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Some Not So Good Ole Days

  • Ben House,
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Being a history teacher, I’m occasionally asked the following question: “If you could be born at any time in the past, when would it be?” My answer: “Yesterday.” My life revolves around great heroes and epochs of the past, but I am content to know them through books.

I would like to have known Winston Churchill, but have no interest in dodging German Stukas on the sands of Dunkirk or the streets of London. The Reformation was a glorious revival of God’s saving truth, but I prefer friendly disagreements with Catholics today to burning at the stake for the teachings of Luther and Calvin. And it’s not just the heat of fire, for the cold of the Delaware River in 1776 or the winter at Valley Forge makes me more of a sunshine soldier than a committed patriot. As a Southerner, I glory in the heritage of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, but cannot contemplate death from the barrels of Yankee muskets or amputations from the saws of Confederate surgeons.

Even those most blessed days of the apostles and early church fathers remind me of how comfortable I am and how I enjoy being far from the birthing days of the Christian faith.

I am content to be living in this glorious era, even with the threats of terrorism and irritations of telemarketers. But if I were forced to live in some distant era of the past, it certainly would not be the late Middle Ages of the 14th and 15th centuries.

I have visited those centuries — twice in recent months. First I journeyed to Canterbury with Geoffrey Chaucer and a host of pilgrims telling tales. Then I read Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century for the third time. Tuchman’s book, first published in 1978, was written to mirror the upheavals of the calamitous 20th century. Having to choose between calamitous times, I am glad to have lived in the latter difficult times rather than during the late medieval centuries.

Spiritually, politically, and personally, the 14th and 15th centuries seemed to herald the end of time to those who lived then. They lacked an eschatology of victory (to use Marcellus Kik’s book title). Indeed, the despair of that age was well founded, and the only seeds of hope were just beginning to germinate. As Tuchman says, “The pessimism of the 14th century grew in the 15th to the belief that man was becoming worse, an indication of the approaching end.” The problems of that age were woven together in the fashion of medieval tapestries at their best. War and brigandage, plague and social uprisings, heresies and corruptions, and immoralities and cruelties all combined to darken the spirits of a whole civilization. The more frightening images from John’s Revelation were seemingly being fulfilled in that age.

Little things, like the bacilli attached to fleas that infested rats, erupted into the Black Death, which stripped the population by 30 to 50 percent. The bubonic plague was exceeded only by the combination of madmen kings, vainglorious knights, political pawns, and religious charlatans who occupied or infected thrones, political principalities, and church offices.

The first great problem was the Hundred Years War between England and France (1337–1453). The war began over English claims of dynastic rights to the throne of France. England started the war and often seemed to have the upper hand, winning battles, such as Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt. English armies occupied key ports and land areas of France throughout the war. Struggling to maintain some sense of unity of the different regions, France endured incompetent and insane kings, political betrayals, peasant revolts, and military defeats. The war itself stretched and tugged the once unifying and workable fabric of medieval feudalism, ripping it to shreds. That France emerged from the war as one nation, that France even survived the war, that France — in some sense — won the war was due to endurance rather than brilliance. Like World War I, this was a war of attrition, but the attrition of leadership rather than of human life. In other words, France won because English stupidity exceeded their own.

But wars, even short ones, tend to bring out the worst in mankind — both incompetence and brutality. Even then, wars also display human skills and courage. Some brilliant lights lit up the French landscape. Bertrand du Guesclin, or Bertrand of Brittany, was an effective military leader, cut from the same cloth as William Wallace or Nathan Bedford Forrest. Joan of Arc proved adept at rallying the French cause, propping up the spineless Dauphin, and forcing the English into their worst long-term public relations act — burning a saint. Her religious impulses continue, to our delight, to baffle secularist historians.

England had her days of glory during those same years. Edward, Prince of Wales, “the Black Prince,” won glory at the battles of Crecy and Poitiers, where his army captured the French king. Edward’s brother, John of Gaunt, enjoyed political fame rather than military success. In a later phase of the war, Henry V gained glory for his victory at Agincourt and the political alliance he affected with the French king. Shakespeare’s play, Henry V, further enhanced his glory, which was all lost under his son Henry VI. Besting all these nobles and besting the knights of both England and France were the unnamed English archers whose longbows leveled the French cavalry on many occasions.

Shakespeare’s Henry V at the start of the battle of Agincourt exclaimed, “And gentlemen in England now abed shall think themselves accursed they were not here.” But it was the war itself with its seeming inability to end, its dynastic rivalries, its political ruthlessness, and human depravity that was accursed. The Anglo-French hostility did not completely abate until the 20th century World Wars. (And even then, the French quipped that the English would fight the Germans down to the last Frenchman.)

Parleys were often conducted. Peace was often proposed, and sometimes actually achieved for a season, upon the bases of reason, or dynastic marriages, or upon a common desire to unite in a crusade against more distant enemies. Reasonable men on both sides could have halted the war at many points, but such reasonableness rarely happens in history. So for over a century, a conflict over rival claims to the throne of France settled one issue, and that was that this war would be ranked as history’s longest.

But a threat greater than the war engulfed all of Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries. Like the war, it attacked, then withdrew, but then would come back to attack again. Four times it swept through Europe. It was the Black Death, or the bubonic plague. The plague is horrible to read about no matter how it is viewed: whether by the astronomical death tolls, the shocking percentages of the population destroyed, or the anecdotes, grim humor, art, and personal testimonies that remain. The plague resulted in insanely silly actions, as in the case of villagers who danced to drums and trumpets believing it gave them immunity. It also resulted in insanely wicked actions, such as killing Jews.

Just as there is a ripple effect to war and battles, so there are ripple effects of diseases and plagues. Amidst the Black Death, some people looked to God for answers, and some people resorted to lawlessness and debauchery. The depletion of the population reconfigured the working class, land ownership, and the makeup of society at all levels. It spawned some good effects. Universities, a medieval development, were advanced by the desire to preserve learning and save civilization. But on the negative side, the fear of sin and death caused the sale of indulgences to skyrocket. Many of the paintings of the time reflected the horrors of the disease and the morbidity of a people plagued in mind and body.

Those spared by the war and plague still faced roving bands of outlaws or brigands. These brigands were generally soldiers, yes, even knights, who maintained a profession of arms even during the lulls in the war. Decrees from both church and government officials warned against brigandage, but the idleness between wars, the callousness toward life caused by war, and the lure of goods caused the brigands to ignore the decrees. Knights all too often lacked shining armor, chivalry, or virtue.

On the other hand, the commoners, the peasants, were not morally much better. Happy serfs, tilling the land, harvesting crops, and celebrating the seasons may have existed, but the historical records more often depicted a darker side to the lower classes. Peasant uprisings generally had two bad results. The first was extreme violence. Peasants grabbed whatever implements they worked with in the fields or shops and wielded them as weapons in the streets. The governing officials often chose to deal with the peasants, making promises of tax relief and other benefits. The Wat Tyler rebellion in England was one such example where the king himself, the boy Richard II, rode in amongst the rebels and promised to lead and protect them. Government promises — even those granted by the king — were then immediately forgotten, and the rebel leaders were soon left hanging from gibbets about the land. The bloodshed and sacrifices of such peasant uprisings did make a long-term contribution to human freedom and eventual participation in the affairs of government by common men.

The Christian Church had great opportunities to minister to a civilization reeling between war and plague. But rather than being salt and light, the Church was filled with corruption and darkness. Medieval Catholicism had its glorious moments, but the 14th and 15th centuries are more often remembered for spiritual decay. As always, there were faithful churchmen. This was the age of John Wycliffe, Jan Hus, Gerard Groote (founder of the Brethren of the Common Life), and Thomas a Kempis. Chaucer highlights a faithful parson and a godly knight among his many portrayals of ungodly, hypocritical, and licentious church leaders on the road to Canterbury. Chaucer’s art reflected a stark spiritual reality that many noticed, but few endeavored to change.

We Protestants argue with medieval Catholicism from a particular set of premises based on the Bible and restated in the theologies of Luther and Calvin. But on the basis of medieval Catholicism’s premises, one can argue against the Church of that time. Besides a host of problems ranging from wicked and immoral clerics to political wheeling and dealing by the prelates, the Roman Catholic Church’s highest office, the papacy, seat of the supposed Vicar of Christ on earth, lost honor and authority. The French captured the papacy in 1303, moving the Pope and his see to Avignon so as to guarantee French control. This event turned further south in 1379 when political and religious maneuverings resulted in two rival claimants to the papacy. Political states and entities lined up behind one pope or the other based on previous conflicts and alliances. Hence, England supported the pope in Rome, while France backed the Avignon pope.

It might have helped matters if either of the original popes in the Papal Schism had buttressed his claims to the office with displays of any godliness. That was not to be. The Avignon pope, Clement VII, came to office with the nickname “Butcher of Cesena” as a result of events in his life prior to being pope. His rival, Urban VI, was both insane and vicious, which is illustrated by his hiring of mercenaries to protect him by force. Both popes promptly excommunicated each other. Tuchman writes, “When each Pope excommunicated the followers of the other, who could be sure of salvation?” In time, a council would depose both popes and appoint a new man as pope. The result for a time would be that now three men would claim to be the sole ruler of Christ’s church.

As a way of uniting the factions of Europe divided by war and religion, some church leaders resorted to calling for a crusade. The need was there and was great. By the early 1400s, the Ottoman Turks were battering down the last vestiges of the Byzantine Empire and were advancing into Europe. A coalition of Serbs, Rumanians, and Moldavians had been crushed in their efforts to stem the Muslim tide at Kosovo. The Muslim Turks, under a Sultan named Bajazet, advanced into Bulgaria on the Danube River and were poised to take Hungary. King Sigismund of Hungary appealed to the rest of Europe for help. An army, largely French, advanced into Eastern Europe to deal with the Muslim threat. This coalition was well provisioned with silks and wines, but neglected such matters as carrying along siege equipment and catapults.

Great confidence in the glories of the French cavalry led the leaders to plunge into battle with a frontal assault. The result was defeat of the crusaders and the capture of many of their leaders by the Muslims. Europe was saved only later when Mongol-Turkic forces under Tamerlane diverted Sultan Bajazet’s attention from his conquest of Europe.

In the year 1453, with an English defeat in battle at Castillon, the Hundred Years War came to an end. The war’s end did not undo the century of damage to Christendom. Tuchman says, “The Hundred Years’ War, like the crises of the Church in the same period, broke apart medieval unity. The brotherhood of chivalry was severed, just as the internationalism of the universities, under the combined effects of war and schism, could not survive.” England’s peace was short-lived, for soon after continental hostilities ceased, King Henry VI’s madness became so intense that rival factions began vying for his throne. The result was the civil war in England known as the War of the Roses. In that same year of 1453, Constantinople fell before the Turkish Muslim armies of Mahomet I.

God was not yet through with Europe. (I believe He is still not yet through with Europe.) This same time, roughly 1453–1454, was when a German devised a movable type printing press and produced his first document from it. Gutenberg’s invention would pave the way for a new age. Within the next fifty to one hundred years, Columbus would discover the New World, and Luther would rediscover the New Covenant. The greatest products of the 14th and 15th centuries, particularly the poetic works of Chaucer and Dante and Kempis, would be preserved and disseminated. The wars, plagues, rebellions, insanities, and evils would be seen in time as simple stepping-stones on the rocky paths of God’s providential dealings with His people. A Reformation was being born.

  • Ben House

Ben House is the author of Punic Wars & Culture Wars: Christian Essays on History and Teaching and the the editor of HouseBlog.

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