Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Why I Love the Fourteenth Century by Rosanne E. Lortz

Choosing a century out of the timeline and crowning it king is a bit like choosing your favorite child. It seems unfair to pick just one. Out of all the centuries to pick, I have chosen the fourteenth. Many people may be surprised by my choice. The fourteenth century was a grim time; one of the greatest disasters imaginable overtook the Western world, with nearly half the European population perishing in the Black Plague. The fourteenth century was a bloody time; France and England became locked in the interminable struggle known as the Hundred Years’ War, with the Scots, the Spaniards, and the Germans joining in intermittently.
But despite these harsh realities, the fourteenth century was also a seminal time, a time of change, courage, and determination. Strong men and women saw the world that they had, took it in their hands, and began to mold it into something new. In religion, literature, societal structure, and warfare, mankind made monumental strides, preparing the way for the more earth-shattering changes that the Renaissance and Reformation would bring.

“It is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.” Pope Boniface wrote these words at the dawn of the fourteenth century, increasing papal power as his predecessors had done for nearly a millennium. Anyone who disagreed with the pope was summarily excommunicated and condemned to hell. Since the pope was the picture of Christ on earth, Christ Himself was perceived as an iron taskmaster. The common people trembled in fear of God’s wrath, making lengthy pilgrimages and elaborate penance to avoid the pangs of Purgatory or damnation.

As the fourteenth century wore on, however, many movements arose in reaction to this stern picture of God. Julian of Norwich, an English mystic who claimed she had conversations with God, saw Christ as a caring mother, not a frowning judge. She taught that our sin produced suffering, suffering gave us knowledge, and knowledge brought us closer to a kind and merciful Father. John Wyclif, also a native of England, challenged the tyrannical claims of the pope, arguing that he did not truly represent Christ. Translating the Bible into the common tongue, Wyclif ensured that the priests would not have a monopoly on God’s Word. Fourteenth century religious thinkers like Julian and John Wyclif sent fissures through the foundation of the Roman church that would split her wide open in the centuries to come.
The world of literature paralleled and aided these developments in the world of religion. Dante and Chaucer used poetry to provide social criticism. Instead of confining themselves to the scholarly language of Latin, both men chose to write verse in the common tongue of their people. Dante’s Divine Comedy provided a literary corrective to the Roman church, showing Pope Boniface in hell and lyrically illustrating the goodness of God, the “Love that moves the sun and the other stars.” Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales satirized the greed and hypocrisy of the monks, nuns, pardoners, and friars that filled the Church, commending the charity of the simple parish priest as a model for the rest.
This new spirit of questioning, independence, and change manifested itself in all classes of society. By the beginning of the fourteenth century, the system of feudalism had already begun to creak and totter. The Black Plague nearly pushed it over. When half the labor force of Europe disappeared over night, noblemen found their manors and estates shorthanded and short tempered. France erupted with riotous serfs determined to avenge centuries of iniquitous treatment from their masters. England’s unhappy taxpayers had their own Peasants’ Revolt, wringing concessions from a frightened aristocracy.

Yet despite these domestic disturbances, France and England still found time to fight each other. England’s Edward III claimed the throne of France, by right of inheritance through his French mother, and set sail in force to make good his claim. This began an epic conflict, known as the Hundred Years’ War, which spanned five generations. The pitched battles of Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt showed that the old way of warfare was dying out. Mounted knights, the premier fighting unit of the earlier Middle Ages, fled in fear from armies of infantry and longbowmen. The first rumbles of cannon filled the air at Crecy, ushering in a new age of gunpowder.

Though the age of chivalry was passing away, its spirit still lingered on in the heroes of the fourteenth century battlefield. Edward, the Black Prince, became the pride of England, inspiring a strong national identity as his countrymen reveled in his victories. Sir Geoffroi de Charny, the finest knight in France, penned the Book of Chivalry, striving to instill in the new generation a respect for the evaporating institution of knighthood.
The fourteenth century was a hard time and it was a tumultuous time. It was a threshold, a lynchpin, a crucible. But in the words of one of my old teachers, “It’s only when something is hard that you have the chance to truly shine.” Men and women of faith, honor, and courage took the opportunity to think, to object, to write, to lead, to change—and that is why I love the fourteenth century.

You can find more about Rosanne E. Lortz and her novel at I Serve


  1. What an absolutely fascinating period. I love reading any medieval time, but hadn't really sat down to figure out all the things that might have happened in any specific century!

    Thanks so much for your guest post!

  2. I have always been fascinated by anything medieval. Thank you for this in depth look at this specific time period. I love the quote from your former teacher!