By Peter Konieczny
How climate change, supply chain issues and inflation helped to create massive food shortages and starvation in medieval London.
In the entry for the year 1258 the Chronicles of the Mayors and Sheriffs of London reported:
In this year, there was a failure of the crops; upon which failure, a famine ensued, to such a degree that the people from the villages resorted to the City for food; and there, upon the famine waxing still greater, many thousand persons perished; many thousands more too would have died of hunger, had not corn just then arrived from Germany.
The continuation of that chronicle offers this statement for the year 1315-6:
In this year there was a great famine, so that people without number died of hunger; and there was also a great pestilence among the rest of the people. The quarter of wheat was sold at Pentecost this year, and after, at 38 and 40 shillings; salt also, at forty shillings, and two small onions for one penny.
The Londoners who wrote these words were offering a small look into two of the most terrible disasters that struck the English city in the Middle Ages – the famine of 1258, and the Great Famine of the years 1315 to 1317. As they occurred only a couple of generations apart, it is worth examining what happened in London, to see what similarities and differences there were in how it occurred, and how Londoners tried to deal with the hunger and suffering caused by these events.
The Famine of 1258
In 2013, scientists explained that they had discovered why the year 1258 was the medieval “year without summer”. There was a volcano called Samalas on Lombok Island in Indonesia. Sometime between May and October 1257 it erupted. It was the strongest volcanic eruption the Earth had seen in 7,000 years. Lombok Island was largely obliterated, while a column of ash and rock was sent 43 kilometres into the sky. That ash would spread over the atmosphere for months, landing from Greenland to Antarctica.
Then it should come as no surprise that we have reports from European chroniclers about the terrible weather that occurred in 1258. Matthew Paris (1200–1259), writing from St Alban’s Abbey just north of London, says that
The north wind blew without intermission, a continued frost prevailed, accompanied by snow and such unendurable cold, that it bound up the face of the earth, sorely afflicted the poor, suspended all cultivation, and killed the young of the cattle to such an extent that it seemed as if a general plague was raging amongst the sheep and lambs.
Many have associated the volcanic eruption at Samalas as the principal cause of the 1258 famine, but that isn’t the whole story. Bruce Campbell, Professor of Medieval Economic History at Queen’s University Belfast, took a more indepth look into why a famine occurred in England, and why London, in particular, was hit hard, and he found that a range of factors were involved. Looking at manorial records of harvests from the thirteenth century, one can easily see that there were significant declines in the years 1255, 1256, and 1257, which caused the price of wheat to jump in the latter two years. This evidence of poor harvests can also be found in chroniclers’ accounts – Matthew Paris notes that between mid-August 1255, and the beginning of February 1256, “the rain ceased not to fall daily in deluges, which rendered the roads impassable and the fields barren,” which caused the grain harvest to rot.
The prices for grains rose substantially – while in 1253 you could buy a quarter of wheat for 3 shillings, that same product would cost 15 shillings in London by 1258, and was even more expensive in other parts of England. The situation was, therefore, already dire when Samalas exploded, creating months of lower than average temperatures, and further damaging the food supply.
London was paradoxically harder hit than other parts of England because it was one of the few places that was getting food. In 1258 it received fifty shiploads of grain from Germany, and other shipments from continental Europe. However, people from the countryside also knew this, and large numbers took refuge in the city in hopes of finding food. This would have stretched the resources of charitable agencies beyond their limits. Moreover, while London was a growing city (between the years 1200 and 1300 it would more than double in population) it lacked the housing and infrastructure to adequately shelter and support the thousands of new arrivals.
With the food supply unable to meet demand, starvation and related diseases soon took a massive toll on the population. Matthew Paris notes how dead bodies “were found in all directions, swollen and livid through hunger, lying by fives and sixes in pigsties, on dunghills, and in the muddy streets, their bodies woefully and mortally wasted.”
A more physical sign of the death toll was discovered about twenty years ago, when London archaeologists discovered the remains of thirteenth-century graves at the cemetery of St Mary Spital. This was a priory and hospital founded in 1197 to take care of the poor and pilgrims, and it was clear that many people came here seeking care, but died soon after. Archaeologists uncovered the remains of 10,516 individuals from this period, some buried in mass graves containing as many as 45 people.
While this famine was sharp and devastating, it was not particularly lengthy. The harvest of 1258 was not as bad as previous years, while the 1259 harvest was considered to be very good. Prices for food dropped and the situation in London improved.
The Great Famine of 1315-17
Poor weather was the main cause of the famine which would hit England (and beyond) in 1315 – chroniclers reported weeks of heavy rains that left crops destroyed. The Benedictine chronicler Johannes de Trokelowe, wrote about how the bad situation became in that year:
Meat and eggs began to run out, capons and fowl could hardly be found, animals died of pest, swine could not be fed because of the excessive price of fodder. A quarter of wheat or beans or peas sold for twenty shillings, barley for a mark, oats for ten shillings. A quarter of salt was commonly sold for thirty-five shillings, which in former times was quite unheard of. The land was so oppressed with want that when the king came to St. Albans on the feast of St. Laurence [August 10] it was hardly possible to find bread on sale to supply his immediate household….
The dearth began in the month of May and lasted until the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin [September 8]. The summer rains were so heavy that grain could not ripen. It could hardly be gathered and used to bake bread down to the said feast day unless it was first put in vessels to dry. Around the end of autumn the dearth was mitigated in part, but toward Christmas it became as bad as before. Bread did not have its usual nourishing power and strength because the grain was not nourished by the warmth of summer sunshine. Hence those who ate it, even in large quantities, were hungry again after a little while. There can be no doubt that the poor wasted away when even the rich were constantly hungry….
Historians are fortunate to have more records related to the famine of the early fourteenth century, in particular royal accounts, as well as those from the City of London. They reveal what efforts were being made by officials to deal with the crisis, although it usually shows that these were largely failures. For example, we often see that blame was placed on merchants and those who sold food, citing them for allegedly hoarding grain or charging exorbitant prices. The royal government under King Edward II (1284–1327) attempted to establish price controls for food and other products, but within a year they abandoned that measure. The crown was also encouraging the import of foods from continental Europe, but many of these places too, especially France and the Low Countries, were in the same situation.
Within London itself, the city authorities used various measures to keep people from damaging the food supply – markets were being regulated, exporting food was restricted, and those who were acting in bad faith were prosecuted. In one case, several bakers were arrested for fraudulent activities, such as mixing dirt into bread.
There is also evidence of efforts to provide charity for poor Londoners, but even those sometimes had unintended consequences. A coroner’s roll for the city during the famine recorded that 52 people were crushed to death when church officials tried to hand out food to a large crowd – it somehow ended in a stampede.
This particular famine was probably much worse and longer than the one in 1258; the bad weather would last until the summer of 1317, and historians have estimated that between 10% and 25% of the population of towns like London perished during these years.
However, one commonality can be found in both the famines that struck London mentioned here – these were multi-year events that saw the local food supply unable to cope. The city of London could have weathered these events, but what we might call ‘supply chain issues’ prevented then from importing food from further away. Meanwhile, the dire situation in the countryside would have pushed many more people to seek help in the city, which furthered stretched resources. It would lead to thousands of Londoners, in particular the poor, to succumb to the ravages of famine.
Peter Konieczny is editor of Medievalist.net
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.