Great Famine of 1315–17

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From the Apocalypse in a Biblia Pauperum illuminated at Erfurt around the time of the Great Famine. Death ("Mors") sits astride a lion whose long tail ends in a ball of flame (Hell). Famine ("Fames") points to her hungry mouth.

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. Most of continental Europe (extending east to Russia and south to Italy) and Great Britain were affected.[1] 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 eleventh to thirteenth centuries.

The Great Famine started with bad weather in spring 1315. Universal crop failures lasted through 1316 until the summer harvest in 1317, and Europe did not fully recover until 1322. 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 fourteenth century.


European famines of the Middle Ages[edit]

Famines were a familiar occurrence in Medieval Europe. In France during the fourteenth century alone, famines occurred in 1304, 1305, 1310, 1315–1317 (the Great Famine), 1330–1334, 1349–1351, 1358–1360, 1371, 1374–1375 and 1390. In England, famine-years included 1315–1317, 1321, 1351, and 1369.[citation needed]

For most people there was often not enough to eat and average life expectancy at birth was shorter than it was during times of plenty, since many children died. According to records of the royal family of the Kingdom of England, the average life expectancy in 1276 was 35.28 years.[clarification needed] Between 1301 and 1325, including the Great Famine, the average dropped to 29.84; between 1348 and 1375, including the Black Death and subsequent plagues, it dropped to 17.33.[citation needed]

Climate and population[edit]

During the Medieval Warm Period (the period prior to 1300) the population of Europe had grown, reaching levels that were not matched again in some places until the nineteenth 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, while after unfavourable harvests, 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).[2]

The onset of the Great Famine coincided with the end of the Medieval Warm Period. Between 1310 and 1330 northern Europe experienced some of the most unfavourable winters for human survival and least favourable for food harvests in the entire Middle Ages, characterized by severe winters and cold, rainy summers. The Great Famine may have been precipitated by a volcanic event,[3] perhaps that of Mount Tarawera, New Zealand, which lasted about five years.[4][5]

Changing weather patterns, the ineffectiveness of medieval governments in dealing with crises, and a population level at a historical high made it a time when there was little margin for error in food production.[clarification needed]

Great Famine[edit]

Europe in the year 1328

In the spring of 1315, unusually heavy rain began in much of Europe. It continued to rain throughout the spring and summer, and the temperature remained cool. These conditions caused widespread crop failures. The straw and hay for the animals could not be properly dried, so there was no fodder or bedding for the livestock. The price of food began to rise, doubling in England between spring and midsummer. Salt, the only way to cure and preserve meat, was difficult to obtain because it was more difficult to extract through evaporation in the wet weather; its price rose from 30 to 40 shillings.[6]

Because of the general poverty, even lower-than-average harvests meant some people would go hungry. In Lorraine, wheat prices increased by 320% and peasants could no longer afford bread. Stores of grain for long-term emergencies were limited to the lords and nobles. People began to harvest wild edible roots, plants, grasses, nuts, and bark in the forests.[6]

A number of documented incidents show the extent of the famine. Edward II, King 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.[7] The French, under Louis X, tried to invade Flanders, but being in the low country of the Netherlands, 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 away.[8]

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.[9] To provide some measure of relief, draft animals were butchered, seed grain was consumed, children were abandoned to fend for themselves (see "Hansel and Gretel"), and some elderly people voluntarily refused food in order to provide nourishment needed for the younger generation to survive.[9] The chroniclers of the time wrote of many incidents of cannibalism.[9]

The height of the famine was reached in 1317 as the wet weather continued. Finally, in the 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 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.[2] While the Black Death (1338–1375) would kill more people, it often swept through an area in a matter of months, whereas the Great Famine lingered for years, drawing out the suffering of the populace.[2]


The Great Famine was restricted to Northern Europe, including the British Isles, northern France, the Low Countries, Scandinavia, Germany, and western Poland.[10] It also affected some of the Baltic states, except for the far eastern Baltic that was only affected indirectly.[10] The famine was bounded in 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 due to 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 where the final recourse for all problems had been religion, and where Roman Catholicism was the only tolerated faith, no amount of prayer seemed effective against the causes of the famine, undermining the institutional authority of the Catholic Church.[2] 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.[2]


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.[2] The famine led to a stark increase in crime, even among those not normally inclined to criminal activity, who would resort to any means to feed themselves or their family.[2]

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.[2] 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, when chivalry ended, as opposed to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries when nobles were more likely to die by accident in tournament games than on the field of battle.[2]

The famine also undermined confidence in Medieval governments, which failed to deal with its resulting crises.[2]


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.[2]


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 unstoppable, winning battle after battle and gaining control of most of Ireland in less than a year, seemingly on the verge of driving the Anglo-Norman settlers out of Ireland altogether. The famine hit Ireland hard in 1317 and had stricken 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, ending the last organized effort in many centuries to end English rule in Ireland. Famine had a part in this outcome.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Lucas, Henry S. (October 1930). "The great European Famine of 1315, 1316, 1317". Speculum 5 (4): 343–377. doi:10.2307/2848143. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Ruiz, Teofilo F. "Medieval Europe: Crisis and Renewal". An Age of Crisis: Hunger (The Teaching Company). ISBN 1-56585-710-0. 
  3. ^ Cantor, Norman L. (2001). In the wake of the plague: the Black Death and the world it made. New York: Free Press. p. 74. ISBN 0-684-85735-9. 
  4. ^ Nairn I.A., Shane P.R., Cole J.W., Leonard G.J., Self S., Pearson N. (2004). "Rhyolite magma processes of the ~AD 1315 Kaharoa eruption episode, Tarawera volcano, New Zealand". Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research 131 (3–4): 265–94. Bibcode:2004JVGR..131..265N. doi:10.1016/S0377-0273(03)00381-0. 
  5. ^ Hodgson K.A., Nairn I.A. (September 2005). "The c. AD 1315 syn-eruption and AD 1904 post-eruption breakout floods from Lake Tarawera, Haroharo caldera, North Island, New Zealand". New Zealand Journal of Geology and Geophysics 48 (3): 491. doi:10.1080/00288306.2005.9515128. 
  6. ^ a b "Famine of 1315". Medieval Sourcebook. Fordham University. Retrieved 1 November 2010. 
  7. ^ Warner, Kathryn. "Edward II: The Great Famine, 1315 to 1317". Edward II. Retrieved 1 November 2010. 
  8. ^ Goldberg, Fred. "Climate Change in the Recent Past" (PDF). Frontier Centre for Public Policy. Retrieved 1 November 2010. 
  9. ^ a b c Nelson, Dr. Lynn H. "The Great Famine and the Black Death 1315–1317, 1346–1351". Lectures in Medieval History. WWW Virtual Library. Retrieved 7 November 2010. 
  10. ^ a b Jordan, William C. (1996). The Great Famine. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 1-4008-0417-5. 

Further reading[edit]

  • 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 0-7190-3927-4.
  • William C. Jordan, The Great Famine: Northern Europe in the Early Fourteenth Century, Princeton UP, 1996. ISBN 0-691-05891-1. 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.