Post-classical history

Part Three

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CATASTROPHES

Chapter Sixty-Three

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The Great Famine

Between 1310 and 1321, the countries of Europe suffer flood, tempest, drought, and starvation

FOR AS LONG AS MEMORY STRETCHED—over five hundred years, we know in retrospect—Europe had been a few degrees warmer than in the millennia before. In France, planting began in March; summer began early in June and lasted until the early days of September. In England, villages spread across the high hills of Dartmoor, farms across the northern Pennine moors, and vineyards flourished as far north as York. Copper mines in the Alps, closed by ice during the later centuries of the Roman empire, were reopened. The ice pack in the northern oceans melted back, giving Leif Ericsson passage to the west, deluding his followers into believing that the shores of Greenland were habitable. (“The temperature never dropped below freezing,” one of them marveled, “and the grass only withered very slightly!”) And, as happens when mild weather extends the growing season, the population had mushroomed. In two centuries, the English population tripled. In France, 6.2 million men and women around 1100 had grown to at least 17 million by the beginning of the fourteenth century.1

But in the vast span of millennia, the warmth was a blip. With the luxury of hindsight, climatologists have given the blip a name: the Medieval Warm Period, or the Medieval Climatic Anomaly.*

The five-hundred-year summer of the Warm Period was not quite over. But beginning around 1310, Europe began to see dips in temperature that had never been experienced within living memory. This was accompanied by soaring highs, violent storms, deluges, flooding. Rain poured down in the spring. Grain rotted in the field. The French, trying to invade Flanders, sank deep into the mud and were forced to turn back. “About the year 1310,” says The Chronicle of Pluscarden, “there was so severe a famine and dearth of victuals in the kingdom of Scotland . . . that men fed on the flesh of horses and other unclean beasts.” “Hunger and dearth, on earth, the poor have undergone,” complains the political broadside “Poem on the Evil Times of Edward II,” “while beasts starve, while corne has been so dear.”

There comes then another sorrow, that spreads over all the land,

A winter sent, before which there was never one so strong . . .

The cattle die, all together, and make suddenly the land so bare,

that never came such wretchedness into England before,
never men more aghast.2

In England and northwest Europe, the summer of 1314 was one of the wettest in memory. The summer of 1315 was worse, filled with downpours, low-lying areas flooded everywhere. “The hay lay so long under water that it could neither be mown nor gathered,” noted the English monk John of Trokelowe, from his monastery in Northumberland, “[and] the grain could not ripen . . . it did not have the nourishment from the heat of the summer sun.” The German town of Salzburg saw “such an inundation of waters, it seemed as though it were the Flood.”3

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63.1 Miniature from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, showing March planting.
Credit: © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

The year 1316 was just as wet. Sheep and goats died of liver fluke and murrains, a blanket fourteenth-century term for epidemics of foot-and-mouth, streptococcus, and other damp-aggravated illnesses. In the south of England, the harvest weighed in at half its normal bulk, the lowest yield in fifty years. In Germany, the Neustadt vineyard gave only “a trifling quantity of wine.” The French city of Ypres lost one person in ten to famine; in Tournai, an observer wrote that so many “perished every day . . . men and women, rich and poor, young and old . . . that the very air stank.” To make matters even worse, a comet was visible throughout most of Europe for a good portion of those two years. Geoffrey de Meaux, royal physician to the king of France and amateur astronomer, noted that its brilliance was so great that the comet was visible day and night. Fourteenth-century scholars were in agreement that such a brilliant comet signified a coming time of bad crops, a time when robbery and mayhem would increase, truth and justice decline, and the sea rise to swallow many: “The whole world was troubled,” wrote a German chronicler, surveying the multiple reports of disaster from the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean coast.4

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63.1 Flood and Famine

Famine began. Everyone suffered, but the aristocrats, with their larger reserves, suffered less. The mass of peasants, living week to week, found themselves on the constant edge of starvation. They survived only by using up everything stored away for the future: seed grain, future stores. Draft animals, essential for the future cultivation of the now-bare fields, were slaughtered. Old people starved themselves to keep grandchildren alive; young parents were forced to choose between their children or their lives, knowing that their deaths would ultimately mean the starvation of their young ones.

“There was great famine in the land,” begins the German folktale “Hansel and Gretel,” collected by the Grimm brothers in the nineteenth century from the days of desperation five centuries before. Unable to face voluntary starvation or infanticide, the parents lead their children into the woods to abandon them; at least, they will not then see the young ones die. (“Surely it would be better to share the last bite of food with one’s children!” thinks the father, the fatalist; it is the stepmother, perhaps clutching babies of her own, who still desperately hopes to live.)5

The summer of 1317 was a little dryer, giving the battered and waterlogged peasants a glimmer of hope. But in August the rains returned, and between October 1317 and Easter 1318, temperatures sank to unheard-of lows. The North Sea froze; Cologne suffered from a snowstorm on June 30.6

By fall 1318, the worst of the dip had ended; the long summer, now dying, had a few decades left in it. But the weather remained unpredictable. “This year,” says the 1319 entry in the Norman Chronicle of St. Evroult, “there was a prodigious disturbance of the elements, causing great damage. Many trees were thrown down by the violence of the winds.” And, five years later, “Great damage was done by thunder-storms . . . many houses and trees were levelled to the ground.” “In the year 1321, there was a very hard winter, which distressed men, and killed nearly all animals,” notes John of Fordun. The snow, records a Norman chronicle, was everywhere, deep and lasting: in mid-March, the middle of Lent, it was still “the thickest anywhere on earth.”7

The Great Famine left a tenth of Europe’s men and women dead; in some places, as much as a quarter of the population died. And the children who survived the famine were, for the rest of their lives, weakened by scurvy, stunted growth, their immune systems compromised, their teeth poor—defenseless against the next catastrophe that would sweep down over them.

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*Thanks to global warming, the existence of the Medieval Climatic Anomaly has been turned into a political football; opponents of legislation to reduce CO2 emissions point to it as proof that climate change happens independent of human action, while supporters have tended to downplay the warming period or deny that it happened at all. Actual measurements can be found in a number of academic texts, such as Richard W. Battarbee et al., eds., Past Climate Variability through Europe and Africa, Vol. 6 (Springer, 2004). A more popular and accessible survey of the evidence is in the first chapter of Brian Fagan’s The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300–1850 (Basic Books, 2000), pp. 3–21.

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