After Quintilian, the world of rhetoric takes an interesting turn. With the rise of Christianity and the acceptance of Christianity as the religion of Rome, the goals for rhetorical study evolved from political to religious. The adoption of Christianity led to the closing of the Platonic schools in 529 CE by Justinian. Rather than focusing on winning court cases or political speeches, the focus instead became preaching and letter writing.

With the establishment of schools/monasteries in about 1000 CE, learning moved to the realm of the church. The Crusades between 1096 and 1291 led to the re-discovery of ancient texts, and the study of those ancient texts led to the revival of the liberal arts, including the Trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and the Quadrivium (arithmetic, math, geometry, and astronomy). In the 1200s, Catholic funded universities opened throughout Europe. During this time, we see a focus on compiling knowledge–digests, encyclopedias, and grammarians were written to put knowledge in one place. 

Major religious figures began to study rhetoric as a way to improve their preaching abilities, drawing on Plato, Cicero, and Aristotle in particular to develop their sermons. From Augustine to Martin Luther and John Calvin, the leaders of the church used rhetorical strategies to effectively communicate their ideas and persuade others to join them. Though this often led to a departure from the traditional roles of rhetoric, it also served to help preserve the works of ancient Greeks and Romans.

The Middle Ages: A Brief Historical Overview

Previously called the Dark Ages, the middle ages/medieval period spans the time from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance. Understanding the main events of this time period helps to create a framework for understanding the evolution of rhetoric during this time. 

Daily Medieval Life

During the High Middle Ages, the population of Europe more than doubled, but daily life remained harsh, with risk of disease and illness. The High Middle Ages was a period of tremendous expansion of population. The estimated population of Europe grew from 35 to 80 million between 1000 and 1347, but the exact causes remain unclear; improved agricultural techniques, the decline of slaveholding, a warmer climate, and the lack of invasion have all been suggested.

As much as 90% of the European population remained rural peasants. Many were no longer settled in isolated farms but had gathered into small communities, usually known as manors or villages. These peasants were often subject to noble overlords and owed them rents and other services, in a system known as manorialism. There remained a few free peasants throughout this period and beyond, with more of them in the regions of southern Europe than in the north. The practice of assarting, or bringing new lands into production by offering incentives to the peasants who settled them, also contributed to the expansion of population.

Development of Towns

Castles began to be constructed in the 9th and 10th centuries in response to the disorder of the time, and provided protection from invaders and rival lords. They were initially built of wood, then of stone. Once castles were built, towns built up around them.

A major factor in the development of towns included Viking invasions during the early Middle Ages, which led to villages erecting walls and fortifying their positions. Following this, great medieval walled cities were constructed with homes, shops, and churches contained within the walls. York, England, which prospered during much of the later medieval era, is famed for its medieval walls and bars (gates), and has the most extensive medieval city walls remaining in England today.

The practice of sending children away to act as servants was more common in towns than in the countryside. The inhabitants of towns largely made their livelihoods as merchants or artisans, and this activity was strictly controlled by guilds. The members of these guilds would employ young people—primarily boys—as apprentices, to learn the craft and later take position as guild members themselves. These apprentices made up part of the household, or “family,” as much as the children of the master.


York city and walls: View of the city looking northeast from the city wall. The spires of York Minster are visible in the background.

Peasant Life

Medieval villages consisted mostly of peasant farmers, with the structure comprised of houses, barns, sheds, and animal pens clustered around the center of the village. Beyond this, the village was surrounded by plowed fields and pastures.

For peasants, daily medieval life revolved around an agrarian calendar, with the majority of time spent working the land and trying to grow enough food to survive another year. Church feasts marked sowing and reaping days and occasions when peasant and lord could rest from their labors.

Peasants that lived on a manor by the castle were assigned strips of land to plant and harvest. They typically planted rye, oats, peas, and barley, and harvested crops with a scythe, sickle, or reaper. Each peasant family had its own strips of land; however, the peasants worked cooperatively on tasks such as plowing and haying. They were also expected to build roads, clear forests, and work on other tasks as determined by the lord.

The houses of medieval peasants were of poor quality compared to modern houses. The floor was normally earthen, and there was very little ventilation and few sources of light in the form of windows. In addition to the human inhabitants, a number of livestock animals would also reside in the house. Towards the end of the medieval period, however, conditions generally improved. Peasant houses became larger in size, and it became more common to have two rooms, and even a second floor.

Comfort was not always found even in the rich houses. Heating was always a problem with stone floors, ceilings, and walls. Not much light came in from small windows, and oil- and fat-based candles often produced a pungent aroma. Furniture consisted of wooden benches, long tables, cupboards, and pantries. Linen, when affordable, could be glued or nailed to benches to provide some comfort. Beds, though made of the softest materials, were often full of bedbugs, lice, and other biting insects.

Peasants usually ate warm porridges made of wheat, oats, and barley. Broths, stews, vegetables, and bread were also part of a peasant’s diet. Peasants rarely ate meat, and when they did, it was their own animals that were saved for the winter. Peasants drank wine and ale, never water.

Even though peasant households were significantly smaller than aristocratic ones, the wealthiest peasants would also employ servants. Service was a natural part of the cycle of life, and it was common for young people to spend some years away from home in the service of another household. This way they would learn the skills needed later in life, and at the same time earn a wage. This was particularly useful for girls, who could put the earnings towards their dowries.


Nobles, both the titled nobility and simple knights, exploited the manors and the peasants, although they did not own land outright but were granted rights to the income from a manor or other lands by an overlord through the system of feudalism. During the 11th and 12th centuries, these lands, or fiefs, came to be considered hereditary, and in most areas they were no longer divisible between all the heirs as had been the case in the early medieval period. Instead, most fiefs and lands went to the eldest son. The dominance of the nobility was built upon its control of the land, its military service as heavy cavalry, its control of castles, and various immunities from taxes or other impositions.

Nobles were stratified; kings and the highest-ranking nobility controlled large numbers of commoners and large tracts of land, as well as other nobles. Beneath them, lesser nobles had authority over smaller areas of land and fewer people. Knights were the lowest level of nobility; they controlled but did not own land, and had to serve other nobles.

The court of a monarch, or at some periods an important nobleman, was the extended household and all those who regularly attended on the ruler or central figure. These courtiers included the monarch or noble’s camarilla and retinue, the household, nobility, those with court appointments, and bodyguards, and may also have included emissaries from other kingdoms or visitors to the court. Foreign princes and foreign nobility in exile could also seek refuge at a court.

Etiquette and hierarchy flourished in highly structured court settings. Most courts featured a strict order of precedence, often involving royal and noble ranks, orders of chivalry, and nobility. Some courts even featured court uniforms. One of the major markers of a court was ceremony. Most monarchal courts included ceremonies concerning the investiture or coronation of the monarch and audiences with the monarch. Some courts had ceremonies around the waking and the sleeping of the monarch, called a levée.

Court officials or office-bearers (one type of courtier) derived their positions and retained their titles from their original duties within the courtly household. With time, such duties often became archaic. However, titles survived involving the ghosts of arcane duties. These styles generally dated back to the days when a noble household had practical and mundane concerns as well as high politics and culture. These positions include butler, confessor, falconer, royal fool, gentleman usher, master of the hunt, page, and secretary. Elaborate noble households included many roles and responsibilities, held by these various courtiers, and these tasks characterized their daily lives.

Daily life of nobility also included playing games, including chess, which echoed the hierarchy of the nobles, and playing music, such as the music of the troubadours and trouvères. This involved a vernacular tradition of monophonic secular song, probably accompanied by instruments, sung by professional, occasionally itinerant, musicians who were skilled poets as well as singers and instrumentalists.

Women in the Middle Ages

Women in the Middle Ages were officially required to be subordinate to some male, whether their father, husband, or other kinsman. Widows, who were often allowed some control over their own lives, were still restricted legally. Three main activities performed by peasant men and women were planting food, keeping livestock, and making textiles, as depicted in Psalters from southern Germany and England. Women of different classes performed different activities. Rich urban women could be merchants like their husbands or even became money lenders, and middle-class women worked in the textile, inn-keeping, shop-keeping, and brewing industries. Townswomen, like peasant women, were responsible for the household and could also engage in trade. Poorer women often peddled and huckstered food and other merchandise in the market places or worked in richer households as domestic servants, day laborers, or laundresses.

There is evidence that women performed not only housekeeping responsibilities like cooking and cleaning, but even other household activities like grinding, brewing, butchering, and spinning produced items like flour, ale, meat, cheese, and textiles for direct consumption and for sale. An anonymous 15th-century English ballad described activities performed by English peasant women, like housekeeping, making foodstuffs and textiles, and childcare.

A painting of a peasant home showing a woman brewing cheese and a man carrying food and a man seated a table eating.

Peasant household: An image of a peasant household, including a woman preparing cheese.

Noblewomen were responsible for running a household and could occasionally be expected to handle estates in the absence of male relatives, but they were usually restricted from participation in military or government affairs. The only role open to women in the church was that of a nun, as they were unable to become priests.


For most children growing up in medieval England, the first year of life was one of the most dangerous, with as many as 50% of children succumbing to fatal illness during that year. Moreover, 20% of women died in childbirth. During the first year of life children were cared for and nursed, either by parents if the family belonged to the peasant class, or perhaps by a wet nurse if the family belonged to a noble class.

By age twelve, a child began to take on a more serious role in family duties. Although according to canon law girls could marry at the age of twelve, this was relatively uncommon unless a child was an heiress or belonged to a family of noble birth. Peasant children at this age stayed at home and continued to learn and develop domestic skills and husbandry. Urban children moved out of their homes and into the homes of their employer or master (depending on their future roles as servants or apprentices). Noble boys learned skills in arms, and noble girls learned basic domestic skills. The end of childhood and entrance into adolescence was marked by leaving home and moving to the house of the employer or master, entering a university, or entering church service.

Intellectual Life

During the 11th century, developments in philosophy and theology led to increased intellectual activity, sometimes called the renaissance of 12th century. The intellectual problems discussed throughout this period were the relation of faith to reason, the existence and simplicity of God, the purpose of theology and metaphysics, and the issues of knowledge, of universals, and of individuation. Philosophical discourse was stimulated by the rediscovery of Aristotle—more than 3,000 pages of his works would eventually be translated—and his emphasis on empiricism and rationalism. Scholars such as Peter Abelard (d. 1142) and Peter Lombard (d. 1164) introduced Aristotelian logic into theology.

Historical Conditions

The groundwork for the rebirth of learning was also laid by the process of political consolidation and centralization of the monarchies of Europe. This process of centralization began with Charlemagne, King of the Franks (768–814) and later Holy Roman Emperor (800–814). Charlemagne’s inclination towards education, which led to the creation of many new churches and schools where students were required to learn Latin and Greek, has been called the ” Carolingian Renaissance.” A second “renaissance” occurred during the reign of Otto I, King of the Saxons from 936–973 and Holy Roman Emperor from 952. Otto was successful in unifying his kingdom and asserting his right to appoint bishops and archbishops throughout the kingdom. Otto’s assumption of this ecclesiastical power brought him into close contact with the best-educated and ablest class of men in his kingdom. From this close contact, many new reforms were introduced in the Saxon kingdom and in the Holy Roman Empire. Thus, Otto’s reign has also been called a “renaissance.” The renaissance of the twelfth century has been identified as the third and final of the medieval renaissances. Yet the renaissance of the 12th century was far more thoroughgoing than those renaissances that preceded in the Carolingian and Ottonian periods.

Conquest of and contact with the Muslim world through the Crusades and the reconquest of Spain also yielded new texts and knowledge. Most notably, contact with Muslims led to the the European rediscovery and translation of Aristotle, whose wide-ranging works influenced medieval philosophy, theology, science, and medicine.

Schools and Universities

The late-11th and early-12th centuries also saw the rise of cathedral schools throughout Western Europe, signaling the shift of learning from monasteries to cathedrals and towns. Cathedral schools were in turn replaced by the universities established in major European cities.

The first universities in Europe included the University of Bologna (1088), the University of Paris (c. 1150, later associated with the Sorbonne), and the University of Oxford (1167). In Europe, young men proceeded to university when they had completed their study of the trivium—the preparatory arts of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic or logic—and the quadrivium—arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.


Mob Quad at Merton College, University of Oxford: Aerial view of Merton College’s Mob Quad, the oldest quadrangle of the university, constructed from 1288-1378.

Philosophy and theology fused in scholasticism, an attempt by 12th- and 13th-century scholars to reconcile authoritative texts, most notably Aristotle and the Bible. This movement tried to employ a systemic approach to truth and reason and culminated in the thought of Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), who wrote the Summa Theologica, or Summary of Theology.

The development of medieval universities allowed them to aid materially in the translation and propagation of these texts and started a new infrastructure, which was needed for scientific communities. In fact, the European university put many of these texts at the center of its curriculum, with the result that the “medieval university laid far greater emphasis on science than does its modern counterpart and descendent.”

Poems and Stories

Royal and noble courts saw the development of chivalry and the ethos of courtly love. This culture was expressed in the vernacular languages rather than Latin, and comprised poems, stories, legends, and popular songs spread by troubadours, or wandering minstrels. Often the stories were written down in the chansons de geste, or “songs of great deeds,” such as “The Song of Roland” or “The Song of Hildebrand.” Secular and religious histories were also produced. Geoffrey of Monmouth (d. c. 1155) composed his Historia Regum Britanniae, a collection of stories and legends about Arthur. Other works were more clearly pure history, such as Otto von Freising’s (d. 1158) Gesta Friderici Imperatoris, detailing the deeds of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, or William of Malmesbury’s (d. c. 1143) Gesta Regum, on the kings of England.

Legal Studies

Legal studies advanced during the 12th century. Both secular law and canon law, or ecclesiastical law, were studied in the High Middle Ages. Secular law, or Roman law, was advanced greatly by the discovery of the Corpus Juris Civilis in the 11th century, and by 1100 Roman law was being taught at Bologna. This led to the recording and standardization of legal codes throughout Western Europe. Canon law was also studied, and around 1140 a monk named Gratian, a teacher at Bologna, wrote what became the standard text of canon law—the Decretum.

Algebra and Astronomy

Among the results of the Greek and Islamic influence on this period in European history were the replacement of Roman numerals with the decimal positional number system and the invention of algebra, which allowed more advanced mathematics. Astronomy advanced following the translation of Ptolemy’s Almagest from Greek into Latin in the late 12th century. Medicine was also studied, especially in southern Italy, where Islamic medicine influenced the school at Salerno.


The Weird Truth about Arabic Numerals: How the world came to use so-called Arabic numerals—from the scholarship of ancient Hindu mathematicians, to Muslim scientist Al-Khwarizmi, to the merchants of medieval Italy.

Technological Developments

After the renaissance of the 12th century, medieval Europe saw a radical change in the rate of new inventions, innovations in the ways of managing traditional means of production, and economic growth. The period saw major technological advances, including the adoption of gunpowder, the invention of vertical windmills, spectacles, mechanical clocks, and greatly improved water mills, building techniques (Gothic architecture, medieval castles), and agriculture in general (three-field crop rotation).

The development of water mills from their ancient origins was impressive, and extended from agriculture to sawmills both for timber and stone. By the time of the Domesday Book, most large villages had turnable mills; there were around 6,500 in England alone. Water power was also widely used in mining for raising ore from shafts, crushing ore, and even powering bellows.

European technical advancements from the 12th to 14th centuries were either built on long-established techniques in medieval Europe, originating from Roman and Byzantine antecedents, or adapted from cross-cultural exchanges through trading networks with the Islamic world, China, and India. Often, the revolutionary aspect lay not in the act of invention itself, but in its technological refinement and application to political and economic power. Though gunpowder and other weapons had been started by the Chinese, it was the Europeans who developed and perfected its military potential, precipitating European expansion and eventual imperialism in the Modern Era.

Also significant in this respect were advances in maritime technology. Advances in shipbuilding included the multi-masted ships with lateen sails, the sternpost-mounted rudder, and the skeleton-first hull construction. Along with new navigational techniques such as the dry compass, the Jacob’s staff, and the astrolabe, these allowed economic and military control of the seas adjacent to Europe and enabled the global navigational achievements of the dawning Age of Exploration.

At the turn to the Renaissance, Gutenberg’s invention of mechanical printing made possible a dissemination of knowledge to a wider population that would lead to not only a gradually more egalitarian society, but one more able to dominate other cultures, drawing from a vast reserve of knowledge and experience. The technical drawings of late-medieval artist-engineers Guido da Vigevano and Villard de Honnecourt can be viewed as forerunners of later Renaissance works by people like Taccola or da Vinci.


European output of printed books c. 1450-1800: Estimated output of printed books in Europe from c. 1450 to 1800. A book is defined as printed matter containing more than 49 pages.

Visual Arts and Architecture

A precursor to Renaissance art can be seen in the early 14th century works of Giotto. Giotto was the first painter since antiquity to attempt the representation of a three-dimensional reality, and to endow his characters with true human emotions. The most important developments, however, came in 15th-century Florence. The affluence of the merchant class allowed extensive patronage of the arts, and foremost among the patrons were the Medici.

There were several important technical innovations in visual arts, like the principle of linear perspective found in the work of Masaccio and later described by Brunelleschi. Greater realism was also achieved through the scientific study of anatomy, championed by artists like Donatello. This can be seen particularly well in his sculptures, inspired by the study of classical models.

In northern European countries, Gothic architecture remained the norm, and the Gothic cathedral was further embellished. In Italy, on the other hand, architecture took a different direction, also inspired by classical ideals. The crowning work of the period was the Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, with Giotto’s clock tower, Ghiberti’s baptistery gates, and Brunelleschi’s cathedral dome of unprecedented proportions.


Duomo in Florence, Italy, seen at night from Michelangelo’s Piazza: Giotto’s clock tower on the right and Brunelleschi’s cathedral dome on the left. In one structure, two of the most influential architectural designs in the world.


The most important development of late medieval literature was the ascendancy of the vernacular languages. The vernacular had been in use in England since the 8th century and in France since the 11th century. The most popular genres of written works had been the chanson de geste, troubadour lyrics, and romantic epics, or the romance. Though Italy was later in evolving a native literature in the vernacular language, it was here that the most important developments of the period were to come.

Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, written in the early 14th century, merged a medieval world view with classical ideals. Another promoter of the Italian language was Boccaccio with his Decameron. The application of the vernacular did not entail a rejection of Latin, and both Dante and Boccaccio wrote prolifically in Latin as well as Italian, as would Petrarch later (whose Canzoniere also promoted the vernacular and is considered the first modern lyric poetry collection). Together these three poets established the Tuscan dialect as the norm for the modern Italian language.

The Black Death

In the Late Middle Ages (1340–1400) Europe experienced the most deadly disease outbreak in history when the Black Death, the infamous pandemic of bubonic plague, hit in 1347. The Black Death was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 75–200 million people and peaking in Europe in the years 1348–1350.

Path of the Black Death to Europe

The Black Death is thought to have originated in the arid plains of Central Asia, where it then travelled along the Silk Road, reaching the Crimea by 1346. It was most likely carried by Oriental rat fleas living on the black rats that were regular passengers on merchant ships.

Mongol dominance of Eurasian trade routes enabled safe passage through more secured trade routes. Goods were not the only thing being traded; disease also was passed between cultures. From Central Asia the Black Death was carried east and west along the Silk Road by Mongol armies and traders making use of the opportunities of free passage within the Mongol Empire offered by the Pax Mongolica. The epidemic began in Europe with an attack that Mongols launched on the Italian merchants’ last trading station in the region, Caffa in the Crimea. In the autumn of 1346, plague broke out among the besiegers and then penetrated into the town. When spring arrived, the Italian merchants fled on their ships, unknowingly carrying the Black Death. The plague initially spread to humans near the Black Sea and then outwards to the rest of Europe as a result of people fleeing from one area to another.


The spread of the Black Death: Animation showing the spread of The Black Death from Central Asia to East Asia and Europe from 1346 to 1351.

Spreading throughout the Mediterranean and Europe, the Black Death is estimated to have killed 30–60% of Europe’s total population. While Europe was devastated by the disease, the rest of the world fared much better. In India, populations rose from 91 million in 1300, to 97 million in 1400, to 105 million in 1500. Sub-Saharan Africa also remained largely unaffected by the plagues.

Symptoms and Treatment

The most infamous symptom of bubonic plague is an infection of the lymph glands, which become swollen and painful and are known as buboes. Buboes associated with the bubonic plague are commonly found in the armpits, groin, and neck region. Gangrene of the fingers, toes, lips, and nose is another common symptom.

Medieval doctors thought the plague was created by air corrupted by humid weather, decaying unburied bodies, and fumes produced by poor sanitation. The recommended treatment for the plague was a good diet, rest, and relocating to a non-infected environment so the individual could get access to clean air. This did help, but not for the reasons the doctors of the time thought. In actuality, because they recommended moving away from unsanitary conditions, people were, in effect, getting away from the rodents that harbored the fleas carrying the infection.

Plague doctors advised walking around with flowers in or around the nose to “ward off the stench and perhaps the evil that afflicted them.” Some doctors wore a beak-like mask filled with aromatic items. The masks were designed to protect them from putrid air, which was seen as the cause of infection.


A plague doctor: Drawing illustrating the clothes and “beak” of a plague doctor.

Since people didn’t have the knowledge to understand the plague, people believed it was a punishment from God. The thought the only way to be rid of the plague was to be forgiven by God. One method was to carve the symbol of the cross onto the front door of a house with the words “Lord have mercy on us” near it.

Impact of the Black Death on Society and Culture

The aftermath of the plague created a series of religious, social, and economic upheavals, which had profound effects on the course of European history. It took 150 years for Europe’s population to recover, and the effects of the plague irrevocably changed the social structure, resulting in widespread persecution of minorities such as Jews, foreigners, beggars, and lepers. The uncertainty of daily survival has been seen as creating a general mood of morbidity, influencing people to “live for the moment.”

Because 14th-century healers were at a loss to explain the cause of the plague, Europeans turned to astrological forces, earthquakes, and the poisoning of wells by Jews as possible reasons for the plague’s emergence. No one in the 14th century considered rat control a way to ward off the plague, and people began to believe only God’s anger could produce such horrific displays. Giovanni Boccaccio, an Italian writer and poet of the 14th century, questioned whether plague was sent by God for human’s correction, or if it came through the influence of the heavenly bodies. Christians accused Jews of poisoning public water supplies in an effort to ruin European civilization. The spreading of this rumor led to complete destruction of entire Jewish towns, but it was caused simply by suspicion on the part of the Christians, who noticed that the Jews had lost fewer lives in the Plague due to their hygienic practices. In February 1349, 2,000 Jews were murdered in Strasbourg. In August of the same year, the Jewish communities of Mainz and Cologne were exterminated.

There was a significant impact on religion, as many believed the plague was God’s punishment for sinful ways. Church lands and buildings were unaffected, but there were too few priests left to maintain the old schedule of services. Over half the parish priests, who gave the final sacraments to the dying, died themselves. The church moved to recruit replacements, but the process took time. New colleges were opened at established universities, and the training process sped up. The shortage of priests opened new opportunities for lay women to assume more extensive and important service roles in local parishes.

Flagellantism was a 13th and 14th centuries movement involving radicals in the Catholic Church. It began as a militant pilgrimage and was later condemned by the Catholic Church as heretical. The peak of the activity was during the Black Death. Flagellant groups spontaneously arose across Northern and Central Europe in 1349, except in England. The German and Low Countries movement, the Brothers of the Cross, is particularly well documented. They established their camps in fields near towns and held their rituals twice a day. The followers would fall to their knees and scourge themselves, gesturing with their free hands to indicate their sin and striking themselves rhythmically to songs, known as Geisslerlieder, until blood flowed. Sometimes the blood was soaked up by rags and treated as a holy relic. Some towns began to notice that sometimes Flagellants brought plague to towns where it had not yet surfaced. Therefore, later they were denied entry. The flagellants responded with increased physical penance.

The Black Death had a profound impact on art and literature. After 1350, European culture in general turned very morbid. The common mood was one of pessimism, and contemporary art turned dark with representations of death. La Danse Macabre, or the dance of death, was a contemporary allegory, expressed as art, drama, and printed work. Its theme was the universality of death, expressing the common wisdom of the time that no matter one’s station in life, the dance of death united all. It consisted of the personified Death leading a row of dancing figures from all walks of life to the grave—typically with an emperor, king, pope, monk, youngster, and beautiful girl, all in skeleton-state. Such works of art were produced under the impact of the Black Death, reminding people of how fragile their lives and how vain the glories of earthly life were.

A Medieval etching depicted four skeletons dancing and playing music and one skeleton lying on the ground.

Danse Macabre: The Dance of Death (1493) by Michael Wolgemut, from the Liber chronicarum by Hartmann Schedel.

Economic Impact of the Plague

The great population loss wrought by the plague brought favorable results to the surviving peasants in England and Western Europe. There was increased social mobility, as depopulation further eroded the peasants’ already weakened obligations to remain on their traditional holdings. Feudalism never recovered. Land was plentiful, wages high, and serfdom had all but disappeared. It was possible to move about and rise higher in life.

The Black Death encouraged innovation of labor-saving technologies, leading to higher productivity. There was a shift from grain farming to animal husbandry. Grain farming was very labor-intensive, but animal husbandry needed only a shepherd, a few dogs, and pastureland.

Since the plague left vast areas of farmland untended, they were made available for pasture and thus put more meat on the market; the consumption of meat and dairy products went up, as did the export of beef and butter from the Low Countries, Scandinavia, and northern Germany. However, the upper classes often attempted to stop these changes, initially in Western Europe, and more forcefully and successfully in Eastern Europe, by instituting sumptuary laws. These regulated what people (particularly of the peasant class) could wear so that nobles could ensure that peasants did not begin to dress and act as higher class members with their increased wealth. Another tactic was to fix prices and wages so that peasants could not demand more with increasing value. In England, the Statute of Labourers of 1351 was enforced, meaning no peasant could ask for more wages than they had in 1346. This was met with varying success depending on the amount of rebellion it inspired; such a law was one of the causes of the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt in England.

Plague brought an eventual end of serfdom in Western Europe. The manorial system was already in trouble, but the Black Death assured its demise throughout much of Western and Central Europe by 1500. Severe depopulation and migration of people from village to cities caused an acute shortage of agricultural laborers. In England, more than 1300 villages were deserted between 1350 and 1500.


Black Death (“Hollaback Girl” by Gwen Stefani): It’s hard to find a song to parody for such a gruesome subject. Our apologies to Gwen’s fans, but it’s for the cause of education!

For more about this time period, please watch this overview of the Middle Ages from History Den:


Rhetoric in the Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, the focus for rhetorical study is driven by Christianity. Major Christian scholars used the principles of rhetoric to create sermons that would more effectively persuade people about principles of faith. While some modern rhetoricians see this time as stagnant for rhetorical theory, the reality is that Christian scholars were instrumental in preserving the ancient texts we study today. Monks copied texts from Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, and these were used to inform the practices of church leaders. Rhetoric in the middle ages tended to fall in three categories: sermons, letters, and art.

Overview of Rhetoric in the Middle Ages from Guy Litton:

Here’s a video discussing the connection between Christianity and Rhetoric:





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