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EUROPE, 1201 to 1500 CE (1 of 7)

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Europe, 1201 to 1500 CE

Growth and Change in the 1200s | Plague and Progress in the 1300s | The Hundred Years' War | Cannon, Politics and Machiavelli | Russia and the Mongols, to Ivan III | Rising Powers of Portugal and Spain | Europe's Renaissance Begins


An explosion of cathedral and castle building was taking place in the 1200s. This is the Cathedral of Notre Dame on the River Seine in Paris. It took 90 years to construct and was finished in 1250

Growth and Change in the 1200s

Into the 1200s, rope, clocks and eyeglasses were coming into use. Buttons were being sewn onto clothing. Western Europeans were doing more measuring and beginning to use navigational charts. Advances were made in the smelting of ore. More iron was being used in tool making. The use of water power was increasing. Spinning wheels and foot-driven treadles were being used in the fabric industry. Trade was spreading over a greater distance. And western Europe was enjoying a long period of boom in commerce.

Castles of wood had been replaced by castles of stone, with thicker and higher walls. Great Gothic cathedrals were being built – a huge investment of time and money, reflecting economic vitality, civic pride and religious faith. Cathedrals were community centers. There people gathered for prayer, funerals and festivities. There, marriages were performed – daughters commonly being married at ages fourteen or fifteen. Local guilds met at the cathedral, as did magistrates and municipal officials. The cathedrals were places where actors staged plays, where couples courted and homeless pilgrims slept.

The Château de Coucy

The Château de Coucy, in what today is the far north of France, near the Belgian border. Barbara Tuchman focused on it in her book A Distant Mirror, about the age of chivalry in the 1300s having degenerated into a corrupt facade. The castle's citadel was 90 feet in diameter and 180 feet high, its four corner towers each 90 feet high. It took seven years to build, using around 1,600 craftsmen, and was completed in 1230. Watercolor ca 1820. (Wikimedia Commons)

Note: Barbara Tuchman describes chivalry's rationale. She writes that chivalry was more than a code of manners. It was "a moral system, governing the whole of noble life." It was "a code intended to fuse the religious and martial spirits and somehow bring the fighting man into accord with Christian theory." Knights, she writes, were at odds with original Christianity, as were merchants, and "a moral gloss was needed." Tuchman writes that "a code evolved that put the knight's sword arm in the service, theoretically, of justice, right, piety, the Church, the widow, the orphan, and the oppressed. Knighthood was received in the name of the Trinity after a ceremony of purification, confession and communion." God and chivalry, it was believed, were in concord." note29

Farming had expanded onto lands with soil that was of lower quality than that of the river valleys previously farmed. With improved farming methods and more acreage being farmed, a surplus of food was being produced, lowering its price but making it harder for farmers to make a living on marginal land.

With the reclamation of land coming to an end, people who had farmed were moving to the towns in search of work, and work was harder to find. The economy didn't keep up with the rise in population, and at the end of the 1200s an economic recession was developing, and the confidence that characterized the earlier 1200s in Europe was on the wane.

Monarchical Power versus Church Power

Monarchs, meanwhile, had been building centralized bureaucracies and extending their rule across territory that had been dominated by nobles. In 1284 the English monarchy completed its conquest of the English countryside.

The papacy in Rome considered itself independent of Byzantium's authority and was enjoying a rise in its influence. Only a few small pockets of paganism remained, in Scandinavia and among the Lithuanians. The church remained at the center of people's lives. It controlled education, including the universities, with all teachers being members of the clergy. With scholastic thought it dominated western Europe intellectually. Princes frequently went to the papacy to settle their disputes. But from this peak, the Church was about to decline.

However more successful, maintaining authority over the many aspects of people's lives was difficult for the Church. Many people were ignoring Church law. The Church condemned the killing of newborn babies, but this continued to be widely practiced, especially the exposure of infant daughters – exposure preferred over abortion.

The Church's position was being threatened by the growing power of kings. In 1294, two Christian monarchs, King Edward I of England and Philip IV of France, went to war against each other over a fishing conflict. This led to conflict with the Church. Edward and Philip laid taxes upon the clergy in order to pay for their war, and Pope Boniface VIII objected. He insisted that all Christians were subject to him and that kings must submit to papal authority. Boniface proclaimed that the clergy was not to pay taxes to secular rulers. King Edward resisted, and King Philip maintained that he was completely sovereign and responsible to God alone. Philip stopped the flow of money from France to the Vatican. Philip charged Boniface with heresy and in 1303 sent troops to Italy to arrest him. Pope Boniface had no substantial military power of his own. He was rescued by friends. But he was 69, and he died a month later. 

In 1305, French influence in the College of Cardinals in Rome resulted in the election there of the Bishop of Bordeaux as the new pope. He became Pope Clement V. A French pope left Romans feeling slighted, and they rioted. At the request of Philip IV of France, Pope Clement moved his court away from hostile Rome to the fortress town Avignon, in southeastern France. Pope Clement appointed cardinals from French clergy.

The monarchies of England and France taxed and took payments from bishops and lower clergy within their realm. Papal prestige suffered. English, Germans and Italians accused the pope and cardinals at Avignon of being the tools of the French monarchy. And pious Christians called the Avignon papacy the Babylonian Captivity.


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