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Late Medieval History

1. Setting the scene

2. Conflict between the Papacy and emperors

3. Crisis of the Muslim world and crusades

This page will concentrate on main economic processes in late medieval ages (XIth-XVth centuries), and their influence on political history of Europe. Good and reader-friendly introduction to the economic history is a book
Concise Economic History of the World by Rondo Cameron (and Larry Neal). Though it concentrates mainly on the economic of West Europe.

For the late medieval Europe three basic economic processes are important:
1.    Economic development of populistic city-states of Italy. Their expansion in Mediterranean basin and their influence on other European (feudal) states.
2.    Economic expansion of German merchants from trade union called Hansa in the basin of Baltic Sea.
3.    Great Trans-European economic cycle of XIIth, XIIIth and XIVth centuries that ended with the epidemic of The Black Death (1348-1350).

Useful resources about Medieval History
Basic introduction, with maps - Middle Ages (at Wikipedia)
Basic introduction in World History by Frank E. Smitha
Internet Medieval Sourcebook (with maps)
Catholic Encyclopedia
Plus Wikipedia as usual (Magna Carta).

And maps
As usual Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd
And Periodical Historical Atlas of Europe (100-years interval)  

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Setting the scene

A few introductory notes:

There were three basic “trade alleys“ that for the history of late medieval Europe:
  1. Mediterranean Sea - trade between Orient and West Europe.
  2. Baltic Sea and North Sea - trade between West Europe and “emerging markets” of East Europe and Scandinavia.
  3. Sout-North trade routes between Italy and France, Germany, and Northern Europe in general.
See map. Because of poor road system seas and great rivers: (Tagus, Loire, Rhine, Danube, Elbe, Vistula, Volga among others) were important medieval trade routes.

It is good to remember the proportions of population (estimates) of medieval European countries:
  • The biggest were France and Russia (comparable population).
  • Then come middle populated countries: Germany, Italy and Iberic peninsula (as a whole) - about 50-60% of France population.
  • Then tertiary countries of England, Poland and Hungary - about 20-30% of France population.
But note that because of general feudal fragmentation, even small but united countries (like Denmark, Kingdom of Sicily, Bohemia) may play important role in medieval politic.

During the late medieval ages, population of cities (as the percentage of the whole population) was slowly increasing. And the volume of trade too. In medieval pyramid, city-dwellers are the middle income group, so under normal conditions they grow in power faster than other social groups (low-income peasants or high-income nobles - see Early Medieval page). But it was a slow and long run process.

As a consequence, at the end of medieval ages importance of personal feudal dependencies and hierarchies decreased, while the importance of money, and trade increased. At the very beginning (XIth century) powerful was the ruler who had more allies, at the end (XVth century) the ruler who had more money.

The beginning of new millennium was the age of feudal chaos. Western Europe (generally France) was feudally fragmented and every feudal lord fight with each other trying to get rich or to get more political power. A very good example of zero-sum game. This chaos was the serious encumbrance (barrier) for trade and normal economic activities in general - whose relative profitability started to increase these times.

So the new ideologies and new intellectual trends (ideas) appeared, promoting the more peaceful way of living. The source of new ideas was the institution of Catholic Church which controlled many economic enterprises (ex. in monasteries), but had very limited military power. The ideas like Pax Dei or Tregua Dei were introduced and promoted.

Also the Church itself reformed to cure the corruption: nepotism (favoring own relatives for offices) -  and simony (buying offices for money). Reforms started from the Congregation of Cluny.

In the middle of XIth century the conflict (the reason was the problem of filioque) between Western (Catholic) and Eastern Church (Orthodox) started, and effected in the Great Schism. This conflict may seem ridiculous from today’s perspective, but the core of the problem was: which of the two church centers (Rome or Constantinople) is more important. In pyramid-like feudal hierarchies is very important who is on the top.

In 1066 after the Battle of Hastings William of Normandy (William the Conqueror)  conquered the England. Normans - former Danish Vikings - conquered the French land of Normandy in late 9th century, then assimilated, and in XIth were regular French nobles. William of Normandy had some legal right to the crown of England. So, his conquest was rather something like an “aggressive takeover of a corporation” called England. In medieval Europe legal rights to the country or privilege played important role in feudal wars. Feudal rulers had to consider the reaction of public opinion, even planning brute aggressions, because other rulers waited for his mistakes.

Normans in England
These times England started to unite after the period of feudal fragmentation. William conquest speeded up this process. As invaders Normans had to be united (ex. all Norman nobles were the vassals of the king opposite than in France where only the “highest level” nobles were the vassals of the king) and had to introduce a strong administration.

But it is useful to note that the strength of king was also an effect of the importance of trade. Trade cross the sea with the continental Europe (western France, Normandy, Flanders, Netherlands, etc.), and other sea activities like fishing, were the important part of British income (comparing with the income from land). Also the important part of the ruler’s income, giving kings of England resources to overpower the opposition of nobles.      

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Conflict between the Papacy and emperors

Over two hundred years long (since XIth till the XIIIth century) and probably the most important political conflict in medieval Europe was the struggle between Popes and emperors of the Holy Roman Empire. The conflict had two stages:
1.    Investiture conflict  (XIth century)
2.    Struggle for dominium mundi (late XIIth and XIIIth century)

Generally the conflict was about: who is more important The Emperor with military power or The Pope with ideological power. Papal State was small and was a part of the Holy Roman Empire, but Popes had income from papal taxes from other countries and could ally with political opposition against the emperor. Conflict was so long also because The Holly Roman Empire balanced between the feudal fragmentation (effect of expansion and diffusion powers) and a reunification (effect of Italy-Germany trade that worked as a glue for the empire).

Expansion-and-fall cycles in medieval Europe
It is important to note that cycles of late medieval European states were not only the effect of the expansion of the country, but also an influence of economic cycles in neighbouring countries. Especially when neighbouring country was large or rich - therefore economic crises or periods of prosperity in France Italy or Germany often affected other countries. European economy was a system of connected vessels.
Therefore a feudal fragmentation of country A may be an consequence of decline in demand for its export in country B which destroys the trade that is a glue which unites country A. This complicates the political and economic pattern of medieval Europe.

Generally speaking, for West European countries (like France) more important were the economic cycles, because their possibilities for expansion were limited. On the other hand for East European countries (like Poland or Russia) cycles launched by military expansion was more important. Germany was somewhere between.

Investiture conflict
Simplifying: investiture was the ceremony when feudal seigneur gave his vassal a symbol (insignia) of vassal’s office. Controversy was about who should have privilege to give these insignia to the officials of church (like bishops) — the Pope or the Emperor? Who should had the last word? Is the nomination of the Church official the sole prerogative of the Pope, or the Emperor may stop the nominations?

It is useful to note that with the investiture ceremony came feudal lands, and the land was at disposal of the Emperor, so he had a tool to block nominations of officials he do not like. The Papacy of course wanted that the Emperor had to accept the personal decisions of the Pope and grant lands automatically.

Internal struggle for power
In the struggle for power inside the country there are several important areas of influence (at least in feudal and populistic countries, where procedures are not always respected):

  • army (a tool to rule with brute force)
  • secret police and police (or similar institutions like inquisition)
  • administration (systems of offices)
  • law courts
  • money resources
  • propaganda (to attract allies)

The Emperor was stronger in some areas (ex. army) while the Pope in others (ex. propaganda).

Take a look on a quick summary of conflict between the pope Gregory VII and the emperor Henry IV: The church was strengthen thanks to the earlier reforms. The Conflict started from ideological struggle. The Papacy introduced a propaganda campaign to promote the idea of supremacy of Papacy over the state and monarchy. The final effect was the document called Dictatus Papae. Emperor tried to react to this rebellious (from his point of view) act using military force, but Gregory VII excommunicated him. This launched the rebellion of German feudals against Henry IV.

Because the whole feudal hierarchy was sanctioned (explained and supported) by the ideology of Christianity, officials of the Church had the power of excommunicate the ruler, and since then his vassals no longer had to obey the oath of allegiance to their seigneur. A weapon of excommunication was terribly dangerous when the ruler (ex. emperor) had problems with opposition (usually with high-income feudals), but much less effective when internal opposition was weak, and the country united.  

Henry IV had to ask the Pope for forgiveness (Walk to Cannossa 1077). And the Gregory VII had no choice but to cancel the excommunication. The Emperor then pacified the rebellion in Germany and then invaded the Rome with new army, introducing a new, friendly pope. Gregory VII fled from Rome and asked the Norman rulers of Naples for help.

Conflict between the Papacy and the Empire continued more or less the same way. With the periods of armistice and cooperation because both sides needed each other: the Emperor needed an ideological support of the Church to preserve feudal hierarchy and the Church needed the protection of military force offered by the Empire. Example of one of compromises was the Concordate of Worms.

More about investiture conflict.
And the History of Popes.
Text of Dictatus Papae

Struggle for dominium mundi
The second stage of the conflict (since middle of XIIth century till the early XIIIth) was the struggle for dominium mundi - i.e. who had the formal title to rule over the whole Catholic world (who is on the top of the feudal hierarchy). Neither emperors or popes had the power to really control the whole West Europe, so it was not only the struggle for power but also for prestige. These times the Holy Roman Empire slowly decomposed, and there was the new dynasty of emperors - Hohenstaufen dynasty.

There were a few new elements in this phase of conflict:
  • Italian city-states were much stronger these times, and played important role as allies for both opponents (ex. the Lombard League, against the Emperor Frederick I, the Barbarossa).
  • Emperors had much weaker position in Germany. In fact these times were two important families pretending to the throne of Germany: Hohenstaufen (their followers were called Gibellines) and Welf (their followers were called Guelfs).
  • Hohenstaufen emperors, thanks to the marriage, get the control over the rich, strong and united (thanks to the profitable trade with the East) Kingdom of Sicily, which had strengthen their military position in Italy.
  • Because of decomposition of Empire, emperors usually controlled only a small part of the Empire (were strong only in their private domains - like kings of France).

Conflicts between priest faction and soldier faction
Conflict between religious noble elites and military noble are very common in feudal states. The basic schema of this conflict, I described earlier, was a kind of simplification. The real pattern is much more complicated.

When feudal country reaches limits of its expansion, military ruler (monarch) usually wants to increase the taxation to get resources for future expansion. These times priests usually become leaders of opposition against the monarch - allying with high income nobles, merchants. These times priest faction is more “progressive” (or “left-winged”) than the ruler. Alliance between the Papacy and Lombard League is a good example here.

On the other hand, when religious faction dominates and the level of exploitation of plebeians (and religious taxes) is very high, the military leader is more “progressive” (or “liberal”), because he usually decreases the taxation level offering his noble followers the alternate way to get rich - an external expansion. These time the monarch is usually supported in his efforts by low-income nobles, merchants, etc.

Plebeians, except the richest ones usually, do not play any active role in these games (although they are a target for propaganda). Of course this pattern is a simplification too.     

Probably the most important consequence of this 200-years long conflict (except crusades) was the unfettered development of Italian city-states. Because of continuous conflict Emperors had no time and resources to control and subordinate weak Italian cities. And cities step-by-step grew in power, gaining more and more autonomy, privileges, and finally becoming independent states. (Although formally were still the part of the Holy Roman Empire, only Venice was outside the Empire.)

Hohenstaufen Dynasty (from Wikipedia).
Fredrick I, Barbarossa (as above).
Fredrick II.
History of the Kingdom of Sicily

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Crisis of the Muslim world and crusades

In XIth century economic prosperity in Muslim states ended, and the crisis started:
  • Middle East deposits of precious metals were depleted (as every mineral resource, sooner or later).
  • Muslim states reached the wealth level of high income states, and thus diffusion powers (natural outflow of wealth from rich states) slowed down their economic growth.
  • Profitability of the sea colonization decreased when the most lucrative (profitable) lands were colonized.
Crisis two some important consequences:
  1. Because of decreasing surplus from trade, local trade centers started to compete with each other to increase their share in trade (and introduced protectionist policies). Large Muslim states weakened, while local rulers grew in strength - process of decomposition and feudal fragmentation started.
  2. When the growth is fast, not so rich people usually accept traditional social structures, because had a chance to get rich, when the growth slows down - they mutiny (start to rebel). Or: political conflicts intensify because the economy changes from positive-sum game to zero-sum game (a cake to divide shrinks). This effected in religious conflicts and emergency of a few heresies (or new religious movements) in Muslim World. One of them was the sect of Nizaris (known also as Assassins), who specialized in terrorist attacks against their political enemies.

Crisis and social conflicts
Actually, the middle income group shrinks because of polarization effect, which affects not only states but also social structure inside the state. When the economic and thus the political power of middle-income people decline, radical left-winged and right winged groups and ideologies grow in power. The consequence were clash of ideologies and intensive political conflicts (Of course in a feudal society large part of people were out of political games, because cost of entering for political games are to high for most of the plebeians, so middle-income group actually means: a middle of the top of feudal pyramid).

Recall the crisis of Byzantine Empire described earlier, but European conflicts of early XXth century when colonization ended is also a good example here.     

Finally in the late XIth century, Muslim states of Middle East were invaded by Seljuk Turks - a barbarian (but Muslim) tribe from the Central Asia. More or less the same way, as Byzantine Empire was invaded by Muslims in VIIth century. Since these times Arabs were ruled by non-Arabic rulers: Turks, Mongols, mercenaries like Mameluks (or Mamluks). 

Seljuk Turks - which conquered whole Middle East west from Egypt - opposite than Arabs were intolerant, and restricted the Christian pilgrimage to Palestine (Jerusalem). Because the crisis of Middle East states (mentioned above) was serious, Seljuk Turks did not create a one empire, but many smaller or larger states fighting with each other.

As a side-effect of political chaos, social conflicts, and increasing importance of local trade centers, two populistic city-states emerged in Lebanon: Tyre and Trypoli (year 1070 - or 462 according to the Islamic Calendar). But not survived for long. Tyre was conquered by local Muslim ruler in 1089 (482), while the “republic” in Trypoli was conquered by Crusaders in 1108 (501). Because of cruel geography city-states of Lebanon had no chance to survive, surrounded by much more powerful feudal states.

Assassins (Nizari) - a short introduction.
The Assassins of Alamut - more detailed history.
Seljuk Turks.
Islamic Calendar converter.

The crisis and protectionism of Muslim states (higher prices of East goods) launched a kind of “social crisis” in Europe.
  • As you recall: internal wars ended, and the trade become more profitable than wars, so the role of the accumulation of the land increased (we could say: productive enterprises). According to new feudal laws only the oldest noble sons inherited the land. And thus Europe had a problem with the army of “unemployed” (i.e. without land) young knights.
  • When the prices of Eastern goods increased, merchant from Italian cities started to think, how to protect their profits from trade without increasing prices for West European customers (i.e. nobles). So were willing to finance (and support ships) military expeditions to the East.
  • There were also a few years of poor cropping (and thus hunger and poverty) - probably because of overexploitation of land and peasants by nobles, who tried to protect their high consumption of Eastern goods.
All these economic factors created the explosive mix in Western Europe. Middle-income Europe had a need and power to conquer some countries of high income (again we can see more or less the same combination of factors, as these responsible for barbarian invasions, or Germany expansion in early XXth century). And only rich countries in neighbourhood were Middle East Arabian lands and Byzantine Empire. But Byzantium was a Christian and united state while Muslims were alien and weak because of feudal fragmentation and continuous conflicts (and Seljuks rulers blocked the pilgrimage to the Holy Land, as you recall - important argument for Crusaders propaganda).

Council of Clermont
In 1095 (488) at the Council of Clermont the pope Urban II announced the crusades to free (from the Christian point of view) the Holy Land of Palestine, starting this way the Crusades - 200 hundred years long wars between Muslims and Europeans.

Urban II of course had no knowledge of economic factors I had mentioned above. Motives of his decision were:

  • To get some political advantage or popularity in the struggle with emperors (more or less the same way as today when politicians announce some project to get more votes).
  • To get some advantage in the conflict with Orthodox Church, because Byzantine emperors asked for help in the struggle with Seljuk Turks.

And the pope had probably a general feeling of an “ideological ferment” launched by these economic processes. So his decision was explainable from the economic point of view - but this do not means that his decisions were driven by economics. To be honest: there is something strange in the way (mechanism) that economic processes are translated onto decisions of politics. The correlation is too strong.     

A few groups of crusaders set off to the Byzantine Empire. Some of them traveled cross the sea, some marched thorough the Hungary and Balkans. Except the first group of fanatic plebeians (The People’s Crusade - which was with ease defeated by Turks inn Asia Minor), most of crusaders were seasoned French and Italian knights.

The German Crusade did not reached the Palestine, and crusaders started to haunt and slay Jews in German cities.
In times of economic crisis there are a few types of social conflicts, among them:

  • general conflict between rich ones and poor ones because of unequal distribution of wealth.
  • conflict between capital (land) owners and labour workers (peasants) - between exploiting and exploited ones - as described by Marx.
  • conflict between traders and customers when prices of goods increases.
  • conflict between money lenders and money borrowers.

The last one conflict is the most important here (it is typical for middle-income countries in times of polarization crisis). Because Christian religion condemned and prohibited the money lending, Jews monopolized “capital services” of medieval Europe. When the crisis came and many people would not be able to repay their debts, the hate of bankrupted money-borrowers in natural way turned against money-lenders (i.e. Jews), and was stronger because Jews were alien.

On the other hand Jews had no chance to avoid the hate, for example lowering “interest rates” to help the poor borrowers, because in the times of crisis nobles perceived them as easy prey to rob and often (having the propaganda advantage) stirred up the mob to slay the Jews. This mechanism is universal, even the myths about Jews crimes and secret rituals or conspiracies are more or less the same as for example Roman myths about first Christians (in the times of Nero) or false accusations against the Templars (to rob their banking enterprises) in the times of Philip the Handsom in France.

In medieval ages rulers of other West European countries: France, England, Spain banished the Jews to make space for own native money borrowers (and to rob Jews too), but disunited Germany did not. Periodical crises and returning conflict between money-lenders and money-borrowers typical for middle-income countries like Germany were responsible for a slow accumulation of negative myths about Jews in next centuries - which finally effected in holocaust. But no European country was free from this hate.     

Having much better military equipment, crusaders defeated lighter armies of Muslim rulers, who were conflicted with each other and sometimes even helped invaders. Arriving into rich Muslim lands European knights behaved like barbarians interested in plundering and murdering. For example they slaughtered city dwellers of Jerusalem, not only the Muslims (there was still many Christians in Middle East these times).

After the 1st crusade Europeans founded a few feudal states in Middle East — although there were some populistic institutions here: military knights orders of Templars and Joannites (Hospitallers) and the merchant enclaves of Italian city-states in major towns. Generally European states were much weaker than the neighbouring Muslims, and could only survive because of two reasons:
  • Financial support of Italian city-states. Thanks to trade outpost in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, merchants from Italy could control the sea trade between Middle East and Europe (dictating prices and taking the surplus).
  • Disunity of Muslim domains. Almost every country here fought with each other and alliances changed continuously. Sometimes one Muslim ruler supported Europeans attacking another Muslim ruler and vice versa.
When Muslim domains of Syria and Egypt were finally united by Nur ad-Din, and then a Kurdish mercenary called Saladin (here is his Arabic feudal title for reference: Al-Malik an-Nasir, Salah-ad-Din wa ad-Din, Abu-al-Muzaffar, Yusuf Ibn Ayyub, Al-Kurdi), European domains faced the real danger. Saladin defeated Christian army at the Battle of Hattin (1187 or 583) and regained most of the Middle East lands.

But this launched the response of Europe. Germany, France and England sent armies to recapture The Holy Land of Palestine. Saladin had a great dose of good luck, because large army of crusaders from Holy Roman Empire returned home when its commander, the emperor Fredrick I Barbarossa, sunk crossing a river. Moreover other commanders of the crusade — king of France Philip II and  king of England Richard I the Lionheart — heated each other.

After a few years of struggle Saladin concluded a peace with the king of England Richard I the Lionheart. It was a compromise. Saladin regained most of the Muslim lands, but Europeans keep the coast and the right to free pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Saladin could probably defeat the Crusaders, but he knew that the only result of such a victory would be another crusade and another European army to fight.

Sources about Crusades at Medieval History Sourcebook.
Gesta Francorum et aliorum Hierosolimitanorum -1st Crusade from European point of view.
I did not found “The Damascus Chronicle of Crusades” (Ibn Al-Qalanisi) in Internet, but is always good to compare opposite points of view for on a historic event. So only a fragment (Siege of Tyre): 

Thanks to political chaos in times of crusades Assassins (Nizari) could play important role in Middle East Politics. Operating from their base in castle Masyaf (Lebannon), they made terroristic attacks on rulers (ex. against Saladin). In XIIth century when chaos ended Mamluk rulers of Egypt and Syria decided to eliminate this dangerous sect, which started to become completely unpredictable — assassins started to attack everybody, even potential allies. Assasins stronghold of Masyaf was captured (1260 or 658). Without bases and friends, the terrorist sect vanished.

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- Lack of health, lack of time, lack of money,

History of populistic city-states in Italy

Map of Renaissance Italy
History of Venice

History of Florence (by Niccolo Machiavelli)
Short story of Savonarola



Warsaw August 2005  -
last revision: February 2007
Slawomir Dzieniszewski

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