With the recent storms and floods seen here in the UK and elsewhere on the Continent, as well as the Polar vortex event over northern America, I thought it timely to take a look at a point in the early fourteenth century when the weather turned even more deadly and destructive. This weather event lasted from the end of 1314 to the beginning of 1317, causing terrible harvests, a dearth of all kinds of food, death and disease. Even after the better years of 1317-18, the crisis was not over as the whole of Europe was then plagued by a catastrophic murrain (disease) that struck down cattle everywhere with a high rate of mortality and infectivity.
This first post looks at the Great Famine years of 1315-16, when the people of England, Scotland and Wales thought that God had abandoned them. Several chroniclers of the time (especially Johannis de Trokelowe) left a record of the events, giving us a picture into the suffering and deprivation suffered by all: young and old, rich and poor.*
The first sign of trouble actually came in 1314, when heavy rains during late summer/early autumn made the grain harvest difficult to get in and store. Stocks of wheat and barley were therefore less than a normal year, but in the scheme of things it wasn’t a great cause for alarm. England had been through lean times on a regular basis and it was just another case of tightening the belt and hoping for a better harvest the following year. Meat, milk and eggs however, seemed to be in short supply and in January 1315, alarmed at the rising prices, parliament passed a statute fixing maximum prices for livestock, milk and other foodstuffs (as 1315’s bad harvest had not yet happened, grain was not included). This new law was repealed in 1316, by which time it was proving of no use whatsoever.
Around the month of June the rains began again and became heavy and persistent all throughout the summer and autumn causing flooding in low-lying areas and sodden ground elsewhere. Grain prices started to rise and other foodstuffs were, according to Trokelowe, scarce. A sheep murrain was killing off many animals and even salt was difficult to process because of the lack of sunlight needed for evaporation:
Capons and fowl could hardly be found, sheep died from a morraine, pigs could not be reared because of the price of fodder. A quarter measure of wheat, beans and peas sold for twenty shillings, barley for one mark and oats for ten (marks). Even a quarter of salt commonly sold for thirty five shillings that in earlier times was utterly unheard of. (Trokelowe)
By harvest time in this year, the few crops that had managed to grow and ripen now proved difficult to harvest and, as in 1314, to store: As it was so wet it tended to become mouldy unless dried in an oven first. Some types of grain crop fared better than others in the bad conditions however: oats were hardly affected as they could survive the cold and wet. But wheat, barley and rye yields were down by about half. The north fared even worse than the south because, as well as the weather, they had continuous Scottish raiding to contend with: any gathered harvest tended to get taken or destroyed.
Although the scarcity of food affected the poor more, the rich also suffered to some degree. Many households had to cut back their budgets and support for their familia, leaving some of their followers to fend for themselves. Alms for the poor also decreased and ceased altogether in some places. Not that all was doom and gloom, those landlords lucky enough to have grain stored in their barns, were encouraged to transport it to where it could be sold to those in need – at a profit of course! So while many starved and found themselves destitute, there were others who managed to make some money out of the situation.
With no grain or pasture to feed animals, as well as the spreading sheep murrain, meat and animal products also became scarce leading to reports of dogs, horses and, according to Trokelowe, even children, being eaten:
The usual kinds of meat, suitable for eating, were too scarce; horse meat was precious; plump dogs were stolen. And, according to many reports, men and women in many places secretly ate their own children….
Although food shortages, harvest failures and sheep disease affected most of the country, it didn’t have the same catastrophic effect everywhere. Land on high ground, for instance, suffered far less than that in valleys and not every estate saw the murrain. Likewise, the bad weather and murrains were not the only cause of the famine; as mentioned above, Scottish raids caused terrible hardship in the north, while purveyance by the crown for its war against the same Scots was ravishing an already emptying larder in England. Even Edward found himself short of essentials on one occasion, according to Trokelowe:
The land was so oppressed with want that when the king came to St Albans on the Feast of St Laurence** it was hardly possible to find bread on sale to supply his immediate household.
** 10th August
Purveyance had never been popular, but you can imagine that during this period, towns and entire regions must have dreaded a visit by the king and his court as sparse foodstuffs would have been taken and rarely paid for (not immediately or at the true rate anyway).
Predictably, the church saw the famine as a punishment from God, and bad omens seemed to be everywhere. A comet appeared in the sky from late 1315 to early 1316 and elsewhere a blood-red cross was observed in the heavens. The archbishop of Canterbury exhorted priests to hold barefoot processions while chanting prayers and reciting mass in order to try to appease an angry deity. Of course, none of it worked and as the torrential rains of summer and autumn changed into a severely cold winter it must have seemed like the end of times to a starved populace. But worse was to come.
Once again, heavy rains appeared during late spring and lasted throughout the summer into Autumn. As well as famine, an epidemic of some kind of enteric disease, started to kill people. Although it is hard to prove what this disease was, the most likely candidate is typhoid. Likewise, it is hard to get a true estimate of the number of deaths in England from both disease and famine as direct records were not kept. However, it is possible to get an estimate from records of manorial heriots, and also from accounts from Flanders. It seems that the average death rate was around 10 %, although many more would have been weakened or incapacitated to the point of being unable to work or grow food. In some places it was said that bodies went unburied because there was no-one able to bury them. The chronicler of the Vita Edwardi Secundi records that:
After the celebration of Easter the dearth of grain began to increase greatly. Such a scarcity has not been seen in our time in England, nor heard of for a hundred years. For the bushel of wheat was sold in London and its vicinity for 40 pence, and in other less thickly populated parts of the country thirty pence was a common price. Indeed during this time of scarcity a great famine appeared, and after the famine came a severe pestilence, from which many thousands died in different places. I have even heard it said by some, that in Northumbria dogs and horses and other unclean things were consumed as food… a fruitful land is turned into barrenness; the inclemency of weather destroys the fatness of the land; wheat is sown and tares are brought forth.
The ordinance fixing food prices was repealed and the reason given by the Annales Londonienses: “they ordained that the ordinance regarding livestock, fowl, and eggs should not stand, because few were found on account of the dearth and lack of victuals.” The number of recorded food thefts also rose, those still with supplies being targeted by those without.
The sheep murrain continued unabated during 1316. Some of the great estates’ flocks sustained heavy losses. For example, on the royal estate at King’s Clipstone, the flock was reduced by nearly half, the heaviest losses seen in lambs and yearlings. It also lost 159 of its goat herd of 193. Church flocks were also badly hit: Bolton Priory lost over two thirds of its flocks between 1315 and 1317. The biggest effect the sheep murrain had, nationally, was the fall in exports of wool, England’s most valuable exportable commodity. Over this two year period England saw a drop of wool revenues of about £3000. It must be emphasized though that this murrain, although devastating in its geographical extent, was nothing new: other murrains had swept through sheep flocks in the past, one particularly devastating period being the late 1270s. In this context, it was nothing on the scale of the cattle murrain that was to hit England in 1319 (more of that in the next post) – a disaster among cattle herds never seen on that scale in Britain perviously. It was, though, one more factor that contributed to these years being such an agricultural catastrophe.
As mentioned before, not all estates suffered equally during these years. Those situated on good, well drained land in the south, still managed to bring in a surplus of corn (even if the harvest was less than normal) and were able to sell it at a profit. For example, the estates of the Bishop of Winchester made 23% more in revenue than in previous years. On the other hand, those estates that were badly hit saw not only a decrease in harvest but also vacated tenancies and many holdings changing hands where peasants could no longer afford to pay rents. This was at its worst in the north, where Scottish raiding saw whole tenements destroyed and holdings lost. The people living and farming there lost everything.
* Although the whole of Britain, as well as most of Europe suffered similarly from the weather conditions, famine and murrains, this post looks mainly at England. But bear in mind, England was not in isolation from events elsewhere and the effects of the weather elsewhere, was also felt by England in terms of reduced imports of foodstuffs (eg., wine from France).
“The Great Famine and the Agrarian Crisis in England 1315-1322”, Ian Kershaw in Past and Present No 59, pp. 3-50
Johannis de Trokelowe et Henrici de Blaneforde, Chronica et Annales, ed. Riley
The Brink of Apocalypse, John Arberth, Routledge 2000
Chronicles of the Reigns of Edward I and Edward II, ed. William Stubbs
Vita Edwardi Secundi, ed.Wendy R. Childs