Political Milestones: 1300AD to 1400AD
In Europe, the 13th Century opened with the dominant political position of France being reflected in its abduction of the Papacy in 1309AD, from where seven popes ruled until 1377. In the same era France was at war with England. The trigger of course was taxes owed on its holdings in Normandy. The war used cannon for the first time and permanently replaced feudal armies with standing professional soldiers drawn from the ranks of the commoners. A consequence of the war was the emergence of the concept of the secular nation-state within Europe as a replacement to the concept of a pan-Catholic Europe. Another was the switch to the use of English in the government and upper classes of England. For example, in 1367AD the King of England, Edward the Third, addressed parliament in English for the first time, and by 1382AD John Wycliffe had completed the first English Bible. The English identity as an island nation dates from this time, while French power on the continent was diminished. Antagonism and rivalry between these two countries would continue right into the modern era.
Up in the lands of the Slavic Rus, the invasion of the Mongols and consequent devastation in the previous century had stirred the aspirations for self-identity. As the century progressed the prestige of the Moscow principality increased while the power of the Tartar Mongols decreased. By the middle of the century Moscow’s spiritual and financial leadership of the Slavic peoples was entrenched, and its leaders progressively expanded their territory eastward into the lands of the Mongols. We can date the rise of Russia from this point forward.
The next big event in Europe was the arrival of the plague. The infamous “Black Death” had come via the revitalised Silk Road from Central Asia in 1347AD. It had begun in Burma very early in the century and gradually spread along now re-established Chinese trade routes, where it killed 70% of the Chinese population. In Europe it caused most damage in the first five years, though it was still a problem right to the end of the century. The total death toll was staggering, up to 50% of Southern Europe perished, with a slightly lower death toll in the North. Cities were hardest hit, with the populations of most halving or worse in one or two years. It would take over 150 years for Europe’s population to recover and it is estimated the plague killed over 100 million people, or a quarter of mankind. Inflation, starvation and social unrest were widespread, as was persecution of the Jews, for supposedly causing the plague. The story of Hansel and Gretel, and the concept of the grim reaper, date from this event.
The social consequences of the Plague were also huge; one of them being the end of serfdom and the feudal era as peasants demanded their rights and higher wages. Because of this welcome development Europe’s economic recovery was swift, and this opportunity was welcomed with open arms by the capitalist city states of Italy. By 1400AD Italian commerce and banking dominated all of Europe. The age of international finance had begun.
In Central Asia, storm clouds of a different kind of death were brewing. During the 13th Century the Muslims were conducting a reverse take-over of the Mongolian Empire, with many Mongol leaders converting to the religion and forcing it upon their subjects. One such ruler, Tamerlane, envisaged himself as the Muslim restorer of the Mongol Empire. In 1361AD he set about conquering lands on all sides of his base in Kesh, Central Asia. His conquests included the Caspian region, north almost to Moscow, Persia, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, and all of North India in a stunning defeat of the Delhi Sultanate. Tamerlane was brutal in his oppression of the lands he conquered and it is said that he slaughtered some 17 million people, or 5% of the world’s population. He died in 1405AD while preparing to extend his empire into China.
On the western fringes of the Islamic world the Turks were making good progress against their enemy, the Byzantines. In 1354AD they gained their first toehold on the European continent at Gallipoli. This quickly expanded through victory over the Balkan Slavs in the Battle of Kosovo in 1386AD, and the victory over the Bulgers in 1396AD. However, their conquest of Constantinople was delayed for fifty years by the danger Tamerlane created on their eastern borders.
Elsewhere in the world noteworthy events were also taking shape. In 1354 the Koreans fought and defeated their Mongolian rulers, setting up the I dynasty that would rule until 1910. China wrestled itself free of Mongolian rule in 1387AD with the establishment of the Ming Dynasty. In Mexico the Aztecs began construction of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) in 1325AD, and by 1500AD it had grown to be larger and richer than almost any city in Europe before catching the eye of the Spanish Conquistadors.
Spiritual Milestones: 1300AD to 1400AD
It was during the 13th Century that the political supremacy of the Papacy began to disintegrate. Yet at the same time, spiritually humble Catholicism began its great era of global missions. This movement, philosophically at odds with the militarily aggressive nature of the Papacy over the last two centuries, was largely a result of the humble and godly reform movement initiated by Francis of Assisi. In 1294AD the Franciscan, John of Montecorvino, reached China and started a Catholic mission there. In 1321AD the Dominican monk, Jordanus, arrived in India. The very next year a Franciscan by the name of Odoric of Pordenone arrived in China, joining John of Montecorvino, and in 1323AD the Franciscan monk, Mattiussi travelled overland and back to Hindu Indonesia. By 1400AD there would be over 60,000 Franciscans and 12,000 Dominicans paradoxically spreading both the culturally rigid Catholic message, and the culturally sensitive Catholic care for the poor in the far corners of the known world.
Unfortunately, back in Europe the Papacy was reaching its lowest moral ebb. Popes and their courts indulged in all forms of luxury, lust, covertness and power games. Pope Clement VI (1291-1352AD), hardly a spiritual man himself, was scathing in his assessment of the spiritual decline of the Catholic leadership of Europe. Many church leaders across Europe began to demand reform.
Into this sordid era arrived John Wycliffe, a Catholic theologian born in 1320AD in Yorkshire. He rose to eminence as a scholar in the relatively new university of Oxford. Wycliffe understood the Bible well and rightly insisted that the Catholic priesthood was unscriptural, that the Bible was a superior guide to life than the misguided teachings of the church, and that the Catholic Church was a deeply corrupt institution of pagan pomp and ceremony. For his bold, accurate and public observations he was declared a heretic. However, Wycliffe’s movement hit a nerve with the frustrated English nobles and quickly spread. He facilitated that expansion by translating the Bible into English in 1382AD. Incidentally, Wycliffe’s Bible was the first to use the artificial chapter divisions created by Archbishop Stephen Langton in the early 1200’s. Yet again the translation of scripture into the common language would prove to be a pivotal point in the history of that people group. His statement, “This book shall serve the government of the people, by the people and for the people” was prophetic. Wycliffe is now rightly regarded as the morning star of the Reformation.
Elsewhere in the world of Christendom things were not going so swimmingly. In 1301AD the Mamluks in Egypt were systematically persecuting Coptic Christians. Over the course of the century some 330,000 would perish. In 1310AD, Kurds and Arabs destroyed the Christian city of Arbela in Iraq, slaughtering some 130,000. In 1315AD the Nubian kingdom in the upper Nile Valley finally and fully embraced Islam. In 1330AD Muslims invaded South India slaughtering some 200,000 Keralan Christians. To top this all off, Tamerlane, the Muslim butcher par excellence, slaughtered over four million Christians in his quest to rid Central Asia of all traces of the struggling Nestorian Church. He succeeded. Once again, the aggression of Islam was decimating Christianity.
By 1399AD the number of people on earth had dropped dramatically from a century before, and the percentage of Christians among those shell-shocked, hardy survivors had dropped from 24% to under 18%. It was the biggest blow to the growth of Christianity in 14 centuries. Five and a half million martyrs lost their lives in this gruesome era, while some 15 million Christians died from the plague.