RENAISSANCE: Rest of Europe (14th)

Historical context

It was between 1347 and 1350 that a disease known as the "Black Death" (the bubonic plague) killed some 20 million people in Europe, 30% of the population. The plague began when 12 ships from the Black Sea docked in Messina, Sicily. The sailors had symptoms such as fever, chills, vomiting, diarrhea and boils filled with blood and pus. The disease spread, killing farm animals, too. Some believed it was a divine punishment; other blamed their neighbours. In the year 1348-49 thousands of Jews were murdered as heretics. The consequences of the epidemic had a profound impact on society, it's economy, it's culture and it's social structure. Several waves of Black Death epidemics brought an end to feudalism in the 14th. century when the peasants revolted. This was the start of organised labour and the beginning of the end of fiefdom.

The Hundred Years War (1337–1453) between England and France began over a dispute about wool exports. Philip V of France and Edward III quarreled over trade in Flanders. This snowballed into the English King declaring himself King of France and Philip declaring Edward's fiefdoms in France forfeit. This was the start of over a hundred years of squabbles between the two nations. 
The English peasants revolted against paying for the Hundred Years' War, having to labour on Church lands and because of the socio-economic and political tensions. In their revolt of 1381, 100,000 marched on London, seizing the Tower and murdering the Archbishop. 

The Crusades ended in the 14th. century. They had begun in 1095, when Pope Urban summoned a Christian army to fight its way to Jerusalem which was captured in 1099. Pilgrims began to trek to the Holy Land but were often attacked by Muslims. In 1185 the Knights Templar order was created to protect the pilgrims. They were expelled from Acre in 1291 and dissolved in 1312.


Church architecture developed Gothic into flamboyant and perpendicular styles from 1350 onwards. Flamboyant Gothic architecture gets its name from the window tracery which resembles a flame with its s-like stone curving. Another new feature was the arc en accolade, a window decoration with an arch, some pinnacles and floral designs:

Other forms of medieval religious art were frescies and mosaics decorating church interiors. They showed devotional images of the Virgin Mary, Jesus and the saints.

When the 100 years war began in 1337 there was a notable reduction in church architecture and more in military and civil buildings. The flamboyant design thus appeared in secular buildings like town halls and homes.


Books were limited previous to the invention of the printing press in the next century. Illuminated manuscripts were created in male and female monasteries.

Compared to the Italian peninsula the Renaissance arrived later in the rest of Europe. It came in the High Middle Ages, but with a different engine of change. The Italian Renaissance had been influenced by classical Rome. In contrast, the rest of Europe still used medieval and Christian sources to propel the movement. They emphasized the role of the individual, but in a religious tone.

In Italy there had been a literary effort to compose in the vernacular instead of Latin. Northern Europe followed the same path.

William Langland wrote in Middle English, the characteristic English of the Middle Ages. His work, Piers Plowman, is an allegorical poem that translates monastic concepts into the language of the layman. It bridges the ecclesiastical and the secular.

John Gower wrote three major works in French, English, and Latin. It has themes of religious ethics and blames English social shortcomings for the great peasant revolt in 1381.

John Wycliffe, (1330–1384) was an English theologian, philosopher, Franciscan and a reformer of the Church. He taught divinity at Oxford. He and his followers, the Lollards, translated the Bible from Latin into the vernacular, Middle English. This challenged the Church's power to interpret the Scriptures and Wycliffe was condemned as a heretic post-mortem.

Geoffrey Chaucer chose Anglo-Saxon and is considered the 'Dante' of the English language because he brought the language to the status of literature with his Canterbury Tales. The tales are told among pilgrims who are on a pilgrimage to the grave of Saint Thomas Becket. The central theme is ethics in the Socratic sense of the meaning of existence but entertaining in its variety and humor.

The chronicler Jean Froissart also wrote his works in French. His Chroniques are documents of European feudal life and set forth the chivalrous and courtly ideals of the time.

Juan Hus, rector of the University of Prague, advocated religious reform especially in taxes, land and simony practices. It was a source of inspiration for Lutherans later. He was burned at the stake for his beliefs.

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