The Great Famine of 1315-1317 (occasionally dated 1315-1322) was the first of a series of large-scale crises that struck Europe early in the 14th century. Most of Europe (extending east to Russia and south to Italy) was affected. The famine caused millions of deaths over an extended number of years and marked a clear end to the period of growth and prosperity from the 11th to the 13th centuries.
The Great Famine started with bad weather in spring 1315. Crop failures lasted through 1316 until the summer harvest in 1317, and Europe did not fully recover until 1322. Crop failures were not the only problem; cattle murrains caused sheep and cattle numbers to fall as much as 80%. The period was marked by extreme levels of crime, disease, mass death, and even cannibalism and infanticide. The crisis had consequences for the Church, state, European society, and for future calamities to follow in the 14th century.
Famines were familiar occurrences in medieval Europe. For example, localised famines occurred in France during the 14th century in 1304, 1305, 1310, 1315-1317 (the Great Famine), 1330-34, 1349-51, 1358-60, 1371, 1374-75, and 1390. In England, the most prosperous kingdom affected by the Great Famine, there were additional famines in 1321, 1351, and 1369. For most people there was often not enough to eat, and life was a relatively short and brutal struggle to survive to old age. According to official records about the English royal family, an example of the best off in society, for whom records were kept, the average life expectancy in 1276 was 35.28 years. Between 1301 and 1325, during the Great Famine it was 29.84 years, while between 1348 and 1375 during the Plague, it was only 17.33 years. It demonstrates the relative steep drop between 1348 and 1375 of about 42%.
During the Medieval Warm Period (the period prior to 1300), the population of Europe exploded compared to prior eras, reaching levels that were not matched again in some places until the 19th century--indeed parts of rural France today are still less populous than at the beginning of the 14th century. However, the yield ratios of wheat, the number of seeds one could eat per seed planted, had been dropping since 1280, and food prices had been climbing. After favourable harvests, the ratio could be as high as 7:1, but after unfavourable harvests it was as low as 2:1--that is, for every seed planted, two seeds were harvested, one for next year's seed, and one for food. By comparison, modern farming has ratios of 30:1 or more (see agricultural productivity).
The onset of the Great Famine coincided with the end of the Medieval Warm Period. Between 1310 and 1330, northern Europe saw some of the worst and most sustained periods of bad weather in the entire Middle Ages, characterized by severe winters and rainy and cold summers. The Great Famine may have been precipitated by a volcanic event, perhaps that of Mount Tarawera, New Zealand, which lasted about five years.
Changing weather patterns, the ineffectiveness of medieval governments in dealing with crises and population level at a historical high made it a time for little margin for error in food production.
In the spring of 1315, unusually heavy rain began in much of Europe. Throughout the spring and the summer, it continued to rain, and the temperature remained cool. Under such conditions, grain could not ripen, leading to widespread crop failures. Grain was brought indoors in urns and pots to keep dry. The straw and hay for the animals could not be cured, so there was no fodder for the livestock. The price of food began to rise; prices in England doubled between spring and midsummer. Salt, the only way to cure and preserve meat, was difficult to obtain because brine could not be effectively evaporated in wet weather; its price increased from 30 shillings to 40 shillings. In Lorraine, wheat prices grew by 320%, making bread unaffordable to peasants. Stores of grain for long-term emergencies were limited to royalty, lords, nobles, wealthy merchants, and the Church. Because of the general increased population pressures, even lower-than-average harvests meant some people would go hungry; there was little margin for failure. People began to harvest wild edible roots, grasses, nuts, and bark in the forests.
A number of documented incidents show the extent of the famine. Edward II of England stopped at St Albans on 10 August 1315 and had difficulty finding bread for himself and his entourage; it was a rare occasion in which the King of England was unable to eat. The French, under Louis X, tried to invade Flanders, but in low-lying areas of the Netherlands, the fields were soaked and the army became so bogged down that they were forced to retreat, burning their provisions where they left them, unable to carry them away.
In the spring of 1316, it continued to rain on a European population deprived of energy and reserves to sustain itself. All segments of society from nobles to peasants were affected but especially the peasants, who represented 95% of the population and who had no reserve food supplies. To provide some measure of relief, the future was mortgaged by slaughtering the draft animals, eating the seed grain, abandoning children to fend for themselves (see "Hansel and Gretel") and, among old people, voluntarily refusing food for the younger generation to survive. The chroniclers of the time noted many incidents of cannibalism, although, self-admittedly, "one can never tell if such talk was not simply a matter of rumor-mongering".
The height of the famine was in 1317, as the wet weather continued. Finally, in that summer, the weather returned to its normal patterns. By then, however, people were so weakened by diseases such as pneumonia, bronchitis, and tuberculosis, and so much of the seed stock had been eaten, that it was not until 1325 that the food supply returned to relatively normal levels and the population began to increase again. Historians debate the toll, but it is estimated that 10-25% of the population of many cities and towns died. Though the Black Death (1347-1351) would kill more people, it often swept through an area in a matter of months, whereas the Great Famine lingered for years, prolonging the suffering of the populace.
The Great Famine was restricted to Northern Europe, including the British Isles, northern France, the Low Countries, Scandinavia, Germany, and western Poland. It also affected some of the Baltic states except for the far eastern Baltic, which was affected only indirectly. The famine was bounded to the south by the Alps and the Pyrenees.
The Great Famine is noteworthy for the number of people who died, the vast geographic area that was affected and its length but also its lasting consequences.
When God saw that the world was so over proud,
He sent a dearth on earth, and made it full hard.
A bushel of wheat was at four shillings or more,
Of which men might have had a quarter before...
And then they turned pale who had laughed so loud,
And they became all docile who before were so proud.
A man's heart might bleed for to hear the cry
Of poor men who called out, "Alas! For hunger I die ...!"
Poem on the Evil Times of Edward II, c. 1321
In a society whose final recourse for nearly all problems had been religion, and Roman Catholicism was the only tolerated Christian faith (excepting those parts of the Baltics affected which contained Eastern Orthodox Christians), no amount of prayer seemed effective against the root causes of the famine. This undermined the institutional authority of the Roman Catholic Church, and helped lay the foundations for later movements that were deemed heretical by the Roman Catholic Church, as they opposed the papacy and blamed the perceived failure of prayer upon corruption and doctrinal errors within the Roman Catholic Church.
Medieval Europe in the fourteenth century had already experienced widespread social violence, and even acts then punishable by death such as rape and murder were demonstrably far more common (especially relative to the population), compared to modern times.
The famine led to a stark increase in crime, even among those not normally inclined to criminal activity, because people would resort to any means to feed themselves or their family. For the next several decades, after the famine, Europe took on a tougher and more violent edge; it became an even less amicable place than during the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries. This could be seen across all segments of society, perhaps most strikingly in the way warfare was conducted in the fourteenth century during the Hundred Years' War, when chivalry ended, as opposed to the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries when nobles were more likely to die by accident in tournament games than on the field of battle.
The famine also undermined confidence in medieval governments for their failure to deal with its resulting crises.
The Great Famine marked a clear end to an unprecedented period of population growth that had started around 1050. Although some believe growth had already been slowing down for a few decades, the famine was undoubtedly a clear end of high population growth. The Great Famine would later have consequences for future events in the fourteenth century, such as the Black Death, when an already weakened population would be struck again.
The Great Famine coincided with and greatly influenced the Bruce campaign in Ireland, the attempt of Edward de Bruce, a younger brother of Robert the Bruce of Scotland, to make himself High King of Ireland. At first, the Irish-Scottish alliance seemed initially successful, as it gained control of most of Ireland in less than a year. However, the famine hit Ireland hard in 1317 and struck most of the country, making it difficult for Edward de Bruce to provide food to most of his men. He never regained momentum and was defeated and killed in the Battle of Faughart in 1318. That ended the last organized effort in many centuries to end English rule in Ireland.