Triumph of Death Wall Painting, ca. 1448, Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo (Photo Rob Cook, 2012)

The Great Transition in the Late Medieval World

New book by Bruce M. S. Campbell on the Great Transition from 13th to the 16th century promises to be the new bible in environmental history

The great transition CoverThe Great Transition. Climate, Disease and Society in the Late-Medieval World
By Bruce M. S. Campbell, Queen’s University Belfast
Cambridge University Press 2016
ISBN: 9780521144438

Does it pay to study the history of the Middle Ages? Politicians and university administrators voice from time to time this concern, finding ancient history both esoteric and completely worthless in terms of the challenges posed by globalism, robotics, wars, refugees and climate changes.

In a sense this is very odd: first of all the only jobs left will presumably be inside tourism, of which 25 – 40% is estimated to be undertaken solely for cultural reasons – with heritage being the main purpose for traveling; which means there is ample use for nearly all those Chauserians! But secondly, a number of the global challenges posed by the 21st century seems to be a replay of former events – for instance climate changes, causing migratory wars, seismic shifts in the economy and soon – epidemiologists agree – pandemics. Which means that we sorely need medieval historians to explain to us how it came about before and how our ancestors dealt with such seismic shifts.

It is in view of this, the new book by Bruce M. S. Campbell must be heartily welcomed. Here he traces the interplay of climate changes, pestilences, economic shifts and warring from ca. 1250 – 1500 and the Great Transition, which it all resulted in.

World Falling Apart

Murrain. From: Golden Haggadah. Biblical scenes based on Genesis, 19-37. Northern Spain, probably Barcelona, c.1320 British Library Add. MS. 27210
Murrain. From: Golden Haggadah. Biblical scenes based on Genesis, 19-37. Northern Spain, probably Barcelona, c.1320 British Library Add. MS. 27210, p. 13.

Before that, he begins by telling us, Europeans lived in a particularly efflorescent and prosperous time characterised by both demographic, economic and cultural expansion.

However, around AD 1257 one of the world’s most devastating volcanic eruptions in modern time took place in the Samalas in Indonesia. In itself, the event did not change the direction, which the world was going. But it set the scene for what came next: a marked decline in sun-spots called the Wolf Solar Minimum, which is unanimously believed to be the culprit behind the deteriorating climate in the first half of the 14th century. This was accompanied by re-emergent pathogens, murrains, which hit first the sheep, which provided wool for the flourishing textile industry in European cities; later draught animals were hit by severe outbreaks of rinderpest critically diminishing the kinetic energy reserve – the ability for peasants to cultivate the land at a time, when severe climatic events caused famines among demographically overstretched populations. At the same time an economic crunch set in due to the depleted European silver-mines, while the Mamluk took control of the trade across the Middle East to India and China. Until 1348 Europe teetered on a precarious balance. Now, however, the second and most convulsive phase set in with the outbreak of the plague and the corresponding loss of lives variously estimated to lie between 30 – 50% pending on the local and social circumstances. Monasteries were for instance hit hard because of their communal lifestyle. Other places less so.

During this short period, which Campbell characterises as a tipping point, war, climate change and plague shifted the balance toward a hundred-year long recession. From 1450 – 75 this resulted in a period of serious economic depression characterised by want of population growth, depressed domestic demand and bullion scarcity. All this was peppered with civil wars, piracy and slave raids. The situation, we are told, did not significantly better until after the great discoveries in the New World and the import of bullion, which reignited the famished economy of the 15th century.

Campbell is very careful to stress that the seismic shifts, which characterised this great transition, cannot be delegated to mono-causal explanations. These changes were not  ultimately wrought by climate changes, nor by the diseases or the political changes affecting trade-routes and banking businesses. Quite the opposite was the case. In intricate ways, these factors played together to create what Campbell calls “The Perfect Storm”. It is the complex ways in which all this interacted and evolved, which he explores, and which makes the book a truly invigorating read. It is a very compelling history told by a professor, who is obviously in full command of the newest research inside a vast number of different scientific fields – climate science, biology, epidemiology, and economic history.


Bruce M. S. Campbell explaining his model behind his understanding of the elements of history behind the Great Transition.
Bruce M. S. Campbell explaining his model behind his understanding of the elements of history behind the Great Transition.

Important to note is also that this Great Transition in his opinion was not just a cyclical blip. The new times did not bring back the old: the Levant and North Africa were ultimately lost to Christendom (and still is), while trade and expansion began to move around the globe in the opposite direction. In this, “nature as much as society needs to be acknowledged as a protagonist of historical change” (p. 22). Further he writes: “To privilege endogenous human processes over ostensibly exogenous environmental events is … to create a false dichotomy, since there is nothing in this model that is not endogenous.” (p 22).

And yet, we as readers are curiously enough left with the urge to do a kind of contra-factual experiment: The question is what would have happened, had the people in the Middle Ages stumbled upon the use of penicillin? What might have happened had the use of horsepower as kinetic energy become more widespread at an earlier time? What if other technological fixes (new ship-building techniques) or new economic instruments had been introduced earlier on? How would the story have played out then?

For instance: Would the central political institutions in Europe have kept their powerful positions and not disintegrated – as they did – creating the many small and even tiny “nation states”, which came into power at that time? The repercussions with which we still live? What if people had not just partaken in “social processes”, but also in “cultural processes”? And what if they did, but Campbell just left it out of the equation? The Model?

Center and Periphery

As it happens, people did invest themselves in the events in the 14th century, both politically and culturally. In order to grasp this, we have to note that Europe in the 13th century was recognizably led by a handful of mighty powers dominating the political scene – France, England, the Holy Roman Empire, and to some extent Spain. However, in the middle of the 15th century, after the Great Transition, Europe was spotted with a large number of small, but now well delineated nations like e.g. Burgundy, Brittany, and Luxemburg. At the same time the former super-powers, England, France and Bohemia, were in the grips of protracted civil wars, which were tearing them apart; as were the Italian city-states and to some extent the Scandinavian nations as well as the German dukedoms. Yet, as we all know, the end-result in the Early Modern period was to a large extent the resurrection of the Holy-Roman Imperial might, with France and England returning to former glory, while Poland and Spain manifested themselves as important large-scale and seemingly culturally homogenous players. However, in between in the 14th century, the political landscape had exploded.

Cultural and Civilizational cycles by Jonathan FriedmannWhat might this mean, if not our need to take notice of the cyclical character of the cultural and political reactions to the Great Transition. Thus, while the world shifted radically in its geo-political and economic orientation, as Campbell writes, Europe in the Middle Ages and Early Modernity kept oscillating between cultural and political explosions in the centres and peripheries, according to the economic climate of expansion and contraction – furthered or hindered by more or less decisive climatic or environmental events. We might add, that while the interplay between climate, economy, diseases and war created seismic shifts, the cultural and political changes kept cyclically oscillating. These happenings were the results of real people taken real actions.

This may seem mere quibbling, when we are offered such a rich fare of historical writing as Campbell’s book on the Great Transition. However, as we all know, we ourselves are at the tipping point of a major global catastrophe caused by a mixture of global demographic explosion and dramatic major climatic changes. We are also on the eve of a major global war, fueled by deteriorating life circumstances in the south. Likewise, our economic world system is in tatters and nobody really knows how to fix it. Finally, most epidemiologists will tell us that it is only a matter of time before some nastiness like HIV of Zika get airborne. Having read Campbell’s book it is easy to say: been there, seen this, done that!

However, this cannot suffice. We, in the 21st century, are served a poisonous cocktail and the main question must be what we should do about it. If history repeats itself, pushing ourselves towards our very own Great Transition, we must be allowed to ask how we might at least mitigate the situation.  We cannot just let it happen. History cannot be allowed to once more just hurtle itself into the abyss.

Which means that if history is researched and written at Universities, because it matters as much as the invention of the technological fixes we sorely need – and this is Bruce Campbell’s raison d’etre – we have to get it right all the way. The model, we choose for understanding and writing historical change, matters profoundly.

Here it becomes important to know that right now, when  we are once more climatically and economically threatened, we explode culturally  in exactly the same way as our ancestors did in the 14th and 15th centuries [1]. Each to his own as they decided in Boston, Lincolnshire, where 75.6% voted Leave on June 24th. We all know the symptoms – Brexit, le Pen, Trump.

This is not a part of the history (in its late medieval version), which Campbell touches much upon in his book: his agenda is another: he “wishes to succeed in providing a historically convincing account of the entirety of this chronologically extended and geographically extensive socio-ecological transformation.” In this he succeeds. The point, however, is that in the 21st century we also need to harness all our cultural, political and technological savoir-faire in order to find a solution, with which we can reinvent the world as it was (1989 – 2007); the point being that this time over, there are no longer another way to turn, another continent to colonise, a goldmine yet to be explored. Which means, that this time we are ultimately chained to a ship of fools whose fate is also ours. It would thus have been nice to have had the socio-cultural dimension included in the model and in the history presented in an otherwise extremely important book.

Thus this book calls for a sequel!  The question is, will Campbell write it?

Book Review by Karen Schousboe

[1] For a presentation of this approach to historical writing, see: Cultural & Global Processes. By Jonathan Friedman. Sage 1994. There a model is presented integrating economic and socio-cultural changes from an historical anthropological point of perspective.


What Can Medieval History Tell Us About Environmental Change?
By Bruce M.S. Campbell
Blogpost: Fifteeneightyfour – Academic Perspectives from Cambridge University Press 03.08.2016



Triumph of Death. Wall Painting, ca. 1448, Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo © Rob Cook 2012

















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