Theodore Rabb
The Last Days of the Renaissance

The most shattering of the blows to medieval society in the fourteenth century was the Black Death, a series of devastations that began in the 1340s. As with gunpowder, this was an external force at work, but its consequences seemed limitless. Some historians have argued that the rising population of the high Middle Ages was already straining at the limits of Europe's resources by 1300; yet there can be no doubt that the sharp reversal of centuries of expansion was primarily the result of outbreaks of famine in the early fourteenth century and then, far more destructively, of plague. However they are construed, the numbers are astounding. Even a conservative estimate would suggest that, by 1450, Europe contained at most one half, and possibly little more than one third, of the number of people who had lived there 150 years earlier. Despite a few areas that avoided the worst of the disasters, the grim legacy of loss on this scale was felt throughout the continent.

Not all the effects of declining population were adverse. Economic and social winners flourished alongside the losers: Wage-earners did well even as food sellers fared poorly. In terms of the break with the medieval past, though, the demographic cataclysm of the 1400s was one of the surest signs that an old order had been destroyed. During the next two centuries, not only did industry and commerce have to develop in new directions but so too did structures of employment, and thus the relations among social classes.

Where political relationships were concerned, changes in traditional assumptions became inevitable in the wake of the erosion of Church authority, the reorientation of warfare, and the effects of plague and economic depression. In the struggles with the papacy, kings had made claims of independent authority in the 1300s; and though they did not follow up on these claims for some time, they gave notice that they had their own justifications, rooted in divine right, secular law, precedent, and their relations with the people they ruled, for making demands on their subjects that no superior could overturn. That more aggressive stance was only strengthened by the new conditions that governed military affairs.

The feature of gunpowder that had the most far-reaching consequences, outside the battlefield, was its cost. The substance itself was fairly cheap to produce, but the new weapons and skills it required, and the defensive structures it demanded, made its application prohibitively expensive. Casting cannon and cannon balls, manufacturing hand guns and their ammunition, training soldiers in the use of these devices, and building bastions to protect city walls: All depended on financial outlays without precedent in the Middle Ages. This shift was exacerbated by the slow dissolution of the system by which medieval militias had been recruited. Increasingly, the traditional feudal levy, consisting of able-bodied men who fought with the overlord to fulfill their obligations as tenants, had been replaced by mercenaries. This 'bastard' feudalism, which substituted cash for service, was yet another signpost toward a very different future. By the late 1400s, therefore, it was clear that only princes of considerable means had the resources for the new kind of war, and that the once-redoubtable noble in his castle was helpless to resist them. The inevitable results were not long in coming: Those who could afford to equip an army began to assume new powers over their subjects, notably by imposing ever higher taxes (largely, of course, to help pay for these very guns and troops).

Demographic, economic, and social changes helped this process along. Of the many effects of the Black Death, the most revolutionary was its impact on labor, wages, and servitude. With a much smaller population to draw on, landowners, whose fields had to be tilled, animals tended, and harvests raised, were forced to find new ways to attract the manpower they needed. There was no point in insisting on feudal obligations or traditional forms of servitude if the people were unavailable. The alternative, offering wages to free laborers, not only liberated hundreds of thousands who previously had been tied to the land but also set in motion a major shift in social relations.

The freeing of western Europe's serfs was the essential prerequisite for the growth of cities and the small but important improvements in opportunities for advancement that were to benefit succeeding generations. Both developments, together with the replacement of servitude by wage labor, caused difficulties for the landed aristocracy, and in the major trading centers of northern Italy and the Netherlands their already weakened position was soon to dwindle to virtual insignificance. Even in areas that the leading landowners had traditionally controlled, the new pressures from below left them ever more vulnerable to the demands of princes from above. The struggle was to be long and hard, but by the late 1400s the balance of power within kingdoms and principalities was shifting toward the ruler at the center. The structure of politics would soon be transformed beyond recall as princes and monarch gradually imposed new demands and new assertions of supremacy on the peoples of western and northern Europe.

Even as that vast social and political transformation began, there were small but significant indications of a very different future, most notably the popular revolts that racked the fourteenth century. Across Europe, urban elites faced repeated disturbance, most dramatically in Florence in 1378, when the Ciompi, ordinary artisans and laborers, briefly took over city government. And France and England saw two major peasant uprisings, the Jacquerie in the 1350s and Jack Cade's Rebellion in the 1380s. These upheavals had little immediate effect, but they remained in the memory. If the age of expanding governmental powers was about to begin, so too was the tradition of popular resistance.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.