In 1347, after a fleet of trading vessels docked at Messina, Sicily, shore workers went aboard and found everyone either dead or dying. From there, the illness known as the Black Death traveled into Europe, killing approximately 20 million people. Europe had other problems too, including an ongoing war between France and England, a conflict that wouldn't be resolved until 1453. In the meantime, the plague would wreak havoc on Europe's social order. It would be the middle of the 15th Century before normalcy returned. But by then, the Middle Ages had ended and the Renaissance was well underway.

War and Unrest

Known as the Hundred Years' War, the conflict between England and France began as a dispute over certain French fiefdoms. These were not the only countries embroiled in bitter warfare, however. Both Italy and Germany succumbed to internal conflict as well. Such wars were difficult on Europe's peasantry, who had to bear arms and pay heavy taxes. It did not help that peasant wages were kept artificially low. By the late 1350s, the laboring classes had had enough. Over the next 40 years, riots would break out all across Western Europe.

Feudal Decline

Plague and warfare had the unintended consequence of raising the value of peasant labor. With nearly a third of Europe's population depleted by the Black Death alone, there were far fewer hands to go around. Although laws were enacted to keep the peasantry in place, they often proved difficult to enforce. Farm laborers were often able to find better work elsewhere, and took off in search of it. Without enough farmhands in place, Europe's feudal system began to dissolve.

Weakening Monarchies

The pressures of the 14th Century also had an impact on Europe's monarchies. The peasant uprisings were bad enough, but the nobility caused problems as well. In France, a disloyal aristocracy undermined the crown's authority. England had problems too, as the throne repeatedly changed hands between a series of weak rulers. One monarch, Richard II, was little more than a puppet king for the nobility. The Holy Roman Emperor also had his hands full with warring princes threatening to tear the empire apart.

A Weakening Church

Even Europe's most powerful institution, the Catholic Church, began to falter in the 14th Century. As the plague moved across the continent, new religious movements sprang up, many of which rejected the Church's authority. These movements embraced a variety of novel practices, such as self-mutilation and mysticism. One spiritual leader, John Wyclif, even called the Church an impediment to salvation. His teachings spawned a mass following of people who called themselves Lollards. Although the movement met a violent end in 1414, the writing was on the wall. Rome's authority was waning.

A New Social Order Emerges

In 1453, the Hundred Years' War finally came to an end. By this point, the plague had long reached its peak and was tapering off. Peace came to most of Europe, but not to England, which floundered in civil war until 1461. But by this point, a new culture was emerging, one marked by new currents in art, architecture and literature. New technologies emerged, too. Chief among these was the printing press, which made literature widely available to the reading public and helped usher in the era of the Renaissance.