Boris Smus

interaction engineering

Late Middle Ages

An excellent ending to a worthwhile trilogy on Medieval History. Also see Early Middle Ages and High Middle Ages.

Franks and Popes

The papacy was not doing so hot in the late middle ages. Cardinals routinely failed to agree in the next pope. In one incident, a famous hermit criticized them harshly for being so petty and squabbling. In response the cardinals decided to appoint him as pope Celestine V. He held the position reluctantly and then decreed in a papal bull that popes can resign, and promptly did so. His power hungry successor Boniface VIII imprisoned him to prevent his potential return, and Celestine V died in prison.

Phillip the Fair (Phillip IV), king of France around the 13th century, had a falling out with the pope reminiscent of the Teutonic rulers of prior centuries. The difference here is rather than succumbing to papal power he thwarted it successfully so that future popes knew not to mess with French kings. After threatening to excommunicate Philip IV and issuing a papal bull suggesting explicitly that popes trumped kings, Philip IV's royal troops captured Pope Boniface VIII, imprisoned him, beat him badly. The Boniface VIII died a month later and his successor Clement V was pressured to move the papacy to France.

Crusaders that remained in the holy lands after the crusades formed Crusader States. One such order, The Knights Templar defended Christian Jerusalem from Arab reconquest. They were monk-knights who helped other crusaders. The Knights Templar grew rich from donations from Christians who wanted to keep the holy city in their grasp. They grew unpopular after losing Jerusalem to Saladin and amassing great wealth.

Phil IV decided to pursue the Templar order, prosecution was also likely a money grab. He also expelled the Jews and annexed their property. Expelling Jews is historically a great way for kings to get rich quick. The pope initially condemned the mass Templar arrest but then when they confessed under torture, the pope called for other European kings to also arrest their Templars under papal authority. Papal palaces we’re built in Avignon. Subsequent popes were selected from the population of southern France.

Papal Schism

Meanwhile, pressure mounted for the Papacy to return to Rome. Popes were the spiritual successors of St. Paul, bishop of Rome. If they weren't in Rome that legacy was undermined. Urban VI was then selected under pressure from Roman citizens who rioted in demand of an Italian pope. The cardinals presented the masses with a pope of Italian origin but years later the French cardinals reneged and appointed another pope, Clement VII. He ruled in Avignon. As a result, there were two active popes at this time, and this period is referred to as the Western Schism aka Papal Schism (not to be confused with the East-West Schism aka Great Schism).

France and it’s allies like Scotland were generally in favor of the pope in Avignon. But sometimes there was a split in a single city and there were two bishops, each loyal to the French and Italian pope respectively.

It was thought that once one of the popes died, the population would support the other and the schism would end. But when urban VI died, his followers appointed another successor in Rome. And then when Clement VII died, his followers appointed a new pope in Avignon.

Conciliarism reform movement

In response to this shitshow, the Conciliarism reform movement began. A high level church councils composed of bishops and other Catholic leaders met and passed judgement apart from, or potentially against, the pope. The council of Pisa in 1408 was organized by a few breakout bishops from both French and Italian sides. They hoped to appoint a new pope and depose the two existing ones. The appointed pope died a year later and was replaced by John XXIII, who was odious and widely hated. So now there were three popes.

The council at Constance succeeded in deposing John 23 for moral reasons. The pope in Rome was also convinced to step down. The council finally deposed the pope in France. The papal schism finally ended in 1407 when the Cardinals elected Martin V.

What followed was a disagreement between those in favor of church councils and those in favor of the old system. Subsequent councils were not well attended, little reason to do so since the schism had ended. Still council at Basel imposed a bunch of limitations on the church. They made a limit of 24 cardinals, no more than 8 from each country, and constrained the amount of money the papacy could collect from local churches.

(My synthesis of this is that overall, these turbulent times paved the way for the protestant reformation.)

Hundred Years War

The hundred year war was a long conflict, not a constant total war, but a series of skirmishes. Britain decisively won the important battles early on. (Lots of overlap with The Story of Medieval England). Joan of Arc had a decisive part to play, just when France was all but defeated and almost entirely under British control managed to incite a last ditch effort to reconquer.

One of the most violent years during the war was one in which there was no fighting between sides after the treaty of Brétigny in 1360. Mercenary armies hired by the warring kings began indiscriminately pillage for want of supplies. The result was chaos, death, and destruction. To remedy this failure mode, salaried standing armies were introduced around 1450. This was expensive but cheaper than the alternative. It also greatly strengthened royal power compared to that of the nobles since now the crown could rely more on a paid army rather than the decentralized feudal system or lords and vassals. This was the first Christian standing army since the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

Critical invention: The Longbow

The English first encountered the longbow in their wars with the Welsh. English Longbows emerged by the 100 years war contributed to their prowess against the French who relied heavily on knights. The original short bow didn't require much training to use, but packed almost no punch against a knight. Crossbows were then invented as an effective ranged weapon against knights but suffered from a slow firing rate. You could speed it up a bit by lying prone but doing this in the face of a charging knight was not prudent.

The Longbow took the best of both worlds: the force of its blow could penetrate armor and it didn't take ages to reload. This weapon gave the English their decisive victories against the French knight armies at Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt.

The longbow wielded by hundreds of archers was a very effective way to deal with knights. And although unlike short bows, it requires training, fighting as a longbowman was far cheaper and easier than fighting as a knight. Now the peasant class had once again a reason to fight, and gain some leverage over the noble fighting classes.

The Hundred Years War and “Babylonian captivity” of the church in France occurred simultaneously, as did the Black Death.

The Black Death

Likely Bubonic Plague. 1347-1351 was period of greatest mortality. Killed potentially 50% of people in Europe at the time. It came from the east via Italy, the main connection point to the Orient. Earlier and more southerly parts of Europe were the most affected, in some cases 75% of the population dying.

There wasn't a good understanding about the underlying reason for the plague at all, so other reasons were sought. As usual, Jews were blamed for the plague, leading to increased pogroms around this same era.

Around 1340 was a local maximum in European population. These levels were not seen again until the 17th century. Outbreaks of the plague still occurred, but became rarer and rarer.

!Population of Europe 1300-1800.png

Because of the huge depopulation, things looked quite different economically. Suddenly there was a labor shortage. Wages shot up 3-5x. Cost of food had decreased due to a reduction in demand. Land prices went down too. Wage laborers began to enjoy a very high standard of living.

Economically speaking, this was great news for the surviving poor, but bad news for the nobles. A variety of attempts were made by nobles to curtail these negative economic effects. Some tried to fix wages by law, which largely failed to overpower strong market forces. Others tried to bring back serfdom, effectively bringing back free labor. This was counter to the interests of the crown since serfs were in the jurisdiction of their lord, including for tax and legal reasons. This was resisted in the west, but for some reason in the east of Europe serfdom came back with a vengeance and lasted well into the 19th century, with second order effects into modernity.

Freedom in East and West Europe

In the early Middle Ages, Eastern Europe was the European frontier. Lords of the east could entice western serfs to move and settle in their domains in exchange for freedom. Thus early in the Middle Ages, the east had more free smallholders than the west.

After the plague, the dynamics shifted substantially. Western countries with historically stronger kings were not interested in supporting serfs, who would only strengthen nobles, paying tax to them and being subject to their courts.

Also, empowered peasantry in the west staged successful rebellions (The Jacquerie in France, English Peasant Revolt) against nobles that attempted to revive serfdom. England was especially ahead of the game in terms of personal liberties for the masses. After the Normal conquest, William the Conqueror and his line established unprecedentedly strong and centralized control over England. The Baronial revolts and early Magna Carta set the stage for more personal liberties, and a rule of law. The island had time to develop independently due to its distance from mainland Europe.

In the east however, a feudal, more distributed system controlled by nobles and weaker rulers meant that serfdom could be brought back in force. Toward the late Middle Ages, many peasants in the east were newly serfs, and very few in the west. Russian serfdom lasted well into the mid 19th century.

Feudalism is distributed and leads to bad outcomes for the masses. In general this is a good example of distributed not being always better than centralized from a consequential standpoint.

Gone are the days of the knights


Infantry was becoming increasingly effective against knights around the 13th century. In Flanders, a knight army could be thwarted by to opening up water gates and flooding the whole plain. In the Scottish mountains, knights did not have a flat area from which to charge. More generally, effective anti-knight tactics were developed around this time:

  • Traps: Infantry would dig ditches, fill them with spikes and cover them with leaves.
  • Pikemen: pikes were longer than lances, so would impale a knight before they would impale the pikeman. Armies of pikemen would dig their pike's dull ends into the ground.
  • Halberds: The Swiss developed the halberd, a spear with an axe and hook. You could use it as a pike, and/or use the hook to pull the knight off his horse, and/or split him in twain with the axe. It’s sort of a Swiss Army knife, so to speak. The halberd could also be used offensively in phalanx-like formations.


Gunpowder was developed initially in China, where it was used as a shock weapon. Early European cannons were also useful only for shock tactics as well, being very loud and scary to those that heard it in the battlefield. But they were not at all effective at hitting their targets, and accidents often resulted in the death of the canon crew. Still, the Europeans were more persistent and continuously refined the cannon to eventually make a very effective siege weapon.

The development of the canon with especially devastating for knights and other lords since it meant that their castle at home was no longer as impregnable.

Each cannon was initially given a name, much like Trebuchets, one named Malvoisin ("bad neighbor"). It's interesting what war equipment is given names, and which is not. Trebuchets, early Cannons. Ships are always named. Why aren't planes? What about tanks?

At the start of the hundred years war, cannonballs were made out of large stone boulders. These were rounded out by hand, and inevitably ended up with irregularities which would greatly reduce accuracy. Even if the stone cannonball hit the wall, it would shatter on impact. Around 1430, stone cannonballs were replaced with cast iron cannonballs which were much more spherical and much more devastating on impact.

Castle design reacted to the invention of cannon. Walls became lower and thicker. Square towers rounded out and became cylindrical. Towers became the same height as walls, to allow artillery on the walls to more easily move into position.

Arquebusiers and musketeers

Personal firearms were less effective than cannons during the middle ages. The earliest resembled broomsticks with a small cannon on the end. The arquebus was developed in the early 15th century and it was a functional precursor to the musket. This weapon proved effective against knights at the Battle of Pavia, just like the longbow at Agincourt.

The combination of pikemen and musketeers was an especially formidable force against knights. Knights really hated Musketeers especially (nice backstory on the whole Three Musketeers plot). Even heavier plate mail was developed to try to defend against musket balls. Some inroads were made, but ultimately these full-plate suits were so heavy that they were impractical.

As a result of so many forces working against nobles, many are forced to take paid employment, either at the court of a more powerful noble or at the court of the king. This marks the rise of courtiers. This cultural shift replaces the ideal of the chivalric knight. Now, nobles are expected not to ride a horse and save ladies, but to be nonchalant royal advisors capable of performing music and reciting poetry. Presumably all while still fulfilling duties of their job for which they were hired?

Printing press and related inventions

Although the printing press is by far the sexiest invention required for broader production of printed books, other breakthroughs were required in writing materials, advances in script, and book style. Daileader does a good job emphasizing this.


Papyrus was the earliest writing material, made of a water plant that grows in abundance in the Nile river delta in Egypt. It emerged around 3000 BCE and the Egyptians controlled it fully.

Parchment is another writing material made of animal skins. It may have emerged as early as 1500 BCE, but is named after the King of Pergamum (пергамент) in Asia Minor around 100 BCE. It was developed in response to the cessation of Egyptian papyrus exports. The process was of making parchment was quite intense, requiring animal skins to be stretched over a frame, cleaned fully of fat, then dried. The rougher exterior side of the skin could serve as a book cover. The whiter interior was used to write on.

Parchment was expensive to produce, and as a result was often reused. Old scrolls would just be cleaned up, with ink removed, and then use it again to create anew. Vellum was a fancier, whiter variant of parchment. The highest grade required killing a pregnant sheep and her unborn calf, and then creating the parchment from the calf's skin (aka Chickenskin).

Towards the late middle ages, paper production was imported from China. This was much cheaper than parchment and the necessary condition for democratizing books.

Advances in script

Carolingian minuscule was commonly used around the time of the early middle ages. One problem with this script was that it was quite rounded and laborious for scribes to produce by hand. So scribes created a more efficient writing style called now called Gothic script. This had the benefit of being mostly vertical, so easieir to write because of a predominantly unidirectional motion of the arm. An added benefit was that the script was more compact, so more text would fit on one page.

Simultaneously, handwritten script with ligatures was revived from classical antiquity. Later, in an attempt to disavow of anything middle age related, scholars shunned gothic script and reverted back to minuscule, not realizing that it too was a middle age invention (c. 9th century)

Book style

During the early Middle Ages books were extremely large and heavy, requiring a pedestal to support. Books tended to get smaller over time, some were soon small enough to fit into a pocket.

Further inventions in readability were introduced: indices, tables of contents.

Printing press precursors

Woodcut prints allowed the artist to create multiple copies of his artwork. This required more effort than simply sketching with ink and paper, since the work needed to be etched into wood. But then once the wooden etching was created, you could create hundreds or thousands of impressions. The problem with wood was that it wore out overtime. Handcrafted metal blocks were also attempted, and this was obviously even harder than making a wood block.

Another challenge with wood blocks was that the stamped image would sometimes be unevenly produced, either because part of the wooden block had deteriorated, or there was some uneven application of ink, or uneven pressure. Furthermore, doing two-sided prints of woodblocks was impossible using this technique, since producing the imprint on one side would create an extrusion on the other side.

The printing press

Gutenberg's printing press combined two prior inventions: the wine press for evenly transferring ink from source to target, and movable metal type. A printer would typeset a whole page, make many copies of it, then move on to the next page. The end result were many copies of a printed book.

Metal typesetting was known in Asia, but never combined with wine style presses. Compared to Asia, Europe had other important advantages:

  • European alphabets are phonetic and have fewer than 30 symbols. In contrast, Asian alphabets are mostly ideographical and have thousands of symbols.
  • Chinese printing presses were state run, and as a result mostly Confucian classics were produced. In Europe the printing press was subject to the free market, and thrived.

Second order impacts of the printing press were huge:

  1. Spread of knowledge in general. Nuff said!
  2. Errata could be issued in bulk, since many books were now identical and issued in editions.
  3. Ossification of English spelling. Previously spelling was pretty variable. This is especially annoying since the great vowel shift followed shortly thereafter, rendering English spellings nonsensical.

Humanism in Late Medieval Europe

The humanist movement arose in 14th century Italy as part of the Italian Renaissance. Humanists aimed for a revival of classical art and literature, and following Petrarch, viewed the preceding centuries as a dark and lost age of regression. (Interesting to see how the “first industrial revolution” from Medieval Technology and Social Change framing conflicts with this). They were headquartered largely in Florence where the recently founded university had not yet been fully oriented toward the scholastic tradition which was ubiquitous everywhere else. Florence at the time was extremely rich, minting the Florin, the first gold coin Europe had seen in almost a millennium.

Unlike medieval artists and authors, humanists signed their work and strive for a sort of secular immortality by living on in the minds of their peers after their inevitable death. That said, humanists were still deeply entrenched in the Christian tradition. This was not yet the enlightenment, nor the reformation, nor the scientific revolution.

Christians and Muslim conflicts in the late middle ages

The Byzantine empire stood valiantly for a millennium longer than its western roman counterpart. Its land holdings empire ebbed and flowed from assailants from all around, sometimes shrinking to little more than Constantinople itself. By the 15th century, the Ottoman Turks finally conquered the impregnable city of Constantinople and officially ended the Byzantine empire.

This was seen as a huge loss, especially from a humanist lens. The whole Greek trove of knowledge was lost to Christendom for eternity! In practice, by then much of this trove of classical Greek culture had been assimilated by the west, through translation, and through a revival of Greek language, hearkening back to classical antiquity, when Roman elites were fluent in both Latin and Greek.

With the fall of the Byzantine empire, Europe was bracing for more incursions from their aggressive and powerful Turkish neighbors. Sure enough, the Ottomans even managed to conquer and briefly hold small parts of Italy. So it was welcome news that in Iberia, the kingdoms of Aragon and Castille had formed an alliance with the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella, and they had set out to conquer Granada, the last Islamic state in the west. This was a culmination of many centuries of European reconquest of Al-Andalus, the Ummayad kingdom that formed from the ashes of the Visigoths, defeated in the 8th century. Spain was once a cultural melange of three religions, but F&I were keen to homogenize their joint kingdom.

The Spanish Inquisition

Shortly after the defeat of Granada, jubilant Ferdinand and Isabella decided to kick it up a notch and the Spanish Inquisition swung into full force. Spain had previously not participated in the papal inquisition, and unlike the previous inquisitions which relied on inquisitors reporting to the pope, the Spanish inquisition was operated by the king and queen.

It's somewhat unclear why F&I decided to force all Jews to convert or leave. Ferdinand had recently appointed Jewish courtiers whose contract was not due to expire for years. The reason given was that there were too many Christians converting to Judaism in Spain. In practice, anti-Jewish sentiment had been rising for decades, thanks to preachers like Ferrand Martinez, and the massacre in 1391 which led to 50,000 Jewish deaths and far more forced conversions.

In 1492, every Jew in Spain was given a choice: convert or leave. Those that converted to Christianity were called conversos. Some conversos even managed to secure bishoprics, but many were treated with suspicion by the masses, who suspected that many conversos continued to practice the Jewish faith in secret. Thus even if you converted from Judaism, you were still somehow Jewish, and this is the origin of Jewishness as a race, which permeates into modernity and foreshadows Jewish horrors of the 20th century. Furthermore, now that conversos were Christian, they were subject to the inquisition, and those that were found guilty of heresy were burnt alive.

Maritime technology in Iberia

Back to technology: navigation and sailing ships, in the context of Iberian expansion and the age of exploration. The Iberian peninsula at the time was not split between Spain and Portugal, but between several rival kingdoms: Kingdom of Castile, the Kingdom of Aragon, the Kingdom of Navarre, and the Kingdom of Portugal.

The Caravel

Shipbuilding technology was fairly stagnant until the 15th century. Here are a few common ship types before this period:

  • Longships, aka galleys were powered by teams of rowers. They had to be light so that the men could propel it and it had to be long enough so enough men could fit inside. Because of the large crew, their provisions, and other constraints, these ships could not carry much cargo. Longships were short range and only used on the Mediterranean. Some longships had sails that would be raised in favorable downwinding conditions.
  • Roundships often had a single mast with a square rigged single sail. They were large and bulky and slow, but could carry a lot of cargo. The square rigged sail meant you would mainly use the sail to go downwind, greatly limiting maneuverability.
  • Lateen sailboats originated in the Nile, but were later used in the Mediterranean. These triangular sails could luff and generate lift using the sail as a wing, and move the vessel towards the wind. Lateen sails of the 14th century also tended to be quite small, so were not very effective.

Because of its geography, the Iberian kingdoms had exposure to both north Atlantic roundships, and ships with Lateen sails commonly used in the Mediterranean. The Caravel, invented by the Portuguese in the 15th century, combined both types of sails. Early designs had a front square rigged sail, and a rear lateen sail, allowing ships to zig-zag upwind, or run downwind depending on wind conditions.

Other Iberian advantages

The Iberian peninsula was extremely well situated geographically, in the far southwest of Europe, and thus the natural portal to west Africa. Furthermore, the Spanish had a great history of seafaring already and were notoriously brave sailors, willing to venture further than others in pursuit of fish and whales. Lastly, some of the best mapmakers of the age were based on the Balearic islands (Ibiza, Mallorca, Menorca).

The Kingdom of Portugal had the early upper hand. Portuguese Caravels were slowly traveling further and further south down the West African coast. Thanks to the funding efforts of Prince Henry the navigator, Vasco da Gamma finally reached the Cape of Good Hope. Meanwhile, F&I were spending most of their disposable income on conquering Granada for the new Spanish alliance.

Portugal established footholds in many parts strategically located in Africa and far beyond. Distant ports included Goa off the coast of India, Macao off China, many of which remain to this day Portuguese territories. F&I had attempted to loosen the Portuguese monopoly on the world, they were ultimately unsuccessful and in 1480 Ferdinand and Isabella granted a official monopoly to Portugal over a train with west Africa. Portuguese caravels were militarily superior and were very quickly able to destroy Arab fleets that previously controlled trade in the Indian ocean. The Portuguese king assumed a lofty title: Lord of the conquest and navigation of the ocean in India, Arabia, and Persia.

The Canary Islands were a bit of a revelation for Europeans that discovered them a new world that wasn't yet known to them, yet populated by people! Castilians first conquered the island and enslaved the local Guanches, the indigenous people of the islands. They died in huge quantities from the diseases the Europeans brought with them. Instead, the Spanish had to rely on imported west African slaves to run the plantations there. Why weren't west Africans subject to European diseases? Mainly because the cross-pollination between Europe and Africa. The European treatment of the Canaries established the model for colonization and served as a base for Columbus to venture further west.

Madeira and the Azores were uninhabited and discovered shortly after the Canaries. West African slaves were quickly imported there to establish the Sugar plantations as well as the Portuguese Madeira industry.

The Columbian exchange

Columbus had failed to convince the Portuguese king to fund his voyage, so pursued funding from Ferdinand and Isabella. The Catholic Monarchs were busy vanquishing the last remnants of Granada, it was taking longer than expected, and cost a fortune. They kept him on retainer for seven years, and only then committed to Columbus' voyage. Once he discovered what he called Asia but what was actually the New World, it was unclear who would own the territory.

Prior to the European discovery of America, The Treaty of Tordesillas divided the newly-discovered lands outside Europe between the Portuguese Empire and the Spanish Empire (Crown of Castile), along an arbitrary meridian set by the Pope. This line happened to miss North America but cut South America in half, and explains why Brazil became a Portuguese territory (!).

One way to look at Columbus' discovery is as a large ecological event, in which previously diversifying and independent ecosystems suddenly merged. If this is not the start of the Anthropocene, what is?

Euro-American trade imbalances

Plants: a pretty good balance trade balance. Many critical crops from the New World corn and potato proved to be extremely important back in Europe. Other delicious new world plants included tomatoes, pineapples, peanuts, kidney beans, cashews, squash, sweet potatoes, avocado, chili pepper. And also druuuugs like coca and tobacco. And don't forget hammocks!

Meanwhile, the New World saw a lot of new and critical crops from the east: sugar cane, bananas, coffee, wine grapes. Also onions, radish, and dandelions.

Diseases: a big imbalance in favor of Europe. America had syphilis, and that's pretty much it. But the old world had loads of new diseases for the Americans, decimating their population.

Animals a big imbalance in favor of Europe. America had very few pack animals: no cattle, pigs, sheep, or horses. Americans mainly had Turkeys and Llamas.

End of Middle Ages

Scholars can’t decide if 14th and 15th centuries are Middle Ages or renaissance. If you go to Italy at this period it’s the renaissance, otherwise it's the Middle Ages. One way to think about where to draw the line is what sort of things one could expect in the middle ages. Here are a few:

Characteristics of the Middle Ages

  • Hereditary kings.
  • Elites are nobles, basis in landowning and military dominance.
  • Small scale production in the home, commerce dominated by guilds designed to keep production low.
  • Bottom of society are serfs, liberties constrained.
  • Belief in god is universal, and the basis of all intellectual life.
  • Reverence for the past and skepticism for thinking from first principles.

Based on this list, the Middle Ages continues well into the 16th century. Italian Humanists were trying to make a break from the past, but did nothing to eliminate nobility or serfdom, improve quality of life, or reform the guild system.

Daileader proposes a better potential endpoints to the Middle Ages, like the Scientific Revolution or the Protestant Reformation. But even these periods were rooted in the Middle Ages. Luther was a scholastic scholar following Aquinas' tradition. Newton was deeply religious. Perhaps an even better endpoint for the Middle Ages actually is the Enlightenment in the mid-18th century. The French Revolution was the antithesis to the Middle Ages and ushered in the drastic and abrupt end to many of the institutions central to the Middle Ages. (That said, the lecturer is a professor of Middle Age History, and is biased towards stretching the start and endpoints of his period of study.)