The Great Famine: 1315–1322 Revisited

The Great Famine: 1315–1322 Revisited

By William Chester Jordan

Ecologies and Economies in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: Studies in Environmental History for Richard C. Hoffmann, edited by Scott Bruce (Brill, 2010)

Introduction: In 1996 I published a book on the Great Famine of the early fourteenth century, a phenomenon that encompassed all of northern Europe. Since the publication of the book, or, rather, from the time I finished writing it nearly two years before, several new sources and studies have appeared in print. This paper employs a selection of these materials that I have not treated elsewhere in order to further our knowledge and understanding of the causes, experience and consequences of the Great Famine, which, excepting only the Black Death of 1347–52 and the plague cycle it initiated, was the greatest natural catastrophe of the Middle Ages.

The subject of famine has generated an enormous bibliography – historical, biological, social, political, literary, and economic. The sources from which scholars have constructed their narratives and commentaries vary from period to period, and the governing paradigms shift according to the same criterion.

The sources on the Great Famine of the early fourteenth century are extensive and varied. The basic narrative line is drawn from a very large number of chronicles. The event lasted so long and was so severe that nearly all contemporary chroniclers (monks, generally speaking) mentioned it and devoted a great deal of space to it. Much of these writers’ commentary as opposed to their reporting of ‘facts’ employs tropes from the bible’s descriptions of ancient famines, but it is possible to disarticulate the two forms of information.

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Top Images: The Third Horseman of the Apocalypse – Bamberger Apokalypse Folio 15 recto, Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek, MS A. II. 42

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