Problems in the Late Middle Ages
In the middle of the 13th Century, Europe plunged into what historians now call the "Crisis of the Middle Ages." Marked by high mortality and inflation, the crisis brought on widespread discontent across the continent. As the Black Death surged through the region, food prices skyrocketed, peasants revolted, and the Church began to fragment. Calamity followed calamity. Wars broke out between sovereign nations and the international banking system collapsed. Not until the early 15th Century would stability return to Europe.
1 Famine and Starvation
Around 1300, Europe underwent a climate change. The Little Ice Age, as it is now called, brought on harsher winters and cooler summers. Heavy increases in rainfall combined with cold weather to make agriculture in Northern Europe unstable. It did not help that several centuries of farming had leeched Europe's soil of its nutrients. Between a massive population boom and a dwindling food supply, famine set in. Between 1315 and 1322, poor crops led to mass starvation. It was in this malnourished and weakened state that Europe had to brace itself for the worst pandemic it had ever seen.
2 Death and Disease
Europe had a devastating year in 1347. That was the year merchant ships returning from Asia accidentally brought the bubonic plague to Italy. Spread by flea bites and inhalation, the black death quickly overran Europe, killing victims by the millions. By some estimates, a third of the continent's entire population perished. In larger cities, filth and overcrowding only compounded the problem. London alone lost half its inhabitants to the plague. And as the scourge moved from place to place, the agrarian population declined, further compounding Europe's food shortages.
3 Rebellion and Unrest
The collapse of agriculture naturally led to inflation as food prices spiked. Yet feudal rents and royal taxation continued spiraling upward. In various corners of Europe, the aristocracy wielded its influence to keep wages artificially low. All of these economic pressures created a powder keg, which finally erupted in the 1350s. In 1358, for instance, Paris saw two uprisings, both of which were crushed by the crown. The trend peaked between 1378 and 1383, when widespread unrest broke out in England, France, Flanders, Italy and Germany.
4 War and Depression
The heavy taxes that inspired uprisings were partially levied to finance various wars that broke out. In 1337, England and France commenced the Hundred Years' War, a series of intermittent conflicts over the French throne that lasted until 1453. In the course of this struggle, both countries purposefully defaulted on large sums owed to Italian banks. These defaults caused a temporary collapse of international banking, along with an ensuing depression. Meanwhile, regional conflicts broke out in Italy and Germany while royal intrigues pushed England ever closer to civil war.
5 Religious Turmoil
The chaos of the times led to great spiritual anxiety as well. Troubling new movements sprang up, including self-flagellation and widespread persecution of Jews. Meanwhile French King, Philip IV, compelled Pope Clement V to live under guard in Avignon, subordinating the Church to his will. Then, in 1388, a Roman pope and a French pope were elected within months of one another. Each claimed himself the rightful pope and excommunicated the other. This "Great Schism" would not be resolved until the Council of Constance convened in 1417. By then, however, much of the period's turmoil was coming to a close as Europe inched towards the Renaissance.