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The Famine History Forgot

At one point reading The Third Horseman: Climate Change and the Great Famine of the 14th Century, by William Rosen, (Viking, 2014) I threw my hands up and asked the ceiling "can't these people ever catch a break?" Famine, flood, villainy, greed, war, pestilence -- in wave after wave -- hit Northern Europe leaving millions dead and half of the arable land of the entire region washed away forever.

 

The Third Horseman: Climate Change and the Great Famine of the 14th Century (in a new edition given a new subtitle A Story of Weather, War, and the Famine History Forgot, with a reference to Game of Thrones) is solid scholarship in lively writing.

 

Here is the tragic chronology:

  • In the 1300s, both the King of England and the rebels of Scotland practiced scorched earth warfare: they marched into an area, took the food they needed, then burned all the farms, barns, mills and pastures behind them.
  • For four centuries previously, the Medieval Warm Period had doubled the population of Europe and turned the people from self-sufficiency to reliance on trade.
  • But in 1315 – 1316 it rained relentlessly, basically two years without sunshine, with terrible flooding and massive soil erosion, followed by bitter winters when even the Baltic Sea froze. Two years of harvests failed, and since 80% of the population (those not in the aristocracy) relied for 80% of their diet on grain, famine swept through northern Europe.
  • A logical alternative would have been to eat fish, but North Sea herring spoils quickly without being salted. The Catholic Church had a near monopoly on the production and transport of salt and had already filled nearly half the calendar with fish-only days. But without sun there was no efficient way to evaporate seawater to create the salt needed, so the price of salt skyrocketed, and the Cistercians (in particular, but most monasteries generally) profited greatly.
  • In 1318 they finally had a good year with a decent harvest, but in 1319 rinderpest swept through the continent killing 65% of all of the cows, sheep, and goats, followed by sheep liver fluke.
  • 1321 was another year of a terrible harvest, this time from drought.
  • Then they were hit with glanders, a disease that kills horses, mules, donkeys, dogs, cats, and, frequently, humans: nearly half the horses in Europe died between 1320-1322.
  • In 1338, major floods destroyed dozens of towns and villages in central Europe, to be followed by a swarm of locusts that devoured crops from Hungary to Austria to Bohemia, after which an early snowfall destroyed fruit trees and vineyards.


As Rosen says, "The Third Horseman, riding the black horse, carries a set of scales ... a reminder that famine is a matter of equilibrium: of the delicate balance between life and death. The seven years of the Great Famine, and the evil times that accompanied them, are powerful evidence of how sensitive the scales had become, after four centuries of growth, to a sudden shift in the weather." Page 259


Additional Gems: [all quotes from book except for author's notes in brackets]

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