Brief History of the World Wiki
Crisis of the Late Middle Ages
Period Late Middle Ages
Dates 1337-1453 AD
Preceded by
Rise of State Power
Followed by
End of the Middle Ages
I am not afraid... I was born to do this.

–Joan of Arc

The Crisis of the Late Middle Ages lasted from about 1337 AD until 1453 AD. It began on the eve of the Hundred Years’ War between the two leading European powers of the day, France and England. It then ended around 1453, with both the last major battle of the war at Castillon, and the fall of the Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks.

The Late Middle Ages was characterized by two extremes of crisis and transformation: demographic collapse, social upheaval, endemic warfare, and religious instability; while at the same time, the emergence of nation states with the decline of feudalism, and great progress in the arts and sciences. Though famine and disease had always been a lurking presence in medieval life, the 14th-century 1300 saw the horrific results of both in abundance. The Great Plague of 1315-'17 began a slow decline of population, which suddenly became a great and cumulative setback with the arrival of the Black Death. The deadliest pandemics in human history reached Europe in 1347, and over the next six years killed at least one third of the population; over 75 million people world-wide. The plague repeatedly returned to haunt Europe with more localised outbreaks until the early-18th-century. As Europe's people succumbing in vast numbers, there were profound social fects. The Jews were scapegoated for the calamity, leading to the destruction by violence of hundreds of communities. The Church was struck escpecially hard, contracting the disease while caring for the dying, and resulting in a marked decline in clerical discipline, which played a role in the later Protestant Reformation. We might have expected the Black Death to have the devastating effect on Europe’s confidence, but it is her resiliency, not her decline or decay, that is most striking. Those who survived found their situation to be somewhat improved: wages soared in response to a labour shortage, the prices of food and land dropped; urban workers found opportunities in professions that had previously been closed to them by guilds; and the more odious obligations of serfdom all but disappeared. Almost inevitably, the privileged classes - the nobility, the merchant elite, and the clergy - attempted to stop these changes, with varying success depending on the amount of rebellion provoked, notably France's Jacquerie of 1358 and England's Peasants' Revolt of 1381, among others.

Meanwhile, England and France waged a protracted series of conflicts from 1337 to 1453, remembered as the Hundred Years’ War. What was at stake was the maintenance by English kings of feudal claims on the French side of the Channel, through exploiting a French succession crisis that gave England's kings with a credible claim to the French throne. Early in the war Edward III of England won the battles of Crécy and Poitiers, leading to conquest of Calais. Then Charles V of France orchestrated a remarkable revival of French fortunes, only for his son's disastrous reign to pave the way for civil war and the most celebrated English victory at Agincourt. France came close to dissolving, until the emergence of Joan of Arc, whose astonishing career accompanied the turning of the balance of the long struggle towards the French. By 1453, England was defeated, and her territorial connection with France virtually came to an end. In the long run, French and English  national mythology benefited: for the French the conflict became a national struggle to expel the foreigners occupiers, while in England, it led to the rejection of all things French, including the French language, which had served as the language of the nobility ever since the Norman conquests. It also spurred rapid development in a new weapon that was only now coming into its own on European battlefields; artillery. The Anglo-French conflict became the axis around which much of late medieval politics revolved, even within the Church. For almost four decades there were two popes in Europe, one in Rome and another at Avignon, one recognized by England and her allies and the other by France. The Great Papal Schism has its comic sides, for a while there were three popes, but it seriously damaged the prestige and authority of the papacy, paving the way for reform movements and ultimately the Reformation. Meanwhile, a Muslim Turkish people, the Ottomans, transformed a small principality on the Byzantine frontier into an empire spanning the south-eastern Europe and Anatolia by the late-14th-century. An invasion of Anatolia by the Central Asian conqueror Timur prevented them from going in to the kill against Constantinople for a while, but, despite a desperate last-ditch defence, the city finally fell in April 1453; bringing to an end two millennia of continuous Roman history. Constantinople, with a new name Istanbul, thus became the heart of a great empire once again; the Ottoman Empire.

Reconsidering the crisis years, they do not reveal a story of decline or decay, but the remarkable resilience of European civilisation that allowed it to recover rapidly. European population growth paused, but by the late-15th-century was poised on the edge of growth that has gone on uninterrupted ever since; slow and steady until the mid-18th-century, after which the increase accelerated. Meanwhile, some men began to unapologetically tapped the ideas of classical antiquity for inspiration. The Italian Renaissance ushered in an exciting new era of science and art that gradually spread all over Europe. Writer such as Petrarch, architect Brunelleschi, sculptor Donatello, and painters Masaccio and Botticelli styled themselves as budding Renaissance Men, aiming to replace the tradition and dogma of the Middle Ages with self-expression and rational thought. In a relatively short space of time, European civilisation made a giant leap into the future. Developments were revolutionary and contagious. Leonardo da Vinci gave Mona Lisa her enigmatic smile which continue to mystify people to this day; the printing press, pioneered by Johannes Gutenberg in Germany, became the new means of mass communication; Bartolomeu Dias, at the behest of the Portuguese monarchy, set sail rounded the Cape of Good Hope, for the Orient; and reformers questioned many of the long-held doctrines of the all-powerful clergy and ushered in what became known as the Protestant Reformation. In the half-light of a dawning modernity, there were many signs that a new age of world history was beginning.


Background to the Conflict[]


Around 1300, three centuries of prosperity and growth in Europe came to a halt, amidst population collapse, social upheaval, religious crisis, and endemic warfare. Much late medieval politics revolved around a protracted series of conflict between England and France, remembered by the misleading name of the Hundred Years War (1337-1453). In fact, the two kingdoms were only sporadically at war; sustained warfare was too expensive to keep up. And tension between the French and English crowns went back centuries before 1337, and continued for a very long time after the war; all the way down to the early-20th-century, when the Germans finally replaced the French as England’s natural adversaries in the popular eye. The root cause of the conflict can be traced to the origin of the English royal family. William the Conqueror, already duke of Normandy, conquered England in 1066, and introduced a new situation to northwest Europe. From this time, the English monarchs held lands and titles on both sides of the Channel. But Normandy had always been vassals of the king of France, and being kings of England in their own right did not change that fact. The inevitable result was friction, in which the royal family crowned in Westminster could draw upon the economic resources of England to protect and enlarge their interests in France, while the one crowned in Reims strove to assert their authority over the whole geographical region of France. William's great-grandson, Henry II of England (d. 1189), ruled over more French territory than the royal domain around Paris, but Philip II of France (d. 1223) and his grandson Louis IX (d. 1270) reduced the English king's holdings to only the Duchy of Aquitaine (Gascony) in the south-western France. One cause of the Hundred Years' War was feudal rights over Aquitaine. The English kings owed homage for this territory to the French king; obliging one king to do homage to another was seen as insulting to their honour. In practical terms, the wine trade of Aquitaine was one of the major sources of English revenue; the other being wool exports to Flanders (Belgium). Yet any local noble could appeal a legal decisions to the royal court in Paris, which the English found unacceptable. The other cause of the war was dynastic. Any medieval power struggle was not just one of warfare and intrigue, but a complex game of strategic marriages. The princes of great houses married within the same limited circle, so that Europe became an interconnected web of cousins; often with good claims to one another's throne. Louis VII of France and Henry II of England set a powerful example, marrying the same heiress, Eleanor of Aquitaine (d. 1204). But their successors made an even more consequential match. In 1308, Philip IV of France (d. 1314) sought to ease tension with Edward "Longshanks" of England (d. 1307) by arranging for his own daughter Isabella to Prince Edward, the future Edward II of England (d. 1327). At the time, no one imagined that the wedding could produce an English king with a claim to the French throne; Isabella had three brothers after-all. Nevertheless, Isabella lived to see that momentous outcome.

Family tree of King Philip IV of France.

At the end of the reign of Philip IV, France was the most populous, powerful, and influential kingdom in Europe. By happy accident, since the days of Hugh Capet (d. 996), there had always been a son to inherit the French throne. Philip's three sons were kings of France in turn; Louis X (d. 1316), Philip V (d. 1322), and Charles IV (1326). Charles IV had been three times married but had no son; only an infant daughter. With the male-line of the House of Capet extinct, and no precedent for female-line succession to the French throne, there was a dynastic crisis in France for the first time in centuries. The choice of the rightful heir was left to a great assembly of French nobles. By proximity of blood, the nearest male relative of the deceased king was a Edward, the son of his sister Isabella. There was a certain logical objection to Edward's inheritance; if the crown may not be inherited by a daughter, it would seem inconsistent for it to be inherited through a woman. Yet the was an even more powerful obstacle. Edward was now Edward III of England (1327-77). Moreover, Edward was only 14-years-old, and, at the time, England was ruled by his mother and regent, Isabella, who had recent deposed and murdered her husband, the previous English king, with her lover Roger Mortimer. In the circumstances, it was not surprising that the French assembly awarded the crown to a more distant relation, Philip VI Valois (1328-1350), who descended from Philip IV's younger brother; he was an adult, his descent all male-line, and all French. The decision was retrospectively justified by the Salic Law, which stated that daughters cannot inherit land. Philip VI was the first king of the Valois Dynasty (1328-1589), a cadet branch of the Capetians that would rule France for the next two-and-a-half centuries. Distracted by his own internal problems, the English king accepted the decision of the French assembly, and even paid homage to Philip VI for his French duchy. In recent years, the homage, which had to be done whenever a new ruler ascended either throne, was straining relations between the French and English courts, because Edward's father had to do homage to four French kings in turn with increasing reluctance. In 1329, the now 17-year-old Edward III attended a magnificent ceremony in Amiens Cathedral, but he did homage as a fellow monarch; dressed in a crimson velvet robe embroidered with the gold lions of England, wearing his crown, and with a sword at his belt. The next eight years witnessed a gradual change from symbolic defiance to open warfare. One sore point was Scotland. The English king expected to be given a free hand in the Second War of Scottish Independence (1332-57), but the French king provided refuge for the boy-king David II Bruce (d. 1371), in accordance with the Auld Alliance. By 1336, both sides were preparing for war. The final breach came over a seemingly trivial matter. A minor French noble called Robert of Artois was found guilty of criminal forgery in an attempt to claim an inheritance, and fled to England. When Edward refused to surrender the disgraced lord to French justice, Philip declared that he had forfeited the Duchy of Aquitaine for disobedience. Edward's response was dramatic, formally reviving his claim to the French crown; a declaration of war. There is some historical debate as to whether Edward's claim to the French crown was genuine, or merely a political ploy meant to put pressure on the French government.

Hundred Years' War (1337–1360)[]

The English victory at the little known naval Battle of Sluys was decisive in one sense; it meant that the Hundred Years War would be fought on French soil, rather than English.

Hostilities in the Hundred Years’ War began at sea, with a fight for control of the English Channel. At the time, neither kingdom had a purpose-built navy, instead relying on refitted merchant vessels to raid coastal towns and shipping. Both sought to obtain war-galleys from the Italian Maritime Republics, but were more successful in stymying the others side efforts than acquiring any themselves. Meanwhile, Edward III of England's cause was strengthened by an alliance with ever-independent Flanders (Belgium). The count of Flanders remained loyal to the Philip VI of France, but the cities, in their anxiety to ensure the continued supply of English wool for their textile industries, had rebelled under Jacob van Artevelde (d. 1345). Edward personally visited Ghent in 1338 to formally assume the royal title, allowing the rebellious Flemings to claim loyalty to the "true" king of France. By 1340, Edward was ready to ship his army to Flanders, prompting the first major confrontation of the war, the naval Battle of Sluys (June 1340). A medieval naval battle resembled a land engagement at sea; the ships would close on one another while exchanging arrows, grapple together for boarding, and then a desperate bloody fight ensued on the wooden decks. A 230-strong French fleet assumed a defensive formation linked by chains, near the port of Sluys to prevent the English landing. An experience Genoese mercenary called Pietro Barbavera advised the French commanders against this tactic, but was dismissed as a mere commoner. Meanwhile, the English fleet manoeuvred for most of the day, waiting for favourable winds and tides. With the delay, the French ships began to drift east and become entangled with one another. In this disorganised state, the English attack finally came. They attacked in units of three, two ships carrying archers and one crammed full of men-at-arms. With limited maneuverability, French ships were targetted, boarded and captured. As it became clear that the battle was going the way of the English, their Flemish allies sallied from the nearby ports and fell upon the French rear. The French lost 190 ships and some 16,000 men. Strategically, this little known battle gave the English fleet naval supremacy in the Channel. Most importantly that meant the Hundred Years' War would be fought on French soil.

The battles of Crécy clearly demonstrated the devastating effectiveness of the English longbow. The weapon first rose to prominence when deployed by the Welsh during the Norman invasions of Wales. The longbow derives its power for the length and construction; crafted from strips of yew cut where the hardened heart of the tree joins the sap wood  Not only could longbowmen fire heavier arrows more accurately than the traditional crossbowmen, but at a far faster rate; up to six a minute. Moreover, damp bowstrings could be replaced much more quickly. After many centuries when mounted knights dominated the battlefield, new weapons like the English longbow and Swiss pike saw the reassertion of the humble infantryman, in what has been called the 14th-century "Infantry Revolution".

Edward III was unable to followup his victory at Sluys for six years. The cost of the war had already been immense, with no great benefit, and public opinion turned against his continental cause. Edward eventually recover financially by defaulting on his debts to his Italian bankers, reducing both the Bardi and Peruzzi houses to bankruptcy; in the process helping the rise to power of the Medici family. Philip VI was still in a commanding position, with his greater resources allowing him to rebuild a modest French navy, that was again raiding the English coast within a year. In the meanwhile, Edward was able to keep the fighting on French soil going by intervening in the War of the Breton Succession (1341-64), with the French and English kings backing rival claimants; the English-backed claimant would prevail but not for two-decades. In 1346, Edward had recovered financially and mounted another major offensive. Sailing for Normandy with 15,000 men, he embarked upon a brutal campaign known as Chevauchée. These fast-moving mounted raids across France, designed to pillage every town among the path, rather than to take territory or give open battle, would be a characteristic English tactic throughout the Hundred Years' War. Their purpose was to terrorize and demoralize the people, to drain French financial resources, and to discredit the king who seemed incapable of protecting his people. Caen, a city larger than any in England except London, was taken completely by surprised, looted of anything portable, burned to the ground, and dozens of nobles were taken for ransom. Almost half the population was killed, at least 5,000 defenders and civilians. Edward then march to within 20-miles of Paris, before withdrawing north towards his allies in Flanders, with Philip's army in pursuit. Eventually finding himself outmanoeuvred, Edward was forced to stand-and-fight at the Battle of Crécy (August 1346). The English took-up a defensive position on a hill, with dismounted knights fighting side-by-side with common-born archers and infantrymen, behind prepared trenches and stakes to slow-down the enemy cavalry. These tactics had been developed during the wars with Scotland, and had proved devastatingly effective against impetuous Scottish charges at the Battle of Falkirk (1298). Philip's army was tired from the march, but, despite any common-sense, decided to attack as soon as they saw Edward's position; trapped in enemy territory and low on supplies, the English could have been starved into submission. The battle began with a direct skirmish between English longbowmen and French crossbowmen, but the slope and a brief intense rain made it a rout. The French then launched an impromptu cavalry charge, that became entangled with the fleeing crossbowmen, killing many of them; hot-blooded French knights saw any delay to their charge as an affront to their honour, and had nothing but contempt for commoners. Again and again the French heavy cavalry thundered up the slope in the face of a barrage of English arrows. By the time they reached the English men-at-arms, the charges had lost much of their impetus and were repulsed in fierce hand-to-hand combat; of thirteen charges only one serious stretched the English position. Finally in late afternoon, with the French tiring, Edward ordered his own heavy cavalry forward, effectively ending the rout. The French king had fought valianty, and two horse were cut from under him, but had to abandon the field, leaving at least 4,000 French dead including 1,500 knights. Crécy marked something of a swansong for medieval chivalry, beginning some of the military trends that would continue into the next centuries. More sophisticated English tactics, leadership, and cohesion had prevailed over a numerically superior army of ill-disciplined French knights; it was a lesson that would take the French almost a century to slowly learn. His great victory did not divert Edward III from his relatively unambitious plans. He continued on his course northwards, and besieged Calais. Although the citizens famously resisted him for almost a year, it finally capitulated in August 1347; the city would remained in English hands even after the Hundred Year' War until 1558.

Battle of Poitiers a painting housed in the Musée du Louvre by Eugène Delacroix, 1830. It depicts the French king John II surrounded and on the brink of being captured by the army of Edward the Black Prince.

After the fall of Calais, a truce was agreed that held for several years, in large part because a far more serious threat was sweeping across Europe, the Black Death. However by 1355, Edward III was able to resume the war. The financial demands of the Hundred Years' War were enormous, and English kings had often faced reluctance among a great portion of the nobility to fight on the continental. Edward's solution was a combination of pageantry and propaganda. His court was famous for its pomp, extravagant clothing and chivalry. He bolstered the spirit of camaraderie between himself and his great peers, by creating the Order of the Garter, England’s oldest and still most prestigious order-of-knighthood. At its establishmet, there were only 24 chosen knights plus the king and his eldest son, Edward the Black Prince (d. 1376); all had fought at the Crécy, and were men of valour not just rank. Furthermore, Edward made the most of an emerging sense of national identity, with anti-French propaganda that played up rumours of a full-scale French invasion. Across the Channel, Philip VI of France had died in 1350, and was succeeded by his son, John II Valois (1350-64). John's reign began with the death of his wife to the Black Death, and would not get any better. In September 1355, Edward the Black Prince landed in Aquitaine and embarked upon a brutal Chevauchée in the region around Toulouse in southern France; this campaign saw some of the most barbaric atrocities of the entire war, wiping several towns completely off the map. The next year, the same tactic was attempted, but this time the Black Prince led his army north, intending to join-up with a second English army under the Duke of Lancaster marching through Normandy. However, the Black Prince tarried too long in Vierzon where the stubborn garrison held-out in the castle, allowing King John to assemble a large, entirely mounted army to pursue him. The Black Prince's army made several attempts to cross the River Loire to join-up with Lancaster, but was driven-back at Romorantin, Montloouis, and an ill-advised third attempt to cross at Tours that was soundly defeated. With the noose tightening, the Black Prince began quickly retreating to Aquitaine, but once again was outmanoeuvred and forced to stand-and-fight at the Battle of Poitiers (September 1356). Outnumbered, the Black Prince tried to negotiate, but the French king would only accept total surrender. So the English army took-up a defensive position on a brief slope behind hawthorn hedges, where woods and marshes offered the French only one route suitable for cavalry. Remembering the lessons of Crécy, King John favoured starving the invaders into submission, but was pressured into giving battle by his hot-blooded nobles, who were eager to avenge the brutal English raids. The French battle-plan was nevertheless sound. A coordinated assault with cavalry charges on both flanks supported by crossbowmen, closely followed by the main infantry attack all across the English line; to overwhelm the enemy with numerical superiority. Again, French indiscipline led to disaster. The battle inadvertently began when the English began to removed their baggage-train from the field; it is unclear if this was an attempt to flee or a feint. Seeing this, the French cavalry prematurely charged. The supporting crossbowmen and infantry could not keep pace with the horses. By the time, the exhausted foot-soldiers reached the English lines, the cavalry had already been routed. Then the Black Prince delivered his coup de grâce, launching an English cavalry counter-charge. The French king fought bravely or perhaps recklessly, winning renown for his personal courage even from his enemy. But King John II of France was eventually surrounded, captured, and taken to England as a prisoner.  


After Poitiers, France was left in the hands of his son Charles, the future Charles V of France (d. 1380), who faced a realm descending into anarchy. Hoping to capitalizing, Edward III embarked on his last Chevauchée in 1159. His objective was to take the great cathedral-city of Reims, where French kings had received their coronations for centuries. When the city proved impregnable, he moved on to Chartres, where disaster struck. A freak hail-storm devastated the English camp, scattering the horses and killing nearly 1,000 knights. This convinced Edward to negotiated peace with King John and his son. The Treaty of Brétigny (1360) ended the first phase of the war on very favourable terms for the English. Under its terms, Edward agreed to renounce his claim to the French crown. In return, he obtained full sovereign rights over an expanded Aquitaine and Calais, as well as a ruinous ransom for King John II. The full terms of the treaty were never met. The French king's ransom was never paid, and he died while still an English prisoner of natural causes in 1364.

Black Death (1346–1353)[]

Spread of the Black Death in Europe.jpg

The High Middle Ages had seen a steady growth in population and prosperity throughout Europe. Nonetheless, the ground won was fragile, medieval agriculture appallingly inefficient, and economic life never far from the edge of collapse. Above all, roads were crude and agriculture was vulnerable to weather; local famine could rarely be offset by imports. After around 1300, a slow decline of population began which suddenly became a great, and cumulative setback with the devastating arrival of the Black Death (1346-53). With the end of the so-called Medieval Warm Period (950-1250), there was a period of modest cooling, and local famines began to be attested more and more in our sources. The unusually severe winters and rainy summers proved to be particularly disastrous from 1315 to 1317; the Great Famine. With grain failing to mature and flooding turned fields rocky and barren, a bovine pestilence stuck Europe's cattle too, leading to famine and disease which perhaps 10% of Europe's population. Crop failures lasted until the summer harvest in 1317, and Europe did not fully recover until 1322. Then in the 1330s, an unusually virulent strain of plague appeared in or near China. It seems to have had elements both of bubonic plague carried by fleas, and of the pneumonic variety which spreads on the breath of the infected. The death toll in China is almost impossible to estimate, as this period coincides with the collapse of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty and the rise of the Ming Dynasty. From its origin at the eastern end of the Silk Road, the Black Death rode trade routes west; at this time, travel was easier than ever before with the Mongols policing the entire route. The Black Death is first recorded in the port-city of Kaffa in the Crimea in 1346. From there, Genoese merchants brought it home to Europe, carried by fleas on the black rats that were regular passengers on merchant ships. It spread around all the ports of the Mediterranean in 1347-48; Egypt were particularly severely struck. Then the plague moved steadily northwards from Italy; it reached France, Spain, Portugal and England by June 1348; Germany, Scotland and Scandinavia from 1348 to 1350; and finally Russia in 1351. The contemporary Florentine historian Matteo Villani (d. 1363) left this description, "it was a plague that touched people of every condition, age and sex. They began to spit blood and then they died; some immediately some in two or three days, and some in a longer time. Most had swellings in the groin, and many had them in the left and right armpits and in other places; one could almost always find an unusual swelling somewhere on the victim's body". The results everywhere were devastating. Though there was no universal pattern, Europe as a whole lost about a quarter of its population; perhaps 20 million of its 80 million people, Cities and towns, where people lived cheek by jowl, were especially hard hit; Toulouse was a city of 30,000 in 1335 and a century later only 8000 lived there; Florence lost at least 60% of its population; Hamburg and Bremen roughly the same; and Paris and London about a half. Successive lesser waves returned to haunt Europe again and again, regularly until around 1400, and then steadily more intermittent and more localised until the last known outbreak at Marseille in 1720. Afterwards, malnutrition slowed birth-rates so population growth was slow to pick up, and it took 150-years or so for Europe to recover to its pre-plague levels around 1500.

A plague doctor wearing their distinctive costume. It was invented much later than the Black Death itself, around 1620, and became commonplace in 17th century Italy and France. The protective bird-like mask was stuffed with herbs believed to purify the air.

It is scarcely surprising that an age of such colossal disaster and dislocation should have major social, economic, political and religious consequences, both immediate and longer-term. As Europeans succumbing in vast numbers, in extreme cases, a kind of collective hysteria broke out. Pogroms aimed at Jews were a common expression of the search for a scapegoat by people with little understanding of science, medicine, or disease. A rumour spread wildly that wells had been deliberately poisoned by Jews in an effort to ruin European civilization. The first Jewish massacre occurred in Toulon in France in April 1348. The situation rapidly worsened when a Jewish doctor in Chillon in Switzerland was tortured into confessing; Basel burned all its 600 Jews later that month. The hysteria spread during 1349, with especially shocking massacres at Strasbourg, Mainz, and Cologne. By 1351, 60 major and 150 smaller Jewish communities had been destroyed, a few even in traditionally tolerant Spain. Fleeing this fresh horror, European Jewry often made their way to Poland, where Casimir III (d. 1370) offered them protection and allowed them to settle in large numbers. This unusual tolerance for times is often explained by Casimir's famously beautiful Jewish mistress, but he may also have recognised that his rather backward kingdom was in need of a class of well-educated, commerce-oriented people. The burning of suspected witches and heretics was part of the same madness. Meanwhile, the plague struck the Christian Church particularly hard, with clergymen contracting the plague while tending to the sick and the dying. There was a severe shortage of priests in the aftermath. While the losses were eventually replaced, these new clergymen were often hastily trained and lacked the rigour and piety of their predecessors. In the 15th-century, there were regular complaints about a marked decline in clerical discipline, and about parish priests going through the motions of mass in Latin without understanding what the words meant; factors that contributed to the Protestant Reformation. We might have expected that the Black Death would have the devastating effect on Europe’s psyche and self-confidence. But it is the resiliency of European civilisation, not its decline or decay, that is most striking. Medieval life was too uncertain, with countless causes of premature death. Moreover, the economic life established in previous three centuries continued on much the same scale. Those peasants who survived found their situation somewhat improved. More food was available, land became relatively plentiful, and nutrition improved as arable land relapsed to pasture. Above all, serfdom all but disappeared, so that peasants were no longer legally tied to the land, but were tenants of the landowner, and paid rent in cash rather than feudal labour or agricultural products. There also appears a more secure form of tenancy known as copyhold, because both the lord and tenant possessed a copy of the agreement. In the towns and cities too, urban workers found opportunities for social mobility. They could demand higher wages, move to another town in response to better offers, or enter professions that had previously been closed to them by the craft guilds. The privileged classes - the nobility, the merchant elite, and the clergy - suddenly confronted with a drop in their own income, used their political power to attempt to reverse these trends, often by force. Sumptuary laws sought to restrict wages, to stop worker from relocating, or even to dictate what commoners could and could not wear, lest they begin to dress like their social betters. These efforts met with varying success depending on the resistance provoked, with notable peasant rebellions like England's Peasants' Revolt of 1381 and France's Jacquerie of 1358, among others. Medieval society thus changed dramatically, and sometimes in oddly assorted ways: labour-saving innovations to maintain productivity from less manpower; the plague exposed the shortcomings of medical science spurring positive changes; and more construction was done with brick and slate-roofing rather that the wood and thatch where rats liked to live. We also might have expected the Black Death to interrupt wars, by making it had to recruit armies and raise tax to pay for them; it did not, or only for a short while.

Hundred Years' War (1369–89)[]

Charles V of France, known as Charles the Wise, for his statecraft as much as for his love of learning; he assembled one of the finest libraries in Europe in the Louvre.

Charles V Valois (1364-80) effectively became ruler of France when his father, John II, was captured by the English at the Poitiers in 1356. Having received the Duchy of Dauphiné from his grandfather as a young prince, Charles held the title of "Dauphin" until his accession to the throne upon his father's death; henceforth heirs-apparent to the French throne would always bear the title. The early years of his reign were full of troubles. Popular opinion accused the nobles of betraying the king at Poitiers. In Paris, when Charles convened the French parliament (Estates General) to raise his father’s ransom, the furious assembly led by Etienne Marcel demanded reform and the dismissal of several royal councillors. Charles refused, left Paris, and a battle of wills ensued. However, Marcel's hostility to the crown soon went too. His murdered of two of the councillors undermined his position among the nobility, and Marcel was assassinated in turn in 1358. In north-eastern France, the populace expressed their resentment at the nobility in a major peasant revolt known as "the Jacquerie"; so named from the padded defensive jacket worn by the rebels called a "jacque". Unfortunately, the peasants lacked any discipline or organisation, and were easily suppressed very bloodily. Meanwhile, Charles V faced a series of revolt by a malcontent noble called Charles the Bad (d. 1387), who sought to claim various French lands through his mother and wife, both members of the royal family. He proved a remarkably devious and slippery irritant until his horrific death, burnt alive while in a drunken stupor, which many considered God's justice upon him. Despite these early troubles, Charles V would orchestrate an almost miraculous revival of French fortunes. He was highly intelligent but physically weak and suffered from ill-health all his life; possibly the side-effects of an attempted poisoning in 1359. As one historian wrote, "Not surprisingly, the king lived under a sense of urgency". At the centre of Charles' statecraft was a consistent policy of enhancing the prestige of the French monarchy. Medieval men and women were predisposed to the idea that divinity surrounded a king. Charles reinforced this theme at his coronation in Reims, where, with great pomp and ceremony, he was crowned and anointed with a miraculous oil. The Holy Ampulla, the vessel containing the holy oil, was supposedly found buried with St. Remigius and had been used at the baptism of King Clovis in 496, having supposedly been brought from heaven by the Holy Spirit. Charles thus claimed to rule France by divine right. This ceremony later proved of paramount importance in resolving the crisis which engulfs France under his son and grandson. Meanwhile, Charles surrounded himself with a talented group of advisers, whose skillful management of the realm restored stability, replenished the royal treasury, and liberated the French populace from companies of Tard-Venus, soldiers lately employed in the war that turned to banditry and pillaging after the peace. His most important servant was Bertrand du Guesclin, a minor noble from Brittany who rose from relatively humble beginnings to prominence during that duchy's bitter civil war. A brilliant military leader and expert in guerrilla warfare, Guesclin was appointed Constable of France, chief commander of the royal army.


In his early reign, Charles V eschewed a direct confrontation with England. Instead there was a series of proxy-wars. He broke the Anglo-Flemish alliance by negotiating the marriage of his younger brother, Philip "the Bold" of Burgundy (d. 1404), to the heiress of Flanders. In Brittany, the succession was settled at the Battle of Auray (September 1364) in favour of the English-backed candidate. However, it proved a pyrrhic victory. Since the English king no longer had a claim to the French throne, the new duke paid homage to Charles of France rather than Edward of England, and henceforth remained largely neutral in the Hundred Years' War, except to use the conflict to maintain their own autonomy. Most significantly, Charles sent a French army under Guesclin to fight in Castile in Spain; the Castilian Civil War (1351-69). The French king had a personal score with King Pedro of Castile, who married his cousin and had her poisoned. Guesclin was to depose Pedro and place his illegitimate brother Henry on the throne. He succeeded in his task, but Pedro fled to Aquitaine (Gascony) and appealed to Edward the Black Prince for aid. In a brilliant campaign, the Black Prince defeated Henry and his French allies at the Battle of Nájera (April 1367), and restored Pedro to the throne; a victory with catastrophic consequences. Firstly, the English army suffered terribly from Du Guesclin's guerilla tactics and an outbreak of dysentery; it is said that scarcely one in five ever saw England again. The Black Prince was himself seized with the sickness from which his health never recovered. Secondly, Henry survived the battle, having proved himself a strong and courageous leader to the Castilian nobility. Within two years, he had defeated and killed Pedro at the Battle of Montiel (March 1369), definitively gained the Castilian throne, and promptly agreed an alliance with France; Castilian naval power was far superior to that of England. And finally, Pedro had reneged on his promise to reimburse the Black Prince's military expenses, leaving him in serious financial difficulties. His autocratic rule and taxes in Aquitaine provoked protest. In 1369, a group of nobles refused the new taxes and laid their complaints before Charles V, declaring that he was their lord paramount. By the terms of the Treaty of Brétigny, the French king had lost all his authority over Aquitaine, but he nonetheless summoned the Black Prince to answer the complaints of his vassals, using some dubious legal pretext. When Edward refused, Charles declared war. This time conditions favoured the French, for England had lost her most capable military leaders; Edward III was too old, and the Black Prince's health was too feeble. Indeed, the Black Prince eventually returned to England to recuperate, leaving the defence of Aquitaine to his younger brother, John of Gaunt (d. 1399). Where his grandfather and father had plunged into battle, Charles V opted for a careful war of attrition, with many small-scale offensives on multiple front. The English responded with another Chevauchée, this time from Calias all the way across France to Aquitaine. However, du Guesclin successfully applied Fabian tactics to limit the devastation; shadowing the English army, while avoiding a set-piece battle, and ambushing foraging parties. What historians call the Great Chevauchée was a remarkable feat, but almost nothing with the Frecnh continuing to gain ground in Aquitaine. Then, at the Battle of La Rochelle (1372 AD), the Franco-Castillan navy demolished an English fleet carrying supplies and reinforcements to Aquitaine, This brought the English command of the sea to an end, and added destructive coastal raids to Aquitaine's woes. Meanwhile, the English position continued to deteriorate with the death of Edward the Black Prince in June 1376, and King Edward III himself a year later. He was succeeded by a ten-year-old child, Richard II Plantagenet (1377-99). By this time, the French king had recovered most of Aquitaine, and opened negotiations, though a peace agreement proved elusive. Almost a decade after his death, the Truce of Leulinghem (1389 AD) was agreed, in which the English surrendered all their continental lands except for a narrow coastal strip from Bordeaux to the Pyrenees, as well as Calais. With both parties war-weary and racked by internal strife, the truce would hold for almost three decades.

Western schism 1378-1417.jpg

The last years of Charles' reign opened a new Anglo-French proxy-war, this time centred on the Christian Church; the Great Papal Schism (1378-1414). In 1309, a French pope brought the papal court to Avignon in what is now southern France. This move was justified at the time on grounds of security, since Rome had become unstable and dangerous with aristocratic factions fighting one another. It proved the precursor of the long Avignon Papacy (1309–77); the so-called "Babylonian Captivity" in a phrase by Petrarch. The English and Germans soon believed the popes had become the tool of the French kings, and took steps to establish quasi-national churches in their own territories; the prince-electors declared that their vote required no confirmation by the pope to confer the title of Holy Roman Emperor. This situation could not last indefinitely: the prestige the papacy derived from the Holy See of St Peter in Rome; and the basis of their secular power was the Papal States itself. Criticism eventually rose to the point at which Pope Gregory XI (1370-78) returned the papal curia to Rome in 1377, only to face perhaps the greatest scandal in the history of the Church, the Great Papal Schism. After almost seventy years in Avignon, the papal court was French in its methods and to a large extent in its staff. Back in Rome, some degree of tension between French and Italian clerical factions was only to be expected, but it was was brought to a head abruptly by Gregory's death within a year of his return. With a Roman mob surrounding the papal court demanding an Italian pope, nervous cardinals hastily elected a Neapolitan archbishop as Pope Urban VI (1378-89). Alas, Pope Urban quickly proved a divisive figure; intransigent, high-handed, and prone to violent outbursts. Five months after the election, most of the cardinals regretted their decision, and reconvened to issue a manifesto of grievances. When Urban refused to even respond, they declared the previous election invalid due to mob intimidation, and elected a French bishop as Pope Clement VII (1378-87). Unable to maintain himself in Italy, Pope Clement re-established his papal court in Avignon. But of course, Pope Urban refused to step down, so now there were two popes. There had been rival papal claimants before, in 1130 for instance, but on this occasion the European powers could not impossible to agree on who was the legitimate pope. The conflicts was complicated by the involvement of secular rivalries, dividing Europe according to every geopolitical quarrel on the continent: France obviously recognized the Avignon claimant, so the English recognised the claimant in Rome; ever-independent Flanders aligned against France; Scotland aligned against England; rival claimants in a Portuguese dynastic crisis recognised different popes; and so on. For more than thirty years popes at Rome and Avignon simultaneously claimed the headship of the Church. As the schism wore on, the criticism directed against the papacy became more and more virulent; "Antichrist" was a favourite term of abuse. All sides ultimately recognised that the situation was embarrassing the papacy. In 1409, an ecumenical council was convened at Pisa to resolve the matter. The assembly struck out boldly, deposing both the popes in Rome and Avignon, and electing another as Pope Alexander V. Unfortunately, nobody could persuade the other two popes to step-down, so now there were three popes. Finally in 1414, a second ecumenical council at Constance ended the schism. All of Europe's cardinals and bishops unanimously elected Pope Martin V (1417-1431 AD), got two of the three anti-popes to resign, and excommunicated the third. And Pope Martin would reside in Rome.

This was only the beginning of a bad time for the papacy. The schism had fed a popular anti-clericalism and anti-papalism, with the worldliness of the Church drawing increasing criticism. At Avignon, the popes had lived in a huge palace of unexampled magnificence. Unfortunately, the 14th-century was a time of economic disaster; in the wake of the Black Death, a much reduced population was being asked to pay more for a more costly (and some said extravagant) papacy. Many of the clergy themselves felt that rich abbots and worldly bishops were a sign of a Church that had become secularized. Reformers turned was the same institution that had resolved the schism itself, ecumenical councils.

Councils at Siena (1423) and Basel (1431) witnessed a power struggle between bishops and pope; the so-called conciliarists argued that priests and bishops were the sources of the papal power, and thus, councils should be able to correct, punish, and, if necessary, depose a pope. Within a few years, the popes bolstered their own position, declared it heresy to appeal from the pope to an ecumenical council, and became increasingly resistant to reform. But the papal victory was only partial. The Church had not risen to the level of the crisis now upon it, and one result would be a much more damaging movement for reform, the Protestant Reformation.

Build-up to the Final Phase (1377-1415)[]

Death of Wat Tyler, one of the leaders of the Peasant Revolt in England.

In a long reign, spanning half a century, Edward III of England had contrived to rule without any major conflict with his barons, in large part by focusing their attention on a shared cause in the Hundred Years' War. However, unrest returned when the throne was inherited by his ten-year-old grandson, Richard II Plantagenet (1377-99), the son of Edward the Black Prince. It was usual to appoint a regent for a child monarch, but fearful of the boy's ambitious uncle, John of Gaunt (d. 1399), led to the establishment of a regency council instead. Gaunt was excluded, but remained the dominant figure at court from behind the scenes. The council soon faced the unruly mood of the realm in the Peasants' Revolt (1381). In the wake of the Black Death, England began to adjust to the changed economic situation where manpower was scarce, wages were rising, and the profits of the elites were being eaten-away. The royal government responded by taking draconian measures to control the economy. The Statute of Labourers (1351) attempted to fix wages at pre-plague levels, and threatens imprisonment for any commoner who refused to work for low wages, or broke a contract, or moved elsewhere for higher wages. The system was enforced in arbitrary fashion, and deeply unpopular; never before had the royal government allied itself in such a blatant manner with the landed-elites against the common people. To this indignity was added a new form of taxation, a poll tax of a shilling levied on every person over the age of 14, in order to fund the war with France which continued to go badly. Designed to spread the cost of the war over a broader economic base, widespread evasion proved to be a persistent problem; three times the poll tax was increased, and each time it brought in less money, despite increasingly harsh methods of collection. Civil disorder flared-up in many parts of the country during the spring of 1381, with attacks on tax collectors and prisoners liberated from jails. It was at its worst in Essex and Kent, where rebels from both regions marched on London under the leadership of Wat Tyler (d. 1381); his surname suggests his occupation was a roof tiler. On 13 June, the rebels entered London, which was barely defended due to the war. They looted and burned several buildings, including Gaunt's Savoy Palace. The following day, King Richard tried to meet with the rebels, but, after sailing down the Thames, refused to get off the boat. That day, the rebels entered the Tower of London, and murdered the two members of the regency council held responsible for the poll tax. On 15 June, the young king agreed to a series of concessions that included the repeal of the poll tax and a general amnesty for the rebels. This dispersed the bulk of the rebels. He then personally met with Wat Tyler at Smithfield. We do not know exactly what happened at the meeting. According to contemporary sources, Tyler treated the king in a friendly, but overly-familiar, manner. One of the king's servants took umbrage, and, in a scuffle, Tyler was pulled from his horse and killed. The situation was now precarious, but the young king showed considerable personal courage to calm the rebels and persuade them to disperse, with continued promises of clemency. The rebels should never have trusted him of course. Once the danger had past, Richard revoked the amnesty, and personally hunted-down every rebel he could find; some 1,500 were hanged. The rebels achieved no more than the repeal of the poll tax; indeed no more would be heard of a poll tax in England until 1989.

Portrait of King Richard II of England at Westminster Abbey, mid-1390s.

It is difficult not to conclude that the successful resolution of the Peasant Revolt helped shape the absolutist attitudes to kingship that would later prove fatal to Richard's reign. It impressed upon him the threats to royal authority, and dangers of disobedience. In 1383, Richard was fifteen, a man by the standards of the day, and ready to assert himself in the affairs of his realm. He began to build-up a royalist party made up of a handful of loyal favourites, mostly young upstarts like Robert de Vere and Michael de la Pole who owed everything to the king. However, Richard's choice of companions were not the kind of men the English barons approved of. The approach to the war with France was another source of tension. While the royalist party preferred negotiations, the barons urged a large-scale campaign to protect English possessions; or more importantly, to plunder the wealth of France. The tension came to a head in 1386 when the king needed to raise new taxes to balance the royal financed. Parliament led by a group known to history as the Lords Appellant refused until Michael de la Pole was dismissed from the privy council; "appealing" to have Richard's unsuitable favourites removed. Richard declared this treasonable and retreated to the Midlands to muster support for his cause. A royalist army marched on London under Robert de Vere to London, but the Lords Appellant easily routed it at the Battle of Radcot Bridge (December 1387). A few days later, the humiliated king had return to London, and comply with parliament's demands; de Vere and de la Pole were condemned to death though both fled the country, and the rest of his favourites were purged from the privy council. For the next eight years, Richard ruled with some moderation, having become more cautious in his dealings with the barons. After a successful campaign in Ireland against the resurgent Gaelic-Irish, he was almost popular for a while. But if the Lords Appellant thought that Richard had forgotten the indignity he'd suffered, they were dead wrong. He gradually rebuilt a second royalist party, and cultivated a courtly atmosphere in which the king was a distant, venerated figure. He was the first English king to have his portrait painted while still alive, glorifying his own elevated majesty. Among his grandest projects was an extensively rebuilt Palace of Westminster, with fifteen life-size statues of various kings. His interest in the arts and literature were especially important; England's greatest medieval poet, Geoffrey Chaucer (d. 1400), served the king in various role while producing his best-known work, The Canterbury Tales. Meanwhile, the English king built his own private military retinue, larger than any of his predecessors; the knights all wore the king’s emblem of the white hart. In July 1397, the king took his revenge, arresting the senior Lords Appellant on the pretext of a baronial plot, and having them either exiled or executed. This was made possible through collusion with a large group of barons, who were rewarded with forfeited titles and lands. However, a threat still remained to Richard's authority in the form of his now elderly uncle John of Gaunt and his son Henry Bolingbroke (d. 1413); the Lancastrians were not only the wealthiest family in England, but of royal blood, and, as such, likely candidates to succeed the childless Richard. In December 1397, a peer warned Bolingbroke that he was next in line for royal retribution. Bolingbroke confronted the king, who promptly accused him of treason and exiled him for ten years. Bolingbroke departed without rancor for France, but then, in February 1399, the English king went too far. On the death of John of Gaunt died, Richard confiscated Bolingbroke's vast Lancastrian inheritance, and extended his exile to life. With his coffers replenished with Lancastrian gold, Richard soon left the country to continue his unfinished business in Ireland. But Richard actions had provoked a general fear among the barons that the king might appropriate their property; the right to inheritance was the very basis of law and order in England. Meanwhile, with nothing to lose, Henry Bolingbroke raise a small army and returned to England in June 1399. Landing in Yorkshire, he began a triumphant march across England, rallying nobles and commoners to his cause. Bolingbroke had original intended to merely reclaim his inheritance, but, as a tide of discontent swept England, he was being urged to take the crown himself. By the time King Richard finally arrived back from Ireland, his support had melting away, and surrendered to Henry at Conwy in Wales without even giving battle. At a special sitting of parliament, Richard was deposed, and Bolingbroke formally claimed his cousins throne as legitimate descendant of Henry III as well as by right of conquest; Richard died in prison a few months later, probably of starvation and neglect. Thus ended the last attempt by a medieval English king to exercise absolute power. Whether or not Richard had been influenced by the French theories of divine monarchy, as some historians have claimed, he had failed in the practical measures necessary to sustain his power.

16th-century imaginary painting of King Henry IV of England at the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Henry Bolingbroke was crowned Henry IV Lancaster (1399-1413) with broad acclaim. He had a reputation for affability, statesmanlike self-control, courage, and piety. He had been a medieval tournament champion, undertook a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and went twice to fight in the Northern Crusades alongside Teutonic Knights. However, the new king was undeniably a usurper, and his reign only increased the turmoil in the realm. His grandfather, Henry III Plantagenet, had left a poisonous gift to his own lineage by having four sons, each of whom, except for one, had a thriving line of descendants. The exception was the eldest son, Edward the Black Prince, who left only one son, Richard II, a cultured but not wise childless king. Henry IV was descended from the third son, John of Gaunt. The "true" next-in-line to the throne was Edmund Mortimer (d. 1425), the seven-year-old grandson of the second son, Lionel of Clarence. This question of legitimacy would later be revisited in a great dynastic conflict known to history as the Wars of the Roses. Henry spent much of his reign defending himself against plots, rebellions and assassination attempts. Most rebellions were quashed with relative ease, but the revolts in Wales and Northumberland were a more serious matter. Ever since the Anglo-Norman conquest of 1283, anti-English feeling had been rife throughout Wales, where the people spoke a different language and had different customs. There were a number of minor rebellions in the 14th-century, and, with each, English rule became more repressive. Owain Glyndwr (d. 1415) was an unlikely figure to inspire the last great fight for Welsh independence. As lord of Aberystwyth, he was a descendant of the Cymru-Welsh princes of Powys, but was nonetheless the epitome of an assimilated Welshman; he studied law in London, fought alongside Richard II on the Scottish borders, and alongside the Lords Appellant at the Battle of Radcot Bridge (December 1387). The immediate spark for Glyndŵr's Rising (1400-15) seems to have been a local land dispute with a neighbouring Anglo-Welsh neighbour. Glyndŵr took his complaint to parliament, but his case was rejected in rather insulting terms; one member referred to the Cymru-Welsh as "those barefoot rascals". Glyndŵr rebelled, and, after a number of success confrontations, the revolt began to rapidly spread. In September 1400, his supporters acclaim him as Prince of Wales; a title which had been vacant for decades since Richard II had no son. For a few years, Harlech Castle in north Wales became the seat of a Welsh state under a Cymru-Welsh rule, with its own court and parliament, and receiving envoys from France, Scotland, Spain, and the papacy. The revolt gathered further momentum through two events in 1402. Firstly, Henry IV reacted harshly and passed a set of anti-Welsh Penal Laws, banning the Welsh from obtaining senior public office, bearing of arms, or dwelling in fortified towns; this only pushed even more Welshmen into the rebellion. And secondly, Glyndwr defeated an English force under Edmund Mortimer the Elder (d. 1409), who was captured. When Glyndŵr offered a ransom for Mortimer, the English king refused to pay. A great English noble with estates on the Welsh borders and in Northumberland, Mortimer's glamorous nephew, Henry "Hotspur" Percy, could be said to have an even better claim to the English throne than Henry IV himself. In response, Mortimer agreed an alliance with Glyndwr and married one of his daughters. Yet Henry IV survived this crisis, in large part due to the military prowess of another Prince of Wales; Henry's eldest son, Prince Henry, the future King Henry V (d. 1422). At 16-years-old, Prince Henry fought alongside his father at the Battle of Shrewsbury (July 1403), where Henry "Hotspur" Percy was defeated and slain. Then the young prince began to gradually retake Wales, using both warfare and economic blockade. In 407, Glyndwr's own Aberystwyth Castle fell, and, two years later, it was the turn of his capital, Harlech Castle, where Edmund Mortimer died and Owain's wife and daughters were captured; they would spend the rest of their days in the Tower of London. By now, Glyndwr had been reduced to the status of a hunted outlaw. After 1412, no more is heard of him; his death was reported by a former follower in 1415. The dream of establishing an independent Welsh nation had crumbled, and Wales was punished in the aftermath: many prominent families were ruined disinherited, and the anti-Welsh Penal Laws were not repealed until 1542. Tax-collectors were still citing the devastation caused by the revolt as the reason for low receipts until 1492. Ironically, before the end of the century, we would see the crowning of a man with Welsh blood in his veins, not Prince of Wales, but King of England; Henry VII Tudor. Meanwhile, by the time Henry IV died and was succeeded by his son, Henry V Lancaster (1413-22), England was calm, and ready to exploit France's own internal difficulties.

The long reign of Charles VI, known as Charles the Mad, would bring disaster to France.

Although his reign reestablished the political unity of France, Charles V Valois left an uncertain future. Having always suffered from serious ill-health, he died relatively young, and was succeeded by his 11-year-old son, Charles VI Valois (1380-1422). During his minority, the first since that of Louis IX in 1226, his uncles assumed control of the government; the dukes of Anjou, Berry, and Burgundy. Anjou soon removed himself from influence by seeking the throne of Naples, while Berry devoted most of his time to his famous library. This left the youngest brother, Philip "the Bold" of Burgundy (d. 1404), to set the young king’s policy. Philip squandered the realm's resources, painstakingly built-up by his father, for personal profit, crushing an uprising in Flanders at the Battle of Roosebeke (1382), which he had inherited through his wife. The troops were French, but the advantage of the victory all flowed to Burgundy. In this lay the seed of much future trouble. In 1388, Charles VI brought the regency to an end, assuming full authority himself. He restored to power the highly competent advisors of his father, who ushered in a new period of political and economic harmony; during this part of his reign, the young king was widely known as Charles the Beloved. This early success quickly dissipated when Charles lost his sanity. The first known episode occurred in 1392, when the king became frenzied, and attacked his own companions, before lapsing into a coma. This was the first of fourty-four attacks interspersed with period of sanity that continued throughout his life: he would forget his own name and that he was king; remember he was king but denying that he had a wife and children; or perhaps most famously believing that he was made of glass and might shatter. This played into the hands of his uncle Philip the Bold, who immediately seized power. However, the king's younger brother, Louis of Orléans (d. 1407), was now old enough to feel that he should be regent. The result was a feud between Louis and Philip, that was continued even after their deaths through their families, and had disastrous consequences for France. At the heart of the quarrel was royal funds, which each sought to appropriate for his own ends; Philip to further his expansionist ambitions in Burgundy and Flanders, and Louis to fund his extravagant lifestyle. The quarrel excalated when Philip the Bold died in 1404, and his political aims were taken over by his son John "the Fearless" of Burgundy (d. 1419). Louis, being the brother rather than the cousin of the king, should have had the clear advantage, but his reputation as an extravagant womanizer made him very unpopular. The rivalry increased bit by bit; both parties successively kidnapped and recovered Charles' eldest son, the Dauphin, the future Charles VII (d. 1461).Then in 1407, the Duke of Berry, uncle to both, tried to intervened and play the role of a peacemaker between the two factions. In a ceremony before the French court, the contending dukes exchanged solemn vows of reconciliation. But only three days later, Louis was brutally assassinated in the streets of Paris; John the Fearless did not deny responsibility. The result was the bitter and protracted Armagnac–Burgundian Civil War (1407-35), between John's supporters (the Burgundians), and his opponents (the Armagnac) led by Bernard of Armagnac (d. 1418), father-in-law to Louis' 13-year-old son, Charles of Orléans. This crisis would paralyse France for decades, a situation further complicated by a third protagonist on the scene, England.

Hundred Years' War (1415–53)[]


In August 1415, Henry V of England (1413-22), availing himself of the disarray in France, crossed the Channel with a force of about 12,000 men. on the pretext of reviving the English claim to the French throne. In truth, Henry had no legitimate claim at all; his father had been a usurper, so by any conceivable line-of-succession he shouldn't even be king of England, let alone France. Henry landed in the Normandy, and laid siege to the port of Harfleur; the scene of the famous speech "Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more" in William Shakespeare's play. The city resisted for so long that a wave of dysentery devastated the English camp, and most of the campaign season was gone. However, Henry refused to retire directly to England, with his costly expedition having capture just one town. Instead he embark upon a Chevauchée through Normandy to English-held Calais. In the face of this foreign enemy, the French court managed to negotiate a truce between the Armagnac and Burgundian faction; Burgundy remained neutral, and the royal army was essentially provided by the Armagnacs. In a campaign reminiscent of Crécy, Henry found himself outmanoeuvred, low on supplies, and force to stand-and-fight a numerically superior French army at Battle of Agincourt (October 1415), some 25 miles south of Calais. Agincourt is one of the most celebrated victories in English history. Henry had at most 6000 men, mostly archers, and was outnumbered more than two to one. He compensated for this by taking up the favoured English defensive formation in a narrow valley hemmed by dense woodland, with bowmen on each wing and infantry in the centre, behind a palisade of stakes. On St Crispin's Day (25 October), it seemed at first that the French had learned their lesson from previous defears; refusing to give battle, blocking Henry's safe retreat to Calais, and starving the English into submission. Henry V needed to provoke a battle, so he abandoned his chosen position, advanced to within longbow-range, and launched a volley of arrows; each man was provided with stakes to plant in the ground to reestablish an instant palisade. Fortunately, with King Charles VI mentally incapacitated, the French army lacked any coherent leadership. If the French had attacked while the English line were moving to their new defensive position, they could have devastated the English; only after the initial volley of arrows did the mounted charge come. The night before the battle had seen very heavy rain, making the battlefield resembled a boggy ploughed field, unsuitable for heavy cavalry. And in a confused response, the early French charges were not at full numbers, easily repulsed, and making the ground even worse. Again and again French cavalry charges were turned back, and, when the infantry finally reached the English lines, they were utterly exhausted and hacked down. Against all the odds, Henry V had led his men to the third great English victory of the Hundred Years War. The French losses were astonishing. At least 7,000 men died in three hours of fighting, among them the flower of French nobility; at least three dukes, eight counts, one viscount, almost 2,000 knights, and even an archbishop. One reason for the high mortality was because towards the end of the battle Henry ordered his prisoners executed, as he couldn't spare the men to guard them; an example of how the rules of medieval chivalry were not always met in the heat of battle. Henry V and his army continued on their way to Calais, sailed back to England, and were received in London amid magnificent pageantry.

Charles VII of France (1422-61), the French heir or Dauphin. He was the fifth son of Charles VI of France, but his four elder brothers died in turn by April 1417.

Agincourt broke the Armagnac–Burgundian fragile truce, with both sides blaming the other for the disaster. Soon there were two Frances, with every level of French society picking a side, including the royal family itself. Queen Isabeau defected over to the Burgundian camp bringing her incapacitated husband, King Charles VI, while her own son, the Dauphin and future Charles VII (d. 1461), had little choice but to remain with the Armagnac faction; he was literally married into the Armagnacs. In 1417, Henry V returned to France, and began systematically conquering most of Normandy. When the provincial-capital of Rouen was cut off from the rest of France, he began the brutal Siege of Rouen (July 1418-January '19). This siege has cast a particularly dark shadow on Henry's reputation. With the city reduced to eating dogs, cats, and rats, the garrison sent some 12,000 civilians though the gates, believing that Henry would allow them to leave the siege. He refused, so the starving men, women, and children had to go back to dying miserably. With the fall of Rouen, Henry had taken almost all of Normandy, except for fortified abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel which withstood repeated sieges until the end of the war. Meanwhile in June 1418, the Burgundian faction finally siezed control of Paris after a protracted struggle, and the Dauphin Charles was forced to flee into a long exile in southern France. From this position of strength, John "the Fearless" of Burgundy opened negotiations with the Dauphin, and a meeting was organised on the bridge at Montereau-Fault-Yonne in September 1419. However, having set the precedent for assassinations a decade earlier, John himself was murdered at the meeting. If the Dauphin had hoped to break the Burgundian faction, he was dead wrong with catastrophic consequences. The Burgundians had long flirted with the idea of an alliance with the English enemy; afterall there were strong economic links between England and the Burgundian-Flemish textile-towns. Until now, this had probably been a negotiating tactic, to force a favourable settlement. Now, John's son, Philip "the Good" of Burgundy (d. 1467), was committed to the utter destruction of the Armagnacs, and agreed to an Anglo-Burgundian alliance with Henry V of England. The Treaty of Troyes (May 1420) was extraordinarily advantageous to England: the deranged King Charles VI was induced to set aside his own son, on the preposterous claim that he was illegitimate; arranged the marriage of his daugher, Catherine, to King Henry V of England; and named Henry as heir to the French throne upon his death. Within a year, the couple had a son, Prince Henry. Within two years, Henry V and Charles VI were both dead. Thus, the nine-month-old infant was crowned Henry VI Lancaster (1422-1461), king of England and France. Armagnac southern France of course did not recognised Henry VI, remaining loyal to the Dauphin Charles, who his adversaries mockingly called the king of Chinon, where he maintains his court.

Joan of Arc by John Everett Millais (1865). Upon her arrival on the scene, Joan effectively turned the longstanding Anglo-French conflict from a dry dynastic squabble into a passionately popular war of national liberation. As one of her early followers put it, "Must the king be driven from the kingdom; and are we to be English?" In the five centuries since her death, people have tried to make everything of her: spiritual visionary, madwoman, female warrior, heretic, naive ill-used tool of the powerful, adored national heroine, saint.

This was the peak of English pride and power in the Hundred Years' War. Within five years, the Anglo-Burgundian alliance controlled nearly all of northern France, excluding only ever-independent Brittany, and the city of Orléans on the River Loire, one of the most heavily fortified cities in Europe. Yet the English position was far weaker than it might appear. Firstly, without an adult king, their campaign became leaderless, and riven by factional infighting over how to best conduct the war. Secondly, they were increasingly plagued by manpower shortages; in reality England was too small to occupy and control France on any permanent basis, a country three times its size and population. And finally, English success thus far was based on French partners with their own ambitious and conflicting goals; an independent Burgundian state. Nor were the Burgundians in any way a junior partner, for revenues from Burgundy and especially Flanders (Belgium) put them at a level with those of England. It is hardly surprising that the idea of an English king on the French throne would provoke a passionate French response, but that the symbol of it would be an illiterate peasant-girl could never have been imagined. Joan of Arc (d. 1431) was born in Domrémy, an isolated village in north-eastern France, and from a young age had experienced visions, which she believed were the Archangel Michael, St. Catherine, and St. Margaret. In 1428, at the age of 16, she received a very specific mission from God. At present, France had no king; seven-year-old Henry VI of England was too young to be crowned, while the Dauphin Charles could not be crowned since Reims, where French kings had received their coronation for centuries, was 150-miles within Anglo-Burgundian held territory. For the common people, this was as much a religious crisis, as a political one; by long tradition, much fostered by Charles V, it was believed that each French king acquired a divine quality once he was anointed with the sacred oil at Reims. If the Dauphin Charles could fight his way to Reims, France would have a king again; this becomes Joan's mission. But first she must reach the Charles himself. Joan made her way to the nearby town of Vaucouleurs, and asked to be taken to the Dauphin. The garrison commander laughed her away several times, but she persisted and gained support from the townsfolk. So the commander relented and granted her a six-man escort for the dangerous 11-day journey to Chinon, site of the Dauphin’s court. She left Vaucouleurs in February, dressed in men’s clothes and having cropped her hair; a fact that would later lead to criminal charges of "cross-dressing" against her, In Chinon, the Dauphin Charles was at first uncertain whether to receive Joan, whose reputation as a woman possessed had preceded her. After two days, he granted her an audience. It is said that the Dauphin concealed himself among his courtiers as a test, but Joan identified him immediately and told him of her mission. The political merit of the plan were obvious; if the Dauphin could be crown at Reims, he would be viewed by the French people as the rightful king anointed by God. With little to loose, Joan was allowed to join a group of reinforcements already en-route for the Siege of Orléans (October 1428-May '29). When she reached at Orléans in April 1429, the English siege of the city had been ongoing for five months, with a ring of small fortresses cutting-off supplies to starve the defenders into submission. Dressed like a man, armed like a man, courageous as a man, Joan's charisma breathed new confidence into the French forces. She did not personally fight, but would plunge recklessly into the hottest fighting, waving her banner, and raising morale; she would be wounded several times. She also attended war-councils, and many noblemen attested to the fact that she had a profound effect on their decisions, believing it to be divinely inspired. One by one the English redoubts fell, and within just ten days the French had broken the siege. An English army rushed south from Paris to reinforce the siege, but it too was defeated at the Battle of Patay (June 1429), the first major French victory in battle for years. Joan was again credited with the victory, though in truth she had been with the rearguard, and most of the fighting was over by the time she reached the battlefield. The victory gave credence to her message; that god was on the side of the French. Joan was now ready to complete her mission; to bring the Dauphin to Reims. There were many English-Burgundian held towns en-route, but Joan's magic worked once again; town after town opened their gates to the coronation-party. And so in July 1429, the Dauphin and Joan entered Reim Cathedral in triumph, where he was crowned King Charles VII Valois of France (1422-61). For the next ten months, Joan continued to campaign, often with considerable success, though her foolhardy attempt to make Paris open its gates failed. Joan's misfortune began in May 1430, when she was thrown from her horse in a skirmish near Compiègne, and captured by the Burgundians. She was later sold to the English, who were determined to expose her as a fraud and a heretic, in order to cast doubt on the coronation of Charles VII. When she obstinately refused to recant, Joan was sentenced to death. On 24 May, she was was taken to a scaffold, and told she would be burned to death unless she renounced her visions. On this, she finally wavered to save her own life, but later withdrew her recantation, having apparently been rebuked by her visions. On 30 May 1431, 19-year-old Joan of Arc was led out into the Place du Vieux Marché in Rouen, tied to a stake, and burned to death. Joan insisted, even when faced with death by fire, that she was guided by voices from God. Voices or no voices, few stories in history can match Joan's as an example of the astonishing power of inspiration. In 1456, Pope Callixtus III formally annulled all charges against her after a re-trial, and declared her a martyr; she was canonized a saint in 1920. Long before that Joan of Arc had attained mythic stature, as a patron saint of France and icon of popular French nationalism.

A reconstruction of an early European cannon. Essentially an iron bottle with a narrow neck, loaded with gunpowder, and firing an iron bolt. There are references in contemporary documents suggesting that gunpowder weapons of some kind may have featured in the Hundred Years War as early as Crécy in 1346. But the first engagement in which they played a decisive role was at the Battle of Formigny (1450).

Even the death of Joan of Arc could no stem the French resurgence. In September 1435, Philip "the Good" of Burgundy finally accepted which way the wind was blowing, and reconciled with Charles VII. The Treaty of Arras broke the Anglo-Burgundian alliance, restored Paris to him, and finally bought an end to the Armagnac–Burgundian Civil War. After returning his court to Paris in 1437, a new phase opened up in Charles VII’s life. Gone was the indecision, ingratitude, and poverty that had characterised his early reign; he began a successful period of vigorous personal rule. Normandy and Aquitaine still remained in English hands, but, faced with the immense task of restoring order to his kingdom, he secured a five-year truce in 1444. Charles used the time astutely, implementing wide-ranging reforms to reassert the power of the monarchy and strengthen the French state. On the economic front, the French parliament (Estates General) granted him more permanent taxes than an English parliament would, including the Taille on land, the Aide on sales, and the Gabelle on salt. The king, thus, gained financial independence. His finance minster, the former merchant Jacques Coeur (d. 1456), did much to improve the French economy, reforming the currency, gaining commercial treaties in the Mediterranean, and supporting economic activities such as silk-weaving. With the support of the French clergy, Charles forced the pope to agree to the Pragmatic Sanction (1438), which among other things required election rather than papal appointment to name bishops and abbots in France; papal interference in French politics was clearly the target. Henceforth, the French clergy enjoyed greater freedom than any other national church until the Protestant Reformation. In military matters, Charles undertook two important initiatives. He established what if usually recognised as the first permanent standing army in Western Europe since Roman times, with measures to improve military-discipline, and make recruitment more efficient, with ordinances governing everything from length of service to payment. This royal army was not large smaller, but formed a professional core of larger armies as needed. Charles' second initiative was investing heavily in a new technology that was only now coming into its own on European battlefields; gunpowder. A history of gunpowder is difficult to recover precisely, but can be outlined with some confidence. The appropriate mixture of charcoal, sulphur, and saltpeter (potassium nitrate) was discovered by Chinese alchemists, perhaps as early as the 3rd-century AD, although it was not until the Song Dynasty in the 11th-century,that the technology was applied to the battlefield. The black power was for fire-arrows, primitive grenades, land-mines, and bombs lobbed from catapult. But the real destructive power of gunpowder was not revealed until the invention of artillery; the use of a confined explosion to propel a missile. Again the pioneering work was done by the Chinese in the 12th-century, then spread westward by the vast Mongol Empire in the 13th. According to Muslim sources, Mamluk Egypt had cannons of their own at the Battle of Ain Jalut (1260) against the Mongols. A few years later, the first cannons appeared in Europe during the Reconquista in Spain. The problem confronting early makers of artillery was how to construct a tube strong enough to contain the explosion. The impetus, for what has been called the European artillery revolution, was provided by the Hundred Years' War, when the English, French, and Burgundians all advanced in the new technology. Early in the war, cannons were made of bronze using techniques first perfected for church bells, and fired rocks which tended to shatter on impact; they were suitable for defending castles but not attacking them, since they couldn't penetrate castle-walls. In the 1420s, great strides were made by European craftsmen and metallurgists. Big cast-iron guns became available, using balls made of iron, a more elongated barrel, and an improved recipe for gunpowder, that made them much more effective; blasting holes in castle or city walls. During these later years of the Hundred Years' War, French artillery acquired the reputation as the best in the world, traditionally credited to the pioneers Jean Bureau and his brother Gaspard.


After a decade of relative peace between France and England, hostilities resumed in 1449. The sack of Fougeres, a town just over the Brittany-Normandy border, by a mercenary adventurer in the pay of the English, was just the pretext that Charles VII had been looking for. Henry IV and Henry V had been seriously powerful English kings, but Henry VI wasn't in the same league; a weak-willed and scholarly young man dominated by his squabbling Lancastrian and Yorkist relatives. In August 1449, when the French army marched into Normandy, the English position rapidly collapsed. Without clear leaderships, reinforcements from England were slow to be dispatched, while locals often betrayed their towns to the French without a fight. Lisieux fell almost immediately, Rouen in October, Harfleur in December, and Honfleur in January 1450. The English finally managed to gather a modest 5,000-strong army over the winter, which landed at Cherbourg in March. to meet a French army of similar size at the Battle of Formigny (April 1450). Taking up their favoured defensive formation, the English longbowmen held-off the French for about three hours, until they finally got their cannons properly aligned. Unable to withstand the bombardment, the English left their defensive position and briefly captured the guns. It was at this point that a 1,200-strong cavalry force from Brittany arrived at the battlefield, utterly routing the English. With no significant forces left, the last English-held cities of Caen and Cherbourg were in French hands by August. In autumn 1450, Charles VII turned his full attention to Aquitaine (Gascony). Since the duchy had been under Plantagenet rule for 300 years, this was a much more significant campaign with most locals having no wish for change. However, in a careful attritional campaign the regional-capital of Bordeaux was in French hands in June 1451. However, without English government support, the veteran commander John Talbot of Shrewsbury arrived in Aquitaine with a 3,000-strong army in October 1452; Shakespeare called him the "English Achilles". Talbot easily recovered Bordeaux with the help of the townsfolk. Charles VII had known an English expedition was coming, but had expected it to reinforce Calais which the English were clearly priorising at the time. The French king prepared his forces over the winter, and launched a counter-offensive in the spring, which culminated in the Battle of Castillon (July 1453). Castillon is commonly regarded as the first time that artillery played a decisive role on a European battlefield. In many ways, it played out like Crécy in reverse. Believing the French were retreating, Talbot launched a rash attack into what proved a prepared defensive position, with cannons rather than longbowmen. The French guns obliterated the advancing soldiers. The battle lasted barely an hour, and was over even before the Breton cavalry arrived once again to mop-up. John Talbot's death, leading a couragous charge against entrenched artillery, has come to symbolize the passing of the age of medieval chivalry.

Edward IV of England meets with Louis XI of France at Picquigny. An English army invaded France for the last time in June 1475, in support of French allies who quickly proved uncooperative. The two kings agreed to a seven-year truce, essentially a modest bribe to withdraw.

Castillon was the last major battle of the Hundred Years War. On learning of the defeat, it is said that Henry VI experienced a mental breakdown precipitating the outbreak of the English Wars of the Roses. The Treaty of Picquigny (1475) is traditionally regarded as the formal end to the war. It had been intended as a mere seven-year truce, but no more was heard of the long conflict. except for the curious habit of English kings to include "King of France" among their titles, that was not dropped until 1803 in deference to an exiled Louis XVIII (d. 1824) during the French Revolution. The terms left England with no possessions on the continent except for the port-city of Calais, which was held until 1558. Historians have long considered the Hundred Years’ War as a milestone in the emergence of the nation states of England and France. France was left devastated and depopulated since virtually all the fighting took place on their soil; the country lost half her population to the combined effects of the Black Death and warfare. Despite that, the war accelerated the process of transforming France from a feudal monarchy to a centralised state. The crown had triumphed, not just over the English, but over the obstinate French nobility. The kingdom had been constructed in the late-12th-century out of a network of feudal lordships, and was now bound closer than ever as a single body; only Burgundy, Flanders and Brittany still enjoyed some autonomy at least for now. The French king could now levy taxation without the restraints that Magna Carta placed on English kings; no need to consult either the nobility or parliament (Estates General). Under Philip VI (d. 1350), royal lands had still provided more than half the royal revenues, augmented by occasional and irregularly-collected taxation. In the post-war era, taxation was normal part of French royal resources, providing 98% of a far larger royal budget. Furthermore, these taxes provided the necessity for a whole new state apparatus of salaried tax collectors and keepers of public records, ensuring the sustained enrichment of the state. France had begun the journey to the absolutist monarchy that would characterize later centuries. In contrast, it was the power of English parliament that had been strengthened over the course of the war. No late medieval English king ever managed, or even tried, to tax without parliamentary consent. Individual barons got rich from plundering France, and it was this, rather than the kings supposed right to the French throne or English patriotism, that provided the real push to continue funding the war; parliament usually approved one-off taxes that produced huge sums of money, rather than permanent levies. At times of royal weakness, parliament could exile or kill "bad" royal advisers, or even depose the king himself as with Richard II. Moreover, during the war, English royal revenues actually fell, not least due to the loss of the rich wine-trade of Aquitaine; in the 1480s, the English king's incoming was less than a quarter of those of France. Meanwhile, the psychological shock of losing England's overseas empire led to the search for a scapegoat, contributing the the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses after 1455. In material terms, the consequences of the defeat were not very great in fact. The fear before the war that English commerce would suffer from the losing control of the Channel proved largely groundless; by retaining Calais for another century, access to the textile-towns of Flanders (Belgium) was kept open to English wool exporters. Perhaps the most lasting impact of the Hundred Years' War was the emergence of a much cleared sense of national identity in both countries. For the French, the war had begun as something of a legalistic quarrel between rival claimants to the throne, but was transformed by the end, especially by Joan of Arc, into a national struggle to expel the foreigners occupiers. For the English, their great victories at Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt were glorified in medieval literature, poems and songs, in large part as deliberate propaganda to garner support for the war. Before the Hundred Years War, English kings and nobles, many of them descendants of Normans, had spoken French, but the war made the use of English a matter of national pride. Indeed, Francophobia would run through English history all the way down to the ealy-20th-century, when the Germans finally replaced the French as England’s natural adversaries.

Ottomans and Fall of Constantinople (1453)[]


In the 12th-century, Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) had been divided between two relatively powerful states; the Byzantine Empire in the west, and the Seljuk Sultanate of Rûm (1077–1308) in the east. This equilibrium was shattered in the 13th. In the west, the Fourth Crusade conquered Constantinople in 1204, and set-up a Latin Crusader States on the ruins of the empire. But Byzantine resistances continued in exile through the successor state of Nicaea in western Anatolia, with offshoots at Epirus in Greece and Trebizond on the Black Sea. The Latins were racked by infighting and manpower shortages as Crusading knights trickled away to the West, so were never able to gain a permanent foothold in Anatolia. Nicaea struggled to survive the next few decades. Then in the east, the Mongol conquered the Sultanate of Rûm (1077–1308) at the Battle of Köse Dağ (June 1243). This eased the pressure on Nicaea, and the dream of recovering Constantinople became a foreseeable possibility for the exiles. In 1261, Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos (d. 1282) sent his general called Alexios Strategopoulos with a small force of less than a thousand men to scout the Latin defences. They learned from some locals that the entire Latin garrison, including the Venetian fleet, was absent, conducting a raid against the Nicaean island of Daphnousia. Unwilling to squander such an opportunity, on the night of 25 July 1261, Strategopoulos' men entered the city via a little known gate. The Latins were taken completely unaware, when land-walls were attacked and taken from the inside after a short struggle. At the same time, Strategopoulos' men set fire to Venetian warehouses in the city. As the news spread, the Latin inhabitants, from the ruler Baldwin II (d. 1273) downwards, panicked and fled the city on Venetian ships. Two weeks later, Emperor Michael entered Constantinople in triumph, and was recrowned in the Hagia Sophia, vowing to restore the glory of the empire. He would do what he could but it was much too late. Byzantine emperors continued to rule in Constantinople for another two centuries, but their story makes for depressing reading. The "Queen of Cities", that had once dripped in gold as the largest in Europe, was now impoverished, weak, isolated, and depopulated, shrinking with Black Death to less than 100,000 inhabitants. The empire was failing just when a new Muslim threat was rising; the Ottoman Turks.

Osman I, the founder of the Ottoman Turkish Empire. While only a small principality during his lifetime, it was transformed into a world empire in the centuries after his death.

As the Mongol horde had swept westwards, Turkish groups of Central Asia fled westwards into Anatolia. By the end of the 13th-century, political authority in central Anatolia had become very fragmented indeed, an ever shifting patchwork of small Muslim Turkish principality known as Beyliks. One of these Beyliks, that of Osman I (d. 1323), was transformed over centuries into an empire spanning the Balkans, Anatolia and North Africa; the Ottoman Turkish Empire (1299–1922). Osman, a Turkic version of the Arabic name Othman, emerged as the ruler of a small principality centered on Söğüt in the north-western Anatolia. The Ottomans did not begin to record their own history until the 15th-century, and a satisfying explanation for the remarkable success of Osman and his immediate successors is still the subject of historical debate. Like other Beyliks, the early Ottomans lived in a style in keeping with their origins, as fierce nomads of the steppes; riding out to war was their everyday activity. The location of Söğüt must have been stimulating. It was in a curious borderland of cultures, half-Christian, half-Islamic; from the beginning Ottoman culture was an amalgam of Greek and Turkish, Muslim and Christian elements. Perhaps this openness to different cultures goes some was to explained the Ottoman ability to rapidly adapt to new circumstances; becoming experts in artillery when faced with the wall of Constantinople or becoming a navel power when confronted by the Venetians. During Osman's lifetime, many of his followers were in fact new to Islam, but once galvanised they moved with the zeal of the new convert. Oslam assumed the honourific Ghazi, an Arabic word for warrior but with religious connotations; a potent combination. Except for the royal family itself, Ottoman self-identity was based not on blood-ties, but on Islam and political expedience; at least one of the earliest warrior families, that of Köse Mihal, was of Greek Christian origin. Effectively the Ottoman ruling elite was an open oligarchy that anyone could be a member of, providing they possessed three essential attributes: profession of loyalty to the sultan; acceptance and practice of Islam; and knowledge of a complicated system of customs and behaviour, known as the Ottoman Way. Those who lacked any of those attributes were considered to be subjects, the “protected flock” of the sultan. Meanwhile, hemmed in by the more powerful Beyliks to the east, Osman had little choice but to focus all his attention on the enfeebled Byzantine Empire to the west of his territory. He showed leadership and ambition, and attracted warriors from many tribal group to join his following, especially after a victory over the Byzantines at the Battle of Bapheus (1302). Whatever its ultimate source, the Ottoman's staggering record of conquest rivals that of Arab and Mongol.


Progress was at first slow. The Ottoman horsemen lacked the siege-craft to take fortified Byzantine towns. Bursa, the first important town to fall to them in 1326, was effectively strangled into submission by plundering of the surrounding countryside for at least six years. The Ottomans began to developed a centralized state under Osman's son, Orhan (d. 1362), by attracting Seljuk scholars and administrators from eastern Anatolia: the first coins were minted; madrasas (school or university) founded; a land tax was instituted in the Islamic and Byzantine tradition, and another tax called Devshirme of one-fifth on slaves taken in war. Under Orhan, Nicaea, the second city of the Byzantine Empire surrendered in 1331 after a three-year siege, and Nicomedia in 1337. Now all that remained of Byzantine Anatolia was a few coastal cities that the Turks hadn't bothered to conquer yet. In 1346, the Turkish principality of Karesi was conquered, placing all potential crossing points to Europe in Ottoman hands. Incredibly, rather than uniting against the obvious threat, the Byzantines fell to squabbling among themselves. One aspiring claimant to the throne, John VI Kantakouzenos (d. 1383), offered the Ottoman Sultan a foothold in Europe at Gallipoli, in exchange for his support. At the time, the Balkans was a hodgepodge of fractious Greek, Latin, and Venetians principalities, all struggling against expansionist Serbia and Bulgaria to the north. Orhan’s son Murad (d. 1389) was the first Ottoman ruler to use Gallipoli for permanent conquests in Europe. He bypassed Constantinople itself, because its Theodosian Walls remained too strong for his cavalry-based army, and expanded northward into Thrace, culminating with the capture of Adrianople in 1362, the third city of the Byzantine Empire. A stranglehold was being applied to the Byzantine capital, but the Turks first looked for plunder and conquest in an easier direction. Again and again, Byzantine emperors appealed to the West for help, but Europe was asleep to the danger and absorbed by its own problems; France and England were fighting the Hundred Years' War, and the rest were too disunited to offer any real help. Only Bulgaria and Serbia, themselves directly threatened, were willing to join an anti-Ottoman alliance. At the Battle of Maritsa River (September 1371), an allied army numbering at least 50,000 attempted to retake Adrianople, while the bulk of the Ottoman forces were away campaigning in eastern Anatolia. But with no significant enemy forces in the region, they became over-confident and failed to scout ahead properly. The Ottomans could muster barely a thousand riders, but conducted a devastating surprise attack at night on the Christian camp. Thousands were killed in their sleep, and even more drowned in the river in a panicked attempt to flee. The enormity of this defeat, convinced Bulgaria to come to terms with the Ottomans to end the incessant raids into his lands. In 1376, the Bulgarian Tsar accepted vassal status under Murad, and sent his sister to the sultan's harem. The Serbs bravely fought-on, but on the field of blackbirds in the terrible Battle of Kosovo (June 1389), Serbian power was broken too. By 1393, the Ottomans had conquered nearly all of the central Balkans. This provided both the need and opportunity for the creation of an Ottoman standing army: the Janissary Corp. The state had long claimed one-fifth of all catives taken in war, and it was from this pool of manpower that the sultans initially constructed the nucleus of a group of professional soldiers. In subsequent generations, sultans recruited Janissaries from his non-Muslim subjects, through the Devşirme system, a human tax. Young boys were taken away from their families, raised in Turkish foster homes, converted to Islam, and schooled in the arts of war. The Janissaries gave the Ottomans a significant edge in a Europe largely without standing armies until the early-17th-century. Like the earlier Egyptian Mamluks, Janissaries were technocally slaves of the sultan, but could gain power and prestige through their service; some became senior officials (as high as grand vizier, second only to the sultan), as well as generals and admirals. They were also paid a salary and a pension upon retirement, and, while forbidden to marry, they could own property and inherit it from dead comrades; a few became very wealthy. In time, the Janissaries would form their own distinctive social class within the ruling elite of the empire. Meanwhile, now that Latin Christian Hungary was directly threatened, the rest of Europe at last awoke to the Ottoman danger. In 1394, Pope Boniface IX (d. 1404) proclaimed a new Crusade against them. With the Great Papal Schism, the days when popes had such authority were long past, but many knights from across Europe did answered the call due to a long break in the Hundred Years' War. A predominantly French-Hungarian Crusader army of perhaps 16,000 men crossed the Danube and marched on the strategically important fortress-city of Nicopolis on the Danube. At the resulting Battle of Nicopolis (September 1396), the Ottoman arrived to lift the siege. Although nominally led by the Hungarian king, the hot-headed French knights refusing to follow his battle-plan. They were drawn into a painfully obvious ambush, surrounded, and annihilated. By now, the Byzantine Empire had been reduced a few square miles outside the walls of Constantinople itself, completely surrounded in an Ottoman sea. The Turks undertook a series of half-hearted sieges in 1391, 1394, and in 1397. Then in 1402, the Byzantines were granted a sudden reprieve by one last flash of the old Mongol terror; the arrival of Timur.

Forensic facial reconstruction of the great Mongol conqueror Timur by Russian archaeologist Mikhail Gerasimov. His team exhumed Timur's body, and found two healed wounds on his right leg. His right hand was also missing two fingers.

In the late-14th-century, region that is today Afghanistan and Turkmenistan was in turmoil. It formed an indeterminate part of the Mongol Empire between the Ilkhanate Khanate of Persia and Chagatai Khanate of Central Asia, both of which descended into chaos in the 1330s; the former disintegrated completely in 1335, and the latter was racked by civil war from 1338. Timur was one of many local warlords vying for power in the region; he is often known in the West as Tamerlane ("Timur the Lame"), from a leg-wound sustained in his youth. Timur was as much a Muslim Turk by blood as a Mongol, but aspired to rival Genghis Khan. Like his hero, he spent more than half of his life rising to power among his own people. He was almost fifty in 1383, when he embarked on an astonishing two decades of far-flung conquest. From his capital of Herāt, he conquered most of Persia by 1386, and the Caucasuses by 1389. Timur's conquests were based on terror. With any city that resisted or later revolted, the entire population would be massacred. He even developed an effective new form of memento to stand as cautionary tale; the skulls of the dead, firmly cemented together, formed the masonry for grisly towers were the city used to stand. Unlike the Mongol tradition of religious-tolerance, Timur was a devout Muslim and almost complete extinguished Nestorian Christianity within his domains. With the conquest of the Caucasuses, Timur's domain now bordered the Mongol Golden Horde of Russia. Although its Khan, Toktamysh, had once been Timur's ally, the pair became rivals. The power of the Golden Horde was finally broken at the Battle of the Terek River (April 1395), and its capital of Sarai Batu reduced to rubble, as were several Italian trading colonies on the Black Sea. Next, Timur turned south and invaded India in 1398, having heard of the weakness of the Delhi Sultanate. Although his army faced war-elephants for the first time, the Sultan's army was shattered at the Battle of Panipat (December 1398), and Delhi too was left in ruins. Timur however had no intention of ruling India, and withdrew carrying home an immense quantity of plunder on 120 elephants. By the end of 1399, the conqueror, now in his mid-sixties, was back in the west. He first made war on the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt, conquering Syria, and sacking Damascus, Aleppo, and Baghdad. He then turned north-west against the Ottoman Turks, pillaging the east and then advancing into central Anatolia. Murad's son, Bayezid (d. 1403), hoped to force Timur into battle in the densely forested east, which would be unsuitable for his cavalry based army. However, Ottoman scouts found no traces of the Timur, who had secretly marched his army to the south-west, and then looped north to reappeared in the Ottoman rear near Ankara; he made use of the camp that the Ottomans had occupied days earlier. With little choice but to fight on unsuitable ground after an exchausting march, the Ottoman army was shattered at the resulting Battle of Ankara (July 1402); Sultan Bayezid himself was captured and died still in Timur's tender care within a year. Once again illustrating his interest in Genghis' family legacy, Timur was marching east on a campaign against Ming China, when he died of an illness in 1405. After his death, the Timurid Empire (1383-1500) was divided among his sons and grandson, and, though they squabbling incessantly, the family held onto most of the territory until the early-15th-century, when much of it fell to Persian Safavid Dynasty (1501-1736). 

Mehmed II, commonly known as Mehmed the Conqueror, secured his place in history as the Ottoman Sultan who conquered Constantinople and brought an end to the Byzantine 1453.

Timur’s aim in Anatolia had not been conquest, but to secure his western flank for further conquests in the east. The Ottoman state fractured after Ankara, but survived, though it took almost 11-years to settle the succession crisis between the late sultan's sons. The fourth son, Mehmed (1413-21), emerged victorious at the Battle of Çamurlu (July 1413). Mehmed and his son Murad II (1421–51) devoted most of their reigns to reasserting control over Anatolia and the Balkans against Turkish warlords and break-away vassal princes, most notably the revolts of Serbia. In 1444, Murad retired to a life of religious contemplation, voluntarily passing the throne to his 12-year-old son, Mehmed II (d. 1481), who had already shown the promise that would distinguish his long reign. However, Pope Eugenius IV saw this as an opportunity to organise a new Crusade to drive the Ottomans from Europe. Understanding that he was too young and inexperienced, Mehmet demanded that his father return to the throne, saying "If you are the sultan come and lead the armies; if I am the sultan, I order you to come and lead the armies". This time the target was the fortress of Varna on the Black Sea, where the Venetians could provide navel support. Although hard fought, the predominantly Hungarian-Polish Crusader army was virtually annihilated at the Battle of Varna (November 1444). Varna is often considered the last Crusade, and sealed the fate of the Balkans for centuries. By the time now 19-year-old Mehmed II (1451-81) return to the throne, the Ottomans had fully regained their momentum; commonly known to history as Mehmed the Conqueror. Remembering Mehmed's earlier brief reign, Europe and Byzantium breathed a sigh of relief, and ambassador to his court were reassured by peaceful overtures. But Mehmed's mild words were not matched by actions. He began his reign by having his infant brother assassinated, beginning a long tradition of fratricide among Ottoman princes. It was, in his mind, the only way to remove a potential threat to his throne, and prevent the kind of civil war that had followed Bayezid's reign. He would later famously remark, "whichever of my sons inherits the sultan's throne, it behooves him to kill his brothers in the interest of the world order". It should have been a clue to his character, but went unheeded. Mehmed's singular goal was to take Constaninople. His grandfather had built the Anadolu Hisarı fortress, a few miles north of the great city on the Asian side of the Hellespont. By early 1452, construction had begun on a second fortress, the Rumeli Hisarı, on the European side. This pair of fortresses ensured complete control of sea traffic through the Hellespont; a complete stranglehold was being applied to Constantinople. In the Byzantine capital, Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos (1449-53) understood Mehmed's true intentions, and turned to Western Europe for help, but as always the message was the same; convert to Catholicism first. But the bitterness of the Fourth Crusade, so quickly forgotten by the West, endured in the Byzantine memory, and, even in the face of annihilation, the typical Byzantine response was, "Better the Sultan's turban than the Pope's mitre." The emperor had lived through at least one Ottoman siege before, having led the defences of Hexamilion, the last Byzantine stronghold outside the capital to fall to the Turks in 1446. Courageous and charismatic, he knew there was little room for hope, but reigned with a quiet dignity that didn't involve surrender. If the great city must fall, then it would go down fighting in honourable Roman tradition.

The Dardanelles Gun, built in 1464. It was based on Orban's super-sized cannon that had been used at the Siege of Constantinople in 1453.

In early April 1453, Mehmed II initiated the siege and naval blockade of Constantinople, with a force of more than 100,000 men and 126 ships. With the age of artillery now well under way, he also brought 69 cannons, including one that was more than twice as large as any yet built. It had been designed and built by a Hungarian specialist called Orban, who had first offered his services to the Byzantines, but the impoverished emperor had no funds to hire him. The cannon was a behemoth: 27 feet-long; weighing 19-tons; requiring 60 oxen and 200 men to manoeuvre into firing position; needing 3-hours to reload; and capable of propelling a 600 lbs ball over a mile. Meanwhile, Emperor Constantine had barely 7,000 soldiers, 700 Genoese mercenaries, and some 30,000 civilians pressed into service, but still refused to surrender, placing his faith in the mighty Theodosian Walls. On 6 April, Mehmed began his bombardment. The city-walls were subjected to an onslaught unprecedented in the history of siege-warfare, and sections of the wall were breached by the end of the first day. However, each night the defenders would ventured out to turn the rubble into makeshift defences, and successfully repulsed repeated assaults. Frustrated with the lack of progress, Mehmed turned to the lower sea wall within the imperial harbour, itself protected from enemy ships by a great chain across the harbour mouth. But the young Sultan had an answer for that. In a stunning display of Turkish planning and organisation, 70 ships were dragged on wheeled carriages over a 200-foot hill and into the harbour. On Sunday morning 29 April, Emperor Constantine awoke to the astonishing sight of Ottoman ships within the imperial harbour, and the knowledge that he now had even more miles of wall to defend. Remarkably, the Byzantines continued to hold-out for almost a month. Mehmet did better with orthodox methods, driving his soldiers forward ruthlessly, and cutting them down if they flinched from the assault. In the Turkish camp, Mehmed prepared his troops for the final all-out assault. Not bothering to hide his plans, he announced that Monday would be a day of rest and prayer, and Tuesday 29 May 1453 would be the final push. That Monday, the last in Byzantine history, the exhausted defenders and civilians, Orthodox and Roman Catholics alike, gathered in the Hagia Sophia for a solemn ceremony; for one brief moment a unified Christendom was restored. The Ottoman offensive began just after midnight in successive waves. The emperor seemed to be everywhere at once, shoring up the line wherever it wavered. When all was lost, he plunged into where the fighting was thickest, and was lost to history. By dawn, every bell in Constantinople rang-out the alarm; the Turks were in the city. Mehmed gave his men free rein in the conquered city for three days. The carnage was terrible; thousands were murdered, raped, or enslaved. The Hagia Sophia alone was ordered to be spared; the cathedral, for centuries the most magnificent in Christendom, was to begin a new life as an Islamic mosque.

View of the Seraglio Point upon the Ottoman imperial palace in Istanbul.

Thus Constantinople, with a new name Istanbul (probably from the Greek "to the city), became the heart of a great empire once again; the Ottoman Empire. The 21-year-old conqueror saw himself as the successor to the imperial throne of Byzantium by right of conquest, and he began to restore the city as his administrative, economic, and cultural capital. Rebuilding began almost immediately: the Hagia Sophia was converted to a mosque; a new mosque complex with built, the Fatih Mosque ("Mosque of the Conqueror"), with its attached hospital, madrasa (university), and public baths; and the Topkapı Palace was constructed, the main residence and administrative headquarters of the Ottoman Sultans for almost 500 year. The city walls were also repaired, with a new fortress, Yedikule, built upon the old triumphal Golden Gate, which had been destroyed. The population of the great city had been much reduced after decades of fear and uncertainty. Mehmed encouraged its former inhabitants to return; Muslims, Christians, and Jews all took up his offer. The major religious groups were promised the right to worship as they pleased, with a high-degree of self-governance, their own laws, traditions, and languages. A Greek Orthodox bishop was installed as archbishop of Constantinople within a year. Indeed, Jews were attracted to Istanbul from all over western Europe, where they were increasingly facing persecution. Special attention was paid to restoring Istanbul’s commerce and industry, with substantial tax concessions to attract merchants, artisans, and other skilled workers. The Genoese, who had fought with the Byzantines, were pardoned and allowed to stay, though the fortifications around their district were torn down. The great city recovered quickly. By 1500, Istanbul was once again the largest city in Europe with about 400,000 inhabitants.


Meanwhile, the Ottoman war machine rolled on. In south-eastern Europe, Mehmed extended Ottoman rule far beyond that inherited from his father: Serbia was officially annexed in 1455; the Peloponnese conquered in 1460; Italian commercial colonies that had survived along the Black Sea fell in 1461; the Bulgarian rump-state of Vlad "the Impaler" Dracula (d. 1476) fell in 1462; and Bosnia in 1463. When Albania continued to hold-out, thanks to resupply by sea from Venice, Mehmed sent a large numbers of Turkish irregulars into it. In the process of conquering Albania many settled, forming the nucleus of a Muslim community that has remained to the present day. Then when Venice refused to surrender its islands along the Aegean coast, Mehmed inaugurated the Ottoman-Venetian War (1463–79). This victory saw the rapid expansion of the Ottoman navy, which began to challenge Italian control of the eastern Mediterranean. In the resulting peace treaty, Venice agreed to pay the Ottomans an annual tribute in return for restoring her commercial privileges. In the east, Mehmed extended direct Ottoman rule over the whole of Anatolia as far as the Euphrates by 1468. Meanwhile, Mehmed took the title Kayser-i Rûm (essentially Roman Emperor), and viewed his empire as a continuance of the Roman Empire. This was true in many ways, for the Ottoman Empire was the most stable and coherent political system in the whole of contemporary Europe; and indeed the Islamic world. His later successor, Suleiman the Magnificent (d. 1566), would ultimately re-creating the old Roman Empire of Justinian the Great, controlling the Balkans, the Middle East as far east as the Persian Gulf, and northern Africa as far west as Tunisia until the early-20th centuries

The Annunciation, one of the most admired icons of the Paleologan Mannerism from the Church of St. Climent.

The fall of Constantinople did not quite end the Byzantine story. Fleeing the wreckage of their homeland, many Byzantine settled in to Western Europe, especially in northern Italy, bring with them the jewels of Greek and Roman learning that had been lost to the Dark Ages. There they found new homes amid people ready to fall in love with these forgotten classics. The result was Renaissance humanism where Europeans was reintroduced to their own roots; of the 55,000 surviving Classical texts, 40,000 were sourced from Constantinople. Eastern Europe of course had never really forgotten. Russia was particularly insistent on claiming to be the cultural heir to Byzantium, and liked to refer to Moscow as the Third Rome; "Two Romes have fallen. The third stands. And there will be no fourth" proclaimed an early 16th-century Orthodox monk. Indeed, Ivan the Great (d. 1505) married a niece of the last Byzantine Emperor, Constantine XI, and his grandson, Ivan the Terrible (d. 1584), was the first Russian ruler to style himself Tsar, deriving from the Roman Caesar. This idea was also expressed architecturally in the impressive Byzantine-inspired cathedrals and icon painting. This ideological tradition however was the only truly Byzantine element that persisted in the Russian lands. The political and fiscal structure of Russia long remained simplistic, more similar to those of the Mongols, than the Byzantines and now the Ottomans. Meanwhile, the greatest legacy of Byzantium had been secured long before the fall of Constantinople. It lay in the rooting of Eastern Orthodox Christianity among the Bulgarians, Russians, and other Slav peoples. These cultures were potentially open to other influences, but Eastern Orthodoxy was in the end the deepest single influence upon them. In the 19th and 20th century, Orthodoxy would be pressed into service by the national independence movements against Ottoman rule. Today the Eastern Orthodox Church is the second largest Christian communion in the world, with at least 200 million adherents.

End of Paganism in Europe (1387)[]


By the early-13th-century, tribes of Lithuania were the last explicit pagans in Europe. The Teutonic Knights had already conquered and forcibly converted old Prussians to the west and Latvians to the east. In successfully resisting the same fate, the Lithuanians began to organize themselves into a state, with Mindaugas (d. 1263) emerging as their first king. Mindaugas accepted Latin Christianity in 1251, in a bid to defuse the threat from the Teutons, but neither Chrianity nor Lithuanian unity lasted very long; Lithuania was devastated by the Mongol Golden Horde in 1258, and Mindaugas himself was assassinated by pagan opposition in 1263. Lithuania thus remained pagan, but was reunited by Butigeidis (d. 1291). Under his successor, Gediminas (d. 1341), Lithuania began an extraordinary period of rapid territorial expansion south and east. By the reign of Jogaila (d. 1434), his realm stretched from the Baltic Sea, through modern-day Belarus and into western Ukraine as far as Kiev. Meanwhile, Jogaila found himself in a quandary; he now had many Orthodox Christian subjects who favoured an alliance with the rising power of Moscow, while the Teutonic Knights had been trying to impose Latin Christianity on them for more than a century. In the end, diplomacy from Latin Christian Poland solved his dilemma in dramatic fashion. After two-centuries of choas, Poland had finally been reunited under Casimir III Piast (1333–1370), whose long reign brought a welcome period of stability, peace, and prosperity. An enlightened and energetic ruler, he laid solid foundations for a strong Polish state with wide-ranging legal, economic, commercial and educational reforms. Realizing that his reemerging nation needed a class of educated people, he extended royal protection to Jews, who were persecuted elsewhere in western Europe. Casimir's one failing was that he had no son and heir. With the prospect of a return of dynastic chaos, Polish ambassadors travlled to Lithuania to offer Jogaila both the hand of Casimir's 11-year-old granddaughter and the Polish crown; forging the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1386–1795). In return, Jogaila was baptized into the Latin Christian Church, thus ending explicit pagans in Europe. The strength of the newly united kingdom was immediately demonstrated in a clash with the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Grunwald (July 1410). The Teutonic army fought in the old chavalric style, clad in heavy armour and riding powerful chargers, but proved vulnerable to a lighter, nimbler opponent, fighting in the style of the Mongols; indeed the Polish-Lithuanians had at least 3,000 mercenaries from the Golden Horde. The Order fell for the old nomad tactic of a feigned retreat, were surrounded, and decisively defeated. Despite the defeated, the Teutonic Knights withstood the siege of their main stronghold at Marienburg, and ceded only a little territory in the peace. The Order, however, would never recover her former power, with the financial burden of war reparations causing internal conflicts. In 1525, the Teutonic Knights themselves would undergo a conversion, when their last Grand Master, Albert of Brandenburg, changed their territory from a religious Crusader State to the secular Duchy of Prussia, as a vassal of Poland-Lithuania. Poland-Lithuania was the largest polity in the whole of Europe; but by no means the strongest: Lithuania had almost no political infrastructure, and was gradually reduced into the junior role in its partnership; while Poland had an obstinate nobility that could only be countered by a forceful king. In the struggles for political dominance, the Polish nobility (Szlachta) was completely successful. In 1505, the Polish parliament (Sejm) forced the crown to accept the principle of Nihil novi ("nothing new"); that no new law may be introduced without parliamentary consent, an even greater restriction on royal power than England's Magna Carta. Alas, the nobles eventually went too far. When the Jagiellonian dynasty petered-out in 1572, they asserted their right to choose his successor, establishing an elective Polish monarchy in which even foreign candidate would be considered. From the very beginning, this experiment with democracy was an utter disaster. For each royal election, foreign powers promoted their own candidates through bargaining and bribery. Under a succession of eleven kings, only four of whom were native Poles, the Baltic region was lost to Sweden, and Ukraine to the Cossacks.

Early Renaissance (1350-1490)[]

Michelangelo’s statue of the young king David as he prepares to fight the giant Goliath, commissioned by the city of Florence to celebrate one of the occasions that a republican government ousted the Medici family from power. It became an iconic symbol of Renaissance artistic brilliance.

Despite the crises, the 14th century was also a time of great progress in the arts and intellectual life. The Renaissance (1341-1620) may be vivid in the mind's eye - in human figures sculpted in the round, or in painting of profound and moving realism - but as a concept it is a slippery customer. The word is French for "rebirth", and was first coined by Giorgio Vasari (d. 1574) in his Lives of the Artists, a series of biographies of the most eminent painters, sculptors, and architects, but earlier writers and thinkers had already seen themselves as reinvigorators of a lost classical tradition after the medieval centuries. The term "Middle Ages", coined around the same time, makes the same point in a different way, seeing the period as superstitious and artistically primitive; merely a gap between classical Greco-Roman and modern civilization. The first problem with this idea is that the medieval centuries had a vivid cultural identity of their own, different from the classical past but not necessarily inferior. And the art and scholarly achievements in the later centuries were by no means as stagnant and uncreative as it was once the fashion to believe. Medieval metalworking, furniture-making, embroidery, porcelain. and literature were particularly complex and rich fields. The second difficulty is that there is no clear dividing line between the medieval and Renaissance. In the arts, stylistic hints of the coming Renaissance can be seen well before 1300. And the third problem derives from the fact that the Renaissance was a broad cultural movement and not specific events. Some scholars limit the term only to the "major" arts (painting, sculpture, and architecture), while others use it more generally by including developments in philosophy, literature, music, theatre, science, and other aspects of intellectual inquiry. Should 16th-century English threatre or 17th-century Scandinavian Baroque architecture be included or not? However, “Renaissance” is a term that  is too widely used to avoid, even if there is disagreement about its limits. At the time, people certainly believed that they were living in a period that was special, as Lorenzo Valla (d. 1457) wrote, “I do not know why the arts of painting, sculpture, and architecture had been in so long and so deep a decline and almost died out together with literature itself; nor why they have come to be aroused, awoken, and come to life again in this age; nor why there is now such a rich harvest both of good artists and good writers.

The Renaissance began in northern Italy in the mid-14th-century, and spreading to the rest of Europe by the 16th century. Why Italy is not difficult to understand; money. Artists depended on rich patrons to foster their talent, and northern Italy was among the richest region of 14th-century Europe, having prospered greatly through trade and banking. Some historians argue that the Black Death had the effect of concentrating this wealth in the hands of the survivors, who then had more surplus money to spend on luxuries. Italian society was also highly competitive, with well-heeled merchant families engaging in commercial and political rivalries with one another. This in turn created a need for visible displays of a family's wealth and taste. Another explanation is that Italians had always felt a deep sense of their Greco-Roman heritage from. They literally lived amongst Rome's ruins, and had long traded with the Byzantine Greeks. In the 14th-and-15th-century, so many Greek refugees fled the Ottoman Turkic onslaught for northern Italy that a contemporary chronicler commenting that "it seemed Constantinople had not fallen at all, but merely been transplanted to Italy". They brought with them the jewels of Greco-Roman philosophy and literature that had been lost to the Middle Ages, as well as eminent scholar such as Manuel Chrysoloras (d. 1415) and Johannes Argyropoulos (d. 1487) with greater familiarity of classical works and the Greek language; the classical Roman empire had been bi-lingual with Latin as the language of politics and the army, while Greek was the language of culture and learning. And so, it was only natural that cultural revival and renewed interest in classical antiquity began in Italy.

Some historians date the start of the Renaissance quite precisely to the year 1341, when Petrarch became poet laureate in Rome. Petrarch's rediscovery of Cicero's letters is often credited with the founding of Humanist movement.

While the Renaissance is especially linked to innovation in art, its earliest expression was the scholarly movement known as Humanism, the name implying an admiration of the finest achievements of the human race. Many historians cite Francesco Petrarch (d. 1374) as the first scholar and poet to embody the spirit of the Renaissance; considered by some to be the "father of the Renaissance". Born in Florence, Petrarch emerged as a European celebrity after publishing his first major epic poem, Africa, which tells the story of the great Roman general Scipio Africanus. In 1341, he was crowned poet laureate in Rome, honouring him just as Augustus might have honoured Virgil. He came to believed that true eloquence and ethical wisdom had been lost during the Middle Ages. According to Petrarch, what was needed to remedy this situation was the careful study and imitation of the great classical authors. In 1345, Petrarch personally discovered a collection of letters Cicero not previously known to have existed, and whose writing style became the model for elegant prose. He gathered many admirers to his cause, who devoted themselves to tracking down forgotten manuscripts, travelling Europe to visit monastic libraries, and among ancient ruins to note the inscriptions. They formed academies in which to collected their findings into libraries, to exchange ideas, and to present their own imaginative literature in what they believe to be the classical style. Petrarch's most influencial disciples were Giovanni Boccaccio (d. 1375) and Poggio Bracciolini (d. 1459). Boccaccio advanced further than Petrarch in raising vernacular literature to the level of the classical with his masterpiece, The Decameron (c. 1353), in which a series of tales within a framing story explore the Black Death from the viewpoint of various social classes; Geoffrey Chaucer (d. 1400) later copied its story structure for his more famous Canterbury Tales. Meanwhile, Bracciolini made one of the great discoveries of the whole Renaissance, the only surviving work describing in detail the philosophy and worldview of Epicurus. Epicureanism had hugely useful ideas about human happiness, passions, communal life, religion, and science. Historians have often struggled to define Humanism precisely. In short, it inspired a love of learning and books, and a new confidence in the possibilities of the human mind. which helped break-free from the mental strictures imposed by religious orthodoxy. It also led to the search for more accessible, cheaper books, and to the invention of the printing press, which, in turn, led to literature became a part of the lives of the larger public, not just the few elite. The intellectual stimulation provided by Humanists helped spark the Reformation, though many recoiled from it, including arguably the greatest scholar of the age, Desiderius Erasmus.

More specifically, the Renaissance began in Florence, where the powerful Medici family were patrons for an enormous amount of art, architecture, and scholarly learning; Florentine leadership in the arts was well-established by the time of Cosimo de' Medici's rise to power in 1434.

Brunelleschi's famous octagonal dome crowning the Florence Cathedral, which still dominates the Florentine skyline. All the architects of the next generation were influenced by Brunelleschi's work.

The first important figures of what would subsequently be known as Renaissance Art were three Florentine friends, who it is said visited Rome together around 1407; Filippo Brunelleschi, an architect; Donatello, a sculptor; and Masaccio, a painter. They were recognized in their own time as founders of a new direction in art; the masters of classical Greece and Rome were finally being challenged. Brunelleschi (d. 1446) is now recognized to be a pivotal figure in Renaissance architecture. Where the Humanists visited Rome to copy inscriptions, he sketched the architecture of Roman ruins. From this evolved the first scientific theory of linear perspective, and a desire for symmetry and careful proportion frequently lacking in Gothic building, where arches of differing angles often occurred within the same structure. Brunelleschi's first major architectural commission was the Ospedale degli Innocenti, designed as an orphanage for foundlings, set up by the silk-workers’ guild in Florence. Although the ingredients were the familiar ones, there was an entirely new feeling in the balance between them; all proportions - of the windows, the floor plan, and the covered walkway with a series of rounded arches - were carefully thought out to achieve a sense of harmony and slender elegance. His new architectural philosophy is best demonstrated in the churches of San Lorenzo and Santo Spirito, where the mood of perfect balance extends to the interior, with every surface, from floor to dome, an interacting display of curves and colour. Brunelleschi later turned his talents to designing and constructing a dome for Florence Cathedral. Although stylistically Gothic, in keeping with the rest of the building, it was in fact based on Roman domes, but higher and more graceful. The magnificent result still dominates the Florentine skyline today.

Donatello's Gattamelata, the prototype for every equestrian monuments created in Italy and Europe in the following centuries, that still grace the streets of modern cities.

The acknowledged master of the early Renaissance sculture was Donatello (d. 1466). In 1406, every craft-guild in Florence were order to provide a statue for the niches outside the Orsanmichele Church. In his mid-twenties, Donatello won the commission of two different for free-standing marble figures of St Mark and St George. Both works show a decisive move away from the Gothic style, and toward a more heroic quality of Greek sculpture while incorporating the new science of perspective. Rapidly maturing in his art, Donatello began to develop a style all his own, with figures much more dramatic and emotional. His most famous statue, the astonishing bronze David, reintroduced one of the great themes of Greek sculpture in a burst of glorious confidence. The boy stands in a mood of wit and playfulness with the head of Goliath at his feet. In 1443, Donatello revives yet another ancient tradition, in a work of lasting influence. He was called to the city of Padua by the family of the famous mercenary Erasmo da Narni, who had recently died. He completed the massive bronze composition around 1450, showing Erasmo riding a horse in full battle dress, minus a helmet; first example of such a monument since ancient times. This work became the prototype for every dignitary riding in bronze through the streets of modern cities, but few have the stern severity of this uncompromising soldier of fortune.

The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, a single scene from the cycle fresco painted by Masaccio around 1425 on the walls of the Brancacci Chapel in Florence.

The works of Tommaso Guidi (d. 1428), better known as Masaccio ("messy") for his disheveled appearance, are generally considered to be among the earliest examples of Renaissance painting. Despite his brief career, dying at 26-years-old, he had a profound influence on Italian painting. Masaccio clearly admired the work of the earlier Giotto, incorporating his statuesque figures, but adding to it two further qualities. One of these was a new freedom in the expression of emotion. In his fresco for Brancacci Chapel, the bodies of the naked Adam and Eve, driven from Paradise by an angel, are almost distorted in the intensity of their shame. The other significant new quality is a new sense of depth to his paintings. In another fresco, the apostles, hearing Jesus tell them that tribute money should be paid to Caesar, make a realistically arranged group in a believable open space flanked by receding buildings; employing techniques such as vanishing point in art for the first time. Building on the work of Masaccio and many others, Sandro Botticelli (d. 1510) emerged as arguably the outstanding painter of the early Renaissance. One of a circle of artists and scholars under the patronage of Lorenzo de' Medici, Botticelli's best known work, The Birth of Venus (c.1482), is one of the most widely recognised paintings of the entire Renaissance. As a depiction of a female nude from Greek mythology on a very large scale, it was virtually unprecedented in Western art since classical antiquity.

Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?), by Jan van Eyck, 1433. National Gallery, London.

From Florence the new Humanist spirit and the Renaissance it engendered quickly expanded to other Italian city-states, such as Venice, Milan, Bologna, and Rome. Then, during the 15th century, its ideas spread north to all parts of Europe; the so-called Northern Renaissance. The Low Countries (modern-day Belgium and the Netherlands) was a particularly early adherent. The cities of Ghent, Ypres, Bruges, Antwerp, and Brussels had long-established links with northern Italy via the north-south trade-route up the Rhine, and a similar mercantile culture based on high-quality textile production. An extraordinary period began for the region in the 1420s, with three outstanding masters. Jan van Eyck (d. 1441) began his career by painting a vast new panelled altarpiece for Ghent Cathedral. This was a familiar late Gothic work, but Eyck, painting with a new certainty of design and execution, made each panel is a powerful work in its own right, while each collaborated with its immediate neighbours in a complex landscape; fascinating if viewed closely, and striking when seen from more distance. The faces in the panels are so real that they could be portraits, and indeed his most famous work is a portrait of an Italian merchant and his wife known as The Arnolfini Marriage. Van Eyck, and his contemporaries Robert Campin (d. 1444) and Rogier van der Weyden (d. 1464), perfected techniques of painting in oil in ways that allowed artists far greater manipulation of colour, making possible a deeper complexity of emotions. For a century, the Low Countries became the cultural centre of northern Europe, whose incluence spread to France with Jean Fouquet (d. 1481), and Germany with Martin Schongauer (d. 1491), among others

Building upon these foundation, the cultural movement reached its apex in the High Renaissance (1490-1529), which revolved around three towering figure: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael. Each of the three embodied an important aspect of the period: Leonardo was the ultimate Renaissance Man, a genius to whom no branch of study was foreign; Michelangelo conceived vast projects that drew for inspiration on the human body as the ultimate vehicle for emotional expression; while Raphael created works that perfectly expressed the classical spirit, harmonious, beautiful, and serene.