I have just finished a book by Barbara Tuchman, called A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. A work of popular history (Tuchman was self-educated but, for all that, still won a couple of Pulitzers), the book largely draws upon primary sources to deal with the Hundred Years’ War between England and France, fought intermittently over a century and more, almost entirely on French soil. However, it also casts a spotlight across Western Europe and beyond during the period, extending into the 15th Century. The book’s focus is the life of one French nobleman, Enguerrand VI, the last sire of Coucy, a large holding in the North of France, near the English Channel, and a distant ancestor of a future French monarch. As the title implies, Tuchman is writing with an eye toward viewing the contemporary world through the reflection cast upon it by an era long past.
The period in question is characterized by a number of phenomena which are traumatic by any standard: black death (Tuchman takes the conventional view that this was bubonic plague; others have argued, convincingly to me, that the medieval plagues were rather a form of hemorhagic fever, perhaps caused by Ebola or a close viral relative), which reduced population levels by as much as 50 percent over a century; interminable fighting, not only between England and France or between Christendom and Islam, but also in private wars between various nobles, the results of which, through destruction of crops and other disruptions, disproportionately affected the lives of those at the bottom of the socioeconomic pile and therefore least able to cope; openly regressive taxation; popular uprisings; conspicuous consumption by nobles, wealthy merchants, rising bureaucrats, and the upper clergy; widespread sexual profligacy; and so on.
From a Christian point of view, perhaps the most depressing characteristic of this period is the relationship between the Church and the rest of society. While all of society was nominally Christian, few seemed to take the Church's teachings seriously, the only exception perhaps being just prior to death. The Papacy was, for many years, ensconced in the “Babylonian Exile” at Avignon. Since Avignon was in France, and these Popes mostly French, they were largely instruments of French Imperial Policy. On the attempt to return the Papacy to Rome, prompted by St. Catherine of Siena, a longstanding schism was created, resulting in two Popes, one in Avignon, the other in Rome, and all of Western Europe was divided. England and France, of course, were on opposite sides of papal allegiance. From the Pope(s), down to the poorest parish priest, everything the Church had to offer was for sale. This, of course, gave rise to various reform movements, all of them more or less heretical, which prepared the way for Luther, Calvin, Cranmer, and the rest, and, providentially, for the reforms of the Council of Trent, two centuries later.
For all that, however, the era was not without signs of hope, primarily manifested in the careers of Saints. Catherine of Siena was one of them. Joan of Arc was another. Besides these, many man and women, religious and lay, worshiped, celebrated and received the sacraments, prayed, fasted, cared for the sick and helped the poor, motivated by their love for the suffering Christ and His sorrowful Mother, manifested in the sufferings of men and women with whom they lived and worked. Inspired and healed by the Holy Spirit, these men and women, of course, are the hope of the world; they were then, and are now. It is because of their prayers and other activities that societies do not collapse into utter chaos. During Lent, inspired by their examples, let us dedouble our efforts to contribute, in whatever way we can, not only to our own salvation, but to the survival, if not the salvation, of the whole world.