Medevil Famine


Medevil Famine Essay, Research Paper


Agriculture during the medieval time was a very complex system. The

weather played a major role in the harvest. A week of unpleasant rain in May,

followed by an abnormal cold, humid summer might have thrown off the summer

harvest, resulting in a shortfall of food. Due to a surplus left over from the

previous harvest, no one went hungry. But after a couple of bad harvests, the

surplus began to run out. This happened in Europe in 1044. The Famine reared

its ugly head, in part, caused by years of unfavorable harvest and inadequate

crops, but it was also complicated by a plague that seemed to thrive on human


By 1043, northwest Europe was in disruption. Food prices which had

been high in 1042, remained high, especially in Belgium. No doubt the high

price of food was a result of the poor harvests from both the 1042 winter and

summer crops. From Waverly in England and Angers in France, to St. Gall in

Switzerland and Gembloux in Belgium, reports of famine, disease, and death

circulated. No relief came in the summer of 1043. In France and Germany, there

were reports of a terribly wet and stormy summer. An entry from Swabia, a

province in south-central Germany, best summed up the situation: “The entire

summer almost changed to winter by winds and rains, a great lack of grain and

wine came about.” (LeRoy 27) These rains must have been particularly harsh.

The wind and rain pounding away at the growing summer crop lowered not only

yields but quality as well. Almost all of the summer labors were adversely

effected. No doubt the rains barraged the grazing cattle as well.

If Emperor Henry III and his court had played ice hockey, December

would have been a glorious month indeed; there was ice everywhere. From

December in 1043, to March of 1044, the great ice froze northwestern Europe.

This spelled disaster for the medieval population; it was the final disaster in a

procession of calamities. For four months, for all purposes, the ground was too

frozen to plow for the spring planting. And the winter crop, which had been

planted in October of 1043, was devastated. Although snow insulates a crop

from the cold, it does so only up to a certain degree. Gauging by the chroniclers’

harsh and snowy entries for 1044, the winter must have been exceptionally brutal

for the people and their agricultural cycle. (Flohn 95)

The plague among animals took the form of hoof-and-mouth disease; the

wet summer of 1043 had made for an excellent incubating condition. Like any

disease, it would take time for foot-and-mouth to reach mentionable proportions,

probably close to six months. This would place mention of the outbreak in the

winter of 1044, which is in fact the time when chroniclers mention the “plague

among animals.”(Tierney 154) As the animals suffered, the severity of the winter

frosted over the grape buds, splitting the vines, and destroying the harvest for

1044. With the destruction of the vines, there was also destruction of other fruits

of the earth. In 1044, the harvest of grains, fruits, and vegetables was a disaster.

And so by the middle of 1044, as he let his horse graze off the dead,

Famine, with a bottle of starvation to keep him company, settled in northwestern

Europe. The successive cold and wet summer of 1043 and the harsh, snowy

winter of 1044 had been the culminating events to a tragic series of

circumstances. Because the conditions had been corrected, these two climatic

events had worked together to wreck four harvests in a row (1042 winter crop,

1043 summer and winter crops, and 1044 summer crop). With little to no surplus

from the previous years (1042 summer crop had been very poor), these excessive

and successive shortfalls in 1043 and 1044 lead to general starvation across

northwestern Europe. Though it appears that the summer of 1044 was

climatically uneventful, famine did not rest. There might have been a slight

reprieve in the fall of 1044 as the peasant farmers administered the wrecked

summer crop; surely, they saved some food, perhaps a few months worth. But,

like the good weather, it was only temporary. (LeRoy 75)

The winter of 1045 was cold in north northwestern Europe. The cold

probably had effects similar to the great ice of 1044. The winter wheat and rye

crop were small and of poor quality; the plowing and sowing of the summer oat,

barley, and vegetable crops were, at the very least, impaired. And the harvest

reaped was weak. Because of the cold, mice and other mammals were hard

pressed to find shelter. Surely, all the plants and animals struggled to survive

during the winter of 1045.

Reports of famine continued throughout northwestern Europe. The now-

empty city of Verdun, “was almost returned to waste”(Arnold 138) by famine, and

the people who remained prayed to God for deliverance. Oddly enough, there

were no famine reports in England; but at the very least, shortages of food most

certainly continued throughout England in 1045. (Arnold 139)

A year later, however, in England Famine was eating up the headlines.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle read: “after Candlemas [February 2], came the severe

winter, with frost and snow, and with all kinds of bad weather, so that

there was no man alive who could remember so severe a winter as that was, both

through mortality of men and murrain of cattle; both birds and fishes perished

through the great cold and hunger.” (Arnold 141)

Just as in 1044, a brutal winter wrecked the already battered agricultural

cycle. Both the 1045 winter crop and the 1046 summer crop were devastated in

England. Although there is no way of telling exactly how cold the winter was, the

chronicler did make special mention of how birds and fish died from the cold

(and hunger too). But judging from the harsh winter, the agricultural harvests of

1046 must not have been good, at least not in north northwestern Europe.

(LeRoy 85)

By 1046, many chroniclers’ stopped using the word famine, but why. For

three years, famine had effectively worked to cut back the number of mouths to

feed, perhaps increasing the death rate from 30 in 1,000 to 80 or even 90 in 1,000

per year. Across northwestern Europe, with each year of famine, an excess of

five per cent or more of the population died from the effects of starvation and

disease. Using 1044 as a base year with one-hundred per cent population, and

assuming a five per cent excess population decrease per year, by the beginning of

1046, the population of northwest Europe had dropped to roughly eighty-five per

cent of what it had been. (Once famine reaches its climax, the more it kills in one

year, the less it kills in the next, and the quicker it runs its course.) Famine was

still in Europe; it was just killing fewer people. There is also another reason why

the chroniclers probably didn’t use the word famine. Being relatively at the top of

the medieval social ladder, they would have been among the first to climb out of

famine’s bottle of starvation. Because they themselves were out of harm’s way,

they might have felt that famine was over. For the poor, the biggest part of

society, famine most certainly continued; famine was climbing down the social

ladder in 1046. (Boissonnade 215)

1047 paralleled 1046. Across northwestern Europe, winter was terrible.

Throughout Germany, France, and Belgium, as well as in England too, the

chronicler’s made mention of a snow so great that it broke down trees. In

England, the “great snow fell on the calends of January, which remained until the

feast of St. Patrick [March 17].”(Arnold 145) A chronicler in Wales wrote, that to

the south, the land was deserted by its inhabitants. This probably indicates that

people had fled their land due to the strength of the ongoing famine. Deaths were

reported across England, and famine was even reported in Scotland. Across the

English Channel, the poor weather patterns remained in Europe. Shortfalls and

hunger certainly continued across northwestern Europe, but widespread famine

was coming to an end. In 1048, there was no mention of terrible weather, but

nor was there mention of especially good weather.(LeRoy 96)

By the last few years of the decade, famine was indeed leaving

northwestern Europe. Exactly when famine left for good, however, is unclear.

Just as famine arrived to different parts of Europe spontaneously, spreading until

it had engulfed all of Europe, relief from famine spread gradually also. In 1049,

the winter was icy. Like 1048, there was no explicit mention of shortage or

starvation, but neither was there mention of surplus. In 1051, the year was noted

as a rainy one in Belgium. In 1052, however, there were the first reports of good

harvests at Augsburg and in Bavaria. And again in 1053, for a second straight

year, there were reports of good harvests. Widespread famine had departed.

(Gottfried 103)

In Germany and across northwestern Europe, the disaster of famine had

faded away by the early 1050’s. Medieval agriculture and society, which had laid

on its side for nearly a decade, had finally been corrected. But like General

Douglas MacArthur withdrawing from Corregidor, Famine probably uttered the

same words as he too withdrew: “I shall return.” (Devlin 19) The specter of

Famine riding off into the sunset was a vision, even though Starvation was to

reappear soon enough.

Arnold, David J. Famine: Social Crisis and Historical

Change. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1988.

Boissonnade, P. Life And Work in Medieval Europe: The

Evolution of Medieval Economy from the Fifth to the

Fifteenth Century. New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1964.

Devlin, Gerald M. Back To Corregidor – America Retakes the Rock.

New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.

Flohn, Herman, and Fantechi, Roberto. The Climate of

Europe: Past, Present, and Future: Natural and Man-induced

Climatic Changes: A European Perspective. Boston: D. Reidel

Pub. Co., 1984.

Gottfried, Robert S. The Black Death: Natural and Human Disaster

in Medieval Europe. New York: The Free Press, 1983

Le Roy, Ladurie, Emmanuel. Times of Feast, Times of Famine:

A History of Climate Since the Year 1000. Garden City, NY:

Doubleday, 1971.

Tierney, Brian, and Painter, Sidney. Western Europe in the

Middle Ages 300-1475. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1983.

Thesis Statement: The Famine reared its ugly head, in part, caused by years of

unfavorable harvest and inadequate crops, but it was also complicated by a plague

that seemed to thrive on human starvation.

I. Introduction

A. People

B. Nature

II. 1043

A. High food prices

B. Famine spread

C. Bad Weat

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