The Great Famine

The Great Famine - The Great Famine (1315-1317) and the...

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The Great Famine (1315-1317) and the Black Death (1346-1351) The 14th century was an era of catastrophes. Some of them man-made, such as the Hundred Years' War, the Avignon Papacy, and the Great Schism. These were caused by human beings, and we shall consider them a bit later. There were two more or less natural disasters either of which one would think would have been sufficient to throw medieval Europe into a real "Dark Ages": the Great Famine and the Black Death. Each caused millions of deaths, and each in its way demonstrated in dramatic fashion the existence of new vulnerabilities in Western European society. Together they subjected the population of medieval Europe to tremendous strains, leading many people to challenge old institutions and doubt traditional values, and, by so doing, these calamities altered the path of European development in many areas. The Great Famine of 1315 Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), an English political economist, wrote a powerful treatise called An Essay on Population . In it, Malthus stated that, since production increased arithmetically (2, 4, 6, 8, 10) and population increased geometrically (2, 4, 8, 16, 32), the population of a region or a world will eventually increase until there are not sufficient resources to support it. From 800 to 1300, the total production of Europe had increased steadily. Although there had been local food shortages in which many people died of starvation, the standard of living in Western Europe as a whole had risen even while the population had steadily increased. By the beginning of the 14th century, however, the population had grown to such an extent that the land could provide enough resources to support it only under the best of conditions. There was no longer any margin for crop failures or even harvest shortfalls. At the same time, however, the Western European climate was undergoing a slight change, with cooler and wetter summers and earlier autumn storms. Conditions were no longer optimum for agriculture. We have noted that there had been famines before, but none with such a large population to feed, and none that persisted for so long. A wet Spring in the year 1315 made it impossible to plow all of the fields that were ready for cultivation, and heavy rains rotted some of the seed grain before it could germinate. The harvest was far smaller than usual, and the food reserves of many families were quickly depleted. People gathered what food they could from the forests: edible roots, plants, grasses, nuts, and bark. Although many people were badly weakened by malnutrition, the historical evidence suggests that relatively few died. The Spring and Summer of 1316 were cold and wet again, however. Peasant families now had less energy with which to till the land needed for a harvest to make up for the previous shortfall and possessed a much smaller food supply in reserve to sustain them until the next harvest. By the spring of 1317, all classes of society were suffering, although, as might be expected,
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The Great Famine - The Great Famine (1315-1317) and the...

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