Western Europe was ill-prepared to meet their assault. It had known little but war for centuries; thought there had been a few breathing spaces of peace during which the various nations recovered sufficiently to embark on the next conflict, which was often as not was the result of dynastic disputes with their claims and counter-claims by the ruling families of Europe. The worst of these medieval was had been Hundred Years Wars in France, which had left the country desolate and ravaged. It ha ended in 1453, the in which Constantinople had fallen to Mehmed the Conqueror, and so devastating had it been as long as thirty years later the vast majority Frenchmen were living in condition of misery, and the population of the country was probably about half what it had been a century and a half earlier. Foreign armies had spared no one, and bands of French soldiers had been almost as bad, plundering the country unmercifully, burning, pillaging, raping and murdering wherever they went, until life had been almost impossible for everyone else.
A sober English statesman Sir John Fortescue, who knew the country well, was appalled by what he saw when travelling through France after the war. He found peasants trying to keep alive on a diet of brown bread and water unvaried by a taste of meat unless it was the sodden refuse from the kitchens of the rich; their clothes were made of coarse canvas, their legs were bare, and their feet unshod. So difficult was their struggle to keep alive that `they have gone croaked and are feeble, not able to fight, nor to defend the Realm; nor have they weapon, nor money to buy them weapon withal; but verily they liven in one the most extreme Poverties and Misery, and they dwelling in of the most fertile Realms’ in the World’.
But even in countries not suffering from the immediate after-effects of war, life was far secure. Those who managed to run the gauntlet of deadly diseases in infancy and childhood were well aware how lucky they were. They lived with the ever-present possibility of death, and the effect of this radical insecurity on the way in which they lived their live was far-reaching. Since they could never count with certainty on being alive next year, next month, or even next week, they lived from day to day with a gusto and kind of decisiveness which, in historical retrospect, looks both enviably vigorous and yet also terrifyingly volatile.
At their best, they ventured, they took every flood-tide which fortune offered them, and were carried along on the turbulent waters of their time, until they either triumphed or drowned; often they with a selfless dedication to the think to which the believed and with a sublime courage which was magnificent; while at their worst they were selfish, brutal, cruel and utterly callous of the sufferings of others. Husbands beat their wives; parents their children; village fought with village; street brawls broke out everywhere, and men killed, as a savage kills, with enjoyment and without a qualm. Public executions were enormously popular and conducted only too often with great barbarity. Johan Huizinga, the Dutch historian, has recorded the fact that the citizens of Mons actually bought a criminal for a large sum of money in order enjoy the spectacle of him being quartered, at which the people rejoiced more than if a holy body had raised from the dead’.