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Western Civilization-An Open Source Book, 1st ed.

by Ryan P. Johnson.

Chapter 11: The Late Middle Ages 1300-1453

If the High Middle Ages constitute two steps forward, the Late Middle Ages certainly qualifies as a step back. During this period of over a century a series of catastrophes hit Europe and severely interrupted the progress Europe had been making to that point. Disease, war, economic setbacks, and social fragmentation all characterized the Late Middle Ages. The most serious, and notable, of the calamities that afflicted Europe was the Black Death, a disease that originated in China and spread through Asia and the Middle East with traveling Mongol hordes and via trade routes between the Asia and Europe, both over land and sea. When the disease hit Europe in the middle of the 14th century no one was prepared for what would happen. Population dramatically declined, not to recover until centuries later, entire villages were wiped off the map, and people began acting in the most despicable ways toward one another. The Black Death was terrifying in its symptoms, its spread, its relentlessness, and in its consequences. While the Plague was haunting Europe, the two most powerful kingdoms, England and France, were engaged in the devastating Hundred Years’ War which would be waged on and off for nearly all of the 14th century and the first half of the 15th. Initially fought over rights to a corner of southwestern France, the war exploded into an all-out dynastic conflict which saw England under Henry V take control of the entirety of northern France. Armies rampaged across the country side, villages and cities were damaged and destroyed, and despite long truces in the midst of conflict there seemed to be no way to settle affairs once and for all. Add to all of this major social revolts in England, where thousands of peasants marched on London; France, where thousands more revolted against economic conditions; and Italy, where woolworkers rebelled for greater rights. Not even the Catholic Church escaped this trying century and a half. For over seven decades the papacy would reside not in Rome, its traditional home, but in the city of Avignon, controlled by French kings. Upon returning to Rome late in the 14th century the papacy promptly split in two, a period known as the Great Schism, with two popes, one Italian and one French, each claiming to be the true pope. This divide would last until 1419 and led many to either abandon the church and seek salvation through other means or join the call for a council, rather than a single pope, to lead.

The first document in this chapter is from Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio, whose major work Decameron captured the social panic and upheaval that followed quickly once the Black Death settled into a city. The second document tells the story of how the Jewish population of Europe became scapegoats during the Plague years, as people desperately tried to find a cause for the disease, a reason why it was infecting their lives. Document 3 looks at the economic impact of the Plague in England and the response from the king-a desperate attempt to re-establish the rules and conditions that had existed before England was visited by the Black Death. The next two documents delve into one of the major social upheavals of the time period, the English Peasants’ Revolt. The first document, from Jean Froissart’s Chronicle, explains how the revolt began, while the second document, from the Anonimalle Chronicle, details how the revolt ended. Document 6 once again comes from Froissart, this time outlining some of the initial English victories of the Hundred Years’ War against France. The seventh document presents excerpts from the two primary treaties of the Hundred Years’ War, the Treaty of Bretigny from 1360 and the Treaty of Troyes from 1420. The final two documents cover some of the problems the Catholic Church was experiencing during this time. Document 8 is an excerpt from French cardinals who were upset by the election of the Italian Urban VI to the papacy, a manifesto that began the Great Schism. The final document for this chapter is from Marsiglio of Padua, a proponent of the idea that an ecumenical council of church leaders should collectively lead the flock rather than a single, all powerful pope. The text describes the various powers of the church community, represented by the council, as well as the limitations on the powers of both popes and bishops. 


1. Giovanni Boccaccio-Decameron

Giovanni Boccaccio was a fourteenth century writer and poet who authored the excerpt presented below, the Decameron, a series of short stories told by characters who have tried to escape the ravages of the Black Death. The selection comes from the introduction in which Boccaccio sets the scene and describes for us the onset of the Plague and the various reactions of the people of Italy.

I say, then, that the years of the beatific incarnation of the Son of God had reached the tale of one thousand three hundred and forty eight, when in the illustrious city of Florence, the fairest of all the cities of Italy, there made its appearance that deadly pestilence, which, whether disseminated by the influence of the celestial bodies, or sent upon us mortals by God in His just wrath by way of retribution for our iniquities, had had its origin some years before in the East, whence, after destroying an innumerable multitude of living beings, it had propagated itself without respite from place to place, and so calamitously, had spread into the West.

In Florence, despite all that human wisdom and forethought could devise to avert it, as the cleansing of the city from many impurities by officials appointed for the purpose, the refusal of entrance to all sick folk, and the adoption of many precautions for the preservation of health; despite also humble supplications addressed to God, and often repeated both in public procession and otherwise by the devout; towards the beginning of the spring of the said year the doleful effects of the pestilence began to be horribly apparent by symptoms that showed as if miraculous.

Not such were they as in the East, where an issue of blood from the nose was a manifest sign of inevitable death; but in men a women alike it first betrayed itself by the emergence of certain tumors in the groin or the armpits, some of which grew as large as a common apple, others as an egg, some more, some less, which the common folk called gavoccioli. From the two said parts of the body this deadly gavocciolo soon began to propagate and spread itself in all directions indifferently; after which the form of the malady began to change, black spots or livid making their appearance in many cases on the arm or the thigh or elsewhere, now few and large, then minute and numerous. And as the gavocciolo had been and still were an infallible token of approaching death, such also were these spots on whomsoever they showed themselves. Which maladies seemed set entirely at naught both the art of the physician and the virtue of physic; indeed, whether it was that the disorder was of a nature to defy such treatment, or that the physicians were at fault – besides the qualified there was now a multitude both of men and of women who practiced without having received the slightest tincture of medical science – and, being in ignorance of its source, failed to apply the proper remedies; in either case, not merely were those that covered few, but almost all within three days from the appearance of the said symptoms, sooner or later, died, and in most cases without any fever or other attendant malady.

Moreover, the virulence of the pest was the greater by reason the intercourse was apt to convey it from the sick to the whole, just as fire devours things dry or greasy when they are brought close to it, the evil went yet further, for not merely by speech or association with the sick was the malady communicated to the healthy with consequent peril of common death; but any that touched the clothes the sick or aught else that had been touched, or used by these seemed thereby to contract the disease.

So marvelous sounds that which I have now to relate, that, had not many, and I among them, observed it with their own eyes, I had hardly dared to credit it, much less to set it down in writing, though I had had it from the lips of a credible witness.

I say, then, that such was the energy of the contagion of the said pestilence, that it was not merely propagated from man to mail, but, what is much more startling, it was frequently observed, that things which had belonged to one sick or dead of the disease, if touched by some other living creature, not of the human species, were the occasion, not merely of sickening, but of an almost instantaneous death. Whereof my own eyes (as I said a little before) had cognisance, one day among others, by the following experience. The rags of a poor man who had died of the disease being strewn about the open street, two hogs came thither, and after, as is their wont, no little trifling with their snouts, took the rags between their teeth and tossed them to and fro about their chaps; whereupon, almost immediately, they gave a few turns, and fell down dead, as if by poison, upon the rags which in an evil hour they had disturbed.

In which circumstances, not to speak of many others of a similar or even graver complexion, divers apprehensions and imaginations were engendered in the minds of such as were left alive, inclining almost all of them to the same harsh resolution, to wit, to shun and abhor all contact with the sick and all that belonged to them, thinking thereby to make each his own health secure. Among whom there were those who thought that to live temperately and avoid all excess would count for much as a preservative against seizures of this kind. Wherefore they banded together, and dissociating themselves from all others, formed communities in houses where there were no sick, and lived a separate and secluded life, which they regulated with the utmost care, avoiding every kind of luxury, but eating and drinking moderately of the most delicate viands and the finest wines, holding converse with none but one another, lest tidings of sickness or death should reach them, and diverting their minds with music and such other delights as they could devise. Others, the bias of whose minds was in the opposite direction, maintained, that to drink freely, frequent places of public resort, and take their pleasure with song and revel, sparing to satisfy no appetite, and to laugh and mock at no event, was the sovereign remedy for so great an evil: and that which they affirmed they also put in practice, so far as they were able, resorting day and night, now to this tavern, now to that, drinking with an entire disregard of rule or measure, and by preference making the houses of others, as it were, their inns, if they but saw in them aught that was particularly to their taste or liking; which they, were readily able to do, because the owners, seeing death imminent, had become as reckless of their property as of their lives; so that most of the houses were open to all comers, and no distinction was observed between the stranger who presented himself and the rightful lord. Thus, adhering ever to their inhuman determination to shun the sick, as far as possible, they ordered their life. In this extremity of our city’s suffering and tribulation the venerable authority of laws, human and divine, was abased and all but totally dissolved for lack of those who should have administered and enforced them, most of whom, like the rest of the citizens, were either dead or sick or so hard bested for servants that they were unable to execute any office; whereby every man was free to do what was right in his own eyes.

Not a few there were who belonged to neither of the two said parties, but kept a middle course between them, neither laying t same restraint upon their diet as the former, nor allowing themselves the same license in drinking and other dissipations as the latter, but living with a degree of freedom sufficient to satisfy their appetite and not as recluses. They therefore walked abroad, carrying in the hands flowers or fragrant herbs or divers sorts of spices, which they frequently raised to their noses, deeming it an excellent thing thus to comfort the brain with such perfumes, because the air seemed be everywhere laden and reeking with the stench emitted by the dead and the dying, and the odours of drugs.

Some again, the most sound, perhaps, in judgment, as they were also the most harsh in temper, of all, affirmed that there was no medicine for the disease superior or equal in efficacy to flight; following which prescription a multitude of men and women, negligent of all but themselves, deserted their city, their houses, their estates, their kinsfolk, their goods, and went into voluntary exile, or migrated to the country parts, as if God in visiting men with this pestilence in requital of their iniquities would not pursue them with His wrath wherever they might be, but intended the destruction of such alone as remained within the circuit of the walls of the city; or deeming perchance, that it was now time for all to flee from it, and that its last hour was come.

Of the adherents of these diverse opinions not all died, neither did all escape; but rather there were, of each sort and in every place many that sickened, and by those who retained their health were treated after the example which they themselves, while whole, had set, being everywhere left to languish in almost total neglect. Tedious were it to recount, how citizen avoided citizen, how among neighbors was scarce found any that showed fellow-feeling for another, how kinsfolk held aloof, and never met, or but rarely; enough that this sore affliction entered so deep into the minds of men a women, that in the horror thereof brother was forsaken by brother nephew by uncle, brother by sister, and oftentimes husband by wife: nay, what is more, and scarcely to be believed, fathers and mothers were found to abandon their own children, untended, unvisited, to their fate, as if they had been strangers. Wherefore the sick of both sexes, whose number could not be estimated, were left without resource but in the charity of friends (and few such there were), or the interest of servants, who were hardly to be had at high rates and on unseemly terms, and being, moreover, one and all, men and women of gross understanding, and for the most part unused to such offices, concerned themselves no further than to supply the immediate and expressed wants of the sick, and to watch them die; in which service they themselves not seldom perished with their gains. In consequence of which dearth of servants and dereliction of the sick by neighbors, kinsfolk and friends, it came to pass-a thing, perhaps, never before heard of-that no woman, however dainty, fair or well-born she might be, shrank, when stricken with the disease, from the ministrations of a man, no matter whether he were young or no, or scrupled to expose to him every part of her body, with no more shame than if he had been a woman, submitting of necessity to that which her malady required; wherefrom, perchance, there resulted in after time some loss of modesty in such as recovered. Besides which many succumbed, who with proper attendance, would, perhaps, have escaped death; so that, what with the virulence of the plague and the lack of due attendance of the sick, the multitude of the deaths, that daily and nightly took place in the city, was such that those who heard the tale-not to say witnessed the fact-were struck dumb with amazement. Whereby, practices contrary to the former habits of the citizens could hardly fail to grow up among the survivors.

It had been, as to-day it still is, the custom for the women that were neighbors and of kin to the deceased to gather in his house with the women that were most closely connected with him, to wail with them in common, while on the other hand his male kinsfolk and neighbors, with not a few of the other citizens, and a due proportion of the clergy according to his quality, assembled without, in front of the house, to receive the corpse; and so the dead man was borne on the shoulders of his peers, with funeral pomp of taper and dirge, to the church selected by him before his death. Which rites, as the pestilence waxed in fury, were either in whole or in great part disused, and gave way to others of a novel order. For not only did no crowd of women surround the bed of the dying, but many passed from this life unregarded, and few indeed were they to whom were accorded the lamentations and bitter tears of sorrowing relations; nay, for the most part, their place was taken by the laugh, the jest, the festal gathering; observances which the women, domestic piety in large measure set aside, had adopted with very great advantage to their health. Few also there were whose bodies were attended to the church by more than ten or twelve of their neighbors, and those not the honorable and respected citizens; but a sort of corpse-carriers drawn from the baser ranks, who called themselves becchini and performed such offices for hire, would shoulder the bier, and with hurried steps carry it, not to the church of the dead man’s choice, but to that which was nearest at hand, with four or six priests in front and a candle or two, or, perhaps, none; nor did the priests distress themselves with too long and solemn an office, but with the aid of the becchini hastily consigned the corpse to the first tomb which they found untenanted. The condition of the lower, and, perhaps, in great measure of the middle ranks, of the people showed even worse and more deplorable; for, deluded by hope or constrained by poverty, they stayed in their quarters, in their houses where they sickened by thousands a day, and, being without service or help of any kind, were, so to speak, irredeemably devoted to the death which overtook them. Many died daily or nightly in the public streets; of many others, who died at home, the departure was hardly observed by their neighbors, until the stench of their putrefying bodies carried the tidings; and what with their corpses and the corpses of others who died on every hand the whole place was a sepulchre.

It was the common practice of most of the neighbors, moved no less by fear of contamination by the putrefying bodies than by charity towards the deceased, to drag the corpses out of the houses with their own hands, aided, perhaps, by a porter, if a porter was to be had, and to lay them in front of the doors, where anyone who made the round might have seen, especially in the morning, more of them than he could count; afterwards they would have biers brought up or in default, planks, whereon they laid them. Nor was it once twice only that one and the same bier carried two or three corpses at once; but quite a considerable number of such cases occurred, one bier sufficing for husband and wife, two or three brothers, father and son, and so forth. And times without number it happened, that as two priests, bearing the cross, were on their way to perform the last office for someone, three or four biers were brought up by the porters in rear of them, so that, whereas the priests supposed that they had but one corpse to bury, they discovered that there were six or eight, or sometimes more. Nor, for all their number, were their obsequies honored by either tears or lights or crowds of mourners rather, it was come to this, that a dead man was then of no more account than a dead goat would be to-day. 

2. Jacob von Konigshofen-Cremation of the Strasbourg Jewry

Jacob von Konigshofen was a German historian who lived and wrote during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. He wrote an important chronicle of German history that influenced later historians. In the excerpt below Konigshofen recounts an event that happened during the height of the Black Death in German and Swiss towns that involved their Jewish populations. The document is a good window into how the Plague affected all aspects of society during the fourteenth century. 

3. Ordinance of Laborers

The Ordinance of Laborers was issued by England’s King Edward III in 1349 with a follow up document, the Statute of Laborers, issued two years later. The Ordinance was a reaction to the economic effects of the Black Death as it tore its way through England. Contained in the excerpt below are provisions against workers, businesses and beggars in the streets. This document helps round out how impactful the Black Death truly was in Europe, affecting economics in such a way that a major European king needed to get involved.

The king to the sheriff of Kent, greeting. Because a great part of the people, and especially of workmen and servants, late died of the pestilence, many seeing the necessity of masters, and great scarcity of servants, will not serve unless they may receive excessive wages, and some rather willing to beg in idleness, than by labor to get their living; we, considering the grievous incommodities, which of the lack especially of ploughmen and such laborers may hereafter come, have upon deliberation and treaty with the prelates and the nobles, and learned men assisting us, of their mutual counsel ordained:

That every man and woman of our realm of England, of what condition he be, free or bond, able in body, and within the age of threescore years, not living in merchandise, nor exercising any craft, nor having of his own whereof he may live, nor proper land, about whose tillage he may himself occupy, and not serving any other, if he in convenient service, his estate considered, be required to serve, he shall be bounden to serve him which so shall him require; and take only the wages, livery, mead, or salary, which were accustomed to be given in the places where he oweth to serve, the twentieth year of our reign of England, or five or six other common years next before.

Provided always, that the lords be preferred before other in their bondmen or their land tenants, so in their service to be retained; so that nevertheless the said lords shall retain no more than be necessary for them; and if any such man or woman, being so required to serve, will not the same do, that proved by two true men before the sheriff or the constables of the town where the same shall happen to be done, he shall anon be taken by them or any of them, and committed to the next jail, there to remain under strait keeping, till he find surety to serve in the form aforesaid.

Item, if any reaper, mower, or other workman or servant, of what estate or condition that he be, retained in any man’s service, do depart from the said service without reasonable cause or license, before the term agreed, he shall have pain of imprisonment. And that none under the same pain presume to receive or to retain any such in his service.

Item, that no man pay, or promise to pay, any servant any more wages, liveries, mead, or salary than was wont, as afore is said; nor that any in other manner shall demand or receive the same, upon pain of doubling of that, that so shall be paid, promised, required, or received, to him which thereof shall feel himself grieved, pursuing for the same; and if none such will pursue, then the same to be applied to any of the people that will pursue; and such pursuit shall be in the court of the lord of the place where such case shall happen.

Item, if the lords of the towns or manors presume in any point to come against this present ordinance either by them, or by their servants, then pursuit shall be made against them in the counties, wapentakes, tithings, or such other courts, for the treble pain paid or promised by them or their servants in the form aforesaid; and if any before this present ordinance hath covenanted with any so to serve for more wages, he shall not be bound by reason of the same covenant, to pay more than at any other time was wont to be paid to such person; nor upon the said pain shall presume any more to pay.

Item, that saddlers, skinners, white-tawers, cordwainers, tailors, smiths, carpenters, masons, tilers, [shipwrights], carters, and all other artificers and workmen, shall not take for their labor and workmanship above the same that was wont to be paid to such persons the said twentieth year, and other common years next before, as afore is said, in the place where they shall happen to work; and if any man take more, he shall be committed to the next jaill, in manner as afore is said.

Item, that butchers, fishmongers, hostelers, breweres, bakers, puters, and all other sellers of all manner of victual, shall be bound to sell the same victual for a reasonable price, having respect to the price that such victual be sold at in the places adjoining, so that the same sellers have moderate gains, and not excessive, reasonably to be required according to the distance of the place from whence the said victuals be carried; and if any sell such victuals in any other manner, and thereof be convict in the manner and form aforesaid, he shall pay the double of the same that he so received, to the party damnified, or, in default of him, to any other that will pursue in this behalf: and the mayors and bailiffs of cities, boroughs, merchant-towns, and others, and of the ports and places of the sea, shall have power to inquire of all and singular which shall in anything offend the same, and to levy the said pain to the use of them at whose suit such offenders shall be convict; and in case that the same mayors or bailiffs be negligent in doing execution of the premises, and thereof be convict before our justices, by us to be assigned, then the same mayors and bailiffs shall be compelled by the same justices to pay the treble of the thing so sold to the party damnified, or to any other in default of him that will pursue; and nevertheless toward us they shall be grievously punished.

Item, because that many valiant beggars, as long as they may live of begging, do refuse to labor, giving themselves to idleness and vice, and sometime to theft and other abominations; none upon the said pain of imprisonment shall, under the color of pity or alms, give anything to such, which may labor, or presume to favor them toward their desires, so that thereby they may be compelled to labor for their necessary living.

We command you, firmly enjoining, that all and singular the premises in the cities, boroughs, market towns, seaports, and other places in your bailiwick, where you shall think expedient, as well within liberties as without, you do cause to be publicly proclaimed, and to be observed and duly put in execution aforesaid; and this by no means omit, as you regard us and the common weal of our realm, and would save yourself harmless. Witness the king at Westminster, the 18th day of June. By the king himself and the whole council.

Like writs are directed to the sheriffs throughout England.

The king to the reverend father in Christ W. by the same grace bishop of Winchester, greeting. “Because a great part of the people,” as before, until “for their necessary living,” and then thus: And therefore we entreat you that the premises in every of the churches, and other places of your diocese, which you shall think expedient, you do cause to be published; directing the parsons, vicars, ministers of such churches, and others under you, to exhort and invite their parishioners by salutary admonitions, to labor, and to observe the ordinances aforesaid, as the present necessity requireth: and that you do likewise moderate the stipendiary chaplains of your said diocese, who, as it is said, do now in like manner refuse to serve without an excessive salary; and compel them to serve for the accustomed salary, as it behooveth them, under the pain of suspension and interdict. And this by no means omit, as you regard us and the common weal of our said realm. Witness, etc. as above. By the king himself and the whole council.

Like letters of request are directed to the several bishops of England, and to the keeper of the spiritualities of the archbishopric of Canterbury, during the vacancy of the see, under the same date. 

4. Jean Froissart-Beginning of the English Peasants’ Revolt 

Jean Froissart’s Chronicles are one of the most relied on histories of the later Middle Ages, although very little is definitely known about the author. We do know that Froissart wrote poetry and courtly romances in addition to history. He also travelled widely in England, France, Wales, and other places in an effort to gather accurate information for his Chronicles. In the excerpt presented below Froissart discusses the English Peasants’ Revolt, a major event in the late fourteenth century that resulted from the Black Death and attempts to limit workers through laws such as the Ordinance of Laborers.

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5. Anonimalle Chronicle-English Peasants’ Revolt

Little is known regarding the origin of the document excerpted below, the Anonimalle Chronicle, other than that it was produced in the Benedictine abbey St. Mary’s and is composed of separate descriptions of various events such as the English Peasants’ Revolt, subject of the current excerpt. The selection here discusses the meeting held between England’s king, Richard II, only fourteen years old, and Wat Tyler, the leader of the revolt, as well as what happened afterwards. 

Then the King caused a proclamation to be made that all the commons of the country who were still in London should come to Smithfield, to meet him there; and so they did.

And when the King and his train had arrived there they turned into the Eastern meadow in front of St. Bartholomew’s, which is a house of canons: and the commons arrayed themselves on the west side in great battles. At this moment the Mayor of London, William Walworth, came up, and the King bade him go to the commons, and make their chieftain come to him. And when he was summoned by the Mayor, by the name of Wat Tighler of Maidstone, he came to the King with great confidence, mounted on a little horse, that the commons might see him. And he dismounted, holding in his hand a dagger which he had taken from another man, and when he had dismounted he half bent his knee, and then took the King by the hand, and shook his arm forcibly and roughly, saying to him, “Brother, be of good comfort and joyful, for you shall have, in the fortnight that is to come, praise from the commons even more than you have yet had, and we shall be good companions.” And the King said to Walter, “Why will you not go back to your own country?” But the other answered, with a great oath, that neither he nor his fellows would depart until they had got their charter such as they wished to have it, and had certain points rehearsed and added to their charter which they wished to demand. And he said in a threatening fashion that the lords of the realm would rue it bitterly if these points were not settled to their pleasure. Then the King asked him what were the points which he wished to have revised, and he should have them freely, without contradiction, written out and sealed. Thereupon the said Walter rehearsed the points which were to be demanded; and he asked that there should be no law within the realm save the law of Winchester, and that from henceforth there should be no outlawry in any process of law, and that no lord should have lordship save civilly, and that there should be equality among all people save only the King, and that the goods of Holy Church should not remain in the hands of the religious, nor of parsons and vicars, and other churchmen; but that clergy already in possession should have a sufficient sustenance from the endowments, and the rest of the goods should be divided among the people of the parish. And he demanded that there should be only one bishop in England and only one prelate, and all the lands and tenements now held by them should be confiscated, and divided among the commons, only reserving for them a reasonable sustenance. And he demanded that there should be no more villeins in England, and no serfdom or villeinage, but that all men should be free and of one condition. To this the King gave an easy answer, and said that he should have all that he could fairly grant, reserving only for himself the regality of his crown. And then he bade him go back to his home, without making further delay.

During all this time that the King was speaking, no lord or counsellor dared or wished to give answer to the commons in any place save the King himself. Presently Wat Tighler, in the presence of the King, sent for a flagon of water to rinse his mouth, because of the great heat that he was in, and when it was brought he rinsed his mouth in a very rude and disgusting fashion before the King’s face. And then he made them bring him a jug of beer, and drank a great draught, and then, in the presence of the King, climbed on his horse again. At this time a certain valet from Kent, who was among the King’s retinue, asked that the said Walter, the chief of the commons, might be pointed out to him. And when he saw him, he said aloud that he knew him for the greatest thief and robber in all Kent…. And for these words Watt tried to strike him with his dagger, and would have slain him in the King’s presence; but because he strove so to do, the Mayor of London, William Walworth, reasoned with the said Watt for his violent behaviour and despite, done in the King’s presence, and arrested him. And because he arrested him, he said Watt stabbed the Mayor with his dagger in the stomach in great wrath. But, as it pleased God, the Mayor was wearing armour and took no harm, but like a hardy and vigorous man drew his cutlass, and struck back at the said Watt, and gave him a deep cut on the neck, and then a great cut on the head. And during this scuffle one of the King’s household drew his sword, and ran Watt two or three times through the body, mortally wounding him. And he spurred his horse, crying to the commons to avenge him, and the horse carried him some four score paces, and then he fell to the ground half dead. And when the commons saw him fall, and knew not how for certain it was, they began to bend their bows and to shoot, wherefore the King himself spurred his horse, and rode out to them, commanding them that they should all come to him to Clerkenwell Fields.

Meanwhile the Mayor of London rode as hastily as he could back to the City, and commanded those who were in charge of the twenty four wards to make proclamation round their wards, that every man should arm himself as quickly as he could, and come to the King in St. John’s Fields, where were the commons, to aid the King, for he was in great trouble and necessity…. And presently the aldermen came to him in a body, bringing with them their wardens, and the wards arrayed in bands, a fine company of well-armed folks in great strength. And they enveloped the commons like sheep within a pen, and after that the Mayor had set the wardens of the city on their way to the King, he returned with a company of lances to Smithfield, to make an end of the captain of the commons. And when he came to Smithfield he found not there the said captain Watt Tighler, at which he marvelled much, and asked what was become of the traitor. And it was told him that he had been carried by some of the commons to the hospital for poor folks by St. Bartholomew’s, and was put to bed in the chamber of the master of the hospital. And the Mayor went thither and found him, and had him carried out to the middle of Smithfield, in presence of his fellows, and there beheaded. And thus ended his wretched life. But the Mayor had his head set on a pole and borne before him to the King, who still abode in the Fields. And when the King saw the head he had it brought near him to abash the commons, and thanked the Mayor greatly for what he had done. And when the commons saw that their chieftain, Watt Tyler, was dead in such a manner, they fell to the ground there among the wheat, like beaten men, imploring the King for mercy for their misdeeds. And the King benevolently granted them mercy, and most of them took to flight. But the King ordained two knights to conduct the rest of them, namely the Kentishmen, through London, and over London Bridge, without doing them harm, so that each of them could go to his own home.

Afterwards the King sent out his messengers into divers parts, to capture the malefactors and put them to death. And many were taken and hanged at London, and they set up many gallows around the City of London, and in other cities and boroughs of the south country. At last, as it pleased God, the King seeing that too many of his liege subjects would be undone, and too much blood split, took pity in his heart, and granted them all pardon, on condition that they should never rise again, under pain of losing life or members, and that each of them should get his charter of pardon, and pay the King as fee for his seal twenty shillings, to make him rich. And so finished this wicked war. 

Charles Oman, The Great Revolt of 1381 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906), 200-203, 205. Located on the Internet Archive: 

6. Jean Froissart-On the Hundred Years’ War

The excerpt below is another from the medieval chronicler Jean Froissart and his Chronicles. The document here summarizes two of the major battles in the early going of the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. The Battles of Crécy and Poitiers were both fought on French soil during the reign of England’s Edward III and both were won by the English. As you read this document pay attention to how the armies were arranged, how England prevailed, and how captured prisoners were treated.

The Battle of Crecy (1346)

The Englishmen, who were in three battles lying on the ground to rest them, as soon as they saw the Frenchmen approach, they rose upon their feet fair and easily without any haste and arranged their battles. The first, which was the prince’s battle, the archers there stood in manner of a herse and the men of arms in the bottom of the battle. The earl of Northampton and the earl of Arundel with the second battle were on a wing in good order, ready to comfort the prince’s battle, if need were.

The lords and knights of France came not to the assembly together in good order, for some came before and some came after in such haste and evil order, that one of them did trouble another. When the French king saw the Englishmen, his blood changed, and [he] said to his marshals: “Make the Genoways go on before and begin the battle in the name of God and Saint Denis.” There were of the Genoways crossbows about a fifteen thousand, but they were so weary of going afoot that day a six leagues armed with their crossbows, that they said to their constables: “We be not well ordered to fight this day, for we be not in the case to do any great deed of arms: we have more need of rest.” These words came to the earl of Alencon, who said: “A man is well at ease to be charged with such a sort of rascals, to be faint and fail now at most need.” Also the same season there fell a great rain and a clipse with a terrible thunder, and before the rain there came flying over both battles a great number of crows for fear of the tempest coming. Then anon the air began to wax clear, and the sun to shine fair and bright, the which was right in the Frenchmen’s eyes and on the Englishmen’s backs. When the Genoways were assembled together and began to approach, they made a great [shout] and cry to abash the Englishmen, but they stood still and stirred not for all that: then the Genoways again the second time made another leap and a fell cry, and stept forward a little, and the Englishmen removed not one foot: thirdly, again they lept and cried, and went forth till they came within shot; then they shot fiercely with their crossbows. Then the English archers stept forth one pace and let fly their arrows so wholly [together] and so thick, that it seemed snow. When the Genoways felt the arrows piercing through heads arms and breasts, many of them cast down their crossbows and did cut their strings and returned discomfited. When the French king saw them fly away, he said: “Slay these rascals, for they shall let and trouble us without reason.” Then ye should have seen the men at arms dash in among them and killed a great number of them: and ever still the Englishmen shot whereas they saw thickest press; the sharp arrows ran into the men of arms and into their horses, an many fell, horse and men, among the Genoways, and when they were down, they could not relieve again, the press was so thick that on overthrew another. And also among the Englishmen there were certain rascals that went afoot with great knives, and they went in among the men of arms, and slew and murdered many as they lay on the ground, both earls, barons, knights, and squires, whereof the king of England was after displeased, for he had rather they had been taken prisoners.

The valiant king of Bohemia called Charles of Luxembourg, son to the noble emperor Henry of Luxembourg, for all that he was nigh blind, when he understood the order of the battle, he said to the about him: “Where is the lord Charles my son?” His men said: “Sir we cannot tell; we think he be fighting.” Then he said: “Sirs, ye are my men, my companions and friends in this journey: I require you bring me so far forward, that I may strike one stroke with my sword.” They said they would do his commandment, and to the intent that they should not lose him in the press, they tied all their reins of their bridles each to other and set the king before to accomplish his desire, and so they went on their enemies. The lord Charles of Bohemia his son, who wrote himself king of Almaine and bare the arms, he came in good order to the battle; but when he saw that the matter went awry on their party, he departed, I cannot tell you which way. The king his father was so far forward that he strake a stroke with his sword, yea and more than four, and fought valiantly and so did his company; and they adventured themselves so forward, that they were there all slain; and the next day they were found in the place about the king, and all their horses tied each to other.

[The contingent led by the king’s son, the Black Prince, was hard pressed in the fighting.] Then the second battle of the Englishment came to succour the prince’s battle, the which was time, for they had as then much ado and they with the prince sent a messenger to the king, who was on a little windmill hill. Then the knight said to the king: “Sir, the earl of Warwick and the earl of Oxford, sir Raynold Cobham and other, such as be about the prince your son, are fiercely fought withal and are sore handled; wherefore they desire you that you and your battle will come and aid them; for if the Frenchmen increase, as they doubt they will, your son and they shall have much ado.” Then the king said: “Is my son dead or hurt or on the earth felled?” “No, sir,” quoth the knight, “but he is hardly matched; wherefore he hath need of your aid.” “Well,” said the king, “return to him and to them that sent you hither, and say to them that they send no more to me for any adventure that falleth, as long as my son is alive: and also say to them that they suffer him this day to win his spurs; for if God be pleased, I will this journey be his and the honour thereof, and to them that be about him.”

The Battle of Poitiers 1356

Oftentimes the adventure of amours and of war are more fortunate and marvellous than any man can think or wish. Truly this battle, the which was near to Poitiers in the fields of Beauvoir and Maupertuis, was right great and perilous, and many deeds of arms there was done the which all came not to knowledge. The fighters on both sides endured much pain: king John with his own hands did that day marvels in arms: he had an axe in his hands wherewith he defended himself and fought in the breaking of the press. Near to the king there was taken the earl of Tancarville, sir Jaques of Bourbon car] of Ponthieu, and the lord John of Artois earl of Eu, and a little above that under the banner of the captal of Buch was taken sir Charles of Artois and divers other knights and squires. The chase endured to the gates of Poitiers: there were many slain and beaten down, horse and man, for they of Poitiers closed their gates and would suffer none to enter; wherefore in the street before the gate was horrible murder, men hurt and beaten down….

Then there was a great press to take the king, and such as knew him cried, “Sir, yield you, or else ye are but dead.” There was a knight of Saint-Omer’s, retained in wages with the king of England, called sir Denis Morbeke, who had served the Englishmen five year before, because in his youth he had forfeited the realm of France for a murder that he did at SaintOmer’s. It happened so well for him, that he was next to the king when they were about to take him: he stept forth into the press, and by strength of his body and arms he came to the French king and said in good French, “Sir, yield you.” The king beheld the knight and said: “To whom shall I yield me? Where is my cousin the prince of Wales? If I might see him, I would speak with him.” Denis answered and said: “Sir, he is not here; but yield you to me and I shall bring you to him.” “Who be you?” quoth the king. “Sir,” he, “I am Denis of Morbeke, a knight of Artois; but I serve the king of England because I am banished the realm of France and I have forfeited all that I had there.” Then the king gave him his right gauntlet, saying “There I yield me to you.” was a great press about the king, for every man enforced him to say “I have taken him,” so that the king could not go forward with his young son the lord Philip with him because of the press…

[The Black Prince sent two lords to search for the French king.] These two lords took their horses and departed from the prince rode up a hill to look about them: then they perceived a flock of men of arms coming together right wearily: there was the French king afoot in great peril, for Englishmen and Gascons were his masters; they had taken him from sir Denis Morbeke perforce, and such as were most of force said, “I have taken him”; “Nay,” quoth another, “I have taken him”; so they strave which should have him. Then the French king, to eschew that peril, said: “Sirs, strive not: lead men courteously, and my son, to my cousin the prince, and strive not for my taking, for I am so great a lord to make you all rich.” The king’s words somewhat appeased them; howbeit ever as they went they made riot and brawled for the taking of the king. When the two foresaid lords saw and heard that noise and strife among them they came to them and said: “Sirs, what is the matter that ye strive for?” “Sirs,” said one of them, “it is for the French king, who is here taken prisoner, and there be more than ten knights and squires that challengeth the taking of him and of his son. “Then the two lords entered into the press and caused every man to draw aback, and commanded them in the prince’s name on pain of their heads to make no more noise nor to approach the king no nearer, without they were commanded. Then every man gave room to the lords, and they alighted and did their reverence to the king, and so brought him and his son in peace and rest to the prince of Wales.

The same day of the battle at night the prince made a supper in his lodging to the French king and to the most part of the great lords that were prisoners. The prince made the king and his son, the lord James of Bourbon, the lord John d’Artois, the earl of Tancarville the earl of Estampes, the earl of Dammartin, the earl of Joinville the lord of Partenay to sit all at one board, and other lords, knights and squires at other tables; and always the prince served before the king as humbly as he could, and would not sit at the king’s board for any desire that the king could make, but he said he was not sufficient to sit at the table with so great a prince as the king was. But then he said to the king, “Sir, for God’s sake make none evil nor heavy cheer, though God this day did not consent to follow your will; for, sir, surely the king my father shall bear you as much honour and amity as he may do, and shall accord with you so reasonably that ye shall ever be friends together after. And, sir, methink ye ought to rejoice, though the journey be not as ye would have had it, for this day ye have won the high renown of prowess and have passed this day in valiantness all other of your party. Sir, I say not this to mock you, for all that be on our party, that saw every man’s deeds, are plainly accorded by true sentence to give you the prize and chaplet.” Therewith the Frenchmen began to murmur and said among themselves how the prince had spoken nobly, and that by all estimation he should prove a noble man, if God send him life and to persevere in such good fortune.

John Bourchier, trans. and G.C. Macaulay, ed., The Chronicles of Froissart (London: Macmillan and Co., 1895), 104-105, 128-129,

131. Located on the Internet Archive: 

7. Treaties of Bretigny and Troyes

During the Hundred Years’ War there were two treaties that stand out for the impact they would have on the future progress of the war. The first is the Treaty of Brètigny-Calais, signed in 1360, four years after the English scored a victory at the Battle of Poitiers. The second is the Treaty of Troyes, signed five years after a tremendous English victory over a much larger force at the Battle of Agincourt during the reign of Henry V. Excerpts from each treaty are presented below.

Treaty of Bretigny 1360

1. The king of England shall hold for himself and his heirs, for all time to come, in addition to that which he holds in Guienne and Gascony, all the possessions which are enumerated below, to be held in the same manner that the king of France and his sons, or any of their ancestors, have held them…

7. And likewise the said king and his eldest son shall give order, by their letters patent to all archbishops and other prelates of the holy Church, and also to counts, viscounts, barons, nobles, citizens, and others of the cities, lands, countries, islands, and places before mentioned, that they shall be obedient to the king of England and to his heirs and at their ready command, in the same manner in which they have been obedient to the kings and to the crown of France. And by the same letters they shall liberate and absolve them from all homage, pledges, oaths, obligations, subjections, and promises made by any of them to the kings and to the crown of France in any manner.

13. It is agreed that the king of France shall pay to the king of England three million gold crowns, of which two are worth an obol of English money.

30. It is agreed that honest alliances, friendships, and confederations shall be formed by the two kings of France and England and their kingdoms, not repugnant to the honor or the conscience of one king or the other. No alliances which they have, on this side or that, with any person of Scotland or Flanders, or any other country, shall be allowed to stand in the way.

Treaty of Troyes 1420

  1. After our death, and from that time forward, the crown and kingdom of France, with all their rights and appurtenances, shall be vested permanently in our son [son-inlaw], King Henry, and his heirs.
  2. The power and authority to govern and to control the public affairs of the said kingdom shall, during our life-time, be vested in our son, King Henry, with the advice of the nobles and the wise men who are obedient to us, and who have consideration for the advancement and honor of the said kingdom.

24. . . . [It is agreed] that the two kingdoms shall be governed from the time that our said son, or any of his heirs, shall assume the crown, not divided between different kings at the same time, but under one person, who shall be king and sovereign lord of both kingdoms; observing all pledges and all other things, to each kingdom its rights, liberties or customs, usages and laws, not submitting in any manner one kingdom to the other.

29. In consideration of the frightful and astounding crimes and misdeeds committed against the kingdom of France by Charles, the said Dauphin, it is agreed that we, our son Henry, and also our very dear son Philip, duke of Burgundy, will never treat for peace or amity with the said Charles.

Frederic Austin Ogg, ed., A Sourcebook of Medieval History (New York: American Book Company, 1907), 441-443. Located on the Internet Archive: 

8. Manifesto of the Revolting Cardinals

As if the onset of the Black Death and the Hundred Years’ War weren’t enough to terrorize fourteenth century Europe, serious problems with the Catholic Church arose to disrupt the lives of many Christians across the continent. First there was the Avignon Papacy, a period of over seventy years during which popes resided not in Rome, but in the French controlled city of Avignon. Following on the heels of its return to Rome the church was rocked by the Great Schism, a period during which there were at first two, then three popes, each vying for power and issues taxes and rules on the laity. The document below comes from the year 1378, after the election of an Italian pope upon the return of the Papacy to Rome, and the discord created by a number of French cardinals who were not satisfied with said election.

After the apostolic seat was made vacant by the death of our lord pope Gregory XI, who died in March, we assembled in conclave for the election of a pope, as is the law and custom, in the papal palace, in which Gregory had died. . . . Officials of the city with a great multitude the people, for the most part armed and called together for this purpose by the ringing of bells, surrounded the palace in a threatening manner and even entered it and almost filled it. To the terror caused by their presence they added threats that unless we should at once elect a Roman or an Italian they would kill us. They gave us no time to deliberate but compelled us unwillingly, through violence and fear, to elect an Italian without delay. In order to escape

– danger which threatened us from such a mob, we elected Bartholomew, archbishop of Bari, thinking that he would have enough conscience not to accept the election, since every e knew that it was made under such wicked threats. But he was unmindful of his own salvation and burning with ambition, and so, to the great scandal of the clergy and of the Christian people, and contrary to the laws of the church, he accepted this election which was offered him, although not all cardinals were present at the election, and it was extorted from us by the threats and demands of the officials and people of the city. And although such an election is null and void, and the danger from the people still threatened us. lie was enthroned and crowned, and called himself pope and apostolic. But according to the holy fathers and to the law, of the church, he should be called apostate, anathema, Antichrist, and the mocker and destroyer of Christianity. . . .

Oliver J. Thatcher and Edgar H. McNeal, A Source Book for Medieval History (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1905), 325-326. Located on the Internet Archive: 

9. Marsiglio of Padua-Defender of the Peace

The excerpt below comes from a work called Defensor Pacis, or Defender of Peace, written by Marsiglio of Padua around 1324. Marsiglio was an Italian scholar who studied medicine in Italy and philosophy at the University of Paris. The work included here sought to refute papal power in both church and state affairs and called for the Catholic Church to be run by council rather than a single individual, placing Marsiglio and his writing at the center of movement called Conciliarism that arose due to the struggles the church experienced during the fourteenth century.

  1. The one divine canonical Scripture, the conclusions that necessarily follow from it, and the interpretation placed upon it by the common consent of Christians, are true, and belief in them is necessary to the salvation of those to whom they are made known.
  2. The general council of Christians or its majority alone has the authority to define doubtful passages of the divine law, and to determine those that are to be regarded as articles of the Christian faith, belief in which is essential to salvation; and no partial council or single person of any position has the authority to decide these questions.

3. The gospels teach that no temporal punishment or penalty should be used to compel observance of divine commandments.

  1. It is necessary to salvation to obey the commandments of the new divine law [the New Testament] and the conclusions that follow necessarily from it and the precepts of reason; but it is not necessary to salvation to obey all the commandments of the ancient law [the Old Testament].
  2. No mortal has the right to dispense with the commands or prohibitions of the new divine law; but the general council and the Christian “legislator” alone have the right to prohibit things which are permitted by the new law, under penalties in this world or the next, and no partial council or single person of any position has that right.
  3. The whole body of citizens or its majority alone is the human “legislator.”
  4. Decretals and decrees of the bishop of Rome, or of any other bishops or body of bishops, have no power to coerce anyone by secular penalties or punishments, except by the authorization of the human “legislator.”
  5. The “legislator” alone or the one who rules by its authority has the power to dispense with human laws.
  6. The elective principality or other office derives its authority from the election of the body having the right to elect, and not from the confirmation or approval of any other power.
  7. The election of any prince or other official, especially one who has the coercive power, is determined solely by the expressed will of the “legislator.”
  8. There can be only one supreme ruling power in a state or kingdom.
    1. The number and the qualifications of persons who hold state offices and all civil matters are to be determined solely by
    2. the Christian ruler according to the law or approved custom [of the state].
  9. No prince, still more, no partial council or single person of any position, has full authority and control over other persons, laymen or clergy, without the authorization of the “legislator.”
  10. No bishop or priest has coercive authority or jurisdiction over any layman or clergyman, even if he is a heretic.
  11. The prince who rules by the authority of the “legislator” has jurisdiction over the persons and possessions of every single mortal of every station, whether lay or clerical, and over every body of laymen or clergy.
  12. No bishop or priest or body of bishops or priests has the authority to excommunicate anyone or to interdict the performance of divine services, without the authorization of the “legislator.”
  13. All bishops derive their authority in equal measure immediately from Christ, and it cannot be proved from the divine law that one bishop should be over or under another, in temporal or spiritual matters.
  14. The other bishops, singly or in a body, have the same right by divine authority to excommunicate or otherwise exercise authority over the bishop of Rome, having obtained the consent of the “legislator,” as the bishop of Rome has to excommunicate or control them.
  15. No mortal has the authority to permit marriages that are prohibited by the divine law, especially by the New Testament. The right to permit marriages which are prohibited by human law belongs solely to the “legislator” or to the one who rules by its authority.
    1. The right to legitimatize children born of illegitimate union so that they may receive inheritances, or other civil or
    2. ecclesiastical offices or benefits, belongs solely to the “legislator.”
  16. The “legislator” alone has the right to promote to ecclesiastical orders, and to judge of the qualifications of persons for these offices, by a coercive decision, and no priest or bishop has the right to promote anyone without its authority.
  17. The prince who rules by the authority of the laws of Christians, has the right to determine the number of churches and temples, and the number of priests, deacons, and other clergy who shall serve in them.
  18. “Separable” ecclesiastical offices may be conferred or taken away only by the authority of the “legislator”; the same is true of ecclesiastical benefices and other property devoted to pious purposes.
  19. No bishop or body of bishops has the right to establish notaries or other civil officials.
  20. No bishop or body of bishops may give permission to teach or practice in any profession or occupation but this right belongs to the Christian “legislator” or to the one who rules by its authority.
  21. In ecclesiastical offices and benefices those who have received consecration as deacons or priests, or have been otherwise irrevocably dedicated to God, should be preferred to those who have not been thus consecrated.
  22. The human “legislator” has the right to use ecclesiastical temporalities for the common public good and defence after the needs of the priests and clergy, the expenses of divine worship and the necessities of the poor have been satisfied.
    1. All properties established for pious purposes or for works of mercy, such as those that are left by will for the making of a crusade, the redeeming of captives, or the support of the poor, and similar purposes, may be disposed of by the prince alone
    2. according to the decision of the “legislator” and the purpose of the testator or giver.
  23. The Christian “legislator” alone has the right to forbid or permit the establishment of religious orders or houses.
  24. The prince alone, acting in accordance with the laws of the “legislator,” has the authority to condemn heretics, delinquents, and all others who should endure temporal punishment, to inflict bodily punishment upon them, and to exact fines from them.
  25. No subject who is bound to another by a legal oath may be released from his obligation by any bishop or priest, unless the “legislator” has decided by a coercive decision that there is just cause for it.
  26. The general council of all Christians alone has the authority to create a metropolitan bishop or church and to reduce him or it from that position.
  27. The Christian “legislator” or the one who rules by its authority over Christian states, alone has the right to convoke either a general or local council of priests, bishops, and other Christians, by coercive power; and no man may be compelled by threats of temporal or spiritual punishment to obey the decrees of a council convoked in any other way.
  28. The general council of Christians or the Christian “legislator” alone has the authority to ordain fasts and other prohibitions of the use of food; the council or “legislator” alone may prohibit the practice of mechanical arts or teaching which divine law permits to be practiced on any day, and the “legislator” or the one who rules by its authority alone may constrain men to obey the prohibition by temporal penalties.
  29. The general council of Christians alone has the authority to canonize anyone or to order anyone to be adored as a saint.

36. The general council of Christians alone has the authority to forbid the marriage of priests, bishops, and other clergy, and to make other laws concerning ecclesiastical discipline, and that council or the one to whom it delegate its authority alone may dispense with these laws.

  1. It is always permitted to appeal to the “legislator” from a coercive decision rendered by a bishop or priest with the authorization of the “legislator.”
  2. Those who are pledged to observe complete poverty may not have in their possession any immovable property, unless it be with the fixed intention of selling it as soon as possible and giving the money to the poor; they may not have such rights in either movable or immovable property as would enable them, for example, to recover them by a coercive decision from any person who should take or try to take them away.
  3. The people as a community and as individuals according to their several means, are required by divine law to support the bishops and other clergy authorized by the gospel, so that they may have food and clothing and the other necessaries of life; but the people are not required to pay tithes or other taxes beyond the amount necessary for such support.
  4. The Christian “legislator” or the one who rules by its authority has the right to compel bishops and other clergy who live in the province under its control and whom it supplies with the necessities of life, to perform divine services and administer the sacrament.
  5. The bishop of Rome and any other ecclesiastical or spiritual minister may be advanced to a “separable” ecclesiastical office only by the Christian “legislator” or the one who rules by its authority, or by the general council of Christians; and they may be suspended from or deprived of office by the same authority.

Oliver J. Thatcher and Edgar H. McNeal, A Source Book for Medieval History (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1905), 318-323. Located on the Internet Archive: 


Western Civilization-An Open Source Book by Ryan P. Johnson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.