By Philip Slavin
Paper given at the Annual Meeting of the Economic History Association, in Vancouver, Canada, on September 23, 2012
Introduction: Famine as an historical phenomenon has attracted considerable scholarly attention in the recent decades, especially since the publication of Amartya Sen’s now-classic Poverty and Famines in 1981. Roughly speaking, we can identify two main scholarly camps, or schools of thought: ‘institutionalist’ and ‘environmentalist’. The ‘institutionalists’ contend that famines tend to be, to a large degree, man-made phenomena, and that Nature is of secondary importance. Thus, Sen argues, using the example of the Bengali famine of 1942-3, that in many cases famines occurred not because of a lack of food resources, but because of the decline in ‘entitlements’ to (depleted) food resources. He distinguishes between ‘FAD’ (=food availability decline) and ‘FED’ (=food entitlement decline). For Sen, famines take place when lower social echelons lose their entitlement to food, when the better-off, at the expense of the rest, increase their own supply of food. Notwithstanding some criticisms, Sen’s theory of famine remains largely influential. On the other hand, in more recent years, with more knowledge about the physical environmental past, some scholars have seen Nature as the primary harbinger of famine in pre-Industrial societies.
Few, if any subsistence crises are comparable in their scale, extent and repercussions to the Great European Famine of 1315-17, which may be regarded as the single worst subsistence crisis in Europe in the last two millennia. The combination of almost Biblical flooding and freezing winters, continuing, in succession, from the autumn of 1314 to the spring of 1317 created three back-to-back harvest failures. In England, the composite crop yields were about 40, 60 and ten per cent below their normal levels in 1315, 1316 and 1317 respectively. The harvest failures drove the grain prices up to unprecedented levels, which, in turn, resulted in widespread starvation and suffering. According to various estimates, around 10-15 per cent of North Europe’s population perished in the famine: indeed, striking figures, when compared to other historical famines.