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.
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.
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:
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.
A. High food prices
B. Famine spread
C. Bad Weat