Great Famine of 1315–1317

Great Famine of 1315–1317

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The Great Famine of 1315–1317 (occasionally dated 1315–1322) was the first of a series of large scale crises that struck Northern Europe
Northern Europe
Northern Europe is the northern part or region of Europe. Northern Europe typically refers to the seven countries in the northern part of the European subcontinent which includes Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Finland and Sweden...

 early in the fourteenth century. From the Pyrenees
Pyrenees
The Pyrenees is a range of mountains in southwest Europe that forms a natural border between France and Spain...

 to Russia
Russia
Russia or , officially known as both Russia and the Russian Federation , is a country in northern Eurasia. It is a federal semi-presidential republic, comprising 83 federal subjects...

 and from Scotland
Scotland
Scotland is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. Occupying the northern third of the island of Great Britain, it shares a border with England to the south and is bounded by the North Sea to the east, the Atlantic Ocean to the north and west, and the North Channel and Irish Sea to the...

 to Italy
Italy
Italy , officially the Italian Republic languages]] under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In each of these, Italy's official name is as follows:;;;;;;;;), is a unitary parliamentary republic in South-Central Europe. To the north it borders France, Switzerland, Austria and...

 it caused millions of deaths over an extended number of years and marks a clear end to an earlier period of growth and prosperity
Medieval demography
This article discusses human demography in Europe during the Middle Ages, including population trends and movements. Demographic changes helped to shape and define the Middle Ages...

 during the eleventh to thirteenth centuries. Starting with bad weather in spring 1315, universal crop failures lasted through 1316 until summer harvest in 1317; Europe did not fully recover until 1322. It was a period marked by extreme levels of crime, disease, mass death and even cannibalism
Cannibalism
Cannibalism is the act or practice of humans eating the flesh of other human beings. It is also called anthropophagy...

 and infanticide
Infanticide
Infanticide or infant homicide is the killing of a human infant. Neonaticide, a killing within 24 hours of a baby's birth, is most commonly done by the mother.In many past societies, certain forms of infanticide were considered permissible...

. It had consequences for Church, State, European society and future calamities to follow in the fourteenth century.

Background


Famine
Famine
A famine is a widespread scarcity of food, caused by several factors including crop failure, overpopulation, or government policies. This phenomenon is usually accompanied or followed by regional malnutrition, starvation, epidemic, and increased mortality. Every continent in the world has...

 in the Medieval European context meant that people died of starvation on a massive scale. As brutal as they were, famines were familiar occurrences in Medieval Europe. As an example, localized famines occurred in France during the fourteenth century in 1304, 1305, 1310, 1315–1317 (the Great Famine), 1330–1334, 1349–1351, 1358–1360, 1371, 1374–1375 and 1390. In England, years of famine included 1315–1317, 1321, 1351, and 1369. For most people there was often not enough to eat and life expectancy was relatively short since many children died. According to records of the British Royal family
British Royal Family
The British Royal Family is the group of close relatives of the monarch of the United Kingdom. The term is also commonly applied to the same group of people as the relations of the monarch in her or his role as sovereign of any of the other Commonwealth realms, thus sometimes at variance with...

, the best off in society, the average life expectancy in 1276 was 35.28 years. Between 1301 and 1325 during the Great Famine it was 29.84 while between 1348–1375, during the Black Death
Black Death
The Black Death was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, peaking in Europe between 1348 and 1350. Of several competing theories, the dominant explanation for the Black Death is the plague theory, which attributes the outbreak to the bacterium Yersinia pestis. Thought to have...

 and subsequent plagues, it went to 17.33.

The Great Famine was restricted to Northern Europe, including the British Isles
British Isles
The British Isles are a group of islands off the northwest coast of continental Europe that include the islands of Great Britain and Ireland and over six thousand smaller isles. There are two sovereign states located on the islands: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and...

, northern France
France
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

, the Low Countries
Low Countries
The Low Countries are the historical lands around the low-lying delta of the Rhine, Scheldt, and Meuse rivers, including the modern countries of Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and parts of northern France and western Germany....

, Scandinavia
Scandinavia
Scandinavia is a cultural, historical and ethno-linguistic region in northern Europe that includes the three kingdoms of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, characterized by their common ethno-cultural heritage and language. Modern Norway and Sweden proper are situated on the Scandinavian Peninsula,...

, Germany
Germany
Germany , officially the Federal Republic of Germany , is a federal parliamentary republic in Europe. The country consists of 16 states while the capital and largest city is Berlin. Germany covers an area of 357,021 km2 and has a largely temperate seasonal climate...

, and western Poland
Poland
Poland , officially the Republic of Poland , is a country in Central Europe bordered by Germany to the west; the Czech Republic and Slovakia to the south; Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania to the east; and the Baltic Sea and Kaliningrad Oblast, a Russian exclave, to the north...

. It also affected some of the Baltic states
Baltic states
The term Baltic states refers to the Baltic territories which gained independence from the Russian Empire in the wake of World War I: primarily the contiguous trio of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania ; Finland also fell within the scope of the term after initially gaining independence in the 1920s.The...

 except for the far eastern Baltic which was only affected indirectly. The famine was bounded in the south by the Alps
Alps
The Alps is one of the great mountain range systems of Europe, stretching from Austria and Slovenia in the east through Italy, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Germany to France in the west....

 and the Pyrenees
Pyrenees
The Pyrenees is a range of mountains in southwest Europe that forms a natural border between France and Spain...

.

During the Medieval Warm Period
Medieval Warm Period
The Medieval Warm Period , Medieval Climate Optimum, or Medieval Climatic Anomaly was a time of warm climate in the North Atlantic region, that may also have been related to other climate events around the world during that time, including in China, New Zealand, and other countries lasting from...

 (the period prior to 1300) the population of Europe had exploded, reaching levels that were not matched again in some places until the nineteenth century (parts of France today are less populous than at the beginning of the fourteenth century). However, the yield ratios of wheat (the number of seeds one could eat per seed planted) had been dropping since 1280 and food prices had been climbing. In good weather the ratio could be as high as 7:1, while during bad years as low as 2:1-—that is, for every seed planted, two seeds were harvested, one for next year's seed, and one for food. By comparison, modern farming has ratios of 30:1 or more.

There was one catastrophic dip in the weather during the Medieval Warm Period
Medieval Warm Period
The Medieval Warm Period , Medieval Climate Optimum, or Medieval Climatic Anomaly was a time of warm climate in the North Atlantic region, that may also have been related to other climate events around the world during that time, including in China, New Zealand, and other countries lasting from...

 that coincided with the onset of the Great Famine. Between 1310 and 1330 northern Europe saw some of the worst and most sustained periods of bad weather in the entire Middle Ages, characterized by severe winters and rainy and cold summers.

Changing weather patterns, the ineffectiveness of medieval governments in dealing with crises and a population level at a historical high made it a time when there was little margin for error.

Great Famine


In the spring of 1315, unusually heavy rain began in much of Europe. Throughout the spring and summer, it continued to rain and the temperature remained cool. These conditions caused widespread crop failures. The straw and hay for the animals could not be cured and there was no fodder for the livestock. The price of food began to rise. Food prices in England doubled between spring and midsummer. Salt
Salt
In chemistry, salts are ionic compounds that result from the neutralization reaction of an acid and a base. They are composed of cations and anions so that the product is electrically neutral...

, the only way to cure and preserve meat, was difficult to obtain because it could not be evaporated in the wet weather; it went from 30 shillings to 40 shillings. In Lorraine, wheat prices increased by 320 percent and peasant
Peasant
A peasant is an agricultural worker who generally tend to be poor and homeless-Etymology:The word is derived from 15th century French païsant meaning one from the pays, or countryside, ultimately from the Latin pagus, or outlying administrative district.- Position in society :Peasants typically...

s could no longer afford bread
Bread
Bread is a staple food prepared by cooking a dough of flour and water and often additional ingredients. Doughs are usually baked, but in some cuisines breads are steamed , fried , or baked on an unoiled frying pan . It may be leavened or unleavened...

. Stores of grain for long-term emergencies were limited to the lords and nobles. Because of the general increased population pressures, even lower-than-average harvests meant some people would go hungry; there was little margin for failure. People began to harvest wild edible roots, plants, grasses, nuts, and bark in the forests. There are a number of documented incidents that show the extent of the famine. Edward II
Edward II of England
Edward II , called Edward of Caernarfon, was King of England from 1307 until he was deposed by his wife Isabella in January 1327. He was the sixth Plantagenet king, in a line that began with the reign of Henry II...

, King of England, stopped at St Albans
St Albans
St Albans is a city in southern Hertfordshire, England, around north of central London, which forms the main urban area of the City and District of St Albans. It is a historic market town, and is now a sought-after dormitory town within the London commuter belt...

 on 10 August 1315 and no bread could be found for him or his entourage; it was a rare occasion in which the King of England was unable to eat. The French, under Louis X
Louis X of France
Louis X of France, , called the Quarreler, the Headstrong, or the Stubborn was the King of Navarre from 1305 and King of France from 1314 until his death...

, tried to invade Flanders
Flanders
Flanders is the community of the Flemings but also one of the institutions in Belgium, and a geographical region located in parts of present-day Belgium, France and the Netherlands. "Flanders" can also refer to the northern part of Belgium that contains Brussels, Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp...

, but being in the low country of the Netherlands
Netherlands
The Netherlands is a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, located mainly in North-West Europe and with several islands in the Caribbean. Mainland Netherlands borders the North Sea to the north and west, Belgium to the south, and Germany to the east, and shares maritime borders...

, the fields were soaked and the army became so bogged down they were forced to retreat, burning their provisions where they left them, unable to carry them out.

In the spring of 1316, it continued to rain on a European population deprived of energy and reserves to sustain itself. All segments of society from nobles to peasants were affected, but especially the peasants who represented 95% of the population and who had no reserve food supplies. To provide some measure of relief, draft animals were butchered, seed grain was consumed, children were abandoned to fend for themselves (see "Hansel and Gretel
Hansel and Gretel
"Hansel and Gretel" is a well-known fairy tale of German origin, recorded by the Brothers Grimm and published in 1812. Hansel and Gretel are a young brother and sister threatened by a cannibalistic hag living deep in the forest in a house constructed of cake and confectionery. The two children...

"), and some elderly people voluntarily refused food in order to provide nourishment needed for the younger generation to survive. The chroniclers of the time wrote of many incidents of cannibalism.

The height of the famine was reached in 1317 as the wet weather continued. Finally, in the summer the weather returned to its normal patterns. By now, however, people were so weakened by diseases such as pneumonia
Pneumonia
Pneumonia is an inflammatory condition of the lung—especially affecting the microscopic air sacs —associated with fever, chest symptoms, and a lack of air space on a chest X-ray. Pneumonia is typically caused by an infection but there are a number of other causes...

, bronchitis
Bronchitis
Acute bronchitis is an inflammation of the large bronchi in the lungs that is usually caused by viruses or bacteria and may last several days or weeks. Characteristic symptoms include cough, sputum production, and shortness of breath and wheezing related to the obstruction of the inflamed airways...

, and tuberculosis
Tuberculosis
Tuberculosis, MTB, or TB is a common, and in many cases lethal, infectious disease caused by various strains of mycobacteria, usually Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Tuberculosis usually attacks the lungs but can also affect other parts of the body...

, and so much of the seed stock had been eaten, that it was not until 1325 that the food supply returned to relatively normal conditions and the population began to increase again. Historians debate the toll but it is estimated that 10–25% of the population of many cities and towns died. While the Black Death
Black Death
The Black Death was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, peaking in Europe between 1348 and 1350. Of several competing theories, the dominant explanation for the Black Death is the plague theory, which attributes the outbreak to the bacterium Yersinia pestis. Thought to have...

 (1338–1375) would kill more people, it often swept through an area in a matter of months whereas the Great Famine lingered for years, drawing out the suffering of populace.

The unusual weather patterns are similar to those found following volcanic eruptions, such as the Mount Tambora
Mount Tambora
Mount Tambora is an active stratovolcano, also known as a composite volcano, on the island of Sumbawa, Indonesia. Sumbawa is flanked both to the north and south by oceanic crust, and Tambora was formed by the active subduction zone beneath it. This raised Mount Tambora as high as , making it...

 eruption of April 1815 that caused the year without a summer
Year Without a Summer
The Year Without a Summer was 1816, in which severe summer climate abnormalities caused average global temperatures to decrease by about 0.4–0.7 °C , resulting in major food shortages across the Northern Hemisphere...

 in Europe.

Consequences


The famine is called the Great Famine not only because of the number of people who died, or the vast geographic area that was affected, or the length of time it lasted, but also because of the lasting consequences.

The first consequence was for the Church. In a society where the final recourse to all problems had been religion, no amount of prayer seemed effective against the causes of the famine, which undermined the institutional authority of the Catholic Church. This helped lay the foundations for later movements that were deemed heretical
Heresy
Heresy is a controversial or novel change to a system of beliefs, especially a religion, that conflicts with established dogma. It is distinct from apostasy, which is the formal denunciation of one's religion, principles or cause, and blasphemy, which is irreverence toward religion...

 by the Church because they opposed the Papacy and blamed the failure of prayer upon corruption within the church.

Second was the increase in criminal activity. Medieval Europe in the thirteenth century already experienced social violence, where rape and murder were demonstrably more common than in modern times. With the famine, even those who were not normally inclined to criminal activity would resort to any means to feed themselves or their family. After the famine, Europe took on a tougher and more violent edge; it had become an even less amicable place than during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The effects of this could be seen across all segments of society, perhaps the most striking in the way warfare was conducted in the fourteenth century during the Hundred Years' War
Hundred Years' War
The Hundred Years' War was a series of separate wars waged from 1337 to 1453 by the House of Valois and the House of Plantagenet, also known as the House of Anjou, for the French throne, which had become vacant upon the extinction of the senior Capetian line of French kings...

 where chivalry was tossed aside, versus the twelfth and thirteenth centuries when nobles were more likely to die by accident in tournament
Tournament (medieval)
A tournament, or tourney is the name popularly given to chivalrous competitions or mock fights of the Middle Ages and Renaissance . It is one of various types of hastiludes....

 games than on the field of battle.

Third was the failure of the Medieval governments to deal with the crisis. Just as God seemed unable or unwilling to answer prayers, the earthly powers were equally ineffective, eroding and undermining their power and authority.

Fourth, the Great Famine marked a clear end to an unprecedented period of population growth that had started around 1050; although some believe this had been slowing down for a few decades already, there is no doubt the Great Famine was a clear end of high population growth.

Finally, the Great Famine would have consequences for future events in the fourteenth century such as the Black Death when an already weakened population would be struck again.

See also

  • Medieval demography
    Medieval demography
    This article discusses human demography in Europe during the Middle Ages, including population trends and movements. Demographic changes helped to shape and define the Middle Ages...

  • Popular revolt in late medieval Europe
    Popular revolt in late medieval Europe
    Popular revolts in late medieval Europe were uprisings and rebellions by peasants in the countryside, or the bourgeois in towns, against nobles, abbots and kings during the upheavals of the 14th through early 16th centuries, part of a larger "Crisis of the Late Middle Ages"...

  • List of famines