Numerous centuries could vie for the unfortunate distinction of being the worst time to have lived – take for example the 20th century with its two world wars and global pandemic, or the century following 536, when extreme weather events led to widespread famine, thought to have been caused by a volcanic winter obscuring the sun.
Furthermore, the country you lived in would also have helped determine which century was indeed the most challenging to live through. For example, Germany experienced significant upheaval in the mid-17th century due to a combination of political, social, and economic factors, mostly resulting from the impact of its place at the epicentre of the Thirty Years’ War and the ensuing political fragmentation it caused. The mid-20th century was also undoubtedly a challenging period in the country’s history, with the impact of its World War One reparations and Hitler’s rise to power.
However, overall, it is the 14th century that can lay perhaps one of the strongest claims to have been one of the worst periods to have experienced, particularly in large parts of Medieval Europe, due to a succession of devastating disasters which unfolded during this time.
Here are some of the key events that occurred in this calamitous century.
The Great Famine (1315-1317)
In 1315 the Medieval Warm Period, (where crops had flourished and Europe’s population was at an all time high), abruptly ended, and was followed by extremely heavy rainfall. Rain fell almost constantly throughout the summer and autumn of 1314-1316, meaning much of Europe suffered treacherous flooding (the ‘Great Flood’), along with a period of much colder than average temperatures.
The population had been growing quickly, but this bad weather led to widespread crop failures and subsequent severe food shortages. Basic food staples skyrocketed in price, and Europe’s large population could not be sustained (particularly in urban areas), resulting in the ‘Great Famine’ from 1315–17. An estimated 5-12% of northern Europe’s populations died as a result, with the situation growing so bad that some even resorted to cannibalism.
It’s uncertain why this change in weather occurred, but some speculate the 1314 eruption of New Zealand’s Mount Tarawere played a role by blocking sunlight with ash. Although harvests had returned to normal by 1317, Europe would take several more years to fully recover.
The Great Famine also intensified class conflicts as peasants grew resentful of the burden of rising food prices.
The Black Death (1347-1352)
Thirty years after Europe’s recovery from the Great Famine, the most infamous catastrophe of the 14th century occurred when the bubonic plague, known as the Black Death, struck in 1347. The plague is estimated to have killed at least 25 million people in Europe, causing population declines of between 30–50% in Europe, (some estimates suggest it killed closer to 200 million people), making it the deadliest pandemic in history.
Various theories surround the plague’s origins, but the most prevalent is that it was down to a bacterium called Yersina pestis carried by fleas on rats. The outbreak is believed to have originated in Central Asia where since 1331 it had already killed millions, and was carried along the Silk Road by traders and Mongol armies.
In the late 13th century, the Mongols (practicing Muslims) had allowed a group of traders from the Republic of Genoa (Christians) to establish a trading settlement in Caffa (present-day Feodosiya) in the Crimea. This hugely successful settlement went on to monopolise trade in the Black Sea region, becoming a major sea port, which in-turn benefitted the Mongols by giving them access to Italy’s largest commercial centre while stimulating trade across their empire.
However, their religious disparity resulted in growing disputes, culminating in the Mongolian siege of Caffa in 1346. During the siege, the Tartars (Mongols) were struck by the plague, which spread rapidly through their ranks, demoralising the Mongol army. To share their torment with Caffa’s residents, they catapulted plague-ridden corpses over Caffa’s defensive walls, and although the siege ended in 1347, by then the plague had already spread.
Those Italian traders fleeing in ships sailing to Europe inadvertently carried the Black Death, a variant of the bubonic plague, along with them (along with infected rats who had crept aboard their ships), infecting places they stopped at such as Constantinople and the western coast of Asia Minor, as well as their homes back in Italy.
Initial symptoms included a high fever, headache, chills and weakness, but as the disease progressed, the plague attacked the victim’s lymph nodes where it entered the body, causing inflammation and painful swellings and open sores oozing with pus, known as buboes.
In the absence of antibiotics, the disease had an 80% mortality rate, and in the 14th century, cities such as London with its poor hygiene practices and slum-like conditions, proved the perfect breeding ground for disease. Over the next two years the disease spread rapidly, with whole towns and villages laid waste.
Although the first phase of the pandemic ended by 1353, resurgences of the plague would be common in the decades to come.
The Black Death also had a devastating effect on the Catholic Church, not only from the failure of prayer to prevent sickness and death, but also from the priesthood suffering disproportionate deaths from the disease due to their frontline roles in attending to the dying and in providing what little palliative care there was.
The pandemic also contributed to the Western Schism – a split within the Catholic Church that lasted from 1378-1417 involving multiple claimants to the papacy. It began when rival factions supported different popes (bishops residing in Rome, Avignon and Pisa), leading to confusion and division among European nations. The Council of Constance in 1414-1418 eventually resolved the schism by electing Pope Martin V, reuniting the Catholic Church under a single papal authority.
The first signs of the Reformation were also starting to emerge, with John Wycliffe and his followers working on a translation of the Bible into English.
The Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453)
Amidst the existing turmoil, Europe was also engulfed by endemic wars, notably the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. Triggered by a claim to the French throne by King Edward III of England after the death of Charles IV, the conflict started in 1337 and lasted until 1453 (aside from a pause during the Black Death when England did not fight any battles between 1349-1355).
In the first phase of the war, English forces pillaged peasant settlements in northern France to break the French spirit and disrupt agricultural production – the foundation of feudal societies – slowing the population recovery from the Black Death. This gave rise to nationalistic figures such as Henry V and Joan of Arc, but mercenaries and bandits also took advantage of the chaos, leading to the abandonment of many villages as peasants fled.
The concurrent deadly events make it challenging to determine the exact death toll of the Hundred Years War, but estimates range from 2.3 – 3.5 million casualties.The war, coupled with the Black Death, impeded population recovery, taking 200 years for Europe’s population to return to its pre-plague levels.
Amid ongoing wars, the 14th century witnessed widespread popular revolts and civil wars among nobles. This Crisis of the Late Middle Ages resulted in part from the hardships of the Great Famine and the Black Death. Having dealt with a challenges and instability of the first half of the 14th century, Europeans were stirred and angered, prompting a radical social shift.
By the 1380s, the substantial population decline resulted in a severe labor shortage. Surviving peasants gained significant bargaining power, commanding higher wages and the freedom to choose where they worked based on pay and conditions. For the first time, the balance of power was shifting in the direction of the poorest in society.
Economic disputes and excessive taxation contributed to near anarchy, leading to organised peasant uprisings across Northern Europe. The Holy Roman Empire experienced at least 60 instances of peasant unrest between 1336 and 1525. Notably, the Peasant’s Revolt in England in 1381, one of the most significant events in Medieval England, underscored the societal upheaval during this period.
As we can see, the 14th century and its devastating events – including the Black Death, widespread famine, economic decline, political instability, and the Hundred Years’ War – was a challenging and tumultuous era for many, gaining the century its dark reputation.
Nevertheless, it was these factors that also created the conditions leading to the breakdown of feudalism and set the scene for the Peasants’ Revolt.
This story is featured in History Hit’s Miscellany: Facts, Figures and Fascinating Finds, published by Hodder & Stoughton, on sale now.