The fourteenth century might rightly be thought of as the century during which the popes lived at Avignon. That story awaits the next chapter. Another, more profound reason commends the fourteenth century to our attention: no century in the Middle Ages was more calamitous in terms of the destruction of human life than the fourteenth century. Twice the scourge of massive mortality struck Western Europe, first with a devastating famine and then with the catastrophe of the Black Death. In these tragic circumstances what comfort religion could bring to the dying and to those who mourned them came largely from a belief in an afterlife in which there were not only a heaven and a hell but also a purgatory, heaven’s antechamber, a place of cleansing for good but not perfect souls, a place to which all might hope for admission. Death hovered over this century like no other in the Middle Ages.
The church was not immune to the disasters that beset the society in which it lived. The deaths of millions of Christians in the fourteenth century had to affect the Christian church, and indeed it did. The church, it cannot be too frequently repeated, was not merely a structure; it was that, but it was primarily a community of believers. When that community suffered from catastrophic events, as it did in the fourteenth century, then the church also suffered from those catastrophic events. The actual extent of their affect on the church may be long debated, but that the church was deeply shaken can hardly be denied. It also cannot be denied that there was a fairly fast recovery, yet one that left scars.
Often forgotten in the understandable emphasis put on the plague of 1347-50 was the great famine that began in 1315 and, in its severest impact, continued until 1317 and, in some regions, until 1322. Severe, cold winters and very wet summers combined to reduce the food crop drastically, and the consequence was widespread famine. It affected northern Europe: a line from the Alps westward through Lyons to the sea near La Rochelle roughly marks the southern extent of the famine. It reached as far as the British Isles (only northern Scotland escaping) and eastward through the Baltic regions to southern Scandinavia and