A. The Upheaval in Western Christendom, 1300-1560

This unit explores the waning of the Middle Ages between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. We will ask ourselves how and why states emerged in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. As the kings of England and France were able to centralize their power, why were the powerful families of the Italian states and the Holy Roman Empire not able to do the same? Similarly, we will ask what determined the rise and fall of papal power in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. With both the internal and external pressures bearing on the Catholic Church—plague, rebellion, religious radicalism, the conciliar movement, the "Babylonian Captivity," Renaissance humanism, the Reformation, and warfare—how did Catholicism stay unified after the sixteenth century? 

A.1. Introduction

A.2. Disasters of the Fourteenth Century

A.3. The Renaissance in Italy 

A.4. The Renaissance Outside Italy 

A.5. The New Monarchies


Central Questions 

  • How and why did states emerge in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries? As the kings of England and France were able to centralize their power, why were the powerful families of the Italian states and the Holy Roman Empire not able to do the same? 
  • What determined the rise and fall of papal power in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries? 
  • With both the internal and external pressures bearing on the Catholic Church—plague, rebellion, religious radicalism, the conciliar movement, the “Babylonian Captivity,” Renaissance humanism, the Reformation, and warfare—how did Catholicism stay unified after the sixteenth century? 

Key Vocabulary 

  • Black Death, “Great Mortality”  
  • Hundred Years’ War 
  • Unam Sanctam (1302) 
  • Avignon 
  • conciliar movement 
  • humanism 
  • Francesco Petrarca, a.k.a. Petrarch 
  • Niccolò Machiavelli
  • Erasmus of Rotterdam
  • New Monarchs, politiques 
  • Wars of the Roses
  • reconquista 
  • Golden Bull (1356) 
  • body natural, body politic 
  • “justification by faith” 
  • Martin Luther 
  • John Calvin 
  • Act of Supremacy (1534) 
  • Council of Trent 

Tips for Learning About the Unit 

  • We should choose our terms carefully as we discuss historical events and processes. We should remember that the phrases that historians use to describe phases such as the “Black Death” or the “Hundred Years’ War” were not used by contemporaries. 
  • We should guard against presentism. With out twenty-first-century knowledge, we might look at tactics Europeans used to combat the plague as being silly, counterproductive, or dangerous. Instead, we have to focus on understanding the world as our historical actors understood it. 
  • The places and the groups we study exist in some form in today’s world. Some of us may practice the religions we are studying. As historians, however, we don’t need to pick battles in the world we are studying. 

Main Characters 

  • Philip the Fair 
  • Boniface VIII 
  • a plague victim 
  • an accused witch 
  • Francesco Petrarca, a.k.a. Petrarch 
  • Erasmus of Rotterdam 
  • Elizabeth I
  • Martin Luther 
  • John Calvin