The Late Middle Ages

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13535

The Late Middle Ages began in a time of great struggle, but it started a blossoming of culture all around Europe. This transitional period led to the Renaissance and Age of Exploration.


People and Their Environment, World

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

Audio: Image - Button Play
Image - Lession Started Image - Button Start

The Black Death devastated Europe more than anywhere else in the Old World.

  • Why?

People in Europe lived significantly closer together than anybody else in the world. This was a recipe for disaster.

Between 1315 and 1317, the Great Famine killed approximately 10-25% of the people in each town as crops failed. These towns were abandoned as people moved to cities in the hopes of finding work and stability. This urbanization would spell disaster in only a few decades.

The Black Death

Originating in East Asia, the Bubonic Plague spread westward on ships and along trade routes. Arriving first in the Middle East, it destroyed the economy because fewer goods from Asia were available to sell to Europe. As the plague ravaged nations like Egypt and Persia, it spread to Europe across the Mediterranean on flea-infested rats aboard ships.

It was difficult to organize any resistance to the plague because people did not have a lot of knowledge about infectious diseases. Look at this map showing the spread over the span of eight years:

1346 to 1353 Black Death spread

Image by Flappiefh, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

Notice how quickly it spread once it was inside Europe. Within the space of two years, it moved from Constantinople to London.

  • How did people try to stop the spread?

At the time, people believed the disease was spread by bad air. Conditions were much less hygienic than today, with people simply throwing their garbage out onto the street. Although we know now that the plague was spread by fleas on rats, it seemed reasonable to assume the bad air from this garbage was spreading the plague.

Even with this misinformation, people were able to protect themselves from infection. As you watch a portion of How You Could Have Survived the Black Plague, from Weird History, identify the two ways people succeeded in controlling the infection:

Image - Video

While extreme, boarding up houses and sitting surrounded by fire were both effective. However, the organization needed for these methods was not common all across Europe.

Although people did try to quarantine themselves as much as possible, not knowing the disease was spread by fleas inhibited real prevention. In the few years that the Black Death swept through the continent, 50% of Europeans perished.

End of Feudalism

medieval map

With the European population reduced by half, there simply were not enough people to carry on as they had before the Black Death.

Most of those who perished were peasants, so the labor from those remaining became extremely valuable. This value, coupled with the fact that many nobles had also died, dramatically increased the opportunity for social mobility in the years following the Black Death.

People who survived also had access to much higher wages over the next few decades until the population began to normalize again.

This increased opportunity in the west massively impacted Eastern Europe.

The Black Death reached the Slavic nations much later, and their population was not nearly as dense, which meant fewer people were lost to the plague. This resulted in many people wanting to migrate westward for the opportunity.

  • What do you think the ruling class in Eastern Europe did to stop this?

Serfs became tied to their land, so they could not migrate unless they paid a large sum to relinquish their farming responsibilities. This was enough to stop a massive exodus of Slavic peasants, which would have depleted labor resources like in the rest of Europe.

Fall of Constantinople

medieval wars

By the 1400s, Constantinople and Rome had begun to reconcile their differences, and it seemed the Great Schism was coming to an end. For Emperor Constantine XI, this easing of tensions with the Pope was needed because the Ottoman Empire had nearly eliminated the Byzantine Empire.

By 1450, it became clear the Ottoman Empire would make a final push on Constantinople, and the emperor needed military assistance. Pleading with Pope Nicholas V, Emperor Constantine XI asked for support similar to that given during the Crusades.

While the Pope considered it, he eventually declined for many reasons -- but mainly because the emperor refused to honor the Pope as the head of the church.

Watch How did Europe React to the Fall of Constantinople? (Short Animated Documentary) from History Matters:

Image - Video

Nations were too involved and had become too detached from the Byzantine Empire to once again willingly drop everything to provide assistance.

Additionally, the empires of Europe now had centralized power with national armies that would have responded to the Pope's call to action. It was much harder to convince nations to send their armies than it had been to send their unskilled people.

Hundred Years War

ships fighting

Much of Europe was already engaged in its own conflicts.

One of these was the Hundred Years War, a series of four wars over the span of 116 years between England and France that nearly constantly occupied the two empires from 1337 to 1453.

Watch the video below for a summary of this conflict, but be warned that there are a lot of names, faces, and events to remember. Just try to get a broad sense of the struggle, and be aware that back-and-forth conflicts like this were going on all over Europe at the time.

100 Years War | 3 Minute from Jabzy:

Image - Video

Wow, that was a lot! Obviously, France and England were in no position after all of that to go and aid Constantinople.


medieval people

Castile in Iberia was also in no position to help Constantinople because they were in the middle of the Reconquista.

Reconquista refers to the attempt to reconquer Iberia from the Islamic invaders. Technically, it had been going on since the invasion in the 8th century, but it finally came to a close in the 15th century with the final expulsion of the Emirate in 1492.

In 1469, Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon married, creating an alliance that merged the two into one singular state. Having consolidated authority on the Iberian peninsula, these two monarchs started the Grenada War, which ended after 10 years with the banishment of Islamic rule in 1492.

This peace freed up resources and allowed the advanced ships designed to invade Grenada to engage in expeditions.

The Age of Exploration

columbus ships

Once the Reconquista ended and the peninsula had been conquered, Castile and Aragon could afford to fund expeditions to find new trade routes. The hope was that Columbus would find a quicker trade route to Asia, providing an advantage.

As prosperity continued during the Renaissance, more explorers were hired to explore every edge of the globe.

Now that you have a broad overview of the Late Middle Ages, move on to the Got It? section to identify the legacy of this period.

Image - Button Next