the first to claim the crown under Rudolf I. Rudolf’s victory over Otakar II of Bohemia severely upset the balance of power in Germany. Suddenly the poor count held Austria, second only to Bohemia in the Empire for its wealth. With the riches of Austria to support him, Rudolf began to reassert Imperial authority. The nobles resented this, however, and when Rudolf died in 1291, the electors passed over his son and elected Adolf of Nassau as king.
Adolf of Nassau (1291-1298) proved a failure. He was unable to maintain the public peace decreed by Rudolf I at Würzburg in 1287, and was deposed. Rudolf’s son Albrecht I was elected in his stead. Albrecht defeated Adolf at Göllheim in 1298, where the latter died. Albrecht I ruled until 1308. He confiscated Bohemia and installed his son as king, but to little success. Albrecht was assassinated by his nephew, and his plan to erect a hereditary Habsburg monarchy failed.
Again, the electors found a weak and impoverished prince to serve as their King. Duke Henry of Luxemburg was nominated by his uncle, archbishop Baldwin of Trier. Like Rudolf, however, he was able to secure for himself a wealthy state in the east. In 1310 he was proclaimed King of Bohemia and moved his capital to Prague. The house of Luxemburg now eclipsed the Habsburgs and emerged as the leading territorial princes in the Empire. They inherited as well the PÍemyslid dream of creating a great Eastern European empire by uniting their German lands with Poland and Hungary.
Henry answered the call of Italian Ghibellines who looked to the new emperor to end the chaos that began during the twelfth century crisis. One of those who welcomed Henry VII to Italy was Dante. Dante believed that the emperor would serve as a lofty and benevolent peacemaker who would leave the liberty of the Italian states intact. To some extant, this proved to be the case. Henry instituted a system of imperial vicars in Italy. Their power came from below, and rested on their status within the Italian state system. Their sovereignty, however, was derived from the emperor, not the pope, who the Ghibelline’s feared and distrusted. But in 1314 Henry VII died in Pisa, perhaps of poisoning. Although Dante placed him the upper most circles of heaven in the Paradisio, Henry could not reimpose Imperial sovereignty over Italy.
Since Henry’s heir, John of Bohemia, was still a minor, the electors chose Louis IV, Duke of Bavaria and a member of Wittelsbach dynasty, as king. Although Louis the Bavarian had the support of the Luxemburg party the Habsburg partisans opposed his election. With the support of the papacy they elected Frederick the Fair of Austria as anti-king. The result was a long and bitter struggle between the pope and the Emperor.
John XXII (1316-1334) was pope and Louis’ arch-rival. Like Boniface VIII, he centralized the curia and subordinated all the clergy to his fiscal policy. This form of “bureaucratic fiscalism” was opposed by the Franciscans. In response, John issued a bull denying the absolute poverty of Christ, declaring that Jesus had owned property. The spokesman for the Franciscans was the English scholar William of Ockham. Ockham was a theologian of great skill, and offered up a potent philosophical threat to papal authority. What was most odious to the papacy was Ockham’s questioning of the papal power to absolve sins. Since the power of the keys was the basis of papal authority, John XXII retaliated by excommunicating Ockham and his patron, Emperor Louis the Bavarian.
The results of this act were not as the pope had expected. In 1322, Louis defeated Frederick of Austria, but rather than banish him, he appointed him as co-regent. Thus the three dynastic parties were, for the moment, reconciled. Then, in 1338, the Imperial Diet, meeting at Frankfurt decreed that election alone made a prince emperor, leaving no room for papal intervention. John XXII had failed, and despite the ban and anti-kings, Louis the Bavarian emerged triumphant.
By 1344, however, Louis’ had made a number of enemies within the empire through his attempts at centralization. In particular, Louis’ alliance with Edward III of England met with opposition from the house of Luxemburg, as the latter had close ties to the kings of France. France and the papacy supported the candidature of a new king, Charles of Luxemburg, the son of King John of Bohemia. An assembly of princes demanded that Louis do penance secure absolution from the pope within two years or face deposition. Louis failed to do so, and on July 1, 1346 the electors deposed him and elected Charles of Luxemburg as emperor.
Emperor Charles IV (1346-1378) has been hailed as the “arch-stepfather of the Holy Roman Empire.” (Maximilian I) He was born in Prague and baptized under the PÍemyslid name of Wenceslas. Later he was sent to the French court where he adopted the name of his godfather, king Charles IV of France. Charles was fluent in French, German, Italian, Latin and Czech. From 1334 onward he had effectively ruled as king of Bohemia owing to his father’s blindness. As regent, he retrieved mortgaged crown lands and negotiated treaties with Poland. His actions during these years pointed to the policy he would follow as emperor — a preference for diplomacy over war. Throughout his reign Charles upheld the PÍemyslid dream of uniting Bohemia, Hungary, and Poland. To that end, he sought to maintain a balance of power between the German, Slavic, and Magyar states of central-eastern Europe, arranging marriage alliances that he hoped to ensure the Luxemburg succession.
Charles IV was initially in a very weak position in Germany. Owing to the terms of his election, he was derisively referred to by some as a “priest’s king” (Pfaffenkönig). Many bishops and nearly all of the Imperial cities remained loyal to Louis the Bavarian. Worse yet, Charles backed the wrong horse in the Hundred Years’ War, losing his father and many of his best knights at the debacle of Crecy. Civil War was prevented, however, when Louis died bear hunting in October, 1347. In January 1349 Wittelsbach partisans attempted to secure the election of Günther von Schwarzburg as king, but he attracted few supporters and died unnoticed and unmourned after a few months. Thereafter, Charles faced no direct threat to his claim to the Imperial throne.
Charles’ initially worked to secure his power base. Bohemia had remained untouched by the plague. Prague became his capital, and he rebuilt the city on the model of Paris, establishing the “New City” (Nove Msto). In 1348, he founded the University of Prague, the first university in Germany. This served as a training ground for bureaucrats and lawyers. Soon Prague emerged as the intellectual and cultural center of central Europe. Outside of Prague, Charles attempted to expand the Bohemian crown lands, using his imperial authority to acquire fiefs in Silesia, the Upper Palatinate, and Franconia. The latter regions comprised “New Bohemia” a string of possessions intended to link Bohemia with the Luxemburg territories in the Rhineland. The Bohemian estates were not, however, willing to support Charles in these ventures. When Charles sought to codify Bohemian law in the Majestas Carolina of 1355 he met with sharp resistance. After that point, Charles found it expedient to scale back his efforts at centralization.
In the empire, Charles had somewhat more success. In 1356, Charles IV promulgated the Golden Bull, a new constitution for the Empire. It regulated the process for electing emperors, setting the number of electors at seven; the Archbishops of Mainz, Trier, and Cologne, the Count Palatine on Rhine, the Duke of Saxony-Wittenberg, The King of Bohemia, and the Margrave of Brandenburg. Hence there were three electors in the east, in the marches, and four in the west. Since the time of Archbishop Baldwin of Trier, the house of Luxemburg exercised strong control over that see. In the east, the Luxemburgers already controlled Bohemia and in 1370 acquired the Mark of Brandenburg as well. Saxony was linked to them through dynastic marriages, and pinned between Brandenburg and Bohemia, had little choice but to support the candidates of its neighbors. Hence the Golden Bull set the stage for dynastic kingship through the constitutional process of election.
Since it was nigh impossible for the emperor to preserve the public peace (Landfriede) in Germany, Charles decentralized the system of Imperial justice. He organized the states of the empire into peace-keeping confederations. In these, the Imperial cities figured prominently. The Swabian Landfriede confederation of 1370 was made up almost entirely of Imperial Cities. At the same time, the leagues were organized and led by the crown and its agents. As with the electors, the cities which served in these leagues were given privileges to aid them in their efforts to keep the peace. But the nature of the leagues caused them to identify their political position with that of the emperor. Consequently, through decentralization, Charles was able to relieve the crown of many responsibilities while increasing its prestige and influence. This freed him to consolidate his eastern domains. He assured his dominance over the eastern borders of the Empire through succession treaties with the Habsburgs and the purchase of Brandenburg. He also claimed imperial lordship over the crusader states of Prussia and Livonia. Charles hoped to unite these with the Empire and create a Luxemburg domain that would stretch from Russia to the Adriatic Sea.
Towards the end of his reign Charles IV saw his policy founder. In order to secure the election of his son Wenceslas IV, Charles revoked the privileges of many Imperial Cities and mortgaged them to various noble. The cities, however, were not powerless. As executors of the public peace, they had developed into a potent military force. Moreover, by grouping them into leagues, Charles had made it possible for the cities to cooperate in large scale endeavors. On July 4, 1376, two days after Wenceslas’ election, fourteen Swabian cities bound together into an independent league to defend their rights against the newly elected emperor. The Swabian city league soon attracted other members and until 1389 acted as an independent state within the Empire.
The Empire in Crisis
WHEN Wenceslas IV (1378-1419) inherited his father’s throne in 1378, he was faced with a number of problems. The Great Schism broke out, pitting the Luxemburg king, supporting the pope in Rome, against France and the Avignon popes. Wenceslas followed his father’s policy, defending the claims of the Pope Urban VI in Rome. This naturally led to tensions with the French kings who supported the Avignon Pope Clement VII. After he was unable to convince the French to recognize the Roman pontiff, Wencelsas arranged for his sister Anna to marry King Richard II of England. The marriage marked a complete reversal of traditional Luxemburg dynastic policy. In the Empire, the Habsburgs and their allies supported the Avignon pope, adding a religious dimension to the dyanstic rivalries. The Wittelsbach Count Palatine soon emerged as a serious threat to Wenceslas’ influence in Rhenish Germany. Finally, the Swabian City League had defeated all armies sent against it.
Wenceslas spent the first years of his reign attempting to resolve the conflicts between the princes and the cities. At the meeting of the diet in 1383, Wenceslas proposed a novel solution to the administrative problems of the Empire. He divided the Empire into circles made up of the leading nobles in these regions. His plan foreshadowed the system of imperial government later instituted by Maximilian I in 1500, but owing to the pretensions of the imperial cities, the plan failed. In 1388, however, the cities were defeated and the resultant Landfriede of Eger (1389) provided a modicum of stability for the next several decades. The political autonomy of the cities was confirmed, but they were prohibited from forming leagues.
Wenceslas’ greatest liability proved to be his own family. Charles IV had divided his holdings among his sons and other relatives. Although Wenceslas retained Bohemia, his brothers Sigismund and John received Brandenburg and Lusatia. Moravia was divided between his cousins Jost and Procopius, and his uncle Wenceslas was made Duke of Luxemburg. Hence the young emperor was left without the resources his father had enjoyed. In 1386, Sigismund became king of Hungary, and became involved in affairs further east. Wenceslas also faced serious opposition from the Bohemian nobles and from Jan z Jenštejna, Archbishop of Prague. The torture and murder of the Vicar General of Prague, John of Pomuk by royal officials in 1393 sparked a noble rebellion. Jost was named regent and Wenceslas was imprisoned. Sigismund of Hungary arranged a truce in 1396, and for his efforts was recognized as Wencslas’ heir.
Because of the troubles in Bohemia, Wenceslas had not been to Germany in ten years. Consequently, he faced angry crowds at the Imperial Diets of Nuremberg (1397) and Frankfurt (1398). The Rhenish electors accused him failing to maintain the public peace or to resolve the Schism. The electors demanded that Wenceslas appear before them to answer to the charges in June 1400. Wenceslas demurred, in large part because of renewed hostilities in Bohemia. When he failed to appear, the electors declared Wenceslas deposed and chose the Palatine Elector, Ruprecht III, as their king.
Ruprecht (1400-1410) was elected as emperor but had little more success. His election was never recognized by the eastern princes, led by Wenceslas. Among the charges that Ruprecht had used as the basis for his predecessor’s deposition was the Schism. Ruprecht called the council of Pisa in 1409, attended by defectors from both papal parties. They elected a third pope, only worsening the situation, and from 1409 to 1417, there were three popes.
After the death of Ruprecht in 1410, Sigismund, king of Hungary and Wenceslas’ brother, was elected emperor. Wenceslas had never recognized his deposition and still controlled Bohemia. Jost of Moravia arranged for his own election, so in 1410, there were three duly elected emperors. Jost died in 1411, and Wenceslas agreed to give up the crown, so long as he could keep Bohemia. This settled the issue, and after 1411, Sigismund reigned as Emperor.
Sigismund’s only holding within the empire was Brandenburg. For financial and political reasons, he was forced to sell this to Frederick of Hohenzollern. With the acquisition of Brandenburg, the Hohenzollern dynasty began its ascent. By the eighteenth century, the Hohenzollerns would become the most powerful family in the Empire. For the moment, however, Sigismund was left without any lands inside the borders of the Empire.
Luckily, the bishops and secular leaders were tired of the schism and supported the emperor when he called the Council of Constance in 1414. The goal of the council was to reform the church in head and members. What made it work was the translation of supreme authority from the popes to the council. In 1417, the council deposed all three popes and elected a new one, maintaining all the while that the council, and not the pope, was the supreme head of the church. By resolving the schism, Sigismund restored the honor of the imperial title and made himself the most influential monarch in the west.
The Hussite Revolution
ONE of the highlights of the council was the execution of a heretic, Master Jan Hus of Prague. Hus was one of a series of reformers that had emerged in Prague since the mid fourteenth century. The reforms were both a consequence and a reaction to the religious policies of Charles IV. Prior to his accession, Bohemia had remained largely untouched by the major waves of religious reform. In particular, the movement against simony initiated by Gregory VII in the eleventh century only began in enter Bohemia in the later thirteenth century. Even then, before 1318 the papacy showed little interest in Bohemian affairs. Consequently, the nobility retained close control over parishes and ecclesiastical benefices following the Eigenkirche practices that had been effectively eliminated in Germany two centuries earlier.
Charles IV was not about to let the nobles control the church, and in the early years of his reign, he received a number papal provisions giving him wide ranging powers over the appointment of bishops in Bohemia and the Empire. These reforms had the effect of introducing some of the worst aspects of Avignon fiscalism and corruption into the Bohemian church while simultaneously alienating many members of the nobility. Thanks to the piety — and ambitions — of both the crown and the nobility, the Bohemian church was overendowed, with numerous rich benefices. Paradoxically, there was also an extensive clerical proletariat — poor priests left without benefices because of pluralism. The large number of unbeneficed and impoverished clerics in Prague — perhaps as many as 1,200 in a city with 40,000 inhabitants, proved fertile soil for the growth of radical dissent.
The moral decline of the church attracted the attention of a string of preachers. Conrad Waldhauser (d. 1369) began attacking the wealth and pride of the higher clergy during the reign of Charles IV. His successors Jan Mili… and Matthew of Janov expanded the range of his criticism. Both were consumed by a millenarian brand of piety that convinced them that they were living in the end-times. Mili… even went so far as to identify Charles IV as Antichrist, but later thought better of it and determined that the institutional church, with its simony and corruption, was a better candidate. Mili…attempted to establish his own order, based on a rigorously ascetic brand of Franciscan spirituality. Matthew of Janov was of a different nature, being more of a scholar than a mystic. Matthew had been educated in Paris between 1373 and 1381 and brought to Prague the conciliar thinking that had emerged in the first years of the Schism. In his Regule veteris et novi testamenti Matthew laid out his own views on the rise of Antichrist. Like Mili…, Matthew became enamored of the primitive church. He argued that until 1200 the church had remained pure, but after that point that the Great Whore assumed power over the church. As Howard Kaminsky notes:
In modern textbooks this is usually called “the triumph of the medieval church in the pontificate of Innocent III,” and so it was _ that was Matthew’s point. His target here was not moral sine as such, and certainly not the good things of this world as such, but rather the inclusion of the values of this world within the Christian church _ that is, the Hildebrandine effort to dominate the world and the resulting permeation of the church by the world.
Matthew called for a return to the form of the church before Gregory VII — in effect he demanded a rejection of universal papal authority. The Schism certainly aided him in his efforts. If there were two popes, only one could be the vicar of Christ. His rival must, by definition, be the vicar of Antichrist if not Antichrist himself.
The arrival in Prague of the writings of John Wyclif after 1381 added another dimension to the radical opposition. While the ecclesiology of Matthew of Janov was rather inchoate, the philosophic and theological reasoning of Wyclif provided support for the Czech reformers’ view of the church. Wyclif’s opposition to Nominalism added another dimension to the struggle. Prague and many other cities in Bohemia had large German populations. Although a minority, the Germans were often in prominent positions and enjoyed royal favor. In the University of Prague three of the four colleges or “Nations” were dominated by Germans. Given that the German faculty tended to follow the teaching of Ockham and later Nominalists, it was natural that the Czech masters should find in Wyclif’s critique ammunition to use against their rivals. The latent social conflict between Germans and Czechs now took on a broader dimension as questions of national pride became fused with problems of religious doctrine.
One of the students who became enamored of Wyclif’s teachings was Jan Hus. Hus’s role in the movement that bears his name had less to do with his teachings than with his preaching. In 1394 a German nobleman provided funds to construct a chapel where preaching in Czech could be heard. The Bethlehem chapel seated 3,000 people and was decorated with frescos illustrating various Biblical stories. Hus became preacher at Bethlehem in 1402 and over the next twelve years preached over 3,000 sermons. Hus’s preaching won converts to the reformer’s way of thinking, particularly among the artisans and lower clergy in Prague.
After his deposition in 1400, Wenceslas turned to support the Czech reformers. He agreed to recognized the Council of Pisa (1408) and at the council of Kutná Hora ordered the German masters of the university to do so as well. The Kuntá Hora decrees (18 Jan 1409) broke the Germans’ control over the university, giving the Czech nation three votes to one for all three of the German nations. The principle architects of the Czech victory were Jerome of Prague, Jan Hus, and Jakoubeck of StÍíbro. In the wake of the Kutná Hora decrees, Archbishop Zdynk of Prague (1399-1411) excommunicated a number of royal officials and placed Prague under the Interdict. Wenceslas ordered the city’s clergy to ignore the decree. Zdynk agreed to submit to the king, but then fled the kingdom.
With Archbishop Zdynk’s departure, the reform became more radical. A group of dissidents from Dresden arrived in 1412, led by Nicholas of Dresden. Nicholas composed a scurrilous pamphlet contrasting Christ and the pope, identifying the latter as antichrist. A group of reformers began calling for the administration of the cup to the laity (utraquism). In 1412 Hus and Jakoubek publicly declared the Roman Pontiff to be antichrist, leading to their excommunication. Hus soon found supporters both in the towns and the countryside. Artisans in Prague had long demanded representation in the city council, and now rose in revolt using Hussite doctrine as their justification. The nobles also found much to their liking in Hus’s message. Utraquism denied the special status of the clergy, and by calling on the nobles for help, Hus seemed to recognize the claims of the nobles over local churches. Research has shown that Hus drew his strongest support from nobles who had either lost or were in danger of losing traditional patronage rights over local churches to ecclesiastical officials and the crown.
In 1414 Emperor Sigismund requested that Hus appear before the Council of Constance to explain his program. Under a guarantee of safe-conduct, Hus went to Constance, but soon found himself imprisoned. Over 250 Czech nobles protested this action, but to no avail. On July 6, 1415, Hus was burnt as a heretic in Constance. Reprisals against other Hussites had already begun. The German burghers of Olomouc had burned two lay preachers a week earlier; Jerome of Prague was burnt in May of the following year. Hus’s death led fifty eight Hussite nobles to form a Hussite league in September, 1415. A Catholic alliance followed a month later. In 1416 Wenceslas again tried to restore Catholicism in Prague, but resistance from the university faculty and nobility forced a compromise on the question of utraquism.
In the spring of 1419, Wenceslas arrested priests in Prague who granted the cup to the laity, and appointed Czech and German Catholics as Bürgermeister in the Nové Msto. On 30 July 1419 the radical preacher Jan ðelivský led a procession through the city to the New Town Hall demanding the release of imprisoned Utraquist priests. A scuffle broke out, and thirteen of the council members were thrown out of the window. The first defenestration of Prague led to the outbreak of a general revolt. Not long after, on August 6, 1419, Wenceslas died. While most works ascribe his death to a stroke, research by a Czech neurologist suggests that the actual cause of death was acute alcohol poisoning.
In time a radical party, the Taborites, emerged. When the German princes invaded Bohemia to put down the rebellion and restore Sigismund as king of Bohemia, the Taborite armies led by John ðiñka were able to defeat all comers. ðiñka pioneered the use of firearms and his light cavalry, later known as hussars, soon became legendary. After ðiñka’s death, Andreas Procopius assumed leadership of the army, and invaded the empire in a series of preemptive strikes. By 1431, most princes had made peace with the Bohemians. Both Sigismund and the council were forced to compromise, and at the Council of Basel (1431-1449) granted the Hussites many of their demands in return for peace. Sigismund was allowed to return to Bohemia as king, but the Bohemians were allowed freedom of worship.
Sigismund’s victory was short lived. He had no sons, and owing to a succession treaty with the house of Habsburg, when he died in 1438, Bohemia passed to his son-in-law, Duke Albrecht of Austria. Albrecht was elected emperor the same year but died in 1440 while fighting the Turks, His son, Ladislas Posthumous, was not born till after his death. During Ladislas’ minority, the utraquist (Hussite) nobles seized Prague and elected one of their own, George Podiebrad, as king. Thus the Hussite Revolution concluded with the restoration of a Czech nationalist monarchy after over a century of foreign rule.
AFTER the death of Cnut the Great (1016-1035) the Scandinavian kingdoms entered a long decline. For two centuries, Denmark, Norway and Sweden were consumed by civil war. During the thirteenth century, the Danes began to expand into the Baltic, but eventually were eclipsed by the German city-states of the Hansa.
Waldemar II of Denmark (1202-1241) brought about meaningful judicial reforms, leading to a codification of Danish law. He also participated in Crusades directed against the heathen peoples of the Baltic in addition to leading several wars against Christian states in the region. By 1220, his empire included Norway, Skåne (the southern tip of Sweden), Pommerania, Pommerellia, Courland (Latvia) and Estonia. He was defeated by north German nobles and townsmen, however, at the battle of Bornhöved in 1227. Eric V (1259-1286) was faced by revolts in the conquered territories and among his nobles. In 1282, he was forced to submit to the Danish Magna Carta, limiting the Danish kings’ powers while increasing the importance of the nobles in the diet.
During this period, the Hansa, a league of German merchant towns, began to increase its influence. An agreement between the cities of Lübeck, Hamburg, Wismar and Rostok in 1259 established a sort of “economic community” among the members of the Hansa. They cooperated in their trading efforts and established offices in several foreign countries, including England, Italy and Russia (Novgorod). By 1358 the Hansa included over 200 cities, and controlled nearly all of the Baltic trade. They established trading cities in Prussia, Latvia and Estonia in cooperation with the Teutonic Knights, a crusading order founded in the late twelfth century. The Danes attempted to break the Hansa’s grip on the market but were hit with trade embargoes. Waldemar IV of Denmark (1361-62) attempted to drive out the Hansa by force, but was defeated soundly. In the peace of Stralsund (1370) the election of Danish kings became subject to the approval of the Hansa. This marked the height of the Hansa’s power, and throughout the fifteenth century, the league was the master of the Baltic.
In the early thirteenth century, eastern Europe was shaken by a catastrophe of monumental proportions. The Mongols, led by Batu (the grandson of Genghis Khan) invaded Europe. In 1240, he conquered the kingdom of Kiev, and crushed a combined German and Polish army in Silesia the following year. In 1241, Hungary was also devastated. Only the death of Batu and the subsequent retreat of his forces saved Europe. As a result, the emerging states of eastern Europe were laid waste, and some, like Lithuania and Russia, became vassals of the Mongol Khans.
Since the tenth century, Poland had been ruled by the Piast dynasty. Miezko I (960-992) had converted to Christianity and established a strong monarchy with ties to the Empire. Under Boleslav I Chobry, Poland expanded into Pomerania, eastern Germany, and White Russia. During the twelfth century, however, Poland was divided into five duchies, each held by rival branches of the Piast house. The Mongol invasion disrupted the last vestiges of unity, allowing for the conquest of Poland by Wenceslas II of Bohemia.
Wenceslas subjugated the nobility, and when he died, the new king, Vladislav I, was able to reestablish the authority of the crown. Casimir the Great (1333-1370) continued the work of consolidation, codifying Polish law. In 1382, however, the male royal line died out, leaving Jadwiga as queen. She dissolved her engagement with an Austrian prince and married instead Jagiello, the Grand Duke of Lithuania. Their marriage, which followed his conversion to Christianity, resulted in the Polish-Lithuanian union, which would continue until the eighteenth century.
The Lithuanians were a Baltic people, sharing a common language and pagan religion. Their state had emerged in reaction to the invasions of the Teutonic Knights. The Teutonic Knights were a crusading order, formed in 1201 to convert the Baltic peoples. During the thirteenth century, they conquered Prussia and modern day Latvia and Estonia, establishing a church state ruled by German clerics with ties to the Empire. Aided by the Hansa, the Teutonic knights established German cities in the Baltic states, and soon colonists, mostly from central Germany, began flooding into the newly conquered regions. Pressed between them and the Mongols, the Lithuanians soon emerged as a major military power. During the first half of the fourteenth century, they conquered White Russia and Kiev. After the union with Poland, the Lithuanian Dukes continued their expansion, and by the end of the fifteenth century ruled an empire that stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea, including modern Poland and the Ukraine. The Jagiellon monarchs of Poland-Lithuania also sought to gain control of the Baltic. The Hansa and the Teutonic knights controlled the major ports and trade routes, blocking Poland from direct access to the sea. In 1410, the Poles defeated the Teutonic knights, and obtained Danzig. In 1466, the Teutonic Knights in Prussia were forced to accept the feudal overlordship of the Polish king.
Under Casimir IV (1447-92) the Polish diet (Sejm) began to gain control over the administration. Although his son Vladimir was able to gain the thrones of Bohemia (1471) and Hungary (1490), the power of the crown declined. The Polish monarchy became and elective office, and as in Germany, this led to the supremacy of the nobles in the diet.
After the extinction of the PÍemyslids, Hungary was ruled by kings from the house of Anjou until 1382. Sigismund of Luxemburg (1387-1437) sought to use Hungary to fulfil the dream of Emperor Charles IV of the creation of a greater Slavic monarchy. But in 1397 Sigismund was defeated trying to stop a Turkish invasion at Nikopolis. After this defeat, he was unable to control the Hungarian nobles. They resisted the attempts by the Habsburg’s to secure their inheritance and in 1458 elected Matthias Corvinus as king. So as in Bohemia, nationalist sympathies prevented the Habsburg from obtaining the lands acquired through the succession treaty with the Luxemburgs.
Matthias Corvinus was a great scholar and diplomat. He stripped the Habsburgs of many of their hereditary domains, and for several years, held Vienna and Lower Austria. He also expanded southward, making the princes of Bosnia, Serbia, Wallachia (Rumania) and Moldavia his vassals. But under the Jagiellon king, Vladislav II, Hungary declined rapidly. In 1526 Vladislav’s son, King Louis II, died fighting the Turks. The Ottoman empire conquered nearly all of Hungary and remained master of the Danube until the end of the seventeenth century.
Of all the regions ravaged by the Mongols, none suffered more dearly than Russia. From the 1240’s until the sixteenth century, Russia was almost completely isolated from the rest of Europe and under Tatar domination. The unity of the Kieven kingdom was broken, and the Russian princes forced to pay tribute. In the north, the mercantile republics of Novgorod and Pskov remained, but these were partially under the control of Hansa merchants. The grand-dukes of Moscow, however, were able to win the favor of the Tatars, and gained recognition as the chief princes in Russia. The Orthodox church moved its headquarters there, and Moscow emerged in the fourteenth century as the spiritual and political center of Russia. In 1380, Muscovy defeated and drove out the Tatars, uniting Russia under the Kremlin.
Ivan III “The Great” (1462-1505) married the Byzantine princess Zoe, and capitalized on that and the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. He declared himself sole ruler of Russia, assuming the title “Tsar” (= Caesar) and identified Moscow as the third Rome, the heir to Rome and Constantinople and the capital of Christendom. He annexed the republic of Novgorod in 1478 and expelled the Hansa in 1494. Under his successors, Moscow conquered Pskov (1510) and Smolensk (1514), beginning Russian penetration into the Baltic states and the Ukraine. Under the leadership of the early Tsars Muscovan Russia rose to become one of the great powers of Europe.
The Late Medieval Balkans
FROM the end of the thirteenth to the middle of the fourteenth century, Balkan political history was dominated by a two-way struggle for hegemony between the Byzantine rulers and the emerging Serbian state. The Serbs had been able to first assert their authority during the third crusade, under the Grand Zupan Stefan Nemanja (1166-1197). Through negotiations with the papacy, Nemanja’s son, Stefan Prvoven…ani(“first crowned”) was able to obtain the title of king, and was crowned by the papal legate in 1217. In several respects, Prvoven…ani(1196-1227) is a ruler similar to Otakar PÍemysl I of Bohemia. Both were able to secure their independence from imperial overlordship — in the Serbian case from Constantinople — and lay the foundations for a powerful national monarchy. They were both able to play on papal fears of both the Hohenstaufens and Byzantium, to secure concessions from Rome while maintaining their independence from the papal see. Moreover, the successors of Prvoven…ani, like those of Otakar, were able to create empires at the expense of their neighbors.
Under Stefan Uroš II, better known as Milutin (1282_1321), Serbia began to make direct assaults on Byzantium. The restoration of Byzantine power under Michael Palaeologus, however, forced the Serbs to direct their primary attentions elsewhere. In any event, Serbia became embroiled in civil war towards the end of Milutin’s reign. Milutin’s son, Stefan De…anski, attempted to seize power, but was defeated by his father and sent into exile. Although it appears that Milutin had his son blinded, this did not prevent De…anski from attempting to obtain the throne after his father’s death. By 1324 De…anski had emerged as the victor.
Almost immediately after securing his control over Serbia, De…anski (1321-1331) became embroiled in Byzantine affairs. In 1320 a civil war broke out in Byzantium as well. Emperor Andronicus II was opposed by his grandson, Andronicus III. The elder Andronicus secured an alliance with the Serbs, marrying his niece to De…anski in 1324. Andronicus III responded by making an alliance with Bulgaria against the Serbs. When Andronicus III proved victorious in 1328, he plotted to defeat the Serbs and restore Serbia to his empire. In 1330, a combined Bulgarian-Byzantine assault was planned against Serbia. But the Byzantine army moved to slowly, and De…anski’s Serbs, aided by a contingent of Spanish heavy cavalry, defeated the Bulgarians soundly. Thereafter, Bulgaria was reduced to dependency on Serbia, at times being little more than a client state.
Stefan De…anski was now at the height of his power. But his attempts to dominate the Serbian nobility led to a forcible reaction. In 1331, De…anski was overthrown by the nobility and replaced by his son, Stefan Uroš IV Dušan (1331-1356). Dušan had led the Serb cavalry in their victory over the Bulgarians, and had thus won the loyalty of many of the leading nobles. Still, the Serbian boyars thought that they could control the new king. In particular, the nobles had been dissatisfied with De…anski’s unwillingness to pursue a war with Byzantium. The noble saw an opportunity to gain more land for themselves, and hoped that Dušan would oblige them by attacking Macedonia. To their dismay, Dušan made peace with Andronicus III in 1334. Thereafter, Dušan ceased to be in anywise a puppet of the nobility. He spend the next few years consolidating his northern borders, advancing into Bosnia and Hungary.
In 1341, Andronicus III died. He left a nine_year old boy, John V Palaeologus (1341-91), as his heir. Andronicus had appointed his good friend John Cantacuzenus as regent, but this proved to be a mistake. Cantacuzenus was one of the richest landowners in the empire, and was much disliked by many of the great nobles as well as by the dowager-empress, Anna of Savoy. While Cantacuzenus was on campaign in Albania, Anna and a group of nobles declared him deposed and set up a new regency. The result was a long and bitter civil war between the supporters of Cantacuzenus and the regency.
Shortly after his accession Cantacuzenus appealed to Stefan Dušan for aid. Initially Dušan agreed, but within a year had backed out of the alliance. His reasons were simple. Most of the nobility of Greece were supporters of John V and the regency, and the Serbian nobles hoped that by supporting Cantacuzenus, they might be rewarded with estates confiscated from his enemies. Dušan opposed a policy that might enrich his nobles, and hence decided to conquer Greece on his own terms. By 1345, Dušan had occupied all of Greece to the isthmus of Corinth.
After conquering Greece, Dušan had himself proclaimed Tsar. In the face of the Byzantine civil war, it appears that the Serbian ruler was attempting to present himself as the rightful emperor. To this end, he courted the monks of Mount Athos, the “Holy Island” which was both the chief monastery as well as the spiritual heart of the Orthodox world. After appealing to their piety and making exceedingly generous donations to their purse, Dušan was able to gain the support of the monks, who recognized the Serbian archbishop as Patriarch. The newly proclaimed Patriarch crowned Stefan Dušan “Emperor of the Serbs and the Greeks” in April 1346. The Patriarch of Constantinople immediately excommunicated Stefan and his patriarch, but to little effect.
The new empire was a multi-ethnic state. The law code of Stefan Dušan, issued in 1346, indicates that Greeks, Serbs, and the other ethnic groups in his realm — Albanians, Gypsies, Vlachs, Hungarians, and Germans — were governed by different codes. The Serbs were the dominant ethnic group, holding the highest administrative positions at the provincial level. Byzantine administrative machinery was preserved, however, and most bureaucrats were Greeks. Moreover, Greeks retained most of the landed property, and there is evidence to suggest that Byzantine forms of land-tenure were introduced into Serbia. In short, it appears that Dušan hoped to be able to ensure his position by playing Greeks against Serbs, and Greeks and Serbs against the other ethnic minorities.
The great Serbian empire did not long survive its creator. In 1356, Dušan was contemplating marching on Constantinople, but died before anything could happen. After his death, the country was submerged in civil war, and within a generation was rent by serious internal conflicts.
Byzantium had been spared, but there was little to be spared. John Cantacuzenus was finally able to reenter Constantinople in 1347 and was crowned co-emperor. But the years of civil war and invasion had led to depopulation and devastation. At Cantacuzenus’ coronation, pottery and lead dishes replaced the traditional silver and gold serving pieces. Within a few years, John V Palaeologus had come of age and conspired to rid himself of Cantacuzenus. In 1352 civil war erupted again. Cantacuzenus was defeated and abdicated. He retired to a monastery and took to writing history. Indeed, John V valued his predecessor’s advice, and supported him until he died in 1383.
During the fourteenth century a new power arose that would have a great impact on the Balkans. In Anatolia, various Seljuk states had emerged during the Mongol period. The Il-Khans tended to leave the military commanders of the western coasts to themselves so long as they recognized Mongol suzerainty. In the closing years of the thirteenth century, these Turkish principalities overtook the remaining Christian communities of western Anatolia. By the 1320s most of these Turkish amîrs had reached the coast, and had taken to piracy. One of the smaller state, in Bythinia across from Thrace, was ruled by the Osmali family. Since the Osmali found themselves almost perpetually in conflict with the Byzantine Empire and other powers across the straits, they attracted many Muslim volunteers to their tiny amirate, the core of what would in time become the Ottoman Empire.
In their conflicts with Serbs, Bulgarians, and Latins, the Byzantines had often called on the Ottoman Turks for support. In 1329 they made an alliance with Byzantium and began actively raiding Latin positions in Greece. After 1334, however, the Turks began to attack the Christian settlements more generally. Still, during the Byzantine civil wars, both Andronicus III and John Cantacuzenus frequently used Turkish mercenaries. On account of his treaty with the Ottomans in 1343, Cantacuzenus is often blamed for bringing the Turks into Europe. This is not entirely fair — he was not the first Byzantine rule to employ the Turks. Moreover, the Turkish invasion of Europe needed little Byzantine assistance to succeed.
In 1354 the Turks established a foothold in Europe at Gallipolis. Thereafter, they exploited the continued internal conflicts among the Balkan states. In 1366 they occupied Adrianople (Edirne). Throughout the 1360s and 1370s brigandage was on the rise in the Balkans. Continued civil wars, Turkish raids, and a general breakdown of civil order contributed to the emergence of bands of brigands, many of whom were noble. Rulers were forced to disperse their own forces to fight the bandits while the bandits were ready allies for any would-be ruler. Since many rulers, whether they were local notables or emperors, owed their throne to bandits who had come to their side in the civil wars, the bandits were rewarded with privileges that made them even harder to stamp out. As a result, by the end of the 1380s, the Balkans were in a state of near anarchy. The Turks exploited this situation to the fullest. By 1362 the Ottoman Sultan Murad I (1359-1389) had taken Adrianople and subsequently Murad I succeeded in conquering most of Thrace and Thessaly.
In 1389 Murad invaded Serbia. On the eve of the battle of Kosovo he was killed by a Serb patriot, but Murad’s son Bayezid was able to prevent anyone from knowing of his father’s murder until after the battle had been won. The Ottoman victory at Kosovo reduced the great Serbian empire to a vassal state of the sultans. Bayezid I followed up by invading Bulgaria, which was conquered between 1392 and 1393.
The Byzantine emperor Manuel II (1391-1425) appealed to the West for help, but with little success. The papacy demanded concessions, and since the Church was rent by schism, Manuel found himself negotiating with several popes. In 1396, Sigismund, the Luxemburg king of Hungary, led an army of crusaders to aid Manuel, but the Turks defeated the Hungarians at Nikopolis in 1396. For the next few years, the West watched as the Turks continued to tighten the noose around Constantinople. In 1442, the Turks laid siege to the city, but failed to take it. Emperor John VIII (1425-1448) made a last-ditch effort to secure western support. He sent representatives to the Council of Ferrara, and agreed to a union between the Latin and Greek churches. John even promised to recognized the pope as the legitimate head of Christendom, but it was all for naught. His successor, Constantine IX (1449-1453) received little aid as the Turks renewed the offensive. In 1453, the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed “the Conqueror” (1451-1481) laid siege to Constantinople. With the aid a cannon built by Hungarian engineers, he toppled the walls built by Theodosius II a thousand years before. Constantine IX was killed in the fighting. After the battle, a headless corpse wearing purple shoes emblazoned with imperial eagles was identified as the earthly remains of the last eastern Roman emperor.