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William of Occam formulated the principle of Occam's Razor, which held that the simplest theory that matched all the known facts was the correct one. At the University of Paris, Jean Buridan questioned the physics of Aristotle and presaged the modern scientific ideas of Isaac Newton and Galileo concerning gravity, inertia and momentum when he wrote:
...after leaving the arm of the thrower, the projectile would be moved by an impetus given to it by the thrower and would continue to be moved as long as the impetus remained stronger than the resistance, and would be of infinite duration were it not diminished and corrupted by a contrary force resisting it or by something inclining it to a contrary motion (Glick, Livesay and Wallis 107)
Thomas Bradwardine and his colleagues at Oxford University also anticipated Newton and Galileo when they found that a body moving with constant velocity travels distance and time equal to an accelerated body whose velocity is half the final speed of the accelerated body. Nicholas Oresme showed that the physics of Aristotle was not valid in its description of the movement of the earth and the atmosphere, and that the earth rotated daily and revolved around the sun. Despite this argument in favor of the Earth's motion Oresme, fell back on the commonly held opinion that "everyone maintains, and I think myself, that the heavens do move and not the earth. (Oresme 536-537).
The historian of science Ronald Numbers notes that the modern scientific assumption of methodological naturalism can be also traced back to the work of these medieval thinkers:
By the late Middle Ages the search for natural causes had come to typify the work of Christian natural philosophers. Although characteristically leaving the door open for the possibility of direct divine intervention, they frequently expressed contempt for soft-minded contemporaries who invoked miracles rather than searching for natural explanations. The University of Paris cleric Jean Buridan (a. 1295-ca. 1358), described as "perhaps the most brilliant arts master of the Middle Ages," contrasted the philosopher's search for "appropriate natural causes" with the common folk's erroneous habit of attributing unusual astronomical phenomena to the supernatural. In the fourteenth century the natural philosopher Nicole Oresme (ca. 1320 -- 82), who went on to become a Roman Catholic bishop, admonished that, in discussing various marvels of nature, "there is no reason to take recourse to the heavens, the last refuge of the weak, or demons, or to our glorious God as if He would produce these effects directly, more so than those effects whose causes we believe are well-known to us." (Numbers 267)
During the Late Middle Ages, however, Europe experienced famines, plagues, civil wars and rebellions that wiped out as much as 40-50% of the population and set in motion the forces of modernity that would destroy the feudal system and the universal power of the Catholic Church. These forces included national, capitalism, the Protestant Reformation, and the rise of humanism and modern science. All of these had their precursors in the Middle Ages, to be sure, and were built on medieval foundations, even though they also broke with and rebelled against them at the same time.
By the standards of the time and the limited development of technology, Europe was overpopulated in relation to its land base by the early-14th Century, when the weather turned wetter and colder with the beginning of the Little Ice Age. Starting in 1347, the bubonic plague killed at least half of the population. Plague and famine struck a population that was already poor and malnourished, and the plague recurred in the 1360s and in waves up until the 18th Century, while the Little Ice Age continued into the 1800s, all of which kept the population at relatively low levels. (Medieval Economics). Urban development in the absence of mechanization and industrialization was strictly limited to probably no more than 20% of the population. Heavy taxation and lack of arable land contributed to the poverty and misery of the peasants and serfs, and this hierarchical society was not particularly open to innovation (Medieval Economics).
Depopulation had major implications for the post-plague economy (Jordan). This created a shortage of agricultural workers with the survivors demanding higher wages, freedom from their feudal bondage and more representative government. In the Peasants Revolt of 1381 threatened to overthrow the feudal system and led to great reductions in taxes and rents during the next century (Jones 201). Not coincidentally, a new class of gentry, improving farmers and cloth merchants began to take shape in England, especially in London and the southwest, which become the most economically important region of the country (Barron 78). England became a more capitalist country than ever before as the feudal system went into decline, along with increased demands for more religious freedom and representation in Parliament from the lower classes that would become a common feature of social and political struggles in the centuries ahead. Trade, agriculture and population recovered only very slowly in the period 1400-1700, but in the process the entire society was reshaped into a more recognizably modern form.
Great Famine, Black Death and Peasant's Revolt
Overpopulation and climate change led to a Great Famine in 1315, which contributed to population decline (Aberth 13-14). Food prices and salt prices increased greatly due to the colder and wetter weather (Aberth 20; Jordon 38). Drought followed in the 1320s and then renewed colder and wetter weather that lasted for centuries (Jordan 17). The Black Death caused around 27% mortality for the upper classes and 40 -- 70% among the peasantry (Dyer 272-273). This reversed the population growth of the 12th and 13th centuries and left a domestic economy that was "profoundly shaken, but not destroyed" (Jordan 78; Hodgett 201). Because of famine and plague, the population fell by half in 1300-77, to only2.5 million, and numbers remained low into the 17th Century. (Medieval Economics).
Wages began to increase as well, even though the aristocracy attempted to keep these fixed at pre-Plague levels, which led to revolts (Medieval Economics). New poll taxes of 1377-1380 insisted that everyone should pay a sum equal to a craftsman's daily, which caused the people of the southeast rose in revolt in 1381. New sumptuary laws also banned the lower classes from consuming certain products or wearing high-status clothes, which had become more common as wages increased (Jones 16). (Medieval Economics). Serfdom gradually disappeared in England over the next 100 years because of this revolt, which was put down with great brutality. So were similar peasant revolts in the 15th Century in Yorkshire and Cornwall (McFarlane 143; Hodgett 204). Most new revenues were obtained through borrowing and taxes on trade rather than unpopular direct taxes (Jones 207).
Agriculture and the overall economy remained depressed for centuries after the Black Death, although a new class of merchant capitalists, non-noble landed gentry, and bankers also came into being for the first time in the Late Middle Ages (Wood 120,173). With the population falling by half, more land was available for free peasants and gentry landlords, whose standard of living and consumption of meat also increased (Dyer 91). For the church and aristocracy, however, collections of rents and taxes also fell by half in the 14th and 15th Centuies (Hodgett 6). Land titles were increasingly farmed out for fixed rents or sold on the open market (Hodgett 205-206). Plague among the oxen also increased the numbers of horses used for plowing, which were more efficient (Aberth 27-28). Britain's fishing industry also expanded greatly during this time, in cities like Bristol (Bailey 53). Nobles also began buying more fish from commercial markets rather than using their own fishponds (Dyer 107). Tin and iron mining "expanded in the 14th and 15th Centuries, and the first blast furnace in England opened in 1496 in Newbridge" (Bailey 54-55).
Increasingly elaborate road networks were built across England, some involving the construction of up to thirty bridges to cross rivers and other obstacles (Hodgett 110). Shipbuilding, particularly in the southwest, became a major industry for the first time and investment in new trading ships became the single biggest form of late medieval investment in England (Kowalski 235). Trade fell slightly during the depression of the mid-15th century, but picked up again and reached 130,000 cloths a year by the 1540s (Lee 127). London controlled about 50% of these exports in 1400, and 83% of wool and cloth exports by 1540. New charted companies of merchant capitalists and entrepreneurs began to appear in London and other cities, such as the Worshipful Company of Drapers or the Company of Merchant Adventurers of London. English producers also "began to provide credit to European buyers rather than the other way around. Usury grew during the period, and few cases were prosecuted by the authorities" (Wood 173). Trade shifted into new directions, and the decline of…[continue]
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