The Middle Ages is an era in Western Europe when the continent is undergoing a change in its society’s central element. In comparison to the classical period, the Middle Ages encompass a great reform in religion. However, the highlight of this period time period in Western Europe can be observed in the later part of the Middle Ages from year 1300 to 1500. This is the time when the countries and key states in the European region are disturbed by economic depression, war and dynastic diffusion. Powerful Aristocratic factions used the collapse of their country’s central government to create economic and political allegiances. The church is mainly the subject of reform during the era because of the introduction of several intellectual elements that changed the perception of its society towards religion and belief. Politics on the other hand became the main family affair as the political influence and power shifted from the central government to fragmented and often regionally diffused Aristocratic families. In Germany for example, five Aristocratic families struggle for power and control of the Germanic empire. Allegiances are common during the Middle Ages, the Germanic empire for example was greatly threatened by the Aristocratic families because houses such as Wittlesbach, Premysl, Luxembourg, Habsburg and Anjou joined have forces with other families in Eastern Germany and the Teutonic Knights to put Eastern Europe under their power. The same development happened in the Western part of Europe as competing families disturbed the political statute of the region leaving kingdoms to squabble due to war.
The Aristocratic family’s struggle for power did not only change the political and economic situation in their respective state, but also allowed them to establish new kingdoms. Austria for example was founded as a result of alliances among aristocratic factions, which later became an independent state. In the Northern part of Europe, centralized monarchies of France and England are also engaged in a hundred year long dispute and war over the claim to the throne of France. The conflict started after the end of the Capetian dynasty in 1314 when the king of England announced his claim to the throne of France particularly on the grounds that the king of England’s status as vassal of the French monarchy because of the territorial ownership in Gascony (Kishlansky, Geary and O’Brien). Such dispute gave the reason for the elite families of the two countries to engage in violent conducts for the sake of chivalry. To further their campaign in the French territories, English provided support to and encourage the people in Flanders to rebel against the king of France.
Such developments in the French and English war resulted to strategic developments on both sides. The French used their advantage in number and resources in battling the English, the French monarchy used his kingdom’s immense wealth to fund his warfare. The English on the other hand used their efficient administrative skills to their advantage. They used their previous warfare experiences to better command its army. Moreover, the English changed their military tactics by paying mercenaries and military experts to develop better warfare tactics and their armies were no longer treated as feudal levies, but paid military professionals. Series or raids and pillaging brought the English campaign to numerous victories, which destroyed most of the French countryside. Out of the destroyed villages came the mystical peasant girl that changed the fate of the French kingdom and brought the crown back to the French king’s head. Joan of Arc led the French army to victory that pushed the English back to the French coasts. The defeat of the English campaign resulted to further increasing the power of aristocracy in England, factionalism became imminent that resulted in Civil War and the Wars of the Roses from 1455 to 1485 (Kishlansky, Geary and O’Brien).
Joan of Arc was the main key to the French victory against the English. However, she was captured and executed in 1431. There were three major indictments made against her during her one year long trial until she was sentenced to be burned at the stake in May of 1431. Accusations include, being linked to the devil because of her statement of hearing voices from the saints, but the Catholic Church believes otherwise. Joan of Arc was also accused of heresy, which constitutes a punishment of death according to the doctrines of the church during that period. Despite the accusations toward Joan of Arc, there are still common people, men of the church and politicians that believes in Joan of Arc. This variation of perception about faith and interpretation of the church’s doctrines is an example of political disarray and divisions within the church during the Middle Ages (Kishlansky, Geary and O’Brien). The division of the church was also considered as the contributing factor to the crisis of the papacy during era. The first crisis emerges when the Frenchmen Clement V established the papacy court at Avignon instead in Rome. Avignon is situated within the Germanic empire, but the Pope’s court is considered under the tutelage of the king of France.
The creation of the court in Avignon and the system of ecclesiastical taxation resulted to the decline of the pope’s political influence marking the first of the crisis of papacy. The second emergence of crisis of papacy was the Schism, which means having two popes at the same time. Pope Gregory XI died immediately after returning to Rome, which ignited an interest among the Roman mobs to have an Italian pope threatening the cardinals with violence. Because of the immense pressure from the Italians, those cardinals present in Rome during that period were left with no choice, but to elect the Italian bishop Urban VI. However, as soon as the cardinals returned to France they denounced the validity of the election and proclaimed a French candidate Clement VII as the official pope of the church. Schism has divided the Catholic Church into two warring camps, Scotland and France in support of Clement while England and Germany are in support of Urban. The earlier attempts to resolve the situation only resulted to an election of a third pope; schism was only ended through the Council of Constance, but the crisis already tainted the pope’s universal authority.
The continuous political and church conflicts have resulted to economic depression wherein the food supply can no longer support the needs of the entire European region. Famine came into prevalence followed by series of epidemics known in history as the Black Death. The lack of food contributed to malnutrition on the majority of the European population. This in return contributed to the spread of diseases and an unknown plague that swept the entire continent leaving one-third of its population to perish. The recurring disease continued to ravage the lands that changed the people’s perception that the plague was a result of a divine wrath. The event made medical knowledge rudimentary, but it still didn’t stop the disease from developing and continuously spreading. The Black Death plunged the European economy to the pits as the supply of labor was radically reduced due to deaths and the remaining workforces are no longer bound to the rules of their lords and demands for more favorable contractual terms (Kishlansky, Geary and O’Brien).
Kishlansky, Mark, Patrick Geary, and Patricia O’Brien. “Chapter 10: The Later Middle Ages, 1300-1500.” Civilization in the West. 6th ed. New York, USA: Pearson, 2005. Print.
Kishlansky, Mark, Patrick Geary, and Patricia O’Brien. “Chapter 13: The Reform of Religion.” Civilization in the West. 6th ed. New York, USA: Pearson, 2005. Print.