One of the most severe crises to strike medieval Europe was the Great Famine. Beginning in the year 1315, much of northern Europe would face years of bad weather, crop failures and widespread deaths from disease and starvation. Parts of the continent would not recover for seven years.
Two of most well-known books about the topic are The Great Famine: Northern Europe in the Early Fourteenth Century, by William Chester Jordan, and The Third Horsemen: A Story of Weather, War and the Famine History Forgot, by William Rosen. Both offer a good starting point to learn about the events of 1315-22, and here are ten important points they offer about the Great Famine.
1) It hit a vast area
Jordan explains that the Great Famine could be found in Ireland, Great Britain, France, the Low Countries, much of Germany, and parts of Poland, Austria and Scandinavia, an area of 400,000 square miles that was home to an estimated population of 30 million.
2) Huge amounts of rain
The year 1315 saw drastic weather, most notably lengthy periods of rain, which caused flooding and left agricultural fields waterlogged. Rosen adds that the flooding and storm activity were devastating for coastal areas as the rising seas reclaimed shoreline communities. For example, “more than two thousand acres of onetime marshland that had been converted to cropland in eight villages in Sussex were submerged. Dunwich, which was one of the five wealthiest ports in England in the late thirteenth century, was so devastated by one flood after another that 269 houses (including crofts and barns), 10 other buildings, and 2 shops disappeared – fully a quarter of the entire port town. By the 1330s, most of the five parishes of the town, and up to 600 houses, had been ‘reclaimed’ by the newly unstable sea.”
3) Decline in agricultural yields
The constant rains of 1315 – which would continue into 1316 and 1317 – left farmland so poor that it could not sustain the yields typical of medieval farming. While it is believed that in the thirteenth-century one could harvest as much as ten bushels of wheat for every bushel sown, during the early years of the famine this production was cut by between one-third to one-half. The results were similar for other kinds of crops.
4) Animals were hit hard too
Chroniclers also described how sheep, cows and horses were also suffering from the bad weather, which led to diseases called “murrains”. Herds would be depleted as animals weakened and died. The records from Ramsey Abbey in England show that cattle herds declines were catastrophic – in one manor only 6 of 48 animals survived, while in another the number of cows went from 45 to 2.
5) Villages abandoned
Jordan notes that some peasant communities in Europe were simply abandoned, especially in Ireland and the Lubeck region of northern Germany, as the people decided these places were no longer able to recover. Coastal areas in The Netherlands also saw large-scale population declines as the flooding forced people to find new homes. In the following years many chroniclers would report on roaming bands of landless peasants who would come to cities looking for work or food.
6) The crisis hit the upper classes
The landowners of medieval Europe – monarchs, nobles and the church – saw the value of their domains collapse and revenues plummet. Lands would be sold, often at drastically reduced prices, while many others would needed loans to survive. Some smaller monasteries and nunneries decided to close up, while larger institutions such as Canterbury Cathedral Priory sold off relics to pilgrims in order to raise cash.
7) Efforts to provide help
Medieval governments and individuals attempted to find ways to mitigate the disaster and bring relief to the people. This included setting up price-controls and arranging for food to be imported from southern Europe. Jordan writes “there was a spate of hospital and hospice foundations in the years of the Great Famine that gives one pause. Perhaps not all of the foundations were direct response to the famine, but the founders’ timing could hardly have been indifferent to the suffering they saw about them.”
8) War makes matters worse
The ongoing famine was exacerbated by the many conflicts that was taking place in Europe at the time. Following his victory at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, the Scottish king Robert the Bruce was fighting the English along their border and in Ireland. Germany saw a war between Ludwig of Bavaria against Frederick of Austria, while the Kingdom of France was continuing its conflict with Flanders. Add to this ongoing wars in Scandinavia and a revolt in Wales. These various campaigns would see more resources being depleted while some lands suffered from raids and destruction, which added to the general misery of the time.
9) The survivors would be hit by the Black Death
Although the massive plague that struck Europe took place about thirty years after the Great Famine, the latter was likely a contributing factor to this disaster as well. Children who grow up with malnutrition often see their immune systems become less effective against disease, even over the long-term. Those who grew up in the first decades of the fourteenth-century would have been more vulnerable to the pandemic.
10) The legends and stories that were told
The popular German folktale Hansel and Gretel, in which two children are abandoned in the woods by their family during a famine and are almost eaten by witch, is believed to have originated in the fourteenth-century. It is not surprising to think that many legends involving famine might be linked to the events of 1315-22, when people may have resorted to abandoning the weak or even cannibalism.
The Great Famine: Northern Europe in the Early Fourteenth Century, by William Chester Jordan
The Great Famine: 1315–1322 Revisited, by William Chester Jordan
This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.
Top Image: Deaths from famine depicted in British Library MS Royal 15 E IV f. 187