General Introduction - The Prophet - 14 

vey the sense that the Church—in the persons of Popes Innocent III and Honorius III, Cardinal Hugolino, and Bishop Guido of Assisi—"saved" Francis and his Order. At the same time, they also suggest that Francis and his Order "saved" the debilitated, aging Church. In the apocalyptic climate of the fourteenth century, however, it seemed appropriate for the Franciscan zelanti to focus more intently on Francis's vision and mission.23 The urgency of this consciousness became more pressing as the socio-economic conditions in which they found themselves grew increasingly dismal. By the beginning of the fourteenth century, the population of Europe had reached an unprecedented height, so much so that the land could barely provide sufficient resources to support it. There was no longer any margin for crop failures or even harvest shortfalls. In an economy driven by profit, prices rose to twenty times their normal level. In Venice alone, the rate of inflation was 1200 percent. Strikes and riots became commonplace, as ordinary workers protested their dismal living conditions.

To compound this precarious situation, the weather patterns of Western Europe were changing: summers were far more cool and wet, autumns were plagued with early storms. The spring of 1315, for example, was so extraordinarily wet that it was impossible to plow the fields; that summer was inundated with heavy rains rotting much of the seed before it could germinate. The same conditions prevailed in 1316 as a series of unusual storms pounded the Atlantic coast and brought severe flooding to usually fertile lands. With bad harvests, prices of grain quadrupled, and famine was prevalent. The poor were desperate to eat but had no money, while the rich bought up whatever food was available and stored it away. Animals normally used for the fields were slaughtered, seed grain was eaten, young children were abandoned, and many of the old voluntarily stopped eating so that younger members of their families might live to till the fields. There were even numerous reports of cannibalism. By the winter of 1317, historians estimate that between ten and fifteen percent of Europe's population had died from disease or starvation.24

The number of the poor increased dramatically, as did their ever-worsening living conditions. Plagues became common-place. Florence endured a devastating plague in 1340, another in 1344, and yet another in 1346. One chronicler wrote that the years l343-54 were among the most tragic in the history of Venice.25

Crisis became catastrophe as the Black Death, spread by the fleas of infected rats, struck Italy in 1347 and ravaged Europe over the next two years. Historians estimate the mortality rate at one-quarter to one-third of the population. Jacques LeGoff deftly sketches how "the fall in population, aggravated by the plague, cut down the number of the workforce and the consumers."26

In the profit economy of fourteenth century Europe, economic forces shifted in their traditional manner: "only the most powerful, the most skilled or the luckiest benefitted; others were hit."27 All of these forces—famine, rise in prices, plague, and diminution of the workforce—brought into focus the tragedy of the Hundred Years War that further exacerbated Europe's demoralized state between 1338 and 1453. Its fundamental cause was the anomaly




Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 3, p. 14