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15th century

Keith Tankard
15 January 2014


The 15th and 16th centuries saw a revolution in European history. Their world changed in every facet, from politics to economics to religion to the very fabric of society. The change would not be an easy one. Indeed, it happened very suddenly and with great tragedy.


A revolution was happening in the 15th and 16th centuries which would transform European society. We tend to identify this revolution after the individual issues involved, namely the RENAISSANCE and the REFORMATION. Each, however, was indissolubly linked so that it is almost impossible to separate them.


One could scarcely speak about "nations" in the 15th century. England was probably closest to our modern concept, being a united entity ruled by a king, and with a parliament which partially limited his powers. France, on the other hand, was still divided into feudal entities, but with a monarchy slowly conquering its neighbouring warlords.

Germany had once been a great empire commonly called the Holy Roman Empire but, by the 15th century, the emperor's power had been crippled by repeated attempts by the princes and warlords to regain their independence. Any perceived weakness would quickly be exploited and, for that reason alone, the Reformation would be a handy weapon.


The Middle Ages had seen the emergence of two classes within European society. At the top of the pile was the UPPER CLERGY (1st Estate) consisting of the cardinals, archbishops, bishops, abbots, etc. They often wielded temporal power over their territories but also carried the hearts and minds of an ignorant people.

On the temporal side were the ARISTOCRACY (2nd Estate), living on their great demesnes in the countryside. They were the descendants of the old warlords and wielded immense military muscle. Since they were opposed to the whittling away of their power, there was a constant tussle between them and the rising monarchies.

A new class had evolved in the towns known as the BOURGEOISIE, consisting of the mayors, merchants and master-craftsmen who had fought hard during the High Middle Ages to win freedom from the aristocratic dictators. They were now calling themselves the "3rd Estate" and were working continuously for increased political power.

At the bottom of the ladder was the rest of society which was not regarded as part of any Estate. They were of no class. In the towns there were the lawyers and teachers, the journeymen and apprentices, the unskilled labourers and the unemployed. In the country were the peasants who worked the land. Most were poor but were as yet seeking only an easier life.


By the Middle Ages there was only one recognised Church in Europe, known as the Catholic (meaning Universal) Church with the pope as head. By the 15th century, however, its temporal power was dwindling. The popes were scarcely shining lights of Christian piety and did not take the lead in any form of Church renewal until the Reformation was well on its way.

At the centre of the Church's work were the monasteries and religious orders, steeped in ritual. Many were wealthy and worldly because a younger son of an aristocrat, who had no inheritance, would often buy a rank within the Church. The Catholic Church was therefore a place both of dedication and corruption. Reform was long overdue.


The European economic system was based on a principle known as mercantilism, i.e. the state was only as wealthy as the silver and gold bullion in its treasure. There was a growing tendency for the rulers to frown upon importing goods and paying taxes to Rome because both events would lead to an impoverishment of the state. There was also a growing desire for national Churches as a means of controlling finance.

The primary commodity was still agricultural produce but Europe was generally in poor condition. The 14th century had seen a marked decline in agricultural output because of adverse climatic conditions. Indeed, the "Little Ice Age" had destroyed production because of cold and an excess of rain. This would remain so until the mid-17th century.


The High Middle Ages had seen the creation and spread of institutions of higher learning. These universities still flourished in the 15th century although increasingly secular in their outlook. Their primary disciplines were the study of the Bible, the Classics and Philosophy. Philosophy, however, had become sterile and of limited use in explaining modern reality, and was also in need of a radical overhaul.

Read the left column, then think about
the following questions:

  1. It was more likely that France would become united before Germany. Why was this so?
  2. [Need help?]

  3. School history books like to place the peasants and labourers within the ranks of the 3rd Estate. Explain why this is incorrect.
  4. [Need help?]

  5. Why would the economic philosophy of "mercantilism" encourage the development of national Churches?
  6. [Need help?]

  7. Why was the papacy held in poor regard during the 15th century?
  8. [Need help?]

  9. Any change in philosophy would have been frowned upon by the Catholic Church. Why do you think this would have been so?
  10. [Need help?]

Extract from Time Travellers:

"And Europe was largely dependent on a single diet . . . bread," Bronnie added. "The people were relying on a crop which demanded lots of sunshine during ripening . . . but which rotted in the wet."

"Then the temperature plunged and the unseasonable rains arrived," said Uncle Bertie. "And this happened quite suddenly, quite without warning. Their crops were destroyed in just a single year. And then the next crop. And the next."

"Starvation would have been almost immediate," Bronnie decided, "while the grain kept for the next year would also have been used up. And so the people became dependent on other crops like beans but which didn't grow quite so abundantly. No necessary carbohydrates to fuel the muscles."

"Or wheat germ to keep them healthy," Jelly added. "A disaster waiting to happen. And so, in a matter of just a few years, people must already have been dying of starvation . . . dying in their droves, in fact."

"And then came the plague . . . the Black Death. One of the greatest scourges to afflict humankind."

From: Keith Tankard's Time Travellers
Book 5: The Madness of Europe

Read the whole story!