How Great Was the Great Famine of 1314-22: Between Ecology and Institutions
By Philip Slavin,
Yale Economic History Workshop (2009)
Introduction: There can be little doubt that the Great European Famine of 1314-22 was a single most severe food crisis in the late Middle Ages. The almost biblical flooding of 1314-17 led to a harsh subsistence crisis that deeply transformed European population, society, economy and ecology. Historians have long been aware of this in relation to the crop failures that occurred in these years, but their studies have tended to stand outside the analytical, and certainly statistical, frameworks that historians have created for assessing the impact of the catastrophe. The present working paper proposes the preliminary re-assessment of three important aspects of the Great Famine, from an English and Welsh perspective. The reason for concentrating on England and Wales is the fact that this region is abundant in a large corpus of statistical data, which either does not survive or does not exist for other regions in Northern Europe.
The first aspect to be examined is the extent of harvest failures within different crop sectors. The second issue is to what degree was the Great Famine of 1314-22 a subsistence crisis. Finally, the third question is: Are we to blame only the crop failures of 1315-7 for the starvation and suffering of the people? I am aware of the fact that the current project is still in its initial stages and that more questions and problems are likely to evolve later. Moreover, it is uncertain whether the similar conclusions can be applied on other regions to have suffered from the crisis in the same years.
My project is based on over 3,000 manorial and monastic accounts compiled between c.1310 and 1350. Manorial accounts were annual financial and agricultural reports, rendered by manorial officials and recorded by local clerks. These accounts record, in a considerable detail, the annual disposal of grain harvest and livestock, as well as prices, wages and labour output. The monastic accounts, on the other hand, record the annual reception, consumption and redistribution of various foodstuffs, both cereal and non-cereal. In other hand, the two types of documents, surviving in a very large number, complimented each other and they constitute sources of first-rate importance for the students of social, economic and environmental history of late-medieval England and Wales. Apart from that, however, they are the only source of the kind allowing to reconstruct the course of the disaster of 1314-22 on a microscopic level.