A Handy Introduction to Late Medieval History
The interest in studying medieval history at university is increasing with a growth in students signing up for medieval specific degrees, such as the new medieval degree pathway introduced at the University of Winchester, and opting for medieval period modules within a History degree.
This is in conjunction with the introduction, in September 2015, of new A Level options in the medieval period, covering both British and European choices. These options are, however, rather limited focusing on either the Black Death or Great Revolt of 1381 or the beginning of the Tudor dynasty from 1485. These are interesting and valid events and dates, but the late medieval period is so much more.
The period 1300 to 1550 in Western Europe encompassed many major turning points, significant people and events.
By 1300 the earlier rising power of the popes over Western Europe reached its zenith, from this date it was a slow descent into a parochial, Italian focus. There were no major religious initiatives emanating from Rome, even after the impact of the Black Death and subsequent re-visitations of the plague; the rise of national identities or the Reformations of the sixteenth century. While still important the popes had lost their leading role in many aspects of European life, especially in the political sphere. However this should be seen in contrast to the importance of the Church in the personal lives of people of the period.
Likewise the Black Death, which swept across Western Europe from 1347 to 1350, fundamentally changed many areas of life but did not see the overthrow of any of the major institutions of the period. The impact of the loss of 30% to 50% of the population of Western Europe in this event did see the end of the feudal system within a couple of generations, but monarchy, the spiritual authority of the Church and social systems remained in place.
The development of parliaments in this period continued. These need to be seen in the context of the period, and not as part of a proto-democratic movement. The fate of parliaments across Europe varied by country and not all societies and nations developed in the same way.
In each nation the ruling families and dynasties rose and fell.
There were not always the necessary sons to carry on family traditions, and kings could and were removed from power. Warfare between states and these different dynasties, both internally and externally, was a feature of the age. The focus of earlier periods to the Holy Land in the east, through the Crusades was over, and by the end of the fifteenth century the New World in the West was beckoning instead. Warfare was changed by the development of gunpowder over this period and contributed to the change in chivalry, chivalric values and the role of knights on horseback.
Studying this exciting period of history can be hampered by the confusion in the use of familiar terms, but in a different context.
These differences are explained and explored in my recent publication: Studying Medieval History: A Thematic Approach. It aims to unravel these contexts and discusses this period of Western European history by themes, not chronology. So the role of kings, women, children and nobles are explored and explained, along with warfare, the Church, parliaments and justice. Each chapter is broken down into smaller relevant sections and countries. My aim was to produce a guide to the period to enable readers to fully understand and have confidence in their further reading and research of the period.
Have your say
Have something to add or would like to share your thoughts? Tell us in the comment section below.
About the author
Dr Cindy Wood is a lecturer in the History Department at the University of Winchester and specialises in the transition from school/college to university study. Her research interests include the late medieval Church and royal families.