The Crisis of the Fourteenth Century Reassessed: Between Ecology and Institutions – Evidence from England (1310-1350)

The Crisis of the Fourteenth Century Reassessed: Between Ecology and Institutions – Evidence from England (1310-1350)

By Philip Slavin

Paper given at 2010 Meeting of the Economic History Association (2010)

Introduction: That the first half of the fourteenth century was a period of ecological and economic shocks is truism requires no argumentation. In England, as elsewhere in Northern Europe, the local population was hit by a series of harsh crises, the three most devastating of which were the Great Famine of 1314/5-22, the Great Cattle Plague of c.1315-21 and the Black Death of 1348-51. While the latter has been a subject of much scholarly investigation and debate, the first two crises, their implications and impact are yet to be studied in a detail.

It has long been established that the Great Famine of 1314/5-22 was an agrarian crisis, brought about by a series of failed grain harvests, mostly of winter crops. The harvest failures, in turn, were created by the almost Biblical flooding, which befell on most parts of Northern Europe between late 1314 and late 1316, and then again throughout much winter and spring of 1321 (Jordan 1996). The wheat and rye harvests of 1315 were approximately 40 per cent below their normal level; in 1316 they stood at 60 per cent blow their average level; in 1321 they were as bad as in 1315 (Campbell 2007, 2008 and 2009). The obvious result of this environmental shock was widespread famine, which seems to have killed about 10-15 per cent of North-European population.

While there is no doubt that the torrential floods of 1314-6 were the primary bringers of the famine, it is, perhaps, worth asking to what extent they were the only factors standing behind the hardships of 1314-22. Here, I suggest that the famine of the early fourteenth century was, in fact, somewhat more complex phenomenon, with far-reaching implications and repercussions beyond its traditional chronological limit of 1315-22. As I shall argue in the discussion, perhaps the better term for this disaster is the ‘food crisis of the first half of the fourteenth century’. This crisis seems to have been created by an adverse combination of ecological and institutional factors. My research is based on the original archival material, consisting of over 1,000 manorial accounts, about 100 diet accounts, and further 100 sheriffs’ accounts with the conjunction of grain purveyance during the Scottish War of Independence (1296-1328). Taken together, these sources portray a more complex and gloomier picture than is commonly seen.

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