I’ve always been aware that the Middle Ages in Europe and the Tudor age were colder than the present – with famous ice fairs on the Thames in Tudor times. But it was also a time of gruesome punishments, tortures and plagues and churches seemed to be full of images of skeletons, dances of death and skull imagery. What was going on?
This is from Kirkpatrick Sale’s fascinating book, The Conquest of Paradise Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy.
During the Middle Ages, European humanity was plagued with epidemic diseases as never before or since, and these were variously attributed to comets, and other astral influences, to storms, the failure of crops, famines, the sinking of mountains, the effects of drought or inundation, swarms of insects, poisoning of wells by Jews and other absurd causes. The real predisposing factors were the crowded condition and bad sanitation of the walled medieval towns, the squalor, misrule and gross immorality occasioned by the many wars, by the fact that Europe was overrun with wandering soldiers, students and other vagabond characters, and by the general superstition, ignorance and uncleanliness of the masses.”
Diseases included bubonic and the new and devastating pulmonary plague, leprosy, ergotism, scurvy ,chorea, smallpox, measles, diptheria, typhus, tuberculosis, and influenza.
Leprosy is an odd inclusion because it was noted in the Bible. Ergotism is fungal contamination of grain, and scurvy is lack of vitamin C so both are linked to bad diet. Typhus (jail fever) and TB are both linked to bad housing, so these fit with crowded living conditions.
Sale doesn’t quite join the dots here – this was a mini ice age. In the wonderful book The Faithful Executioner I recall accounts of crop failures in German states for years on end. No society can withstand that. Food shortages cause people to go mad. Leaders die as well as peasants. Law and order breaks down, so people retreated to walled towns, hence the crowded filthy conditions, and few people were brave enough to till the fields, hence the famines.
It is also interesting that conditions were not as bad in England. This was a time when the wool trade was booming, and exporting to Europe. Britain fared better because its temperature is moderated by the sea that surrounds it, and access to the sea for so many people meant there was plenty of fish to eat.
Things were so bad Thomas a Kempnis wrote: “How can it even be called a life, which begets so many deaths and plagues?”
Some of the problems were caused by bad land management, such as Spain’s conversion of agriculture to sheep holdings, but even fertile areas of France had famines.
The church should have helped keep the peace, calm the situation, distribute alms, but:
The Church? Corrupt and decadent, without authority or comfort, and quite unable to predict or explain or even to assuage the catastrophes that befell on every side;the Inquisition, we should remember, was a sign not of strength, but of weakness, not of fervour but of rot. “No man in these days builds churches or founds monasteries,” reported Abbot Trighemius of Sponheim, in 1493.
This was the background to The Reformation, to Humanism which sought logical explanations for all the problems which the church had failed to provide. This is when the printing press was invented and when gunpowder-propelled weapons replaced ancient weaponry. It also led to the voyages of discovery. Famously, Christopher Columbus was commissioned to sail in search of wealth by Ferdinand and Isabella who had been bankrupted by the reconquest of Spain.
The Spanish humanist Perez de Olivera saw exploration of the New World as the means by which Spain would “unite the world and give to those strange lands the form of our own.”
It was also the means
by which Europe was able, eventually, to overcome its own desperate frailties and terrors, and find not only gold and silver and precious ores beyond imagining, not only foods that would sustain its population for centuries (potatoes, manioc, corn, tomatoes, among others), not only drugs it would take into its pharmacopoeia (some 200 at various times), not only vast resources of timber and furs and hides and water power, but the whole continent on which the people of Europe would spread themselves and their culture.
In the dark twilight of 15th century Europe, the overriding question, for those still able to ask questions at all, was how to survive the misery and suffering and violence that seemed to be rushing the world to its end.
Columbus set sail to provide the answer. But when he landed in the West Indies he saw no riches that he recognised, so decided the only wealth could be in the form of slaves, so he labelled the locals cannibals, which was so monstrous that slavery could be imposed on them.