All through recorded history there have been people who have pointed to the calamities, horrors and disasters in the world, and preached that this signified an imminent end of the world. This isn’t even unique to Christianity, which started off with strong millennial expectations in the 1st century, and for the most part retains the same expectations almost 2000 years later.
Many Christians through the centuries, always convinced that their time was that of the end, has always pointed to the ones who doubted the messages of doom and gloom, and applied to them the worlds in 2. Peter about "scoffers." Of course, the "scoffers" have always been correct, and the doomsayers were always wrong.
Assuming we accept the troubled interpretation of the so-called ‘synoptic apocalypse’ that has Jesus stating that wars, diseases, famine, crime and earthquakes would be a sign of his future second coming, let us put a loyal Christian in at the end of the 14th century.
He has witnessed and experienced the events of this century, and looked for the "signs" of Jesus’ coming. What would he find?
The descendents of Genghis Khan’s Mongol hordes killed c. 35 000 000 of Chinese peasantry from 1311 to 1340. Mongol hordes had annihilated whole civilizations from the Pacific to the Adriatic Sea in the previous century; the wars that followed in China when these rulers were fought off were no less destructive.
Do not believe for a second that this is even remotely all. In 1337 the longest war in recorded history, the Hundred Years’ War between England and France, started. The whole of Europe was also, through the first half of this century, divided into countless regional conflicts and feuds.
Asia was not through with genocidal war, alas. Along, in 1370, came a Turkic conqueror known as Timur Lenk (or Tamerlane). He was a Tatar, a Muslim of Mongol descent. Timur Lenk wasn’t second to even Genghis Khan in cruelty and ambitions for world dominance; his hordes slaughtered entire cities and left nations completely devastated. Timur Lenk typically built towers on the site of devastated cities with the skulls of the slaughtered population. Even great cities like Bagdad and Damascus were plundered and their populations annihilated. In India, it is estimated that one million people were killed in a few weeks alone. The century ended at the closing of this savage destruction; Timur Lenk died in 1405 during a campaign against China.
The Black Death (probably bubonic and pneumonic plague) killed at least 75 000 000 people in Eurasia alone from 1347 to 1351. This is the worst pestilence ever in sheer numbers, but neither its mortality nor its global nature was unique. Around 1/3rd of Europe’s population perished; that is 25 000 000 people. In 1400, the population in England was perhaps half of what it had been 100 years earlier. In recorded history, the Black Death stands as a unique watershed, cutting off all continuity and paving the way for a whole new division of power and a changed order of things.
Along with the famines that ravished the world in this century came countless other outbreaks of pestilence and disease. Dysentery and anthrax, and many other diseases, caused untold suffering. Also, leprosy reached its highest scope in Europe ever in this century.
Contemporary chronicles of the 14th century reports a large number of highly destructive earthquakes. Accompanied by the other calamities in this time – wars, famine, pestilence – these were highly devastating.
A horrible Earthquake in 1348 for which no reliable fatality estimates exists, devastated greater parts of Europe. In Hungary, 36 towns or castles were destroyed, and some people even believe that the Black Death that followed were caused by all the corpses lying around after this disaster.
Likewise, in 1356 the Swiss city Basel was totally demolished by an earthquake. In China, the period from 1337 to 1345 were marked by a large number of destructive earthquakes.
Milne’s catalogue of historical earthquakes lists 143 destructive earthquakes for the 14th century. Considering the errant recording, it’s safe to say that this is a very low figure.
Following great disasters are always those who prey on the victims. Crimonologers who have studied crime during the ages will note that sharp increases in crime has often followed disasters, like plagues and wars. The 14th century was one in which crime was on a steep increase. Historian George Lucas reports of a "great increase in crime." At the same time, piracy at the great seas was on the increase. Violent crime was so prevalent that it may have contributed to the population decline at the end of this century. The general fear, materialism and cynicism caused by the Black Plague was no doubt a great contribution to a dissolution of public moral and law and order.
The 14th century marks the start of some serious climatic changes that caused widespread disturbances in seasons and crops. The result was widespread storms, rain, flood, droughts and of course serious crop failures. The worst, but far from being the only one, was the ‘universal’ famine 1315-1317, which caused conditions almost too cruel to mention. It is reported through contemporary chroniclers that parents ate their children, that people dug up bodies from churchyards for food, and that it even was common for people to kill others for food. In Europe north of the Alps and the Pyrenees 10% of the population perished according to some estimates.
Right before the Black Death another serious famine devastated nations; it is estimated it may have affected 1/5th of mankind.
Any Christian at the end of the 14th century, having the same confused and a-historical understanding of "end-time signs" as contemporary doomsayers like Hal Lindsay or the Jehovah’s Witnesses, could not fail to be convinced that the end of the world was imminent in 1400. The calamities he had experienced, if he had survived through the greater part of this century (a rare occurrence indeed), simply had to be a fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy. And yet, here we are, 600 years later, and we can listen to doomsayers who are ignorant about the events of the past spreading propaganda that would have us believe that our century is particularly bad.
Nobody with any regard for facts can seriously argue that the 20th century even comes close to being "worse" than the 14th century. On the contrary, the population boom in this century has occurred precisely because the causes of an early death that plagued that century have been brought under control. These calamities still exist and cause suffering, but their fatality and scope is only a fraction compared to earlier ages.
Remember: In 1300 there may have been around 450 million people in the world. One hundred years later there were considerable less. In 1900, there were around 1 600 million people. We leave this century with almost four times as many people as entered it; over 6 000 million. That is a unique testimony to a century of prosperity beyond what our ancestors could imagine.