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This Week In History

The Great Famine. August 10, 315.

The Great Famine of 1315 to 1317 is the historical name given to  a catastrophic event that took place in the across northern Europe and Italy. The famine created a secular crisis known as the Crisis of the 14th century.

Between 1310 and 1330, Europe experienced a long period of bad weather, with extreme temperatures in winter and cold and floods in summer. The combination of a global climate change and a population at historically unprecedented levels (which had been growing exponentially for several centuries) made the situation extremely dire. Even the slightest changes in the harvest could mean massive starvation.

The famine occurred because of crop failure, the consequence of the bad weather that started in the spring of 1315, reaching its peak during the winter of 1315-1316, and lasting until summer of 1317. The conditions did not fully recover until 1320 (1322 in England). During the winter of 1317 this was followed by the Rinderpest virus, which wiped out eighty percent of cattle, thus bringing a final blow to the growth and prosperity that had marked the previous centuries.

Smaller famines had been taking place during the Middle Ages, but the Great Famine of 1315 exceeded them all in terms of extension, duration and mortality. The shortage brought scarcity and, besides the catastrophic death rate, triggered all types of social conflicts and criminality augmented. Even outbreaks of cannibalism and infanticide took place.

For most of the population at the time, not having enough food was more or less usual, and the life expectancy was quite short due to high infant mortality. Even for the higher classes, that didn´t suffer from food shortage directly, the famine´s side effects had an impact on their life spans. Records of the English royal family showed that from 1276 to 1325, their life expectancy dropped from 35 years to 29.

Documents from that time recorded the extent of the famine and how it affected commoner and noble alike. In the middle of a journey, Edward II of England made a stop at St. Albans on August 10, 1315, and found it impossible to find bread for him or his cohort. Louis X of France tried to invade Flanders, but the fields were flooded and his army was unable to advance, getting stuck in mud. Finally, the French army had to withdraw, leaving behind all  their supplies.

 

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