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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 fourteenth century, causing millions of deaths over an extended number of years and marking a clear end to an earlier period of growth and prosperity during the eleventh to thirteenth centuries. Starting with bad weather in spring 1315, universal crop failures lasted through 1316 until summer 1317; Europe did not fully recover until 1322. It was a period marked by extreme levels of crime, disease and mass death and infanticide. It had consequences for Church, State, European society and future calamities to follow in the fourteenth century.


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 cryOf poor men who called out, "Alas! For hunger I die ...!"—Poem on the Evil Times of Edward II, c. 1321.

Famine in the Medieval European context meant that people died of starvation on a massive scale. As brutal as they were, famines were familiar occurrences in Medieval Europe. As an example, localized famines occurred in France during the fourteenth century in 1304, 1305, 1310, 1315–1317 (the Great Famine), 1330–1334, 1349–1351, 1358–1360, 1371, 1374–1375 and 1390. In England, the most prosperous kingdom affected by the Great Famine, years of famine included 1315–1317, 1321, 1351, and 1369. For most people there was often not enough to eat and life expectancy was relatively short since many children died. According to records of the British Royal family, the best off in society, the average life expectancy in 1276 was 35.28 years. Between 1301 and 1325 during the Great Famine it was 29.84 while between 1348-1375 during the Plague it went to 17.33.

The Great Famine was restricted to Northern Europe, including the British Islesmarker, northern Francemarker, the Low Countries, Scandinavia, Germanymarker, and western Polandmarker. It also affected some of the Baltic states except for the far eastern Baltic which was only affected indirectly. The famine was bounded in the south by the Alps and the Pyreneesmarker.

During the Medieval Warm Period (the period prior to 1350) the population of Europe had exploded, reaching levels that were not matched again in some places until the nineteenth century (parts of France today are less populous than at the beginning of the fourteenth 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. In good weather the ratio could be as high as 7:1, while during bad years 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 200:1 or more.

There was one catastrophic dip in the weather during the Medieval Warm Period that coincided with the onset of the Great Famine. 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.

Changing weather patterns, the ineffectiveness of medieval governments in dealing with crises and a population level at a historical high water mark made it a time when there was little margin for error.

Great Famine

In the spring of 1315, unusually heavy rain began in much of Europe. Throughout the spring and summer, it continued to rain and the temperature remained cool. Under these conditions grain could not ripen. Grain was brought indoors in urns and pots. The straw and hay for the animals could not be cured and there was no fodder for the livestock. The price of food began to rise. Food prices in England doubled between spring and midsummer. Salt, the only way to cure and preserve meat, was difficult to obtain because it could not be evaporated in the wet weather; it went from 30 shillings to 40 shillings. In Lorraine, wheat prices increased by 320 percent and peasants could no longer afford bread. Stores of grain for long-term emergencies were limited to the lords and nobles. 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, plants, grasses, nuts, and bark in the forests.

There are a number of documented incidents that show the extent of the famine. Edward II, King of England, stopped at St Albansmarker on 10 August 1315 and no bread could be found for him or 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 being in the low country of the Netherlandsmarker, the fields were soaked and the army became so bogged down they were forced to retreat, burning their provisions where they left them, unable to carry them out.

In the spring of 1316, it continued to rain on a European population deprived of energy and reserve 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 safety nets. 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 in hopes of the younger generation surviving. The chroniclers of the time wrote of many incidents of cannibalism.

The height of the famine was reached in 1317 as the wet weather hung on. Finally, in the summer the weather returned to its normal patterns. By now, however, people were so weakened by diseases such as pneumonia, bronchitis, tuberculosis, and other sicknesses, and much of the seed stock had been eaten, that it was not until 1325 that the food supply returned to relatively normal conditions 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. While the Black Death (1338–1375) would kill more, for many the Great Famine was worse. While the plague swept through an area in a matter of months, the Great Famine lingered for years, drawing out the suffering of those who would slowly starve to death, face cannibalism, child-murder and rampant crime.

The unusual weather patterns are similar to those found following volcanic eruptions, such as the Mount Tamboramarker eruption of 1816 that caused the year without a summer in Europe. Mount Pinatubomarker is reported to have erupted in 1315, but whether this is relevant is not known.


The famine is called the Great Famine not only because of the number of people who died, or the vast geographic area that was affected, or the length of time it lasted, but also because of the lasting consequences.

The first consequence was for the Church. In a society where the final recourse to all problems had been religion, no amount of prayer seemed effective against the causes of the famine, which undermined the institutional authority of the Catholic Church. This helped lay the foundations for later movements that were deemed heretical by the Church because they opposed the Papacy and blamed the failure of prayer upon corruption within the church.

Second was the increase in criminal activity. Medieval Europe in the thirteenth century already experienced social violence, where rape and murder were demonstrably more common than in modern times. With the famine, even those who were not normally inclined to criminal activity would resort to any means to feed themselves or their family. After the famine, Europe took on a tougher and more violent edge; it had become an even less amicable place than during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The effects of this could be seen across all segments of society, perhaps the most striking in the way warfare was conducted in the fourteenth century during the Hundred Years' War where chivalry was tossed aside, versus the twelfth and thirteenth centuries when nobles were more likely to die by accident in tournament games than on the field of battle.

Third was the failure of the Medieval governments to deal with the crisis. Just as God seemed unable or unwilling to answer prayers, the earthly powers were equally ineffective, eroding and undermining their power and authority.

Fourth, the Great Famine marked a clear end to an unprecedented period of population growth that had started around 1050; although some believe this had been slowing down for a few decades already, there is no doubt the Great Famine was a clear end of high population growth.

Finally, the Great Famine would have consequences for future events in the fourteenth century such as the Black Death when an already weakened population would be struck again.

See also



  • John Aberth, From the Brink of the Apocalypse: Confronting Famine, Plague, War and Death In the Later Middle Ages, 2000, ISBN 0415927153 - Chapter 1, dealing with the Great Famine, is available online.
  • A.R. Bridbury, "Before the Black Death", Economic History Review, 30 (1977). Available online from JSTOR.
  • B.M.S. Campbell, ed., Before the Black Death, ISBN 0719039274.
  • William C. Jordan, The Great Famine: Northern Europe in the Early Fourteenth Century, Princeton UP, 1996. ISBN 0691058911. The first book on the subject, it is the most comprehensive treatment.
  • I. Kershaw, "The Great Famine", Past and Present, 59 (1973). Available online from JSTOR. Second most widely cited article.
  • Henry S. Lucas, "The great European Famine of 1315–7", Speculum, Vol. 5, No. 4. (Oct., 1930), pp. 343–377. Available online from JSTOR. The first (in English) and most widely cited article on the Great Famine.

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