A post about the natural disaster which affected northern Europe in the early fourteenth century.
In the mid-1310s, the climate was bizarre in the extreme, and it rained heavily and constantly for much of the summer of 1314 and most of 1315 and 1316. (I wonder if it rained during the battle of Bannockburn in June 1314?) This torrential rain, inevitably, caused flooding; crops rotted away and livestock drowned in the waterlogged fields. The result was the Great Famine, which is estimated to have killed at least five per cent, and perhaps much more, of the population of England. The rest of northern Europe suffered a similar or higher death toll. The author of the Vita Edwardi Secundi, evidently unaware that this was a pan-European disaster, knew exactly where to apportion blame: on the English people themselves, who "excel other nations in three qualities, in pride, in craft, and in perjury." Therefore, "the hand of God appears to be raised against us…I firmly believe that unless the English Church had interceded for us, we should have perished long ago...All this comes from the wickedness of the inhabitants." He also blamed the fact that Saturn had been in the ascendant for three years, but now that Jupiter was about to succeed, the rain would cease and the fields be filled with abundance.
The shortage pushed up prices enormously. Anonimalle and Lanercost say that a quarter of "badly cleaned and scantly weighed" wheat cost forty shillings or more, six or eight times the normal price, Anonimalle that "two little onions" cost a penny – a few hours’ wages for most people – at Cheapside in London, while the St Albans chronicler gives the price of a quarter of salt as a staggering thirty-five shillings. (Imagine having to work half a day or more just to be able to afford two small onions!) The Sempringham annalist says "there were great floods of water throughout England, and the wheat was destroyed, and the hay also, and there was great famine and great dearth of wheat throughout the land." He gives the price of a quarter of wheat as twenty-four shillings and more, a quarter of barley as sixteen shillings and a quarter of oats as twenty shillings, many times the usual price. Such bread as was available could not satisfy hunger, as the grain was soaked from the endless rain and had to be dried in ovens before it was cooked, and contained minimal nutrients.
In March and April 1315, Edward II did his best to mitigate his subjects’ misery by ordering the price of basic foodstuffs, grain and various kinds of meat, to be regulated. According to the Anonimalle, Edward passed these regulations with the advice of his privy council and without the consent of the magnates, and the chronicler, rather unfairly, calls Edward’s council "feeble" and the regulations "foolish," claiming that the king and his advisors were trying to "deceive the common people." The Vita, on the other hand, says that the earls and barons themselves developed the regulations, "looking to the welfare of the state." Edward’s attempts to improve the situation inevitably resulted only in traders refusing to sell what few goods they had at an artificially low price. In August 1315, Edward proclaimed that the magnates of the realm should limit the number of courses served at their tables, on account of the "excessive and abundant portions of food" they were accustomed to enjoying.
According to the St Albans chronicler, when Edward visited St Albans from 10 to 12 August 1315 even he had difficulties buying bread for himself and his household. Still, the king was in a far better position than the majority of his subjects: in Northumbria, already weakened and despoiled by Scottish raids, "dogs and horses and other unclean things were eaten," says the Vita, and the St Albans chronicler says that horse meat was precious and that "fat dogs" were stolen. The port of Berwick-on-Tweed suffered particularly. Its warden, Maurice Berkeley, sent anguished letters to Edward and the royal justice William Inge between October 1315 and February 1316, telling them "no town was ever in such distress," that the garrison were deserting, dead of hunger or reduced to eating horses, and that if Edward failed to send help immediately, "the town will be lost by famine." Berkeley ended one letter by saying "Pity to see Christians living such a life."
And for others, imminent starvation drove them to far worse horrors than eating pets or horses. Rumours of cannibalism were rife, and the St Albans chronicler even claims, I hope with great exaggeration, that some people resorted to eating children. After the famine came a "severe pestilence," which claimed many more victims. Dead bodies were so numerous they could hardly be buried. In their misery and starvation, many people begged for food, stole whatever they could, and murdered others for what little food they had.
Even in a hand-to-mouth economy where food shortages were common, nothing as bad as this had ever been seen before: "Such a scarcity has not been seen in our time in England, not heard of for a hundred years," says one chronicler, and others agree, talking of misery "such as our age has never seen" and "such a mortality of men in England and Scotland through famine and pestilence as had not been heard of in our time." The unsuccessful regulations concerning the price of foodstuffs were abolished at the Lincoln parliament of early 1316, which met the approval of the Bridlington chronicler: "How contrary to reason is an ordinance on prices, when the fruitfulness or sterility of all living things are in the power of God alone, from which it follows that the fertility of the soil and not the will of man must determine the price."
The weather finally improved in 1317, and gradually the famine loosened its dread grip. But for the long-suffering inhabitants of Europe, far worse was to come: the first great outbreak of the Black Death lurked three decades round the corner.
- Vita Edwardi Secundi Monachi Cuiusdam Malmesberiensis, ed. Noel Denholm-Young (1957), pp. 63-70.
- Annales Londonienses 1195-1330, in W. Stubbs, ed., Chronicles of the Reigns of Edward I and Edward II, volume 1 (1882), pp. 238-239.
- Gesta Edwardi de Carnarvon Auctore Canonico Bridlingtoniensi, in Stubbs, Chronicles, volume 2 (1883), pp. 47-48.
- The Anonimalle Chronicle 1307-41, from Brotherton Collection MS 29, ed. W. R. Childs and J. Taylor (1991), p. 90.
- Le Livere de Reis de Britanie e le Livere de Reis de Engletere, ed. John Glover (1865), pp. 331-333.
- The Chronicle of Lanercost 1272-1346, ed. Herbert Maxwell (1913), p. 217.
- Johannis de Trokelowe et Henrici de Blaneforde Chronica et Annales, ed. H. T. Riley (1866), pp. 92-93.
- Calendar of Close Rolls 1313-1318, p. 306.
- Calendar of Documents Relating to Scotland 1307-1357, pp. 85, 89-91.