Late Middle Ages | Definition, History, Summary & Characteristics

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Late Middle Ages | Late Medieval Period

Late Middle Ages (Also called Late Medieval Period) – Last stage of the Middle Ages.

What was the late Middle Ages?

The Late Middle Ages was the last stage of the Middle Ages. It lasted approximately from the end of the 11th century to the second half of the 15th century, which is why it is situated between the High Middle Ages and the Modern Age.

It is generally accepted that it began with the crusades to the Holy Land, while the events that mark its completion vary according to different authors: the invention of the printing press (1440); the taking of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks (1453) or the arrival of the Europeans in America (1492).

The Middle Ages was characterized stage by increasing agricultural productivity, the resurgence of the trade of middle and long distance, the repopulation of the cities and pilgrimages Christian holy places.

All these factors drove the expansion of the feudal system during the 12th and 13th centuries. The crisis of the 14th century stopped the expansion of feudalism, which during the 15 century began to be replaced by elements that heralded commercial capitalism and the consolidation of the bourgeoisie as a new social actor.

Characteristics of the Late Middle Ages

The main characteristics of the late Middle Ages were the following:

  • The introduction of the moldboard plow, triennial rotation, windmills and other technological innovations that drove a significant increase in agricultural productivity.
  • The resurgence of trade between the West and the East, dominated by Genoese and Venetian merchants who imported spices and luxury goods from India, China and Indo-china.
  • The rise of medieval fairs, especially the Champagne fairs in central France. These fairs, in which furs, spices, hides and textiles were sold, among other products, were one of the engines of the economic reactivation of Feudal Europe.
  • The repopulation and expansion of the cities that grew beyond the walls of the High Middle Ages, due to the demographic increase and the development of trade and handicrafts.
  • The Christian pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela.
  • The gradual development of the bourgeoisie, a social sector emerged among the inhabitants of the boroughs or cities. This sector was not part of the social structure divided into 3 characteristic orders, typical of the feudal world (clergy, nobles, peasants).
  • The crisis of the Roman Church, which had to face the expansion of various movements that questioned Christian dogmas (Cathars, Hussite), the Avignon Papacy and the Great Western Schism.
  • The gradual strengthening of royal authority to the detriment of the power of the feudal lords. This process was made possible by the weakening of the rural nobility and the rise of bourgeois families, which provided the financial support that the kings needed to recruit armies of mercenaries, with which to subdue the local powers.

Champagne Fairs: Late Middle Ages

View of a sector of the Champagne fairs. Miniature from the manuscript Le Chevalier errant by Thomas III of Saluzzo, 1400.

Main Events of the late Middle Ages

The most important events and processes of the Late Middle Ages were the following:

  • The Crusades (1095-1291): The Papacy summoned 9 military expeditions to recover the Holy Land from the power of the Muslims, in the Eastern Mediterranean. These had occupied the sacred sites for Christianity in Jerusalem, such as the birthplace and the Holy Sepulcher of Jesus Christ.
  • The Avignon Papacy (1309-1378): Began when Clement V transferred the seat of the Papacy from Rome to the French city of Avignon. After the end of the War of the 8 Saints, Gregory XI returned to Rome.
  • The 100 Years’ War (1337-1453): Faced the English and the French for the succession of the French Crown of the extinct Capet dynasty. Initially the war favored the English, who defeated the French in the battles of Crécy (1346), Poitiers (1356) and Azincourt (1415). However, the victories of Joan of Arc changed the course of the war that the French ended up winning, after the victory obtained at the Battle of Castillon.
  • The Schism of the West (1378-1417): Characterized by the coexistence of several popes simultaneously. It ended after the Council of Constance and the election of Pope Martin V.
  • The Kalmar Union (1397-1523): Established the dynastic unification of Sweden, Denmark and Norway. This great kingdom of Northern Europe also included Finland (which belonged to Sweden), Iceland and the Faroe Islands and Greenland (which depended on Norway).
  • The Hussite Wars (1419-1434): Were unleashed after the burning at the stake of the Czech reformer Jan Hus (1415), who was accused of heresy by the Council of Constance. The wars pitted Hus’s supporters against the Papacy and the Holy Roman Emperor.
  • The taking of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks (1453): Which put an end to the millennial existence of the Byzantine Empire and left the control of the trade between the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea in the hands of the Muslims.
  • The War of the Two Roses (1455-85): A civil conflict that pitted the House of Lancaster against the House of York. It ended with the death in battle of King Richard III and the coming to power of the Tudor dynasty, represented by Henry VII.
  • The end of the Christian Reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula, which took place in 1492 when the Catholic kings took the capital of the Moorish kingdom of Granada.

Art and Knowledge in the Late Middle Ages

The cultural changes of the Late Middle Ages manifested themselves in a new form of religiosity, characterized by the cult of the Virgin Mary and the expansion of mendicant orders, such as the Franciscans and the Dominicans. Unlike the monastic orders, which predominated in the High Middle Ages, the mendicants did not confine themselves in monasteries, but roamed the cities.

The first universities emerged, centers of learning and discussion of the knowledge of the time, independent of the monasteries and located in the cities. The first were those of Bologna, Modena and Vicenza, in Italy; the Sorbonne in Paris, Oxford in England and Salamanca in Spain.

In philosophy, both in the Muslim and Christian spheres, scholasticism spread, which sought to explain religious mysteries through reason and from the principles of Aristotelian philosophy. Its main exponents were Santo Tomás de Aquino, San Alberto Magno, Guillermo de Ockham and Nicolás de Cusa.

In art, from the 12th century on, the Gothic style spread  the main manifestation of which was the cathedrals. This style, originated in France, spread throughout Europe and was characterized by the development of new technologies that allowed the construction of tall and bright buildings, with a predominance of verticality. In the cathedrals, large windows covered with stained glass and scenes made with colored glass were introduced.

The painting and sculpture manifested itself in works with a tendency to naturalism, elegant and clear.

gothic cathedral of Notre Dame

Facade of the Gothic cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris whose construction began in 1163.

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