Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 June 2012
All historical boundaries are problematic. The dates chosen as the limits for this volume, 1200–1500, are arbitrary – as the choice of round numbers was designed to signal and as was stressed in the Preface. None of the contributors would claim that these three centuries represent a self-contained period. The exploration of their themes has meant looking back to earlier developments that were still working themselves out when this period opens, but also glancing forward to suggest how changes continued to unfold in the next century. No-one is in the business of trying to identify some medieval/modern divide, and although, through convention and convenience, most of us continue to use the term ‘the late middle ages’ it is with no intention of implying that the period should be characterised as liminal, let alone autumnal.
One consequence of this perspective is that the Black Death, as in other recent work, is denied its traditional status as the earthquake that reduced medieval certainties to rubble and allowed the building of the modern world. This model was firmly established by Cardinal Gasquet in the first major English study of the plague, published in 1893. Gasquet was particularly interested in the possibility that the plague might explain the Protestant Reformation, but he was also convinced that it brought about a complete social revolution as well. Other historians have linked it more specifically with the rise of capitalism, individualism, the middle classes and the modern state.