Lasting from 1250 to roughly 1500, the Late Middle Ages were a period of upheaval for Europe, with centuries of prosperity and growth coming to a halt, replaced by a series of famines, plagues, large scale wars, and social unrest.
Historians often talk about the Late Middle Ages as a time of crisis for European stability, with the 14th and 15th centuries seeing the population of Europe cut by half or more. Even the monolithic Roman Catholic Church, a pillar of stability in the previous centuries, began to unravel with schisms weakening the religious unity of Europe.
Among the major events of the Late Middle Ages, the Black Death left the deepest marks on the people of Europe, eclipsing the already near apocalyptic famine that struck two generations prior. Combined with long term conflicts like the Hundred Years War, it caused a large-scale economic decline. Worse, endemic hunger and debilitating diseases reduced the productivity of the remaining workforce, amplifying the problems at hand.
But in this grim landscape were also laying the foundations of great changes to come. The toil of the plague made land plentiful and labour more valuable, leading to the empowerment of the peasantry in Western Europe. Following peasant uprisings cemented a less repressive approach to class division in France and England, and the practical end of serfdom in many kingdoms. Warfare also changed, with feudal levy being gradually replaced by professional retinues of soldiers, as well as the more common use of mercenaries. War was now the business of permanent armies and well-trained troops, with foot soldiers taking a more and more important role in combat, and knights distinguishing themselves by furthering the importance of chivalry.
The Late Middle Ages are associated heavily with gothic themes. It was a time of great challenges, and those who could rise from the ashes of these dark times were hardened like steel. Crisis can forge heroes, break ancient norms, and inspire new ideas and amazing creations. It is no surprise that the Late Middle Ages saw literary masterpieces such as Dante’s Inferno and the Divine Comedy, a grim but ultimately hopeful tale about humanity’s shortcomings, but also its potential for redemption and elevation.
In fantasy and LARP, this time period inspires us with its numerous disasters as well as its ideals. The chivalric icon of an honorable, pious, loyal, and gallant warrior was consolidated in this period, as a way to distinguish the aristocratic warriors from the common soldiers and mercenaries. The knights from these centuries are the most popular ones, and certainly the picture most people have in their mind when thinking about a medieval knight.
The physicians and medical quacks of the Late Middle Ages are also quite unmistakable with their portrayal in Black Death iconography, the classic bird mask of the plague doctor being a sinister symbol of the times. Finally, the end of the medieval era was also the pinnacle of feudal politics and dynastic plotting, with famous names such as Eleanor of Aquitaine bringing their maneuvering to a whole new level.
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Veteran Visby Armor
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The Late Middle Ages were marked by the emergence of widespread fashion, no longer limited to the high aristocracy, but now seen among minor landed nobles and the merchant class. Clothes were better fitted, tighter, and made to display contrasting colors and layers. Typical clothes from the period were the cotehardie, a long sleeve buttoned bodice with a skirt attached to it, as well as the houppelande, a unisex full-length robe with wide sleeves and decorative trims. The goal was to elongate the body, a typical aspect of gothic fashion.
Excessively long pointed hoods and head veils are also a staple of the Late Middles Ages, with most women wearing a wimple for modesty as well as status. Earlier hooded chaperones also evolved into headgear, wrapped around the top of the head in a fashion reminiscent of a headscarf or a big hat. More hat styles were also popular, such as the bycocket or ‘’Robin Hood’’ hat, and various round and cylindrical hats. In terms of armor, the late medieval period marks the beginning of the knightly plate armor, with the classical medieval full plate becoming dominant among knights during the Hundred Years Wars.
Common soldiers would also likely be equipped with pieces of plate, like pauldrons, helmets, or greaves, while still using chainmail and the more affordable coat-of-plates to protect their torsos. This is also the golden age of the longsword, also known as the bastard sword in popular culture, a versatile knightly weapon made to be used two-handed, but of a more nimble build than the massive greatswords of the Renaissance. The longbow was also popularized during this period, as well as many pole weapons like the guisarme, the halberd, or the bill hook.