General History VI: 1273–1409
In all areas of human life the fourteenth century saw momentous change and fascinating developments. Climate change and microbiological alterations combined to cause droughts and harvest failures, together with plagues amongst animals and humans. From 1348 epidemic disease was recurrent, and this had massive effects on economic and social history. Plague caused significant changes in the relationship between lords and peasants, and trade networks, having expanded rapidly in this era of international banking, were substantially restructured. The period saw the rise of international banking and a huge financial crisis in the 1340s when the kings of England and France defaulted on the loans used to pay for the Hundred Years War. The political history of the period used to be written as a confusing mass of inconclusive wars, the retreat of centralized states, and failed popular rebellions, but this is being rewritten in all sorts of interesting ways. The dynastic kingdom was only one amongst many vibrant political forms that included city states, urban leagues, and noble confederations. Aristocratic elites enjoyed varying degrees of autonomy and everywhere were a major focus of political life, but political society was expanding wherever states and tax burdens grew. The papacy was also a major political player, and an enormously influential institution in legal and religious terms as well. In many regions popular rebellion was at once an expression of political crisis but also vitality and creativity. As well as the western European polities, it is interesting to study the principality of Muscovy, the union of Polish and Lithuania, and the rise of the Ottoman empire in Anatolia and the Balkans. The cultural life of the period can be approached first hand through the products of burgeoning vernacular literatures such as the Tuscan ‘greats’ Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch, and though architecture and the visual arts. This was also a period in which there were substantial and fascinating debates and disagreements within universities; debates which also crossed over into lay society. Religious literature, including saints’ lives, spiritual autobiographies, and manuals of instruction fed a growing demand for direct engagement with religion in which the laity came to take just as active a role as the clergy. In places this growing demands manifested itself as heresy, and the church responded with systematic campaigns of education and persecution.