Easy times are not when we create solutions to problems. I was sitting here today thinking about the 1400s.
Not everybody sits around thinking about the 1400s, but I do and fairly often. It’s part of the pleasure and burden of a deep passion for history. Right now, I’m reading a series of books about the Tudors. The early Tudors. Owen, Edmond, and Jasper. And, of course, Henry who became the seventh of the many Henrys of England.
The 1300s were a horror show for the old world.
Beginning in 1346 and continuing through 1353, the number of deaths — from war, disease, or anything — is unparalleled in human history. Ultimately, the Black Death killed more than 25 million people in Europe. And the world was much smaller, so 25-million people were the largest part of the human race.
More than half the population of Europe died in the plague and in some towns, it was as much as 100%. In other words, everybody died. The forest grew back over lands that had been sown. Murderous gangs that had formerly been remnants of disbanded armies roamed through Europe. When most of the peasants died, everyone starved because there was no one to grow new crops.
A burst of invention occurred. The peasantry, always been the least valuable members of European society, suddenly achieved importance. So few people remained who were able to grow crops, it was not unusual for peasants to go from castle to castle to see where they could get the best deal for their labor. The middle class grew too, while more than half the nobility disappeared. Between death by plague and death by war, many families slid from the bottom of nobility to the center of poverty. By the 1600s, many former nobles were tilling their own lands.
The Wars of the Roses consumed England. The printing press arrived. Europeans took to movable type with enthusiasm. The press was created sometime between 1400 and 1455. Movable type swept the scribes away.
I’m sure someone was telling everyone that this whole “printing thing” would never last. It was probably someone running a school for scribes.
The 1400s saw the invention of:
The golf ball (1400)
The piano/spinet (1400)
The trigger/matchlock (1411) The handgun arrived in 1364. Before the trigger, it was ignited with an ember or another form of portable fire.
Oil painting (1420) The paint was invented long before this in China, but oil painting techniques (Rembrandt, et al) were 15th-century.
Hoisting gear (1421)
Spectacles/eyeglasses (1450) Possibly earlier.
Printing Press (1450-55) Johannes Gutenberg
Engravings (dry) (1465)
Muzzle-loaded rifle (1475)
Parachute (1485) Leonardo Da Vinci
The copyright (1486)
Bell chimes (1487)
The map globe (1492) This is also when Leonardo was pondering flight because he had a parachute, so you ought to be able to fly, right?
Sometime during this same period, the moldboard plow was invented, turning agriculture on its ear. Historians are still arguing this issue.
This might not sound like a lot to you, but the invention of the printing press was a bigger deal than the mobile phone or the computer or, for that matter, electricity and diesel power. It overturned the world. Made knowledge available to the many rather than the élite few.
And everybody drank the whiskey.
The point is that times were really bad in the 1300s and only nominally better in the 1400s.
These terrible old days gave the world a kick in the butt and triggered the arrival of central government among nations. It elevated the peasant and middle classes. It advanced banking and industry and art. Towns grew as guilds developed. The building industry changed and expanded. Bridges were redesigned to enable better roads. Better roads made it easier for people to take their goods to market.
Everything changed, including religion because this also was the birth of Protestantism, though it was not called that until later.
Hard times create a new world. Our two world wars were what pushed Europe into socialism and the caring world that they now (or used to) embrace. I think a lot of people forget that before the first world war, it wasn’t a caring Europe. It was a bunch of rich nobles doing whatever they felt like to anything and anyone.
The world doesn’t advance when times are easy. When all is well, we get lazy. Comfort doesn’t force change.
I’d like to think that the current awfulness is going to push us into a creative change which will ultimately improve our world. I don’t know that it will be true because I don’t think I’ll live to see the outcome of this world into the next, but I’d like to think that’s how it will go.