The Great Famine (1314-17)


According to John Richardson’s “Annals of London”, seven  hundred years ago, in 1317, the famine that had been afflicting the City of London since 1314 reached its peak, with many hundreds dying.

The famine began  in late 1314, and continued throughout 1315 and 1316, and into early 1317.  It appears to have been caused primarily by prolonged bad weather, even in supposed summer months, and associated harvest failure, and to have been compounded by livestock disease and death (“murrain”).  It  is thought to have resulted in the death of approximately 5% of the population of England (and continental Europe).  Initially, it was the poor who were  particularly badly affected, being unable to afford to pay a premium for increasingly scarce  foodstuffs, and indeed even for the staple, bread, especially after attempts to restrict its price ultimately proved unsuccessful.   But, by the summer  of 1315, there was essentially nothing for anyone rich or poor to eat anywhere in St Alban’s, even the King, Edward I, and his court, who visited the town on August 10th.  And by the winter  of 1316/7,  the situation across the country  was dire, with peasants in their desperation resorting to eating the seed-grain that had been stored for planting the following spring, and even noblemen eating their  horses (there were also dark  rumours of cannibalism).  The situation only began to improve in 1317.

As to the ultimate cause of the famine, the bad weather, it has been speculated to have been brought about by either a long-term climatic cooling trend at the transition from the “Medieval Warm Period” into the “Little Ice Age”, or a short-term cooling spike caused by a volcanic eruption, perhaps that of Mount Tarawera in New Zealand, or a superposition of the two.  The balance between sufficiency and deficiency of food supply  was always extremely precarious, and easily tipped.

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