This semester I taught a "later" medieval history survey (1000-1500), which meant that the 14th century material was sandwiched between the Twelfth-Century Renaissance, and, well, the regular Renaissance. Judging from the final essays, what students remember about the 14th century is this:
- the Black Death
- the Hundred Years' War
- the Avignon papacy and the Great Schism
We did do some other things, I swear; we read some Boccaccio and Dante, we looked at Catherine of Siena, and I think there were a few other things in there. Yet clearly, for most of them, the takeaway from this century is death, corruption, and more death.
The problem I have with this is not so much that their impression is incorrect as that it seems...incomplete. It leaves out a lot of interesting phenomena, such as lay literacy and devotion, and ignores that we can know a lot more about the lives of peasants and artisans from this period than about members of the same social groups in earlier centuries. One of the things I tried to do in this survey was show the complexities of events, and I think I succeeded with some portions of the course. We discussed problems with the idea of "renaissance," for example, and I think we managed a complex, multidimensional examination of the 12th and 15th centuries, and perhaps even the 13th.
Yet somehow, it seems very difficult to convey the complexity of the 14th century--or at least, very difficult to do so in the two or three weeks allocated to it in this survey. Any attempts I made to get beyond the Great Catastrophes of the 14th century just didn't sink in. Perhaps the spell of famine, plague, war, and death is just too difficult to break.
At present, I can easily imagine an upper-level seminar on the 14th century: that could be a great course, with the opportunity to really delve into some rich materials and explore the connections between everything that's going on in that period. But I'm still not sure how I would boil that century down into a concise unit without having the same results I saw this semester.