This is an expanded version of a presidential address delivered by Mr. Strayer at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, New York, December 28, 1971. Published in the American Historical Review 77, no. 1 (February 1972): 1-14.

The Fourth and the Fourteenth Centuries

Every civilization of which we know anything has met at least one, and usually more than one, major crisis in its history. After centuries of relatively calm and continuous development, cracks appear in the value system and the social structure; cracks that are too wide to be spanned by the bridge of tradition and too deep to be filled by the rubble of rejected utopias and patchwork reforms. In such a crisis there are only two possible outcomes–drastic reorganization or even more drastic disorganization. Our own civilization seems to be in the midst of such a crisis. A historian may find some comfort, and perhaps even some enlightenment in considering earlier crises in the history of civilizations.1

In this essay I want to discuss two periods of crisis–the fourth and the fourteenth centuries in Western Europe. I need hardly say that my centuries are very flexible chronological units; much that happened before 300 A.D. contributed to the crisis of the fourth century, and much that happened after 1400 was a continuation of the crisis of the fourteenth century. Nor do I mean to imply that only the history of Western Europe is relevant for our purposes. We could certainly learn as much from the crises that have periodically shaken Chinese civilization. But I know very little about Chinese history and I do know something about European history. Moreover, the two periods that I have selected seem to me to display most of the problems that occur in crises in any civilization. One final explanation: when I say Western Europe, I mean very nearly what is meant by the phrase as it is used today. In discussing the fourth-century crisis I am excluding the eastern part of the Roman Empire, which certainly shared in the crisis but solved it in a very different way, and North Africa, which was part of the West when the crisis started but was pulled over to the East by Byzantine and Muslim conquests before it ended. In discussing the fourteenth century I am excluding East Central Europe, where both the nature of the crisis and its results differed from the Western pattern–most so in Poland-Lithuania, least (as usual) in Bohemia. If an analysis of a crisis is to have any validity it must deal with areas that remained relatively homogeneous over long periods.

We are thus seeking in the crises of the fourth and fourteenth centuries in Western Europe examples of processes that have occurred at other times in other civilizations. We can begin by looking for similarities between the two crises in Europe; they are not difficult to find. In both periods Western Europe was suffering from a prolonged economic depression. In both periods there was a decline in population that added complications to the problem of economic readjustment. Moreover, what began as a gradual decline in population was intensified by epidemics of plague, and the psychological shock of epidemics may have been worse than the economic consequences. It is true that the plague in the Roman world came before the crisis, during the second and third centuries,2 while the plague in the medieval world came after the crisis was well under way. On the other hand, the economic and psychological problems caused by the fourteenth-century plague lasted for several generations, so that it is not unreasonable to suppose that the effects of the third-century plague had something to do with the crisis of the fourth century.

Some parallels may also be noted in the political field. In both centuries civil wars weakened central governments, allowed local magnates to gain a considerable degree of autonomy, and left many regions a prey to wandering bands of mercenary or foreign soldiers. In such regions living conditions deteriorated, and neither local, provincial, nor central authorities were able to provide any acceptable degree of security. In both centuries barbarians were pressing hard against the eastern gates to Europe, and in each century a disastrous defeat broke the Danube line and opened a path to Western Europe (Adrianople in 378 and Nicopolis in 1396). It is true that the Turkish threat, in the long run, proved to be less dangerous than the earlier Gothic threat, but this fact was not immediately apparent to Europeans of the late fourteenth and the fifteenth centuries.3 And whatever the degree of the threat, political breakdown had gone so far in each period that no concerted effort could be made by Western Europeans to keep the danger far from their borders.

More perilous to the civilization of Western Europe than these economic and political problems was the decline in morale. One thinks immediately of religion in this context, and it is obvious that in both centuries many men were seeking a new and more satisfying form of religious experience, and few were finding it. But religion is more than a set of individual experiences, important as they are. It is also a set of shared beliefs that make it possible for large numbers of people to work together, to endure the restraints and meet the demands imposed by organized society, to be willing to play a part in an intricate process that no one can fully understand, to find satisfaction in life without being flooded by material benefits. Most historians have realized the importance of religion; few have extended its definition widely enough.4 We all know that there can be a religion of the state, but there can also be a religion of science, a religion of technology, and even, for some peoples and some periods, a religion of good manners. Religion in this sense is the mortar that holds a society together and the vision that leads men to believe that their society is worth preserving and handing on to their children.

In both the fourth and the fourteenth centuries the mortar was crumbling and the vision was becoming dim. There was little confidence in secular organizations and not much more in religious bodies. One may wonder whether a Roman society really existed in the West by the time of Theodosius. If there was a Roman society it was not a society that anyone would die to preserve. That task was left to barbarian mercenaries, allies, and hereditary frontier guards, men who were not a part of the society that they were supposed to defend. What is even more indicative of a decline in morale, Roman society in the West was not a society that anyone would work to preserve. Even the last Western emperors made no great effort to preserve the unity of the West, and the interests of the senatorial class had become largely provincial several generations before the emperors abandoned Britain and Gaul. At the local level the key institution of the civitas was withering away. Men had to be forced to perform their civic duties, which meant that the work was done without conviction, and when force was not available the work was not done at all. The tendencies toward the fragmentation of large political units and the simplification of political institutions that ran all through the early Middle Ages were already apparent in Western Europe at the end of the fourth century.

One finds the same tendency toward fragmentation in the areas of social and economic behavior. Rostovtzeff may have exaggerated the antipathy between the peasants and the town-dwellers,5 but certainly neither group was much concerned with the troubles of the other. The senatorial class sought to preserve the way of life of the cultivated country gentleman, a tradition that cut it off sharply from other classes. And while the extent of local self-sufficiency was surely not so great in the fourth century as it was to be later, there was not very much economic interdependence in the provinces of the West. Southern Gaul could flourish while the northeast was devastated, and Italy was little affected by transalpine wars and rebellions.

Some of the same problems can be found in the fourteenth century. The danger of social and political fragmentation reappeared; uprisings and civil wars threatened the unity of towns, principalities, and kingdoms. There were some bitter class conflicts, notably the Jacquerie in France, but equally dangerous and even more numerous were conflicts caused by splits within each class–new rich against old rich, proroyalist nobles against antiroyalist nobles, Urbanist clergy against Clementist clergy. Personal ambitions, parochial jealousies, and factional rivalry obscured the ideal of the general welfare. All loyalties were shaken, even loyalty to the universal Church. The religious unity of Western Christendom was a thin veil covering deep divisions, and the divisions became even more apparent with the coming of the Great Schism in 1378. In 1400, as in 400, a good many men must have wondered whether their society could or should endure.

So much for the parallels. Some of them, as you have doubtless realized, are a little forced. They are forced, first of all, because Western Europe in the fourteenth century was a completely autonomous, self-sufficient civilization, and Western Europe in the fourth century was only an outlying part of a much larger whole–the Mediterranean civilization. A considerable part of the troubles of the fourth century was caused by the fact that Western Europe, quite unintentionally, was withdrawing from the Mediterranean civilization. The East met the crisis of the fourth century by transforming its institutions and beliefs. The West was unable to keep up with these transformations (for example, rapid conversion to Christianity), and its own resources were too meager to produce satisfactory substitutes. In the fourteenth century there was no withdrawal problem, and the West had greatly enriched its intellectual and spiritual resources.

In the second place, the background of the two crises was different. The Mediterranean civilization had already experienced a dangerous crisis in the third century and had survived only through the establishment of a military dictatorship. Western European towns, the vital centers of the Mediterranean civilization, had been weakened by this crisis. The unity of the West had been threatened by the establishment of a practically independent empire in Gaul, an empire that lasted almost twenty years. No Westerner could view the immediate past with any satisfaction. And if he tried to forget the red gash of the fifty years of anarchy (235-85 A.D.) and sought to revive the traditions of the early Empire he was guilty of sentimental antiquarianism. Yet the senatorial class, the wealthiest and most influential group in the West, committed precisely this fault, which is one reason why this class was so helpless when the fourth-century crisis intensified.

In contrast, to the men of the fourteenth century the immediate past appeared to be a golden age. There had been no serious wars between 1215 and the 1290s; there had been a steady increase in production with just enough inflation to keep the economy moving; the ideals of the society had found almost perfect expression in art and philosophy and had been realized in the lives of saints and kings. It was not sentimental antiquarianism in the fourteenth century to appeal to the principles of Magna Carta, or to the even-handed justice of St. Louis, or to the civic virtue of the early Florentines. Such appeals had an effect because there had been no breach of continuity between the thirteenth and the fourteenth centuries. And with a golden past only two or three generations behind them it was possible for the people of Western Europe to hope that a rosy future would not be much further away.

They were not entirely wrong in their hope, and this fact indicates another important difference between the two crises. As Rushton Coulborn once wrote: “There are long transitions and short ones, and the long ones are always deep at the same time and the short ones shallow.”6 The fourth-century crisis was more severe than the fourteenth-century crisis because it lasted longer, and it lasted longer because it was more severe. Many scholars have been fascinated by the history of Western Europe in the early Middle Ages. They have unearthed every scrap of evidence that would prove that there were capable rulers, learned scholars, first-rate artists, and competent businessmen in the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries. The evidence of individual accomplishments is quite acceptable, but it does not prove that there was a Western European civilization or an organized society during those centuries. An old civilization was crumbling and a new one being created, but it took many centuries before the transition was accomplished. For example, Christianity was an essential ingredient of the new civilization, and Christianity spread very slowly in the West. Western Europe was not Christian, even in a nominal sense, until the Carolingian period, and Christianity began to have a real impact on the European system of values only in the eleventh century. In short, the work of reorganizing European society after the collapse of the Empire in the West took four or five hundred years. And because the rebuilding took so long, the civilization that finally emerged was very different from its predecessor.

In contrast, the civilization of Western Europe was shaken but not shattered by the crisis of the fourteenth century, and while some major repairs were needed there was no complete rebuilding. The Western Europe that emerged from the crisis was quite clearly a direct descendant of the Western Europe that had entered the crisis. Some old institutions and patterns of life were modified; some new institutions and habits of thought were introduced; but in most areas changes were neither sweeping nor catastrophic. Indeed, continuity was so great and change so small that some ardent medievalists have denied that there was any significant alteration in European society. This point of view is understandable but, I think, mistaken. The men of the sixteenth century believed that they were quite different from the men of the thirteenth century. Certainly they understood the thirteenth century less well than they thought they did, and the fact that they could misunderstand so many aspects of thirteenth-century life shows that some significant changes had taken place.

Following Coulborn’s formula, a shallow transition should be a brief one, and this was certainly true of the fourteenth-century crisis. Some signs of spiritual malaise and of economic depression were evident in the last quarter of the thirteenth century. The spiritual malaise was reinforced by the controversies that swirled around Boniface VIII and John XXII; the economic problem was intensified by the great European famine of 1315-17. But the real drop in morale came only in the second quarter of the fourteenth century, with civil wars, the Hundred Years’ War, the failure of the leading Italian banking houses, the growing discontent with the papal residence in Avignon, and above all with the Black Death. The aberrant social behavior caused by the drop in morale continued into the fifteenth century–how far into that century is a matter for scholarly debate. The rate of recovery varied from country to country and from one type of activity to another. The essential signs of recovery were a growing sense of confidence and an increasing ability to cooperate, nebulous factors that are almost impossible to measure. But whatever the causes and the pace of recovery, the worst was over by the last quarter of the fifteenth century, and by that time the new patterns of European life and thought could be clearly discerned. Thus, if we spin the crisis out to its fullest extent, it lasted about two centuries. If we limit it to the period of extreme distress, it lasted less than one hundred and fifty years. This is not a short time in terms of human anguish–a man born in 1300 had every reason to be concerned about his own fate and that of his children’s children. But it was a short time in terms of the history of civilizations and a short time in comparison to the centuries of groping, false starts, precarious successes, repeated setbacks, and continuing strain that followed the decline of the Roman Empire in the West.

So far i have been telling a familiar story. Most historians would probably accept the main outlines, though they would quarrel about some of the details. But now I should like to consider why the two crises had such different outcomes, and here I venture on hazardous ground. The only explanation that makes any sense to me is based on an appraisal of human beliefs and motives. Historians disagree strongly about the beliefs and motives that have affected the course of events in our own century, and yet we have more evidence about the nature of contemporary beliefs and motives than we have for any earlier period. How can we speak with any confidence about the beliefs and motives of generations that vanished long ago? The evidence is scanty and heavily class-biased; much of the time we must argue from effect to cause. Even when we are sure about the existence of a belief, it is hard to estimate its intensity.

If we seek other types of explanation, however, we should realize that the evidence is no better. We have no figures for medieval agricultural or industrial production that a conscientious economic historian could accept, and yet we speak of economic growth and decline. Our estimates of medieval population are mere approximations–if we could prove that the average margin of error was no greater than fifty per cent we would all be happy7—and yet we have some reason to say that at certain times certain areas were overpopulated and others underpopulated. Much can be done with fragmentary evidence, even though it requires us to take long and dangerous inductive leaps.

Fortunately I am trying to explain not the causes of the crises but the differences in rates of recovery, and for this problem the most exact economic or demographic statistics would not give the answer. As we have every reason to know, increasing GNP per capita does not guarantee the stability of a society. Underpopulation may be associated with stagnation or with rapid growth, overpopulation with breakdown or with expansion. However good the statistical evidence, we shall always have to look behind it for the intangibles of beliefs and attitudes, and no evidence about beliefs and attitudes will ever be completely satisfactory.

Embarking, then, on this dangerous inquiry, the first thing that strikes one about Western Europe in the fourth and early fifth centuries is the weakness of religious motivations. This may seem a strange thing to say about the period that saw the conversion of Constantine, the Council of Nicæa, and the Arian controversy. But it should be remembered that these developments touched very few people in Western Europe. In this region the majority of the population was only nominally Christian, if it was Christian at all. Leadership of the Church was in the hands of an aristocracy that was remote from the common people, increasingly aloof from politics, and suspicious of enthusiasm.8 Strong convictions about religion and close connections between religion and the organization of society were largely confined to the East. The Christian Roman Empire was a reality in the East, but only a façade in the West. The emperor in Constantinople gained power and prestige by being the protector of the faith and the patron of the Church. The emperor in Ravenna gained almost nothing by being a Christian.

It is true that in both East and West Christianity at its most intense level was more concerned with saving the individual than with saving society. In almost everybody’s eyes the best Christians were the dropouts–the men who saw no good in their society, wandered off to join communes, and lived on handouts. But even here there was a contrast between East and West. The Western monks remained outside their society; they took almost no part in social or political activity. The Eastern monks, in spite of their professed contempt for the world, were still passionately interested in the affairs of their society. Again and again they descended on the cities to force their ideas on religious and secular authorities. In the end they took root in the cities, where they remained a powerful force. In short, Christian ideals and Christian leaders played a major role in transforming the old Greco-Roman civilization of the East into Byzantine civilization. In the West Christian leaders did little to stop the collapse of their civilization and for a long time did little to transform it into a new civilization.

If Christianity had little influence in Western Europe, the various forms of secular religion had less. Respect for the emperor declined steadily; loyalty to the Empire almost vanished; veneration for Rome was merely part of the antiquarian cult of the aristocracy. A vast apathy engulfed the larger part of the population; nothing was going to work and nothing was worth working for. The minority of concerned men could only fight to preserve the status quo, a battle that can never be won. They moved in ever-narrowing circles, both geographically and culturally, until at the end they could hope for no more than to preserve a little Latin learning and a few Roman institutions in a single civitas. Even these modest goals proved impossible to attain. The people of the West had lost almost all interest in their old civilization, and they let it crumble without making any effort to save it or to transform it.

In the fourteenth century, on the other hand, the problems were not apathy but exaggerated sensitivity, not lack of interest in social organization but strong differences of opinion about how to make social organizations work, not the absence of conviction but frustration caused by the poor quality of leadership. Few people were content with the existing situation, and many must have wondered if there could ever be any real improvement. But while outbursts of despair were common enough, despair was not the dominant mood of the fourteenth century. Instead men talked endlessly, tirelessly, and apparently vainly about “reform.” Even the dropouts of the fourteenth century, unlike those of the fourth, did not abandon their society. They tended to congregate in urban centers rather than flee to the wilderness; many engaged in reform movements; many performed useful social functions such as teaching. There was a danger of fragmentation of political units during the fourteenth century, but this danger was not caused by lack of interest in preserving any organized community. Instead it resulted from the conflicting demands of many communities. Which community should a man serve–the little community of the parish or the guild, the larger community of the town or the province, or the great community of the kingdom or the principality? It was not easy to reconcile these obligations, yet enough men managed to do so to prevent either anarchy or breakdown. This is even more striking when we remember that all fourteenth-century communities depended on the unpaid assistance of their members, since there were never enough paid functionaries to do the work. If there had been complete disaffection from fourteenth-century society it would have been easy enough to destroy it: ordinary men would simply have failed to perform their civic duties. This is very much what had happened at the end of the fourth century. It did not happen at the end of the fourteenth century because the inhabitants of Western Europe were willing to work to keep their societies functioning.

They were willing to work because they still had hope, and they had hope because they still believed in their religions. Almost everyone, including the most violent and turbulent members of society, was a Christian. It is true that almost every Christian criticized the Church bitterly at one time or another, but not because he lacked faith. It was, rather, that too much was expected of the faith and of the Church that was the visible embodiment of the faith. There was incessant argument about what the Church should do and could do, but there was agreement on two points: the Church was a necessary part of society, and the health of society depended on the health of the Church.

Much the same attitudes existed toward the state. By the end of the thirteenth century almost everyone believed that the state was necessary for human welfare, and yet a very large number of people believed that their own state was not doing a very good job. This dissatisfaction was not due to conflicting ideologies but to exaggerated ideas of what the weak and understaffed states of the fourteenth century could do. Governments were not very farsighted, not very honest, not very efficient. Everyone longed for the “good governance” that would cure the ills of the age, though no one was very sure how it was to be obtained. Meanwhile subjects paid taxes and obeyed orders. When leadership was uncertain or perverse, as it often was, willingness to pay and to obey declined, but never to the point at which the state utterly collapsed. The reservoir of loyalty never became entirely empty; the hope for good governance was never quite abandoned. And it was this basic loyalty, this willingness to give at least minimum obedience to weak or corrupt governments, that shows how strong the secular religion of the state had become.

The frequent rebellions and revolutions of the fourteenth century do not invalidate but, rather, confirm this judgment. They were a sign of vitality, not of despair. People without hope do not rebel; there were no popular uprisings during the dying years of the Western Roman Empire. Many of the fourteenth-century rebellions were simply factional struggles for power led by groups of nobles or of well-to-do businessmen who felt that they deserved more of the spoils and perquisites of office. Nevertheless, the victorious factions usually found it advisable to promise reform, even if this meant no more than dismissing a few unpopular functionaries and making a few changes in the tax structure. Some urban uprisings and peasant rebellions had more radical goals: they wanted to decrease the income of the rich and increase the income of the poor. But in the absence of any competing ideology they could be radical only within the existing political framework. When the workers of Florence rebelled in 1378, they simply took over the Florentine state, and they made so few changes in its basic structure that they quickly lost control. When the English peasants and artisans rebelled in 1381, they could think of no better way to obtain their objectives than to use the existing monarchy. They accepted King Richard II as their leader and showed touching confidence in the charters that he issued. The only chance for the Jacquerie in the 1350s was to work with the members of the Paris bourgeoisie who were trying to gain control of the royal government. When this alliance collapsed the Jacquerie became a purely destructive force and was quickly crushed. In short, in spite of all their grievances, politically conscious people wanted to preserve their states. Uprisings were warnings to the state that it must do its job better; they were not attempts to create a completely new society.

Belief in the religion of the Church and the religion of the state was almost universal. Belief in the religion of science–science in the broad and original meaning of the word–was less widespread, but it was a powerful force. The University of Paris, accepted by everyone as the greatest center of learning in the West, had an influence equal to that of many kings and princes. Its pronouncements, especially during the period of the Great Schism, were always treated with respect and were often accepted as guides to policy. Laymen thought it was their duty to encourage learning. Charles V of France accumulated a remarkable library; statesmen and administrators founded hundreds of schools and colleges.9 The people who were attracted by the religion of science believed that it would provide new, interesting, and useful knowledge about everything from the Grace of God to the proper construction of a Latin sentence. Actual achievements of fourteenth-century scholars were slight–the Merton formula for accelerated motion was perhaps their greatest accomplishment10—but the significant fact was that they believed that achievement was possible. In the fourth and fifth centuries the prevailing attitude was that there was little new to be discovered and that the chief task of scholars was to preserve existing knowledge. In the fourteenth century a number of men, from theologians to physical scientists, believed that knowledge could be expanded.

One can speak of a religion of science in the fourteenth century; perhaps one can also speak of the beginning of a religion of technology. Many men (how many we shall never know) believed that they could improve their processes of production, but they were not writers themselves, and they were largely ignored by those who did write. We can only guess at their motives and their aspirations. We can say that the rate of technological change increased in the fourteenth century and that the changes, unlike those of the early Middle Ages, affected industry more than agriculture. Improvements in mining, in blast furnaces, in metalworking, in glassmaking, and in textile production made possible the creation of new industries that took up some of the slack caused by the Great Depression of the fourteenth century. Here again the difference in spirit between the fourth and the fourteenth centuries is striking. There was not much interest in technology in the fourth century, although the nomads pushing in from Central Asia brought with them an entirely new set of techniques for using animal power. There was obviously increasing interest in technology in the fourteenth century, an interest that finally surfaced in the fifteenth century with drawings of machines and little treatises on engineering.11 And I might add that while there were some protests, especially by conservatives in the textile industries, on the whole the men of the fourteenth century were not afraid of technological innovations. In this area at least they saw hope in change–an attitude that has not always existed in other societies.

The most remarkable aspect of the survival of faith in the Church, loyalty to the state, and devotion to learning is that these three beliefs12 remained strong in spite of the mediocre–or worse–record of scholars, prelates, and rulers. As has already been suggested, scholars did their best work in the highly abstract fields of philosophy (including natural science) and theology. In practical matters they were less successful. Treatises on political theory did little to improve actual governments,13 and the consultations of the University of Paris did not heal the Schism. The clergy talked earnestly about reform and about restoring the unity of the Church, but there was little reform and no unity at the end of the century. Secular rulers did not do much better. They made some improvements in their administrative systems, and they made a few scattered attempts to solve their economic problems (for example, Edward III tried to encourage the growth of an English woolen industry), but the net effects were small. Few people believed in 1400 that their governments were better than they had been in 1300, and a good many thought they were worse.

Nevertheless, the people who were at all conscious of the problems of their society believed that that society could be and should be saved. Naturally they did not agree on concrete proposals for reform or reconstruction. The question of priorities bothered them as it does us. “Reform of the Church in head and members” was a nice phrase, but there was no agreement on where to begin. “Tax reform” and “sound money” were popular ideas then as now, but a real tax reform unaccompanied by other changes would have ruined governments that were barely solvent as it was, and sound money is not the best remedy for deflation. It is not surprising that most efforts for reform broke down; it is surprising that interest in reform never vanished. And what is most surprising of all is that the selfish, divided, muddle-headed people of Western Europe did begin to pull out of their troubles in the fifteenth century and did make some useful and necessary modifications in their society.

This result was so surprising that historians have never agreed on how it was achieved. Most of the Grand Designs failed–for example the English ordinances of 1311, the great ordinance of 1357 in France, and the skillfully drafted constitutions of the Italian city-states. The few Grand Designs that worked simply created new problems. For example, the Conciliar Movement ended the Great Schism, but produced the Renaissance papacy. Many little devices succeeded, but which of the little devices were really important? Take the New Monarchies–it has always been difficult to say exactly what was new about them. Some old machinery, such as the Council, was made to work more smoothly; some old offices, such as the secretaryships, were upgraded until they became more useful than they had been before. Nevertheless, Guillaume de Nogaret would not have had much trouble in fitting himself into the court of Louis XI. The great voyages of discovery helped get the economy off dead center, but the great voyages were possible only because there had been many earlier voyages–to the Canaries, to the Gold Coast, to the Azores. And the lesser voyages in turn depended on gradual, almost imperceptible improvements in shipbuilding, seamanship, and the art of navigation. When was the turning point, what were the changes that made it possible to reach farther and farther out from the shores of Europe?

The only answers to such questions that I can find are answers based on the intangibles that I have mentioned before: hope, belief in the value of basic elements in the civilization, and a sort of unreasoning persistence. The English tinkered with their Council all during the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries because they believed that a properly constituted Council was the key to good government. None of these experiments was very successful, and yet in the end the English produced the wonderfully effective Council of the Tudors. The early voyages of discovery added little to the wealth of Spain and Portugal, yet (though it was a near thing) the push into the Atlantic continued. Most attempts to stimulate the economy through governmental or corporative intervention failed, and yet there was an economic revival in many parts of the West in the fifteenth century. I suspect that wasting money on new weapons or in trying to send men to the antipodes was more helpful than all the well-intentioned, unenforceable, and self-defeating regulations drafted by administrators and businessmen. But even when we give all possible credit to the activities of governments and corporations, we must conclude that economic expansion depended for the most part on small increments produced by men who made the most of very slight opportunities–peasants who managed to raise a little more grain, ironmakers who managed to smelt a few hundred more pounds of iron, merchants who managed to bring in one extra shipload of goods.

Certainly the old-fashioned virtues of fortitude, persistence, and hard work played a part in the slow recovery of the fifteenth century. So did the willingness to take risks, shown by the entrepreneurs who invested in the rural textile industry, or the Baltic grain trade, or the expansion of mining operations in Germany. So did pure chance. If one proceeds by trial and error, the chances are against making all the possible errors before reaching one successful result. If even an earthworm can learn to find its way through a maze by trial and error, a human community ought to be able to solve some of its problems by the same method. But it is easier to persist, to take risks, to continue to try after a long series of failures if one believes in the basic values of one’s civilization. It takes hundreds of trials to restore stability to a society that has been shaken by the apparent inadequacy of its ideals or by wide discrepancies between its ideals and its actual behavior. And the first successful trials may merely aggravate the problem, both because they make the unreformed sectors look even worse than they did and because human activities are so interconnected that isolated reforms cannot survive. Every significant change in society requires a host of changes in related fields, and it is a long and weary task to strike a new balance among all these factors. Naturally, during the years of testing and searching many people become discouraged and cynical. What is essential is that some people keep on trying, for if enough people keep on trying complete collapse can be averted. How large this critical mass must be is a problem that can never be solved, since quality is as important as size. In the fourteenth century the critical mass was probably less than half the population, but it had enough drive to carry Western Europe through a period of violence, depression, and uncertainty. In the fourth century the critical mass was too small and too weak to renew itself, much less its civilization, and the saving minority vanished along with the society it was trying to save. Determining what the critical mass now is, and where it can be found, is a task that I leave to my colleagues in modern history.

Joseph R. Strayer (1904–87) was a medieval historian. He was the longtime chair of the Princeton University history department.



  1. Perhaps one sign that we are indeed facing a major crisis is the fact that during the last half century so many men of great intellectual power have been considering the problem of the decline or transformation of civilizations. The work of Spengler, Sorokin, Toynbee, Kroeber, and other generalists is too well known to require specification, though I should call attention to the incomplete but stimulating ideas of Rushton Coulborn. See, for example, “Structure and Process in the Rise and Fall of Civilized Societies,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 8 (1966): 404-51. []
  2. J. C. Russell, “Late Ancient and Medieval Population,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, n.s. 48, pt. 3 (1958): 37. []
  3. Nicolae Iorga, Philippe de Mézières et la croisade au XIVe siècle (Paris, 1896); A. S. Atiya, The Crusade in the Later Middle Ages (London, 1938), chs. 7-10. []
  4. Toynbee’s estimate of the importance of the “higher religions” is well known, but he thinks mainly in terms of “religious” religions, if I may use the phrase. A definition that is closer to the one in the text, though still not entirely satisfactory, may be found in Rushton Coulborn, “The Concept of the ‘Conglomerate Myth,'” Proceedings of the Tenth International Congress of Philosophy (Amsterdam, 1949), 1: 74-81. []
  5. M. I. Rostovzeff, Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire (London, 1926), ix, 442-48. []
  6. Rushton Coulborn, “The Ancient River Valley Civilizations,” in Shirley H. Engel, ed., New Perspectives in World History (Washington, 1964), 127. []
  7. We have better information for England than for any other medieval country, yet J. C. Russell estimates a peak population in 1348 of about 3,700,000 (perhaps a little higher ca. 1300). British Medieval Population (Albuquerque, 1948), 246. M. M. Postan, on the other hand, thinks that the peak population ca. 1300 was nearer seven million. “Medieval Agrarian Society in its Prime: England,” in M. M. Postan and E. E. Rich, eds., Cambridge Economic History of Europe, 1 (2d ed.; Cambridge, 1966): 562. []
  8. Samuel Dill, Roman Society in the Last Century of the Western Empire (London, 1898), 5-22, 179-85; O. M. Dalton, The Letters of Sidonius (Oxford, 1915). As late as the sixth century Gregory, bishop of Tours, prided himself on his senatorial and episcopal ancestry; his predecessor and all but five of the previous bishops of Tours had been connected with his family. []
  9. It is significant that not only famous and wealthy statesmen, such as William of Wykeham, founded colleges, but also minor officials and professional men, such as the lawyer Raoul de Presles in 1314 (see F. J. Pegues, The Lawyers of the Last Capetians [Princeton, 1962], 159-60), or Andreas And, provost of the chapter of Upsala from 1291 to 1313 (see Astrik L. Gabriel, Skara House at the Medieval University of Paris [Notre Dame, 1960], 23-29). In the thirteenth century such men would have given their money to monasteries or founded small collegiate churches. []
  10. Marshall Clagett, The Science of Mechanics in the Middle Ages (Madison, 1959), 255-68. []
  11. See, for example, Lynn White, jr., “Kyeser’s ‘Bellifortis’: The First Technological Treatise of the Fifteenth Century,” Technology and Culture, 10 (1969): 436-41. This treatise was completed in 1405. For later works of the fifteenth century see Ladislao Reti, “Francesco di Giorgio Martini’s Treatise on Engineering and Its Plagiarists,” ibid., 4 (1963): 287-98. []
  12. I do not discuss technology in the next few paragraphs because I feel that it had less influence on attitudes and behavior in the fourteenth century than did the three beliefs mentioned and because there is no evidence to show whether expectations outran results in this field. []
  13. In fourteenth-century France Aristotelian translations did apparently lead to greater care in the selection, or even the election, of high officials. See Francoise Autrand, “Office et officiers royaux en France sous Charles VI,” Revue Historique, fasc. 492 (1969): 313-16; and Siméon Luce, La France pendant la guerre de Cent Ans (Paris, 1890), 1: 179-202. But the reform did not last much past 1413. []