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Late Middle Ages

Period of European history generally comprising the 14th and 15th centuries

Top 10 Late Middle Ages related articles

Late Middle Ages
Europe and Mediterranean region
Europe and the Mediterranean region, c. 1328

Western/Central Europe
  Holy Roman Empire
Eastern Europe
  Teutonic Order
  Golden Horde
  G. Horde Vassals
  Genovese Prov.
  Hungary and Croatia
Italian peninsula
  Papal states

Iberian peninsula
British Isles
  England and Wales

Balkans/West Asia
  Duchy of Athens
  Byzantine Empire
  Mameluke Empire
  Turkic states
  Venetian Crete
  Knights of St. John
  Ilkhan Empire
North Africa

From the Apocalypse in a Biblia Pauperum illuminated at Erfurt around the time of the Great Famine. Death sits astride a lion whose long tail ends in a ball of flame (Hell). Famine points to her hungry mouth.

The Late Middle Ages or Late Medieval Period was the period of European history lasting from 1250 to 1500 AD. The Late Middle Ages followed the High Middle Ages and preceded the onset of the early modern period (and in much of Europe, the Renaissance).[1]

Around 1300, centuries of prosperity and growth in Europe came to a halt. A series of famines and plagues, including the Great Famine of 1315–1317 and the Black Death, reduced the population to around half of what it had been before the calamities.[2] Along with depopulation came social unrest and endemic warfare. France and England experienced serious peasant uprisings, such as the Jacquerie and the Peasants' Revolt, as well as over a century of intermittent conflict, the Hundred Years' War. To add to the many problems of the period, the unity of the Catholic Church was temporarily shattered by the Western Schism. Collectively, those events are sometimes called the Crisis of the Late Middle Ages.[3]

Despite the crises, the 14th century was also a time of great progress in the arts and sciences. Following a renewed interest in ancient Greek and Roman texts that took root in the High Middle Ages, the Italian Renaissance began. The absorption of Latin texts had started before the Renaissance of the 12th century through contact with Arabs during the Crusades, but the availability of important Greek texts accelerated with the Capture of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks, when many Byzantine scholars had to seek refuge in the West, particularly Italy.[4]

Combined with this influx of classical ideas was the invention of printing, which facilitated dissemination of the printed word and democratized learning. Those two things would later lead to the Protestant Reformation. Toward the end of the period, the Age of Discovery began. The expansion of the Ottoman Empire cut off trading possibilities with the East. Europeans were forced to seek new trading routes, leading to the Spanish expedition under Christopher Columbus to the Americas in 1492 and Vasco da Gama’s voyage to Africa and India in 1498. Their discoveries strengthened the economy and power of European nations.

The changes brought about by these developments have led many scholars to view this period as the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of modern history and of early modern Europe. However, the division is somewhat artificial, since ancient learning was never entirely absent from European society. As a result, there was developmental continuity between the ancient age (via classical antiquity) and the modern age. Some historians, particularly in Italy, prefer not to speak of the Late Middle Ages at all but rather see the high period of the Middle Ages transitioning to the Renaissance and the modern era.

Late Middle Ages Intro articles: 82

Historiography and periodization

The term "Late Middle Ages" refers to one of the three periods of the Middle Ages, along with the Early Middle Ages and the High Middle Ages. Leonardo Bruni was the first historian to use tripartite periodization in his History of the Florentine People (1442).[5] Flavio Biondo used a similar framework in Decades of History from the Deterioration of the Roman Empire (1439–1453). Tripartite periodization became standard after the German historian Christoph Cellarius published Universal History Divided into an Ancient, Medieval, and New Period (1683).

For 18th-century historians studying the 14th and 15th centuries, the central theme was the Renaissance, with its rediscovery of ancient learning and the emergence of an individual spirit.[6] The heart of this rediscovery lies in Italy, where, in the words of Jacob Burckhardt: "Man became a spiritual individual and recognized himself as such".[7] This proposition was later challenged, and it was argued that the 12th century was a period of greater cultural achievement.[8]

As economic and demographic methods were applied to the study of history, the trend was increasingly to see the late Middle Ages as a period of recession and crisis. Belgian historian Henri Pirenne continued the subdivision of Early, High, and Late Middle Ages in the years around World War I.[9] Yet it was his Dutch colleague, Johan Huizinga, who was primarily responsible for popularising the pessimistic view of the Late Middle Ages, with his book The Autumn of the Middle Ages (1919).[10] To Huizinga, whose research focused on France and the Low Countries rather than Italy, despair and decline were the main themes, not rebirth.[11][12]

Modern historiography on the period has reached a consensus between the two extremes of innovation and crisis. It is now generally acknowledged that conditions were vastly different north and south of the Alps, and the term "Late Middle Ages" is often avoided entirely within Italian historiography.[13] The term "Renaissance" is still considered useful for describing certain intellectual, cultural, or artistic developments, but not as the defining feature of an entire European historical epoch.[14] The period from the early 14th century up until – and sometimes including – the 16th century, is rather seen as characterized by other trends: demographic and economic decline followed by recovery, the end of western religious unity and the subsequent emergence of the nation state, and the expansion of European influence onto the rest of the world.[14]

Late Middle Ages Historiography and periodization articles: 13


The limits of Christian Europe were still being defined in the 14th and 15th centuries. While the Grand Duchy of Moscow was beginning to repel the Mongols, and the Iberian kingdoms completed the Reconquista of the peninsula and turned their attention outwards, the Balkans fell under the dominance of the Ottoman Empire.[15] Meanwhile, the remaining nations of the continent were locked in almost constant international or internal conflict.[16]

The situation gradually led to the consolidation of central authority and the emergence of the nation state.[17] The financial demands of war necessitated higher levels of taxation, resulting in the emergence of representative bodies – most notably the English Parliament.[18] The growth of secular authority was further aided by the decline of the papacy with the Western Schism and the coming of the Protestant Reformation.[19]

Northern Europe

Main articles: Denmark, Norway, Sweden

After the failed union of Sweden and Norway of 1319–1365, the pan-Scandinavian Kalmar Union was instituted in 1397.[20] The Swedes were reluctant members of the Danish-dominated union from the start. In an attempt to subdue the Swedes, King Christian II of Denmark had large numbers of the Swedish aristocracy killed in the Stockholm Bloodbath of 1520. Yet this measure only led to further hostilities, and Sweden broke away for good in 1523.[21] Norway, on the other hand, became an inferior party of the union and remained united with Denmark until 1814.

Iceland benefited from its relative isolation and was the last Scandinavian country to be struck by the Black Death.[22] Meanwhile, the Norse colony in Greenland died out, probably under extreme weather conditions in the 15th century.[23] These conditions might have been the effect of the Little Ice Age.[24]

Northwest Europe

The death of Alexander III of Scotland in 1286 threw the country into a succession crisis, and the English king, Edward I, was brought in to arbitrate. Edward claimed overlordship over Scotland, leading to the Wars of Scottish Independence.[25] The English were eventually defeated, and the Scots were able to develop a stronger state under the Stewarts.[26]

From 1337, England's attention was largely directed towards France in the Hundred Years' War.[27] Henry V's victory at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 briefly paved the way for a unification of the two kingdoms, but his son Henry VI soon squandered all previous gains.[28] The loss of France led to discontent at home. Soon after the end of the war in 1453, the dynastic struggles of the Wars of the Roses (c. 1455–1485) began, involving the rival dynasties of the House of Lancaster and House of York.[29]

The war ended in the accession of Henry VII of the Tudor family, who continued the work started by the Yorkist kings of building a strong, centralized monarchy.[30] While England's attention was thus directed elsewhere, the Hiberno-Norman lords in Ireland were becoming gradually more assimilated into Irish society, and the island was allowed to develop virtual independence under English overlordship.[31]

Western Europe

Main articles: France, Burgundy, Burgundian Netherlands
France in the late 15th century: a mosaic of feudal territories

The French House of Valois, which followed the House of Capet in 1328, was at its outset marginalized in its own country, first by the English invading forces of the Hundred Years' War, and later by the powerful Duchy of Burgundy.[32] The emergence of Joan of Arc as a military leader changed the course of war in favour of the French, and the initiative was carried further by King Louis XI.[33]

Meanwhile, Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, met resistance in his attempts to consolidate his possessions, particularly from the Swiss Confederation formed in 1291.[34] When Charles was killed in the Burgundian Wars at the Battle of Nancy in 1477, the Duchy of Burgundy was reclaimed by France.[35] At the same time, the County of Burgundy and the wealthy Burgundian Netherlands came into the Holy Roman Empire under Habsburg control, setting up conflict for centuries to come.[36]

Central Europe

Main articles: Germany, Bohemia, Hungary, Poland, Switzerland, Lithuania
Silver mining and processing in Kutná Hora, Bohemia, 15th century

Bohemia prospered in the 14th century, and the Golden Bull of 1356 made the king of Bohemia first among the imperial electors, but the Hussite revolution threw the country into crisis.[37] The Holy Roman Empire passed to the Habsburgs in 1438, where it remained until its dissolution in 1806.[38] Yet in spite of the extensive territories held by the Habsburgs, the Empire itself remained fragmented, and much real power and influence lay with the individual principalities.[39] In addition, financial institutions, such as the Hanseatic League and the Fugger family, held great power, on both economic and political levels.[40]

The kingdom of Hungary experienced a golden age during the 14th century.[41] In particular the reigns of the Angevin kings Charles Robert (1308–42) and his son Louis the Great (1342–82) were marked by success.[42] The country grew wealthy as the main European supplier of gold and silver.[43] Louis the Great led successful campaigns from Lithuania to Southern Italy, and from Poland to Northern Greece.

He had the greatest military potential of the 14th century with his enormous armies (often over 100,000 men). Meanwhile, Poland's attention was turned eastwards, as the Commonwealth with Lithuania created an enormous entity in the region.[44] The union, and the conversion of Lithuania, also marked the end of paganism in Europe.[45]

Louis did not leave a son as heir after his death in 1382. Instead, he named as his heir the young prince Sigismund of Luxemburg. The Hungarian nobility did not accept his claim, and the result was an internal war. Sigismund eventually achieved total control of Hungary and established his court in Buda and Visegrád. Both palaces were rebuilt and improved, and were considered the richest of the time in Europe. Inheriting the throne of Bohemia and the Holy Roman Empire, Sigismund continued conducting his politics from Hungary, but he was kept busy fighting the Hussites and the Ottoman Empire, which was becoming a menace to Europe in the beginning of the 15th century.

The King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary led the largest army of mercenaries of the time, The Black Army of Hungary, which he used to conquer Bohemia and Austria and to fight the Ottoman Empire. After Italy, Hungary was the first European country where the Renaissance appeared.[46] However, the glory of the Kingdom ended in the early 16th century, when the King Louis II of Hungary was killed in the battle of Mohács in 1526 against the Ottoman Empire. Hungary then fell into a serious crisis and was invaded, ending its significance in central Europe during the medieval era.

Eastern Europe

The state of Kievan Rus' fell during the 13th century in the Mongol invasion.[47] The Grand Duchy of Moscow rose in power thereafter, winning a great victory against the Golden Horde at the Battle of Kulikovo in 1380.[48] The victory did not end Tartar rule in the region, however, and its immediate beneficiary was the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which extended its influence eastwards.[49]

Under the reign of Ivan the Great (1462–1505), Moscow became a major regional power, and the annexation of the vast Republic of Novgorod in 1478 laid the foundations for a Russian national state.[50] After the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 the Russian princes started to see themselves as the heirs of the Byzantine Empire. They eventually took on the imperial title of Tsar, and Moscow was described as the Third Rome.[51]

Southeast Europe

Main articles: Byzantine Empire, Bulgaria, Serbia, Albania
Ottoman miniature of the siege of Belgrade in 1456

The Byzantine Empire had for a long time dominated the eastern Mediterranean in politics and culture.[52] By the 14th century, however, it had almost entirely collapsed into a tributary state of the Ottoman Empire, centered on the city of Constantinople and a few enclaves in Greece.[53] With the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Byzantine Empire was permanently extinguished.[54]

The Bulgarian Empire was in decline by the 14th century, and the ascendancy of Serbia was marked by the Serbian victory over the Bulgarians in the Battle of Velbazhd in 1330.[55] By 1346, the Serbian king Stefan Dušan had been proclaimed emperor.[56] Yet Serbian dominance was short-lived; the Serbian army led by the Lazar Hrebljevanovic was defeated by the Ottomans at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, where most of the Serbian nobility was killed and the south of the country came under Ottoman occupation, as much of southern Bulgaria had become Ottoman territory in 1371.[57] Northern remnants of Bulgaria were finally conquered by 1396, Serbia fell in 1459, Bosnia in 1463, and Albania was finally subordinated in 1479 only a few years after the death of Skanderbeg. Belgrade, an Hungarian domain at the time, was the last large Balkan city to fall under Ottoman rule, in 1521. By the end of the medieval period, the entire Balkan peninsula was annexed by, or became vassal to, the Ottomans.[57]

Southwest Europe

Main articles: Italy, Crown of Aragon, Spain, Portugal
Battle of Aljubarrota between Portugal and Castile, 1385

Avignon was the seat of the papacy from 1309 to 1376.[58] With the return of the Pope to Rome in 1378, the Papal State developed into a major secular power, culminating in the morally corrupt papacy of Alexander VI.[59] Florence grew to prominence amongst the Italian city-states through financial business, and the dominant Medici family became important promoters of the Renaissance through their patronage of the arts.[60] Other city states in northern Italy also expanded their territories and consolidated their power, primarily Milan and Venice.[61] The War of the Sicilian Vespers had by the early 14th century divided southern Italy into an Aragon Kingdom of Sicily and an Anjou Kingdom of Naples.[62] In 1442, the two kingdoms were effectively united under Aragonese control.[63]

The 1469 marriage of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon and the 1479 death of John II of Aragon led to the creation of modern-day Spain.[64] In 1492, Granada was captured from the Moors, thereby completing the Reconquista.[65] Portugal had during the 15th century – particularly under Henry the Navigator – gradually explored the coast of Africa, and in 1498, Vasco da Gama found the sea route to India.[66] The Spanish monarchs met the Portuguese challenge by financing the expedition of Christopher Columbus to find a western sea route to India, leading to the discovery of the Americas in 1492.[67]

Late Middle Ages History articles: 124