Approaches to famine in medieval England
By Phillipp R. Schofield
Paper given at the Population, economy and welfare, c. 1200-2000: a conference in honour of Richard M. Smith, held at the University of Cambridge in September 2011
Given the potential importance of famine in medieval England, it is at least surprising that so little has been written on it. If we consider the greatest single famine event of the middle ages, the great famine of the early fourteenth century, a crisis event that may have killed something in the region of 10 per cent of the English population, the degree of historical discussion of this, relative to say investigation of the Black Death, is really quite muted. The main discussion of famine in medieval England, despite Jordan’s more general survey of the famine across Europe, remains Kershaw’s Past and Present article of 1973. Kershaw’s discussion offers an informed assessment of the key agrarian measures of famine in the period 1315 to 1322. The main thrust of his thorough analysis of the agrarian crisis was to test the potential impact of the famine years as putative cause of any subsequent adjustment of the medieval economy. As such Kershaw’s involved discussion was couched in terms established by the transition debate and the long-standing focus upon the nature and chronology of change in the medieval economy more than it was upon the explanation of famine per se.
While themes highly relevant to the interpretation of famine are necessarily given centre-stage in Kershaw’s discussion, his is a study defined by medieval social and economic history far more than it is a study of famine per se. Interestingly, Jordan’s extensive review of the secondary literature in describing and discussing the Great Famine is also framed almost entirely by the immediate historiography of medievalists and he offers almost no theoretical or comparative context in which to place the events he sets out. Prior to the work of Kershaw, discussion of the famine in England was mostly confined to one or two relatively brief assessments, including comments by Thorold Rogers and Lucas, both on the great famine of the early fourteenth century. Rogers’ discussion was brief but closely informed by his study of prices and wages and reflects a deliberately modern and involved assessment of the components of famine; Lucas tends instead to a narrative largely constructed from narrative accounts.
We should of course note that in more recent years, medieval historians have taken to explore relevant features of the medieval economy and economic activity in relation to famine and food shortage, and especially the major crises of the later thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. We shall return to some of this work later in this paper but for now it is worth noting that studies of the peasant land market have been undertaken in relation to harvest failure and crisis but one which tends to be contained within its own medieval context. In addition Barbara Hanawalt has offered one of the few attempts to explore criminality in relation to famine and dearth in this period.