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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]

• "Agriculture and armor manufacture weren't the only reasons for forest clearing …Peasants… reclaimed the tree-rich sanctuaries of pagan worship for a more Christian world as [much as] to claim them for the plow. Wild landscapes were in a state of sin; cultivated land was literally saved by the "prayer book and the axe." Page 18
• "At the beginning of the 14th century, Europe had more than 5000 independent quasi-states: baronies, duchies, kingdoms, and principalities. Three centuries later, 500. By the beginning of the 19th century 200, and only a few dozen today. Page 42
• Holland: "storm floods made the drained land so vulnerable that it sank more than 20 feet, essentially turning the region into a group of barrier islands until the great dikes of the 16th century were finally built to keep the North Sea at bay. Page 68
• "Through the 13th century, ceremonies that can only be called homosexual marriages – so-called spiritual brotherhoods that were sanctified by priests, using the same prayers as "traditional" marriages, including the joining of right hands at the altar, followed by the ceremonial kiss -- were being performed in churches throughout the Mediterranean. ... During the 14th century, however, what had been tolerated, though not university applauded, became criminal. In 1306, the Byzantine Emperor decreed that sex between men would henceforth be a prohibited activity in the same category is incest and sorcery. Page 80
• "Almost every village was built near a stream or river partly for irrigation, mostly for the power to operate at least one mill for grinding flour, possibly another for fulling – that is, cleaning and matting wool fibers to strengthen them – probably a church, certainly a well or two. A decent size village might have three or four mills, plus a forge and bakery (each one owned by the lord, and leased to the miller, the smith, and the baker), but four out of 10 villages were home to fewer than 400 people, and only one in 10 had more than 600. Page 82 [Good data for writers who are building worlds in this time.]
• "Markets, on average [were no] more than 6 miles away – they were just as inevitably in the path of armies marching to war. Only the largest were fortified, and even then, any defenses were primarily for the barns, dairies, orchards, kitchens, and residences of the secular or ecclesiastical Lord who held the manor in fief. Pg. 83 [More good data for writers.]
"The rainy years between 1310 and 1330 included the four worst winters in four centuries. Page 123
• "By the beginning of the 14th century, virtually all of the best topsoil had been reinforced and plowed with very long furrows which meant it could absorb huge quantities of water without drainage problems, but, when the amount of annual precipitation increased fivefold – normal rainfall in England, France, and Germany is in the range of 25 to 30 inches annually; the storms of 1315 deposited at least 100 inches -- even the reinforced topsoil was washed away, leaving the clay subsoil behind. The newly revealed marginal stuff was too light and sandy to stand a chance. In England's midlands and the Scottish Lowlands, from northern France to Poland and in virtually all the farmland bordering the North Sea and the Baltic, as much as half of the arable land essentially disappeared, leaving behind not even clay but rock. One study calculated that half of all the erosion suffered by cultivated land in Germany over the last 1500 years happened during the decade that began with the rains of April 1315, during which the arable topsoil receded by an average of 25 cm: nearly 10 inches. Page 127 - 128
• "By August, after four months of unremitting rain, even the least aware of England's rulers knew that there would be no fall harvest in 1315. The kings counsel, in response, required that no noble below the rank of earl would be permitted more than two dishes at any meal, at a time with members of the nobility were likely to eat five or more. In an era that believed that natural disasters were punishments from heaven for misbehavior… it no doubt seemed a good plan to limit opportunities for the sin of gluttony... when [King Edward] learned that the rains had been so widespread that northern France was in no better shape than southern England, the Crown gave safe-conduct to grain merchants from Spain, Sicily, and Genoa, in an attempt to restore grain supplies from the relatively untouched farms of the Mediterranean. The strategy might've worked had not the same weather reappeared in early 1316. The hardships of one year were about to multiply sevenfold and transform into the Great Famine. Page 129
• "The greatest man-made famines are also some of the greatest famines in raw numbers: 9 million excess mortality during the Russian Civil War of 1921 to 1922; 5 million more during Stalin's collectivization of 1932 to 1933; and the biggest of all, China's Great Leap Forward of 1959 to 1961, with an estimated 15 to 25 million excess mortality; though it should be noted that even these so-called artificial famines were associated with droughts, floods, and harvest shortfalls. During the decidedly man-made famine of the Great Leap Forward, destruction was exacerbated by the fact that "eight of Shantung's 12 rivers had no water in them." Page 131
• "Those who avoided starvation faced another threat: lawlessness, already rife in medieval Europe, but dramatically worsened after the failed harvest of 1315. In Kent, during 1316 - 1317, a third of all thefts were grain and grain products like bread and ale; 40% were livestock. ... Crimes of all kinds are always one of famine's most reliable companions. Page 134-135
• "The Little Ice Age, as it has come to be known – the term dates to a 1939 paper by the geologist Françoise Mathis on the growth of glaciers in California's Sierra Nevada mountains – was real, even if its causes are even less well understood than those of the Medieval Warm Period that preceded it... Sunspot activity started an astonishingly regular increase around the year 800, peeked just before the beginning of the 14th century, and then fell like a stone for the next century, reaching a minimum not seen since the third century BCE. Page 137
• "By the end of 1315, moreover, the combination of Edward's taxes, the first of two lost harvests, and constant destruction of infrastructure – barns, farm equipment, and mills – by the troops of both Bruce and Edward was devastating not only the agricultural productivity but the entire economy of both northern England and southern Scotland. Page 139
• "By the end of 1316, the rains abated – some – but the winter of 1317 – 18 was the harshest of all, lasting (in the record of a French Chronicle) "from the feast of St. Andrew or thereabouts until Easter"… which is to say, from November 30 to April 23, or just over 20 weeks. Page 140
• "… Floods increased from fewer than five annually in the 12th century and before to more than 12 by the end of the 13th and the beginning of the 14th, a peak in storm activity "unsurpassed in the last 2000 years." More than 2000 acres of one-time marshland that had been converted to cropland in eight villages in Sussex alone were submerged.… Lands parched by drought can return to productivity as soon as water returns; floods so extensive that they wash away the soil itself have a longer lasting effect. Even five years after the rains began in the spring of 1315, contemporaneous German chronicles were still describing lands suffering from "an unheard-of barrenness." Page 140 – 141
• "Between 80 to 90% of all the food calories produced and consumed across the entire Eurasian landmass during the Medieval Warm Period depended on the same seed-rich grasses that had launched the Neolithic agricultural revolution in Mesopotamia 100 centuries before. Page 143
• "By the 14th century typical rice yields in East Asia were as much as five times that of Europe's cereal grains, didn't deplete the soil (because it's grown in river-water terraces), and required little manure and significantly less acreage. However, because of the attending needs of wet-rice farming, they were far more labor-intensive, and, in the minds of some more deterministic historians, a key factor in the growth of authoritarian government. Page 144, plus footnote
• "In the words of historian Fernand Braudel, "wheat's unpardonable fault was its low yield… It devours the soil and cannot be cultivated on the same land for two years running." In the wild, dying grasses keep the nitrogen in balance by returning their seeds to the soil. When humans cultivate those grasses in the form of wheat or any other grain, the whole point is to take them out of the soil and put them into a flour mill. Page 145
• "In England, at the time of the Norman Conquest, somewhere between 6.7 and 8.5 million acres of land were under cultivation, overwhelmingly with cereal grains. Those acres were able to feed a population of around 1.5 million fairly easily. By 1300, 11.5 million acres were struggling to feed 5 million. Page 146
• "Milling grain was the source of every European landlord's real authority… The reason was centralization, not efficiency: the lord could not supervise milling done at home by hand or (more rarely) by horse. But the capital needed to build a wind or watermill was available only to the feudal master of the land, who could supervise, and therefore tax, the produce of his vassals. This made milling a reliable arena of conflict. One of the chroniclers who recorded the history of the Abbey of Bury St. Edmonds tells the story of a tenant named Herbert the Dean, who built himself a windmill under the logic that the "free benefit of the wind ought not to be denied to any man."… 5,624 mills were surveyed in the Doomsday Book of 1086. Every one of them was a constant provocation to the rural peasantry. The people of the village of St. Albans… spent more than a century fighting for the right to mill grain themselves, using querns (sp ok) and hand mills. During the famine, they actually invaded the Abbey itself, where the stones of their hand mills had been taken for confiscation, and [they] destroyed the floor that the monks had built with them. Page 150
• "Almost everything people ate required salt, either as a preservative or as an essential mineral. During the 14th century, most of it was produced in seaside salt pans: huge, concave, clay lined depressions built between the lines of high and low tide. There salt "farmers" waited for it to evaporate, using both sun and fires set alongside the pans. However, during the rainy season of 1315 and 1316, the sun rarely shown, and the fuel for fires – wood and peat – was too wet to burn. Alternative ways of making salt, such as briquetage (sp ok) -- pouring seawater into course pottery containers, then putting the containers on fires and, eventually, breaking the pottery to get the salt lining the interior, a technique dating to the Bronze Age – or boiling away the brine in huge cauldrons, were even more fuel intensive. But after four months of rain, fuel was even more difficult to find than food. The cost of salt skyrocketed… And so, therefore did the price of every commodity that depended on salt. During the Medieval Warm Period, huge schools of Atlantic herring amassed in the North Atlantic every spring and passed into the Baltic Sea off the coast of Scotland and were so ridiculously abundant – and the sea so relatively warm and calm – that catching them in open boats became, for the first time, a practical business. Simultaneously, demand was accidentally [I would put that in quotation marks since it doesn't seem an accident to me] increased by the church, which had, by 1200, covered nearly half the calendar with meatless holy days, which promoted the eating of all sorts of fish… However, because herring is a fatty fish, it rots quickly if not salted, making salt an essential ingredient in the business of shipping protein from one part of Europe to another… The most important fishery in Europe was, therefore, entirely hostage to the price of salt. Between the years 1315 and 1319 fish prices were the highest in the century. This was good news for fish brokers and salt producers, among them monasteries – nearly half of all the Cistercians in Europe were salt manufacturers – but very bad indeed for everyone else, and not just for consumers of fish. Page 151 – 152 The Cistercians of the German-speaking parts of the Holy Roman Empire dominated the salt trade, profiting hugely from the run-up in salt prices in 1315-1317. Page 226
• "For every 2 pounds of bread paid to a harvest worker, he could receive about 2 ounces of cheese, 1 ounce of meat, and possibly some fish. At least 80% of those calories are in one form or another cereal grains. This remarkable level of dependence – 80% of Europe's population getting more than 80% of their food in the form of grain – is even higher than it appears, if the typical ration of ale (about half a gallon) is factored into the daily diet. Page 154
• "Pigs were far more widely held by members of the peasant class than either cattle or horses, partly because pigs were able to eat just about anything – acorns, slugs, worms, even the carcasses of other pigs. Pigs are also incredibly productive as agricultural assets, producing tallow, bristles, and leather, as well as food. Relatively prosperous peasant families could keep half a dozen pigs in sties and mark others and allow [pigs] to go feral in local woodlands, where swine herds would collect them in late fall or early winter – dangerous work, since wild pigs eat just about anything, and would just as likely to eat human children as acorns. page 156
• "When the lost harvests of 1315 and 1316 coincided with scorched-earth warfare everywhere from Scotland to Flanders to Germany – malnutrition became starvation. Page 158 The Great Famine brought starvation everywhere from the Atlantic seawall to the Urals, but nowhere suffered more than Flanders. [Due to war] page 161
• "The Templars weren't simply an affront to a secular king like Philip IV, they were also one of his largest creditors, with the Temple in Paris acting as the royal treasury as far back as the reign of Philippa Augustus. The combination would prove deadly. [Extensive story of their demise here on page 169] in 1312, the Templars were dissolved by papal decree, and the remaining Templar leadership was condemned. Page 169
• "During the worst famine in centuries, King Edward [of England] was requisitioning men at an unprecedented pace… And he did so during the two years of 1315, and 1316, when the torrential rains had destroyed the roads on which his armies would have had to travel. England was taxing its peasantry to pay for an army that he could not afford, at a time when it was unable even to deploy it. Page 173
• "In January 1318, the Baltic froze, for the third time since 1303 (the second time was during the winter of 1307 – 1308). This time, the rivers leading into the sea froze as well… And by 1316, the sun hadn't shown consistently in much of Britain and northern Europe for nearly 2 years. As each rain -soaked spring was followed by a failed harvest, which in turn was succeeded by bitterly cold winters, cattle and sheep died in droves. Page 180
• "The spring of 1318 marked a dramatic improvement in the fortunes of nearly everyone in Western Europe. The harvest of 1317 was a rich one, and with supplies of everything from wheat and barley to milk and wool increasing, prices fell enough that even the rural peasantry could afford to feed itself. Page 181
• "Murrain [is] a generic term for pastoral disease... Epidemiologists have traced rinderpest (sp ok) back at least 9000 years, the first definitive appearance in Europe of the viral disease also known as step murrain occurred in 1223, initially in what is now Hungary, then Austria, and then Italy and Germany. That first outbreak lasted for at least three years, recurred in 1240, 1249, and 1299, and is only one of the enduring pathogens left behind by the Mongol invasions of the 13th and 14th centuries. Page 185 During 1319, attacks of rinderpest killed 65% of England's bovids – cattle, sheep, and goats. Page 187
• "The fall of 1321 marked yet another catastrophic harvest. This time it was occasioned not by torrential rains, as was the case six years before, but drought. Page 196
• "By one measure, the winters from 1303 to 1328 represent one of the coldest 25 year stretches ever recorded… The Baltic had frozen over once again, and a Danish chronicle recorded that horsemen and coaches could travel on the frozen sea all the way to Sweden. Page 196 – 197
• "Not every aspect of the "evil times" was more ruinous for Europe's urban population than its rural peasantry. True, they died in huge numbers from infectious disease and suffered brutally from the cold, rain, and, of course, incompetent monarchs and rebellious nobles. But they were at least better insulated than their country cousins against the ravages of war. Moreover, they were wealthier, even in the poorest of times, which meant they had a far larger arsenal of strategies for coping with disaster. Flemish and German cities regularly bought food with money raised in the bond market. They even went into the insurance business, selling life annuities-- promises to pay pensions tomorrow for cash today. page 202 The municipal council of Bruges bought stocks of grain – more than 55,000 bushels of wheat alone in the spring of 1317 – from Genovese, Venetian, and even Spanish middlemen, suspending the free market in grain for the duration of the emergency, and selling the grain at cost to the city-licensed bakeries, which was probably the single reason that famine -related mortality was only half as high in Bruges as in Ypres (sp ok). Page 204
• "After three relatively good years, the harvest of 1321 had been another disaster, compounded by the Kings confiscation of grain at far below market price. Moreover, looting was widespread… And as in 1315, what was left by rebel raids and royal demands was taken by the weather: a winter that was so harsh that the royal lands and Herefordshire were reduced what the royal custodian called "sterility." Page 208
• "Beginning in the summer of 1319, the rinderpest outbreak, followed by the epidemic of sheep liver fluke, had already killed two thirds of the cows, oxen, sheep, and goats in most of northern Europe, but had left horses – non-bovids – largely alone. They survived just long enough to encounter… glanders, which is a killer of horses, mules, donkeys, dogs, cats… and, frequently, humans. Nearly half the horses in Europe died between 1320-1322. [King] Edward invaded Scotland with an army that was a quarter cavalry; he retreated with one that was virtually all infantry. Page 209
• "Most of northern Europe's traditional trade in food traveled less than 10 miles from source to consumer. Page 221-222
• "The use of broths made from imported fish or beans caused even more distress in people with kwashiorkor [sp ok], who can't digest protein-rich foods; the Chronicle of Sigismund Rositz recalled that people given such soups often died of strangulation or choking. Page 225 [kwashiorkor is a stage of starvation]
• "Though the famine had ended in 1322, the summer of 1335 was nearly as rainy as that of 1316. 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. In England, the autumn harvest of 1341 was so poor that the Crown granted relief from taxation. And in 1342, flooding was so widespread as to destroy some of the most important bridges in Europe. Page 257
• "Whatever the connections between famine, climate change, plague, and a century of war, they together added up to a demographic shocker that upended the arithmetic of feudal manorialism. A population crash in a region that had spent hundreds of years increasing its farm acreage meant that, for the first time in centuries, labor was more valuable than land. For the survivors, at least, it represented a dramatic though temporary improvement in the lives of the rural peasantry as their labor became relatively more valuable. The long-term consequences of the end of the Medieval Warm Period, from the decline in the power of the papacy to the rise of national armies to the replacement of feudal manorialism by mercantilism – the doctrine that made control of foreign trade the most important economic responsibility of national governments – to even, in some readings, the Renaissance, were profound indeed." Page 257

(sp ok = spelling of word has been checked against the source.)


#williamrosen #climatechange #medievaleurope #famine

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