28 January, 2009

The Great Famine, 1315 to 1317

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.


Jules Frusher said...

I suppose it would have been in the interests of the nobility to try and legislate to force some sort of order on the situation (even if it didn't work). After all, the people were the engine of the country and without them the feudal system (or life as they knew it) just wouldn't exist. This was certainly the case after the Great Plague.

I seem to remember that there was also a great disease of livestock (especially cattle) around this time too - called Murrain. Some sources claim that this could have been a disease we know today as Rinderpest while others have stated that it is hard to identify the condition from the information given.

A great post!

Carla said...

An appalling time. What's the source for the estimate of population mortality, and if it could have been "possibly much more" than 5% is there any estimate of how high it might have reached? Could it have begun to set in motion some of the social dislocation we associate with the Black Death a generation later?

Gabriele Campbell said...

Now that's a situation where Hugh Despenser's ruthlessness would have worked - throw all those traders who refuse to sell to a fixed price in the tower and confiscate their goods. And sell lots of bad wine and other crap stuff to them. ;)

Wresting the goods out of Hugh's hands and distribute them to the people may have proven a challenge, though.

Kathryn Warner said...

Lady D: that's true - I'd forgotten about the murrain.

Carla: there's a book about the famine by William Chester Jordan. He says the death toll in parts of Essex and Hampshire was as high as 15%, and somewhere in Italy - can't remember where, I'm afraid - about a third of the inhabitants died of hunger and 'pestilence'. Yes, I think it's extremely likely that the famine had an effect on social dislocation, though of course it's very hard to quantify.

Gabriele: LOL, he'd have locked all the food up in warehouses and forced people to bribe him to open them, or something similar. :-)

Christy K Robinson said...

Thanks for the wonderful articles every time you post. SUCH a lot of work you put into them, and they're well-written to boot. I read them all, even if I don't comment every time. There are probably lots of lurkers all over the world. But here's to you, from California!

Kathryn Warner said...

Thank you, Christy! I'm really glad you enjoy my posts. Yes, I know from Sitemeter that I have hundreds of lurkers, but hey, at least they're reading. ;)

Judy said...

I know I'm coming in late on this, but, really great post! I'd just been reading up on these years of rain and famine...

Kathryn Warner said...

Thank you, Judy! I'm glad you enjoyed the post. What an awful thing it was...:(

Anonymous said...

i was searching for a hour with no luck on the subject. then i found this website and it had all the info i needed for my report. thanks for all your effort into your posts

Kathryn Warner said...

I'm very glad to have helped, Anon! Hope your report went well!

Nipuna said...

thanks a lot. you are really doing a great job. i suddenly came across this blog & all your articles are very interesting.

Kathryn Warner said...

Thank you, Nipuna! I'm really glad you like my blog!

Connie Jensen said...

Thank you so much for this Kathryn! I am involved with others in my group- North Cumbria Scriptwriters- to write a play about the the 750 year history of Wigton's market status. You have helped me put some meat on the bones of my scene set in 1316.

It's a very interesting idea- the re-assment of reviled historical characters. Good luck with it!

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks so much for the kind words, Connie (from one Cumbrian to another! :) Great to hear about your Wigton story, too. Hope it's going really well, and I'd love to see it sometime, if that would be possible!

Connie Jensen said...

Thanks Kathryn! I take it you don't live in Cumbria now? I will post progress reports about the play from time to time on my local blog:


I am fascinated by this period, and my husband is working on a manuscript by Kathleen Herbert set in Cumbria at this time.

Kathryn Warner said...

Not any more, unfortunately, though still visit my parents there as often as I can, on the Furness peninsula. Great, will check out your updates - thanks for the link!

I really want to read Kathleen Herbert's Moon in Leo, which is set in Furness, yay!

GHOMRI said...

What a great post. I just would like to know if the famine had any political implications on the working class of the time? i.e. were there revolts (before that of 1381), and if any, how did the state respond to it?

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks! There were no revolts in Edward II's time, though a poem called On The Evil Times of Edward II details social problems.

Global Change Musings said...

Thanks - I guess you have seen: http://www.post-gazette.com/ae/books/2014/05/25/The-Third-Horseman-Climate-Change-and-the-Great-Famine-of-the-14th-Century-talk-about-a-perfect-storm/stories/201405250067

Global Change Musings said...

Paul Budde http://paulbuddehistory.com/europe/the-great-death/

claims that during the 1309 famine, armies of the poor had attacked the fortress of the Duke of Brabant, in the Low Countries.