The historian, Barbara Tuchmann wrote in The Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14c that when the gap between the ideal and the real [in a society] becomes too wide, the system breaks down.   Assess the validity of this thesis by analyzing the major political, economic, social, and intellectual forces that contributed to a breakdown of society in the late 14c and early 15c.



          We are taught by the words of the Gospel that in this church and in her power there are two swords, a spiritual one and a temporal one . . . . Certainly anyone who denies that the temporal sword is in the power of Peter has not paid heed to the words of the Lord when he said, 'Put up thy sword into its sheath' (Matthew 26:52).  Both then are in the power of the church, the material sword and the spiritual.  But the one is exercised for the church, the other by the church, the one by the hand of the priest, the other by the hand of kings and soldiers, though at the will and sufferance of the authority subject to the spiritual power . . . . For, according to the blessed Dionysius, it is the law of divinity for the lowest to be led to the highest through intermediaries.  In the order of the universe all things are not kept in order in the same fashion and immediately but the lowest are ordered by the intermediate and inferiors by superiors.  But that the spiritual power excels any earthly one in dignity and nobility we ought the more openly to confess in proportion as spiritual things excel temporal ones.  Moreover we clearly perceive this from the giving of tithes, from benediction and sanctification, from the acceptance of this power and from the very government of things.  For, the truth bearing witness, the spiritual power has to institute the earthly power and to judge it if it has not been good.  So it is verified the prophecy of Jeremiah (1:10) concerning the church and the power of the church, 'Lo, I have set thee this day over the nations and over kingdoms.'

SOURCE:   Pope Boniface VIII in his papal bull, Unam Sanctam, 1302.



          We now wish . . . to adduce the truths of the holy Scripture . . . which explicitly command or counsel that neither the Roman bishop called pope, nor any other bishop or priest, or deacon, has or ought to have any rulership or coercive judgment or jurisdiction over any priest or non-priest, ruler, community, group, or individual of whatever condition . . . . Christ himself came into the world not to dominate men, nor to judge them [coercively] . . . not to wield temporal rule, but rather to be subject as regards the . . . present life; and moreover, he wanted to and did exclude himself, his apostles and disciples, and their successors, the bishops or priests, from all coercive authority or worldly rule, both by his example and by his word of counsel of command . . . . When he was brought before Pontius Pilate . . . and accused of having called himself king of the Jews, and [Pilate] asked him whether he had said this . . . [his] reply included these words . . . 'My kingdom is not of this world,' that is, I have not come to reign by temporal rule or dominion, in the way . . . worldly kings reign . . . . This, then, is the kingdom concerning which he came to teach and order, a kingdom which consists in the acts whereby the eternal kingdom is attained, that is, the acts of faith and the other theological virtues; not however, by coercing anyone thereto.

SOURCE:   Marsilius of Padua in his The Defender of Peace (Defensor Pacis), early 14c.



          I am now living in [Avignon], in the Babylon of the West . . . Here reign the successors of the poor fishermen of Galilee [who] have strangely forgotten their origin.  I am astounded, as I recall their predecessors, to see these men loaded with gold and clad in purple, boasting of the spoils of princes and nations; to see luxurious palaces and heights crowned with fortifications, instead of a boat turned downwards for [their] shelter.  We no longer find the simple nets which were once used to gain a frugal living from the lake of Galilee . . . . One is stupefied nowadays to hear the lying tongues, and to see worthless parchments turned by a leaden sea [i. e., official bulls of the pope] into nets which are used, in Christ's name, but by the arts of Belial [i.e., the devil], to catch hordes of unwary Christians.   These fish, too, are dressed and laid on the burning coals of anxiety before they fill the insatiable maw of their captors.
          Instead of holy solitude we find a criminal host and crowds . . .; instead of sobriety, licentious banquets . . .; instead of pious pilgrimages . . . foul sloth; instead of the bare feet of the apostles . . . horses decked in gold . . . . In short, we seem to be among the kings of the Persians or Parthians, before whom we must fall down and worship, and who cannot be approached except presents be offered.

SOURCE:   Petrarch, between 1340 and 1354.



          This holy Council of Constance . . . declares, first that it is lawfully assembled in the Holy Spirit, that it constitutes a General Council, representing the Catholic Church, and that therefore it has its authority immediately from Christ; and that all men, of every rank and condition, including the pope himself, are bound to obey it in matters concerning the Faith, the abolition of the schism, and the reformation of the Church of God in its head and its members.  Secondly, it declares that anyone, of any rank and condition, who shall contumaciously refuse to obey the orders, decrees, statutes or instructions, made or to be made by this holy Council, or by any other lawfully assembled general council . . . shall, unless he comes to a right frame of mind, be subjected to fitting penance and punished appropriately: and, if need be, recourse shall be had to the other sanctions of the law.

SOURCE:  The decree Haec Sancta, issued by the Council of Constance, 1415.



European Population (Estimated)

Time Period


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The indices are based on the figures for 100 (that is 1000 = 100).  These figures are estimates only and have proved controversial.

SOURCE:  B. H. Slicher van Bath, The Agrarian History of Western Europe, A. D. 500-1800,
trans. Olive Ordish (London: Edward Arnold, 1963), p. 79



          In the year 1349 there occurred the greatest epidemic that ever happened.  Death went from one end of the earth to the other . . . . And from what this epidemic came, all wise teachers and physicians could only say that it was God's will . . . . This epidemic also came to Strasbourg in the summer of the above-mentioned year, and it is estimated that about sixteen thousand people died.
          In the matter of this plague the Jews throughout the world were reviled and accused in all lands of having caused it through the poison which they are said to have put into the water and the wells--that is what they were accused of--and for this reason the Jews were burnt all the way from the Mediterranean into Germany . . . .
          On Saturday . . . they burnt the Jews on a wooden platform in their cemetery.  There were about two thousand people of them.  Those who wanted to baptize themselves were spared.  [Some said that about one thousand of them accepted baptism].  Many small children were taken out of the fire and baptized against the will of their fathers and mothers.  And everything that was owed to the Jews was canceled, and the Jews had to surrender all pledges and notes that they had taken for debts.  The council, however, took the cash that the Jews possessed and divided it among the working men proportionately.  The money was indeed the thing that killed the Jews.  If they had been poor and if the feudal lords had not been in debt to them, they would not have been burnt . . . .
          Thus were the Jews burnt at Strasbourg, and in the same year in all the cities of the Rhine, whether Free Cities or Imperial Cities or cities belonging to the lords.  In some towns they burnt the Jews after a trial, in others, without a trial.  In some cities the Jews themselves set fire to their houses and cremated themselves. . . .

SOURCE:  A contemporary chronicler's account about the cremation of the Jews of Strasbourg, 1349.



          A justice was assigned by the king and council to go into Kent with a commission, as had been done before in Essex, and with them went a sergeant-at-arms of our lord the king, bearing with him a great number of indictments.
          And after this the commons of Kent gathered together in great numbers, day after day, without a head or chieftain . . . . But those who came from Maidstone took their way with the rest of the commons throughout the countryside.  And there they made chief over them Wat Teghler [Wat Tyler] of Maidstone, to maintain them and be their councilor.  And on the Monday next . . . they came to Canterbury . . . four thousand of them entering into the minister [cathedral] at the time of his mass, there made reverence and cried with one voice to the monks to prepare to choose a monk for archbishop of Canterbury, 'for he who is archbishop now is a traitor [for supporting the poll tax] and shall be decapitated for his iniquity.'   And so he was within five days after!  And when they had done this, they went into the town to their fellows, and asked them if they had any traitors among them, and the townsfolk said that there were three, and named these names.  These three the commons dragged out of their houses and cut off their heads.  And afterwards they took five hundred men of the town with them to London.
          At this time, the commons had as their councilor a chaplain of evil disposition names Sir John Ball, which Sir John advised them to get rid of all the lords, and of all the archbishops and bishops, and abbots, and priors, and most of the monks and canons . . . and that their possessions should be distributed among the laity.  For which sayings he was esteemed among the commons as a prophet--and a fit reward he later got, when he was hung, drawn, and quartered, and beheaded as a traitor.  After this, the said commons went to many places, and raised all the folk, some willingly and some unwillingly, till they were gathered together full sixty thousand.   They wrought much damage in Kent because of the hate they bore the said duke.  They cast his manors to the ground and all his houses, and sold his beasts--his horses, his good cows, his sheep, and his pigs--and all his store of corn, at a cheap price.  And they desired one day to have his head, and the head of Sir Thomas Orgrave, clerk of receipt and sub-treasurer of England.  They . . . sent [the king] a petition, requiring that he should grant them the heads of fifteen other lords.

SOURCE:  From an account of Wat Tyler's Rebellion, written by a supporter of the king, 1381.



          'My fair sirs, the order of chivalry is more exalted and noble than imagination can suppose, and no knight ought to suffer himself to be debased by cowardice or any villainous or dirty action; but when his helmet is on his head he should be bold and fierce as a lion, and because I wish you to show your courage this day where it will be most needful, I order you to the front of the battalion, where you must exert yourselves that we may both obtain honors, otherwise your spurs will not become you.'   Each new knight in turn as he passed answered, 'Sire we will, with God's grace, so act, that we may gain your love and approval.'  None of the English were knighted this day; they were invited by the King to become knights, but excused themselves for that time.
          . . . . The King of Portugal fought on foot in this encounter, and having placed himself at the pass with a battle-axe in his hand, performed wonders, knocking down three or four of the stoutest of the enemy, insomuch that none dared approach him.  The Spaniards, as you might imagine, had a hard afternoon's work, and the fortune of war was greatly against them.  All who entered the fort of the Lisboners were cut to pieces, for the Portuguese would not ransom any, whether poor or noble.  The number of slain was immense.

SOURCE:  Jean Froissart's account of the Battle of Aljubarrota during the Hundred Years' War, 1385.



There is not a limb nor a form,
Which does not smell of putrefaction.
Before the soul is outside,
The heart which wants to burst the body
Raises and lifts the chest
Which nearly touches the backbone
--The face is discolored and pale,
And the eyes veiled in the head.
Speech fails him,
For the tongue cleaves to the palate.
The pulse trembles and he pants.
The bones are disjointed on all sides;
There is not a tendon which does not stretch as to burst.

SOURCE:  The Dance of Death (Le Pas de la Mort) by the chronicler, Georges Chastellain, early 15c.



          Twenty-six years ago during the month of August, I was the wife of the late knight Berenger de Roquefort, castellan of Montaillou.  The late Raimond Roussel was the intendant and the stewart of our household which we held at the castle of Montaillou.  He often asked me to leave with him and to go to Lombardy with the good Christians who are there, telling me that the Lord has said that man must quit his father, mother, wife, husband, son and daughter and follow him, and that he would give him the kingdom of heaven.  When I asked him, 'How could I quit my husband and my sons?' he replied that the Lord had ordered it and that it was better to leave a husband and sons whose eyes rot than to abandon him who lived for eternity and who gives the kingdom of heaven.
          When I asked him, 'How is it possible that God created so many men and women if many of them are not saved?' he answered that only the good Christians will be saved and no others, neither religious nor priests, nor anyone except these good Christians.  Because, he said, just as it is impossible for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, it is impossible for those who are rich to be saved.  This is why the kings and princes, prelates and religious, and all those who have wealth, cannot be saved, but only the Good Christians . . . . He also told me that all spirits sinned at the beginning with the sin of pride, believing that they could know more and be worth more than God, and for that they fell to earth.   These spirits later take on bodies, and the world will not end before all of them have been incarnated into the bodies of men and women.  Thus it is that the soul of a newborn child is as old as that of an old man. . . .

SOURCE:  The testimony of Beatrice de Planissoles, a member of the lower nobility, interrogated by Jacques Fournier, bishop of Pamiers, France (the future Pope Benedict XII), in 1320, for involvement in the Cathar heresy.



          The execrable and hitherto unknown abuse has grown up in our day, that certain persons, imbued with the spirit of rebellion, and not from a desire to secure a better judgment, but to escape the punishment of some offence which they have committed, presume to appeal from the pope to a future council; in spite of the fact that the pope is the vicar of Jesus Christ and to him, in the person of St. Peter, the following was said:  'Feed my sheep' [John 21:16] and 'Whatsoever thou shalt bound on earth shall be bound in heaven'  [Matthew 16:18].  Wishing therefore to expel this pestiferous poison from the church of Christ and to care for the salvation of the flock entrusted to us, and to remove every cause of offence from the fold of our Savior, with the advice and consent of our brothers, the cardinals of the holy Roman church, and of all the prelates, and of those who have been trained in the canon and civil law, who are at our court, and with our own sure knowledge, we condemn all such appeals and prohibit them as erroneous and detestable.

SOURCE:  Pope Pius II, 1460.



RichardII.JPG (525109 bytes)

SOURCE:  Portrait of King Richard II of England commissioned by himself in the 1390s.



[Florence, 1393]
          If you engage in the wool or French-cloth business, do [it] on your own and do not try to grow rich in two days.   Manage on your own money and never borrow for profit's sake.  Transact your business with trustworthy persons who enjoy good reputation and credit and who have something to show for their name. . . .Never be ensnared by greed for [high] prices; always demand flawless records; better go slowly, [but] do go safely.
          If you exercise the wool craft (
Arte di Lana), manage on your own money.  Be not eager to send your merchandise abroad unless you have someone to whom it matters as much as to you. . . .
          If you do business abroad, go often yourself--at least once a year--to see and to settle the accounts.  Watch what [kind of] life the man who abroad in your behalf leads--whether he spends too much.   [Make sure] that he extends sound credits, that he does not rush to [start] things or lies down too low[?], that he acts cautiously and never oversteps instructions.   Should he cheat you in anything, fire him.

SOURCE:  An Italian merchant's advice, 1393.



          . . . . A point of discussion was mooted between the apprentice fullers [persons who beat finished cloth with sticks in order to clean and thicken them] on the one hand, and the master fullers on the other.   The apprentices held that, as they laid out in a letter, no one could have work done in his house without taking apprentices . . . . For they complained of fulling masters who had their children work in their houses, without standing [for jobs] in the public square like the other apprentices, and they begged that their letter be answered.   The fulling masters stated certain arguments to the contrary.  The aldermen sent for both parties and for the Twenty also and asked the masters if indeed they kept their children as apprentices; each master said he did.  It was declared by the aldermen that every apprentice must remain in the public square, as reason demanded.
          Done in the year of 1344 [1345], in the month of February, and through a full sitting of the aldermen.

SOURCE:  A dispute between master fullers and their apprentices in Flanders, 1345.

DBQ Question created by:
Susan M. Pojer
Horace Greeley H. S.
Chappaqua, NY  10514