The Great Famine: Europe’s Dark Years

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The Great Famine by William Chester Jordan
The Great Famine by William Chester Jordan

THE GREAT FAMINE OF 1315-1317

Introduction to the Great Famine

The Great Famine, which took place from 1315 to 1317, extending in some areas until 1322, marked the beginning of a series of large-scale crises that profoundly impacted Europe in the early 14th century. This catastrophic event affected vast regions, stretching from Poland to the Alps, and signified a dramatic end to a period of growth and prosperity that spanned from the 11th to the 13th centuries.

Causes and Onset of the Famine

The famine began with adverse weather conditions in the spring of 1315. Unusually heavy rains and cool temperatures prevented crops from maturing, leading to successive harvest failures. The situation persisted through 1316 until the summer harvest of 1317. However, Europe did not fully recover until 1322. Additionally, a severe outbreak of cattle disease drastically reduced livestock populations, notably sheep and cattle, by as much as 80%.

The Famine’s Devastating Impact

During this era, society experienced heightened instances of crime, widespread disease, numerous deaths, and extreme measures like cannibalism and infanticide, underscoring the extreme distress and agony of the populace. The ramifications of the famine extended beyond mere survival, impacting the Church, the governing bodies, and the very structure of European society. This period also established a framework for future disasters that occurred later in the 14th century.

Contemporary accounts of the famine, found in 14th-century chronicles such as those by Jean de Venette and the Annales Gandenses, provide firsthand documentation of the harsh realities of the time. These records detail the catastrophic agricultural failures and the extreme lengths to which people went for survival, including cannibalism and infanticide.

The Great Famine of 1315–1317. Illustration of a street scene with emaciated townspeople.

The Great Famine of 1315–1317. Illustration of a street scene with emaciated townspeople.

Historical Context: Famines in Medieval Europe

Famines were common in medieval Europe, with France and England experiencing multiple instances, including the Great Famine of 1315–1317. These frequent events illustrate the era’s struggle for survival, often marked by food scarcity.

Impact on Life Expectancy and Health

Historical records, such as those from the English royal family, reveal drastic declines in life expectancy during the 14th Century Crisis. From an average of 35.28 years in 1276, it dropped to 29.84 years during the Great Famine (1301-1325) and further plummeted to 17.33 years during the plague (1348-1375).

Demographic Alterations during Europe’s Dark Years

The plague years, in particular, saw a dramatic population decrease, with an estimated 42% reduction between 1348 and 1375. This highlights the catastrophic effects of the plague and the Great Famine on Europe’s demographic landscape.

The Medieval Warm Period and Its Aftermath

Throughout the Medieval Warm Period, spanning from the 10th to the 13th centuries, Europe experienced a remarkable surge in its population, a growth unprecedented in previous times. This population boom reached levels in some areas that would not be paralleled until the 19th century. Notably, certain rural regions in France today still have lower population densities than what was observed in the early 14th century.

Decline in Agricultural Efficiency and Rising Food Prices

This period also saw a gradual decline in agricultural efficiency, particularly in wheat production. Starting around 1280, the yield ratios of wheat—essentially, the amount of grain harvested for each seed sown—began to fall, concurrently with a rise in food prices. Following a good harvest, the yield ratio could reach as high as 7:1, but this could plummet to as low as 2:1 in years of poor harvests. This meant that for every seed planted, only two seeds were reaped—one for replanting the next year and one for immediate consumption. This is in stark contrast to modern agricultural practices, which can achieve yield ratios of 30:1 or more.

The Onset of the Great Famine and the Little Ice Age

The beginning of the Great Famine coincided with the termination of the Medieval Warm Period. Between 1310 and 1330, Northern Europe was beset by some of the most severe and prolonged bad weather of the Middle Ages, marked by intensely cold winters and wet, cool summers. This climatic downturn, potentially triggered by a volcanic event, occurred during a phase known as the Little Ice Age.

Governmental Challenges and Societal Impacts

The combination of changing weather patterns, the inability of medieval governments to effectively manage such crises, and the population having reached an all-time high created a precarious situation for food production. Any slight misstep or shortcoming in agricultural yields could lead to severe consequences, as was witnessed during the Great Famine. This period serves as a significant example of how climatic shifts and governmental inadequacies, coupled with high population densities, can create a fragile balance between food security and societal stability.

Great Famine of 1315-1317. Illustration depicting a desolate farmland with failed crops.

Great Famine of 1315-1317. Illustration depicting a desolate farmland with failed crops.

The Spring of 1315: A Turning Point

The spring of 1315 was a critical turning point. Continuous rain and low temperatures across Europe led to widespread crop failures. The inability to cure hay and straw due to wet conditions also meant there was insufficient fodder for livestock. England, for example, saw extensive flooding in Yorkshire and Nottingham, further exacerbating the crisis.

Escalating Crisis and Response

As the situation worsened, food prices soared. In England, prices doubled in just a few months. Salt, essential for preserving meat, became scarce and expensive. The population, already under pressure from increasing numbers, resorted to desperate measures for survival, including consuming wild plants and animals.

Documented Incidents and Military Impacts

The extreme hardships caused by the Great Famine are vividly depicted in numerous historical chronicles and accounts. These sources provide a stark illustration of the widespread suffering and turmoil during this period. One such account involves Edward II of England, who, in a notably rare occurrence for an English monarch, faced significant difficulty in procuring bread during a visit to St Albans in August 1315. This incident, as documented in contemporary chronicles, underscores the depth of the crisis, even affecting the highest echelons of society.

Another aspect of the famine’s far-reaching impact is evidenced in the military sphere. Louis X of France’s military campaign, for instance, was notably disrupted by the Great Famine’s effects. His planned invasion of Flanders in this period was severely hindered by the unrelentingly wet conditions, rendering the terrain impractical for military movements. Chronicles of the time, such as those written by chroniclers in Flanders, detail these struggles, highlighting how the famine’s consequences extended beyond mere starvation and impacted political and military strategies.

These historical accounts, drawn from sources like the chronicles of Jean Froissart and other contemporaneous records, not only provide detailed narratives of specific events but also paint a broader picture of the period. They illustrate a Europe in the grip of a crisis that transcended social and political boundaries, affecting monarchs and peasants alike.

From the Apocalypse in a Biblia Pauperum illuminated at Erfurt around the time of the Great Famine.

From the Apocalypse in a Biblia Pauperum illuminated at Erfurt around the time of the Great Famine.

Peak and Aftermath of the Famine

The peak of the Great Famine was reached in the year 1317, a time marked by relentless wet weather. It was only during the summer of that year that climatic conditions began to normalize. However, the population had already been severely weakened by a host of diseases, including pneumonia, bronchitis, and tuberculosis. Furthermore, a significant portion of the seed stock, essential for future harvests, had been consumed out of sheer desperation for food. This dire situation meant that it took until 1325 for the food supply to stabilize at relatively normal levels and for the population to start showing signs of recovery. The human cost of the famine was substantial; historians estimate that between 10 to 25 percent of the population in many cities and towns succumbed to its effects.

The scale of mortality during the Great Famine is a subject of ongoing historical debate. Jean-Pierre Leguay, a notable historian, described the famine as having caused “wholesale slaughter in a world that was already overcrowded, especially in the towns.” Death rates varied across regions, with some areas of southern England experiencing a population decline of about 10 to 15 percent. Northern France, another hard-hit region, saw a reduction of approximately 10 percent in its population.

Geographically, the Great Famine primarily afflicted Northern Europe. Its impact was felt across the British Isles, Northern France, the Low Countries, Scandinavia, Germany, and western Poland. Some of the Baltic states were also affected, though the far eastern Baltic regions experienced only indirect impacts. The southern boundaries of the famine’s reach were marked by the natural barriers of the Alps and the Pyrenees.

While the Black Death of 1347-1351 would eventually claim more lives, it swept through areas relatively quickly, over a matter of months. In contrast, the Great Famine was a protracted crisis, extending over several years and prolonging the suffering and hardship of the European populace. This distinction highlights the unique and devastating nature of the Great Famine in medieval history, leaving a profound and lasting impact on the societies it affected.

Implications on the Roman Catholic Church

During this period, the prevailing belief across many societies was that natural disasters were a form of divine punishment for sins or moral failings. In an era deeply rooted in religious faith, with Roman Catholicism being the predominant and often the sole accepted Christian denomination, such calamities were seen through a theological lens. However, the persistent and widespread suffering caused by the Great Famine led to a growing sense of disillusionment. Despite fervent prayers and religious observances, the famine’s impacts continued unabated, which raised questions about the efficacy of religious intervention in such crises.

This growing skepticism had significant implications for the Roman Catholic Church, which had long held a central role in providing spiritual and, often, temporal guidance. The inability of the church to alleviate the suffering caused by the famine began to erode its institutional authority. People started questioning not only the church’s power but also its moral and doctrinal integrity.

Furthermore, the prolonged hardship of the Great Famine provided fertile ground for the emergence of new religious movements. Many of these movements directly challenged the authority of the papacy and the Roman Catholic Church, accusing them of corruption and doctrinal errors. They argued that the Church’s failure to address the root causes of the famine and its perceived inefficacy in the face of such a disaster was indicative of deeper systemic issues within the Church’s hierarchy and teachings.

These developments during and after the Great Famine played a pivotal role in shaping the religious landscape of Europe. They contributed to a gradual shift in religious attitudes and beliefs, laying the groundwork for various reformist and heretical movements that would emerge in later years. This period marks a significant moment in the history of the Roman Catholic Church, where its unchallenged authority and influence began to be critically examined and contested by the very societies it aimed to shepherd.

Cultural Consequence

In the 14th century, medieval Europe was already rife with social unrest and violence. Compared to modern standards, serious crimes such as rape and murder were alarmingly more prevalent, especially when considered relative to the population size of that era. This heightened level of violence was a stark contrast to contemporary societies, where such acts are far less common and met with stringent legal consequences.

The advent of the Great Famine further exacerbated this trend, leading to a significant surge in criminal activity. The desperation to survive pushed many, including those who would not ordinarily engage in unlawful behavior, to resort to crime. The need to feed oneself and one’s family in the face of widespread hunger and scarcity often outweighed the fear of legal repercussions.

In the ensuing decades following the famine, the social and moral fabric of Europe underwent a profound transformation. The continent became tougher, more hardened, and increasingly violent. This shift was distinctly evident in all strata of society, most notably in warfare. The 14th century, marked by events like the Hundred Years’ War, saw the decline of chivalric ideals that had somewhat tempered warfare in the 12th and 13th centuries. In earlier times, noble combatants were more likely to perish in accidental tournament mishaps than in actual battles. However, the post-famine era witnessed a more brutal form of warfare, devoid of the earlier chivalrous conduct.

The inability of medieval governments to effectively address the myriad crises spawned by the famine also led to widespread disillusionment and eroded public trust in these institutions. This was particularly evident in the case of Edward II of England. His unpopularity as a monarch was exacerbated by the famine, which many perceived as divine punishment for his misrule. This sentiment played a significant role in undermining his authority and contributing to his eventual downfall. The famine, thus, not only brought about immediate suffering but also had lasting political repercussions, reshaping the governance and social dynamics of medieval Europe.

Legacy of the Great Famine

The Great Famine marked a definitive end to a period of population growth, setting the stage for subsequent events like the Black Death. Its extensive impact was felt across Northern Europe, reshaping the course of history.

RECOMENDED BOOKS

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From the Brink of Apocalypse: Confronting Famine, War, Plague, and Death in the Later Middle Ages by John Aberth
A Distant Mirror The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman
A Distant Mirror The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman
The Black Death: A Personal History by John Hatcher
The Black Death: A Personal History by John Hatcher

DOCUMENTARY

Source: (Viator in Terra, 2021)

From the Apocalypse in a Biblia Pauperum illuminated at Erfurt around the time of the Great Famine.

FEATURED ILLUSTRATION

The image appears to be a depiction from the “Apocalypse,” also known as the Book of Revelation from the Christian Bible, and it seems to be a page from a Biblia Pauperum.

The “Apocalypse in a Biblia Pauperum” refers to an illustrated version of the Book of Revelation contained within the Biblia Pauperum, which is a type of picture Bible. The Biblia Pauperum, also known as the “Bible of the Poor,” was a medieval picture book, often in illuminated manuscript form, that depicted various biblical scenes with accompanying explanations. They were designed to educate people who were illiterate or had limited access to full copies of the Bible, which was common during the medieval period.

The illustration shows a chimera-like beast with a body that appears to be part lion and part bird, with a crowned human head. It wields a sword and stands on a serpent, which is a common representation of evil, or Satan. Below, we see a human figure in flames, which might represent the torments of hell or the suffering of souls. The beast itself could represent one of the creatures from the Book of Revelation, which includes various symbolic and allegorical figures.

This particular illustration forms part of an illuminated manuscript, which means it was a hand-made book with pages adorned with gold or silver and vibrant colors, made during the time of the Great Famine around the early 14th century. The artwork would have served both an educational and a contemplative function, perhaps reflecting the tumultuous times during which it was created, including the societal upheaval caused by the famine.

The iconography here is dense with symbolism that would have been familiar to the medieval viewer. The crowned figure may symbolize authority or a form of divine power, while the beastly nature of the body could represent the amalgamation of different threats or evils. The sword often signifies justice or holy war, and the entire composition speaks to the medieval understanding of the struggle between good and evil and the apocalyptic themes of the Book of Revelation.

Given that this was created around the time of the Great Famine, the imagery might also have been interpreted by contemporary viewers as reflecting the chaos and suffering of their own time, perhaps even being seen as a divine commentary on the events unfolding around them.

Sources

  • Jordan, W. C. (1996). The Great Famine: Northern Europe in the Early Fourteenth Century. Princeton University Press.

  • Dyer, C. (2000). Everyday Life in Medieval England. Hambledon and London.

  • Aberth, J. (2010). From the Brink of the Apocalypse: Confronting Famine, War, Plague, and Death in the Later Middle Ages. Routledge.

  • Tuchman, B. W. (1978). A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. Alfred A. Knopf.

  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2023, December 8). Great Famine of 1315–1317. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Famine_of_1315%E2%80%931317‌

  • Viator in Terra. (2021). The Medieval Great Famine 1315 – 1322 (Documentary) | Part 1: Chastisement by Rain and War [YouTube Video]. In YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OWr3yHhsLgQ

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