Great Famine of 1315-17 Caused by Little Ice Age?

You don’t need a full-fledged ice age in order to kill millions of people. You just need a couple of years of crop failures brought on by severe winters and rainy, cold summers. A description of the Great Famine of 1315-17 from Wikipedia tells the story. Here are excerpts.

Great Famine of 1315-17

“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. The period was marked by extreme levels of crime, disease, mass death and even cannibalism and infanticide...

“For most people there was often not enough to eat, and life was a relatively short and brutal struggle to survive to old age… the average life expectancy during the Great Famine was 29.84 years… The figures do not necessarily mean the average lifespan of an adult, as child mortality was extremely high in pre-industrial societies.

“Population level at a historical high made it a time for little margin for error in food production.

May have been precipitated by a volcanic event

“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.

“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.

Food prices doubled, even tripled

“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, plants, grasses, nuts and bark in the forests.

“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.

Children abandoned to fend for themselves

“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.

“Historians debate the toll, but it is estimated that 10–25% of the population of many cities and towns died.”

See entire article:

Thanks to Jimmy Walter for this link

7 thoughts on “Great Famine of 1315-17 Caused by Little Ice Age?

  1. This was also the time that Edward Bruce’, brother of Robert The Bruce, king of Scotland, invaded Ireland. The invasion failed as the food ran out and the Irish peasants had little or no reserves of food as their crops failed!

  2. Long ago I read a transcript (of a BBC Horizon show?) that described the diary of the last Norsemen to leave Southern Greenland in about 1325. Their crops were failing and archaeological digs indicated fly-borne disease of animals migrating upstairs to the human floor of their crude dwellings. Evidently, their sick animals were being wintered indoors for longer due to the inclement weather and the local shraelings (the “little men” or Inuit) were poaching their livestock during summer.
    Their ship never made it back to Denmark but the diary was well preserved in their former home and gives us valuable insight to the rapid climate shift of that period.
    Danish Catholic culture and Medieval (Warm Phase) clothing was evident and they failed to adapt to the changing environment, – lessons we could perhaps heed.

  3. Same era coincided with the widespread collapse of the Anasazi culture in Northern Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado (portions of Utah as well). Throughout the area you can find pieces of their pottery and rock painting and scaping on cliffs, etc. Evident that hundreds of thousands of Anasazi (maybe more) lived here before the great drought. When the Conquistadores showed up, their populations through the vast area had declined to a few tens of thousands.

  4. Some thirty years ago, I read that the sudden cooling and wet was the result of unusual volcanic activity in Iceland. I rember writing that, if so, Europe would also suffer “acid rain”.
    Can this be confirmed with more recent research?

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